Amphibian

by Christina Neuwirth

Format: Excerpt | Genre: Magical Realist Satire

1. Tuesday

From: lmerc@moneytowncashgrowth.co.uk

To: All Staff

CC: ehump@moneytowncashgrowth.co.uk

Subject: 1st Quarter Sales Review

Dear Colleague,

I am writing to inform you that, after the last Sales Review, the revenues from the fourth floor have been deemed less than satisfactory. It has therefore been decided that the fourth floor will be gradually put under water, effective tomorrow morning, 24th of June.

This is a decision passed on from our CEO and is entirely outside of my control.

The measure will take effect until further notice. If sales pick up over the course of the next quarter, the flood will be reviewed and submitted for potential reversal.

Should you have any questions about this, please direct these to the CEO’s assistant, Mr Evan Humperdink.

Many thanks,

Lynn Mercer, Regional Sales Division Director

Rose was late for work. She was speed-walking across the Meadows, barely looking up from her phone to swerve and avoid dog walkers and cyclists. A true genius at multi-tasking, she scrolled through her work group email at the same time. Yeah, yeah, corporate whatever. She saw another notification pop up on her phone’s screen. She smiled to herself: her cousin liked her Instagram picture of the sky; her day was off to a good start.

She entered the cool lobby of Tollcross Mansion, a misleadingly named block of glass and metal in the middle of an ancient church yard. Rose enjoyed the view, but the building itself made her feel uneasy and on display. She thought she might fry if the direct sunlight, amplified by the big windows, lasted for too long. At least they gave her something to look out of while she sold Bonds and Promises to fancy, important clients.

Rose loved her job. No, that’s a lie. But she tolerated it, as well as you could expect her to. After all, she was only there until she found something better. She had only been there until she found something better for the past six years.

Wave to the girl at the desk. Hi, girl at desk! Rose straightened her jacket and felt for the waistband of her trousers to make sure they weren’t sliding down. Walk to the lift while humming hellos at other colleagues. Push the button. Was the girl looking at her differently today? Was there pity in her eyes? Itchy contacts? Probably just an eyelash, thought Rose. Get in the lift. Press 4. She walked to the back, to the mirror, but avoided her own eyes and made room for everyone else to get on. They pushed buttons for the upper floors, mostly. Management. She was just a sales peg, creating income, while the others on her lift were thinking heads with shiny iMacs.

Rose was the first to get off the lift. She smelled something musty wafting towards her. Her foot sank into the carpet. Water bubbled around it. She thought of quicksand. Shit! Her brogues! They were new and now they were soaked. She had sunk half an inch deep into the purple carpet, which was sopping wet.

Rose looked around the reception area. She squished across the hallway, and Trevor looked up, nodding a greeting.

“Hiya, Rose. How are you?”

“Good, good. What about you?” she said. Trevor nodded and made some affirmative noises. He was good. Trevor was always good. He was a nice amount of chatty. He had a bit of a distracted look about him, and his wispy ginger hair stuck up around his head like he was about to float away on the slightest breeze. Rose assumed he had a very involving game of Solitaire going on. She slumped onwards across the marshy carpet. Down the corridor, small ripples were being stirred up by the heels of the woman walking towards her.

At the end of the corridor, finally, Room 4.02, her office. Well, it would be an exaggeration to say 4.02 was her office; Rose did share it with Siobhan, but she was often away in the field, selling Promises directly to her customers. Even the thought of Siobhan’s job made Rose’s skin crawl – selling Bonds and Promises on the phone was bad enough, and she couldn’t bear the notion of actually going to people’s houses and bothering them in their personal space. Alas, Siobhan was here today, sitting on her swivel chair.

There was a golden Labrador perched on her lap.

“Hi, Rose!” Siobhan said.

Rose felt her face grow hot and, she was sure, red. After months of barely seeing Siobhan, of looking only at her desk and wondering about the person who had chosen to arrange their pens by size, she was finally here. Their induction periods had overlapped but she hadn’t really spent any time with her. Siobhan was very tall and very beautiful and seemed to Rose to have her life entirely in order. With every growing second in her presence she felt herself fall apart more and more, her hair escaping its clips, her clothes accumulating wrinkles. She tried not to look directly at Siobhan, in case her radiance burnt the retinas off her eyes.

