By Niamh Gordon
On my first day, I am four minutes late. I spend those four minutes standing in the foyer of the office building, looking out onto the motorway slip-road. The cars whiz and zoom. My manager appears, all teeth and heels, sweeps me through the office past middle-aged men with jaunty ties, and secures me inside a cold, glass meeting room.
She says through a clenched grin, “Change of plan.”
Her left eyelid twitches.
Can they rescind a job offer on day one? This is a multinational corporation. They can do whatever they want. She’s short, this woman who may or may not still be my manager. Her blouse is crisp, but her skirt looks cheap, and her cardigan is missing a button.
“How do you feel about shipping?”
I have never had a feeling about shipping, I want to say. What a bizarre question. I am twenty-one years old. I am a philosophy graduate. I shrug.
“Excellent. What with your brains, you’ll be fine.” She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear and bares her teeth again. “Shipping. Collette will run you through it.”
By the end of the week I’m transporting hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of electrical materials across the world. I use a creaking, ancient software system to generate complex legal documentation for each shipment. I liaise with warehouse operatives on the other side of the country. We chat for twenty minutes at a time over the phone, and I construct personalities for them from their voices.
I cringe whenever people at parties ask me what I do. I want to say something cool, like being an illustrator, or something morally virtuous like teacher training. I want to be rich and on a gap year, living in Berlin studying history of art. One time, when I say I ship fire alarms, the person I’m talking to looks horrified and breaks off our conversation soon after. It’s only the next day that I hear it repeated back to me.
Fire alarms, I say, not firearms, but it is too little too late.
Collette is brusque and efficient. When I get things wrong, she corrects me with an earnest severity. If I do not gain a skill fast enough, she takes it personally. She writes out a flowchart: a click-by-click instruction sheet for each action. She is frequently too hot, and so the air conditioner stays on max. I shiver.
Three weeks in and I make a typo. DE becomes DK, and a whole ship goes to the wrong country. I cannot believe I have this much power. Everyone is angry. I have cost the company tens of thousands of pounds. Collette’s disappointment in me is profound. Her stare reduces me to dust, but she fixes things. Land freight picks up the materials in Denmark and takes them to Germany. I wonder if I will be fired. My manager asks how I’m settling in. I say I have a lot of responsibilities for someone who has never worked in shipping before, and who was hired to do a different job entirely. I was supposed to be on the phones, I say.
Well, but your degree. You’ll be fine. Don’t do that again. You’ll be fine.
After two months, I have relaxed into it. Collette hasn’t had to rescue me again, but I can tell she wants to. She watches me over the top of her computer. Her files and folders are alphabetised, her pens neatly lined up. It makes me sick, this attempt to order the world. It’s weak. She thinks she knows everything. I’m the one with the degree. I give her a big smile, and her eyes return to her screen.
Outside, the traffic builds. There’s a loud bang as a white BMW rear-ends a battered Fiat Panda and then drives off. Shattered headlight glass sits in a pile on the side of the road for days. There are no consequences to the hit and run—or to anything, it seems. This is my hypothesis.
I test my theory. I make the decision not to ship a particular product because the rep from the company was rude to me on the phone. I ignore his emails and phone-calls. The guys at the warehouse ring me: what’s going on with these boxes?
I claim ignorance. I shred an important document. I leave the office early, dismissing Collette’s reproving look. I walk along the motorway slip-road, past the shattered glass, feeling high.
Later, my manager asks, “Do you want more support?”
I politely decline: I have everything I’ve ever wanted. At the touch of a button I send a boat to China, knowing it’ll get turned back at customs because I’ve omitted some information on the invoice. There are real people on that boat, I think, real people making that journey. Another email pops into my inbox and I delete it without reading. Now, I tell people at parties I’m an arms dealer, and I drink in their glorious, judging frowns. So sue me, I say. We’ve all got to make a living.