Julie started work on a Tuesday. I noticed her being led by supervisor Grisholm to her desk and instructed in the arcane rites of data entry ; inducted at great length (in the way that only the most gifted in needlessly complicating simple tasks are able) into the elite group of keyboard-prodders that crowded the north wall of the office.
Julie’s diabolical cunning was evident from the beginning. She eschewed the awkward humility befitting a fresh employee and instead conducted herself with a sickeningly admirable confidence. She engaged her fellow workers in charming conversation. She offered (offered!!) to get the coffee. With a smile, she bade a cheery farewell to each and all when that first day was finished. Her first day! It had taken me a month just to meet Justine from Accounts’ glazed gaze!
It was a week later that Julie revealed her true genius : at 11.10 am, just after the trolley-man had been round. Archie Legg, a depressingly ferret-like man with a face like a pet-burying child, held his customary mid-morning scone in his bony pincers and … he sneezed. Three short inhalations preceded the mucal expulsion. Within a heartbeat Julie had pounced.
“Bless you !” she said. The two words descending notes like a sarcastic door-bell.
“Thank you !” was Archie’s obligatory response, in the same hum-drum sing-song two-tone.
Through the crook of Julie’s arrogant-arm hand-hip I caught a glimpse of Tracy’s face, mouth agape ; horrified.
Tracey had been the ‘Bless You’ girl of the office for the five years that I had worked there. For three of those years I had struggled to finally reach an unspoken agreement with her so that I did not have to say “Thank you” to any eruption-based benedictions. There was a moment of obscene clarity as I caught Tracey’s eye and we both knew : she had been usurped.
Selfishly I thought of myself and of all my hard work undone in an instant. For the next few days I managed to work sneeze free, but I knew that the ancient dust-filled air-con was slowly counting down ; ticking off the tocks on my achoo-clock. Meanwhile Julie cemented her position. Tracey gave a brave showing, and once even managed a ‘bless..’ before being cut off like a fingertip in a ham-slicer ; overpowered by Julie’s monstrous authority.
I took to sneezing into the stationary cupboard. I would race from meetings to spatter sneeze-milk over incoming postmen. I upended tables to cover my shameful pneumatic evictions. I had resolved to go to any lengths … suffer Promethean gizzard-ripping, to avoid saying ‘Thank you’ in that moronic melody.
A month in and Julie’s demonic brilliance had already secured her the position of ‘Team Leader’. Admittedly it was a post that presented no real pecuniary benefits being somewhat similar to the title of ‘Chief Slave’, and yet it was still a remarkable achievement, and doubtless only the first step of her ascent towards ultimate unholy power.
And so came the day, mid-morning again, as the trolley-man arrived whoring his sundries, that the final tick was ticked, the last tock crossed off … and I sneezed.
Silence. No blessings, no stasis punctured. Had I made it? Was I through to freedom?
Almost immediately Fat Kev let out an enormous sinal evacuation.
“Bless you !” said Julie.
“Thank you !” said Kev.
Er, hello? Why not me? What was wrong with me? I’m not good enough for a bless-you? What is this? Some private little sneeze-clique?…and then I saw it : a conspiratorial look, a wordless interchange, an eye-to-eye-shake between Julie and Tracey…they’d cut a deal!! From then on they had 70/30 ‘bless-you’ rights, and me?…I’d been frozen out!
As I left the office that day a seagull mouthed inanities overhead before perching menacingly above my car. As I bweeped the alarm and connected key to lock the gull shrieked pterodactyline, bitter little tongue wriggling mockingly between beak.
And in that moronic melody, that sarcastic two note bell-chime that distressed me so, I said it :