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Angry?

Of course, I am. Angry and worried sick.

When the news gets out - and it will, believe me, it will - Jerry Buslim will be viewed as a hero by thousands of people. People hearing the story for the first time will laugh and say, 'Well, they had it coming. We could use more Jerry Buslims in business.' And if I was as detached as these men and women, sitting down with a glass of wine after dinner, watching the evening news, I'd chuckle as well and probably raise my glass in a toast to Jerry Buslim.

You notice how I'm using his name over and over? Each time I do, it causes a jab of pain, but it's pain I'm determined to endure. If I just stay focused and write as much as I can remember - let it all come tumbling out - then perhaps I'll find some nugget gleaming away in the dross. Some essential truth I can then use as the basis of a carefully worded, professionally presented memo to management.

Perhaps if I do a really good job, they'll appreciate my sterling effort. Mark me down as a team player.

Yeah, right.

What will really happen is that they'll see my name and the name of Jerry Buslim coupled together on the same piece of paper? I mean it's damaging enough that I worked here at the same time as Buslim. I probably already carry the dreaded tattoo across my forehead:'Yesterday's Man'. If you think about it, you give up hope, but I'll hang on for as long as I can. Aged in my forties, married with two school-age children, carrying a hefty mortgage, I haven't any choice.

I envy and hate Jerry. I'd do anything to be in his position, but what he's doing is just hastening the day when I'm out on the street - another unfashionable, embittered and unemployable middle manager.

It's so unfair. I mean Jerry was born in the nineteen fifties when America liked Ike and here in Australia, 'Pig Iron Bob' Menzies was our patrician Prime Minister. Jerry and I aren't contemporaries, although most people here bracket us together in these antediluvian terms. Come to think of it, scrub that slighting reference to Menzies. He was still around when I was born and didn't retire - sailing off beyond the horizon like some untroubled galleon - until 1966. Can you imagine anyone, much less a Prime Minister staying in a top job for 17 years today? In 21st.Century business, you have three years to make your mark, five years tops.

I was called to the top floor today.

I've met Ivan Samson three times since working here. He's second in charge and normally exudes the effortless confidence of a rich and unassailably powerful leader.

What decisions of earth-shuddering magnitude Samson reaches with his fellow directors is beyond my imagination. Because the company deals in many millions of dollars, such ruminations are highly secretive and doubtless, profoundly significant.

The boardroom is in our Collins Street headquarters, with a view to the five-star 'Hyatt' and 'Sofitel' hotels opposite. Crane your neck and you can glimpse the grey stone Victorian parliamentary building in Spring Street, at the edge of the Treasury Gardens.

Theoretically, a man standing in Collins Street, pointing a parabolic microphone at our boardroom windows could listen in to management's confidential discussions. Given that decisions in the processed food industry involve vast sums (our brand names grace the shelves in every supermarket in the country) the idea of an industrial spy is not far-fetched. Accordingly, electronic tremblers have been installed on the executive level windows to ensure conversations can't be tapped.

The irony is that belatedly management now realizes that the greatest threat is not from outsiders, but rather some unremarked employee.

Once, ascending to the top floor was virtually impossible for people such as myself. The normal access stairs end before the executive level. A separate set of fire escape stairs, accessible only from the executive level, means that my masters could descend to street level with ease. There'll be no unseemly pushing and shoving through crowds of shrieking typists or frantic filing clerks in a fire or bomb emergency. A dedicated lift with swipe card access, key coded doors and batteries of secretaries mean our leading executives are safely quarantined against contact with the lower orders.

If I required some demonstration of how badly things had gone over the last three weeks, I couldn't have cited a better example than the way I was whisked through to see Ivan Samson.

This was a man I hadn't seen before. He was distractedly pacing his office. Someone once told me that when he met Samson, he was impressed that there wasn't a scrap of paper on the burled walnut surface of the man's desk. Today, there was a sea of paper - computer printouts, ledgers, memos, and files. The paper flowed onto the floor in confusion.

Seeing me, Samson started, then rushed across the room.

He didn't offer to shake my hand, which was a relief.