“Hiya. Um,” but before Rose could formulate a coherent question, or something resembling it, Siobhan had already released a flood of explanations.

“Well, Sterlington is really scared of the water, you see, and when we came in it was all like this, I mean I’d read the email, obviously, but I didn’t know how bad it would be. So I called upstairs and they said that it’s just going to be like this, but it’s nothing to worry about, really. But Sterlington’s really quite frightened of water so he’s sitting here for now until I can get an armchair moved up from the third floor,” she said, patting the large dog on the head, which was level with her own.

Sterlington looked heavy, but Siobhan’s face didn’t betray any signs of strain.

That’s what love looks like, Rose thought.

Siobhan bent her body around Sterlington to reach her computer’s keyboard, and furiously typed some words.

“They said they’ll be here soon. You don’t mind, right? A little chair for the office? It’ll be nice.”

Rose didn’t mind getting a new chair, but she did wonder why Siobhan was back from her assignments and cramping her office’s solo style. She shrugged her shoulders in what she hoped was a passable imitation of friendly agreement or non-threatening indifference. Then she walked over to her desk, stepped out of her still wet brogues, and sat down on her chair, dragging her feet back and forth through the puddle underneath.

Scanning the wall by the windows, Rose spotted a six-socket multi-plug sitting in the inch of water lapping at its greying sides. A flash of a health and safety video from primary school appeared in Rose’s head, a video of a hairdryer falling into a bathtub, but she was already standing in the water, and so was Siobhan, and yet somehow they were fine. The electricity was still working and nobody was being fried alive.

Not boiling to death in an electric soup – that was the upside.

Siobhan saw her looking at the plugs. She must’ve also seen the concern in her eyes because she said, “Oh, don’t worry about the plugs. They had the cablers in this morning. We’re fine.”

“Sure,” said Rose. The cablers.

Siobhan nodded. Her eyes glazed over again as she kept grooming the dog on her lap, reading something on her screen.

“So,” said Rose.

Siobhan peeked out from behind the dog’s head.

“Yeah?”

“This water thing.”

“Yeah, it’s annoying, isn’t it?”

“Pretty annoying. What did you do about your shoes?”

“Waterproof. I came prepared,” Siobhan said and stuck out a shiny ankle boot. Rose rolled her chair to the edge of her desk to see.

“Cute.”

The rolling chair made ripples and water splashed up against the two desks.

Sterlington flinched and let out a sad little warble.

“It’s not so bad. What did you go for?” asked Siobhan.

“Took them off. Now I’ve got wet socks,” said Rose.

“Just take your socks off! I don’t mind.”

As if to show his agreement, Sterlington licked at the side of Siobhan’s computer screen.

Rose shuddered in disgust. Show her toes? They were so long and monkey-like, good for holding onto a surfboard, but not for anyone else to see. Oh well, maybe the water would go away tomorrow and she’d only have to walk around in wet socks for a day.

A knock on the door interrupted this very important train of thought.

“Oh, hey, Robert.”

Tall, broad-shouldered and made entirely of bones, Robert from Room 4.37 two doors down appeared in the doorway.

“We’re seeing if we can create a current so we can float memos along to the big room. Want to come?”

“No, we’re okay,” said Siobhan.

“Excuse me,” said a man in a pigeon blue cardigan, carrying a floral armchair. He squeezed past Robert and placed the armchair in the corner of the office, where a potted fern had died a few months ago.

Siobhan got up, carried Sterlington to the chair, sat him down, and brushed his long blonde hairs from her black high-waisted trousers. They were made from that annoying fabric that, if worn by anyone who wasn’t Siobhan, had a tendency to attract dust bunnies, hair and definitely yoghurt stains. Rose had never bought anything made from that fabric because she attracted these items onto her clothes anyway.

Rose wanted to see how the rest of the floor was dealing with the water situation. She followed Robert to 4.37, a room filled with ten desks and ten computers and lots of screens, because multiple screens make you more efficient, or whatever.

