The corporate storyteller is having a bad day. She’s spent the morning in her office on the 11th floor peering at the monitor, occasionally typing a line and deleting it, or standing at the window, back turned on the recitation pod, looking down into the square. She doesn’t like the view and so the force with which it draws her to the window is all the more irritating. The square is a paved rectangle, to be precise, enclosed in a shopping mall and surrounded by restaurant terraces. She sees an arrangement of rooftops suggesting office parks, housing complexes and parking garages, and streets nearly devoid of life. No one walks around here if they can help it.
While she’s been musing, the monitor has gone to sleep. In its inky depths she sees the outline of her head, a darker blot with a spiky crown. Not yet thirty, she thinks grimly, and already as gnarled as an old vine. She badly needs a story for the quarterly meeting of the board, a parable to open proceedings and set the tone. Just a week after that it’s the annual Green Day, which demands fresh and leafy input. Which aquifer will she draw it from?
She scoots her chair aside to face the white slab of the desktop. This paperless expanse, a mockery of a blank page, usually makes her long for clutter, for a glass paperweight with a daisy inside it and a tangle of paper clips, but today it’s as refreshing to her eye as a block of ice. She rests her forearms on the desk, palms flat and fingers splayed, and then she sinks down in submission until her forehead touches the cool veneer.
Up and down. Might these be the poles of her narrative system, as they are of the corporate structure? The analysts say that verticality is over and done with, and today’s corporations are horizontal, self-organising and contingent, but she sees no evidence of this. She has to get the basics right. Complications will follow, but they’ll be manageable if they rest on a foundation that’s firm and true. Yesterday she was reflecting on in and out, the day before on big and small, but today it’s up and down.
The terms must appeal because of her circumstances, and her history and psychology must play their part. She wants to rise, not necessarily all the way to the top but closer, and here she is, with ten storeys below her and another ten above. Middling is a purgatory. Better right at the bottom than here. Hence the fascination of the basement.
A face surfaces in the milk of her memory just as her own surfaced in the ink of the screen. There’s a story somewhere. Who’s that again? A friend of a friend. Yes, it comes back to her. Dumisane. He developed an unusual phobia: he thought something was going to fall on him. Where did this fear originate? Perhaps a pigeon shat on him in the playground on some long-forgotten schoolday. Nearly every fear and foible can be traced to the merciless battlefields of first and second break. It’s made his life unbearable. He cannot take a step without looking up. He wants to see his ignominious fate approaching, even if he’s unable to avoid it. And so he does get hurt, because he’s always banging into things, and the bruises and skinned shins these accidents leave behind confirm that the universe means to do him harm. It’s just a matter of time before he steps in front of a car.
Fact is, the corporate storyteller muses, and it makes the bristly nape of her exposed neck tingle, things do come out of the blue and kill people, famously Aeschylus, but ordinary folk too. She has several accounts in her notebook at home.
On a winter’s day in 1989, for instance, Uwe Kramer was hurrying across a carpark in the middle of Vienna, hunched into his parka, eyes fixed on the icy cobbles, when a falling object struck his head and killed him outright. At first, the police thought he had been bludgeoned with a bronze statuette, a poorly made table-top copy of Rodin’s Thinker, an explanation encouraged by the proximity of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where many such objects are on display. But the murder weapon turned out to be an agglomeration of human waste evacuated (so they deduced) from the toilet of an airliner and quick-frozen on its plunge through the atmosphere.
The corporate storyteller had been in her new position for a fortnight before she discovered that there was also a corporate poet. It was at a meeting of the Financial Management Committee and she was due to tell her first story.
The Chairman of the Committee had just called the meeting to order when a tall woman in a luminous gown appeared from behind the whiteboard and began to speak in lilting tones about the stormy seas of the futures markets and the vicissitudes of the trade winds on the floor of the bourse. It was not her voice that captivated, however, but the lovely movements of her hands. The members of the Committee were entranced. There was a lectern but the poet did not stand behind it. She prowled around the boardroom table and every head swivelled to follow her. With a flick of a finger, she launched one metaphor after another onto the hushed air, and when they had almost escaped her, caught them up again and drew them to her breast.
The corporate storyteller was appalled. She pictured the words squirming like small animals with their tails pinched between curved fingernails. To dispel this unhappy image, she fixed her attention on the poet’s gown, through which she could see the curves of her hips and breasts. Was that a hairdo or a hat? Braids adorned with beads coiled about her head and fell to her shoulders, where they fused with her dress. A headpiece, the storyteller decided. It made the poet look lofty and prolific, as if her head was spilling sinuous verse. After the flow ceased, it was not words that echoed but gestures, a repertoire of movements of the hand and head, graceful and precise.
