“Hi, I’m Claire? The intern?”
RAPL’s receptionist looked up at the worried face before her and replied, “I know, we established that yesterday.”
Claire turned pink. “I… I just want to know where I’m supposed to be today.”
The receptionist sighed and pointed at elevator doors on the wall to Claire’s left. “First floor. Ask for Bob.”
This short story is part of a series.
Read part 1
Claire nodded and scurried away to the lift where she stabbed at the ‘up’ button, noting that the presence of such a button suggested there was something below the ground floor. She wondered what was down there and when she could expect to see it. After all, she’d been assured that her 5-day internship would involve a new floor for each day, and the building was just 4 storeys tall. What, she wondered, would she get up to in the basement?
She took a deep breath as the lift doors opened and welcomed her inside. She requested the first floor and then picked at her fingernails, wondering if her decision to return was the right one after yesterday’s events.
It was intrigue that brought her back. She had many questions about the nature of the work done at RAPL which hadn’t been answered on the previous day. Despite the blood and the earthquake and the sheer hostility of many of her temporary colleagues, she felt compelled to complete the internship to unravel the mystery of the organisation. Plus, her college career advisor assured her that intern dropouts would not be rewarded with a glowing reference or further job opportunities.
The lift shuddered as it came to a halt and the doors squeaked as they opened. Claire stepped out into a large, open plan room in which two lines of desks were carefully lined up to face each other. Some of the desks were inhabited by employees, none of which looked up to see her. She approached the one closest to her, where a man sat bent over some paperwork, running his fingers through dark grey hair.
“Hi, I’m looking for Bob,” Claire asked with a smile.
The man looked up from his work with wide eyes, as though he hadn’t seen another human in weeks.
“That’s me,” he said.
“I’m Claire, the intern.”
“Ah, of course.” Bob pushed the paperwork into a rough pile and pulled notebooks on top of it. “You’ll be filing today. Follow me.”
He led Claire across the room towards a dim corner in which stood a row of grey filing cabinets. Several cardboard boxes were stacked nearby, the one on top leaning perilously to one side and almost spilling over with documents.
“We have Procurement, HR, Marketing, Finance and Miscellaneous,” Bob said, pointing the labelled filing cabinets out in turn. He seemed bored by the sound of his own voice. “The paperwork’s a disaster. Pick up a file, check the department and date on the cover and file it in the appropriate cabinet in chronological order. Do not open the files. The department and date is always on the front cover so there’s no reason to look inside. Never. Open. The Files. Okay?”
“Got it. Don’t look inside,” Claire said with a smile. “Umm… why, though?”
“Why can’t I look inside?” Claire got the impression it wasn’t the right question to ask, but the words fell out her mouth before she could consider them.
Bob frowned at her. “Confidential.”
“Kitchen’s in the corner over there, help yourself to whatever, there’s biscuits,” Bob said briskly.
Claire’s stomach sent a wave of nauseous objection over her at the thought of more biscuits.
“We order lunch in, usually, sandwiches and the like. Any preferences?”
Claire shook her head.
“I’ll get you a selection. And I better get you a couple of slices of cake, I suppose.” With that, Bob turned on his heel and returned to his desk.
It’s always the case that if someone tells you not to do something, all you can think about doing is the thing. It took all of Claire’s willpower not to flip back the cover of each brown, card file she picked up and take a peek inside.
The desks closest to her were positioned so that those who used them had their backs to the dingy corner in which Claire worked. Those who faced her direction seemed too absorbed in their duties to pay Claire any attention. Nonetheless, Claire daren’t deny Bob’s orders just in case she was caught out, despite her fingers itching with desire to see what lay inside the slim folders they were handling.
The morning dragged like nails on a chalkboard. Claire found herself capable of working through at least two files every minute, sometimes three or four if they were dated within the past month, since these could simply be slipped into the top tier of a filing cabinet without having to rifle through endless others to find the appropriate slot.
Claire couldn’t understand why so many files had been stacked up in cardboard boxes, rather than being filed appropriately at the time of their creation. What puzzled her even more was that the files in the boxes appeared to be in no order whatsoever. She’d pick up a file from Marketing dated August 2016 only to find one underneath from HR dated January 2003.
This wasn’t just a case of a few old files being used for, say, a specific project requiring backdated information from multiple departments, she concluded. There were nine boxes of files to tackle, each one jam packed. It took her around three hours to work her way through two boxes, which meant there were around 180 to 200 files in each box. Surely, she thought, no single project could require so many old files. And even if it did, why didn’t they implement a filing system earlier? How could anyone work with such disorganisation?
A rumble came from beneath Claire’s feet and she felt the building shake. While a jolt of panic went through her, she was far better equipped at keeping her cool than she had been yesterday, and simply placed one hand on a sturdy filing cabinet to maintain her balance. She glanced around the room as the shaking continued, but her colleagues were undistracted. Then the boxes began to topple.
Claire saw the stack keel over as if in slow motion. She lunged toward it in an attempt to brace it against the wall but didn’t make it in time; the boxes crashed to the ground and files cascaded across the floor.
The shaking stopped, and Claire turned away from the boxes to find every employee in the room staring at her. She pulled an apologetic face as though she was responsible. The faces turned away again and resumed their work.
Nice of them to offer to help, Claire thought as she got down to her knees and began to scoop up handfuls of files and sling them back into their boxes. Perhaps that’s why they were so muddled; if the earthquakes were as regular as she’d been told, and with nobody sensible enough to realise that stacks of boxes and earthquakes don’t get along well, muddled paperwork would be an inevitability.
She was jolted from her monotonous tidying when she spotted a deep, red-brown stain on one of the files. She gingerly pulled the offending file out from beneath several others and held it in front of her face. The stain was a splatter, as though a substance had been thrown at it. Spilled coffee, perhaps, although when she held the document to her nose she couldn’t pinpoint any particularly scent.
The stain covered almost the entirety of the file’s front and the edges of the reverse side were tainted too. She couldn’t read the date or department on the file’s label. She peered at it with strained eyes and held it up to the light in an attempt to read any lasting indents made by the scratchy nib of a ballpoint pen, but there was nothing.
She glanced over her shoulder. Nobody was watching. She could, of course, have gone over to Bob’s desk and asked for help. But she didn’t.
She held her breath and gently pulled back the file’s front cover. The same deep brown had managed to soak into the thin paper inside and caused its edges to curl up tattily.
It was an invoice to the value of £980.00. It was addressed to RAPL and issued by a firm called HMSUK. Another vague acronym. In the description of goods, five items were listed:
M-240lb-White – £225
M-190lb-White – £180
F-125lb-Black – £125
F-206lb-White – £299
M- 170lb-Asian – £170
“I told you not to look inside the files.”
The voice, which came from behind Claire, was composed but cold. She flipped the file shut and tossed it on the ground away from her before scrambling to her feet to face Bob.
“Sorry. There was a stain on it, I couldn’t read the date. I… I didn’t want to bother you.”
Bob sighed. “I think you better go home.”
Claire could feel the tears building. “I’m fired?”
“That’s not for me to decide, but today you’re my responsibility and I don’t like to work with people I can’t trust.”
Claire nodded and wiped her nose. “Should I come back tomorrow?”
Bob shrugged and stalked away from her. She grabbed her bag and left. She couldn’t bear to think about tomorrow.