• Time to read 6 minutes

His face was trapped in the ceiling tiles above my computer. I stared at the roof, feeling the bile rise up in my throat. I hadn’t noticed it at first. The line on the bottom could have been anyone’s smile, and the two black dots among the white plaster could have been anyone’s eyes. But after he had leaned over my desk the first time, shouting at me, I stared at the ceiling tile straight afterwards and ever since pictured the outline of his face every time I looked at it.

My eyes returned to the spot whenever I was working on a difficult piece of coding, or whenever my excel sheet was full of too many inaccuracies. When I focused my attention on the image of my boss plastered into the roof, my brain would be shocked into returning back to my work.

My boss’s outburst had come on my second day of work in the company’s IT department.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ Harriet had said, ‘There isn’t a soul in this building he hasn’t been angry at. I’ve even seen him get mad at the cleaner.’

She spoke to me in a low voice as we waited for the elevator during our lunch break. The doors opened to reveal Gregory Martin, our boss, who brushed past us with his glasses on the edge of his nose.

I was just out of university after backpacking around Europe for a few months. I had tentatively started applying for jobs in IT after I finally accepted that I couldn’t mentally do any more study and couldn’t physically do any more travel. After playing video games in the living room of my parents’ house for far too long, I took the first job that came my way, breathing a sigh of relief that my future had finally been cemented. But after my first day on the job, my armpits dripped with sweat. I collapsed on my bed, my limbs feeling like steel as I went through the day in my mind over and over again.

She spoke to me in a low voice as we waited for the elevator during our lunch break

I attached myself to Harriet after that first interaction with her. Our conversations, however, were brief, even though there were only two metres between us. Her desk was to my right, but we were both on the edge of a row. The set-up of the room made it appear like we were at a wedding and she was here for the bride and I was here for the groom. The office, with its grey walls, carpet and desks, was quiet except for the dull rumbling of the water cooler. Whenever my colleagues spoke in low, hushed whispers, I could hear every word they breathed.

Mr Martin had an office behind our church pews. One of the only girls working in the IT department, Harriet copped more from Mr Martin than us guys. On my fourth day of work, he marched down the row between Harriet and me, a coffee in his hand. He took a sip and halted right in front of her, his strong build making him appear like a brick wall. Mr Martin’s wide-jawed, stony face contorted, his moustached mouth turning upwards.

Placing the disposable cup on Harriet’s desk, he said, ‘The idiot intern got my order wrong. Could you run out and get me a large black coffee, Love?’

Harriet’s laser eyes could have split him in half.

By my fifth day at the new job, I noticed how everyone in the room changed when he entered it. They stopped slouching in their seats and kept their focus on their screens, avoiding eye contact with Mr Martin. I started doing the same, hoping that the outline of his face in the roof wouldn’t turn into reality.

After the second time, Mr Martin yelled at me, I went to sleep that night and lay awake as though my mind had been replaced with someone else’s. It was spinning like a fan inside an overheated computer, and the image of my boss standing over me was now outlined on the insides of my eyelids.

I walked into work the next morning with purple bags underneath my eyes and a second cup of coffee in my hand. My head was light, and I felt a little faint. I stared at the black pool of liquid in my mug, willing the caffeine to reach my brain.

Harriet said, ‘Big night last night?’

I smiled and shrugged, saying nothing. I was excited to get into bed later that day, thinking that I would fall asleep straight away, but I closed my eyes and there he was again. I thought of my girlfriend cheating on me, and the fight I had with my mother, but my irrational brain knew nothing as bad as the feeling of my boss shouting down at me. For the entirety of the night, it kept returning to that image.

I was on airplane mode for the rest of the week. If work was the next day, the stones in my chest would press into my lungs, and my mind wouldn’t calm down. At least the weekend would be a short respite.

By the third week of working at the job, I could barely keep my eyes open. I’d always had anxiety, but it had never felt so overwhelming. I messed up countless orders working in fast food but never lost a night’s sleep because of it. Walking in and out of work made my skin turn hot and my throat tighten. I had to lose the jacket as soon as Mr Martin walked through the office. Who knew that getting out of university to work as an entry-level IT technician would be so stressful?

In my jet-lagged state, I sat at my desk, my eyes drying like a sponge in the bright light of my computer screen. By the end of each day, I was completely entranced by the blaring emissions from the screen.

