For S – partner in crime on early morning surrealism
Mr Rivers moves back from the photocopier,
“Well, if you’re sure that you understand all the programme options……”
his voice trails off as he turns to the young man next to him and he takes a step away from the copier, but one finger remains, almost caressing the flashing display screen as if he is unwilling to relinquish his contact with the machine.
“We better go and see if we can free up a tortoise for you”
Gavin, 21, 2.2 in media studies and about to start his 3rd temporary admin post in 6 months, has for the last 90 minutes been following Mr Rivers on his induction session. He has seen the stationary cupboard, the staff microwave, submitted two passport photographs, in which he looks only mildly surprised, for a temporary staff pass and has had the mysteries of the internal post system explained. His face has been fixed in an expression of interested awareness while his mind has drifted, as loose and formless as a piece of free jazz, but this statement, delivered in tones of mild boredom, is so bizarre that he actually doubts that it has even been said,
“Tortoise ?” he says cautiously, hoping that he has not imagined the words.
Mr Rivers sighs ” I know, I know, but they are very popular on the 4th floor”
They take the lift, both silent while Gavin racks his brain, wondering if tortoise is some new business speak that he needs to understand, could it be an acronym, an in-joke?
The lift pings, the door opens and they are on the fourth floor, a medium sized open plan office, 12 desks, a water cooler, a meeting area with two leather look sofas and a pale wood coffee table. A number of the desks are occupied with other workers, speaking into phones, tapping on keyboards, but it is not these people that Gavin notices, it is the others, 3 or 4 of them, clutching folders, pieces of paper and moving from work station to work station.
All of them, moving slowly, painfully slowly, are seated on huge tortoises, venerable, ancient tortoises.
Mr Rivers smiles and waves at a blond woman at the nearest desk and mouths the word “temp”, she nods and points to a desk furthest from the vending machine, the photocopier and the lift and Mr Rivers steers Gavin towards it.
The desk is standard issue and holds an In/Out tray, a second generation Toshiba and tethered by one leg, a tortoise.
It is the largest tortoise that Gavin has ever seen, the size of a small armchair, its shell dark, shiny, golden and written in a neat script in white paint on the very edges of the shell are the letters P E T E.
Slowly, the tortoise lifts it head and tiny rheumy eyes carefully consider Gavin and then with agonizing slowness the head drops and the the animal returns to its gentle chewing on the lettuce piled up under the desk.
Mr Rivers flick the computer into life and nods at Gavin
“any problems, just ask Alice”, he indicates the blond woman “she’ll tell you what she wants you to do”.
He nods again and walks away, towards the lift.
Gavin sits very quietly for a moment and then the woman, Alice, calls across to him
“Go and get the P760s from Mike and I’ll show you how to do them”, she indicates a desk next to the window.
He stand sup and starts to move across the office
“Tortoise” she shouts and he returns to his deck and looks more carefully at the animal.
He doesn’t understand why he didn’t notice this immediately, but now he sees that the tortoises have been modified.
On each side of the shell is a foot rest, rather similar to those for pillion passengers on motorbikes and at the front or top of the shell, nearest the head, is a small wooden handle, obviously designed for the rider to hold onto.
Gavin rubs a hand over his face and feeling beyond foolish, he unties the tortoise, mounts the shell and begins a very slow progress towards the desk near the window.
The day continues, Gavin is given a number of errands to do that involve moving around the office, each time, he rides the tortoise. Tasks that should take 5 or 6 minutes take up to an hour, the speed of the work, or more accurately, the speed of the tortoises, creates an atmosphere that is both deeply frustrating and curiously soporific.
Walking home, at a speed that feels almost break neck, Gavin tries to re-frame todays’ events into a narrative that makes some kind of sense, but finally decides that on the weird ometer, today has been off the scale.
He considers not returning, but there is something deeply alluring about the pace of the tortoise, its’ measured movements, the speed of the workplace which draws him back and at 8.30 he finds himself entering the lift to return to the 4th floor.
Today, he is more aware, more observant and within an hour or two he has realized that many of the tortoises have been customized. Several have photographs, children, a small black dog, a rainy beach scene, sellotaped to the shells, one has a small cactus plant possibly blu tacked on. The plant falls off frequently and is carefully replaced. The largest and Gavin assumes, the oldest tortoise sports a slightly moth eaten plush velvet kitten.
At lunchtime,he sits at his desk eating a cheese and tomato sandwich and acting on an instinct he doesn’t really understand, he carefully removes a slice of tomato and offers it to the tortoise. The tortoise, Pete, moves towards his outstretched hand and gently sucks up the fruit in his mouth. There is a sensation of soft leather on Gavins’ palm. He sits and watches at the animal slowly, slowly chews and swallows the offering.
On Friday, dress down Friday, Gavin, chinos, rugby shirt, he doesn’t want to go too casual on his first week, digs about on the flotsam and jetsam of the previous temps’ top desk. He grins when he locates a tube of super glue and ten carefully, he sticks his R2D2 action figure on Petes’ gleaming golden shell.