An accountant – call him Accountant A – occupied a modest office in a modest accountancy firm. Even though Accountant A’s office was one of the smaller offices, the Boss asked him if he wouldn’t mind allowing the new photocopier to be housed there.
‘Why does it have to go in my office?’ asked Accountant A.
The Boss explained that the new photocopier was too big to fit behind the reception desk.
‘You’d be doing us all a big favour,’ he said.
The large, bulky machine was placed in the corner of Accountant A’s office. Now, whenever he wanted to leave the room, he either had to go to the right of his desk and squeeze between the desk and the filing cabinet, or go to the left and walk between his desk and the machine. The latter route was easier, except when the one of the two receptionists – it was always the younger of the two – came in to use the photocopier; then there was even less room to move on the photocopier side than the filing-cabinet side. So if Accountant A wanted to leave the room when the receptionist was photocopying, he was, effectively, forced to go to the right. This might happen up to six times a day.
He could tolerate the physical discomfort of having to take the alternative route when the receptionist was in the room. What he found more troubling was the inexplicable tension between them. She hadn’t been with the company long, but she seemed to dislike him. She barely said a word to him, unless he asked her to post a letter or perform some other small task. Then she sighed and said, ‘Sure.’
Accountant A had sat behind that same desk in that same office with that same dull green filing cabinet for years, and now this enormous piece of hardware was taking up even more space. For years he’d worked patiently, not complaining, because he knew that the accountant who occupied the office at the end of the corridor – call him Accountant B – would be retiring before long. Accountant A had assumed that when Accountant B retired, he would get Accountant B’s office, which was significantly larger than his own. Having put in so many years of faithful service, Accountant A felt that the graduation to a more spacious office was no more than he deserved. He never complained when the Boss allocated him so much extra work that he had to spend evenings and weekends with spreadsheets instead of his wife and children. He didn’t protest when the Boss overlooked him for promotions. He barely questioned the decision to put the new photocopier in his office. Accountant A went about his work quietly and doggedly. Ultimately I’ll be rewarded, he said to himself; and if not in this life, then in the next.
But when Accountant B finally retired, the Boss didn’t offer Accountant A the larger office at the end of the corridor. Instead, he gave it to the retired man’s young replacement – Accountant C – who’d all but demanded the larger office even though he’d only just joined the firm.
So, not only was Accountant A denied the roomier office, but now the space in his existing office had been further diminished by the new photocopier.
‘Why can’t you put the photocopier in the bigger office?’ he asked the Boss.
‘Because yours is much closer. We can’t have the girls at Reception walking all the way to the end of the corridor every time they want to photocopy something. That’s patently ridiculous.’
Accountant A said nothing more. He knew it was too late anyway, because Accountant C was already ensconced in the larger office. They’d have to drag him out kicking and screaming. Accountant A decided that perhaps now would be a good time to look for a job in a firm where he’d be more appreciated.
In the meantime, he tried to make friends with Accountant C. They got on all right at first, but then Accountant A said something about God, which made Accountant C uncomfortable.
‘I’d better get back to work.’ Accountant C retreated to the generous dimensions of his office at the end of the corridor.
Even this, Accountant A could accommodate, but he desperately wished for an easing of the tension between him and the younger receptionist. It seemed to be getting worse. He sat at his desk. She stood at the photocopier. The room was cramped but they were miles apart.
He wondered why she disliked him. He was nothing but courteous and considerate, always taking the difficult, uncomfortable route from behind his desk to the door when she was using the photocopier. He squeezed himself between the desk and the filing cabinet, inhaling deeply so he could fit through the narrow space, all to spare her the inconvenience of having to move out of the way. He smiled at her when they passed each other in the corridor. She smiled back, but it looked more like a caricature of a smile than the real thing.
Once as he walked past the kitchenette, he overheard her talking with the older receptionist.
‘He’s all right,’ the latter was saying. ‘Just a bit quiet, that’s all.’
‘No matter how rudely I talk to him, he just takes it. Never gets angry.’
‘I think he might be religious.’
‘I feel sorry for his wife. Imagine being married to such a drip!’
‘You could do worse.’
‘I already have, believe me. Things are pretty rough at home right now.’
Accountant A crept back to his office.
Later that afternoon the younger receptionist was using the photocopier. Accountant A could no longer bear the silence.
‘If there’s anything you’d like to talk about,’ he said. ‘I’m… quite happy to listen.’
‘No, thank you.’
After a few more minutes had passed, he said, ‘I turn to God in times of difficulty.’
‘Please don’t impose your beliefs on me.’
A few days after that, Accountant A was at his desk, wrestling with a tax return. Nearby, the younger receptionist was leaning over the photocopier, mutely inserting documents into the plastic feeder. The machine tugged each sheet down into its guts, whirring and buzzing as it faithfully reproduced every page. It was giving Accountant A a headache. He laid his pen on his desk and waited, but the younger receptionist had a lot of photocopying to do that afternoon.
He decided to go outside for some air. But this time he chose not to go between the desk and the filing cabinet. Right now he didn’t feel like putting himself out for her benefit. He stood up, turned to the left and attempted to go between the desk and the younger receptionist, who was still leaning over the photocopier, feeding it paper.
‘Excuse me please,’ he said.
She sighed and straightened up slightly, but there still wasn’t enough room, and even though he pushed himself back as far as possible against the edge of the desk, his body brushed against hers as he passed. He left the building and went for a walk to clear his head. When Accountant A returned to his desk, she was gone.
Later that afternoon, the Boss phoned.
‘Would you mind coming by my office?’
‘Now would be good.’
As Accountant A entered, the Boss said: ‘We’ve got a bit of a… situation.’
Accountant A paused between the door and the chair near the Boss’s desk.
‘Mm. Mrs Ryan – Angela – has made a complaint. About you.’
‘Please take a seat. She claims you… behaved inappropriately. Touched her.’ The Boss cleared his throat and poured himself a glass of water from a jug sitting on his desk. ‘Water?’
‘No, thank you,’ said Accountant A. He suddenly felt cold.
The Boss sipped the water. ‘She says that earlier today when she was using the photocopier, you squeezed behind her, and as you did so you, er, rubbed against her.’
‘What? No, no. I was just trying to get past. There’s no room, you see, because of the photocopier. I had to squeeze past.’
‘Yes, well, be that as it may, she’s made this complaint and we have to take it seriously. So I think it’s best if you take some time off until… you know.’
‘But how long will that be?’
‘We’ll deal with it as quickly as possible, believe me.’
‘But… what am I supposed to tell my wife?’ Accountant A looked directly at the Boss and held out his right hand, as if begging for alms. ‘What am I supposed to tell my children?’
The Boss adjusted a framed photograph on his desk. ‘It’s not really my place to advise you on that.’ He looked at Accountant A. ‘This is the first time this has ever happened. Fifteen years and it’s never happened once! Fuck! Excuse me, I’m sorry.’
Accountant A shrugged, wondering what he was supposed to say.
‘Why did you have to squeeze past her? Why couldn’t you have gone the other way?’ The Boss passed a hand through his sparse hair. ‘This is all I need right now.’
‘She could have moved in a bit and let me pass.’
‘All I need.’
So Accountant A found himself driving home at three-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. He could not recall having left work early before. As he drove, he thought to himself: if I was going to molest any woman, any woman at all, she’d be the last one I’d choose – the last one on earth.
Having permitted himself this moment of unkindness, Accountant A began to think about what he was going to tell his wife and children.