“Well, if we ever want to know where all the bodies are buried,” Sean cut in, “We’ll ask Kathleen. Since she’s been with the company ever since the start.”
Delivered in his droll meeting voice, this phrase made my ears prick up, and I tabbed back out of what I was doing into the Zoom call. Everyone else, in a 12-grid or so of familiar faces from similar angles in similarly poorly-lit, cream-walled rooms, was politely laughing at this so I did the same, and then took a swig from a mug of coffee on my desk to let my face change.
“Speak of the devil,” someone else said. Another box opened up in the grid, and Kathleen appeared, then opened a view of her computer screen that shoved all of us off to the side.
“Sorry, had a lot of emails this morning,” she said. “How is everyone?”
I tried to look engaged, nodding and drinking from my mug again, but as Kathleen began going over the benchmarks for the week, even my false attentiveness strayed. I tabbed back to the browser window I had open, where I was leisurely scrolling down a Wikipedia page titled “Unsimulated sex.” The bulk of the page was a long table, populated with mechanistic descriptions of moments from schlocky Euro cinema, entries that crawled with body doubles and purported, unconfirmed acts, like a dream recollection from the psychiatrist's couch. It was, repeatedly, unclear if any of the main cast members were involved in hardcore scenes.
When the run-down of pending tasks and in-progress work started to sound familiar again, I tuned back in, and briefly turned on my mic.
“I’ll just be QCing the new second edition texts for the eighth and ninth chapters this week,” I said. Easy.
Though in hindsight that was the first moment I had my doubts. I was still thinking about what Sean said. Despite it being a figurative comment, it pointed to a long term context completely outside of what I knew of this job, started remotely, going on remotely. For the rest of my coworkers, it was made up of interpersonal dramas and grievances, however petty, done in the flesh. Maybe I didn’t really understand my role within the company, and maybe this whole work from home thing was a blessed interval before the axe would fall. My ability to hold an actual job long term in normal times had not yet been tested. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to cope, face to face.
At the end of the meeting, as everyone was about to wave and turn off their cameras, Kathleen said: “Oh, wait, one more thing!” She opened her own screen again and pulled up a PDF document she had minimised from the toolbar. “Ta-dah!”
“Castle Party!” appeared in the company’s soft and unseriffed branding font, underneath a blobby and purplish depiction of a cartoon castle. Skimming the schedule underneath the logo revealed that it was not really a party in the strict sense, but a day-long programme of corporate pep talks and team building activities set upon the glamorous stage of a historical country house turned event venue, far out in the miles and miles of countryside surrounding the city. All catered, of course. Well, we were all so excited, weren’t we? I did my best to seem pleased, but I wasn’t so sure.
After work, I brought the trip up to my boyfriend, who I had moved in with just before all this began. Very luckily, we were still getting along well. Working from home and eating meals in the same small room, then going to the adjacent room to fuck and sleep made it feel like we were the only two passengers left awake on a long haul generation ship, resting our heads on each other’s shoulders in the middle of an infinite void. We sometimes let things in, packages, takeaways, and other times ventured out, for groceries and other errands, but this would be the first major event to pop this bubble in months. I wasn’t sure how he’d take it.
“The CEO is American, since they were just acquired, and she’s like, really excited about the whole castle aspect, I guess,” I said, to conclude the explanation.
“Mm,” he said, not indicating much.
“It feels a little weird to go,” I added, hoping this would clarify that I wanted his input.
“It runs longer than your usual hours?”
“I’m sure they can’t legally require it, then. Just tell your manager there’s some reason you can’t.”
I stopped to think a second. I’d have to be more direct.
“So you don’t think I should go?”
“Oh, I thought you were asking me how to get out of it.” This made me smile. I appreciated his conscientiousness and principled resistance to doing anything for a job above the barest minimum that could be gotten away with. As charming as that was, it wasn’t what I wanted this time.
“No, I’m not sure.” I said this in honesty, but knew after it had left my mouth that it had become a bit of a lie. I would go. The castle party was a parcel of tantalising novelty that risked too much trouble and disappointment to refuse, even if I wasn’t totally convinced this novelty would be all good, or even a good idea.
When I arrived at the intersection where the chartered bus would pick us up, I felt immediately over and under-dressed. I had taken “smart casual” more seriously than most of the men present, who were largely wearing the same flannel shirts or hoodies over tees they did in the Zoom calls. No other woman was dressed like me, collared shirt under a sweater. They had all gone for cinched dresses or trendy, colourful blouses; some had even brought a change of outfit for the dinner and music scheduled for the evening. From both directions I felt like a bit of a freak, and so tried to get a window seat near the back of the bus when it arrived, after stiffly greeting the few people I was able to match with how they appeared on a computer screen.
The mood on the bus was not unlike a school trip crossed with early pages of “The Masque of the Red Death.” When we had all boarded, the CEO did a head count and shouted a joke about super-spreader events over her face mask, which was met with polite laughter. I watched as we pulled away from the city, on highways that passed suburbs, and then narrower roads, which wound through one last small village before all we were surrounded by were rolling hills and sheep fields. I kept my eyes peeled for the last bus stop we passed, tried to estimate how long it took from there to get to the venue, but, losing track, my verdict landed on “pointlessly far.”
Of course, the castle was impressive; usually what was done there were weddings. I was hardly devoted to this job, still I mimed clapping at every happy announcement or recognition of achievements that mostly preceded my presence at the company that made up the CEO’s introduction. We were sorted into groups, approximately by department, and made to compete in a series of absurd activities– paint-by-numbering a poster fastest, documenting a scavenger hunt with posed photos, pooling answers on a list of trivia. In each activity I hung off to the side like a wooden prop, like the fake crowds they had tucked into rows of seats at football tournaments, and wondered how I incidentally appeared in all the photographs that existed only as documentation of an artificially competitive activity, never to be looked at again. Probably unhappy and strange, I thought, unable to project even the barest sense that I belonged there, and certainly no clue what to do with my face.
