Allan Drew

Office Cockroach

Brendon sat down at his desk, turned on his computer and rubbed his index and middle fingers across his forehead. The screen lit up and said Loading 1/3 updates. He went and made a coffee. When he got back it was Loading 2/3 updatesthen, quite suddenly, it was finished and his desktop appeared. He looked sideways at the icon for Microsoft Outlook, an orange square with one rounded edge overlaid with an envelope and, was that a pair of wings? He didn’t touch his mouse.

He reached for his mug and, just as he did so, a cockroach fell from the ceiling, completing a neat dive into his coffee. There was a small splash and droplets flecked the grey veneer of the desk.

Brendon examined the bug. Dying probably, from that insecticide the caretaker sprayed around. What was the species—a native or some sort of exotic? The cockroach did its wingy backstroke around the mug. Yes, dying for sure. The backstroke was getting lazy. 

“Your appraisal?” Brendon’s manager, Gary, had popped his head over the partition. Gary wasn’t asking about the appraisal of the cockroach. He was asking about Brendon’s appraisal of the impact of incoming workflow variations on the monthly invoices from their outsource partners in Delhi.

There was a budget problem with the outsourcing operation. The problem was that it cost more than it was supposed to. The budget for the project was $2.85 million. It was written down on a spreadsheet at the bottom of a column headed “YE Total Budget”. Anyone could see it. In the recent estimate of actual outgoings, the forecast was that it would cost $3.28 million.

This was an even bigger problem because it meant the work cost more than it had when it was done in Penrose. And that was a problem because the project to close the Penrose site down had cost $184,000 in operating expenses and third party contract closures, and more than $200,000 in employee severance pay. There were still two personal grievance cases in mediation.

Although the problem was unsolvable because of the weakness of the US dollar and the volatility of the rupee and other things that Gary had written in green virtual highlighter on a SMART Board under the heading “Factors”, Brendon had nevertheless been tasked with solving it. He’d created a spreadsheet that blinked with numbers and colours and columns and formulas. He’d also, in a moment of subversive defiance, included a supplementary tab in that sheet that no one had asked for, a tab labelled Alt Instr. The previous afternoon he had emailed the worksheet to Delhi. They would have read it by now. They would have seen the Alt Instr.

The previous afternoon he had also sent an email to Gary arguing against Gary’s idea to take more advantage of vacancy factor. Vacancy factor was close to Brendon’s heart. Vacancy factor was the cost saving achieved by not filling a vacant position straight away, filling it with someone on a lower pay rate, or not filling it at all. Recently, momentum had built behind the strategy of hoping people would resign and then waiting for budget year-end to roll past.

Brendon had left the office immediately after he pressed Send on the email to Delhi. When he got home, he’d made dinner from a family-sized block of chocolate and a bottle of riesling. He slept poorly—he was fidgety, and had to keep getting up to go to the toilet. In the night when he was urinating, he had trouble seeing the luminous dial of the clock he’d installed above the toilet. When the numbers did come into focus it was hard to believe what they said.

“Morning Gary,” said Brendon, as he flicked his eyes to the clock at the bottom of his screen. 8:47am. Gary didn’t usually stop by like this unless one of the team was late to work.

When Brendon’s alarm had gone off 6:30am, he’d said “No” to the people on the radio talking in lively voices about the amount of sugar in breakfast cereals. He’d hit snooze four times. When he got on the bus, he got a seat to himself, but at the next stop twelve people got on. The guy who sat next to him smelled like a mince pie. That man got off five minutes later and was replaced by a guy in a Dick Smith uniform who looked like he would have bad body odour but who smelled overwhelmingly of aftershave. That guy got off eight stops before Brendon’s stop, and was replaced by a woman who smelled like passion fruit pulp and whose shirt was loose enough that Brendon could see her bra. She realised, and adjusted the fabric the same way she might have tucked her hair behind her ear. As she stood to get off, a few streets from Brendon’s work, her elbow brushed the skin on his arm. It felt warm and smooth. The seat next to Brendon had been vacant for the rest of his journey. He’d been a few minutes late.

