How would you describe Michael Phillips? Well most people wouldn’t think to.
Michael Phillips, the kind of man who blends into the background. The kind of man who causes no trouble to anyone, and receives none in return. You want someone to rock the boat and tell it how it is to your unreasonable boss at work? Michael is not your man. Nor is he someone to tell his child’s teacher she was out of line for giving little Erica detention for persistently disagreeing with her in class – even though it turned out that 12 year old Erica was correct about Canberra being the capital of Australia and not Sydney; a fairly routine fact for a secondary school teacher to know. No, in Michael’s experience it has always been far easier to adhere to authority and toe the line. An easy life is far preferable to a dream life that has been achieved through nothing but adversity. Make the best of what you have, what more could one want?
Michael works in IT. What he does nobody really knows. Far easier to be vague than have every family member and acquaintance call you all the time to help them remove the latest virus taking over their computers. He learned that the hard way. It wasn’t fixing the problem that bothered him; it was the fact that every problem that came up afterwards was blamed on whatever he had done when sorting out the initial issue. After 9 months he figured he should just buy his sister-in-law a new laptop. He hadn’t caused the new problems, it was just easier that way you see.
Tuesdays were always quiet in the office, and for some reason the commute was always quicker as well. As such, and as is tradition, Michael had stopped just round the corner to grab a take-out coffee and croissant. He liked this weekly ritual, it made a nice break from the otherwise monotonous existence the office catered for.
Always the same order; one ham and cheese croissant and one medium skinny latte. Always to go.
Today felt different to Michael. Not for any reason he could fathom, but different nonetheless. He had plenty of time so thought to walk the slightly longer route. He could cut through the park and allow himself to forget about the drudgery of the next few hours spent wishing he was good at anything other than IT.
The mother duck seemingly teaching her ducklings how to swim, the two puppies that had never previously met, now chasing each other around for the pure hell of it. Even the children, too young for school but not too old for swings, screaming with joy as they played on the various toys and equipment they had played on many a time before, but never as well as this. All of it made him smile, all of it allowed him a few seconds of pleasure and a brief but welcome escape from his own state of tedious existence.
“Michael! How are you?” It was Ted. He never greeted anyone without needing something doing.
“Great,” Michael sighed, his brief feelings of happiness now extinguished, “how are you?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ted replied in his unique way of both friendliness and dismissiveness.
“How is your diary looking this week? Do you have much on?”
“Well James was hoping that we could get the human resources department fully integrated into, and operational on the new system. We need to roll it out company-wide at the end of next month so we’re fairly busy making that happen.”
“Not so busy that you can afford to be a few minutes late into the office after stopping for coffee on the scenic route. Come on, I only need you for an hour a day, 90 minutes tops. I have a graduate starting as our department’s dedicated IT man, I’d appreciate the help familiarising him with the network and common issues. Just for the next week.”
“Really we are very busy, pretty much flat-out,” Michael replied, hoping that would be the end of it.
“I know, we all are since they trimmed so many of us. You’d be doing me a real favour if you could do it this week so that we can all ease our workload with a more efficient network at our disposal. You designed it, who better to teach him?”
Wow, this guy should be a salesman Michael thought to himself. What is he doing wasting his time in middle management? He could be retired by now. Michael had resigned himself to doing whatever Ted asked as soon as he had walked over. He always did. And he knew that the 90 minutes would be at least three hours. Just as he knew a week would probably be two. And really he didn’t have the time to do the favour anyway, especially as he wouldn’t be paid extra for his troubles.
But at the end of the day, what was the point of refusing? Ted was well connected and liked by everyone, a useful ally to have. Besides, Ted opened the door for him in the company in the first instance, Michael always felt like he owed him. The fact that in the 10 years since he started he had repaid the favour a thousand-fold in small requests and large, off-the-record, staff surveillance on Ted’s behalf would always be overruled in his head as paling into insignificance against being given that first opportunity at a reasonable salary.
“Fine, but it would be better if you tell James. Let him know that I’ll stay on task on a day-to-day basis, but that some of the work will be done each evening and outside office hours. It’ll come better from you, if I tell him that he’ll tear me a new one.”
“Fair enough, he won’t let you stamp your timecard for the additional hours though; I appreciate you doing me a favour.” The second part of that sentence was so casually dropped in that Michael had to fight the impulse to smile in spite of himself. Even if he had the desire to ask for the additional money he was due, that small phrase had done its job in dissuading him from doing so.