When her turn at the lectern came, between lively discussions of the risk appetite for the new quarter and the latest modifications to the regulatory framework on corporate governance, the storyteller could not find her stride. She felt like a cashier in her prosaic business suit. There was nothing wrong with the story. It was a post-industrial piece, using the outmoded mechanics of cogs and levers to describe digital processes. It was graphic, she thought; it let the listener see the lever in leveraging. But she did not deliver it well: the words pooled on the floor of her mouth. At the heart of the story was a drop of oil that greased the wheels, spreading itself ever more thinly over the entire mechanism and allowing it to function, a lyrical passage perfectly in keeping with the poet’s contribution, and when she reached this point she glanced up at last from the screen to try to catch the poet’s eye – but she was nowhere to be seen.
There were appreciative murmurs afterwards, but the storyteller knew that her first bolt had missed the mark. This dismal performance plunged her into anxiety about her new job. She had been headhunted by the corporation, or so she believed. When the agency’s letter arrived, she had been working quite happily for a family concern. The package on offer was impressive and the personal approach was flattering. But how had it come about? She felt so uncomfortable in her new position, and so unwelcome, that she began to think some rival might have set her up for a fall.
In the weeks after her debut, she kept hoping she would bump into the poet, but she never did. That splendid, suede-booted personage made an appearance at board meetings and the occasional function, always slipping in at the last moment as if she had just been getting her make-up done in some fabled green room, and then she melted away again before the meeting was adjourned.
Finally, she’d asked Liselotte, the receptionist on floor 11, if she knew where the poet spent her working days. And so she learnt that her elusive colleague had an office somewhere above, on a higher floor. On 20, Liselotte said. Maybe even 21.
After that, she was never at ease in her own office, which everyone thought so stylishly spartan. She was in the wrong place, as simple as that. She belonged at a higher level.
The storyteller reached out to the poet once, in her awkward way. At a special meeting of the Audit Committee, when the poet was still hovering, she tried a gesture herself, an undulating hand movement meant to convey the passage of time in a language her fellow artist would understand. But apparently her grasp of this language was poor, for one of the clerks in Strategy & Communication misunderstood entirely and came hurrying up to the lectern with a glass of water.
The recitation pod pings. It’s a soft but insistent sound, an electronic throat-clearing like the chiming of her refrigerator at home when she forgets to close the door. It wants attention.
The storyteller lifts her head from the desk and sniffs the air like a savage. As always, the sound is accompanied by a pleasant smell. What is it this time? Cinnamon, cloves, caramelised sugar. The laboratory’s idea of toffee apples.
The recitation pod repels her. How silly she must look standing in the corner of her office with her head in the hood. Like the classroom dunce. You cannot read in there, which is her forte. You can only speak. That’s what it’s designed for: to prevent you from reading and to teach you to speak. That’s why Human Capital & Technology allocated it to her. It has been recorded under ‘Number of training opportunities facilitated’ in the Corporate Balanced Scorecard. The fact that she is a reader by inclination and training has been noted, evaluated and registered as a fault to be corrected or, rather, a challenge to be overcome. Nonetheless, when she goes into the pod she always holds an open book in her hands, her forbidden notebook. Otherwise her fingers keep rising to the hood and touching its cold surface. She even keeps her eyes downcast as if she can see through the armoured shell and its rubber lining and follow the words on the page.
It is red inside the hood most of the time, a dense, dusty maroon as suffocating as old theatre curtains. Sometimes the colour changes, for reasons she cannot explain, to a minty green or a spacious midnight blue, and then she feels as if she could learn to breathe in it. But just as suddenly some viscous shade of yellow will wash back in and suck the rubber lining to her skull.
Going in, thrusting her head through the puckered aperture under the bell of the hood, is bearable. The ruff, lying heavily on her shoulders, reminds her of the protective bib the dentist’s assistant drapes over her when she’s about to take an X-ray. The unexpected heaviness of something that appears light is pleasantly confusing to the senses. She almost enjoys the dead weight pressing down on her shoulders.
Coming out is another matter. Sensing her intentions, the hood contracts around her head like a prodded anemone. She has to wrestle herself free.
After a month of treatments in the pod, each more combative than the last, she’d gone to the hairdresser and had her sleek hair cut short, and now she wears it in stiff, unruly spikes, a carefully styled disorder which her skirmishes with the hood cannot ruffle. The new look was meant to register her dissatisfaction, but it went unremarked.
Oleg was her sister’s idea. The world is full of good men, Joan always says, jerking her chin towards the nearest window, but you must be open to meeting them. He’s exactly your type.
He was new in town. She took him to a rooftop restaurant on the edge of the old business district. Climbing six gloomy flights of stairs, past floors cluttered with derelict knitting-machines, overlockers and steam presses, they emerged on a canopied island hung with ferns and orchids and paper lanterns. The furniture was spindly Scandinavian, the crockery eggshell Japanese. Oleg let her have the view: the grimy roofs and façades of factories and offices, chimneys and soot-stained windows, the overhead lines of the railway, the girders of a flyover, and here and there a rooftop cafe or club, bright and colourful islands like their own, where people like them were eating, drinking and flirting, elegantly suspended between heaven and earth. They ate vegan wraps and drank Chinese beer.
