He was due at one. At a quarter before he called from the lobby and got Ann Seldom’s voicemail again, so he went up anyway. The thirtieth floor was beautiful: an acre of honey-wet wood and floor-to-ceiling views of the city; towers, lawns, river and that vast featureless sky. The reception desk was yellow marble with a vase of empire roses, heavy heads hanging down.
‘I’m a little early,’ he explained.
Carmen, the receptionist, turned away and spoke into the flesh-coloured bud on her cheek, glancing back at him now and again.
‘They shouldn’t be long,’ she said as she led him into the back office. So much for beauty: this was just an office like any other with cubicles, coke cans, photocopiers and little glass-walled offices with venetian blinds.
She opened a door onto a meeting room. ‘You can wait here if you like.’
The view was to the river and the freeway and, because it was early afternoon on a Friday, traffic was already building. From this height it looked like a model with miniature cars and trucks and taxis and over there an accident: a car had hit one of the barriers, skidded and was now bent around a pole. There was a flame and a curl of smoke. The traffic was already snarled. Some drivers were trying to ease past in the far lane but most had stopped. Further back, others were slowing, soon to stop.
The ethics of his situation niggled. He wasn’t looking for a change; he liked teaching and the college. That aside, surely they could have done this by phone or Skype? But their policy was face-to-face, so they flew him across the country with hotel, taxis and a meal allowance thrown in. So, the least he can do is listen to what they have to say, right? No obligation. He’d been clear on that. (Although he had bought a new tie for the occasion, a green one for luck). And since the return flight wasn’t until Sunday he’ll visit his mother tomorrow. The nurses don’t like it when you called it a home: ‘We prefer dynamic retirement setting.’ He’ll take her out, lunch and then a movie maybe something historical with Cate Blanchett.
At ten past he opened the door and looked about. Most of the workstations were empty.
Out on the freeway the wind had shifted and smoke obscured the accident. There was an ambulance, its little lights flashing, trying to get along the breakdown lane which was already jammed.
He picked up the phone and pressed zero: nothing. So he tried nine: ‘Yes Mr Anders,’ says Carmen.
‘Chairman’s office,’ he said.
‘This is Ann Seldom in the Chairman’s office. I can’t…’
He put the phone down.
Now he was thirsty. He started going through the kitchenette looking for a glass. The fridge was loaded with beers and the cupboards full of pretzels and biscuits but no glasses, no cups, no vessels at all. So he bent over the sink, cupped his hands and drank.
Then the phone rang.
‘I’m sorry,’ he replied.
‘Well put me back to switch.’
‘— It’s the red button. Press the red one.’
‘There’s no red,’ he said. ‘Can’t you redial?’
‘I am not redialling,’ the caller said. ‘Listen. You can all go take a flying fuck because this is the last. If you see him, tell that turd Fowler that Toby Weinstein says he can go fuck himself. Because I’m not paying another cent. Nada. Got that?’
‘Fuckers.’ And then he was gone.