The Scottish Arts Council is proud to present Redundant by Katy McAulay - read more about about Katy McAulay.
Leonard’s started shaking in his sleep.
Stretched in bed, arms folded across the flowered coverlet, it begins in the fingers of his right hand. They flutter briefly, like an old dear waving ta-ra to a good friend on the bus home. The arm flaps, wanting rid of this nonsense. Thumbs twitch, once, twice, and it’s begun – his bed dancing.
The muscles in the forearm get going. They stiffen and relax, stiffen and relax, building a jerky beat that spreads downwards to one idle leg. The foot jigs back and forth, smacking off the wooden bed frame and threatening to break the cracked slat that’s been wanting fixed these two years. Not satisfied with kicking at nothing, the syncopated rhythm works on infecting the remaining limbs. It giggles up the spinal chord, jangling the ribcage on its journey to the torso, where it can really settle in. Breath comes out in forced gasps as the lungs contract.
Faster. Faster still the muscles quiver. Shoulders are shuddering, eyelids flickering, arms properly flailing now. Fists clench, legs jolt, lungs convulse, breath huffs. Leonard is a runaway steam train and Judith…Judith is his helpless passenger.
“I love you,” she says as he registers hands holding him down and pries his eyelids open to peer at her startled face.
He smiles dreamily. “Love you too.”
“But I can’t take much more.”
He tells her he’ll try harder. See a doctor. The decision to eject him from the marital bed is postponed.
As it turns out, he’s older than his GP. Leonard can’t remember when they traded places, but the latest kid can’t be more than thirty. He wants to talk.
And so Leonard talks. It’s what he’s good at. He’s presented in boardrooms, bedrooms, a countless array of kitchens from worn out to well-to-do. He’s talked on stages, on soap boxes and the toughest – his speciality – on the humble doorstep. Nearly forty years, he tells the doctor.
“Anyone in the family with epilepsy?”
Leonard shakes his head.
“Take any recreational drugs?”
A frown. Another shake.
“On any medication or…”
“I’ve never taken a sick day in my life.” It’s loud, that sentence. Somewhere a clock ticks. Pen scratches on paper as the doctor scrawls notes. Leonard runs a finger around the inside of his collar. “D’you think we might open the window? A breeze...”
The doctor clicks his tongue in regret. “Painted shut,” he says. “Nearly done.” A few more moments and then he lays the pen down, clasping his hands in an attitude of irrefutable calm as he prepares to announce the diagnosis.
“Well, I don’t think it’s anything serious. Stress-related probably. Christmas period’s particularly bad for it.”
“I like Christmas.”
“Any difficulties at work?”
“Or in your home life? Changes?”
Leonard shifts in his chair. “Nothing to report.”
“I see. Well…No tea and no coffee. No stimulants in the hour before bed. If it doesn’t stop, come and see me again. And if you think of anything…”
“You’ll be the first person I call.” Leonard collects his umbrella from the rack and turns himself loose.
It’s only nine-thirty, but already there’s a post-it waiting for him in his office cubicle. He’s failed to attend a meeting, it says, and he’s to see Marcus ASAP. Leonard peels the fluorescent note from his computer and conceals it inside his desk drawer. He brings out the small mirror he keeps in there, and also the packet of polo mints. His tie is straight. His shirt, too, is pleasing – ghost white and freshly pressed. Smiling experimentally, he checks for food between his teeth.
The office of his superior is grey. It used to smell of cigarette smoke, but he quit the week after his thirty-fifty birthday and now it smells of coffee and of damp earth because he waters his plant too much.
“Morning Marcus. How are you today?” Leonard settles into the empty seat. “Listen, I’m sorry about the meeting. I had an appointment this morning and I guess I missed it.”
Leonard’s superior pulls on his lower lip in that way he has when he’s attempting to comprehend a difficult piece of information. “There was an e-mail,” he says, “with the agenda attached. And the minutes.”
