When Tim walked into the office that morning, everybody immediately went quiet. He had the sudden dazed, dream-dust feeling that this office was a room crammed with sunflowers and that, having erroneously identified him as the sun, they were all silently shuffling around so as to be always facing him. Putting his head down, he walked quickly over to the kettle but as his hands started to busy themselves amongst the coffee cups, another hand appeared and fell on his wrist, stilling him.
Now everybody was issuing from all of their different rooms, exchanging smiles and whispering, and congregating formally in a long crescent in front of him. What was happening? – what could he have possibly done? His mind flashed briefly around his entire life like a torch beam delving into the blackness of a cavern. Why would he be suddenly famous? Or was it notoriety – had something mortifying from his social media, or from his sex life, recently gone viral and become common knowledge?
“Tim! Congratulations!” On this signal, everybody burst into applause. Then, to Tim’s amazement, he saw a bumptiously pink cake with frosted scrolls and tips wending its way through the crowd towards him. About a dozen greeting cards were thrust under his nose. With awkward daring, a couple of the older ladies were trying to present him with their own little individually wrapped presents.
What a calamity. The office had gone to all of this trouble and now he would have to break it to them that somewhere, behind the scenes, in the relaying of information, there had been a mistake. He stood upright and his face became hard, like a doctor’s, with responsibility.
“Guys, I’m sorry but… it isn’t my birthday. My birthday is in October.”
There were guffaws and roguish laughter. “Tim! It’s your day! Your big day!”
He trembled buoyantly with relief. Ah, so he was in the clear about his birthday. This must be some smaller and more artificial event – something that the bureaucracy had decided. Maybe he had been promoted? No, promotions in this office were always bitter, envious occasions and it was inconceivable that one could be celebrated so joyously. Was he the “employee of the month”? He had worked in this office for several months now and he had never observed them marking this before. Maybe he was “employee of the year” but, if so, such an honour must have been bestowed upon him randomly. He maintained enough realism to know that there was nothing particularly special about his performance that would set him apart from, let alone above, the other workers.
Then several of the office workers smiled at each other and they stood to one side to allow Tim access to what looked like a BBC weather report. It was playing on one of the office desktops. A smiling lady was bobbing on her feet in front of a messily festooned map of the UK. She beamed primly and, with her hands flowing, she commenced her narrative.
“So Storm Tim made landfall over an hour ago and it is presently crossing the North of England. It will reach Scotland by mid-afternoon. We can expect winds of eighty miles per hour, torrential rain and blizzard conditions. The British government has declared a weather emergency…”
Tim’s mouth fell open but not even the beginnings of words would come. A paper plate that was bending under the weight of a sticky wedge of cream, pink icing and sponge was pushed into his hands. A shiny blue paper hat was strapped under his chin and fitted securely in place. As his hands remained clamped helplessly to the paper plate, the well of his arms was filling with the gifts and the greeting cards. It seemed to Tim that he was being wheeled forwards and that ever more presents were being spirited out of the air and that he was being garlanded with them and that his defenceless body was being bricked up and entombed under all of these ribbons and glitter and shiny paper.
Later, Trudy and I left our desks and we went across the road to a pub for lunch. Here, I would also meet Pablo. He had written to me on WhatsApp the previous night with some sort of business proposition for my website. It was tiresome but I would have to still hear him out.
“Did you see that idiot earlier who they were attacking with cards and presents? If they ever try to do that to me, I won’t be answerable for the consequences.”
Trudy laughed. “Your time will come. In fact, there can’t be many names that begin with Z. Storm Zbigniew must be as guaranteed as Christmas is.”
“Firstly,” I replied, “whilst I am in this country that can’t get its teeth around “Zbigniew,” my name is Biggy…”
“It’s not an either/or…”
“Secondly, I think that the Z island is so thinly inhabited that the storm-namers never drop in on it. It’s the same with Q and X.”
“So you are like a kid without a birthday. You’ll never get your own storm?”
“Good. I hope it stays that way.” I then caught sight of Pablo, who was wandering alertly around the bar with his eye cocked for us. I stood up in my seat. “Over here man!”
He was carrying a T-shirt. He was never organised enough to use any sort of bag and so he was simply carrying the T-shirt about with him as though he was in the kitchen with a tea towel. He unfolded this crumpled specimen importantly and showed us the logo emblazoned over its breast.
“I survived the Coronovirus.” It was a white T-shirt and the lettering was red and flat and in an irritatingly basic font. Aesthetically, it came from the same world as the sides of plumbers’ and handymen’s white vans.
“We have to make these,” Pablo urged me. “We need to be the ones who are there first.”
