A Corporate Christmas Carol: a tale for the modern office worker
Since it’s Christmas, Instead of my usual rantings and ravings about creativity I’ve written you all a story. Any similarity to famous works by other authors is purely deliberate. It is a ghost story and like all the best ghost stories holds a cautionary tale, a morality tale. May it act as a warning to all.
And so we begin…
Robbie knocked on the always open door of his boss, Eben.
“Eben…?” said Robbie, with the practiced air of breeziness that befits a modern professional. “Got a moment?”
“For you, Robbie? Always!” a broad smile crossed Eben’s face as he shuffled away some papers outlining next year’s management re-org which were absolutely not for Robbie’s eyes.
“How” said Eben, leaning back in his chair, “can I help you?”
“Well, me and the guys have been talking and, well, we were thinking about maybe decorating the place for Christmas. Make it a bit festive.”
“That is a lovely idea!” Eben smiled and leaned forward. “What do you have in mind?”
“Oh, you know, the usual stuff. Tinsel. Some lights. That sort of thing.”
Arching his fingers and resting his chin upon them Eben considered this.
“Sounds great. Pop it in an email for me with the costings and a health and safety assessment and I’ll get back to you next week.”
“Well, yes, of course. Gotta run this up the flagpole and make sure all the ducks are lined up. It’s important, Robbie, to make sure our Christmas decorations are properly aligned with our corporate brand.”
“But it’s Christmas, Eben…”
Eben smiled. This time the smile was ever so slightly tighter.
“Just because it’s Christmas, Robbie, does that mean we should forget about our brand guidelines?”
“And I suppose because it’s Christmas we shouldn’t even bother consulting the board of directors? And how, Robbie, would we know if anyone will be offended by whatever random ornaments you and your friends feel like littering the place up with if we don’t get feedback from our multiculturalism advisory board?”
“It’s just that…”
“Yes, Robbie,” Eben concluded as if agreeing with someone else who only he could hear “the rules are there for a reason. We don’t just do things. We have systems in place. We have processes. I look forward to your fully costed plan on my desk tomorrow. I’m sure it will be excellent work. Apropos of nothing, isn’t your appraisal due in January? Best get that in the diary, eh?”
The tight smile grew some impatient teeth. To an outsider, someone unlearned in the ways of corporate professional interaction, it might have looked like a pleasant smile. But Robbie new it was a smile which politely invited him to get back to his desk.
Several hours later Eben arrived home. It was a tasteful home. An expensive home. A home that would have graced the pages of a tasteful, expensive magazine which, in fact, it had just before Eben bought it. It was very boring. But, dammit, it was tasteful and expensive. Stepping inside Eben found the doormat littered with envelopes. A handful of bills, a couple of takeaway menus. And a card.
Opening the card Eben found that it was from his nephew, Fred. It was, Eben shuddered, hand made. The note inside read “Merry Christmas Uncle Eben. Are you sure you won’t come and do a reading this year? You know the kids would love it…”
Fred had always been a silly heart. Which was charming, Eben thought, in a younger man but surely a man in his third decade he should by now have put away such silly things as making Christmas cards by hand! Maybe it was his profession that was to blame. Teaching primary school children was causing him to regress.
Eben placed the card at first on his mantelpiece. His tasteful, expensive mantelpiece. He stepped back. Oh dear. The card, the handmade card, was a little bit wobbly. It was gaudy. Glitter unevenly coated it and there was even some exposed glue visible on one side. It looked as if Fred had allowed his primary school class to help him make it – which in fact he had.
Eben shuffled the card behind a tasteful ornament where he wouldn’t see it. Then, thinking perhaps he might see it from the other side of the room, he removed it from the mantelpiece entirely. Choosing instead to display it proudly in the rarely used draw of his coffee table.