E-mails, Leonard finds, are usually from Staff Development. They’re about training courses called Advanced PowerPoint and Effective Time Management. He stopped reading them after a week. He crosses his legs now, flicking a piece of imaginary lint from his trouser leg, and says: “I think there might be a problem with my account.”
On other mornings this piece of information might lead to a discussion about the services offered by the IT department, but today, Marcus’s attention is firmly on the pile of papers he keeps on his desk. Plucking the top page, he consults the numbers and begins on business.
“I’ve had to bring you in here because you’re still failing to reach your call duration target,” he says. “Yesterday morning you spent twenty-six minutes on a call to just one customer.”
Leonard thinks back. “Yes,’ he says. ‘Mrs Duncan.”
“What,” says Marcus.
“Mrs Duncan,” Leonard enunciates. “That was her name. Nice lady. Her son’s just about to graduate. Engineering, I think she said. Anyway, I sold her premium cover.”
Marcus is unimpressed. “And then in the afternoon, another thirty-one minutes on a call in the Fife area.”
“Ah. Mrs Keetley. She was a little upset, actually. Her dog was put down last week. Premium cover.”
Marcus opens his hand. The paper drops onto the desk but the hand remains open, as though he wishes that Leonard would place the time he’s wasted in the centre of his palm. “I see that,” he says, “but you’re required to make more than triple the calls you’re managing. It’s not good enough. Frankly.”
In a nod towards the recent holiday season, a straggle of tinsel remains around the wilting fronds of Marcus’s desk plant. Leonard brings the pot down into his lap and dips a finger into the black earth, curious.
“You need to stop watering your plant so much.” Tiny black flies are busying themselves in the aura of the doomed geranium.
“The company measures effectiveness by setting call duration targets,” Marcus tells him. “It’s explained in the introduction to telesales course.”
One of Leonard’s legs has begun to bob up and down without his permission. He tries to quiet it by pressing the ball of his foot into the grey carpet tile beneath. The plant vibrates.
“But I made the sale,” he says.
“That’s not the point.”
“That’s not the point?”
Marcus looks at him, baffled, and exhales impatiently. “No. Effectiveness is measured by call duration.” Tugging on his lip again, he consults another file – a thick one. “You’ve been in telesales now for…”
“You weren’t interested in the package we offered to the door-to-door team?”
“We’re still looking for people to take the package.”
Leonard smiles and places the plant on the desk between them, where it waits dolefully. “I’m a salesman,” he says.
“All right.” Marcus leans back in his chair and folds his arms. “I’d like you to re-sit the introduction to telesales course.”
“Your plant is going to die.”
It’s a mystery to him, why they insist on calling it a package, like it’s a gift nestling under the Christmas tree. When he tries to joke about it with Judith after dinner she’s distracted, is searching for her car keys.
“Retirement is a blessed release,” she says.
A release. Like she was suffering from cancer before. Leonard lifts a sofa cushion to show that he’s helping and a vague recollection surfaces. “I think I saw them on top of the fridge.”
“We should throw out the Christmas tree.”
He gestures towards the kitchen. “You’re going to be late for yoga.”
She pauses in her rummaging and rests her hands on the hips of her velour tracksuit. “It’s street dance,’ she says. “And it’s bad luck having it up this late.”
“What happened to yoga?”
She shrugs. “Just fancied a change.”
“But you’d only just learnt all the…” He gestures vaguely. “Shapes.”
Her face softens. “Don’t you worry about me,” she tells him. “Will you put the tree out?”
“Yes,” he promises.
“Thank you.” A kiss on the crown of his head and she’s gone.
There’s the television, but it’s showing some detective series that he missed the first episode of. Leonard tries to understand the plotline, but it’s too far gone. Useless. The first he knows of having fallen asleep is a rhythmic, thudding sound that seems to come from far away and then a sharp pain in his side.
