The Life of Henry Fuckit
22 The departure of Mr Snow and Mr Fuckit
At lunchtime he went to the Red Lion and drank three beers. The prospect of standing in the bank to deposit his cheque was quite intolerable and he determined to leave the chore until Monday. There was no urgency. He chose the Red Lion because it was there that he had first met Ivor and learnt of the Commercial Union. It had turned out to be an unfortunate chapter in his life. A mistake, yes. But, he consoled himself, probably a necessary mistake. He intended to analyse the events of the past two months and learn whatever there was to be learnt from the painful episode. As he was preparing to leave the swing doors opened and Jack Ponchielli walked into the bar.
He greeted Henry warmly and for a few minutes they exchanged news. In response to Henry's decision to abandon his expedition into the barren wastes of the insurance world he was understanding and supportive. "Well, I'm not surprised, you know. You have to have both the right temperament and the right education for that line of work. It is almost impossible to accept such constraints, such narrow limitations, if you haven't been conditioned to them from infancy. Why do you think children are made to wear uniforms and are herded together in groups? Why are their days punctuated with the sounding of sirens, the ringing of bells and the blowing of whistles? Why are they required to act like automatons, doing everything in unison? Stand up, sit down, keep quiet, keep in line, no running, hurry up, clap your hands, wear your hat, take off your hat, pray aloud, sing together, chant together, cheer together. You have had none of this training and your imagination and your spirit are still wild and undisciplined. It's going to be difficult for you." There was a note of commiseration in his voice. "If you're going to take a job it will have to be something that interests you."
"That's just the trouble," Henry complained. "I'm interested in so much but only superficially and fleetingly. I don't want to be an expert at anything. I told you, I'm a dabbler." Ponchielli looked thoughtful.
"I've just had an idea. Got something for me to write on?" He took out a pen and Henry produced the envelope containing his pay cheque. "Harry Bergson. This is his home number, you can get him in the evening or on the weekend. He works at the naval dockyard in Simonstown. I've known him for years and I can honestly say he's the most eccentric egghead I've ever come across. Brilliant and completely mad. He's in charge of the atomic clock there, and does all kinds of secret research. The Dockyard is a very weird and fascinating place, just right for you. Maybe Harry can get you a job there."
Henry put the envelope in his jacket pocket and got up to leave. It was already past two and the retirement ceremony for Mr Snow would soon be under way. "Nice meeting you again, Jack. Please give my regards to your wife and daughter."
"Ah, I nearly forgot to tell you: Rose and Pepe were married two weeks ago. In a bit of a hurry, they were." He grinned slyly. "I'm going to be a grandfather one of these days."
When Henry sidled in the entire staff already stood assembled in the General Office. Some forty or fifty clerks, typists, tea girls, messengers and cleaners were grouped together on the left. Facing them the Manager stood puffing on his cigar, flanked by the Assistant Manager and Chief Clerk. Between the two groups, a little to one side, was Mr Snow. Mr Snow was head of the Life Department. (There was only one clerk under his control.) A pleasant, bumbling, kindly old man, he was sixty years old but looked seventy. His white hair was sparse, he stooped and he shuffled painfully on arthritic feet. He was nervous and in discomfort at having to stand in one position.
The Manager looked at his watch, removed the cigar from the slit in his face, and cleared his throat. He began to deliver his speech. "As you all know, Mr Snow retires today after…" He glanced at a piece of paper in his hand, "…forty-three years faithful service to the Company. Bert joined us…" The Assistant Manager whispered to him. "Yes, as I was saying, as you all know, Ron joined us…Sorry. Don joined us, got it right at last, ha, ha. Don joined us as a young man and has given faithful service in the Life Department for so many years. His is a fine record of unbroken service. As you all know, in recent years he has been troubled with ill health but has struggled heroically on. Such devotion to duty is rare indeed in these times when there is so much absenteeism, backsliding and careless, shoddy work - especially among our younger staff. Although I myself have only been with the Company for five years - it was with another firm that I rose so rapidly, coming here at a difficult time when the previous management had got things into such a mess - although I have been here for a comparatively short time, I have it on good authority that Tom has given unstinting, faithful service throughout his career. He is a fine example to the rest of you, who should be ashamed of yourselves. Now, as you all know, I would like to present this, er, presentation to Mr Snow in recognition for his faithful service over the past forty-five years, and wish you everything of the best for your retirement, and hope you and your wife enjoy many happy years together."
The Assistant Manager handed the Manager a parcel, which the Manager handed to Mr Snow. Everybody understood it to be a gold watch. There was polite clapping and somebody called, "Speech!"
The old man was clearly moved, partly by the beautiful sentiments just expressed, but mostly by the painful memory of his wife, dead some six years. He began to mumble his thanks when the phone on the desk nearest to him rang shrilly. The Chief Clerk picked it up and began a lengthy and whining defence in reply to some complaint or other. Mr Snow's voice trailed off and the Chief Clerk had silence for his conversation. The Manager cleared his throat and said:
"Well yes, thank you Mr Snow. Finally I would like to take this opportunity, seeing as you are all here in one room, to issue staff with a final warning concerning the time taken over the tea breaks. The Chief Clerk has informed me…"
At this point a voice from amongst the clerks was heard distinctly, "Arse-creeping rat." There was a commotion and an enquiry was launched into who had said what. Mr Snow shuffled out of the office for the last time.
The whole episode had not lasted more than ten minutes but Henry was shaken to the core. Waves of nausea welled up in him.Feeling much better, he straightened up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Nobody seemed to have noticed his distress: in fact, nobody was paying him any attention at all. What to do with the packet? As it dawned on him that he happened to be standing beside the Chief Clerk's desk, the light of evil intention began to glint in his eye. It only took a few seconds to scrunch shut the mouth of the paper bag, pull open the bottom drawer, lay the packet within, and shut the drawer with his foot. With head held high, his back straight and his shoulders square, he strode with a light step across the office, through the double doors, and out into the bright light of the afternoon and freedom.
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