Paul Flaherty

The Vow

Paul Flaherty

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I longed to live an imagined life instead of suffering the indignity of my circumstance, to be a roving bard, sustained by art, year after year given over to great bawdy works instead of foraging for scraps, picking sarky poems from banality’s pockets and typing them up in shrunken word docs, instead of stagnating I wished to flourish. In other words the usual: I longed to be free of the office.

Of course I didn’t leave. A temporary contract became a permanent one, a year became three, and then, as it was halfway to becoming four, with the tersest of openings he entered my world.

                                                        Meeting room 2

                                                               5 mins

The email startled me, filling my caffeine tightened chest with fear. I’d been sitting there staring at a spreadsheet of outstanding fees and for a brief moment, in the paranoia of that open-plan office, he’d gotten in my head and heard my futile prayers. He was a manager but he wasn’t mine, so it was strange. We’d never really spoken. There’d been the usual unanswered questions in the lift and at the water-cooler, the “how’s tricks?” and “how are ye?”, the odd "over the hump" but that had been the extent of it. There’d been no need for anything more: his team administered completely different funds. I didn’t say anything. I just waited and then walked past my team, the water-cooler, the toilets, and into meeting room 2.

He wasn’t there. I took a seat on one of the middle chairs on the far side of the long table. There were groups of pages on display arranged in a hexagon type shape which enabled titles and headlines to be easily read. Pages I immediately recognised as my most recent reading material, what I’d peruse during lulls or just plain read instead of working. Bits and bobs on 19th century urban revolt, an article by Nicolas Lezard, that one-man-hurrah for the modernists, a couple of James Tate poems, a couple of my own and a piece about Mario Balotelli entitled “The Many Myths of Mario”. I presumed, quite obviously, that I was in trouble, about to finally get my comeuppance, a damning warning that would mark me down on my bi-annual appraisal –“unfit for promotion”. However, on further hurried inspection I noticed a large arrow scribbled in green highlighter on the Balotelli piece, an arrow pointing round to the back of the page where there was a note in blue biro, a note in a meticulously odd script, a feint secretive italics that leaned in opposite directions. The first line was your usual forward leaning style but then the next leaned back the opposite way, it went like that until the last two lines where the opposing styles converged into straight up letters that were both forthright and bold, the lines centred, giving the appearance of leftist graffiti or an especially brief poem.

Although ours is certainly a History of defiance, of crazed countesses digging trenches in public gardens, of wretched peasants gaining their self-esteem by pick-axing aloof landlords, of the slow and vicious defeat of a dastardly bunch of prim and proper thugs, the we who repelled those oppressors were a minority and are no longer with us and when we use we in that context it is an attempt to claim kudos, kudos we havent earned. The closest most get to rebelling nowadays is a bit of me-time skived, 15 minutes reading some internet article of interest, a bit of banter at the bosss expense, dispirited punters such as yourself whod rather be anywhere else, wayward brethren who dont get the point but to whom I say this: 


                                                      Bring it down from within!

Silence… I sat there flitting between excitement and fear, between feeling insulted and invited to act. Bring it down? Is there a conspiracy? Is this some incitement to rebellion? Or is he taking the piss? How did he get my poems, those articles? Who the hell in IT is he working with? What the hell is this? I flitted between all of these thoughts until I once more became aware of the office – a phone being answered – hurried words – the photocopier being fed pages and spitting others out –I gathered up the pages and returned to my desk. I had been gone a matter of minutes. My absence hadn’t been felt. As inconspicuously as I could, I looked around toward his team but none of them were there. “They’ve a meeting in town this afternoon”, I was told. "Doubt they’ll be back to base camp”.

That night in my studio apartment I read the note over and over. I ate my supper of beans on toast with gusto, reciting those words as if on a soapbox. I felt a surge in my guts. Was something about to happen? Yes I said. Yes yes yes. My mind lit up with visions. I was a prophet blazing through office blocks with an incendiary message… Ecstatic vision followed ecstatic vision until I went to the balcony for my nightly ciggie and, looking down at the page: The words vanished before my eyes. All that was left was the Balotelli piece. Disappearing ink! That night I slept a fitful sleep.

