By request

Posted in: Stories

1. Stickin' it to the man (aka: the New Zealand managing director)

A couple of years ago my mind held this notion that working in an office would be like having been sentenced to the third circle of hell. I was afraid that offices contained some once-removed cousins of the human race, ones that adapted to the confined spaces of the office cubicle, where their metabolism was a form of photosynthesis involving fluorescent lighting and caffeine, and whose normal temperament was to act indifferent to their fellow (office)man(-thing). In packs, these creatures would seek any reason to publicly flog another, like wearing the wrong work clothes, and in their minds, getting caught borrowing someone else's stuff was cause enough for murder.

It's a pretty abysmal image of the working-class person, and I have no idea where it all came from.

I'm glad that it was just a silly misconception.

Since my first office job at Internal Affairs, each office environment has slowly restored my image of the 9-5 working bee. If ever there were places like what I've described above, I've been lucky enough to avoid them, and now find myself in a building with people who are the complete opposite of the scary types I feared. It seems that a sense of humour is as much a requirement for employment as an educational background, and getting some sort of candy (Easter eggs, M&Ms, Roses chocolates) from our team leaders is the norm. And instead of public floggings, there are pot luck lunches like the one taking place right now on this floor.


The only reason I'm not eating with the others is because of my guilt at not having anything to contribute of my own. It keeps me tied to my desk like a pair of medieval restraints, and it weighs heavily enough on my conscience that it prevents me from getting out of my seat. That is, until the lunch organizer makes his rounds to those still at their desks, encouraging us to get up and eat. When he extends the invitation to me, it brushes away my guilt, breaking my proverbial bonds and clearing room in my thoughts for my stomach to take charge and lead me to whatever food is left (which by now is the desserts: pavlovas, cheescakes, and ice creams).


It isn't a casual Friday - and having recently been told by the New Zealand managing director to wear presentable attire every day unless told otherwise, it hardly is anymore - yet everyone here is dressed casually and comfortably, in a manner that flies in the face of that executive order. Sneakers and jeans are common, and bright or collarless shirts are also making their rounds. As I join them, my own clothes blend-in perfectly: olive drab cargo pants, white slightly-dirtied cross trainers, and my favourite thin black sweat top (the one that's too warm for summer, and not thick enough for winter).

The lunch seems to be a nice mix of camaraderie amongst us programmer grunts, as well as a 'Ha! Suck it!' statement to upper management. It's doubtful the Auckland-based director is going to walk-in on us here, so we might as well be spending our Friday's eating good food and pulling the proverbial finger behind Mr director's back.

2. Forgotten something?

The work day is done, and as I make my way out of the building, I get the feeling that I've forgotten something, but don't know what. I start searching frantically, checking-off items in my head as I move my hands from my bag to my pockets to my bag again: books, check. Drink bottle, check. MP3 player that isn't an iPod, check. Viewmaster...

It went on like that for a while - including searching for the non-existent viewmaster - and as I approached the public access elevator at the back of Whitcoulls, a part of me shivered at the sight of this place as I recalled a dream I had earlier this week...

There was a hostage situation at Sheree's Whitcoulls, and their captor had rigged a bomb to the building. My dream shot back and forth between grainy surveillance camera footage showing Sheree and her workmates being held by fear in a staffroom, to myself standing outside behind a police barrier looking-on as it all went down. Before I gathered enough willpower to act, the bomb went off, killing everyone inside.


Angered that Sheree had been blown-up, and frustrated at my inability to do anything, I went back in time - yes, that's right - to prevent this from happening. I went back several days and used this time to take careful note of those coming and going from the building, in hopes of finding-out who will be responsible for this plot. When time finally caught-up to the day of the bomb, I discovered that it was our resident ginge, Matthew Tough, and watched as he prepared to do that terrorist thing and go up in a blaze similar in colour to his hair.

I immediately walked on an intercept path to catch him before he entered Whitcoulls. When he was within talking distance, I confronted him about what he was doing. He didn't give me enough time to read his face and learn his intentions; once I started asked my questions, he broke into a sprint in the classic Scottish fashion.


It was like one of those on-foot chase scenes from a movie - or at the very least, Hot Fuzz - and somewhere along the line Wellington city segued into a tall bush maze which Matthew entered to get me off his tail. Before I could follow, some sort of time cop (think enforcer of people who time travel) started chasing after me. Don't ask me how I knew he was a time cop, or what he was going to do once he caught me. Maybe he'd give me the time-travelling equivalent of a blood-alcohol test, or a speeding ticket. Either way, I wasn't hanging around to find out; when your pursuer looks like a pissed-off version of Steven Seagal, you run.

I continued my pursuit of Matthew into the maze, with Steven Seagal hot on my heels.


The maze was your stereotypical hedge maze: tall green shrubbery, trimmed in perfect geometric shapes, with so many twists and turns that I barely caught sight of Matthew as I rounded the corners and looked down a new path. I was relying more on my 'where would Matthew run' instincts rather than plain sight, and it must've worked because I eventually caught up to him.

