The Centre was on the edge of the town, just outside the ring road. It had been built in a decade when there was a growth of such institutions, and the architecture reflected that time and the aspirations that were then in the air. The buildings were now in need of some repair, but were still basically sound. It was not too bad a place to work, physically speaking.
One Thursday someone on the second floor realised that they had not seen the Director that week. Usually they could count on seeing the head of the Centre each Monday and Wednesday, when there would be a short visit to each department to see and be seen by the various teams. Sometimes the tour of the building didn’t take place, like when there were important visitors that demanded the Director’s attention or when there was a senior managers’ meeting at headquarters or a visit to another centre, but it was very unusual for this to happen twice in one week, on both Monday and Wednesday. Someone in the corner office wondered if the Director was sick, but this seemed unlikely. Very few people at the Centre took time off because they were unwell. It wasn’t part of the culture.
One of the senior supervisors called a meeting and told the different teams not to worry and to get on with work as usual. If the Director hadn’t been round to see them that week, there was probably a very good reason. The teams got back to work as they were told, although they talked about the absence during their lunch break and when they were on the way home. Many ideas were put forward.
At the start of the next week the Director was still nowhere to be seen. Small groups gathered in the offices, workshops and laboratories and talked about developments, but no one knew the real reason for what was happening, and the supervisors said nothing except to encourage everyone to carry on as normal. By Wednesday afternoon everyone who worked at the Centre was worried. The standard of their work was worse each day, and they became fearful of the future. Just before the end of the working day the committee arrived and went directly to the Director’s office on the top floor. They were still there when all of the workers went home for the day.
The following day everyone arrived on time and got down to work immediately. During the morning each of the supervisors was called up to the top floor and stayed there for about fifteen minutes. When they returned each was carrying a single piece of paper and had a worried but determined look. They said nothing to their teams until all the supervisors had been seen. Then, immediately before lunch, all the teams were assembled and told what had been decided. They should carry on work as usual without the Director, but there would be new procedures. The committee left it in the hands of the supervisors to implement the changes.
From the next day work at the Centre was done in a different way than the way it had been before. Everyone soon learned the new procedures and everything went smoothly until one day about a month later when the Director walked in through the front door as if nothing had happened, went up to the top floor office and sat down behind the biggest desk. The supervisors had a meeting to decide what to do. Some people wanted to go back to the old system and some wanted to stay with the new one. The Director’s return might require either course of action, but no one was sure.
After they had talked for an hour or so, one of the supervisors said that a delegation should be formed. Three people were chosen and they set off to talk to the Director. When they got to the office with the big desk, the supervisors were not sure if they should still refer to the Director by that title. Two did and one didn’t which led to some confusion. When they had finished their talk the delegation left the top floor and went back to work. No one thought it was a good idea to contact the committee.
Later that day the Director jumped out of the top floor window and landed near the front gate of the Centre. One of the supervisors called the security guards, who summoned medical help. The Director was pronounced dead and his body was taken away in an ambulance. The police arrived and questioned the supervisors, the security team and the medical staff, but they did not talk to any of the other workers. That night everyone went home in a sombre mood.
Several members of the committee arrived early the next morning and gathered the whole workforce together in the canteen, which was the only room big enough to hold everyone. They explained that the Director had been under stress, which was why he had left work some weeks before. This also explained why he had returned to the Centre, and was probably the reason for the suicide leap. In view of the bad publicity, the committee said it had decided to close down the Centre, and all the workers would lose their jobs.
The procedures for closing down the Centre were straightforward. The employees were interviewed one by one and each was given a cheque that represented a number of days’ pay for each month they had been employed. The settlement was quite generous so there was not a lot of complaining. Within four days everyone had left the site, the doors were bolted shut and a ‘for sale’ sign was put up at the front gate. The site remained empty for many years and the buildings were eventually in such a bad state of repair that they were demolished and another building was erected where the Centre had once been. Everything was different.
