cDermott kept Dean in his office until about eleven o’clock, ticking off the details of the project. Dean was completely at a loss at first but asked no questions, not wishing to seem like a complete dolt. As the broad picture got clearer, though, Dean began to have a bit of input and by the time McDermott paused briefly to go out and ask Mary to get some morning tea for them, Dean had begun to ask some questions which yielded more detailed answers.
The most salient of the details was the estimated duration of the project. The opinion of McDermott and the people in Canberra was that it would last about three months, but no-one really knew as something like this hadn’t been tried before. Three months was a good duration for a special project and since Dean would be paid as a Clerk Class 5, the fourth highest clerical level in the Australian Public Service. It was certainly a surprise but as the project was explained to him, Dean could see how he might be well suited to the position. He asked who’d recommended him, thinking that it couldn’t possibly be Charles, who was such a stickler for procedure he would’ve nominated the senior of his minions, who was Peter. Did he have a friend in high places? He doubted anyone actually knew of his existence other than as AGS 512‑46502. He decided to question nothing until he’d been in the job long enough to be proven to be competent at it.
He had no doubts about his ability to do it. After shaking hands with McDermott he headed back down to his desk to pack up his stuff and let /Charles knew where he was up to with the various projects. He’d be taking the ‘James Sidon’ case with him, but the others could be handled by his workmates. He was moving desks to a small office on the tenth floor. He was to give no-one his phone number and if people asked what the project he was working on was he was not to tell them. Absolutely no-one other than McDermott or his new workmates was to know what the project was. Could he keep a secret? Yes, he could. Did he talk in his sleep? Who knew? There was no-one there to hear in any case (he admitted sheepishly).
The only downside was that he would miss the social aspect of working with people at his own level. Of course the other staff on the project would all be Clerks Class 5, but they would be real ones, not ones on temporary higher duties. What would Dean have in common with them? What did they talk about?
“One thing, “ said Peter as Dean put the project folders into a secure valise and locked it, :you’ll have to buy more suits.”
“Oh, crap,” said Dean. Now what was he to do. His new pay scale made suit purchases a lot easier, but payday was still eight days off. Where was he going to get more suits? He had no credit card, as he had never thought to apply for one. He never needed to, as all his expenditure was on items that either didn’t sell on credit, like food and beer or on rent which was very, very strictly cash in hand. “That is food for thought,” he said eventually.
He thought to skip lunch but it turned that McDermott had gone to lunch and that, since he was to introduce Dean to the rest of the team, there wasn’t a lot for Dean to do. The contents of the valise were secure as Dean didn’t know the combination and all the files had been locked in it, but he was reluctant to take it to McDonalds with him. What he could do was have a sit down lunch at some pub or other nearby, leaving the valise at his desk where it would be safe. But how safe? Safe enough? He was unused to thinking in terms of security. In the end he left the valise with Charles, who at least could be trusted not to leave it unguarded and went out to lunch. He decided to eat at the Grainstore Tavern, a haunt much favoured by Australian Customs and some of the fringe element that occupied the small freight and import companies that clustered around where Melbourne’s docks had once been. He ordered the steak and sat down at a table in the corner where he could see everyone in the room. He was already so security conscious that he resented the plastic card in its stand with a large number ‘35’ on it.
The steak, when it arrived, was a thick chewy slab of something or other surrounded by chips and some kind of coleslaw. Dean toyed with it but decided he didn’t yet have the money to afford to waste it, and got the steak and about half the accompaniments down. He was back at work in about an hour, where he pushed the sixth floor lift button out of habit, hit the tenth as he remembered and then go t out on sixth anyway to pick up the valise.
“Well, see you around,” he said.
His PIN was ‘1703’. The project was housed in a glassed-in section of the tenth floor with access by PIN and a sign-in register. There were no clock cards. The register itself was some kind of screen with a light-pen attached. As you signed it recorded the time of your entry. For flextime purposes this was your start time, which Dean resented. It meant he had to get into the building on his own time. Of course, that had also been the case with the clock cards he had been using, but then he was too low a level to do anything about it. Now that he was a 5 he wasn’t required to report on is time, anyway.
Mr McDermott, whose first name was Colin he found out, introduced him to the other three members of the team. Simon Fairfax was a big man with thinning blonde hair in his late forties. He had a hint of some accent that Dean couldn’t place. Cameron Diaz was a normal looking bloke until he stood dup to shake Dean’s hand. He was around six foot eleven and had a grip like a pipe wrench. Oskar Herzog had a German accent and a crewcut. They were all specialist in one area or another and Dean felt embarrassed to be standing there in something that was not quite a suit clutching the secure valise like a kind of shield.