“Morning. Your appraisal?”

“I sent it yesterday afternoon, yesterday evening. I’m having trouble opening Outlook this morning so I’m not sure if they’ve replied yet.”

“Okay, we’re set to meet at eleven, so fill me in then.”

“Will do,” said Brendon, and then, “look what fell into my coffee.” He pointed to his mug, and then said, “From up there,” and pointed to the ceiling. After that he stopped pointing and just sat, hunched, like he had been before Gary had arrived. The cockroach’s backstroke was by now intermittent, nothing more than a facsimile of a life-and-death struggle. In the moments when its swimming stopped, it looked as good as dead, floating slowly around in its coffee vortex.

Gary peered at him, leaning over the desk. “Native or exotic? One of those foreign cockroaches?”

“Not sure.”

“Native I reckon.”

“Maybe,” said Brendon. Gary started to walk away, and said, “See you at eleven.”

Brendon’s coffee mug had a message printed on it. It said, “To be continued … ”. Brendon liked this piece of pottery philosophy, but none of his colleagues ever commented on it. It wasn’t a very philosophical workplace. The only thing people ever commented on was its colour, which changed from purplish-grey to orangey-yellow when hot water was poured into it. It was made from some type of colour-sensitive ceramic.

Brendon opened Word, and wrote:

 

An overalled assassin

prowls the evening corridors

delicately poisoning latent life,

soft-step stalking

in a computery glow.

That’s just imagination.

I’ve never seen him do it.

 

Brendon pressed Ctrl-S, and a dialog box popped up, prompting him to select a filename. He typed “Office Cockroach” and navigated to his directory called “Historical Accounts”. He pressed Save and minimised Word.

Brendon’s desktop was well organised. There were two columns of shortcuts to excel files arranged on the left of the screen. On the right was a row of useful widgets: they showed the current temperature at the international airport, a ticker tape of breaking international news, the current population of the earth, the number of years remaining until all the oil ran out, and the number of minutes remaining until the sun would explode. The wallpaper of his desktop was a photo of Millau Viaduct in France, the tallest vehicular bridge in the world. It was so high off the ground it looked like it was floating over a vacuum. On the taskbar were a number of icons for fast access to different applications, such as Outlook. With Microsoft Office 2007, you didn’t need to double-click to launch an application from the taskbar. One click and it would balloon up. Not necessarily an enhancement.

It wasn’t just the Alt Instr tab; there was more than that to worry about. The people from Delhi were going to say that most of the things in the spreadsheet were unacceptable, which meant he was going to have to come up with another idea to solve the budget problem, which meant at least another big spreadsheet. Not that spreadsheets were bad, but that sort of spreadsheet is hard, because Microsoft Excel isn’t magic, and that’s what he needed. He needed magic software.

Outlook isn’t magic either; it wouldn’t make things disappear. He continued with his Historical Account:

 

A three act play.

He was a proud bug, in his time, before

he fell from the ceiling’s grace;

he fought, flailed, reconciled,

surrendered.

An organisational tragedy.

 

The cockroach is not

to be continued …

 

He paused. Should that be there, the bit about “to be continued”? Could be too cute. He could edit it out later.

 

Tucked in his homey ceiling,

his bug-eyes on stalks,

he used to watch me.

I’d click and rustle and nod,

shake my head.

 

He’d say:

“What’s this click-click?

What’s this nodding business?”

The office cockroach’s

raspy advice was always

“Get in your warm ceiling.”

 

“Coffee?” asked Raelene. She had arrived while Brendon was writing his Account. He minimised Word.

Raelene worked with Brendon on the internal project to try to unwind the over-wound budget. She’d helped him with his most recent spreadsheet. It was a joint effort, although technically it was Brendon’s project. Gary had asked him to do it. Brendon had CC’d her on the email he sent to Delhi, as an acknowledgement of her contribution. That was how they acknowledged each other, in their organisation. They CC’d each other on important emails.

