One of the things I hate about work is you don’t get to choose who else you work with. It’s a mixed bag of random arseholes that you’re stuck with day after day. Just like boarding a train: you might hook up with some hottie with a long ponytail and curves like the back end of a classic Corvette, or you might get greeted by a bunch of sheltered workshop commuters in football beanies all wanting to say hello.
And I work for the government, which is pretty much a sheltered workshop, with our quota employees, the ones with personal liaison workers and too much fucking “equity”, only we dress slightly better.
Tuesday morning, and I get an eyeful of one of them, James. He’s walking in his usual hunched way, not looking at anything but the floor, noise-reducing ear muffs C-clamped to his head, and he’s heading in my direction. Of course it’s in my direction. There are about seven other people in my corner of the office on any particular day, but James doesn’t talk to any of them. He took a shine to me on his first day and I’ve suffered ever since.
I take a quick glance around. Can I sneak out behind Michelle’s desk? I could go around the back of Meeting Room Two and hide out in the disabled toilet for ten minutes; that’s about how long it usually takes for James to give up waiting for me. I look out over the top of my cubicle to check the last minute estimations of my escape but it’s too late. James has looked up and we’ve made eye contact. I exhale a lungful of frustration and go back to typing my email.
James shuffles up to my desk, pulls his ear muffs down to his neck and thrusts his phone at me. “Ian! Ian, look, Schrödinger caught a mouse,” he says, and starts thumbing through photos of a very ordinary cat with a very dead mouse.
“He’s a good hunter”, I say, through polite force of habit. I don’t want to encourage him, and I don’t like cats.
“She. She’s a good hunter,” he says and pushes the phone further under my reluctant eyes.
I try pushing the phone back, saying, “I have to get this email written,” but he’s not having it. Cues are not his strong point.
“You haven’t looked at them all yet,” he says.
“Yeh, well I’m a bit busy, James,” I say, but I know the futility so I take the phone and flick through the photos, hoping to get quickly to the “all” and get rid of him. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of ‘all’. There are photos of the cat on his kitchen floor with a chewed on mouse, photos of the cat in the doorway with an upside down mouse, and photos of the cat in bed with half a mouse. Christ, how many are there?
James has started to hum Let It Go, from Frozen when I scan one photo too many and now I’m seeing photos of James and another man, both holding guns. James is grinning, holding the gun up beside his face like he’s posing for a James Bond publicity shot, but the other guy’s got the I-kill-puppies-for-fun look of a real criminal. There are two home tattooed tears under one eye, and in one photo he’s pointing his gun right at James’ head. I flinch and pull back from the picture.
“James?” I look up at him. He’s got a sort of twisted excited expression on his face, and I realise he wanted me to find these photos. “Who is this guy?”
“He’s Liam’s cousin,” he says in his infuriating way, naming people you’ve never met and never will.
“And who’s Liam?”
“He works at my bottle shop.”
“And how do you know him?” I force myself to be patient. It’s like cutting a lawn with nail scissors when you actually want information from James.
James sucks on his front teeth for a moment and then says, “I buy beer from him.’
Who knew James did something so normal as drink? “Well, okay. But how do you go from buying beer to mucking around with guns?”
“He’s going to teach me to shoot. He thinks I’ll be good at it.” He’s hopping from foot to foot as he speaks, way too excited about the prospect of firing real bullets from a real gun.
“James, what are you going to shoot once you learn how? You wouldn’t want to shoot animals. You love animals.”
“We’re not going to shoot animals.” He’s becoming a bit agitated and is pulling the zip of his Captain America hoodie up and down. He appears to have had enough of our conversation and mutters, “Can I have my phone back?”
I hold the phone further away and probe again. “Well, what are you going to shoot?”
“I don’t know, but not animals.”
“James, this is a really bad idea.”
“I’m not stupid, you know. I’m paid the same grade as you.”
That’s a key sore point. James may have a statistics degree, but he can do what he likes, which mostly isn’t much. Whenever I go to the tea station, he’ll be just standing there, talking and annoying someone, but no-one can touch him in terms of managing poor performance.
I hand him back his phone. “You need to be careful, James.”
He looks pretty miffed and pushes the phone deep into his pocket and pulls his hoodie up over his head. “I’m not stupid,” he says again and then he flicks a paper clip off my desk onto the carpet and leaves.
So James isn’t talking to me, not for two weeks now, which ordinarily I’d be rapt about. It’s pretty much a miracle. Normally I can’t stop him talking. Last month I actually told him he was boring and that only stopped him for about ten seconds. He’ll talk to the back of my head if I don’t turn around from my keyboard, and at least half the time I don’t, but it doesn’t deter him. Not now though. He’s completely deterred. Which is a relief, but also a bother, because it means I can only put my hand in the lolly jar he keeps on his desk when he’s not around, and three o’clock is a lot less bearable without half a dozen chocolate freckles to get me through.
And of course, I’m deathly curious. Has he had his gun lesson? Maybe he’s had more than one? What has he been shooting? I half want to laugh him off. What’s he been shooting, or more likely, missing? Rusty cans? Old car tyres? I’m also drawn to the thrilling idea of him being stupidly dangerous, killing seagulls on the back nine of the Sanctuary Lakes’ golf course, or shooting stray cats at the tip.
I’m sitting in the tea room eating lunch, a terrible spaghetti bolognese – the only thing I could see in the staff fridge that looked half decent after someone stole my chicken and lettuce sandwich – and I’ve just got stuck into the Herald-Sun super quiz when James calls out, “Hey, Ian.”
It appears my sentence to a James-free zone was only two weeks, and I’ve been paroled. He’s standing at the far end of the counter in his usual spot beside the microwave, eating peanut butter toast and drinking from a sippy juice carton. “Do you know what the best time to rob a bank is?”