Unfortunately, so did Steven Seagal.

All 3 of us were in the centre of the maze, but before any sort of 'the good, the bad, and the ugly' stand-off could take place, I woke up.

And that was just Sunday's dream.

3. The other sister

Whatever I was doing - rummaging through my stuff to find a missing item, or thinking about the many ways Steven Seagal could kick my ass - it abruptly stopped once I left Whitcoulls and stepped-out onto the freezing cold air of Lambton Quay. It was like getting slapped by a cold fish encased in an even colder layer of ice, and I pulled my jacket closer to me to stop the cold fish from slapping as much of me as possible.

Cold fish weren't the only hazard; a slight rainfall just moments before coated the pavements in a thin layer of water, turning several footpaths into teflon. On the nice smooth pavement, the water caused many to slip and/or fall, and it was happening so often that several Wellington street blocks soon transformed into one large slapstick comedy; bikes skidding, people slipping forwards, people slipping backwards, and people slipping into other people. All we needed now was the Benny Hill theme or a musical piece out of the silent movie era, and this picture would be complete.


One thing I didn't forget, was that tonight was the fundraiser for the NZ Women's Handball team, which Claire has somehow become a part of. The part I couldn't figure out was why, or how, Claire had ended-up in a handball team.

I thought she was a soccer person, feet and all. Then again, I used to think office workers devoured souls.

I imagine Claire on the soccer field, being called-out for touching the ball with her hands for maybe the 50th time, after which she gets fed-up with the restriction and decides to do something about it.

Claire, meet handball. Handball, meet Claire.


Either way, that wasn't going to start for a while, so I had some time to kill. I started walking down Lambton Quay, in the opposite direction of the fundraising venue. Maybe I'll survive in the cold for a while longer.

Maybe not.

The single-digit temperatures continued to hound me. I should've stayed inside where the heaters - one of the greatest inventions ever, right up there with sliced bread - could keep me warm. If I did however, I never would've spotted Janna and one of her friends walking this way. Janna was wearing her usual black work clothes which did good to make her look work-smart. Although seeing anybody in some formal work attire always makes them look a lot smarter in my eyes.

I never had my own +10 IQ clothing. All I have are my glasses, which just make me look more Asian instead.

Somehow, Janna seemed oblivious to the cold, and to the people slipping around her. Actually, she seemed oblivious to pretty much everything. Laughing as she and her friend walked along, with rosy cheeks and a cheerful expression, you'd think she was on... oh no.

Since she was also completely oblivious to me, I'd have to shoulder-barge her to get her attention, again.


Bump.

"Hi Janna."

"Oh, Em." she replied as she rolled back her eyes. She must be getting sick of me barging into her every time we meet.

"Janna, are you drunk?" I asked. No small-talk or beating around the bush for me.

"Umm, yyyyyynnnnnnnnyyyyynnnnn..."

They always tell you that alcohol can slow your reactions, remove your inhibitions, and make you think you're a better dancer. I've never seen the lab results to prove it, but scientific studies or none, this moment, as I asked Janna that question, was all the proof I needed.

I met her gaze and could almost watch Janna's thought processes as they slowed to the speed of a 20th century Pentium processor running some modern-day bloatware. Behind those brown eyes I could see her synapses firing (or in her case, misfiring) mixed messages, which in turn confused the rest of her body. She was almost half-saying 'yes' and half-saying 'no', while at the same time trying to stifle a giggle. Looking back on it, the giggle must've been a coping mechanism, a by-product of all that thinking.

"...yyyyyyynnnnnnnnnnoooo."

Apparently alcohol can make you a better liar too.

"Dammit Janna! You know this now makes it 50%?"

I've started counting the number of times I have seen Janna drunk, in proportion to the number of times I've seen her at all in recent history. To date, she now sits at a modest 5 (drunk) out of 12 (meetings) which is... *gets the calculator out* ...41.67%.


I can't recall exactly how the rest of that conversation went: there was a lot of giggling from her, and a lot of shaking my head in shame from me. I've been calling Janna my big sister (and me her little brother) for such a long time now that I have trouble remembering what the reasons were for starting it all in the first place. Now I stand here wondering why on Earth I ever selected a sister who drinks more often than I brush my teeth.

It must be all the other times, when her easy-going nature and good sense of humour really shine. Like when we cooked and ate all of the potato-based oven food from the freezer when her flatmates were away, or actually tried to convince her workmates that we were related (don't let the differences in skin, hair, and eye colour fool you). And she also has a large enough sense of revenge, without it being criminal, to be a great ally to have when poking fun at someone else's expense (quite often Simon Gow's).

I guess it's memories like that which remind me why Janna is a good psuedo-sister, and friend. 58.33% of the time.

4. Claire Hammond, by request

As I approached the Chicago sports bar, I saw a 'Help The Poor' poster stuck to the inside of a window near the entrance. It's a more photo-filled version of the e-mail Claire sent out earlier this week (also entitled 'help the poor!') to tell me about the fundraiser. I try to spot Claire in the team photo, but can't seem to find her. Probably just an old photo, or maybe she joined at the last minute? I haven't even seen her and I've already got a horde of handball-related questions to ask. The first being "What is handball, and how did you end-up in it?" OK, so technically that's 2 questions, but I'd label them 1a and 1b.

