Everyone knew the building was haunted. The staff, the managers, probably even the guys in charge. Everyone knew, but no one talked about it.
“It’s cheaper that way,” Ian said.
Ian was my first friend at the office. Mainly because we were sat together. He didn’t know any of the processes I was being trained on, but would offer glib commentary on everything. I’d have found him annoying if we hadn’t been stuck together for eight hours a day, then it was a case of ‘find it funny or hit him in the head with a chair’.
“Everyone has certain expectations, they drill certain realisations into us. We’re not going to get a raise, not in this economic situation. We’re not even going to get overtime, but they’ve created a culture where we’re expected to work longer hours anyway.”
I nodded and carried on drinking my cup of coffee. A lumpy mug made to look like Grover from the Muppets. The blue paint was wearing away at the edge where my lips and several predecessors’ had been. The embossed porcelain was dented, worn away by time, but it was important to claim a mug. It proved you were here for the long haul. The company would only offer permanency to people who were here for the long haul. Grover said I was approachable, friendly. Not like the plain brown mug which said, “Plain Brown Mug” on the side, trying oh so hard to be smart.
“What did you want to be?” Ian smirked from the other side of his coffee. “You know, before you came here?”
“I wanted to make shoes,” it sounded odd to say out loud, especially for a guy, but I had a thing for shoes. I owned about thirty pairs, though rarely anything designery; after all I was a temp. “I drew up a bunch of ideas and home-made some of them. Not these ones here. Anyway, I thought I could start a company making shoes, but the only starting work in that kind of place is at the bottom. Factory-line, sweatshop stuff. I didn’t want that.”
“And yet here you are, in a sweatshop, anyway. You might not have heavy machinery to hack bits off of you, but, well… no one wants to go near the photocopier. Who knows what it’s up to.”
I had to stop him there, I’d been curious since the woman from the temp agency brought the ghosts up. You’d think they wouldn’t, but in this economy a job was a job. “The haunted thing. What did you mean by it?”
“You know that people are the most expensive thing, right? Wrong. The property is. People they can pay any old shit these days and they’ll eat it up. Property’s the big stickler. That’s why companies like Woolworths and Zavvi went online. Get rid of the property,”
“And the people,” I added, eager to contribute.
“Then that’s all the main expenses gone. Why keep the building if it costs you money?”
“And that’s why the other offices went up north?” I ask. We’re in the company’s one Southern building.
“They own the offices up there. And wages are cheaper.”
“So they keep this place because it’s haunted?”
Ian nods. “Yeah. It’d probably cost too much to get an exorcist in. And the landlord would start putting the prices back up. He’d say he could get people who’d pay more in, once all the ghosts are gone.”
I excuse myself. I don’t like going to the toilet, but I have to. If all you ingest in a day is cheap vending machine coffee, then you’re going to see the bathroom more often than you’d prefer.
In this building, they alternate which floor’s toilets are for which gender, and the fourth floor if the nearest one with the gents loos. I take a breath, brace myself, then walk up the stairs. Luckily, the gents is right off the stairwell, but you still have to walk through the door to the fourth floor offices. You have to swipe your way through the security doors as work didn’t want the expense of getting a guy in to block us from going in there. No one goes there, anyway. It’s not smart to.
Staring at the door, I wonder why. No one will tell me. In the distance, I hear men’s screams, gunshots. I think there’s an explosion, but I can’t be sure. It’s faint, it could just be my imagination, freaking out with all this talk of ghosts and exorcisms. I’m about to go and look through the door, but I’m filled with a sense of dread. Something’s watching me. Something doesn’t want me to see what’s there. No hidden camera, no prying security guard, but still, I feel that something’s there.
Rather than run back to my desk in fear, I go into the toilets. I want a crap, but the cubicle’s in use. We’re men, so we only get one. The rest is urinals. I’ll have to make do with a piss, but even that’s difficult with the sound of crying behind the stall door. It sounds like a girl, maybe a child. That can’t be, they don’t start them working this young, and of course it can’t be a girl; this isn’t the ladies, there are urinals. I get the job done, zip up and wash my hands, but in the mirror I see the door to the stall behind me. It’s green. There aren’t any visible feet poking out from the bottom. It’s empty. I open the toilet to make sure. No one’s there, but I decide I won’t go anyway. Who wants to use the bathroom after a ghost? Humans leaving ‘messy protests’ on the walls is bad enough, but ghosts… I don’t even want to think about it.
When I return, I tell Ian. He looks at his monitor. “It’s Wednesday, right?”
“It’s worse on a Wednesday.”
“I heard the, um… shooting?”
“What did I tell you? Management doesn’t want us going to the fourth floor. Wednesdays, especially. That’s when the war happens.”
“Some Second World War ghosts. I don’t know how they got in there, but every Wednesday they have the same fights. When it started giving us problems with productivity, that’s when the e-mail went around saying that we were abandoning the fourth floor to the ghosts.”
“So they left it empty?”
“Apart from the ghosts. Anyway, do you want to do filing next to Germans throwing grenades? Nothing good can come of that. I don’t think anyone died, but some people got stuck in there and were gone when we came back that Thursday. The bosses weren’t too bothered as it’s not negligence in the workplace or a work-based death if there’s no body. Still, they’d rather we didn’t just vanish, so they moved us.”
