‘Sit up!’ Claire said. Her voice was not especially loud, at least not by Claire’s standards. But then her mouth was right next Vera’s ear.
Vera already sat bolt straight. Any more, and she would have achieved vertical take-off.
‘Show me your project’, Claire continued.
Vera was shaking as she tried to put the papers on her desk in order. Claire said nothing but she also didn’t move away. Not the tiniest fraction of the tiniest millimetre.
Shaking and breathing faster and faster, it took Vera a long time to get the all the sheets for the project collected and put in correct sequence. And, watching, it was hard not to think that this must be at least partly her fault – she couldn’t be very organised.
Finally, Vera was able to push the stack in Claire’s direction. She looked up uncertainly.
I abandoned all pretence of working and just looked. Out of the corners of my eyes I could see that everyone else was looking too. We were definitely not maximising shareholder value.
‘Can’t speak?’ said Claire, looking directly into Vera’s eyes.
I wasn’t quite sure what response to expect from Vera’s panicked expression.
‘Sorry’, she said. The only option, really, I thought.
‘About time’, said Claire, now stepping back a bit so she could look Vera up and down. ‘How far have you got? Show me!’
‘Sorry’, Vera said again. Her voice was high and squeaky.
She bent over her sheets and tried to separate them at the right spot. Then she seemed to change her mind and gestured with one hand towards her screen where the current page was displayed.
‘No’, Claire said again, this time a little louder.
She also bent over Vera’s desk and I couldn’t see what she was doing.
All I could see were the two backs: Vera’s in dark purple, partly obscured by her long hair, Claire’s in fashionable silver grey, the back of her short blonde sculpt just as perfect as the front I saw every night at sign-in.
The two backs moved a little apart, then together again. I couldn’t look away.
Juan, two seats over from me, started to fidget, making our desks quiver.
Claire leant a little bit forward over Vera’s desk but still I couldn’t see what they were doing.
‘For God’s sake, fix it!’ Now Claire was shouting, bullying.
Not a breath in the room.
And then a sharp, loud bang.
Like divers, we held our breaths. Heartbeats tried to tell the time.
Des continued his work on the platform. The scribbling of his red pen was the only sound in the room.
What had happened? What had Claire done?
Our collective breaths were running out.
Then Claire stepped away. Just a little bit, but it allowed me to make out what must have made that noise.
The Bank’s projects, large to huge to giant piles of printouts with comments, updates, template proposals, reference material and graphics requests, were held together with black monster clips (their actual name!), some as big as a human hand. And many stacks had grown so massive over the months of working on them that they needed a clever combination of several such monsters, fastening sheets together in overlapping grips. Handling them required concentration and serious muscle power. Mine often used to spring back out from the paper or refuse to open altogether.
The clips were black steel triangle mouths open on one side that always tried snap together unless prised apart by even fiercer long, thin steel handles.
One such big clip lay on its side on Vera’s desk where Claire had clearly slapped it down.
‘This is not good enough’, Claire said, from a slight distance. Vera said nothing.
‘Finish the page you’re working on and hand the rest over.’ She leaned forward again so that Vera had to face her. ‘Now!’
‘Yes’, Vera managed to say.
‘Good.’ Claire returned to the Front Desk, paper stack under her arm. We all instantly looked busy. Nobody wanted to be the one who had to work with Vera.
Des, up on his platform, finally laid down his pen and allowed himself a little sigh. There would be a lot of error marking coming his way soon.
In that amount of silence, Vera seemed to make a lot of noise. She was still breathing fast. I could hear paper being shuffled and reshuffled, I could hear frantic mouse clicks (was she trying to ‘fix’ mistakes on previous pages?). Metal shrieked over metal where a clip was dragged over another.
And then, one small cry, instantly swallowed.
Animal instinct made me look.
My eyes zoomed in on Vera’s hand, lying on the vast white paper stack. A line of deep red marks ran diagonally across her fingers, and one of her fingernails looked odd.
Odd, because blood was seeping out from underneath.
Not a lot, but, still. Blood.
Then Vera closed her hand and I couldn’t see any more.
Vera said nothing.
Claire said nothing.
I said nothing.
Well, what was there to say?
Claire had been metres away from Vera when it happened, over at the Front Desk. The injury was entirely self-inflicted.
And yet there was a clear sense that Claire had drawn first blood.
Juan, who also was relatively new and had already started to have troubles of his own, looked a bit sick. He probably hadn’t expected to see actual blood staining the desks at the Most Successful Bank in the Universe. I returned to my own job.
But Claire was one step ahead of me. Barely had I got my head round the intricacies of upcoming pharmaceutical mergers again when she rocked up to my station.
‘You!’ she said. ‘You are helping Vera with her job.’
She dumped the large stack of unfinished work on my desk, making the dust rise up in little sand whirls. ‘Give her a few pages back and you do the rest.’
Then she walked back to the front desk with renewed vigour in her small trim body. I scanned the job and selected the easiest pages for Vera to do. I wanted no further trouble. Already, Juan and Catherine had turned away from me.
When I walked over to explain the pages I had selected, Vera looked at me timidly. I tried not to stand too close to her, very aware that she had to look up and I was looking down.
The whole room was watching. Walking back I caught Skinney’s slow smile.
Firmly inserting my one earphone into my right ear, I immersed myself in my own part of the job. The BBC world service was broadcasting an interesting feature about post-war atrocities in some country far away. When Vera brought her completed pages over to me I checked them very carefully.
I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want any aspect of the image that Claire and Des had forced into my head to be true. I wanted Vera’s pages to be perfect, to disprove them all.
But Vera’s pages were absolutely awful.
Just like Des had said, full of mistakes, offences against the company guidelines and obvious proofing errors, as if the person who had done them hadn’t been able to devote much of their attention to the work. When I looked at Vera again, I couldn’t help thinking that this was probably true. How much of her attention could she devote to the job, when she was so terrified? I tried to amend her work unobtrusively. By now I was very fast, so I could conceal the extra time on my record.
The job seemed endless, but of course we finished it on time.
When it came to delivery, I made sure to operate the monster clips on my own.
I then thanked Vera loudly for her help with the job. She raised a tremulous smile.
‘Really?’ she said. ‘Was it ok?’
‘Yes’, I lied.
The passage above is an extract from ‘Graveyards of the Banks – Monsters Arising‘ by Nyla Nox. Nyla Nox worked for seven years on the graveyard shift in the graphics department of the Most Successful Bank in the Universe in London – a Global Center of Excellence. She has seen more dealbooks (and mistakes) than any banker will see in a life time.