And then everything starts to move very fast. The first thing I notice is a strange silence that descends over the office. People are suddenly walking over to other people’s desks and talking amongst themselves very quietly, very subdued. Louise notices it, too. Although like me, she’s yet to make any comment about it. From the corner of my eye I can see her fidgeting behind her computer screen casting occasional puzzled glances at what’s happening around her.
Then, at around 4.15 p.m., one of the young secretaries whom I don’t know the name of wanders on to the fifth floor carrying a stack of computer printouts. I watch as she deposits one of the A4 sheets on to each person’s desk in turn. As she moves closer to me I can see the reactions of my fellow workers as they read what she has just given them; some seem shocked, others smile sort of guiltily. Everyone is looking around at each other, their movements suddenly accelerated. Finally, the secretary whose name I don’t know reaches the area where Louise and I are seated. She floats one of the A4 sheets on to Louise’s desk, then mine. This is what it says:
From: Mary Bridges, Head of Personnel
To: All staff members
Date: 24th November 1999
This memo is to inform you that Michael Dean has left the company. His replacement will be announced shortly.
At about 5.45 p.m. Michael Dean himself puts in an appearance on the fifth floor. For the past hour or so nobody here has been doing any work. There’s almost a carnival atmosphere: not because people are particularly pleased that Michael Dean has been given the sack (despite the memo’s neutral wording everyone knows that this is what has actually happened), but because something so extraordinary, something so unusual, something so far from the norm has occurred here that there is simply no blueprint for how people are supposed to react. Michael looks like you’d expect him to look: a little dishevelled, a little red-faced, a little bleary-eyed. His boil stands out big and ugly on his cheek, as if somebody has squashed a small pigeon’s egg on to his face. He’s carrying a few boxes in his arms like a student moving flat.
Before you can even blink, Michael is surrounded by about twenty people. One of the senior editors, Sylvia, who is in her mid-fifties and has been at GP for most of her working life, puts her arms around Michael and hugs him. Someone produces some beers and offers one to Michael but he declines. Michael’s eyes dart around like he is looking for something; people try to grab his hand and shake it but he is still holding his boxes so he kind of awkwardly offers an elbow.
This is the third time I’ve seen this happen during my time in publishing but I’m still fairly shocked. (Dennis Walker: sacked from Catalyst Publications 1986; John Price: sacked from Catalyst Publications 1988; Helen Powis: sacked from Gravity Publications 1996.) Even though I have been inwardly amused by the recent rumours that have been circulating about Michael, I never for a moment anticipated that anything would actually happen. I sit at my desk and watch events unfurl, acutely aware that if I continue to do this for too much longer people are going to start wondering why I myself have not joined the throng. Michael is drowning, literally drowning: still holding his boxes he fights for air as another dozen or so well-wishers encircle him, patting him on the back, shaking their heads in sympathy: trying to prove to him and maybe themselves that they’ve been sucking up to him for all these years not because he was the boss, but because they always thought that he was a really decent fellow.
Then one of the junior editors does a really disgusting thing: the guy’s name is Ian Probert, I don’t know him very well and, quite frankly, what little time that I’ve spent in his company has not been enough to encourage me to remedy this situation. He’s in his mid-twenties: slightly balding, slightly overweight, a real clockwork train pusher like I used to be. Probert parts the crowd with his bulk and gives Michael a stiff pat on the shoulder. Since he’s been at GP Probert has very cleverly eased himself into Michael’s good books. He sees himself as Michael Dean’s protégé: in recent editorial meetings he’s even begun to sound a little like Michael. Now Probert’s looking at the man who up until an hour or so ago he saw as his meal ticket to greater things. “Never mind, Michael,” he smiles jauntily. “You’ll have to teach me how to do those big business deals before you leave.”
There is a brief silence and then a smattering of embarrassed laughter from those members of the mob who have already decided that it would beneficial to their futures to keep on the right side of the young upstart. There’s a whole kind of organic quality to the proceedings: the mighty oak has just been felled and mashed into firewood but already there’s a few seedlings battling through the mud, twisting their way towards the sunshine.
By the time it’s 6.00 p.m. the wheels have been well and truly set in motion. One of the editorial assistants has made a collection for Michael, a card has been bought, which we’ve all signed, boxes of wine and lager have suddenly begun to congregate in the kitchen, and there’s even a cake. You have to admire GP for its ruthless efficiency in a crisis.
