7 November 20204 December 2020 Main Posts / Fiction Fiction | Balance Andy McQuestin (1) The stupid thing is, I’m dressed up like it’s a job interview when it is most likely an exit interview. That’s the most likely of the two possibilities I can think of. The other is they have a special project in mind for me. ‘We need someone with, what’s the word? (breasts), a fresh perspective who can bring their, how do you say? (ovaries), energy to the project. We’re looking to strike the right team balance. And we think you’ve got (a vagina) the right stuff.’ All the same, I power out of the elevator and do my purposeful walk as though my future were in my hands. The secretary is a Logistics and Administrative Officer (LAO) now and she smirks when I say hello. She knows what’s coming and I don’t. I say to her, ‘Well I guess it’s like when I knew Peter from Agility was going to video you guys fucking after the trivia night and share the video with Raj from Solutions, and you didn’t.’ Except I don’t. Through the door, lightning behind my eyelids, thunderclap pulse and auto-pilot smiles. An atmosphere of restrained throat-clearing coughs. Glasses half-filled with water from those fucking silver jugs that only appear on the highest floors of your building like fussy termites. Let’s see. Three of them, and one is from talent relations: oh fuck. One is the boss. The third is a senior ranking woman, they like to have a woman around when they…oh fuck. I’m not ready to go, I say. The boss says, If it were in my power… I cut him off. But it is, right? I disapprove of the pleading tone in my voice but I can control it no better than a rookie stand-up comedian. Sorry? It is in your power. You can decide. You don’t understand. I do understand. You’re being dishonest. You— Oh god, the woman is leaning at me and trying out a comforting smile as though I were her cat about to receive a lethal injection. Now the talent relations man is speaking and he has a choice throbbing vein in his neck that I figure I could hit with a poisoned needle blown through a thin bamboo pipe. It really isn’t in his power at all. It’s a redundancy, he says. Oh, so the boss has no say about which jobs in his company are made redundant? You don’t listen, he says. What’s at hand?… Obviously no bamboo pipe. The woman has a sharp-pointed pen but she’s metres away. I could throw the glass at him. I drain it to prepare for a clean shot as he continues. It’s not your job that was made redundant. It’s your profession. I put down the glass. My mouth still open from drinking, like a hippopotamus. My profession? Is no more, says talent relations guy. The dreaded profession redundancy, government dictated. Centrepiece of the economic efficiency program, Giant Leaps, which won them the last election. So, I ask the question thousands are asking every week: What should I do? The boss seems relieved I’ve accepted my fate. He says, I’d suggest becoming a lawyer. They’re safe as banks. When I leave, I shield my face from the LAO and have to wait too long for the elevator. More than anything I feel embarrassed for being so well dressed. It’s six pm so most people are still working. You can find a space to stand on the train without an armpit in your face or someone’s arse touching your arse. A lady is crying into her hands and a man is comforting her but he is not familiar enough to hold her tight. They’re both dressed in tidy suits. They must’ve got the same news as me. (2) Before he died my little brother and all his little friends pursued careers in the booming Auxiliary Industries, like wellness, culture, inclusion, morale-trust, humancation, codesign and balance. Not everyone can be born at the same time; I understand that, but I sometimes feel a bit cheated that I graduated before the boom. I feel like I got given the dinosaur blessing just before the meteor hit (or the gas cloud or whatever), before the mammal age, before the Auxiliary Industry age. Most of them are playing snakes and ladders without the snakes now. One who used to come to our place to troll celebrities with my brother and chew his sleeve and blow Fanta out his nose if it was too fizzy was my superior only a month ago, before he climbed another rung. But my brother’s run halted. He suffered a professional setback when he was denied a bonus two Junes ago and it caused an aneurysm. He survived but it brought a dome down upon him, encasing a fog he couldn’t clear or make a peace with. He was often confused. We—my sister and I—still wonder if there was more we could have done. I visit her now, my sister. She is recovering at home with regular visits from the mobile nurses. As ever, the landscape