'Jerry Buslim,' he began. Clearly, this was to be a short interview. Neither of us sat. So wild and desperate was the look in his eyes, I felt that if I said the wrong thing, Samson, a powerful man topping six foot four, might spring forward and grasp me by the throat.

'Sir?'

'Jerry Buslim', he repeated, this time spitting out the words as though they hurt his teeth. 'You must know something about this man. Something that can help.'

I wasn't close to him,' I weakly protested, fearing the accusatory tone. 'We weren't in the same department.'

'No,' Samson conceded. He rallied,'But you were on the same floor and - don't deny it,' he said, waving a finger under my nose. 'You must have had many dealings with him.'

'I would have spoken to him on average once a day,' I grudgingly admitted.

'Exactly!' Samson boomed triumphantly as though he was a prosecutor who has just extracted a damaging confession on the stand. 'Close to him. Frequent contact and you've been here as long as he was.'

I could have corrected my superior. I've been working for United Foods for a decade, while Jerry went back at least a decade before that, but why argue the point? The fact was that Jerry and I were both classed as dinosaurs, except Jerry far from being a gentle, bumbling, soon to be extinct large life form was now swooping through the company like a flesh-tearing Raptors from Jurassic Park. I waited uneasily for Samson to continue.

Disconcertingly, he veered from bullying to pleading.

'You see,' he confided, None of us here - and I freely include myself in this criticism - know anything about this Buslim person. His employment history is less than a page long. He's been in much the same job as when he started. We have a heap of staff assessments. All useless. He was said to be pleasant, competent, but where's the essence of the man? We had his home address, but he left there shortly after he ceased employment. It seemed he had a wife, but she disappeared with him. He has no children and no relatives of which we're aware. The man is a mystery. I don't mind telling you I've given Personnel a bollocking over this sorry affair. We don't even have a mobile phone number to contact him. How can I deal with someone who can't be reached?'

'He was always a very private person,' I ventured.

'Yes,' Samson agreed impatiently, 'But noone works anywhere without confiding something to his colleagues.'

'Not to me.'

'Something,' Samson persisted. His mask of charm was wearing thin. 'I mean the man must have felt something - said something. I don't care what he said - if it was about me or someone else. I must get inside his mind. I must understand what makes him tick if I going to stop all the damage. The man wasn't a robot. Presumably, he's made of flesh and blood. Sometimes, he must have felt happy. Other times, he must been angry. There must have been things here that he didn't like. Well, clearly there was or he wouldn't be hurting us now. We all see things we don't like. I see things everyday that I want to change, but you also need to see the big picture.

'You must help me understand this man.'

I was confused. Try as I might, I couldn't imagine anything that would shed light on Jerry Buslim.

Mercifully, the strain of us both standing watching each other was broken. Samson's confidential secretary coughed discreetly and announced that his 2p.m appointment was there to see him.

Samson cursed. 'Oh, that time already. Where shall I see him? He can't come in here.' He looked desperately at the scattered files, then recovered. 'Take him through to the Boardroom, Yvonne. I'll be there shortly.'

He turned to me, regaining something of his decisive self. 'Look, I don't have time to discuss this. What I want you to do is put aside anything you're working on. Nothing is more important than this. I want you to write a memo, telling me everything you remember about Jerry Buslim. And I mean everything - every conversation, his reaction in different situations, anyone you saw him with other than work colleagues, any social situations you shared. Put it all down and bring it back to me today as soon as you've finished. Don't worry what time you finish. It doesn't matter how late. Just ring Yvonne to tell her you're coming and I'll see you immediately. Noone will be getting home from here tonight.'

I nodded resignedly and began to leave. As I reached the door, Samson roared after me, 'Everything, mind you! Don't forget it's your job on the line as much as mine.'

So here I am in a quiet office, seated in front of a computer screen. I've pasted in a memo template, given it a title and that's where I've propped, with an otherwise blank terminal screen mocking me.

So what am I supposed to say? You can't make bricks without straw, but I don't have water, clay or any other ingredient to help me build even a miserable little edifice.