There was a desk fan standing on the floor next to Robert’s desk – the cablers had been, Rose reminded herself, the water is fine. The fan was switched on to high, and created a ripple in the inch of water that covered the floor. A little paper boat sailed proudly from Robert’s desk to Kerry’s, who was making a flag for the ship from a book of stamps, purple lip gloss and a cocktail stick. Rose folded a boat of her own and crouched down to blow wind into its sail, which was made from a tissue taped to more cocktail sticks. After a good twenty minutes of racing, Robert’s boat won a trophy he had made himself out of shiny gum wrappers. Rose suspected foul play. Before she had a chance to appeal, a distinct splashing and clacking interrupted the prize-giving ceremony.

Lynn Mercer had been Head of the Sales Division for two years and Rose knew that she felt like she was the only capable person in the place. Her hair was in a high bun that looked like it never came undone, not even when she slept or took a shower. Rose looked at Lynn’s feet and saw that she was in heels, the water slapping around her toes.

Click. Another step.

Splash.

“What’s this?”

“Just testing,” said Robert.

“The water,” offered Kerry, helpfully.

“Yes. Well. It’s exactly that sort of behaviour that got us all into this pickle in the first place, isn’t it?” said Lynn.

Lynn liked to ask questions.

Lynn also liked to use words like ‘pickle’.

“Well?”

The room was quiet. The desk fan was still sending ripples from Robert’s desk at the front all the way to where Rhian was sitting, right at the back, by the window. A small paper boat sailed by.

This has happened,” Lynn swept a hand around the general floor area and hesitated for a second.

Rose hoped she might not carry on and leave it at this philosophical statement. But no, there was more.

“… because our sales have been very bad. Kerry, what have our figures been, roughly?”

“Two- um, two-hundred,” said Kerry and fiddled with the lid of the purple lip gloss.

“Two-hundred what?”

“Sales.”

Instead of hissing more words, Lynn was now squinting so hard at Kerry that Rose thought her eyebrows might merge in the middle.

“Per week.”

A gasp resounded around the big office.

“Are you sure that’s right?” Robert had now turned around to look at Kerry. She looked down at the keyboard, clicked her mouse and looked back at the screen.

“Yup.”

“Jesus.”

“And this is exactly why we’re going under,” said Lynn.

She liked a good exit line, so at this point she turned around, ready to march down the hallway and past reception to her secluded corner office. But she didn’t get to leave just yet. Siobhan, who had walked down the hallway to see what was going on, entered Room 4.37. As if the new arrival had freed them from Lynn’s spell, the others in the room started asking questions like: “What the hell? Since when was it okay to just flood an office? Couldn’t they have told them sooner? They’d call the union reps – this was atrocious; and besides, the printer in the hallway is still broken, when is that ever going to get fixed, and how were they meant to be selling Bonds and Promises when they couldn’t even print them out and send them properly, anyway?”

Lynn was overwhelmed. She waved her hand around again, as if to divert the crowd’s attention through excessive movement. It worked, and everyone got a little distracted. “Look, don’t start with me. Take it up with Evan on the seventh floor. Read the bloody email! This is all above my pay grade. I never decided any of this.” Drowned out by more questions, she added – and Rose heard – “Nobody asked me.”

Rose might have felt something like pity for Lynn, but it was quickly replaced by annoyance, and the need to tuck in the laundry tag that was sticking out of the back of Kerry’s blouse.

“When will it go away?” Rose asked, stepping closer to Lynn. The flurry of questions quietened down.

“I can’t say. This is a disciplinary measure. It could be permanent,” Rose drew in a sharp breath while Lynn spoke, “but, but it probably isn’t. Look, we just need to pick up the pace. Get the synergy going.” The last bit she said with her voice raised, because the others in the big office had started protesting.

Robert stepped up next to Rose and she saw a vein on his neck pop out. He might be about to swear at Lynn. Was he about to swear at Lynn? Rose put her hand on his arm. The vein receded.

“And you don’t have any more information on it?”

“I’m afraid I don’t, Robert, and I resent that tone,” she shook her head a little, but her bun stayed rigid. Despite herself, Rose had to admit she was impressed by its structural integrity.

Finally, Siobhan pulled Rose away by her elbow and led her into their office. Her fingers were firm and gentle on the thin fabric of Rose’s blazer. When they got back, Sterlington was still sitting on the armchair, curled up and yellow, his fur only wet at the ends. He looked very comfortable there and appeared to be sleeping.