The next morning, remarkably, I was the first one in. He appeared. A look of concentration on his face, his pale blue eyes looking directly at me as he approached, barely making a sound, his hush puppies on the carpet bringing to mind a warm memory from childhood, of sickness feigned and freedom gained, a child dancing on soft, hoovered carpet to Billy Joe Spears. I could smell freshly-ironed clothes. Without taking off his coat and scarf he came over, stood beside my desk and began whispering, whispering even though nobody else was in: “Anselmo, all is not lost. There are others, others you’d never expect, a vanguard of dedicated stalwarts, the get-it-dones who go unnoticed, a silent militia who employ a Herculean discipline to get something out of this routine, who won’t allow themselves to be dispirited by the daily grind, who in fact use it for the ideal; efficient artisans of reverie, pinstriped mystics who see other worlds besides this one of contentious figures and Powerpoint presentations, canteens of huddled colleagues, other worlds besides this one of hopping phones and bosses, fantastic, mist enveloped ones, we dream dream dream as we get the job done. You see as the hours, days, months and years pass the mist clears more and more, I’m not saying we’ve a blueprint or any such murderous nonsense but, brother, we are beginning to get a clear picture of an alternative and we’re blissed out by the idea of it”. Just like that he was gone. That was my introduction to Frank Eastman, although back then, clean-shaven and hard to believe as it is now: baby-faced, he went by the name of Conrad Fitzgerald. Gradually, he began schooling me. We’d cross paths once a week, wherever, the water cooler, the canteen when no one else was around, the lift, and he’d elaborate more.

Week 1: “Discipline in everything you do brother, everything, most especially dreaming. Dispensable dreamers don’t pay reverie the necessary respect”. He was right. When it came to day-dreaming, as the Hedge Fund Nation Corp found out, he was serious. And that was his point. I was too blatant. I wouldn’t be taken serious and more importantly wasn’t taking myself seriously. I wasn’t strong willed enough. “It's all preparation!” he'd say. 

Week 2: He informed me there was a covert clique of comrades scattered throughout the corporation. Who? I wasn’t sure and he wouldn’t tell. “If you were that much of a slacker you wouldn’t be here. I have respect for the dropouts and welfare knacks. The bums at the canal nursing Devil’s Bit and playing cards are trailblazers. We're on the same side. Rest assured: links are being formed. You have no idea how far-reaching this is going to be. There is a great hunger for loafing, for idling, for having one’s own time, but you must be patient, brother, such flagrant day-dreaming, such clear-as-day idling during work hours only draws unwanted attention to the movement. You must prove your worth. Why, I just had an important conference call there, you heard about it I’m sure, well I handled it with aplomb, you’ll hear them congratulate me throughout the day, but the whole time as I was saying what was expected of a person in my role, or rather while I was saying what was expected of a person who is exceptional in that role, the whole time, I was far off. You see: discipline. I was dreaming of a world that will have no need for such roles and we and our kind will daydream in peace, live and loaf and love. Snatch Utopia while you work! It doesn’t have to wait. And one day it will be even more than snatched Utopia. It will be our world. But you need that discipline." I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t believe it was possible, but the genius, and he is, even still, maintained that he had been able to achieve this wondrous way of conducting his day-to-day, a way that brought with it previously unimagined rewards.

Week 3: Alone in the lift, “I’m well aware that “wear a tie, it’s more professional”, is one of mediocrity’s most uttered inanities, but, brother, do. These by-the-book dimwits really believe they give off a special aura. They’re like dreads for rich white kids." Although an idealist, he wasn’t po-faced. He mixed it up with the snideness of an entry-level misfit. I was his student, his apprentice, his disciple.  “The CEO dream is their creation, a shite film born of an unimaginative mind. We’re flipping the script. Ours is a utopian art house epic, an ambitious poetic mess that will soon make sense. The subtitles are forming before our very eyes.” His tendency to be vague only added to the allure.

Week 4: “If you’ve an hour’s head start you can give more time to the cause”. I came in early. The biannual appraisal was glowing.

I carried on like that with my head down for the rest of the year. Tidbits of info being passed on here and there. I attained promotion and lo and behold I became a supervisor. Conrad seemed proud but sensing my growing impatience, kept advising me to bide my time. “This is a critical moment for the movement. We must use all the discipline we can muster, head down brother, the movements of the past were bedevilled by personality clashes, the sectarian strive of ego-induced splits, ours, although not afraid to take from the past, is new, be aware of our goal, right now we’ve little need to communicate, we'll never need a Comintern.”

One day Conrad didn’t turn up for work. His unit didn’t receive a call. The next day was the same. Conrad had never missed a day. He'd received extra annual leave and a bonus due to that very fact. I scoured for info to no avail. I realised I didn’t know anything about his personal life. Single? Wife and kids? Straight or gay? I’d no idea. I began noticing unidentified heads in and around HR, coming and going without badges and nobody really noticing. I used a query about annual leave as a ruse to probe for info. Cliona, head of HR, batted back my questions about Conrad with some drivel about personal issues but it was the first time I’d ever seen her flustered. Even though I left her office none the wiser, I believed that Conrad was about to up the ante. Stage 2 is imminent! I, now a dedicated stalwart, began readying myself.

