The Fourth P
Short Fiction ~ Stephen Smythe
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 15
It isn’t a redeployment interview, the letter says, it is a facilitated conversation.
I’m at a small round table in a focus pod with a smiling Jasbir from HR and a stony-faced consultant whose name I’ve already forgotten. It’s my first time in this construction from another planet, cylindrical with clear sliding doors.
Outside are banks of hot desks occupied by strangers staring at screens. The Council’s Transformation Team gutted the Victorian Town Hall for this soulless open-plan vision.
A lad with short hair and a long beard looks up from his laptop and into the pod. I catch his eye and he turns away quickly.
‘Are you okay?’ Jasbir says.
I nod even though it’s like I’m on show.
‘The pods are soundproof,’ she says.
They’re also airless, sealing in the stench of the consultant’s cologne. I run my finger around the inside of my shirt collar and loosen my tie. When I pour myself some water my hand trembles and I spill a little on the table.
The consultant, whose navy suit must have cost more than I get paid in a month, doesn’t blink.
I pat my jacket pocket but can’t find a tissue to mop up the water.
‘Well, here we all are, Ged,’ Jasbir says, brightly. ‘You’ve been with the Council a while.’
‘Since I left school.’
She checks her tablet. ‘Thirty-four years. Print manager for twenty!’
I’ve always liked Jasbir, but now she sounds like one of them.
‘Today is about matching your skill-set with current vacancies across the organisation.’
‘In line with the Council Values,’ the consultant adds flatly.
Jasbir smiles. ‘Of course, the Values.’
People … Performance … Passion … damn, what’s the fourth P? I hope they don’t ask.
‘We’ve identified a team leader position in Business Support for you,’ Jasbir says, wide-eyed, like she’s offering me a promotion instead of a wage cut.
‘Team leader? I’m a print manager!’ With a mortgage on my flat, child support for twin seventeen-year-olds, and monthly maintenance payments to my ex. I shouldn’t have to be starting all over again, not at fifty-one.
‘There is no print manager anymore,’ the consultant says. ‘The post has been dis-established, as you well know.’
‘They shouldn’t have got rid of the Print Service. It’s not fair. People–’
‘There is still a Print Service.’ the consultant says. ‘It’s being driven by Procurement.’
‘What do they know about printing?’
‘The Council decided it’s no longer cost-effective to keep the Print Service in-house.’
‘That’s because they didn’t invest–’
The consultant holds up his hand, the strip light catching his gold cufflink. ‘The Council gave everybody the opportunity to comment on the restructure proposals.’
‘I did comment. Nobody was listening!’
Outside, several heads jerk up. So much for the pod being soundproof.
‘Sorry. I’m … ’
‘It’s a stressful time for everyone,’ Jasbir says.
‘Printing’s all I’ve ever known.’
‘Try to look at this as a new opportunity,’ the consultant says. ‘The Council doesn’t want to make staff redundant. A good thing, right?’
‘However, in return, you must demonstrate the required flexibility and move to where the business needs you.’
‘Business? This is the public sector.’
‘The Council requires people who are prepared to come along on its journey.’
‘It really is a good fit for you, Ged,’ Jasbir says. ‘The team leader position.’
I sigh. ‘Where is it, again?’
‘You mean Admin?’
‘It’s not called that anymore,’ the consultant says.
‘You’ll be part of Raymond Hope’s team,’ Jasbir says.
Raymond Hope. When I was print foreman, he was a cocky kid in the mailroom. He’s still full of himself.
‘Is there nothing else?’
Jasbir squints at her tablet.
I hold my breath.
She shakes her head. ‘Afraid not.’
‘This team leader post – I don’t have to take it, do I?’
‘I’d encourage you to give it serious consideration, Ged.’
‘The letter said I’d get two job offers.’
‘Up to two job offers,’ the consultant says.
‘What if I don’t like either of them?’
‘That’s your choice,’ the consultant says. ‘The terms of redundancy are fair.’
This past six weeks, since I heard the Council’s plans, I’ve contacted every printer I know and all their suppliers. Plenty of sympathy but nobody’s hiring.
They’ve let me keep my office for the time being while I work with Lena, an enthusiastic project manager from Procurement, preparing the printing tender documents: helping to sell off the thing I love. Lena says she’s expecting companies from across Europe to bid. When I was an apprentice, my old boss Mr Riley wouldn’t use any supplier more than ten miles away.
Last night I walked the shop floor before locking up. Sheila my secretary, Rita the office manager, Jim, Annie and Levi the printers, Pete and Maggie the finishers, Del the driver, Tony and Anita the job estimators, have all gone.
My footsteps echoed where once the presses roared. Along the aisles the kit was draped in ink-stained dust sheets: the old Heidelberg I’d sweated to breaking point, the guillotine blunted for the last time.
‘Ged? Jasbir says. ‘Ged?’
The water I’d spilled is still on the table.
‘They promised me a six-colour Speedmaster.’ My voice thickens. ‘Sixteen thousand sheets an hour.’
Jasbir fingers flash on her tablet. ‘I’m sending you a link to the Business Support team leader job description.’
Pride. The fourth P. They didn’t even ask me.
The consultant stands. ‘Looks like we’re done.’
While Jasbir puts her tablet away, I look at my watch although I’m in no rush. I examine the back of my hand with its deep blue veins. There is ink running through them.
Stephen Smythe lives in Manchester, England. He achieved an MA in Creative Writing at Salford University in 2018. His flash fiction was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize in 2017 and longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award, 2018. He was runner up for his micro fiction in the Bangor Literary Journal FORTY WORDS competition in 2019 and this year in the same competition his story was Highly Commended. In 2020, he had poems shortlisted and longlisted in The Eighth Annual Bangor Poetry Competition and his five minute play 'Mr Bombastic' was shortlisted in the Todmorden Book Festival Play and a Pint Competition (performance and result held over to 2021). His story 'Granny' received an Honourable Mention in The Strand International Flash Fiction competition -9.
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