Harriet was the only person who broke through the fog.

On Monday, Mr Martin lectured the team for over twenty minutes about work ethic, and then on Wednesday he pulled me aside to remind me that fixing lines of code should take one hour and not four. I spent all of Thursday timing how long it took me to do each task; my head pounding whenever my boss walked past my computer. By Friday, Harriet seemed to notice my deflated appearance.

Harriet was the only person who broke through the fog.

She eyed me after I set down my coffee. Mr Martin wasn’t in yet.

‘Do you always look so rough?’

I turned my sunken eyes towards her. ‘Lately, yes.’

‘Do you have insomnia?’ she asked.

I shook my head, which made my clouded brain turn into a storm. ‘I don’t think so. I get a few hours’ sleep every night.’

‘It’s better to get eight,’ she said, ‘for your health.’

I blinked. ‘I try.’

Harriet’s eyebrows furrowed, and she tilted her head sideways like I was a lost animal.

‘You wanna know what I do?’ She leaned over the aisle between us, ‘I make a routine. Drink some wine, pop some pills. It’s the job, you know? Makes you insane.’

Mr Martin walked in. My heart stuttered. Harriet and I turned our eyes to our screens, listening to the thirty computer mouses clicking and Mr Martin’s shoes stomping down the aisle between us. That day, he didn’t say anything and walked straight into his office.

Throughout the rest of the eight-hour shift, I thought about what Harriet had told me. Perhaps what I needed was a routine, though mine wouldn’t involve wine and sleeping pills. Before bed I usually played video games, and my addiction was too ripe to be able to quit now. So I read a few articles online. They all suggested getting rid of technology thirty minutes before sleep and insisted on reading or meditating. The latter was definitely off the table – my jittery limbs wouldn’t be able to keep still for longer than ten seconds.

My eyes caught Harriet’s when we watched Mr Martin leave fifteen minutes early that afternoon. Chatter immediately built after he left, and as a room, we collectively decided that this meant we could go early too. As soon as Harriet and I entered the elevator, she started taking clips from her hair, collecting them in her hand like metallic insects. She tousled the loose strands, looking into the reflective surface of the elevator’s interior.

‘Try not to party too hard this weekend, OK?’

I cleared my throat. ‘There won’t be any partying.’

‘Is that so?’ The elevator dinged, and she went through the doors.

On Sunday night, I read before bed, just like the article said I should. As my eyes skimmed the words, I found myself thinking about Harriet rather than Mr Martin. After I put my book on my bedside table, and finally closed my eyes, it was Harriet’s face that was engrained on the insides of my eyelids. The light from her face cut through the darkness.

I fell asleep within ten minutes.

I woke on Monday morning to the sound of my alarm. When I arrived at work, the room was buzzing with noise. Harriet appeared as soon as I walked to my desk.

‘That old bastard is gone! He’s supposedly moving to a different branch – but I really think he was fired. Isn’t that just great?’

I nodded, the sweat on my palms already starting to dry.

Mr Martin had been fired the week prior, and already someone from a different department in the building had been promoted. Within the hour we met our new boss, Tom Geller. He addressed the group with a warm smile and a quick introduction. On the way to his office, he dropped a stack of papers and chuckled. I picked up a few of his papers and handed them to him.

‘Thanks, I might need those.’ Tom laughed. ‘Who knows? Your old boss was awful at organising – but I probably shouldn’t say that.’

When Tom shut the door to his office, the room started sparkling with conversation. Harriet swivelled her chair over to me, her eyes bright.

‘Apparently, Tom is new to managing a department. But his co-workers loved him. I met one of them in the elevator this morning.’

‘He sounds promising.’

Harriet touched my arm. ‘You look less tired today.’

‘The pills worked,’ I joked.

Smiling, Harriet swivelled back over to her computer. The chatter began to die. My shoulders tensed as I remembered that our new boss could see everything through his office window.

After fifteen minutes, Tom’s footsteps pattered down the room’s walkway.

He stopped in the centre of the room and looked around at us. ‘Why are all you so silent?’

He smiled, and as I turned back to my computer screen, my shoulders relaxed.

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About the author:

Charlotte Gurtler

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Charlotte Gurtler is currently studying a masters degree in Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing at the University of Melbourne. She has previously been published in Melbourne Noir.

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