On this coffee table was a book. Eben stared at it. It was a book he knew well. A book he had written! Many years ago Eben had aspired to being a writer of children’s books. This was his one and only published work; a story about a parrot and a robot who delivered post to the animals in a magical jungle. Nonsense all of it. He picked it up and flicked through the pages, absent minded at first. Then with a creeping dread. On the inside cover was his smiling, youthful face next to that of his former partner and the book’s illustrator, Molly. Just as youthful as the day she died. He didn’t remember her having signed this copy…
The dread was derived from the fact that he had no idea how this book had come to be on his coffee table. Had he been up in his loft, ferreting around in his boxes and, for some unknown reason, brought this book out into the light for the first time in a decade? Eben made a mental note to mention this apparent memory loss to his therapist on Saturday. Into the draw it went, slightly crumpling Fred’s card.
To settle his nerves Eben selected a bottle of wine from the fridge, the wine that Tastemaker Magazine had called “The only white worth drinking this year” and which had been a steal at a mere £49.99 a bottle. Then he settled down in front of a box set of Westworld which he had been binge watching for fear someone would bring it up at a cocktail party he was attending soon and he’d be unable to speak intelligently about the various themes it had covered. He also wanted to see Evan Rachel Wood’s bottom.
Eben awoke with a fright! His coffee table upon which his feet were resting had begun to shake and tremble. The TV had switched itself off (Eben insisted on eco-friendly electronics as was becoming a man of his refinement) and the room was dark apart from the tastefully dimmed up-lighters above the mantelpiece. It really was a lovely mantelpiece. So tasteful. So just so.
Then, with an extra violent shake the coffee table flipped over and burst open from beneath. Scraps of paper scattered about the room and from amidst the debris a figure emerged. A shadowy, pale figure. Molly!
“Hey!” she grinned.
“What the actual fuck!” replied Eben.
“What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost” her grin remained in place, shortly thereafter to be joined by a tongue poking out and a silly wink.
“OK” said Eben to himself. “Obviously I’m dreaming. The wine was 13.5% so this dream is the result of a strange reaction between my allergy medication and a little too much alcohol augmented by the fact I was watching Westworld, a show which artfully teases apart the nature of reality and asks us to question what it really means to be free and which may be superior to the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner which…”
“Oh shut up! You never watched the original movie you big faker.”
“How do you… oh, yes. You’re my imagination. Fine. OK. So what now?”
Molly looked at Eben and her face seemed to darken.
“You will be visited by three ghosts.”
“Eh? What? Wait! Including you? Or do you mean three ghosts other than you?”
“OK, fine. Pedant. You will be visited by three additional ghosts. Expect the first one tomorrow night and then so on until Thursday.”
“I’m out Thursday.”
“I’ll be out on Thursday night. Cocktail party.”
“Oh sod it. Forget the ghosts. Let’s do it all tonight and get it over with.” replied Molly with an exasperated air.
“So, this first bit” said Molly, sitting down on what remind of the coffee table, “would have been handled by Steve – you remember Steve? Writing class? Where we first met?”
“Oh, yeah, Steve. He’s dead?”
“That’s a shame. So what is this part all about?”
Molly held out her ghostly hand and said “come.”
“Just take my hand!”
Eben reached out and in a blinding flash he was elsewhere and the whole place had a slightly washed out look about it as if he had somehow travelled into a memory mixed with a dream…
“This is a memory/dream style situation” said Molly, making Eben jump.
“Oh. Yours or mine?”
He was in an open plan office. The open plan office his staff worked in. But it took him a while to recognise it, so much had changed since the days when he was out there, before he’d taken over the company and secured himself a corner office with a door and everything. Looking across the little dividers between the desks he saw something that made him say “shit!”.
“Shit! That’s me! What on Earth am I wearing?”
“You used to like shirts like that.”
“God, I was an idiot.”
“But that’s not what we’re here to see.”
The door of what Eben thought of as his office opened and out stomped Mr. Gray, Eben’s old boss, the man from whom he had taken over the business several years earlier, and possibly the least interesting man to ever have lived. Mr. Gray was heading right for Eben. Old Eben. By which we mean younger Eben. Former Eben. The Eben with the bad shirt.