It wasn’t the official recognition system. The official recognition system required you to fill out a colourful card and get it countersigned by the person’s manager and give it to the person, and then you had to email the Rewards and Recognition Committee and submit a Recognition Report stating the reasons for the recognition. Quantitative reasons relating to profit or cost saving were preferable. At the end of the month, the most worthy reports were put in a hat—which was never actually a hat, and was usually almost empty—and one name was drawn out. That person won a bar tab at Please Beer With Me, the bar that had opened up on the ground floor of their office building. Brendon had never won a bar tab, but Raelene had won two.

Raelene and Brendon were data analysts. Brendon was average at his job, and Raelene was below average, even though she kept receiving colourful cards. She had been on a performance management programme after she’d started. Gary had told Brendon about that when Brendon had gone to him to complain that Raelene wasn’t pulling her weight. Gary was not very discreet, which was why Brendon never told him anything important. Since then, Raelene’s performance had fluctuated between acceptable and poor. Gary was on to it, or so he’d told Brendon, although there was no evidence to support that. Raelene had to be given credit, however, for being better with colours than he was.

Raelene was helpful with the spreadsheet because she was very good with conditional formatting. She made all the cells go red when the values exceeded the acceptable limits. There was quite a bit of red on it. Less green. Some orange. Gary’s department used a traffic light system for their budget analyses.

Raelene had said that Brendon’s “To be continued … ” mug was exactly the right colour for him when it was hot. When hot, it complemented his natural tones. Raelene had no qualifications to afford her opinion any validity, and therefore Raelene had said that merely to be nice to him. That was the sort of thing she did.

Keegan, who Raelene had replaced, had never said that sort of thing. There had been one time when Keegan had said that she liked how the mug changed colour according to its emotional state, but that had been a comment on the mug, not on how well it suited him.

Keegan was not with the organisation any more. “Keegan is leaving the organisation for personal reasons,” Gary’s email had said. She’d only lasted six months. Brendon had created elaborate fantasies about Keegan, involving skin and heat and moisture and an array of fabrics, some soft and satiny and others stretchy and glossy, but hadn’t done or said anything to her of consequence. Brendon had just looked at her, usually down her top or through the armhole of her sleeve, especially in summer when sometimes he could see the pale side of a breast cupped in a colourful bra.

Keegan wore G-strings. Once, when she got out of her chair, Brendon saw a thin cord of fabric arching over her hip. She’d slipped her thumb through it and pushed it down past the waistband of her trousers. When she did that, she’d looked straight at Brendon but with a blank look on her face.

Brendon hadn’t organised his opinions on G-strings. He knew what they were and the reason people wore them, but still was uncertain about the concept. Sometimes his underpants would get wedged in his rear end, and when they did, it was uncomfortable. He sometimes had to go to the gents to fix it all up. Why would someone do that to themselves on purpose, even given the supposed aesthetic benefits?

On National Jandal Day last year, when Brendon reluctantly complied with the company policy to wear jandals to work, Raelene had refused to participate. Brendon had been mildly surprised, and he’d asked Raelene why.

“Jandals are G-strings for your feet,” she’d said. “They give you toe cleavage. It’s a real thing, toe cleavage.”

“Okay,” Brendon had said, and he’d looked at his own feet then stretched them a long way under the desk.

Brendon was thinking about Keegan as he waited for the cockroach to die. He often thought about her on weekday mornings. It could have been that his own behaviour was why Keegan had left. Perhaps she’d figured out his thoughts? Probably other men had thought about her in the same way. Maybe it just got exhausting, for her, being subject to all those thoughts, and that’s why she’d left. He looked at his screen; perhaps she had problems with her spreadsheets—maybe she created ill-advised tabs. That might have been it. Then he looked back at his coffee and thought, maybe it was the bugs.

“Pardon?”

“Coffee?” said Raelene.

“I just got one.”

“Another?”

“One was enough, this morning, thanks.”

“Maybe later.” She added, “You look nice today,” and turned to her screen. That was a lie, most likely; she was just being Raelene. He was wearing the same shirt he’d worn two days ago. It was okay that she lied about those things. That sort of thing was necessary to get by sometimes.

