By David Cook
It’s a bit dark in here, but it’s cozy. I like it. I’ve got my monitor, I’ve got my phone, I’ve got everything I need. I feel calm, confident, and in control for the first time since the office move.
There’s some chatter outside. “What’s that?” people are asking as they clock in. Jim—who sits at the PC next to mine—is telling them exactly what I told him when he arrived this morning.
“It’s a box fort,” he’s saying. “Bob’s built himself a box fort to work in.”
People then ask why, or a variant of that question prefixed with swearing. And swear words—which are frequent round here—are one of the reasons I’ve built this thing in the first place.
“Bob says he can’t work in this, quote, open-plan hellhole, end quote, any more.”
“What about office synergy?” someone asks.
Phrases like “office synergy” are another reason for the fort.
You see, things were fine—not amazing, but fine—before the office move. Before top brass decided that us having our own little workspaces, our own bits of territory, was—in their words— “roadblocking the intra-office communication workstream.” So then they shifted us all 30 feet down the road and into this place, with high walls, high ceilings, and all the computers spiralling out from the middle of the room, with me far too near the centre.
Oh, here’s Stella, my boss. I’m not to call her that, of course, because these days you have to use the term “line manager,” so I just call her “boss” in my head, along with several other less complimentary names. She won’t be tactful about impregnating my fortress. She’ll have the place down if I’m not careful.
“Bob, what the hell is this? Come out here at once.”
I open a window made of one of the flappy lids you get on boxes. “Hello?” I say.
“Get your arse out here, now!”
I mull this over. “No,” I say.
“Why?” she hollers. “What the hell is this thing? What is it even for?”
“It’s for me to work in.”
“Why? Why in the name of all that’s holy do you need to work in a bloody box fort?”
She doesn’t get it. I didn’t think she would. So I tell her. I’ve been rehearsing this in my head for days.
“Working like we do…it’s not for me. I can’t cope. I need to be away from people, at least sometimes; being around them so much brings me out in anxiety sweats. I only do admin, for God’s sake. It’s not like I need to be part of ad-hoc confabs about marketing strategies. I just type, type, type. I haven’t talked to people any more since the move than I did before, but holy goodness do I hear more from them. Jabber, jabber, jabber. Gossip, gossip, gossip. Talk, talk, talk. It’s not that I don’t like people—well, I suppose I don’t really, but that’s not the point—it’s just that I don’t like being forced to listen to them going on about their kids, or house prices, or what so-and-so said on television last night. And, worse, I hate being in the middle of the room. I hate feeling like everyone’s staring at me while I’m inputting the latest figures from the Welsh sales team. It’s hard enough typing in the place names, with all those extra consonants, without the constant weight of everyone’s eyes on me whenever they look up from their monitors, which seems to be all the time. So that’s why I came in extra-early this morning with a load of cardboard boxes and taped them together before anyone else got here. I’m quite proud of the results, to be honest. It might not keep a horde of Norman conquerors at bay, but so far it’s kept out this lot.” I wave my arm in the direction of the massed throng. “By the way, in the hour or so I’ve been in here before everyone started gathering outside hollering and moaning, I’ve done more work than I managed in the whole of yesterday, so not only is it better for me, it’s clearly better for the company, too.”
Silence from all quarters. I reckon it’s best to go while the going’s good, so I pop my head back inside and return to my work.
I get so involved in what I’m doing that it’s some hours before I realise that the general hum of office life doesn’t seem to have restarted. I cock an ear towards the door of the fort. Dead quiet. You could hear a feather fall on a blancmange. Cautiously, I step outside.
All around me, stretching from wall to wall, are box forts. Everyone has built their own cardboard castle to work inside. On the side of one, someone has scrawled “I agree with Bob” in blue marker pen. There’s not a soul to be seen. Looking around, I no longer feel calm, confident and in control. Instead, I feel oddly nervous, as if by simply standing here I’m doing something I shouldn’t. If I concentrate, I can just about hear the humming of the photocopier at the far end of the room, which does nothing other than accentuate the silence. A shudder ripples through my spine and down to my ankles.
I squeeze back into my own fort, but I don’t do any work.