“I know. I’m doing you a favour.” Had he been more enthused Michael would have drenched the last word in sarcasm, but it would have been lost on Ted anyway.
“Great! I tell you what, I’ll let James know we had an impromptu meeting this morning to discuss this and that’s why you’re late. My way of saying thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” you had to admire him Michael thought to himself. In all that Ted had managed to leave the request in way that would seem like he was helping Michael out of a hole. He really should have been a salesman. “So Steve, the graduate, turns up midday, let’s get together at 11 to go through what I need to get him up to speed on and how we prioritise his training.
“OK,” Michael replied hesitantly as he watched his fears of 9am-8pm for the foreseeable future fast becoming a reality. “I think that’ll work.”
“Great! See you then.” Ted grinned as he turned sharply away, having got exactly what he wanted before adding, almost as an afterthought, “and don’t worry about James, I’ll speak to him.”
A good morning ruined thought Michael when he started walking again a few seconds later. As he slowly plodded through the remainder of the park, he had no sign of the bounce in Ted’s stride, already 50 yards ahead of him. It could be worse was his only, clichéd, thought as he sipped on his coffee. He threw the croissant into a bin as he passed it by – no good eating it now, after that excursion it would be cold by the time he sat down at his desk.
Soft Solutions was an ordinary IT solutions company. Based in a grey office block in the greyer town of Basingstoke it occupied seven floors of the shared tower, each one seemingly the same as the preceding floor.
Michael walked through the non-descript reception and returned the shadow of a nod he received from the bored but serious looking man working the visitor desk. Michael always assumed he was some sort of security; he had a radio and wore a cheap blue blazer and tie combination to signify this was his domain. He had never bothered to ask however, in fact in the 10 or so years Michael had worked in the building he had probably only spoken two words to the man who was sat at the desk before he arrived and was still seated there after he had left. He wondered if anyone spoke to him, or gave him more than a shadow of a nod. It can’t be a pleasant existence, stuck on that same desk all those years with the most stimulation being the annual fire drill, no wonder he looked bored and serious – it probably wasn’t the job he had always dreamed of having. But who was lucky enough to get their dream job Michael thought bitterly to himself. He had considered striking up conversation before, but what do you say to a man you’ve seen every day for 10 years but never learned their name? No, a nod would suffice in place of an awkwardly forced exchange.
He got the lift up to the second floor, and then took the stairs to his third floor office. He always had done since he read on a London Underground poster that just a couple of minutes of exercise a day could prevent heart disease. He always took all three flights on his way down in the evening and at lunch.
“Good Morning Michael.” It was Tracy; she was a general office assistant for the third floor and a nice woman to go with it. Curvy but pretty, her extra pounds suited her, even if she described her own face as looking like the moon.
“Morning Tracy.” He smiled a genuine smile back at her. She was five years younger at 28 years old but they had always been friendly since her first day as a wide-eyed 22 year old, fresh into working life after a year of travelling post-university. It was only meant to be a stop-gap for her, but as with everyone else employed at Soft Solutions she just seemed to stagnate. She had put her plans of pursuing a career in architecture on hold for so long she had almost forgotten about them and seemed content to just get by for the time being.
They used to talk much more and the thought saddened Tracy. But, since the accident with Michael’s wife everyone seemed to view him more with pity than warmth. It was to be expected, but as Michael had retreated even further into his already sizeable shell it became difficult to do anything but act as you do around sick relatives in a hospice. Any genuine relationship he had with anyone was now reduced to insincere niceties. Sure, she was slightly different, they had been firm friends at one point and for a while Tracy thought that there might be something more to it, particularly as their friendship grew closer in the aftermath of the death of Michael’s wife. If it were possible to have sexual tension with a man of Michael’s personality then she had shared that tension, they even kissed in a drunken fit of uncharacteristic passion at the Christmas party nine months after Marie’s passing. And then Michael had, for the only time she had known him in six years, dropped the mask with which he hid his emotions and poured his heart out to Tracy about the guilt he had over Marie’s suicide, the fear he had in bringing up little Erica alone and the hatred he had for the vacuum for which his life had become. If people were staring when they caught Michael and Tracy kissing then they were stood with their jaws open when they saw him crying into her chest. Not that anyone would say anything to the man given the emotions of the first Christmas without his wife, but the inevitable awkwardness between the two lasted six months. He had only started to look her in the eye and say good morning rather than muttering it in the last few weeks.
