Carl Shuker is the author of A Mistake, a finalist in the fiction category of this year’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. In this fragment from an unpublished novel, the staff of a London medical journal ponder an unspecified social disruption that requires them to work from home. The story is entitled The office was empty.
All the desks’ chairs were swivelled at their angles of exit. Screens on but dimmed. The quiet all around. It was a Thursday, 11:30 am, and not one person was visible from the door. From Susan in tech ed to Dr Death in the senior editors’ pod the cubicles and desks of the Royal London Journal of Medicine were bereft of workers and looked like the looted stalls of some terrible book fair. Helen Jackson’s desk in particular was just a single amorphous pile of paper with a screen in the middle fringed with Post-Its. The occasional embarrassed tea cup teetering here and there. No Jane, no Vivien. The blind half down above Birgit’s desk clanking gently. The odd desk lamp on. James stood in the doorway with the neat warm package of his last Sorrento BLT for breakfast in hand. Not a bus to be had it had taken him an hour and a half to walk from home through an emptied Camden from Mansfield Road to Tavistock Square, NW3 to WC1. And now everyone was gone.
So he carried the BLT down the aisle, past Kristian’s neat and empty desk, past Harriet’s, and Julia’s, D2 and D1’s and Ibrahim’s. Past Helen’s. At the corner of Emily “the Pheromone” Firman and Annabel’s paired desks, he saw five-year-old Simon Smyther-Jones’ single child-sized Converse lying on the floor a good meter from his mother’s desk.
All was quiet.
He suddenly saw what was going on. It was some kind of super-Clinch in the Goddess’ corner office. Through the interior glass walls he could see the Editor-in-Chief’s tiny room was packed with staff, and everyone was facing away from him into the far corner.
There were probably thirty people in there—the full complement of the office workers who’d made it in today. It was way past time for a Clinch. They were all facing away. He began to walk towards the office where now the door, he could see, was partly open. They were facing away from him to the Goddess’ desk, and he could hear the Goddess talking.
She was on screen on her own Dell. He could see her now and she was sitting in civvies, slightly hunched: a bottlegreen gilet over a tattersall shirt, a bandanna holding up her hair. Beyond her a whitewashed wall with a leadlight window into white. Two-fifths of a battered mahogany tallboy. It was the upstairs room, her office, of her house in the country or High Barnet, at least. She was home and as if to confirm it a small bedraggled spaniel’s snout and paws appeared in her lap and she stroked it absent-mindedly. Helen Jackson and John Mayer were standing in the door and made room for him to enter the impromptu Clinch. He sidled in. John said companionably, “’Ere ’e is” but made no eye contact as if he never would again. David 2 smirked knowingly and David 1 pursed his lips and wagged his head from side to side in some freshly coined acknowledgment signal. Kristian in his Cutler & Gross glasses, folded arms and a determined suit jacket stood slightly in front of and obscuring the shorter Rob behind. Helen looked at James closely, then indicated the door and murmured, “Don’t get stuck behind there,” and before the Goddess resumed speaking James caught Benjamin look up quickly, and his expression one of startled loss.
“I want to say,” said the Goddess, “that though I believe the record of this moment is crucial, and that we have what I would describe as more than an obligation but a duty to bear witness, a duty to the country, our readers, to doctors, nurses, all healthcare staff, to scientists and clinicians, and to patients, here, the US, India, the rest of the world, that, however—” She was thinking hard. A high rosebloom in her cheeks and very intensely focused. “It is your safety that is paramount to me.”
The crowded room was completely silent. Nearly thirty people, not quite a third of the entire staff, were jammed in the tiny room to watch the address. Hair and tweed skirts pressed up flat against the glass walls.
“Now nobody can be against the general idea of an emphasis on the safety of our staff, but in practice, this means action. It means decisions must be taken early in all our interests and in the interests of the Royal London and its continuing duties to our readers and to the world at large. Duties to the record. And it is for this reason—”
“’Ere it cooms,” said Morrissey.
“—we are to close London offices and are asking each of you to liaise with your direct line managers and work from home your regular allotment of hours as is possible and you are able.” A tentative, almost pleased exhale came from the entire room. “We’re going to keep at it,” she smiled then, and the dog peered interestedly up at the webcam from her moleskinned lap. “Just not from London.”
The entire gathering, like the last twitch of a wound-down toy, moved then, in a gentle shuffle and murmur.
“Now there, there, there—”
It was a common thing for her, this throatclearing stutter, and it was one of the Goddess’ repertoire of rhetorical strategies, to sustain attention while thoughts were mustered. Surprising, then, that she would use it at a moment like this. Several of the most senior editors, including Barbara Jones, looked very pale and internal.
“—there is an IMT task force assembled to assist those of you who are yet to do so in the arrangement of remote server connections and the other necessary arrangements regarding CMS access at various levels, email and support and the rest, and the various templates, for next Monday, so please speak to them. If you are yet to do so. We still don’t, um, cater for Mac, I’m afraid.”
She allowed herself a small smile, and a low titter spread through the room.
“This is a test for us. For our resilience. This is an unprecedented situation for which we have made extensive preparations, but we are yet to see how those contingencies operate in practice. We’re lucky. We’ve had plenty of time and we benefit from the foresight of the many gifted people on our team.”
Her platitudes were delicious because they were hers and had the luxury of being true. They sounded grand and one asked—really? And really listened and bore down and found that at the least there was truth there, and it was hers. What she said was always—re-examinable.
“We’ve had plenty of warning. We could have been Lyon. We could have been Lisbon. And I want to say that this is a test for us. We are an international journal. Where we publish from is incidental. The relevance of that is only in the eyes of the law.”
Tousle-haired and clear of grayblue eyes, she looked from the screen at her gathered staff. The little dog sat in her lap now.
“So long as we have each other—”
“And broadband—” —Morrissey.
“—we can continue to do the important work we are doing. We can continue to be rather rude and unpleasant about homeopathy—” A roomwide chortle broke the tense silence, and invisible in the corner, seated, the Pheromone guffawed and said hoarsely, “Hear, hear.”
“We can continue to lead from the front both on this issue and also on issues of libel law reform, diabetes in Africa, A&E closures, climate change and public health, MMR, pop psychiatry. To champion open access and speedy release of trial data. To bear up as banner and flag the randomized controlled trial. To speak truth based in evidence to power wherever that might be. I know you are all with me whatever your personal circumstances and I am grateful for that and simply ask that if you have any concerns or personal issues whatsoever that you feel as free as you possibly can to contact me, or Tony, or Trish directly. We expect normal service will resume but we don’t and can’t know exactly when that will be. So until then we ask you to work at home, try to do the best you can, stay safe and to take care of yourself and your families in the first instance. And to try to start work more or less on time even if you’re still in your pyjamas.”