“Eben!” yelled Mr. Gray.
“Yes” both Ebens replied with a start.
“Hush” said Molly to present day Eben.
“This email. I assume this is some sort of joke.” he brandished a print out of an email that Eben had written.
“You’ve written it in rhyme. What on Earth do you mean by that?”
“Oh. Well, it’s fun. No? It’s supposed to be light hearted. That bit there is a play on words.”
“Business emails are no place for fun!”
“Well, sir, it’s just an invite to the Christmas party.”
“You’ve sent this to everyone?!.”
Mr. Gray glowered at him.
“It’s your appraisal in a couple of weeks, isn’t it Eben? I’d start thinking about that and spending less time trying to be fun.” and with that he stomped off back into his office.
Young, bad shirt wearing Eben sunk into his chair.
“Remind you of anything?” Molly said with a smirk.
“Reminds me of how silly I used to be.”
“Silly. Yes. And fun. And you didn’t care so much about what people thought of you.”
“You’re telling me. I mean, that shirt!”
“Do you remember how it felt to have your boss trample all over you like that?”
“Of course I do. But he was right. Do you remember when I wrote that sign for the bathrooms and ended up in a HR disciplinary because someone thought it was a personal threat? Whatever. The point is that making jokes and being silly in the workplace is a fine way to get yourself in trouble. I didn’t get to be the man I am today by being silly. I learned to keep it professional.”
“Funny you should mention the man you are today. Fancy finding out what that really looks like?” Molly asked.
“Oh, is this the next bit?”
“Yes. This was going to be the spirit of the chap who founded that Tastemaker Magazine that you love so much but since you’re in such a hurry… you know the drill…” Molly held out her hand.
“Ah, yes.” Eben took it.
This time they found themselves outside of Baker Street tube station.
“You know that place?”
“The Globe? The huge pub that I go and drink with workmates in? Yes. I know it.”
“Correction, used to go and drink with workmates in.”
“I still go there.”
“OK. If you say so. When did you last get invited?”
They crossed the road and approached the pub. Eben had stopped paying attention to the fact that he was wearing slippers and shorts – his usual evening attire. He hadn’t noticed the cold. But then this was all an hallucination anyway so that’s OK.
“Look.” said Molly, pointing in through the window of the pub.
“That’s Robbie. And… everyone else.”
“Want to hear what they’re saying?” asked Molly and, without waiting for a reply, she stuck her finger in Eben’s ear.
“… and then he asked for a fully costed proposal!” concluded Robbie to mocking laughter from those gathered around.
“Honestly” said Gail “the man is all rules. Did you see the note he left in the staff kitchen area?”
“Now, now, that’s not fair!” Eben exclaimed to nobody inparticular. You can’t just have people bringing in their own coffee machine. And one of them had essentially set up an omelet station.
“She was making people breakfast on Fridays. What’s wrong with that?” asked Molly.
“We have a contract with the catering firm that runs the cafe downstairs.” explained Eben.
Gail had not heard any of this. For one thing Eben wasn’t really there and for another she had been too busy pounding her fist not the table and shouting “this is a violation of our catering contract!” in an overly stern voice, to rapturous laughter.
“Oh. Sure. The catering company was going to sue you, was it?”
“Listen, there are rules; and rules are rules.”
“What happened to you, Eben? Actually, don’t answer that. What’s more important is what might happen to you if you don’t start taking this seriously.”
“Is that a thre…” Eben began, before Molly grabbed him by the hand and once again they were whisked away, this time arriving in what appeared to be his offices, again.
“We’ve done this bit.” Said Eben.
“No we have not. I’m following the notes I got from the next spirit, the spirit of future stuff or something. His hand writing is terrible because nobody writes much in the future but this is exactly where we are supposed to be.”
“But we’ve been here.”
“It’s not about where we are. It’s about when we are. Get it?”
“Look around. You’ll figure it out.”