men are in the front yard. I stop and talk to them. They’re still part-time here and part-time on another job, they tell me. About a 50:50 split, 30 hours per week at each. 60 hours is not too bad, I say. They agree but point out they can’t record their travel time between jobs, so it’s 11 or 12 hours a day with a weekly RDO. Still, I can’t tell what they’ve done with their 30 hours labour since I was last here. They tell me it’s actually been a hectic week: They developed a strategic pruning plan, plus had some mindfulness timeouts and a mandatory fortnightly social activity. All part of the regulated work/life balance. Luna Richeaux, the famous snowboarder-turned-workingmum-turned-media commentator, suggests it is more a matter of making work your life, but industry leaders assure us it is about including your life in your work. Abigail is supine on a mat, bare-chested, following a Pilates instructional podcast. The wound in her side gleams burgundy under her sweat. She is yet another case of psycho-physical parity syndrome, or Gates’ Disease, where the occurrence of professional trauma, usually a sacking, is mirrored by a catastrophic physiological response, kidney failure in Abigail’s case. The core understanding of the syndrome is that at some point in their professionalisation many people become so defined by their worklife (estimated to consume about 68% of the waking hours of most western adults) that their work becomes a vital organ, physiologically. Still, it is good to see Abigail working on her health, even though her professional outlook (and therefore her chance of full physical recovery) is not good. Abigail towels off and we sit on the floor cushions and tense and release our stomach muscles while drinking ultraberry tea. I tell her I was made redundant today, or rather we were, my profession. Devolved. She looks concerned but not surprised. She touches my arm with her fingers, hot from the tea bowl. Are you okay? Yeah, I guess. I just haven’t had time to think, you know? About what’s next. I mean your health, how do you feel? Are you having dizzy spells? Blood in your urine? Shortness of breath? Can you feel lumps in your breast? Your abdomen? It just happened today, Abi, I don’t think I’d get symptoms that quick. Anyway, I am going to be positive and Plan For The Future. That’s the best medicine right? Absolutely, agrees Abigail, but her eyes are unwavering and I get the sense she is X-Raying my body. Abigail was a professional ballet dancer. The art form that was once a high society centrepiece had fallen well out of favour. Luna Richeaux called it an archaic representation of the retardation of womanhood and man’s paedophilic proclivity. It went the way of blackface minstrel shows and bare-knuckle boxing. There are underground performances but Abigail wouldn’t accept the shame. Her redundancy cost her a kidney. She says, You know they scrapped pet groomers a few weeks back? I heard, yeah. It’s disgraceful. All the unkempt pets, roaming free. Only yesterday I walked to the Upskill Exchange and saw two long-haired show dogs with fringes over their eyes run straight into posts, and a highland goat with nails so long it could have been a tree-dweller. I haven’t noticed. That’s because you had work/life balance. You’ll see them now, during the day. It’s heinous. You wouldn’t have thought the pets would go to ruin so suddenly. Shocking, I say, and wonder whether there’s an opportunity here. Will poor grooming lead to poor health? Is veterinarian assistant a lawful profession? Suddenly the tea is flowing from her bowl on to the tatami mats and she is frozen like a stroke victim, a dead tree. The pain passes and she gasps back to life. I rise to get something to clean the spilt tea but stop when I see her red eyes pulsing like a carotid arterial wound. How am I going to meet a man? There is an uncharacteristic weakness to her voice that almost breaks my heart. They’re all at work. Everyone is. You have to meet someone at work, unless you want to fuck strangers all your life. Not necessarily, I say. There are plenty of men just like you. And me. Devolved. Great, so we can have being losers in common. I don’t want to hear this. Partly because it is self-pitying and partly because it applies as much to me as it does to her. You don’t even need a man, Abi. It’s not the twentieth century. Marriage, trad reproduction, heterosexuality. That’s baggage. None of it’s needed anymore. I know. But what if I just like their company? What then, Iona? I really don’t know. As I leave, Abigail says, We’ll get through this, Sis, and I know she cares more about my situation than her own. I resolve to find a