She did not like Oleg, but she was taken with his hat, a natty, multicoloured porkpie made of raffia. He had a fussy routine for adjusting its fit, which he performed every five minutes, raising it ever so slightly between the palms of both hands, with his sticky fingertips kept well clear of the pristine weave, then tilting the brim down over his forehead, before sliding it back onto the crown of his head and bedding it down a touch. He knew precisely where it sat best.
Oleg was a DJ. He travelled constantly, he told her, in search of new sounds. Last week he was in Sarajevo, this time next week he would be in Lubumbashi. After that maybe Bamako or Luanda or Cairo. Some of the best new sounds were in Africa. War zones did not frighten him. Some of the very best new sounds were in conflict areas. Kiev, Bristol. At the end of this itinerary, he adjusted his hat again and gazed over her shoulder into the jungly heart of the restaurant, cocking his head as if he was listening for new sounds in the foliage.
She looked in turn at the skyline over his shoulder and listened. She heard taxis hooting down below and scraps of talk and laughter carried on the breeze from the islands upwind.
What hat is he wearing now? she thought. What is he keeping under it?
He did not want to take it off, and ten minutes of teasing were needed before he let her try it on. She was sure he would be bald underneath, that the hair curling from under the brim was no more than a fringe, but his hair was as thick and glossy as a labrador’s.
The bond between hat and head was not easily restored. He repeated his routine three times before he was satisfied.
Is he scared of losing his head? she thought. She had learned to see every human action as sign, symptom or subterfuge. It was one of the unpleasant side effects of being a storyteller.
She was reminded of a poet she had read about, a famous Swiss poet who wore a hat with a mechanical cuckoo that popped out through a trapdoor when he pressed a remote control. An eye-catching visual aid to embellish the punchline of a poem. She told Oleg about it, but he was not much interested. The sounds in Berne and Zürich were very thin, he said, because of the altitude and the democracy. Whereas the sounds in Reykjavik and Sofia were intriguing, despite the lack of conflict.
Raffish, she thought as he adjusted his hat again. Could it be related to raffia?
She saw afterwards that Oleg’s manoeuvres had less to do with his hat than his hair, which had to sweep from under the brim in exactly the right devil-may-care way. The hat was an accessory for keeping his hair in place, like a hairpin or a comb, and he wielded it constantly as if someone was on the point of taking his picture. Perhaps it was an invitation.
If only she had changed her hairstyle sooner, she thought now, she and Oleg might have had more to talk about.
The storyteller fans the pages of her notebook under her nose to dispel the smell of apple pie (or whatever it’s meant to be) and looks down on the familiar scene. The prefabricated geometry of the new city subdues her eye: the taxi rank, the corrugated canopy of the petrol station, the black coil of the freeway, office parks and townhouses, the skywalk to the convention centre, the rooftop parking at the mall, the fountain in the square. It’s all strangely silent. Something so large and various should make a noise. A soft hubbub, rising up ten floors to her open window, would be reassuring. But the windows are sealed tight.
She remembers her father asleep on the sofa on a Saturday afternoon with the television playing mutely in a corner. Little men would be driving golfballs down green fairways: the balls rose in stately arcs and hung in the air so long it seemed the film had stopped. Silence took the sudden life out of things. Through the fluted legs of the coffee table she watched her father’s chest to make sure it was rising and falling, her attention all that made him breathe.
Now she scours the streets for signs of life. Everything stilled, hushed, bleached to the bone. Yet there are more people than usual in the square with their faces turned to the sky. Heliotropes, she thinks, following the sun. Perhaps they see her here at the window and envy her the panoramic view, little knowing how it makes her feel.
If your office is higher up, you have access to the roof garden. There is no rule that says a data capturer from the 5th floor or a junior manager from the 9th cannot get into the lift and go up and sit in the sun eating a low-fat yoghurt or reading a report, but the fact is that no one from the lower half of the building ever does. A variable gravitational force keeps them in their place or draws them down to the lobby or the square. This force weakens as you rise. Nearly everyone on the top four or five floors goes up to the roof sometimes, even the PAs and receptionists. The people on the top floor pop up there every day. It’s their territory.
She has been up to the 21st floor often, because that’s where the boardrooms are, but she’s never felt free to enjoy the view. Only once did she have time to imagine what it might be like to work there. Simonetta, the receptionist on floor 17, let Liselotte on floor 11 know that there was an unoccupied office in the Research & Information Department and so she went up in her lunch hour to take a look. It was a corner office with a clear view over all the surrounding blocks and it lifted her heart. The old city shimmered on the horizon like a mirage.