“Carry on, “ were Colin McDermott’s last words before he signed himself out of the secure area and vanished into the lift.
“So, you’re on the Sidon case,” said Simon casually.
“Well, it have the file on the Sidon case,” said Dean. “I thought we worked as a team.”
“We do, “ said Oskar. “But you are the project initiator. What would you like us to do first?”
“Surely you have your own stuff to do? I’ll just get up to speed on this,” Dean replied.
“What would you like us to do?” asked Larry with the kind of tone that suggested that he thought Dean was running a bluff and that he’d seen through it.
“No, hang on. I don’t run this project. I’ve been given higher duties to work on it.”
“Surely Colin explained that it’s the initiator of the project that is in charge of it? Anyway, you’re a 5 and we’re 4’s, so why are training you?” Larry asked belligerently.
“Yeah, looks like our leader isn’t such a leader after all,” said Simon. Oskar said nothing but opened his drawer. He pulled out the gun, pointed it and fired.
Dean bumped the beer and whipped his hand around the glass to stead it. Bloody daydreaming, he thought. Beer-related daydreaming. He sipped enough beer to feel the cool rush of it through his stomach. Ah, that was better. He sat back and contemplated the afternoon ahead of him. Moving desks, of course, but not to a secure area. He was taking part in a trial assessment of some new risk-management ideas in the Department. The idea was that the program could be implemented across all levels and be accessible and operable by staff at all levels and with varying degrees of experience. He had been asked to participate because, in the opinion of his ‘team leader’ (by which they meant ‘supervisor’) he displayed a good level of intelligence while not being familiar with departmental procedures. Theoretically he had nothing to ‘;unlearn’ about how things were done. If the trial project worked out well, and most importantly yielded results, then it would be implemented nationwide later in the year. They had six weeks of it to go, after which Dean would be back at his gazetted level, doing his normal grunt work. What did he think about that? He’d said it suited him well.
“Excellent,” Mr McDermott had said. “See you this afternoon, tenth floor. Report to Mary Ingram.” Dean was now wondering what this Mary Ingram would be like, at least physically. He didn’t necessarily want to sleep with every woman he worked with, but it would be nice if this particular supervisor was ‘good to look upon, as the Bible said’.
At 1:30 he stepped out of the lift on the tenth floor. The floor looked almost identical to the sixth, except that the carpet was a cleaner shade of beige and there was no Pound of desks gathered near the lift. There were various desks near the windows which were on small daises. This was old school floor design where the supervisors lorded it over their flying monkeys. Even open plan office space was grudgingly complied with, and there were various indoor plants and banks of pigeonholes and filing cabinets spaced to give the illusion of private offices. He realised he had no idea who Mary Ingram was and no description, so he looked around for the cluster of messy desks that always signalled ‘clerical assistant’ to find her. It was roughly in the middle of the floor and staffed by a tremendously overweight bloke in his early twenties with the permanent five o’clock shadow which was regarded as unfashionable.
“How’s it going?” asked Dean.
“Notbadyourself?” said the CA.
“I’m looking for Mary Ingram?”
“Far corner, “ he gestured, “red curly hair.”
Now he spotted her. She had curly shoulder-length red hair and freckles. She seemed very short indeed but she was smiling and laughing as Dean came up, talking to her a similarly curly haired girl with black hair and a very thin face.
“What can I do for you?” she asked as Dean came up.
“Um, I’m Dean McNair. I’ve been asked to report to you.”
“Oh, yeah! Toni, he’s your new investigator.”
“Toni Cervantes,” said the other woman. “McNair? Any relation to Isaac McNair?”
“Not that I know of, “ said Dean.
“Good. Well, let’s get you settled. Mary, I’ll see you later.”
“Okay,” said Mary brightly.
“I’m your immediate supervisor,“ said Toni, “but you report directly to Mary as we all do. Now, here’s the rest of the team.” Dean was a bit surprised when they all stood up to greet him. Toni introduced them in a clockwise direction: Rebecca Cleary, a pretty girl of the leggy and power-dressing variety with brown hair tied up in a style that emphasised her cheekbones; Dave Chisholm, an overweight scruffy individual with eyes that missed nothing; and Con Stratos, of mixed Greek and Irish parentage that had given him brown eyes and red hair and therefore he was known as ‘Blue’ Stratos. He didn’t seem to mind.