Eben did just that. And he noticed that the place was empty. Not just of people but of everything. There were some desks and chairs but the computers were gone, the phones too.
“Where is everyone?”
“Gone.” said Molly. This is the end, Eben.”
“The end of what?”
“The business. You drove them all away. All the best ones. All the ones who really cared. Robbie, Gail, the ones who actually tried to make a difference. You made them feel like they had to run everything by you…”
“Well they did! That’s what being the boss means.”
“Does it? The ones who stuck around were all just phoning it in because they knew you’d have the final say whatever they did. Pretty soon you fell behind your competitors and you lost everything. All because you had to be in control.”
“Look, I was only trying to make things right. I was in charge. I was responsible for making sure things were done right.”
“And how did that work out for you? Look in your office.”
Eben walked over with a sense of foreboding. There was a light coming from beneath the door. He pushed it open and inside he saw himself. He saw himself hunched over the desk, filling out some forms.
“You’re just finishing off the bankruptcy papers.” said Gail, with genuine sympathy. Together they watched as future Eben sealed the envelope and gathered his things. Was that a tear?
Eben, present day Eben, the one in slippers, felt hollow inside.
“But, I was…”
“Yeah. I know. You were just doing what you thought you needed to. But don’t you see? You were crushing them the way Mr. Gray crushed you. Sure, you stuck around and became just like him. But remember how many people left? Remember how they were replaced by jobsworths who just wanted to follow orders? And then when you became the boss you started out with all these big ideas but all around you were yes-men. Slowly you stopped caring what people thought and then, well, the people who still had something to offer stopped caring too.
“This is… this is terrible.”
“It doesn’t have to be…”
And with that Molly shoved Eben out of the nearest window.
“Aaarrgh!” Eben woke up. On the sofa. Empty bottle of wine by this side and a headache that made his eyes want to escape from his skull.
He looked around. The coffee table was all in one piece.
“It was… all a dream…” he sighed.
His phone was blinking at him. He picked it up and read a text from an unknown number.
“No it wasn’t. Love, Molly xoxoxo”
Looking up he noticed he was late! Eben dressed and dashed out of the door, arriving at the office to find Robbie working on a spreadsheet titled: the price of fun.
“Robbie! You’re still here! Good. Now. About that fully costed plan for the Christmas decorations.”
“Working on it now…”
“Obviously that was a joke!” Eben grinned at Robbie. Robbie stared at Eben as if he’d lost his mind.
“Last night” Eben explained “I lost my mind. Then I found it again. You understand?”
“…” said Robbie.
“Oh, I forgot!” exclaimed Eben before rushing out into the corridor and reappearing with a huge bag over one shoulder and a fern tree over the other. “Here…”
Robbie opened the bag and found it full of the most garish Christmas decorations he could ever imagine.
“I chopped this tree down on my way in so I’m probably going to get arrested for vandalism. With that in mind, I’ll leave the decorating up to you and the guys. I have an appointment to keep.” said Eben.
“What about the feedback? What about the directors?”
“Oh, pish-posh! It’s Christmas!” And with that Eben dashed out again.
A couple of hours later Eben arrived at Christchurch primary school in Ilford. Having ascertained the whereabouts of his nephew’s class and proven his credentials by flashing a copy of his book at the lady on the front desk he made his way up to the form room of class 5b and knocked on the door.
Fred looked around and almost fell off of his chair.
“Class, it’s time to go and sit in the story corner. We have a very special guest.”
And from that day on Eben was a changed man. He started writing again, he always made time to read to the children, he learned how to let go of control and stop worrying about always being just right. And, because of this, things usually ended up even better.
The Endhttp://openforideas.org/blog/2016/12/22/a-corporate-christmas-carol-a-tale-for-the-modern-office-worker/https://i0.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/scrooge.jpg?fit=1024%2C576https://i0.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/scrooge.jpg?resize=150%2C150Personal Creativitychristmas,control,corporate,getting cosy with creativity,redemption