Her stories had improved by then. Though her performances were never as colourful as those of the corporate poet, they were steady and useful. At the Wellness Weekend workshop, she’d told the tale of Hiroto Yoshida, the marathon-running monk, and got more than the usual applause. Human Capital & Technology had even posted it on the intranet. She’d earned the right to make a small demand, she thought, and so she put in an application for a higher office.
She could not emphasise how much she loved the view. It would look as if she spent her time daydreaming, and even though that was part of her job description, strictly speaking, it did not seem wise to say so directly. She argued instead, persuasively she thought, for vision and perspective. Her current quarters were stuffy and constrained: she needed light and air and a more expansive view. She had to see the big picture. It was essential to her work.
Another ping. As she skirts the big white desk a savoury aroma wafts into her nostrils. Chicken soup? That’s new. She sniffs all around the device. It’s never given off such an intense fragrance. She’s not sure exactly where it comes from, but she thinks it’s a gland inside the hood.
She presses her palm to the shell. Hotter than usual too. Sometimes when it’s hot to the touch it’s cool inside. There’s no telling. Especially when it radiates heat like this, it reminds her of an old-fashioned drier in a hairdressing salon.
It’s been in her office for two months now. Human Capital & Technology keeps telling her she’ll get the hang of it, but with every passing day she finds it harder to put her head into the thing. The thought of it sickens her.
On the advice of the Senior Manager: Knowledge Strategy, she’s tried to think of it as a private retreat. It’s supposed to be a learning opportunity: on-the-job training. But often when she’s in there, she has the feeling she’s being watched. The contents of her head are being extracted and processed. Someone is picking through this sludge to see whether she’s been chewing properly.
She cannot fathom its inner workings. The hood isn’t large. From the outside it looks like you could hardly nod your head in there. But when you’re in it, the space around you, laden as it is with dark shades, appears to be endless. Vistas open. Yet she chokes on the smell of the product in her hair and the synthetic exhalations from the hidden gland. She’s tried reaching in under the ruff and pushing her hand through the aperture, but the rubbery collar clenches on her fingers as if it knows that her intentions are mischievous.
The manual is no help. It’s full of advice about facilitating conversation with the intangible and honouring the work cycle by speaking your truth. You have to speak in there, that much is clear. The device gives your words weight and returns them to you, ‘delivers’ is the technical term, in an apparently tangible form. These returns are meant to be rewarding and to encourage further deposits.
But when she puts her head in it, she feels stifled. Her tongue lies in her mouth like a slug. Her jaw is numb and immobile. The words clot in the back of her throat.
No matter what it smells of around the pod – roses, candyfloss, mandarin oranges – inside it, one base note keeps striking through. Ammonia. It’s like a well-scrubbed public toilet.
Her application for a higher office had got no response. A week passed without so much as an acknowledgement of receipt. She was on the point of writing again when Human Capital & Technology sent a clerk from Facilities Management & Maintenance to show her the office she could have if she wished to move. It was in the basement, on the third and lowest level of the parking garage, behind a metal door that looked as if it might conceal a generator or a switch box. But as the clerk had told her on the way down, it was the office occupied by the corporate storyteller in the days before that designation existed. The clerk was a skinny young man in a checked shirt and a long red necktie pointing downwards like an arrow on a graph. He unlocked the room with extravagant turns of several keys, reached in to put on a light and swung the door wide. Take your time, he said, I’ll be back in half an hour.
It was a small, busy room with a fluorescent stripe in the middle of the ceiling and grey walls glistening with sweat. There were filing cabinets of a darker grey steel and a desk, shored up at either end by wire baskets marked in and out, both spilling papers. In a small clearing lay a blotter with a calendar printed on it, the days of an unnamed month all but obliterated by jottings and doodles. Scattered like trash cans in a field of snow were cracked plastic containers full of paper clips, rubber bands, drawing pins, dust, lint and small twists of lead-blackened eraser rubber.
The storyteller’s heart soared. She rolled the chair away from the desk. It was something like a kitchen chair on four wheels with a leather seat cracked right through and caved in like a flopped sponge cake. She slumped down on it, the least comfortable chair she had ever sat on: the bumps and hollows left in the cushions by her distant precursor pressed into her flesh. It felt wonderful. She rocked for a moment in the chair, listening to its antiquated squeak and enjoying the painful pleasure of its anti-ergonomic grip, and then she tilted it back, gasping when it seemed to be going right over, laughed out loud when she found the tipping point and put her feet on the desk.
The wall before her was covered in books. Even the spaces between the books and the canted shelves had more books jammed into them horizontally. The rows under the ceiling leaned in at a dizzy angle like a wall on crumbling foundations. It was a good thing there was no window. One stiff breeze, she thought, and the whole thing would topple.
