Staff Meeting

‘It’s cold out, isn’t it?’

‘It’s always cold this hour in the morning,’ my companion said as he took another drag of his cigarette.

I nervously tapped my briefcase as we waited for the driver to pick us up from the hotel.

A few minutes of silence passed between us as I scanned the headlines on my phone.

‘Cab’s a bit late isn’t it?’ I said, looking over at the clock.

‘Cabs are always late,’ he said indifferently.

‘Do you reckon they’re giving us a raise then? Or a promotion perhaps?’

My companion grimaced.  ‘Doubt it,’ he muttered.

I looked the man over carefully. Shoes scuffed, appearance dishevelled, his eyes were watery. I hadn’t seen him come into the hotel the evening before, but it was evident that he’d been up drinking for half the night. I’d vaguely remembered meeting him at the Christmas party last year. He’d seemed… happy then. He was part of the Melbourne office.

‘They haven’t told you why we’re here?’ he asked.

‘Well… no. I assumed it has to do with the union dispute. I just figured management had found a solution, and we’d begin production in Sydney again.’

‘Union disputes?’ He sounded surprised. ‘Huh. They found a resolution alright. You’re in for a real fun day, kid.’

Just as I was about to ask him what he meant, I heard the squealing brake pads at the intersection just across from the hotel. I looked over and saw the tell-tale sign of a taxi light on the top of the vehicle emanating through the mist. I put my phone away and picked up my briefcase and flagged the cab down.

On the change of the lights, the cab lazily rolled to the side of the kerb just as my companion stubbed out his cigarette and collected his belongings. ‘God, I hate Canberra,’ I heard him mutter as we got into the cab and I gave directions on where to go.

We rode in silence for most of the drive. I couldn’t see much through the mist which was a little disappointing. I was hoping to catch sight of an embassy, or perhaps Parliament House but the mist had blanketed Canberra from my inquisitive gaze. In the rear view mirror, I saw my companion looking out into the haze with a decidedly bored expression. After ten minutes, the taxi pulled over to a row of nondescript office buildings and I handed the driver a cab charge.

We got out and were met by a security guard finishing off his night shift. He swiped us in, and walked us past the vacant receptionist desk. The staff wouldn’t be in for another hour.

The security guard directed us to the elevator, pushed the button for the floor we needed, and nodded his head to us as the door closed. We rode in silence and my companion flared his nostrils in disgust.

‘Did you fart?’ he asked, breaking the silence of the elevator ride.

‘Ummm, no,’ I said awkwardly.

‘You sure?’ he asked; ‘it smells like someone farted in here.’

I was thinking of how to answer when the chime on the lift indicated that we’d reached our floor. We stepped out into an empty corridor. We looked around but couldn’t see anyone.

‘What now?’ I asked.

‘Beats me,’ he said.

We stood around for several minutes waiting for someone to greet us.

No one came.

‘Bugger this,’ my companion said eventually, cupping his hands over his mouth.  ‘Oi! Anyone here?’

I saw a woman I recognised as one of the national managers walk out of an adjacent office down the corridor. Her hair was a dark mousy brown with streaks of grey; tied up in a bun. She had corporate attire on. Smart. Professional. I suddenly felt uncomfortable in the business pants I’d borrowed off a friend.

‘I’m pleased you could both join us,’ she said warmly as she extended her hand. I told her it was no trouble at all. My companion grunted some form of acknowledgement in her general direction before we were led into a meeting room. There were two people already seated and waiting for us as we entered. I recognised them as the national managers who sometimes visited our offices. They stood up and shook our hands warmly and gestured for us to have a seat.  They asked us how our flight had been, and wanted to know if we wanted a tea or coffee before we began the meeting. I said I was fine. My companion wanted a cappuccino. Strong.

We made small-talk and waited until the cappuccino arrived.  One of the head office managers checked his watch and spoke.

‘Given the recent union disputes,’ he said, ‘we’ve decided to move our production off shore.’

The room fell silent.

‘You mean we’re expanding the company?’ I asked.

The manager gave me an odd look.

‘They’re firing us,’ my companion told me as he took another loud slurp from his coffee mug.

The manager gave a single nod of his head to indicate this.

‘But we haven’t done anything wrong,’ I mumbled.

The manager winced at this.

‘No, not “us” as in you and I,’ my companion said, ‘us as in Melbourne, Sydney, the whole operation.’ My companion casually took another sip of his coffee before continuing: ‘Hell, be grateful for the free flight and room service. All Brisbane got was an e-mail.’

‘I didn’t order any room service,’ I said, still trying to make sense of the situation.

‘Oh, well that was unlucky,’ my companion commented; ‘it’s all on the company credit card, you know. Figured I’d leech as much as I could off these bastards before I went out.’

‘We thought it would be best if we brought you two to head office,’ the manager said trying to reassure me whilst pointedly ignoring my colleague.  ‘You’re both operations managers; it really would be best if the employees heard the news from you.’

I noticed the woman idly fiddling with her pen in the corner. She looked bored. They were going to sack over a hundred employees, and this was nothing other than a routine meeting for them.

I reached into my mind to find something to say to remedy the situation and to keep my job.  I opened my mouth. I was going to tell them we were sorry, and that if I could speak to the union reps about backing down, everything could go back to the way it was. But before I could talk, my companion had already begun speaking.

‘Like hell I will,’ he said flatly, ‘I’m not doing your bloody dirty work. You want to fire them, fine, but I’m not going to be the town crier on the factory floor for you pricks.’

The man behind the desk said something in reply. I didn’t catch what it was. My companion raised his voice and someone threatened to call security. I felt dizzy. Christmas was looming.

Things seemed to calm down in the room. I could hear the tone of the conversation become professional once more. I remembered focusing on the plastic moulding on my arm rest for most of it.

‘Do you have any questions?’ I heard someone ask.

I felt their eyes on me. I looked up. I was supposed to speak.

‘This is all a little too much to digest,’ I said eventually.

The manager paused, nodded his head sympathetically and told me that we would all receive generous severance packages. He said he was very sorry. They were all very sorry.

We shook hands and left the room just as the receptionist and the other staff arrived on the floor for a fresh day at work. The security guard gave us a friendly wave as we left the building.

The cab took us to the airport. I stood outside, looking dumbly at the planes overhead, while my companion muttered bitterly about the corporate structure over a cigarette and a cappuccino in a Styrofoam cup. Eventually, we went inside. His plane was called and we shook hands before he left.

My flight was delayed and I ended up waiting in the terminal an extra hour. I spent the time staring at an office plant wedged between a check-in desk and a vending machine. Finally, my plane was called and I boarded as a smiling airline hostess took my ticket. I sat down next to a young woman in sports attire, thinking of what I would say when I got home, and whether we had enough boxes at work to go around for everyone’s possessions.

Jack Lonsdale

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