Brendon had realised when he was young that he was average. It wasn’t that bad. Clothes were easy to find, for example. It was easy when you were a medium shirt size, 32-inch waist, and had size 9 feet. He could be a mannequin in a shop window, except he didn’t have moulded plastic abdominal muscles.

“Did you see this?” she asked. She pointed at her screen.

“What?”

“This email from Delhi.”

“No, not yet, I’m having trouble.”

“Check it out,” she said, pointing to the open email on her screen.

“That’s okay, I’m just about there with Outlook, so I’ll read it when I can open it.”

“They’ve fiddled with the sheet.” She squinted at her screen. “It’s gone all green.”

“Yeah?” said Brendon.

“What the hell … ?” she muttered.

The cockroach had stopped swimming, for good this time. Brendon pronounced him dead. Time of death, 8:56am, Office Mean Time. He maximised Word:

 

Memorial service to be held

at the sink. Thereafter,

buried at sea. All welcome.

Bring a plate.

 

And then:

 

Cockroaches are all male

until you stand on them.

Then they’re suddenly female,

exploding with eggs.

 

He’d assumed the cockroach was male, without question, but if you were to step on a cockroach to kill it, someone would be bound to blurt out that you shouldn’t have done that, because that’s how their eggs get spread. Brendon had googled that the first time he’d heard it, because it sounded dubious. He’d checked several sites to validate the facts, and had written an Historical Account of his research and findings. It was called “Misunderstood Cockroaches”.

He continued with his current Historical Account:

 

That’s not important.

It’s worthy only for

filling time.

Or killing time.

There’s the rhyme

my story needed.

 

Brendon sighed, quietly. If he sighed too loudly, Raelene would say, “What’s the matter?”

He had to get to it. It would be eleven eventually, and then he would have to talk to Gary about the people in Delhi. He opened Outlook. The email was sitting there, in bold, waiting. He turned away from it and picked up the phone.

“Hello? Hi. Can you come by this morning? I think we’ve got a bug problem again.”

The man on the other end said, “I’m all over it,” and hung up.

Jonny was the caretaker. Brendon called him Jonathon. He was the guy who sprayed for insects. He had let it be known by organisation-wide email that he must know about any sightings of bugs, so he could deal with the situation. He had sent an angry email once when he’d found out there’d been ants in the downstairs kitchen and no one had told him for two weeks. He got angry, sometimes, Jonny, but Brendon didn’t hold that against him. He might have got angry himself, too, if he were the guy mixing the poison and killing those bugs and having to stay around until everyone else had gone home, walking around in the near-dark among all the vacant desks.

 

He drowned

in a toxic tomb

of colour-sensitive ceramic,

inscribed with obscure wisdom

 

He minimised Word and maximised Outlook. He clicked on the email and it popped up in the preview pane. Brendon went back into Word and wrote:

 

Preview pain

 

It was entertaining, but he deleted it because it wasn’t part of the Historical Account. It was his policy, however, to find entertainment wherever he could.

The email from Delhi said:

 

Dear Brendon, thank you for the analysis. May we please schedule a call at your earliest convenience? We are unable to accept the modifications you suggest, and direct your attention to the contract agreement, signed by Gary Fowler, with the relevant passages highlighted. We have also corrected some of the calculations in the sheet you sent us (attached).

 

No mention of Alt Instr.

Brendon opened the sheet they had attached to the email. Raelene had been right. They had fiddled with it. The colours were all wrong. Some of the columns that had been filled with analyses were now completely empty, as if he’d never entered the figures at all. The sheet had gone mostly green, and some cells were highlighted in blue, a colour that Raelene hadn’t even used. The blue cells had embedded comments about the errors they had corrected. And there were errors. It had been late when he’d sent it, and he had been under pressure. Unnecessary pressure, if he were honest, from Gary. Why did Gary do that? Gary must know that it wasn’t his fault. Why did Gary sign that contract? And it was a big spreadsheet. It spanned over many tabs and rows and columns, with embedded formulae and look-up tables. Brendon pulled at one of his long eyebrow hairs, and was surprised when it popped out. It was about two inches long.