The corporate fictions. She had never expected to see them. Bits and pieces had slipped through the online portal, crossing her screen in a flash, fewer and fewer of those as techies plugged the gaps. Just last week the Executive Manager: Strategy & Communication had told a meeting of the board that the corporate memory would soon be outsourced to a specialised company and accessible going forward only to senior staff members with the appropriate clearance. The sight of the corporate fictions, complete and unrestricted, overwhelmed her.
She rose from the chair and the sagging wall of books loomed over her. Any moment now, she thought, it will crumble and bury me. With a grim laugh, she prised a book from a shelf and opened it. A reference work of some kind, with rows of type in columns and a thumb index of golden letters on glossy black half-moons. She drew her forefinger down one of the columns and fancied she could feel the rungs of type bumping against her fingertips. When she got to the bottom of the page, she lifted her thumb to the top of the next column, and then her fluttering fingers annoyed her, and she slammed the book shut and sat there with her hand in the trap. And that was how the clerk with the downward-trending tie found her when he came to fetch her back to the 11th floor.
I should have called their bluff, she thought later. I should have told them there and then: It’s perfect! But it was a Friday afternoon and there was no apparent need to rush.
She spent the weekend strategising. Her application had been a model of suggestive thinking. The view from the window was hardly mentioned. Instead, she argued for being in the attic, in the head office, close to the limitless firmament of stories. Had the option been made available to her in good time, she might just as well have argued for being in the basement, with one foot in the underworld and the groundwater of myth seeping into the sole of her shoe. Perhaps she could now make a case for composing below and consulting above? Behind a closed door in the basement, she would be the corporate unconscious, left alone to ruminate and digest. And in her office on the 21st floor, in clear sight of the world, she would be the corporate conscience, approachable and consultative. Her door would always be open.
But she never got to argue the point. When she opened the door of her office on Monday morning, she was startled to find a technician at work inside. He was commissioning the recitation pod. She had never seen anything like it and yet she knew at once what it was for. The proportions of the hood and the footplate were unmistakable. The thing was made for a human head on a human body. The air smelt of burning leaves.
She tried to question him but he instructed her in a teacherly tone to sit at her desk and be quiet. She called Liselotte, but her old ally had already been briefed: Human Capital & Technology hoped she would make the best of this self-realisation opportunity. She was urged to navigate change by living out her personal destiny.
The technician finished tightening some bolts on the armature and stood back to inspect his work. He wiped his hands on a yellow cloth, and then he pressed his palms to the hood and massaged it gently. After a minute or two, he took his right hand from the surface and reached in through the aperture, while the left kept moving in small circles, rubbing and squeezing. Apparently he was satisfied, because he withdrew both hands with a smile. Then he quickly packed up his tools and went away without a glance in her direction. The device was silent. Only a bead of red light on the console suggested that it was live. Open for business, as she came to think of it.
The door had barely closed when the manual dropped into her inbox. The cover said ‘User’s Guide’ in many different languages. Half the pages were devoted to numbered diagrams with arrows showing the placement and movement of head and limbs.
The drawing pin jitters across the desktop with a tinny hum, while the storyteller counts off the seconds on her stopwatch. The silver cap spins straight and true, as if eleven seconds are nothing, and then in a moment wobbles and cants and falls over. A pristine plane, she thinks, not a scratch, no blade, nib or compass point has come near it. Yet it leaches the momentum out of her top in an instant. The last of three tries, all short of the target. Now there’s nothing for it.
She glances at the draft of her story on the screen, her new piece for the forthcoming quarterly board meeting. There’s the title and the start of the first line. The Art of Falling, it says. And on a new line: It’s been said that the art of falling . . . And that’s all. Not a word more in three days.
She slips her feet out of her shoes and lines them up with her toes. She reaches into a drawer for the forbidden notebook. It’s a pocketbook bound in soft brown leather. She opened it carefully when she bought it, starting with the flyleaves and peeling off pages at the front and the back in turn, pressing each one flat and running her thumb along the stitching at the spine, working her way methodically through the sections until she reached the centre spread. Then she numbered the pages in pencil. The rest is blank.
She steps onto the footplate and crouches beneath the hood with the ruff over her shoulders. This is always the worst part: she must force herself to go on. An anticipatory hum sounds from the hollow above. She pushes her feet into the stirrups and straightens her knees until the top of her head touches the rubber. It smells like soup again, schmaltz and floury dumplings. Her scalp bristles as the hood begins to suck. She opens the notebook on the console, shuts her eyes and thrusts her head into the aperture.