When he opens his eyes, he’s lying on the floor. Most of Judith’s good sofa cushions are scattered around him as if he’s been engaged in some kind of battle, and the remote is digging into his hipbone. Wearily, he lays the thing aside and begins to undress the browning tree. They’ve had some of the decorations as long as they’ve known each other.
Cradling the baubles like miniature universes, he wraps them in tissue paper that whispers to him as he tucks it neatly into the box for next year, and then he drags the tree outside for the bin men. His neighbours have done the same. The pavement is littered with Christmas corpses waiting under the strange orange light of the streetlamps, the scent of pine strong in the air.
The introduction to telesales course is full. Young men dressed like they should be in a band slouch in rows of plastic seating. They listen as the facilitator spouts statistics, study the sales scripts he hands out, and then Leonard and one of the young men are plucked from the class to give a demonstration. They sit at the front; are required to wear headsets even though they’re not attached to anything.
“Hello, could I speak to Mr Oldham?”
“Speaking,” Leonard says.
“My name is Merlin and I’d like to-”
The facilitator steps forward, holding up a finger. “Just pause for a second. Your name is Merlin?”
Leonard’s co-worker nods.
“Like the wizard?”
“Okay.” The facilitator has at least managed a suit, but for some reason he’s twinned it with trainers.
“Merlin – I’d recommend you call yourself something else when you’re speaking to customers. Having an unusual forename often causes people to comment, and this increases your call duration.”
Leonard coughs and shifts in his chair. The facilitator indicates that the demonstration should continue and Merlin shuffles the script, looking for his place.
“Um…bear with me, Mr Campbell,” he requests, and the facilitator steps forward once again.
“Okay. Another point. We also recommend avoiding the phrase ‘bear with me’. English might not be your customer’s first language and turns of phrase like this can cause confusion – they might think you have a bear with you.”
Leonard finds that he’s on his feet. “Excuse me,” he says, pushing his way from the room.
The men’s bathroom is peaceful. Empty. Leonard rests his hands on either side of a washbasin and watches the steady drip of the tap onto his abandoned headset.
The man in the mirror is tired. The headset has made his hair stick up at an unfortunate angle. Flexing his shoulders, he fiddles with the top button of his shirt and tries not to look himself in the eye, but the feeling of constriction around his neck is suddenly too much to take. He scrabbles to undo the knot, fingers clumsy, and drags the tie over his head.
Leonard looks at the noose in his hand.
There’s something different. Judith pauses in the hallway, keys still dangling in the door, a bag of groceries in her hand.
She cocks her head, suspicious. The hoover’s in the middle of the living room where she left it, the trail of pine needles delineating the ejection path of the Christmas tree still undisturbed. No sign of break in when she peers around the kitchen door either, but strangely, there’s a half-dead geranium sitting in the middle of the table. It wasn’t here this morning. Thoughtfully, she touches the velvet skin of one of the leaves and then she sees something else – one of Leonard’s ties coiled neatly next to the ailing plant.
It’s only three o’clock, but his suit jacket has been hung off the end of the bed. One shoeless foot, and then another. Shirt left open at the neck. He’s foetal on top of the coverlet, breathing deep and even, his face tranquil. She looks down at him for a moment and then she eases herself onto the bed. Nestling into his back, she wraps one arm around him, and closes her eyes.
About Katy McAulay
Katy McAulay is an award-winning writer based in Glasgow.
In 2009 she was granted a Scottish Arts Council residency at Cove Park – an international centre for the arts based on the Rosneath Peninsula.
Her short film, floating is easy, premiered at Palm Springs Short Film Festival in June and won best drama in the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in October.
She is currently writing a novel about the disappearance of a famous faith healer in America during the 1920s.
For more information visit the website of Katy McAulay:
The inspiration behind the story
The inspiration for Redundant came from many sources: true stories gathered from friends working in call centres, the (entirely voluntary) retirement of my dad after serving for many years as a head teacher in Leith, and the difficulties a loved one was having with a sleeping disorder. I’m always interested in that moment in life when a character longs for escape almost as much as they’re afraid of it.