Nothing happened. I used all my strength to stay focused, to stay disciplined. Things began to change: instead of the far-reaching reverie he’d promised the discipline would bring, it was in fact becoming the opposite. Not only was Utopia still mist-enveloped, it was far off, so far off I could barely see it. Listening to Rocky Erikson sing I think of Demons, I’d no longer dream of being on stage tripping like a beast in front of a rabble of sexy freaks. I’d be nailing it in a karaoke session with the lads, belting out "Lucifer Lucifer Lucifer" in the basement of that Japanese restaurant on Exchequer Street. They all became about the day-to-day ordinary life, the dreams of a grounded mind. Great maddening ideas of freedom were relegated to the inaccessible recesses. I was, sweet Christ, fitting in. Promotion followed promotion. I voted in a referendum.

I began hearing rumours in management conferences. Usually I’d pay little attention to the controversial new techniques which would have my pot-bellied colleagues engorged. Those imbeciles were faddists. I’d gravitate instead towards my learned and more down-to-earth female colleagues who didn’t tend to idolise “gurus” and “mavericks”, but three words kept cropping up and for some reason kept giving me a feeling of unease: “Bespoke Management Technique”. I ignored them as best I could until one day I heard them accompanied by the name Frank Eastman. I’d heard it before but where? It was the name that had so embarrassed Cliona from HR. The name that had made her blush and fluster her words. “Oh Frank, Frank Eastman, well he’s all done, he’s…. Oh Anselmo, oh apologies, I thought you were someone else. Conrad was it you were asking after? Well he had some personal business to take care of so it was best for him if he resigned and went back to the family home…oh I can’t give out such info.” I entered the huddled circle, all whispered words and hushes. It quickly broke up and I was dragged to one side. A brawny fella with a smiling face handed me a piece of paper and said "come with me." I followed him outside the hall to the car park. He lit a fag and told me to read. It was a flyer.

                                                              Dont be left behind!

                                  Come to the Boutique for all your management needs.


                                                                   Case specific.

Why arent you maximising resources? What are you waiting for? Programme your dreamers, drifters and slackers to be productive drones and more. Watch your productivity soar. Great religions, political parties, the law courts, are all peopled by the previously directionless. Dont be afraid of success! Our January sale guarantees middle management or your money back. Dont miss out!

I read those words with an open mouth. Had I been the guinea pig or just one of the many programmed to be a corporate drone then more. I stood there, a slumped mess. All the while the brute, unbeknownst to me, had been yelling. “Destroy it! Destroy it!”, to which all I managed was a pitiful “wha?” He took the flyer from me, crumpled it into a ball and said, “eat!” All I can say in my defence is that I must have been in shock because I gobbled down those earth shattering words and next thing I knew I was coming to, drowsy as a granny after three glasses of sherry, in a strange Georgian room.

So began my most shameful episode. There he was at my bedside. “Conrad”, I sighed. “Frank”, he replied. “Frank Eastman. I’d like to thank you, Anselmo. You were the one who made me believe, the one who showed me that my deep undercover management techniques weren’t fantasy and lunacy like all those professors who laughed me off campus said. People just want some feeling of self-worth, no matter how small. They just want to belong to something. Then there are the likes of us. See I bet you never stopped hoping for phase two. Bet you never gave up on it, kept your cool and didn’t blab once. I knew you had the discipline.  You're that rare breed, see. You are above the everyday. One of the few with the capabilities to play God. Let me bring you into the fold”. He handed me my file. It was all there: A copy of the email, the final draft of the note, the drafts that came before, 25 in total. It had taken him a while to get the wording right and he’d experimented a good deal with his penmanship before settling on that meticulously odd script, and most impressive of it all, the audio files. Every single conversation between us had been recorded, from the odd word on the lift to the more prolonged colloquies, all of it. “The revolution is being recorded for training purposes”, he said. I asked could I take a copy. He said “join me.” I said “yes.”

When I try to explain now how I became one of his top-ranking deep undercover operatives, I always say stuff like “I no longer believed in anything” or “my god he was charismatic”, or talk about how he believed in me, "The Boutique owes just as much to me as it does to him", or I’d talk about that other note, the one that came three years before and ended three years of real life love, a note that ended with the words: “life is too short. I won’t piss it away with an unpublished poet”… La. Di. Da. Truth of the matter is: I was weak and in awe.

One of my first cases was a GAA head in a Life company, big country lad who ate about 12 slice pan sambos at lunch. He was painfully awkward and found it hard to socialise, a big lump of a bogger but by God I saw the potential. He trained hard: four nights a week and then a match each weekend. When I was finished with him I had him believing efficiency and dedication at work could only add to his game, could have him wearing his county colours at Croker. “All skills are transferable, Donacha”. He never did make it to Croker. No glory to look back on as he festers away in middle management.

I remember each and every one and, while it won’t rid me of my shame, I make this vow: I will not rest until I've deprogrammed them all.

Paul Flaherty

Paul Flaherty lives in Dublin. His poetry has appeared in The Moth and The SHOp among other places and featured in The Wild Geese Return in Bewley’s theatre in 2012. He is six years into a sequence of poems entitled Scone Mountain. He is also working on a short story collection.