Then, Sylvia, the woman who was hugging Michael Dean earlier, comes up to me and starts muttering something. Her eyes glow with excitement. “Are you going to do the speech?” she gushes.
“The speech?” I ask, already all too aware of what she is talking about.
“It seems right,” she says. “After all, you’ve know him longer than anybody else.”
“Well… not really…” I mumble weakly.
“Go on, John – you’ve got to.”
Actually, she’s got a point: it is only right and proper that I make the speech. I don’t want to do it… God, I don’t want to do it. But even so, the irony of the situation does not escape me: I started Michael’s career in publishing all those years ago and, for the time being at least, I’m going to be finishing it.
They wheel Michael back on to the floor at about 6.30 p.m.. The expression on his face reminds me of the one that Hannibal Lechter was wearing in the movie when they put on the muzzle and transferred him from the high security prison to that sort of cage thing that he eventually escaped from. There are now about sixty or seventy people sitting here holding cans of beer and plastic cups full of wine; most are perched on the edge of desks, some are squatting on the carpet; one or two of the more rebellious members of staff have even lit up.
Tradition demands that I begin my speech with a little joke; but even though I’m tempted for a moment I decide to waive this particular custom. It’s embarrassing, really. But then how could it not be? You have a situation in which I’m being forced to give a public speech in praise of someone whom I patently dislike; and you have a situation in which Michael Dean’s being forced to listen to a public speech in praise of his outstanding achievements delivered by a person whom he really ought to patently dislike; and everybody else… well, other than because I suppose they have to be, I really have no idea what they’re doing here. There’s something faintly ludicrous about it all, this Mad Hatter’s Tea Party attitude that we all seem to have. I mean, who was it who decided in the first place that we’d choose to celebrate birthdays, weddings and funerals in the same manner? Bam! It’s somebody’s birthday so break out the beers and the ciggies. Bam! So and so’s getting married so break out the booze and the marzipan. Bam! Old what-d’you-call-it has just popped his clogs, time for another drink and another smoke. What a singularly uninspired species we can be sometimes.
It’s time for my turn: time for me to take to the stage. I creep into the centre of the congregation holding a cardboard box wrapped in shiny red and white striped paper which contains a bauble of some description that has been purchased from the proceeds of the collection we all contributed to earlier. I clear my throat to get people’s attention.
“I’m sure Michael won’t object if I keep this brief,” I say, to everyone’s quiet approval. “I’ve known Michael for a long time and I’m sure that you’ll all agree when I say that he’s always been a pleasure to work with.”
“Hear, hear,” says someone, possibly Probert.
“I’m sure that everyone present will join me in wishing Michael all the best for the future. He’ll be sadly missed by all at GP.”
Now that’s what you call a short speech.
There’s a round of applause and then someone has the bright idea of giving Michael three cheers, which is absurd. I meet Michael’s eyes as he winces with every cheer and then, unexpectedly, he smiles at me for a brief moment and mouths some words over at me: so-will-you.
When the cheering dies down I duly hand the cardboard box I’m holding over to Michael. He mumbles a few words of thanks and timidly begins to open it. There is silence as Michael grapples with his parting gift; he frowns a little when he discovers that the box contains another cardboard box that is held in place with rolled up newspaper, which spills out on to the floor. “Just what I always wanted – a cardboard box,” exclaims Michael, trying to keep a brave face.
Oh dear God. Is what I think is going to happen going to happen? Michael opens the smaller cardboard box only to discover that it contains another, still smaller, cardboard box, also packed with newspaper. From the corner of my eye I spot the gleaming face of the young editorial assistant who had earlier made the collection for Michael and had been dispatched to hunt out a suitable gift for him; she’s looking pleased with herself, can scarcely withhold her excitement at how clever she has been. Michael opens the third cardboard box and more screwed up newspaper gushes forth. He grunts a little and peers over his bifocals at the assembly. Finally, after a fourth and fifth cardboard box are similarly opened and discarded, Michael emerges from the paper wreckage holding a small black book embossed with gold lettering. He opens it and runs his eyes over its pages.
“Just what I always wanted – an executive diary,” he says wearily.