Grey and damp. It’s never been like this before. She feels shivery, light-headed, short of breath. Perhaps she’s at high altitude? She would see far, over crags and precipices, if the mist lifted. Watery clouds envelop her, beading her eyelashes and flattening her hair against her scalp. She catches her breath, and breathes, deeply and slowly, trying to strain the smell of rotting leaves and disinfectant through her nostrils. When she opens her eyes again, she’s drifting in the cloudscape. She floats over hilltops and it’s almost pleasant. Once she tries to speak, but her jaw is locked. It’s freezing up here, she thinks, and squeezes her elbows to her ribs. This reminds her of the book in her hands and reattaches her head to her body. She pictures the page curving like muscle from the spine, the goose-pimpled skin of the paper.
Who’s that? A man at a window. A man in a black frock coat and a broad-brimmed hat. No, it’s too vast to be a window: a wall of glass. He is rocking like a metronome.
She remembers. It’s the transit lounge in Zürich. She’s found a quiet annex, away from the crowds at the overpriced coffee counters and duty-free shops, where a trio of conjoined chairs faces the apron. She’s dozing with her computer bag clasped to her side when a shadow flicks over her eyelids. The man has come to pray. He is swaying close to the sheer glass, which magnifies the outside world like an immense lens, blistered and veined with rainwater. On either side, gleaming fuselages are coupled to the concertina folds of gangways, but the bay in front of the praying man is empty. An expanse of wet tarmac stretches towards a hangar with its door gaping. This steel-framed black space is a gigantic version of the screen she spends her days gazing into. The man wears a hat with a tall crown and holds a book but never looks at it: the litany on his lips he knows by heart. His voice rises and falls, scattering dust on the polished veneers of the terminal. A remnant of old Europe in a costume out of a museum, perhaps not even a man but an automaton, bowing repeatedly to the void. Although she cannot understand a word, she hears a melody and counterpoint of resignation and protest. Half-asleep, entranced by the spindrift of his beard breaking on the lapels of his coat, she begins to mumble the prayer under her breath.
A memory stirs in her joints. She tries to follow the motion of the man in the hat, but the hood tightens its headlock. Instead of moving her torso, she moves her hips. The mist is audible, the words spurt from the man like air from a bellows and curl around her temples. A glow begins to rise under the hood and she smells rubber. She keeps on swaying her hips, scraping her shins against the calipers.
For a moment she pictures herself in the corner of her office with her head in the pod, but the image is unconvincing.
She closes the book on her forefinger, keeping the place, and presses the spine between her legs. As she sways, one strategic thrust after another chugs along the rosy membrane in capital letters. Is she reading or writing? Is someone speaking? The stream reveals nothing. The pod owns the syntax, she thinks. Perhaps the vocabulary is mine, the soft, warm deliverables? She identifies inputs and outputs and aligns them with the mission statement, and then she manages them efficiently and effectively through the downswing and the uptick.
She would drift in the overproduction of pleasure, with the empty book squeezed between her thighs, but the pod loses interest abruptly. Sinking down on the footplate, she observes that the door of her office is still closed, thank God, and sits there rubbing her shins while her breathing slows.
The storyteller has her feet up on her ice-white desk. She wishes she could busy her hands with a smoke, although it’s strictly forbidden and would set off the fire alarm. She laces her fingers behind her head instead. The light on the telephone has been blinking ever since she came out of the pod. It can wait.
She holds out her hands to see whether they’re still trembling. She feels more like herself, but the office is as unfamiliar as a hotel room and the vision of the man in the hat bothers her. Where in God’s name did he come from?
She looks again at the title of her new story on the screen: An Unexpected Climax. Is it fit for a corporate fiction? That depends on whether it promotes the corporate vision. When it’s done, she’ll try it out on Simonetta, the receptionist on floor 17. Erotic fiction is her thing. Then the Equity Committee, Credit & Risk. One step at a time.
She runs through the first line in her head: They say that an unexpected climax . . . And then she looks out of the window. Perhaps I’m not made for the storytelling racket, she thinks. I should find another occupation.
Just then, a camera pops up in the bottom of the window frame.
For a startled moment, she thinks it’s a gun. Someone has been sent to kill her. This is how the corporation terminates your services; she’s invited the chop with her lack of enthusiasm and resistance to self-improvement. But no, if she’s being shot, it’s only with a camera. The device drops out of sight briefly and then rises again with intent and she sees that it’s attached to a human head. The head of a man. Now, she thinks.
The camera is rigged to a padded skullcap that elevates it slightly above the man’s head. When he looks at her, it’s like being looked at by two people. A camera crew.
She waves. She recognises the regal gesture as she’s making it: it’s the stiff-fingered, windscreen-wiper salute of modern royals. The motion you would make removing a grease spot from a mirror.
He cannot see her or has chosen to ignore her.
She gets up from the desk and goes closer. At the same time, he reaches up with one hand, hooks his fingertips into a channel on the window frame, twists his body and steps up with the opposite leg. Out there is the narrowest of ledges, hardly more than a lip on the frame, but he gains a toehold. Like a lizard on a garden wall, she thinks, as he clings crookedly to the glass.