way back into a profession. A better one, a secure and successful one. If only for her sake. Outside the landscapers are rooted in an arrangement almost identical to how they were when I arrived. It’s like a spot the difference puzzle. I see one of them has changed his eye colour to rainbow but other than that… It’s just gone eight pm and the early leavers are arriving home on foot and Segways. They’ll never get ahead with that attitude. (3) I drink and forget to wear my dreamscreen so I wake in a sweat before dawn. I think I dreamed my toes fell off and I decided I could get by without them so long as nobody knew my shame but the toes were trying to sneak out and tell everyone, so I had to hold them captive, but they overpowered me. My next thought is there are plenty of cases of late onset Gates’ Syndrome so I want to get my professional life back on track before it has a chance of taking hold of me. I get up and take a soak in the mister. Living alone, I am able to condense enough to get a decent cleanse. I feel refreshed. I am ready to start. First step: What do we know about lawyers? Lawyers wear pant suits. Lawyers must have an anachronistic feature about their person: an old hat, an analogue watch, a fountain pen. Lawyers dress well but carry a bag or compendium that is slightly tattered. Lawyers don’t read modern literature. Lawyers don’t lean on walls. Lawyers only drink black coffee. Lawyers eat leafy lunches with their fingers and resume talking about work before they swallow the final mouthful. Lawyers show they are intelligent by leaving unnecessary pauses before they speak. Lawyers claim to be motivated by justice. Lawyers are not just convincing liars – they are insatiable ones: Given the chance, the best lawyers will lie for the sake of it, even if it harms them or others. I can do that, I think. I start with the clothes and accessories, researching my ideas and ordering in parcel loads. The eAssistant shimmers to life in my living room and compliments each garment. I have to EasyPay another fifteen dollars for honesty, but it’s worth the investment because she is quite decisive and selects for me three suits and a ring with an irresponsibly-sourced diamond to serve as my anachronistic flourish. The diamond is large and under downlight it glows clear pink like the bloodied waters of the Congo from which it was wrenched. The eAssistant asks what I think and I pause for ages to show my new intelligence before I tell her, Perfect. I turn on the mirrorwall and appraise each suit. I eat a breakfast of kale and brush my fingers off away from my clothes, still chewing as I begin to cite Euginides vs Sun Haven and the absence of common law manifest in the closing argument. On the train I catch the eye of a young professional in earphones. I imagine they are listening to fiction, so I shake my head to affect superior amusement and tilt my chin at them. They seem taken aback, so I do it again. I tell the barista I’m a barrister. I tell him I don’t drink coffee and then order a ristretto and then deny having said I don’t drink coffee. He compliments my ring. I call Abigail and tell her I have a job interview and I’m not the least bit worried. She tells me her tests show the second kidney is at risk and I tell her I’m not the least bit worried about her either. She says, Oh, and sounds wounded. Just for the sake of it… Now I know I am ready. The audio ads in the elevator are louder than usual. They’d be paying a ton for that volume. Don’t trade on your happiness. Consider a life with Beverley Brokers, the humancated stockbrokers. The interview room is not what I expected and it throws me a little. For one it is facing east and it wasn’t when I pictured it. They have gone all out on the constructed nature craze and there are hanging plants either side of my head like loony school kids swinging their hair below the monkey bars. A possum sleeps in a cluster of dark foliage at the rear of the room. I am nervous, but I know I don’t show it, and that in itself helps my confidence. It’s a benevolent circle. I am going really well until all of a sudden the Chair raises his hand and listens to his earpiece. He nods, then announces to the others that, unfortunately, I am a fraud. The other two look surprised then disappointed. Nobody appears annoyed, which is nice. I ask how they know and the younger of the two women tells me they get a lot of fakes, so they hired a Professionfraud Consultant who remotely observes every interview. The older woman says they’d invite them in but the pros prefer to protect their identity from the fakes, in case someone like me sees them around the city and becomes a little