When Siobhan kicked the door shut behind her it made a wave.

“So that was useless,” she said. A righteous rage was in her eyes and in the tips of her hair like static. She sat down – ripples from her swivel chair rocking against Rose’s feet – and began furiously typing what Rose assumed was a draft complaint email. Rose shrugged, and dipped her toe back into the water.

Wet socks.

Fuck.

With a sigh, Rose waded over to Siobhan’s desk to peer over her shoulder.

From: smurp@moneytowncashgrowth.co.uk

To: ehump@moneytowncashgrowth.co.uk

Subject: RE: Flooding

Dear Mr Humperdink,

What the actual fuck? This is unacceptable.

How can we make this go away?

Best wishes, Siobhan (from the fourth floor. Where the water is up to my ankles, by the way)


Rose laughed. She very much longed to lean over Siobhan’s shoulder, grab the mouse and press send. But she didn’t. Siobhan didn’t turn around, just leaned back in her seat to give Rose a clear view of the message on the screen.

Even the unsent message made Rose nervous. She knew that sometimes programmes saved messages you never end up sending, so she cleared all her caches and histories regularly, mostly so that Google searches for a new job wouldn’t show up in her performance evaluation.

Lately she’d been looking at jobs on boats. The thought of not having to go to the office every day seemed so appealing, and you’d technically live in your office, so you’d never be late to work. As a skipper, she’d never have to make a sales call again. She set a reminder on her phone to look up what a skipper actually did.

Rose walked back to her desk, her every step squelching on the carpet. Siobhan moved on to a different task after deleting and double-deleting the harsh draft. It was kind of nice, Rose thought, having someone else there with her, although it did mean she couldn’t listen to her music without headphones. Rose made a start on her own email to management. Got to be polite, now. Politeness never fails.

From: relli@moneytowncashgrowth.co.uk

To: ehump@moneytowncashgrowth.co.uk

Subject: Flooding

Dear Mr Humperdink,

Concerning the flooding, it seems to be the case that–

Concerning the flooding, it has come to my recent attention that-

It has come to my recent-

I am sure it has come to your attention-

As I am certain you’re aware, the entire fourth floor seems to be slightly flooded. As this doesn’t appear to influence the electrical equipment, the only inconvenient occurrence is the dampness of my colleagues’ and my own footwear. If we could please get your input on how to remedy this situation, that would be much appreciated.

Also, what the actual fuck.

Best wishes, Rose (damp-socked)

She did some more editing before printing a test copy. She showed the print-out to Siobhan, who laughed at the actual fuck, took out some of the snarkiness and inserted more perhapses and perchances, before turning her attention to beating her own Minesweeper high score. Rose was surprised by how good Siobhan was at it.

“You can’t possibly be too polite, you know,” Siobhan said and defused ten bombs. The glint in her eye was electric.

Rose agreed, if somewhat reluctantly. Evan was, after all, the man who was probably sitting by the tap turning the water on and off at will, you wouldn’t want to screw that up.

Evan Humperdink wasn’t even their boss. He was the CEO’s assistant, which, Rose assumed, made him feel a) entitled, b) slightly underpaid and c) power-mad every time he actually got put in charge of a project. And apparently, he was now the main driving force behind Project: AquaProductivity.

“This is supposed to make us do more work, isn’t it?” Rose said.

“Hm?”

“The water.”

“Probably. It’s like, maybe it’ll go away if we sell more. Shall we try?”

Siobhan picked up the receiver of the clunky late-90s phone sitting in front of her. It had a twisted cord that she could play with and thread between her fingers when she talked.

“Yes, hello, is this Mr Turner? Hellooooo, Mr Turner. This is Siobhan. From MoneyTownCashGrowth, do you remember us? Yes, you bought some Promises and Bonds from us last year. How are those doing?”

Rose watched the water level intently. It was lapping at the legs of her desk. Every time someone walked past outside, it rocked slowly.

Siobhan’s customer sounded pleased with what she was saying and he bought some more Shares, Bonds and Promises, which would be shipped out later that day. They watched the water level for any change. No, it seemed to stay the same. Maybe one wasn’t enough. Maybe it needed to go up by, like, a thousand.