“Friday afternoon?” I humour him. “When they have the most money?”
“Nope, first thing Friday morning, when there’s less people around to see you. Plenty of money and less people. Yep, Friday morning’s the best time.”
So, guns and banks. Oh great. I laugh a little too loud. “Anyone would think you’re planning a bank robbery.”
“No, just speculating,” he says.
Well, I bloody well hope so. “Have you had your gun lesson yet? How did it go?”
The tea room is starting to fill up as four women from System Improvement sit down to sprouted salads and sushi at the table near James. He grabs his toast and juice and unusually pulls up a chair at my table and sits. I move my newspaper, but I make a show of how much effort it involves because I don’t want him to feel too welcome. I like my space and routine at lunchtime.
I don’t want him to feel too welcome. I like my space and routine at lunchtime.
“Awesome,” he says. “We went to Wayne’s.”
“Liam’s cousin, the one who’s teaching me to shoot. He has heaps of guns. He let me have a go with a rifle, a shotgun and a revolver. I liked the revolver best, more like Dirty Harry.”
There’s a very happy glint in his eye that I don’t like at all. “Didn’t that bother you? Being around so many guns? What does Wayne do with them?”
“Well… you… put… bullets… in… them… and… shoot… them,” he says, like I’m the idiot.
I click my tongue. “I know what people do with guns. But what does Wayne do?”
He takes the last staccato slurp from the bottom of his juice box and shrugs. “I don’t know; what does anyone do? Right at the moment he’s teaching me how to use them.”
But that’s the point, I think. Not just anyone owns guns.
When I get back to my cubicle, it’s bonus time. There’s my chicken sandwich on my desk, half-hidden behind my Irish breakfast tea. I sit down for second lunch and wonder why this Wayne guy would be interested in James. Why would anybody who had a choice want anything to do with him?
Now that James is back talking to me, I realise I haven’t appreciated his silent treatment anywhere near enough. I’m so sick of his photos. And he’s got a new found interest in high end luxury items. I must have seen every ad on eBay for jet skis in the entire country. And it’s not only jet skis, it’s cars and motorbikes, and even man jewellery, for fuck’s sake. To extract something back so the universe is in balance, I take extra-large handfuls of James’ lollies.
“Where’re you going to get all this money from, James?” I ask, while he’s showing me pictures of the new Mercedes ute.
“None of your business,” he snaps back, vicious for the first time ever.
And it dawns on me; he’s really planning on robbing a bank. Probably next fucking Friday morning for all I know. “James????” I say, in a long suspicious drawl.
“Nothing. Nothing for you to worry about. Mind your own business.”
On Thursday he’s fidgety all morning, looking over at me then looking away when I catch him. What’s he up to? He leaves the office at about ten-thirty without saying anything and comes back with a shopping bag from Army Disposals. Army Disposals? What would he be buying from there? I have to bide my time but it’s killing me watching him. Every now and then he puts a hand down on the bag like he’s checking it’s still there.
Finally he goes to lunch and I rush over to his desk. The Asian data cube guy in the desk next to James’ is still there but I don’t care. I sit down on James’ chair and pull out the shopping bag and look inside. Three balaclavas, two still folded and taped in plastic bags and one just floating in the bigger bag – he’d clearly tried that one on for fit. But Jesus, balaclavas. Now what am I supposed to do?
Do I confront James? Do I go to the police? But what am I going to tell them? Learning to shoot a gun and buying a balaclava aren’t crimes. Do I tell our boss? Finally I settle on his liaison worker. It’s not much, but I have to tell someone.
I have to make an appointment, and he wants to make it for tomorrow but I insist it has to be today. Tomorrow will be waaay too late. He fits me in for three. I keep an eye on James the entire afternoon, scared he’s going to leave work early and then I really will have to call the police.
James’s liaison worker is unbelievably cool while I tell him the story. He takes a great deal of time writing down my details, as if that’s important, and I’m not sure he gets the gravity of what I’m telling him; he’s probably simple himself. When I’m done he steeples his hands together for a while and then says, “Let’s get James in here, and see what he has to say.”
What! That’s it? We’re just going to talk to him?
He’s gone for a few minutes, and then comes back, propelling James ahead of him with one hand on his shoulder. James is looking pretty nervous and I think, so you should, you moron.
James’ liaison worker stands and starts to say very sternly, “James, I have received some disturbing information about you.” And James looks even more contrite, and starts to cry. But hang on, he’s not fucking crying, he’s laughing, and then they’re both laughing so hard a paramedic might be needed and I have no fucking idea what’s going on.
“What’s the joke? What’s so funny?” I’m searching both their faces but they’re giving me nothing.
“Hang on,” says James, coming further in and taking a seat on the corner of the desk. His eyes are frosted with tears and he rubs at them before saying, “I’m just so upset you foiled my one and only chance to get rich.” And then they’re both off again, shaking so hard with laughter you’d be forgiven for thinking a magnitude seven earthquake had struck.
“Oh, so this has been a joke all along? You set me up.”
“Oh, James, what does he do with all those guns?” James mimics me. “You were so sucked in.”
“Not funny, James. This isn’t funny at all. I was actually worried about you.”
“Take a chill pill, Ian,” he says. “You’re being boring.”
Me? Me being boring? And then he’s got one final thing to say to me. “And Ian, either stop eating my lollies, or start paying for them. Or I might just have to go to the police.”
Oh, how very hilarious. And then I’m out of there. I’ve had enough. I can still hear them laughing all the way down the corridor. When I pass James’ desk I pull twenty dollars out of my wallet and leave it on top of his lolly jar. Jesus, what an arsehole.