I look at Ian. He’s so used to this. To the wolves in the fire escape. I wish someone had told me ahead of time about the wolves.
“Why don’t they block it off? Seal the door or put a sign up?”
“That’d be an admission something’s wrong with the building. That it’s falling apart. If they won’t admit that the photocopier’s been broken for five years, why would they admit that the building’s uninhabitable?”
I have no reasonable defence for the company’s policy on ghosts, but it still feels wrong. Ian shouldn’t expect army ghost soldiers, phantom wolves or a crying girl in the shitter.
Weeks pass, and I find myself getting used to it. I go to the loo in the pub next door on a Wednesday, it gives me a reason to have a cheeky pint. I get complacent, just like Ian and the rest of them. Then I start to hear about how the people on the fifth floor have their office turn into the HMS Captain on Wednesdays. People were told to keep working until the French attack in a big group e-mail. Of course, they’ll have to make up the missing time during the other days. The company can’t afford to lose the hours people could be working just because of a phantom navy.
The weeks pass, and I hear more and more of this boat. Because of it, the managers say, we have to hot-desk. The small space I have made into my own territory is now to be made as generic as possible; the fifth floor refugees have become ‘the evening shift’. We’re ‘the early shift’ and have to change our hours accordingly. I’m a temp, so I’m used to this treatment, but Ian moans to his team leader.
“Well?” I ask.
“He threatened to put me on the evening shift.”
“Is that so bad?”
“I get creeped out enough by the wolves during daytime. And the fourth floor.”
“And the fifth,” I say.
“And the fifth,” he confirms. It’s like we’re being penned in. Everything’s too odd on a Wednesday.
“They should give us Wednesdays off,” I say.
“And cut into my weekend? What do I want a Wednesday off for?”
I don’t know. No one really wants a Wednesday. We may moan about working on them, but really, what else would we do with them?
We continue to work, but the noise of a naval engagement from the fifth floor carries through the hallways more than the battle ever did. Water splashes down the fire escape, tapping at our feet in small, gentle waves. The cleaners talk about removing the carpet on the steps as it’ll never get dry if it’s soaked every Wednesday. The same goes for winter, as the office has so many leaks, but they didn’t listen to the cleaners then, either.
I look up at the ceiling, at where the leaks will come from when the seasons change. Are they from the rain, or from ghosts?
Ian returns from the photocopier, holding a crumpled piece of paper and a scowl. “Photocopier playing up?” I say.
“I’ve been burned and covered in ink. The beastly machine still isn’t doing its job. Just another day of the week.”
As he returns to his desk, I cover up my designs. I’ve been inspired, mainly by the ghosts. Ian’s a friend, but he doesn’t understand the scale of what I’m doing. The ‘ideal drawer layout’ laminate we’re supposed to follow with our desk is actually ninety percent empty space, so I hide supplies in there. The fourth floor bathroom has a shower, but it’s not been used since the bosses decided against the idea. Maybe someone was smoking in there, maybe there was a ghost of the girl from Psycho. You never know in this place. Either way, if there’s a ghost, it has to share with bolts of cloth.
You see, I don’t just know about shoes, or about data entry. I know about the Navy. Every Wednesday, on my break, I’d look in at the fifth floor. I saw interesting things. Instead of a war, it was a normal day on the high seas. There wasn’t any filing, any factory line of paperwork, any petty bickering about who stole whose mug. Even now I’m bitter about how my Grover mug vanished, and I’m pretty sure it was one of the evening shift who took it.
I’m a temp in a place with a constant shortage of staff. They may not be willing to take me on permanently, but they can’t be rid of me. I use the opportunity and the time I have to work things out. I visit the library, read up on boats and shoe-making in the 18th century. In case I get bored of that, I read up on making clothes, on making sails.
It is Wednesday. It is the fortnightly special Wednesday dress-down day. I come with my pound for some charity about dogs. Or was it children? I forget. I don’t care. I’m dressed as a British sailor from the 18th century. Even Ian’s confused. He says, “It’s dress down day, not dress up.”
“It’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I thought I’d get in the mood.” It is not International Talk Like a Pirate Day, but they won’t know it until it’s too late. We can’t access Google, can’t access Wikipedia. The usual fonts of information are blocked, and not because of the ghosts this time. They don’t help, making the machines crash whenever they get bored. I throw in a “Yarr,” occasionally, just to keep the cover story.
I have the clothes, I have the skills. I’m ready to impress them, to earn my place on the floor and get a permanent job. I gather the supplies from the broken shower, past the crying girl in the fourth floor cubicle, ignoring the sobs. I look at the fourth floor and imagine the horrors beyond. I’d rather not go there, into the war. Instead, I make my way to the fifth floor, to the noise of the sea. I can smell the air here. No longer circulated through haunted vents, it’s fresh. It’s freedom. The window from the corridor shows rain, misery and ghosts. The office buildings down the road are all empty. Maybe they closed down in the recession, maybe the ghosts took them, too. I don’t care. The window on the fifth floor is filled with sunlight and seagulls.
I open the door. I step through, into the sun.