She must be invisible to him, she’s sure of it now, but she cannot accept it. She kneels down on the carpet so that her face is close to his, raises her right hand with the index finger pointing stiffly upwards and moves it from side to side. She recognises this gesture too: it’s the movement her optometrist makes to check whether her eye muscles are working properly. Nothing.
She’s spent every working day for the past eight months in this office, without once considering that one might not be able to see into it from outside. There’s a bronze-tinted film on the glass that makes it seem as if sunset is never far off, and she likes the effect, it improves the atmosphere. Now it occurs to her that the film might be intended to ensure her privacy. But from whom? She looks down into the square inside the mall with new interest. More people than ever are crowded together there, and they all appear to be looking at her, although of course they’re looking at the climber. In all the times she’s been to the mall she never once thought to step out into the daylight and look up at her office. Somewhere along the line, without her even noticing, the flame of her curiosity has been snuffed.
The climber reaches up again and with another reptilian motion lifts his foot onto the ledge and stands upright against the glass. At rest there, arms and legs stretched wide, he is transformed into a fine specimen of a man. As good as a sketch by Da Vinci, she thinks, anatomically accurate and symbolically allusive. Vitruvian Man on his way to the gym. Not naked, mind you, far from it, sheathed from head to toe in some sort of leotard. A climbing suit, she imagines. An extreme climbing suit. Beneath the stretchy fabric, baggy at the knees and sweat-ringed in the armpits, he’s slim and muscled, an athlete. A long face, sun-browned and attractively weather-beaten. Not a young man, she thinks, a man in his prime. Jets of sandy hair spurt through the air vents of the camera mount.
Oblivious to her presence. This authorises a closer inspection. Bending towards the glass like a museum visitor before a work of art, she examines his codpiece and the sculpted ridges on his torso. From close up, at least some of them appear to be made of plastic: he has a plate of body armour attached to his midriff. The pectorals and biceps are screen-printed on his suit. As he adjusts his stance on the ledge, she sees his own muscles flexing beneath the hard-edged outlines on the fabric.
A pouch of resin dangles from his belt. He reaches into it with one hand and then the other, and beats the excess off on his thighs. Then he tilts back his head to assess the ledge on the 12th floor. The underside of his chin is an arrowhead. His calf muscles bulge and the printed versions amplify the effect. Any second now, he’ll be gone.
She makes a fist to knock on the window. But what if she startles him and he falls? As she kneels there with her knuckles turned to the glass, there’s a roll of thunder, and then a shadow flicks over the glass and the sound becomes the clatter of a helicopter.
The climber scuttles upwards. Just like a lizard, his asymmetrical hustle, but she thinks: The Human Fly. And she wishes this had not come into her head. She has the feeling she’s seen all this somewhere before. The man on the ledge, the woman in her office, the predatory helicopter circling. A movie probably. It’s a distressing idea: the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to me, she thinks, and yet it feels like a cliché. Everything surprising has already happened before or is about to happen again. No matter what I do or say, or how I remember it or tell it, it will never be interesting enough. She presses her cheek to the glass and tries to catch a glimpse of a rubber sole, the elegant slipper of an acrobat, as the climber disappears from view.
The corridor is deserted. Closing the door softly behind her, she crosses the carpet on her bare feet, glancing through the open door and sealed window of each office she passes. She can hear the muted thud of the chopper, but all she sees is one tea-stained swatch of sky after another, like a strip of film with nothing on it.
Liselotte is not behind the half-moon desk in the reception area. Leaning over an arrangement of silk roses and baby’s breath, the corporate storyteller glances into the blank monitor, just as a bubble breaks in the water dispenser.
In the silence that follows she hears a small uproar. It’s coming from the conference room off the lift lobby, where a door stands ajar. They are all there, every rank and income bracket from the senior managers to the receptionists, hunched over the table with their fingers laced under their chins or perched on the armrests of chairs, eyes on the television screen, transfixed. A mutter of commentary. No one looks up as she slips into the room.
When he was close enough to touch, she did not fully appreciate the climber’s fancy dress. Seeing him now on the screen, magnified and distanced at once, she gathers that he’s a bargain-basement superhero. He has red leggings and green briefs, and a yellow bandanna or scarf knotted at his throat, the suggestion of a cape. He’s swiftly scaled another six floors. Three more to the top of the building.
A reception committee stands ready on the rooftop. It’s like the end of a marathon: someone holding a towel emblazoned with the sponsor’s logo, someone else proffering a bottle of water, a third person, a man in a suit, ready to shake a hand and present a platitude. There are a dozen men in uniform too, security guards or policemen with truncheons and two-way radios.
