The Golden Bough
As the interview progressed I became convinced that I would not get the job. My considerable experience of such events had made me almost preternaturally sensitive to the unspoken truths that lay behind their neutral formality, like snipers behind a battlement. In the early days, I had blamed myself for my failures: I must have been wearing an unacceptable jacket, there was a spot on my tie, I had interrupted a question on two occasions. I did my best to overcome my faults – careless dressing, over-eagerness, a certain insolent air of being too good for what was being offered. I became tidy, polite, humble. But the outcome of the interviews was still the same. So I decided to try arrogance. I went into the interview rooms with my hair deliberately unbrushed, my shoelaces untied, the zipper on my fly left half-way down. I sneered at the suited, expressionless adversary across the desk, and told him what was wrong with his firm and what I would do about it, given two days and a free hand. Sometimes I snapped my fingers under his nose. My luck refused to change. Next I tried hypocrisy. I started making eloquent, testamentary statements to my inquisitors, vowing my eternal commitment to the great work of photocopying invoices, packaging bone-shaped dog biscuits, selling farm machinery, bottling a synthetic orange drink that, I was told, ‘contained no harmful oranges.’ My eyes goggling with sincerity, I pleaded for a chance to show my dedication to such work. It was never given to me. At length I despaired. I continued to go to the interviews, to prove that I was still alive, but I no longer expected anything. I was staring into the bland face of my latest interrogator – the same face I had seen behind a hundred such desks and above a hundred such blank white shirts – fully persuaded that I was about to fail yet again, when the reason for all my troubles came into my head. It was so simple that I was furious with myself for not having seen it before.
The same face. At every interview the same bland features. It could not be – but it was. I was sure of that. And finally, unable to conceal my triumph, I came right out with it. ‘It is you, isn’t it?’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Frostily.
‘But I had no intention of letting him off the hook. ‘It has always been you,’ I insisted. ‘I’m right. I know I am.’
His face changed, acquiring a sly, contemptuous look. ‘Yes,’ he admitted, not in the least abashed. ‘Most of you fools never realize.’
He ignored my question. ‘I’ll say this for you,’ he said reflectively. ‘You’ve given me a busy life. Some people make it too easy; I like a challenge. Look at it from my point of view. I have to know in advance where you’re going to turn up next. I always have to be one jump ahead, to make the proper arrangements, so that I can be here, behind these desks, when you walk in. There are nights when I get no sleep. Oh, yes. Credit where it’s due.’
I wanted to ask how the proper arrangements were made, and other things, but I was sure he would not reply. Instead I said, ‘Now that I’ve unmasked you, I suppose you’ll go away and….’
‘Don’t bank on it,’ he snapped. ‘It makes no difference at all.’
‘You’ve failed,’ I taunted him. ‘You’ll lose your job, you’ll be out on the scrap-heap like me, they’ll probably assign an interviewer to deal with you!’
‘This interview is concluded,’ he told me, his face smooth and meaningless once again. ‘I’m afraid I don’t think you would be happy here, Mr… Mr….’
‘Goodbye,’ I crowed, sure of his defeat, filled with insane joy.
On the day of my next interview, I was still in a state of elation. I dressed neatly (I had decided to revert to this strategy for a while), and whistled in the lift as it carried me to the room in which I would have to duel for a job. When I was called into the room, it was as if I had been punched on the nose.
‘Next!’ The voice came through the half-open door, and I knew that I was finished. He did not permit himself the luxury of a smile when I entered. Every inch the professional, he began to comment on my curriculum vitae. I think that was when I realized that I would have to kill him.
I planned the murder for weeks, weeks during which I attended four more interviews with my merciless antagonist. At least, I tried to plan; but I could not think of a single way of doing the deed and getting away with it. There were desk diaries, letters, files. Everyone would know who had been in the room with him, even if I did manage to kill and flee without being caught. There were moments when I considered abandoning the scheme, but they passed, because I knew that the only alternative to murder was suicide, and I liked being alive.
So one day I thought, ‘To hell with it,’ and went to my interview with a bread knife in my inside pocket. ‘Next,’ the voice called, and I went in and slit his throat. The blood went everywhere, and the receptionist, hearing his death-gurgles, came and stood in the doorway, blocking my escape route. I tried to decide whether or not I should kill her, too.
A door opened in the wall behind the interviewer’s desk. I had never noticed such a door in any of the rooms before. A white door set in a white wall. But maybe it had always been there, because how could anyone have known that I would pick this day, this room? Yes, the problem was just my own stupid lack of observation.
The interviewer lay twitching, frothing, etc, on the floor with the bread knife stuck in his gullet. The new man stepped over this dying marionette and extended his right hand. I took it, automatically. I was covered in blood – not a pretty sight, I assure you.
‘We are now in a position,’ the man said, ‘I’m happy to say, that is, if you’re interested, to offer you a job.’
Orderlies came in and carried out the corpse. Two cleaning ladies entered and started scrubbing the walls and the carpet, which, being blood-red, would not show the stains. My new friend opened a desk drawer and got out some clean clothes and held them out to me.
‘What job?’ I finally managed to say.
The new man went to the interviewer’s chair and stood behind it.
‘A vacancy has arisen,’ he said, in a regretful but resigned way. ‘It is well-paid work.’
I sat down in the chair and composed myself. My face became bland, smooth, devoid of all expression. I wondered how long it would be before someone came to see me with a bread knife up his sleeve.
Photograph © World Relief Spokane