He hadn’t got himself a beer. He would sit in this pub and use it to have his meeting and after he had said everything that he had wanted to say, it would occur to him to order a lager. He would do this begrudgingly, almost as if ordering a drink was like paying an unfair tax.
“How many T-shirts have you bought?” I asked Pablo.
He blinked and smiled craftily. “It says a thousand but I haven’t counted them all.”
“And how do you put the messages on the T-shirts?”
“With the iron,” he reported. “I iron the sticker on to the T-shirt.”
“And you realise that you will have to do this a thousand times?”
Pablo’s smile floated uneasily. He and I, and no doubt Trudy as well, all knew that he was never going to iron a thousand stickers on to a thousand T-shirts.
“And you are going to use my website…”
“For the promotion,” Pablo said simply. He has this philosophy that if you describe a project in simple statements then everything will naturally continue to be simple. “You will write all about these T-shirts and you will be photographed in these T-shirts on your website.”
“I suppose that I will be paid in unsold T-shirts.”
“This is it,” Pablo exclaimed in admiration and astonishment. “So the more work you do, the less T-shirts you will be left with.”
“Pablo,” Trudy broke in, looking like someone does when they think it best to put a wounded animal out of its misery. “Don’t you think that these T-shirts are somewhat insensitive? I mean, why would anybody actually buy one?”
“Okay, so I have this coronavirus…” Pablo nodded adamantly at us to indicate that we understood. “Next, I recover. I think: wow, I have had this thing that is destroying the planet and it is causing the wars and the disaster and but I am the stronger one than it. And so I buy the T-shirt, to show that I am the winner.”
“But it is a little insensitive,” Trudy persisted. “It implies that all those people who die from the coronavirus are somehow losers.”
“Yes,” I mused. “This message is potentially quite offensive. Moreover, it would be an irony if you survived the coronavirus but you were then killed in a lynching that resulted from your public appearance in an ‘I survived the Coronavirus’ T-shirt. And if you escaped the lynching, of course, then you would need a second T-shirt.”
“Maybe a hat,” Trudy ventured.
Pablo did not want to lose his grip on the urgency of what he was trying to communicate, but, to his dismay, this factor seemed to be trickling elusively away from him. Trudy and I were now freely joking about the T-shirts. He glared and speechlessly shook his head and padded off to the bar to order a beer.
“You are working at Edinburgh University tomorrow?” I asked Trudy. “Do you think that they will shut down over the coronavirus?”
“It is difficult to say so far. If they close the university then thousands of students are likely to flock to the airport, to take a holiday or to visit their families. This will plunge them straight into peril. But if the university is kept open, to deter the students from travelling, then this means that they will soon run up against the Easter holiday. If the students go home for Easter, after all, then some of them are likely to come back with the virus. The paradox is that the university will need to keep the students active and occupied, but outwith all of its usual communal spaces and semester structures.”
I looked down at my phone. “We will have to drink up. We were meant to be back at our desks twenty minutes ago.”
“Look at the rain outside,” Trudy fumed. “We’re going to get soaked.”
High above the city’s rooftops and treetops, Tim was now in his stride.
Our own Tim was hunched behind his desk, shovelling pink cake into his mouth, when they found him. His party hat was askew and the pockets of his suit were stuffed with gifts and crunched-up wrapping paper. One woman pulled him to his feet, shook him ferociously by his lapels and then slapped him hard across the face.
He shivered, astonished. “You bastard!” she mouthed at him. She then spat all over his suit.
He turned away, bolting furtively for cover. Yet the rest of the office were already on his heels. They had soon cornered him up against a sink.
“A tree fell on our community centre. My Sarah does her ballet there. The roof is gone. All of the windows are broken.”
“The power is out where I live. Completely out. This means we’re going to have to throw away everything in our fridge and freezer.”
“What about all of those poor people whose homes are flooded? It will take them months to get back to normal!”
His clothes were being torn from him – he heard an abrasive, devastating rip in the fabric of his suit. Next, he was briefly in the air, with his arms and legs stretched out, until his weightlessness faltered and he came down hard with a bump. He squirmed, flinching in the pain, with his face pointed up and looking very noble and distraught. They were manoeuvring him towards the hot tar and he was bundled in their arms trying to walk rapidly in the other direction. Even in the last second he was battling to twist his head away from sticking to the boiling glue. Then, there was the suddenly unsheathed steel of a brilliant pain and somehow this seemed to concur with the downy feathers that had burst open and that were tumbling liberally in the air all around him.
“Bastard!” they were chanting. “Fucking bastard! You’ve ruined everything!”