Is a man's life written on his face? The trouble is that Jerry was physically unremarkable, being short, plump and bald. As for his personality, someone once quipped that when Jerry Buslim walked in a room, it remained empty. Cruel, witty but unoriginal - it was once said of a handsome but vacuous Hollywood actor. And that's the trouble - even the quips about Jerry are hand-me-downs. It's as though his life wasn't really worth the effort of satire. Well, that's how we thought then and how wrong we were!

It wasn't that Jerry plainly stood outside the team. He never sat by himself in the canteen. I often remember him coming to share a table with myself and others. Sometimes we would talk but the only personal conversations were about me - he was a good listener. I should have returned the compliment, but I wasn't interested. If there was a complaint about something or someone, we didn't ask his opinion. I guess we all assumed he thought exactly as we did. Jerry was as much a part of the office as a filing cabinet or computer terminal and when was the last time you asked your filing cabinet for its opinion?

Yes Mr.Ivan Samson, I did see Jerry once or twice a day for years, but so what? He was an assistant purchasing officer. We'd meet, I'd talk, and he'd listen, perhaps make a note, promise action and deliver. Perhaps I might have wondered why he seemed content in his job, remaining calm, courteous and efficient. Perhaps I should have wondered why he seemed content, remaining in his lowly position, but I didn't. Many men simply aren't eager to scale the heights.

And so we went on, pleasantly enough, year after year until a month ago when Jerry Buslim was sacked.

Now Ivan Samson would know why that decision was made. I'm sure that a month ago Buslim was neither better nor worse than he had ever been for the last 20 years. He couldn't even be accused of being unable to adapt to the new technology. He was always comfortable with computers. I recall he once helped me when my computer froze. Jerry accessed the code language via DOS and made several changes. It vaguely impressed me at the time, but I didn't give it much thought.

I suppose Jerry was sacked because someone on the feeding chain thought they could impress their superior by showing how the purchasing office could be run more efficiently with fewer staff. It doesn't matter if the smaller number of staff is burnt out with longer hours, more responsibilities and the same pay. By the time their bread floats back on the waters, the man or woman making that decision would be either so far up the ladder that they couldn't be reached or swept away in one of the regular waves of staff retrenchments.

Men and women in the fifties and though I hate to say it, increasingly in their forties, are increasingly seen as the Old Guard. There's little logic, sense or justice in the way business thinks today.

I must make sure I leave no trace of these ramblings on the computer. Hopefully, they're not watching what I typing using surveillance software. Can you imagine how long I'd last if these candid jottings fell into the wrong hands?

I don't know how Jerry Buslim got wind of the news he was to be sacked. I suspect he had feelers out into confidential files all over the company and probably had done so for years. You don't set up the level of damage he has caused in a few weeks.

Why did he do it? I think it was simply that he enjoyed proving to himself he was much smarter than anyone imagined. I don't believe he ever sold a single secret to our competitors, though it would have made him an instantly wealthy man.

And so, Jerry was given notice. I don't imagine there were angry scenes when the Personnel Director bumbled his way through a half apology. Jerry left the following Friday. Do you remember Mr.Samson? You were too busy to come down for a farewell drink. Actually, noone came the executive floor and it was Jerry, myself and three others there at the end. Not too much to show for twenty year's service.

Whenever someone leaves a job, it's a little death. There's something forlorn about the empty space where they once sat. Gradually however the curious light that humans cast - more sensed than seen - gradually dims. Any residual loyalty we feel toward the departed swiftly dims. In about a week's time, Jerry's computer had been appropriated, while his desk and chair went somewhere else. Finally, his filing cabinet was pushed against the other cabinets of the Senior Purchasing Officer. Eight days after he left, Jerry Buslim might never have existed.

Except that's not how Jerry saw it.

Whenever someone leaves a job, the survivors usually think of that person as shambling off into some dreary half world of daytime television, backyard vegetable gardens and the heart thumping excitement of a game at the lawn bowls club. It offends us deeply to realize they have moved on to a triumphant life beyond the office walls.

A week after his departure, Jerry reentered our lives in a dramatic way.

It was exactly 3p.m. I know that because I was surreptitiously checking my watch at the time, wondering why the afternoon was so long, when I heard some exclaim, 'My computer's down!' Others called out that there's were as well.