I raised my shoulders in a miniature shrug, donned my +10 Asian glasses, opened the door, and went inside.


Having never been here before, I took in my surroundings before moving-on to where I heard 'Em!' somewhere to my right. Actually, I think I ignored that shout, as I have learned to ignore several other 1-syllable noises which sound similar to my name.

Lo and behold, the noise was actually from somebody trying to get my attention, and I looked and walked towards the source: Claire. She was seated at a table situated on a landing half-way up the stairs with 2 other girls I don't know (presumably from her handball team?) and standing behind them looking cool, calm, and composed was our friendly neighbourhood Russian, Alexey.

"Hi Em!" said Claire looking good in her new team jacket (or so I assumed, seeing as the other 2 girls were wearing their own) with colours that screamed New Zealand to me.

"Hey Claire." I said with a small smile in her direction. "Alexey." I nodded to the Russian behind her.

"So Em," Claire started, "when's your next big e-mail?"

"Huh? I just wrote one (where by 'just' I mean 'at least a month ago'). And I don't have any new material to write about either."

"I know, why don't you write about me?" and with those words Claire started smiling her signature smile. It's kinda hard to describe: a smile where you get the impression she is also grinning, yet she manages not to bare her teeth. Or maybe she does? No, that doesn't sound right. Add a hint of cheesiness to it. No, that's not right either. How about... oh hell. You guys all know Claire, so should know what it's like. It's the smile that's uniquely Claire, much like how her team jacket screams New Zealand, or how Alexey never changes facial expressions (I swear he only has the one which says 'mess with me, and you gotta mess with my Russian mafia buddies too'. Note to self: don't send this e-mail to Alexey).

Anyway, back to Claire saying I should write about her.

"Umm, OK." I reply.


Claire Claire Claire, what can I say about her...

She's short. There. I said it. Might as well get that out of the way now so I can focus on some more important aspects, like not her height. So it was good that we spent most of the night seated at a table across from each other where the whole sitting-down thing takes my legs out of the height equation.


Claire would definitely belong on my list of people I've known the longest, which includes almost anybody I befriended during my 3/4-length standard 4 year at Redwood School. Or in her case, danced with (ballroom dancing partners, 1994). So given the number of years since we were introduced to one another, you'd think I'd remember simple facts about her, like her last name. That wasn't the case during the first year at university.

Simon Gow and I were seated at the couches between classes, and I was killing time by recalling names of friends and their meanings (if I knew them), and then I came across Claire's.

"Claire, Claire... Nope. Don't know what that means." I said to myself. "OK, figure-out what Miss... err..." I was scratching my head trying to figure-out how to complete that sentence. In that instant, whatever brain cells bridged the gap between 'Claire' and 'Hammond' were destroyed by cosmic rays.

"Hey Gow," I said aloud to Simon, turning to him. "What's Claire's last name?"

"Oh, it's..." as a confused and hollow look overtook his features. "What the fuck!? I don't know!"

Seems those cosmic rays have a large area of effect.


So there Simon and I were, looking like confused idiots trying to figure-out Claire's last name. Luckily for us, it wasn't long before Richard started walking our way.


"Oi Chid," Simon asked as Richard approached, "what's your girlfriend's last name?"

Richard looked at us with disgust, like he was contemplating whether to eliminate us from the gene pool for our stupidity.

"It's Hammond you retards!"

"Hammond!" Simon and I said slowly and in chorus in a tone of discovery. By stretching the word out and saying it slowly to one another, it caused the word to stick in our minds. Unsurprisingly, the same method is used to teach infants their ABC's.

And it was one my dumbest moments in history.

I don't think Claire could ever be caught-out for being stupid. For a blonde-haired girl, she manages to leave an impression of intelligence on me. She's got a whole heap of talents, some of which I might be willing to trade limbs for, including one I learned of recently (where by 'recently', I mean 'in the past year'): writing.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that she writes, especially since I sat next to her and relied upon her through 7th form English. When I wrote my first story e-mail back in October, I made sure to include her on the CC list so that I could get some critique from a pro.

Where people look to me for answers in Maths, I look to her for answers in English.

For that reason, if I had to pick somebody to be stranded on a desert island with, it'd probably be Claire. Between the both of us, I reckon we could pull-off some sort of MacGyver stunt with whatever she brought along, plus my bag with the book, drink bottle, non-iPod MP3 player, and missing viewmaster.


So the fundraiser evening was spent mostly talking with Claire and Alexey, answering my questions on handball and her involvement with it, and catching-up on stories and the months gone by.


I should mention that after that stupid day at university, I did go and look-up 'Claire' when I got to my computer at home. I committed the results to memory, right next to where I etched her last name into my brain. The answer really depended on which website I visited: it could either mean clear, bright, shining, or illustrious. But in my books, it's all of the above.