Sunday, April 13, 2008


We are all there when the call comes through. Usually the team is spread out, or split-shifted, or just plain slacking off, huddling furtively around vending machines and smoking lounges. But, here we all were, like something out of a university brochure, dutifully peering into microscopes, thumb-pressing pipettes, spinning 3D matrices on computer screens like scientists are supposed to.

And then the big screen flickers into life. A few of us literally jump in our seats. The wall-sized television screen at the end of the room was just, to most of us, a blank constant, an idle and redundant reminder of the amount of money spinning all around us. All our heads turn towards it, and I see the logo of our Think Tank logo reflected in at least four pairs of safety goggles.

Myron, who works partially at the end of my desk (his other work surfaces are stacked around him like a keyboardist in a prog-rock band) looks at me and raises his eyebrows. No one has to say anything. This is momentous. The Research Arm—as to which our department is so anatomically referred—is almost always never bothered with the inter-company directives that apparently bombard the other, more public parts of the organization, but now here comes—on the big screen—a generic looking letterhead. Text begins to follow, spitting itself out like someone’s writing it in real time. Except it’s too smooth, the pace too constant, and I realised someone has just set up a Powerpoint presentation to make this effect for them. Shona, who works by the door because of her nosebleeds, actually gets up from her chair to get a better look at the writing.

I can see the screen fine from my desk, but I’m already losing interest. It’s nothing but a directive—I scan phrases like imperative action, forward planning and mission goals and tune out. I turn back to my computer, back to the website of a particularly interesting organization in India which has built its own particle accelerator. But when I try to move the mouse, my screen turns blank. I’m about to say something when the company directive—the same one on the giant screen—comes up on my computer screen.

I start to hear noises of consternation from all around the laboratory. It appears other people are having the same problems. I turn back to the big screen. We reluctantly begin to read, more carefully, actually processing what the directive is telling us. As we reach the end of the page, expletives begin to flutter around our sterile environment. We had it pretty easy for so long. I always thought this sort of thing might happen. Terence, who always eats the same thing each day but will never show us what it is, puts his head in his hands and I swear I hear the first hesitant breaths of open sobbing.

That night, as the last of us leave the lab and we enter the forced intimacy of the last working elevator, we finally talk about what has happened. Tina, who arrives every morning in a taxi, says she doesn’t even know where to buy an Hawaiian shirt. I put my hand on her shoulder, squeezing her surprisingly human arm through the thick fabric of her lab coat.

Casual Fridays, I say solemnly, shaking my head.

Can we just pretend we never saw the directive? says Tina.

But even she knows this is just futile desperation.

We say goodbye to each other in the car park, lingering longer than we ever have before. We all know that come tomorrow, on that day that is loved by so many as the gateway to the weekend, not all of us will be back.

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