With the schedule of activities completed, we sat down in the main hall for dinner. Unless a vegetarian meal request had been logged in advance, a bleeding steak was brought out for each valued employee, so soft in the centre that they started to deform into pulp as we cut pieces off of them. I looked around, feeling bad for the waiters, who circled around, all wearing face masks, refilling wine glasses perhaps a bit too attentively, while the rest of us were yelling conversations over poor acoustics and a house band whose mics were set too loud, in a seating arrangement that deliberately grouped us with people from completely different departments.
I was sitting next to a guy who did front-end development for the company’s public-facing site, which, of course, was different from the interface content and editorial would use, but like any two members of the human race, we approached conversation certain we could find some commonality. He told me that his home town was small, but not so bad, really, and I wondered if that was anything I’d ever say about my own. To evidence this claim he detailed what days had the best drink specials due to the local university.
When I had worked through the difficult steak and my third glass of wine, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and Kathleen, watching from the adjacent table, followed me, talking fast over the blaring cover band music.
“You should really make more of an effort,” she said. “You seem so tuned out.” It dawned on me, with some chagrin, that this was what kind of drunk she was, completely incompatible with the kind I was. I mustered all of my addled capacity to be gracious.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ve had a bit too much, I think.”
“You’ve hardly had anything. Be sociable. Act like you’re not miserable to be here.”
“Kathleen,” I said. “It’s work drinks. Please let me go.”
She had looped around, putting herself at an angle between me and the bathroom door handle, cornering me against the adjacent wall.
“No, I really think I have to clear the air about this.” She looked at me, really serious this time, and it felt like I snapped sober. “Remember when you said in the interview, that you were glad for this job, as something you could do until hiring picks up in your field again?”
“Yeah, well, I’d like to use my degree for something, someday. Can I please–”
“So, what? You’re too good for all this? You think you’re smarter than everyone here?”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said. All I had done in the interview was spoken honestly; my degree had been the only thing in my life I felt good at, and then I was shot into a shut down economy where it didn’t seem to matter what you knew. While I was happy for the pay, my job now was to squint for typos in PDFs and move status changes around on spreadsheets all day, for fuck’s sake.
“You need to be more bought in,” Kathleen said. “Or you’re risking letting everyone down. And you won’t stick around long like that.”
I swallowed the indignity, that I was now officially receiving some sort of dressing down at my first work party, and tried not to betray any emotional response.
“I’ll try. I’ll do my best,” I said.
“It’d be really helpful for you to open up more.” Her voice went low with a lot of implication, like I would know what to do, but I didn’t. Neither of us made a move. Far away the house band was playing one of those songs that I had only ever heard snippets of walking through shops.
“For example,” Kathleen continued. “What part of yourself do you think is the most vulnerable? What do you feel most protective of?” I couldn’t follow if this was some kind of motivational speaking thing, to try and get me to unblock my mental guard around the rest of the team somehow, or a cursory sift for emotional blackmail she thought would be fruitful after a few glasses of wine.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “In what way?”
“Like, do you have nightmares about a particular part of your body getting injured?”
“My eyes,” I said, considering a long time. “A lot of times it seems like something is trying to stab into my eyes, I guess. If I had to say.”
Kathleen circled around in front of me. I flinched like she had reached up and put both of her hands on either side of my head to hold me still, but she was just aggressively looking at my eyes, leaning in close.
“That makes sense,” she said. “You think of them as a whole, intact organ, but what really makes them work is the hole. They’re a wound like any other…”
I tried to follow her point, and realised she had me momentarily transfixed.
“Did you ever think about it like that, huh? A few things you can learn from us, if you put in some effort,” she went on into my silence, after drawing out the pause. It would have been the perfect moment for her to sink a concealed steak knife into my gut, for the whole hyper-managed corpo event to explode into an unrestrained orgy of bloodshed. Instead, the cover band ended their set and someone else got up on the stage.
“Alright, so, now, who wants to try some ceilidh dancing?” the next act asked, into a booming microphone. Kathleen broke away from me and went into the women’s restroom like nothing had happened. Amidst the sound of a fiddle tuning, I forgot why I had even gotten up to walk over here.
It seemed to be the thing to do, so I wandered out onto the floor and formed up in one of the groups being rushed together throughout the hall. We were told to line up, man woman man on one side, woman man woman the other, but it hardly mattered. The confusion of the Dashing White Sergeant obliterated the play acting of sex difference, and the horseplay escalated as the music transitioned to a completely gender-shuffled Strip the Willow. A woman who would have never otherwise touched my body nearly chucked me across the room with the momentum we spun off of each other, the music wound down to silence, and eventually we were all trundled into the charter bus home, dropped off in the city centre to stagger into late night buses and taxis. From the point Kathleen let me go to the point I landed sideways on my pillow at home, it all seemed to progress very fast, compared to how the day dragged, like something underground had lurched into motion out in the country, and we had all attuned to its inevitability.
And then, I somehow woke up a few minutes before my alarm, boyfriend in bed next to me, face tender and completely blank, breathing softly in his sleep with a bit of an early spring allergy sniffle. I sat in the grey quiet of our bedroom, staring at the blank wall. A thin stream of sunlight was leaking through where the curtains met, projecting the dappled green imprint of the leaves outside onto it, upside-down. I decided that I would just have to believe that being inside for so long had made everyone really weird. My phone alarm shredded through the silence, the light shifted, the camera obscura effect vanished. It was what I had to tell myself to face another work day.