Return to Work

Jon Kemsley

Your boss is lying face down on the carpet. Your knee is between his shoulder blades and the cable is around his neck. His fingers are still around the cable but he is no longer struggling. You get up off the floor and smooth your skirt down. The desk is wide and white and cluttered with objects of a personal nature. You crumple the paperwork with your name on it into a ball and pitch it into a basket in the corner. “It’s good to have you back, Maria,” you say. “I’m sure everyone will be thrilled to see you.”


But the party is over and now there’s little more than a skeleton crew to keep the servers running. A dozen empty floors of prime corporate real estate to lose yourself in. A monument of steel and concrete rising imperiously into a blue and cloudless sky.


You take the stairs up three floors to the restaurant. You choose a salad and carry it past the girl on the till who is cleaning her nails with a paperclip. You pause for a moment at the cutlery tray and then return to the till. “This food is cold. I’d like to speak to the manager.” The girl looks up. “He’s out the back.” She points to a door in the far wall and then goes back to cleaning her nails. You enter without knocking. “The cutlery has not been properly washed. It still has food attached.” You take a fork out of your handbag. “Look at this. It’s disgusting.” The fork is sharper than you were expecting and reaches bone. The manager pulls it out of his neck and drops to his knees. There is a lot of blood.


You try to remember but there was never a single moment. Alone on the late shift. Watching the trains pull out of the station beneath your window seat on the seventh floor. Watching the tail lights chase each other across the flyover and thinking, this is as good as it’s ever going to get.


You wander out into the lobby. A workman in overalls and heavy boots is standing at the edge of an open lift shaft pulling wires out of the wall. You walk over to a trolley laden with stationery and pick up one or two items, turning them over and replacing them carefully. A shove with both hands sends the trolley across the floor and into the workman who disappears into the shaft with a cry. The trolley comes to rest with its front wheels spinning at the overhang. There is a dull thud much further down and then silence. One of the other lifts becomes available. “Tenth floor,” says a female voice. “Going down.”


But you don’t want to talk about it. The little chats with occupational health, the sessions in one of the upstairs rooms at a local clinic, the prescriptions you have to pay for yourself. Paragons of virtue dispensing miracles of the modern world. And all of them pushing the wrong buttons.


You leave the lift at the ground floor. The security guard is slumped in a chair with his eyelids twitching and all the screens going crazy on the vertical hold. A wax cup lies discarded at his feet and there are bubbles of saliva around his mouth and a thick clot of mucus at each nostril. He won’t be drinking any more of the coffee. You slip through the gates leaving your pass at the front desk and a reddish smudge on the register. The girl in the plate glass smiles her approval as you leave. She knows that, wherever it is you’re going, they’ll be sure to treat you better.




Jon Kemsley has been published in the Fiction Pool, New World Writing, New Reader Magazine, Ellipsis, Storgy and others. He lives and works on the south coast of England, listens to old jazz records and occasionally remembers to call his brother about whatever it was he promised to do the last time.