Michael sat down at his cubicle, it was 9.30am and his manager was straight over to him.
“Christ Michael! I’ve just been on the phone to Ted. Do you not get how important the next couple of weeks are to the running of this system? London wants it ASAP, and you are jeopardising the implementation of this project!” James, who hadn’t paused for breath between words, looked red-faced as his voice rose into a firm shout that grabbed the entire floor’s attention. “All because you can’t learn how to say no to that cocky little shit on the second floor. I mean fuck Michael! Who pays your fucking wages? Is it Ted? No, he just piggy-backs off you because you let him treat you like an inferior and you treat him like a fucking God.”
“Sorry James, he said he really needed the help and it would only be an hour or so a day. Just for this week.”
“And you believed that bullshit?” James asked incredulously, knowing full well that Ted’s favours were always larger than perceived.
“Well I guess not, but I figured, I mean, I know the system inside out. I can work on this whilst I run through things with his graduate.”
“You’re damn right, you make him come up here to learn and you make sure he knows this takes priority. If we have any issues or something needs looking at then he can twiddle his thumbs for all I care.”
“I know, I’ll keep up to speed with everything. I can make sure that each update is ready prior to midnight the previous day. Any hours I miss with Steve I’ll make up each evening.”
“You’re damn right you will.”
“Honestly, James, you won’t even realise I’m multitasking. I’ll report to you before you’ve even asked.”
“For fucks sake Michael.” James replied, he was no longer shouting, exasperation seeped into his tone and everyone had their eyes on their own screens again, realising the morning entertainment was over. “Why do you do it to yourself? You have enough on your plate without helping that self-serving arsehole. Why do you feel like you owe everybody?”
Michael knew the question was rhetorical and the lecture part of his telling off wasn’t quite finished yet.
“I get that you don’t like confrontation and saying no, but look what it just caused? That was a confrontation. I am majorly pissed off at you this morning and you had better not let me down on this. Now as you agreed it with Ted there isn’t a lot I can do as he has already had it signed off, but had you just come to me first we could have worked something out that doesn’t involve you neglecting your little girl every evening for the next two weeks.”
“I won’t let you d-”
James held a hand up to signify he wasn’t finished. “I believe that, but the fact remains that you have a job to do and in future if anyone comes calling to you then you run it by me first. Until I can trust you to make better judgement calls then I’m making them for you. Now, get the fuck into the meeting room, I’ve had to move a project briefing forward to accommodate your new engagements.”
“Sorry.” James didn’t know whether to feel lucky or unlucky that he was the designer of this new system. He felt lucky in the fact that it had probably spared him a formal warning, such was his importance and James’ willingness to make everything run smoothly, but decidedly unlucky in the sense that if his input wasn’t so large he might have been taken off the project due his inability to prioritise. He would have been spared James’ stresses for the next three weeks at least.
“Tracy. Come here.” James barked at her and she scuttled towards him. “You are helping Michael train Steve. I want you to do anything that he tries to teach him that you are capable of teaching yourself in order to manage Michael’s time better. I want you to attend the planning meeting with Ted alongside Michael and I want you to stand yours and his ground. You are now the balls Michael doesn’t have Tracy. Got it?”
Tracy nodded, taken aback by the suddenness of her new role.
“Erm, OK Mr Winters.”
“James,” he corrected her. “For the last time use my first name. We’ve known each other three years. And Ted is Ted, not Mr Parker. I will not have him walking over
both of you. Now, I also want you to keep a diary of Michael’s actions each day and hand it to me at 9am each morning. That is to include what he has done the night before; not what he said he will do, what he has done. So get him to show you each morning after he has done it. That means you both get in at 8am each morning until this project is seen through. If you have an issue with that then I suggest you take it up with Michael.”
Michael’s eyes shot furtively downwards as Tracy shot him a look of pure evil.
“Sorry,” he muttered under his breath, though truthfully he didn’t know why he was sorry or why she was angry at him – he hadn’t decided this was the plan of action. He hadn’t decided to punish Tracy for his sins.
He sighed to himself as they walked towards the meeting room. It wasn’t even 10am yet.