Human Resources by Paul Arnold
Gavin looked up from the insurance claim. Usually the back of Brian’s head was in his line of vision. But today it was a large fish’s tailfin moving lazily from left to right and back again. He quickly looked left at the filing cabinet. It was still there but an octopus was sitting on it, right next to Gavin’s bicycle helmet and gloves. The animal was holding one of Gavin’s sandwiches in a tentacle and taking bites with its bony beak.
Gavin breathed out in disbelief and bubbles of air slowly rose to the ceiling. He put the claim back into the folder. He got up and began to walk towards the door but the air seemed thick and sticky.
It was lunch time and as the octopus had stolen his sandwiches he decided to go to the coffee shop. Outside the office building there were, as far as he could see, no fish or any other sea or freshwater creatures.
He ordered a hot chocolate with marshmallows and a sausage barm with brown sauce. He took a copy of the Daily Mirror out of the rack. Someone had neatly torn the crossword out.
Julie came from behind the counter and sat opposite him. She placed her elbows on the Formica and supported her beautiful oval face in her palms.
“How’s work?” she asked.
“Like always. Excruciatingly and mind-deadeningly dull. I think I might be going mad, or something like that.”
There was an uncomfortably long silence.
“Sorry Julie,” he whispered. Another silence.
Then Gavin asked, “What’s happened to your arm, Julie?”
“My wrist. A razor blade.”
He noticed a stain of bright arterial blood on the bandage.
“Thought you’d stopped that. So dangerous.”
Julie said: “I’ve got the crossword. Look: clue is, “Four letter word for Hades.”
Gavin frowned. ”Must be Hell but it doesn‘t fit.”
“Customer, just be a minute.”
Gavin looked at the ‘across’ and ‘down’ clues and hummed:
I don't know why I love you but I do
My days have been so lonely
My nights have been so blue
It repeated in his mind like a tape loop. An earworm. Why now, in Costa Coffee? Where had it come from?
Julie came back with two little apple pies each covered by a Matterhorn of cream.
“Thanks Julie.” Then he asked: “How’s your brother getting on with his new degree? Theology, isn’t it? Unusual. But perhaps there are jobs at the end of it.”
“Yes, our Lionel loves it. He’s doing a heaven and hell module at the moment.”
“He says the Church of England doesn’t do Hell anymore. It was a kind of metaphor, a story for old fashioned people. He says it was abolished in 1863 in a court case. It was decided that eternal damnation isn’t part of the doctrine of the Church of England. It’s been replaced by love. Not quite the same, is it?”
“This pie is gorgeous. What about Heaven?”
“Heaven is more complicated,” said Julie. ”They’re still working on it. A conversation. I don’t know who with, exactly. Must ask him.”
“And perhaps you can ask him whether Heaven would be boring? Like working in - you’ve guessed it - an insurance office?”
“I will. He should be back from college soon.”
“Thanks for the pie. Shall we meet tomorrow? Better get back to work.”
The office looked just the same except that a shark was swimming round the room. It looked very like the manager. The octopus and the sandwiches had gone. Everyone else was busy at their desks.
He thought of going to see his GP but decided not to. Last time the doctor suggested anti-depressants and steered the conversation round to cricket.
Gavin took the insurance folder out of the filing cabinet. It was about a horse damaging a car. He googled “Self-Harm”. The office discouraged Googling, games like Patience, or porn. Porn was considered the worst.
“Self-harm is often described as a way to express or cope with emotional distress. Emotional distress is often a build-up of many smaller things that lead people to think about self-harm.”
Gavin looked up and saw a plump Carp staring at him. “What are you going to do about it, Gav?” it asked.
Gavin’s mind filled with Julie’s wounded wrist and lovely face together with the sweetness of the cream and the tart apple. His throat was dry and butterflies fluttered below the desk.
Another week creaked wearingly along. Time slowed down. More bonkers boring claims and semi-literate angry letters. Worryingly, there was now a mixture of freshwater and sea fish in the office. Quite unrealistic. Impossible, in fact.
The Carp said, “Someone to see you, Gavin. At the door.”
It was Lionel, smiling and holding a lime-green envelope. The note read:
Gavin, I do love you but I’m going away today. Julie.
“Going away?” asked Gavin, crestfallen.
Lionel shrugged. “Don’t know where to or for how long. Sorry. Nice to meet you.”
Gavin forgot to ask him about the current status of Heaven.