He scrolled along the bottom, through the tabs of the worksheet. There was no Alt Instr tab. What had happened to it? Had he not actually put it in at all? Brendon sifted through his brain, sidelining his mild hangover as much as he could, searching for the memory. He glanced at the clock; he’d have to work out what’d happened later. He was getting short on time.

Brendon started drafting an email to send to Gary before the meeting, in which he planned to highlight the part where the people from Delhi talked about what Gary had done with the contract. It was a hard email to get right. He minimised Outlook, and maximised Word:

 

My mug’s a small target.

I wonder

what are the odds, and maybe?

did he aim?

 

Perhaps, as he was dying,

he wanted

a closer look at its colour.

Maybe he wanted to comment

on its enigmatic phrase.

 

Cockroaches love a good enigma.

 

Jonathon arrived. He’d brought his mug with him, but it was empty and he banged it down on Brendon’s desk. Jonathon drank black coffee, downstairs by the workshop while he smoked his cigarettes. His mug said, “Let me stop what I’m doing and work on YOUR problem”.

He said hello to Raelene across the cubicle. “Hello,” she said. Raelene and Jonathon had slept together. Everyone knew it. That had happened just after she had started with the organisation. It was a puzzle. She said nice things to people, white lies usually but still nice, and tried to make them feel better when bad things happened, and asked colleagues if they wanted coffee, and was good with conditional formatting. Jonathon, on the other hand, got a bit angry now and then, and smoked, and swore, even in front of the managers. She always wore a skirt and he was always dirty and his hands were rough and blistered. It didn’t make sense.

“Look,” Brendon said, pointing to his mug. He’d spent most of the morning pointing, or watching other people point. “It came from the ceiling,” he said, “just after I put my mug down.” He spoke like he was providing eyewitness testimony at a trial. Jonathon squinted at the ceiling. He didn’t say anything for a while. Raelene leaned over and saw the cockroach. She contributed a squeak, and said “Poor little guy.” She went back to her screen.

“What a way to go,” Brendon said.

“Bugs,” Jonathon said, “bloody bugs. These German roaches give me the shits. Do you know that a single female can spew out half a million of those baby bastards a year? How am I supposed to keep up with all that?”

“That seems like a lot,” Brendon said. He’d google it later.

“Half a million, no shit.”

“Okay.”

German cockroaches. Not native, as it turned out. Even the bugs are outsiders. No wonder Keegan left.

He should have said something nice to Keegan, once or twice. He wouldn’t even have to have lied. He could have said that she looked good on a day when she looked good. He could have told her that her water glass was funny. Her water glass had a picture of a woman with big blonde hair and red lips and a gun, and the speech bubble coming out of her mouth said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”. Or maybe he could have done something nice for her, like left a Fruit Burst on her desk. She liked the red ones. He could have wiped away the dead insects after Jonathon had sprayed, because she hated doing it herself. He could have CC’d her on an email when she’d been only marginally involved with the project. He could even have given her one of those colourful cards and sent an email to Gary. Probably he could have not looked at her so much.

After Keegan left, it had taken a while for Gary to get around to replacing her. While there had been a vacancy, Brendon was asked to take up the slack. He said he would, then didn’t. If anything, he spent even more time writing his Historical Accounts. There was one about bridges of the world that was eight pages long.

Raelene was Keegan’s replacement, and sat at her desk. Brendon had been pleased when she’d started, mostly because having vacant desks in the department made him feel uneasy, like he was sitting in a half-empty pantry. It was somehow grotesque, to have places for people to sit and no one sitting there.

On Raelene’s first day, a tech from IT had come to set up her workstation. The guy was most likely psychologically disturbed. He’d said he believed that computers are sentient, and that they are so smart that they’d managed to hide how smart they are.

“They are smarter than us,” he’d said, “and that’s how come they do their best to fuck us over just when we need them the most.” Raelene had flinched when he’d said “fuck us over”. He’d then talked to Raelene for a long time about operating systems and file sharing and network directories and Raelene had looked like she was going to be sick. She had changed colour, nearly matching the veneer of her desk. After the tech had left, Brendon had said, “You don’t need to know any of that.” From then on, she talked to Brendon all the time.