A small group on the corner were speaking a language Ø did not recognise. It was a language he had never heard before, so he observed their behaviour closely. They were serious at first, and then, after furtive glances to make sure no one in the vicinity was listening, they began to smile and laugh. Ø could not determine if they were telling jokes or making fun of something or remembering a shared experience that had given them all some sort of pleasure. Whoever they were or whatever they were amused by, Ø didn’t think these people were concerned about his activities.
Nevertheless it was clear someone had been asking about him. He knew that much. Enquiries were being made. There were signs. There were some indications of what was happening but, quite frankly, there was not a lot to go on, so Ø kept his eyes and ears open trying to work things out. If someone were observing him, seeing and listening to everything he did, he wanted to be sure he knew what was going on.
Ø did not want to go straight home, so he went to his usual café for a hot drink. The woman who served him his coffee was polite but not friendly and the few customers who were standing at the counter ignored him. They did nothing – no gesture or glance – to indicate that they knew that Ø was there, let alone that they cared who he was or what he did. When his phone rang in his pocket, he turned it off without answering and waited until he was sitting down to look and see who had called. Ø did not recognise the number so he did not call it back.
Walking through the town he looked in many of the shop windows, examining the items displayed and also the reflected images of the people who were near him on the pavement. None of these people seemed familiar, and even his own reflected image was not as Ø remembered it. Once or twice a passer-by paused and looked in the same shop window. Ø waited, looking furtively at the other’s reflection, until he or she moved on down or across the street. Once he noticed that the other person who was looking into the window was someone he had noticed doing the same moments earlier.
Ø got on the bus and paid the fare in the customary way. Everyone else paid like that except for one person who didn’t pay the fare at all. The driver refused to move until that person got off the bus and when the bus started off again they could see that person – whoever it was – beginning to walk home, or wherever.
There were big mirrors on the bus so it was possible to get a good look at most of the other people if you were in the right place. Not many people looked at the mirrors or at the cameras that were placed at various places in the bus. People hardly talked to each other, although some had phone conversations in various languages. Most of the others looked at electronic devices and moved their fingers backwards and forwards across the screens. A few people looked out of the bus windows.
It was quite a long walk from the bus stop to Ø’s front door. It began to rain so he put up his umbrella and kept his head down. People could not get a clear look at his face in these conditions, because he pulled the peak of his hat down over his eyes. When he got to his front door, Ø looked back and saw some people sitting in parked cars chatting and looking out into the rainy street. When he got inside, Ø picked some envelopes off the floor and put them on the kitchen table. All of them had his address on them, except for one that said ‘to the occupant’. There was one official-looking one, two bills, and one with a hand-written address. None of them seemed to have been opened.
After hanging up his coat on the hook in the hallway, he turned on his computer and the radio and the kettle. He made a cup of tea, drank it and ate a chocolate biscuit. He added some items to the shopping list he kept on the kitchen surface near the kettle. Ø heard someone knocking on his neighbour’s door: he listened as the door open. He could just make out a short exchange of conversation. Then the door closed again. No one knocked at his door.
Shortly afterwards the lights went out. Ø stumbled around his living room by the dim light of the computer screen, and when he sat down in front of the computer he could see that he no longer had a connection to the Internet. He scrolled through his collection of photographs showing various events of his life. He deleted some of the pictures he didn’t like. After a couple of hours Ø saw that the battery power was getting quite low so he turned off the computer to make sure it would still work if he needed it before the mains power went on again.
Ø went to bed and lay awake. Cars drove down the street outside and there was an occasional sound of footsteps. Some of the cars went by very fast and some of the footsteps went by at a slow pace, but none of them altered their speed when they went by. In the middle of the night Ø heard a car park outside his house but he didn’t hear the doors open or close. After some time, before the lights came on again, Ø closed his eyes and slept soundly. When he woke up the electricity supply had been restored so he could boil water for his morning tea. He thought about how someone had been asking about him, and how it now seemed to have stopped.