Thursday, November 30, 2006

Just like Christmas!

I was at a meeting yesterday which began at 10am and its first 2 hours were devoted to an ‘art’ exercise which had no place outside a primary school classroom under the guidance of a particularly witless student teacher. A smiley young arty woman with a wonky fringe and a bullet belt rallied all present to redesign a remote controlled car – to reflect in some way the creative ethos of our organisation. She distributed the cars in small gift boxes to each pair (we were working in pairs, as though at school).

‘It’s just like Christmas!’ she exclaimed as she sent the small boxes around the table. Identical, I thought, if your Christmas is full of forced enthusiasm in the company of people you can barely tolerate and involves the ultimately disappointing opening of over-wrapped boxes.

I sat next to a male colleague, Colin. Colin and I set about the task with an absolute lack of enthusiasm. Around the table others were really engaged - giggling, bouncing ideas around, strapping pens and miniature flags to their cars. I was preoccupied by the stark facts of the situation: this was a room full of professional people gathered together to discuss problems encountered with the Arts Council’s new computer system; the end result of the exercise was bound to be a) poor b) pointless c) a waste of time.

Colin and I took refuge from the giddy enthusiasm around us and gossiped. My ‘manager’ and his ‘manager’ are currently an item. They have been very clandestine about the whole thing – although neither of them is attached to anybody else. It’s all very strange, but intriguing. Colin mentioned that he still didn’t know what our manager looked like. I fed his imagination with various details of her appearance, voice, table manners etc. That way, I thought, I could spare him any trauma associated with an actual encounter.

The finale of the toy car exercise was a race of the redesigned cars around an improvised racetrack on the floor. The track had a paper surface which recorded the movements of the cars (they had pens strapped to them). The end result was a sub-Pollock mess and was rightly toasted as a ‘manifestation of all the creative energy in the room!’

Monday, November 20, 2006

How much is that teacher in the window?

Maude has found herself at the centre of a human resources problem at work. One of her colleagues, Geraldine, has managed to build up quite considerable debts on several credit cards. She has, like many young women, a predilection for the latest fashions. Her buying habits, however, have far outstripped her spending power. Geraldine has hidden the true extent of her debts from her fiancé and has resorted to desperate measures to get herself out of her predicament.

Maude has often mentioned to me her concern about Geraldine’s lack of engagement with her colleagues. Geraldine has an extraordinary capacity to sit or stand stock-still, without any facial animation or blinking. This catatonic state has worsened in recent months – as Geraldine has fretted internally on the subject of her debts. She was recently found by the school caretaker hours after the end of a meeting, locked in an attentive pose with her pencil poised over her shorthand pad.

On several occasions Maude has had to check Geraldine for vital signs – waving a hand across her eye-line and searching for a pulse. A series of gentle prods with a pen would usually bring Geraldine out of her reverie and back into to the world of the conscious. On one occasion, however, Geraldine was locked more deeply in her own private world than usual. She was seated in the staffroom at the time. Maude entered the room to wash her coffee cup and found Geraldine motionless, again. Maude noticed that Geraldine’s coffee was cold in front of her and that it had acquired a skin. She removed it and washed the cup. In a further attempt to cover for her unfortunate colleague, she found some kitchen roll and dabbed away the drool on Geraldine’s chin. It was at this point that Geraldine came round in a blind panic, thought that she was being molested in some indefinable way, and soiled herself. It was this incident that became the basis for the poor woman’s ‘official grievance’ against her manager, Maude.

Maude’s concern has grown. Geraldine’s absences have taken on a new dimension and she has become physically elusive. Her classes have been left unattended, her books unmarked and her car nowhere to be seen in the car park. Maude’s teaching was disturbed recently when noise from one of Geraldine’s classes filtered down the corridor and caught her attention. On investigation, Maude came upon a near-riot in Geraldine’s form class – with the teacher nowhere to be seen.

‘Where is Miss Hush?’ Maude asked. Sniggers circulated the room. Maude then noticed that most eyes in the room were trained on two mischievous boys at the back of the class. They were standing motionless, in poses reminiscent of shop mannequins. Maude resisted the temptation to be amused and put them both in detention.

On Saturday some light was shed on the reasons for Geraldine’s unusual behaviour. Maude and I braved the crowds and the bitter cold in an attempt to start our Christmas shopping. We parked on the open-air level at the top of our usual car park, after our trip up the helter-skelter ramp showed no spaces on all the other levels. Windblown and tired before we’d even entered a shop we decided to cheer ourselves by joining the ranks of parents and children taking in the spectacle of the famous Christmas display in the Fenwick department store window. Maude loves Christmas and her eyes lit up as we watched a clockwork Father Christmas pass exquisitely wrapped presents along a chain of animated elves. We watched, as rapt as the gasping small children around us, as each gift travelled from Santa along the chain to its destination under the splendid Christmas tree in the beautifully reconstructed 1950’s family lounge in the adjoining window. An idyllic family scene was represented. A boy and a girl were posed, with hands raised in glee, dwarfed by an enormous twinkling Christmas tree. Mum and Dad looked on with satisfied smiles from the sofa and all the family members basked in the golden glow of a large festive open fire. The accompaniment was a rousing version of ‘Jingle Bells’ - replete with Santa’s rich laughter and the chuckling of busy elves. Like Maude, I followed the progress of the first gift all the way to the foot of the tree and felt an uncharacteristic surge of festive anticipation.

‘Here comes another one!’ said a father beside me, drawing his little boy’s attention back to Santa’s sack – the source of all the wonderment. The assembled eyes all went back to the font of gifts – like spectators in a slow-motion game of tennis. All, that is, apart from Maude.

‘Darling?’ I noticed that her giggling had ceased.

‘Be quiet.’ Maude cleaned her glasses and replaced them slowly. I noticed that her eyes were then fixed with awe on the family scene – in particular on the mother figure. I took a closer look myself. There, in the Fenwick display and utterly inanimate (for what must have been hours), sat Geraldine. The unexplained absences all made sense. Geraldine was using her 'gifts' to address the debt problems. I couldn't help worrying, however, that she would crack and reanimate at any point, being in such close proximity to the town's largest stock of designer clothes.....