It was 9:44am. Brendon maximised Outlook and worked on his draft to Gary.

 

Gary,

I think we should initiate our evaluation of the Delhi email situation by investigating the contractual intricacies and consequent highlighted discrepancies therein. The alleged alternative Delhi view of the integrity of the data in the spreadsheet is really rats and mice in comparison. I believe the devil is in the detail of the contract agreement. Any issues with the spreadsheet data are items that Raelene and I can action separately. I have printed off the most recent copy of the contract and will br

 

Brendon held down the Windows key with his left thumb and hit Tab with his index finger. Internet Explorer ballooned up. He googled “cockroach reproduction”. Jonathon had been wrong. He’d exaggerated. A single female German cockroach could only produce 300,000 offspring a year. Also, German cockroaches came from Africa, so they’re not even native in the country they’re native to.

Brendon hit Windows-M then stared at the Millau Viaduct for a few seconds. It was 10:02am. Keegan had always started at 10:00am. She had negotiated that with Gary when she’d got the job. She worked from 10:00am until 6:30pm and took half an hour for lunch.

Brendon went to My Computer/Users/Brendon’s Files/My Documents/Accounts/ Historical Accounts, and opened the Historical Account called “Keegan”.

 

She comes into work with

smile, skirt and hair,

like a theatre curtain opening,

lights and music

 

she calls

someone darling as he walks past,

I can see she’s been resting

her arms on the desk’s edge and

it’s carved grooves in her skin

 

that look like scars.

She breaks a nail pulling out a staple

and she sucks at the blood, and the numbers

from my spreadsheet drip

 

down the walls, hang like mist

over the partitions, float

in clouds around the light fittings.

 

When I leave for the day

I just go.

 

I heard her say on her last day

she didn’t mean to stay

so long

but needed

 

and that’s where I lost her, but

I think she meant the job

or the money, but

 

What had that “but” been leading to? It had been a while since he’d looked at this Account. He closed the file, left “Office Cockroach” open, then minimised Word and clicked on Excel, opening up the local version of the file he’d sent to Delhi. He scrolled along the bottom and found the Alt Instr tab. He clicked on it. There they were, 65,536 rows and 256 columns of cells, each containing the phrase Bite me.

They must have deleted it in the version they modified and sent back. Brendon blinked. It made sense. What would he have done if he’d received a worksheet filled with nothing but rows and rows of Bite me? He’d have assumed it was some sort of mistake, and ignored it. Brendon swallowed dryly. Was it still subversive, was it still defiant and rebellious, if everyone ignored you, if they acted like your rebellion and defiance had never taken place? As if the act was some peculiar error, a slip of the keyboard or a bug in the software?

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Raelene. Brendon right-clicked on Alt Instr and selected Delete from the menu. The tab disappeared. He hit Ctrl-S, closed Excel and maximised Outlook.

“Pardon?”

“Coffee, Brendon fella, come on.” Raelene was holding up her mug and dangling it like it was a carrot and Brendon was a horse. Brendon had always liked Raelene’s mug. It wasn’t philosophical, but it was entertaining. It was printed with a picture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex sitting at a keyboard eating a muffin, and the caption read, “Om nom nom”.

“Okay. Just let me send this email.” Brendon deleted “and will br” from the end of his draft, added a full stop, and pressed Send. He hit Windows-Tab. Word ballooned up and “Office Cockroach” sat open on his screen. The cursor blinked.

 

Post-script: In memoriam.

Office cockroach, you went

cold with the coffee.

You should

have come to me sooner.

What were you doing here anyway?

 

“Done. Oh, hang on, I need to wash my mug,” said Brendon. Raelene looked at the cockroach.

“Don’t squash it. That’s how you spread the eggs.”

“Right,” he said. It was 10:39am.





Allan Drew

Allan Drew is a PhD student at Victoria University Wellington, where he studies creative writing and English literature. His short stories and poems have been published in a number of journals and magazines, and he has won or been short-listed in several writing competitions.