A soft knock on the door. Lynn stuck her head into the office. “Siobhan? I was wondering if I could have a word, please.”

“Sure,” Siobhan double-clicked something on her computer screen and pushed her chair back, making waves in the water and grooves in the carpet floor.

They stepped out into the hallway, leaving the door partially closed. Rose pushed her chair closer to the door – with minimal splashing sounds – and tried to breathe extra quietly so she’d be able to hear what they were talking about.

“I see you have a friend,” said Lynn. Rose could imagine her lips pursing up into a sharp point.

“Yes. His name is Sterlington. He’s my dog,” said Siobhan. She was probably crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“I don’t remember you having a dog before,” said Lynn.

“I’ve had him for years. It’s just I’m not normally based in the office for the whole day like this,” said Siobhan.

“Did you get permission to keep a dog in your office? Just out of curiosity. Just wondering,” said Lynn, clearly not just wondering.

There was a pause. A silence.

Rose held her breath.

“No, I didn’t realise I had to. He was always with me when I went to visit clients. It’s never been a problem,” said Siobhan. Rose was picturing her mouth tightening around the words.

“Well, you’re here now. You’d better go talk to Evan. I want nothing to do with this.”

“Sure.”

There was another silence. Rose thought she might pass out if she kept holding her breath, but she didn’t dare make a sound in case she missed something.

“Was there anything else?” said Siobhan, her tone dripping with the pretence of politeness.

“No, that’s all. Thanks!” said Lynn. As she said the last word Rose could hear her move away through the corridor towards her office.

Siobhan came back in and Rose quickly splashed over to the window. The city was bright and its grey walls had a glow.

“Did you send it?” Siobhan asked. She looked rattled.

Rose didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know if she should be asking how Siobhan was doing; it felt oddly intimate.

“No. I’ll have to have another read. I don’t even know what I’m saying. It’s not like we’ll get an explanation. It’d be good if I could ask for something.”

Rose and Siobhan worked on the email until it was time to go home. They were pleased with the final product – they had asked Evan to supply waterproof footwear, in a message illustrated by various graphs and spreadsheets.

Bye, Trevor at reception. Thank you. See you later! Siobhan put Sterlington on his leash and carried him to Lift 2. There was a notice on Lift 1 saying Floor 4 staff weren’t allowed to use it because the water would splash down into the lower floor. It was full of people from the top floors whose faces revealed panic and worry about their shoes and the bottoms of their trousers. The doors, which opened and closed quickly, let a few inches of water into the lift, a collective gasp resounded, and the staff of Floor 4 shared a knowing look. Psh, a bit of water for a second in the lift? Try walking through it all day!

A bond developed, then, between Rose and her colleagues. Just a little bit. It was forged by a glance down at opaque black tights soaked to the ankle, or the dry shoes held in a colleague’s hand, his stripy red and white socks on display.

On her way home through the Meadows, Rose started to miss the comfort of being around other soggy trouser hems. She had become the odd one out, walking down a street in Marchmont immersed in a crowd of completely dry-looking people. They looked at her with polite interest, but turned their heads away quickly. They probably thought she’d stood in a very deep puddle, one they themselves would certainly have had the common sense to avoid.

This is the first chapter of Amphibian. Reproduced with permission from the author and Speculative Books.

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CHRISTINA NEUWIRTH

Christina Neuwirth is a writer and researcher based in Edinburgh. Her short fiction has been published in Gutter and 404 Ink’s literary journal, and her non-fiction can be found in CommonSpace, Marbles, The Dangerous Women Project and in 404 Ink’s bestselling anthology Nasty Women. She is one of Queer Words Project Scotland’s five Emerging Writers 2018. Her debut novella Amphibian was shortlisted for the Novella Award 2016 and published by Speculative Books (@spec_books) earlier this year. It was also nominated for the Saltire Society First Book Award 2018. Christina is now working on a novel and pursuing a PhD.

You can find Christina on Twitter (@christinanwrth), and her website www.christinaneuwirth.com.

You can buy Amphibian from the Speculative Books website or order it from your favourite bookshop!

Photo credit: Andrew Perry