I looked at my terminal. A moment before, it had displayed a dreary report analyzing sales of our new dried cat food product in the metropolitan Perth test market area. The memo had disappeared and in its place, the screen showed a bright, blank blue. Around me, people were cursing, fearing that their work had been wiped before they had saved it. Some turned off their machines for a cold start, others tried hot starts, while others frantically jabbed at their keyboards. Nothing made a difference.

Seconds later and a cloud floated by, followed by others. The view dropped down and we stared at a distant horizon of the sea. Then the view drew away, taking in waves spilling across a coral atoll. Then a beach appeared - a long stretch of silver sand with darkly silhouetted palms swaying beyond the dunes. It could have been a tropic beach anywhere on earth.

A moment later, Jerry Buslim strolled into view.

This was a different Jerry than we recalled. Beachcomber Buslim wore a wide straw hat shading his face. A printed cloth of large, white hibiscus flowers on a scarlet background was wound tightly around his waist. He was deeply tanned and had lost weight. He was the picture of health, indolence and relaxation.

Over the computer speakers, I became aware of the hiss of the sea and the steady thud of waves breaking on the reef. Then Jerry began to speak.

'Welcome to Paradise,' he smirked. 'I won't wish you were here. In fact, I wish a number of you, especially in senior management, in a different place altogether.

'I'm not bitter. Well, perhaps I'm just a little bitter about my shabby treatment. Enough to extract some revenge.

'I figure it's mid afternoon in Melbourne. I can't be sure, because I left my watch back in the beach shack. Time isn't important anymore.

'Money isn't a priority either. It helped that I made a pile of cash out of my hobby - share trading - my superannuation payout after twenty years was miserable. You probably thought I would take up a grey cardigan sort of retirement. Thin wool and patched elbows. Sorry to disappoint you. The day after I left United, Kay and I flew out first class to our island destination and our new life.

'Tonight, we're going to a small, family-run restaurant down the beach. We'll stroll there as the sun sets and late at night, we'll walk back in the moonlight. There's no crime on this island. Noone locks their homes, because there are no thieves.

'We'll dine on fresh lobster that the restaurant owner took from his pots this afternoon. We'll wash down our delicious meal with a bottle of crisp white wine. After our meal, the owner and his wife will join our table. We'll drink brandy and probably talk about the good old days in this part of the world, when flying boats used to land so close that tourists could wade ashore.

'Tonight, I'll go to sleep listening to the tide retreating and the soft rattle of the palm fronds as they pick up the Doctor's Wind. Tomorrow morning, I'll wake when it suits me. I'll probably go for a long swim as dawn breaks, which will give me a ravenous appetite for my breakfast of fresh tropical fruit.

Why am I telling you this? So you'll realize there's far happier, more fulfilling lives beyond the world of work. That knowledge is my gift to you.

' But I also feel the need to inflict some pain. It won't hurt too much and it won't last forever - this simple life is calming me down. It will be inconvenient for all of you, but painful for a select few.

'When I log out, you'll find I've deleted some key files and corrupted others. Your back-up files won't help, because I've embedded software bugs that will create a fresh batch of problems. You'll doubtless call in software experts to help cleanse these files but be warned, bear traps wait for whenever they try to alter my programs. You'd be better waiting for the problems to resolve themselves at my pace, rather than yours. I doubt however that you'll heed this advice.

'Over the next few weeks, your computers will complete all sorts of unwanted tasks. Dismissal notices will be sent to key executives. Major clients will receive incorrect orders. Damaging material will be e-mailed to the Australian Tax Office and the Australian Stock Exchange. The company's reputation and its credit rating will take hits. The share price will fall. The contracts of certain executives will be abruptly terminated.

'There's little you can, except endure this Season in Hell.

'That's all I wish to say. I'm going swimming. Later, perhaps a spot of fishing. I'll think of you in the quiet evening: thousands of kilometers away, scurrying about like ants when a stick is pushed into their nest.

'You won't hear from me again,' he concluded. 'But,' he said, giving a broad wink at the camera 'I guarantee for as long as you live, none of you will ever forget the return of Jerry Buslim.'





------
Stephen Collicoat


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