“Where are we going?” Tom asks.
“To the canteen.”
“We have a canteen?”
It sits on the southern half of the ninth floor. A dull filling sandwiched between eight floors of grey, baffled cubicles above and seven below. Aside from the obligatory chocolate bar dispenser and dubious coffee machine the canteen is devoid of any trace of a food provisioning service. A single kettle sits at the end of an extended breakfast bar surrounded by five types of tea and no spoons. In the opposite corner, a desperate looking microwave yearns for someone to drop in a coin and turn the dial. A tired looking toaster serves up seven settings of charcoal. Functional tables and chairs litter the remainder of the room. Mercifully the lack of cooking equipment means the bleak fittings are spared their obligatory layer of grease and yet they still feel dirty to the touch; like everything that survives in this place is coated in a congealing layer of unrealised dreams and wasted ambition.
“You didn’t say it had a table tennis table! Nice!”
Yes. Brilliant. Exactly what I need in a fucking canteen. I will beat you to death if you bring the bats anywhere near me. I’m not ambidextrous but I’m confident I can hit you with both at a dreadful rhythm and pace.
“Bollocks. There isn’t a ball. Next time, yeah?”
“Sure.” You have no idea how close to death you just were.
“So what do you do in here?” Tom asks.
“I drink coffee and I listen.”
“Listen to what?”
“People. I listen and I watch. It gives me ideas for things.”
“Dude, you sound like a serial killer.”
“We all have our afflictions.”
“Did you ever see that series…Portrait Of A Lunatic I think it was called. There’s this normal guy who…”
I let him drone on in the background. Sip my awful coffee. Wait.
“…but in the end he was actually being mind-controlled by scientologists. You’re not listening to me are you?”
“Absolutely. Every word.”
“Bullshit. I bet if I asked you one question about anything I’d just said you’d…”
“Shh. I’m listening.”
“Listening? To who?”
One of the women on the table behind us laughed in response to something I’d only caught a fragment of. “Oh yeah, I’ve always wondered about that. My domestic wore a headscarf for days…”
“Did you hear that Tom?”
“What, the headscarf?”
“No, before that. The bit about always wondering.”
“Yeah. It’s just something people say.”
“But it’s bollocks. How can anyone with a job in an office and a comfortable above-working-class existence say I’ve always wondered about that? It’s utter bollocks. You. Me. Them. We are not the generation of wonder. We are the generation who have trained their brains to thumb our way onto a smartphone or a keyboard and look up information with the sole purpose of keeping it in our heads long enough for it to sieve it’s way down to our mouths and fall out into the world. We’re like fucking goldfish. Tomorrow we can google it again so why worry? She hasn’t always wondered why her domestic worker wore a headscarf for three days. She doesn’t even know if it was three days. She was probably just away from her iPad at the time so she couldn’t search for an answer in the nanosecond that it tugged at her mind because heaven fucking forbid she actually asked her domestic why she wore it.”
“Dude, you might want to keep your voice…”
“I don’t know if it was a doek she was wearing but I recall Tembi wearing one for an extended period a year or so back and I spoke to her about it. She said she was covering her head as a mark of respect because she was in mourning. I wanted to understand it a bit more fully but language was a barrier to the finer details unfortunately. I’m guessing this is the same sort of thing and I’m also guessing we’ll never fucking know because people are just too lazy to have a conversation or to learn anything. I’ve always wondered about that. Give me a fucking break. Take a ninety five percent salary cut. Lose your smartphone and your internet connection. Your laptop. Start a job where you get up in the dark to work for someone who has briefly wondered, never asked and swiftly forgotten about some aspect of your existence. Then we can talk about always wondering.”
I hear the scrape of chairs behind me. Sip my awful coffee. Imagine Tom shrugging and giving a placating smile. Wait.
“You do realise that was the head of HR?”
“Awesome. With a bit of luck she’ll find time to fire me during her endless of days of doing fuck all of value. My money’s on her chasing Pokemon or sexting someone before she’s back in her office. It’ll fall out of her brain in no time.”
“You really are a miserable fucker, do you know that? What do you get out of all this?”
I sip my awful coffee. Smile.