unbalanced. We all agree that is fair enough. I ask what specifically gave me away. The Chair listens to his earpiece, nodding, then tells me I missed the subtext of one of the questions. I spoke about my love of justice, which was good, but failed to imply a degree of revulsion for judges. Lawyers hate judges, he says. My planning, then, I mutter. My lawyer list was not complete. All three, noting five minutes remain of the time scheduled for my interview, become quite encouraging and counsel me on new career possibilities. They tell me they have to write me up as a fake, which means I’ll never be a lawyer, but with my gumption I could consider any of the fields of Freelance. Really? I ask. Sure, sure, the older woman says. Freelance Critics. Consultants. Our entire Recruitment Plan and Employee Relations Model were overhauled on the advice of a Freelance Consultant. And they used to shampoo poodles. And how is it going? I ask. What? Your new recruitment and employee relationships model. Excellent, thank you. We are employing the exact kind of people the Consultant told us to—mostly ex-pet groomers—and our People Morale is at an all-time high. You do surveys to measure that? No, another Consultant told us it is. Really high, agreed the younger woman. Yes, really high, said the Chair. They spoke to the staff then? I ask. Apparently. Some of them anyway. The newly hired, certainly. (4) Now I am a Consultant. On my digital business card my pseudonym is spelled backwards because (I say) I live my philosophies: considering new approaches, all the angles. I am nevaR hakebeR. They hire me, my old firm. They don’t see it coming. Only the LAO appears to recognise me but she sees the ambition in my eyes and is smart enough to not risk crossing me. My project is Leadership and my Delivery Objectives are Radical and Selfless. I meet the boss man—the CEO— and the woman from my firing. I meet the rest of the Exec: A vision-impaired reclusive hypochondriac (who is rarely at work but has a positive impact on the Company’s Inclusive Employer Rating. I webchat with her from her sickbed at home) and an Auxiliary hotshot in his late twenties who made his name in Culture and lives in a purpose-built mezzanine above his office. We have discussions. We identify our Shared Values. The CEO stays out of this process to ensure an environment of Brave Beliefs. We underscore the need for radicalism and for sacrifice-as-achievement. I know I have them hooked and I’m making really good money but I need to show the results soon if I want to be hired again. Actions Rendered, says the boss man, By next week. At our final meeting we establish our Truths: Leaders are heroes. Heroes are martyrs. The Business Sense of the laws of motion: equal and opposite reactions—the fall of leader-heroes gives propulsion to the Company. I help them to piece the puzzle together. The recluse (via webchat) says she lacks the physical strength to do it but her resolve is sound. We agree that, in her case, it is acceptable that she orate a memo elucidating her intent and then the young Auxiliary hotshot assists in drowning her in her spa bath. The remaining two drown themselves, together, in the Company pool. The CEO will be left to ensure appropriate messaging of this New Leadership Direction. I have delivered. Radical and Selfless. (5) A minor furore follows the deaths and the CEO is in the firing line. He hires Consultants in the hope of clearing his name but, cannily, they protect their profession by validating my actions and finding that the loss of lives, if they are to be viewed criminally, are the fault of the CEO. He pays them triple to keep the report secret. I tell him he needn’t do the same for me. I will help him with only a single condition attached. He agrees unflinchingly. Then we hire a lawyer (a real one). We agree to the terms. His severance package is excellent, several times his annual salary, but will he find a new job before his lungs give out? Predictably, as it is my condition, we agree on the new CEO appointment. Abigail limps in on Monday with her portable Dialysis machine. By next quarter she is fit as a bull. Andy McQuestin Andy lives in Melbourne with his family, writing when he gets the chance. He would love to do it more often. More by Andy McQuestin Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 24 February 202317 March 2023 Main Posts Final Results of the 2022 Judith Wright Poetry Prize Editorial Team Overland, the judges and the Malcolm Robertson Foundation are thrilled to announce the final results of the 2022 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. 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