The camera zooms in on the reception committee. That’s the Chief Risk Officer. And the woman beside him? She bristles at the thought that it’s the corporate poet, summoned to deliver a poem for the occasion, but it’s Duduzile, the PA to the Operations Manager: Facilities Management & Maintenance. Almost as bad. The very woman who processed her request for a higher office. Her skirt flutters like a frantic bird in the downdraught of the rotor. Or it may just be the wind. It’s always blustery up there, according to Simonetta, a sudden gust once blew the lettuce out of her salad. The edge is alarming too. She expected a barrier more imposing than this waist-high parapet and flimsy handrail. It shouldn’t be so easy to step off into the void.
The climber can go no further. He pauses on the ledge of the 21st floor, holding on by his fingertips, and leans back to consider his final move. A policeman on the rooftop leans over to talk to him. Spiderman has a problem, she sees now. The channels in the window frames that he’s been scaling end here. Above is a concrete overhang, wider than the ledge on which he’s standing, and then nothing but the smooth face of the parapet. It looks unassailable. They could open a window and let him climb into one of the boardrooms – if the windows opened, that is. Surely he considered all this before he started his ascent?
No matter what his plans are, she knows this is the most dangerous part. She watched a documentary once on high-wire walkers and learned that the truly risky moments in any act are stepping off and arriving back. Out in the middle of the wire, when the spectators’ hearts are in their mouths, the artist is in perfect control. It cannot be otherwise. Balanced over the void, depending only on himself to defy the laws of gravity, his concentration must be pure. Every distraction is tuned out. But when he comes back to the grounded end of the wire, and must pass from his ethereal element into our earthbound one, he is most at risk of falling. The people who wait there, the assistants and seconds, even the most seasoned ones, have to stop themselves from reaching out to seize a hand or an arm. It’s a natural instinct, this urge to drag someone to safety, but it must be resisted. The artist, who has put his life in peril, must be left alone to save it.
It’s the same for this daredevil, she thinks. Here within reach of the summit, he is most likely to fall. There is no art to it either. It’s physics. He must have an exit strategy. Perhaps he and the policeman are discussing this very thing, as now both of them are shooing the helicopter away like a scavenging gull.
She sees a cameraman there, hanging out of the door of the craft in a harness, and realises that he cannot be generating the pictures she’s watching on the screen, as she supposed. There are cameras elsewhere. Everywhere.
The pilot misunderstands the signals, he thinks they’re summoning him, and the helicopter’s nose dips and comes in closer. The climber clings to the glass with his little cape flickering. Any moment now he’ll be peeled from the surface like a leaf and flung into space. On the rooftop people are waving and shouting into handsets. At last, the helicopter lifts up into the blue. The camera sees it off to a distance, and then turns back to the rooftop to show the main characters in close-up: the policeman at the railing, looking down, the climber on the ledge, looking up, and the Chief Risk Officer, looking ahead. The people in the square below, who are no longer the audience, have been forgotten.
The climber reaches into his resin bag with one hand and then the other, and rubs his thumbs over his fingertips as if he’s thinking about money. Bracing his feet against the frame on either side, he scuttles up the glass to the top of the window. Then he reaches with his right hand for the ledge above.
The storyteller is back at her post. Ten minutes have passed while she waited for the man to fall past her window. Still nothing. The blades go on churning the air outside, but in here it is silent.
She jiggles the mouse to waken the monitor. Then she deletes the title and first line of her story and types: The Exit Strategy.
She considers the phrase. Every storyteller she knows has spun a tale out of it. Once it was a platitude in business and politics, now it’s become a principle, a philosophy – one she should apply in her own life and work. You must know when to get out, when to disinvest, to sell, to liquidate, to terminate, to retrench and fire, to decommission, cut your losses, save your bacon.
It’s beyond her job description to shut the computer down, but there’s a power button on the monitor. She presses it and it collapses to black.
There are pens and pencils in her briefcase, clasped in elasticised loops like cartridges in a bandolier. She chooses a 3B pencil, opens her notebook to the first page and writes: Exit Strategy.
If everyone now requires an exit strategy – relationship counsellors, rugby coaches, foreign-policy makers, urban gardening experts, marketing managers, military commanders, surgeons – it’s because the concept is crucial. The crux. Going in is nothing: pulling out is the hard part. You have to know how, why and when to put an end to things. To stop, cease, desist.
What in God’s name is that?
She goes quickly to the window. It’s a handprint on the outside of the glass, a powdery impression of a palm, four fingers and a thumb. A left hand, she thinks, inverting the print in her mind. She sees him there again, crawling over her window. The good man. She raises her own left hand, thinking as she does so that it will not match, she’s done this before or has seen it done, a failure of logic or imagination that leads to disappointment. And it does not match. So she raises her right hand instead and presses it against the print, which it matches perfectly, and this consoling symmetry lifts her feet from the floor, she feels herself rising, going up.
‘Exit Strategy’ is included in 101 Detectives, a collection published by And Other Stories in the UK and Umuzi in South Africa.
Photograph courtesy of Classic Film