“Dave,” said Toni, “would you like to get Dean acclimatised? I’d do it myself but I’ve got the weekly conference to go to.”
“No wukkas,” said Dave. “Right, well, tea breaks are at 10:45 and 2:45. Ten minutes is the official time but Toni doesn’t mind if the brass isn’t here. D’you like the gallops or the trots?”
“Um, well…put me down for the gallops.”
“Excellent. ‘Princes’ Right’ at Moonee Valley on Saturday. Put the house on it.”
“No wuk-“ Dean stated, “-er, worries.”
“Pens etc are over in the stores cupboard there. Better grab yourself some. Anything you can’t find, the CA’s are over in the centre of the floor there. We usually go to lunch at midday but of course you can please yourself. Do you go to the Grainstore or the Waterside?”
“Well, um, neither. No, wait. I did go to the Grainstore this afternoon.”
“Now anyone in customs?”
“Pity. Anyway, gents are the same as the other floors. Usual knock-off is 4:30 but it depends what time you get in. Is there anything I haven’t covered?”
“Well, Mr McDermott wasn’t too detailed….er…”
“He wants to know what the project is about!” said Rebecca.
“Well, I’ll leave that in your capable hands,” said Dave. “I’ll just be down on the fourth floor checking out the new tea lady.”
“The redhead?” asked Dean.
“Yeah. She works in the canteen, too. I’m sure she wants me, but she’s too shy to say so.”
“I had her earmarked myself,” said Dean, “Present company excepted, of course.” That last sentence came out all wrong and for a moment Dean was a bit flustered. “Well, anyway, let me get some pens and things and I’ll, um, you can explain the project to me.”
He dropped his small collection of stationery supplies on the empty desk and tried to get to the stores cupboard in the centre of the floor without attracting anyone’s attention. Of course this was impossible. Like all clerical staff, people at DFAT noticed the new and different. Comments were shared and people who hadn’t risen from their desks in months now walked hurriedly up to other desks to confer with their colleagues.
“Hi,” said Dean to the two CA’s sitting there. “I’m – “
“Dean McNair,” said the male of the species.
“We know,” said the female of the species.
“The old jungle drums,” said Dean.
“That’s about it.”
“I’ve just come over to get some, er, thanks.”
“We’ve put together the same things you had at your old desk,” said the female of the species. “Except your desk calendar, which you should’ve brought with you.”
“Thanks again,” said Dean, taking a cardboard box that had once contained envelopes. He walked back to his desk and sat down. He got his desk calendar out and set it on the right hand side of his desk so that he could look at Rebecca under the guise of checking his appointments. He flipped it to the current date: The quotation was “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers” by Tennessee Williams. Dean tried to see if that had any relevance for him.
The work proved surprisingly interesting. The job appeared to be correlating request for information on passport holders with other agencies. ‘Appeared to be’ because so far he’d only been taught one thing. The procedure was simply too open a letter, see who it was from, categorise it on a register of which agency it came from and the nature of the enquiry and then answer the letter’s specifics. This wasn’t a great deal different to his old job and he wondered why it required a Class 5 to do it. He wasn’t knocking back the money and he wondered how long it would be before somebody realised that a Class 1 could do this job for half the money. Unless there was more to it than what he was doing now. Indeed there must be, because when he looked up to find most of the office gone for the day by 4:30 he noticed that he had done twenty-odd case, neatly piled on the left side of his desk whereas the other three had done only six. This frenzy of activity was clearly going to bite him in the arse. Still, he thought, if I want the position to be extended I’d better show how well I can do it. He left at five o’clock and, because he had a limited supply of clean clothes he didn’t venture to the pub.
The train back to Laburnum was impressively crowded. Dean tried to maintain a sense of personal space and balance by trying to make himself extra thin and by holding his hand flat to the ceiling of the train. As it rocked back and forth along the line between Burnley and Box Hill, he overheard a woman say “Look, you’ll have to find somewhere to sit down. I can’t keep supporting you,” and the reply “You’ve got a driver’s license, use it!” from the accused. Mentally, he cheered the accused on. How many people cramming this train could’ve driven themselves home? It was a long, torturous express to Box Hill, but about half the people got off the train there and, while he couldn’t find a seat, he could at least stand up without feeling like he was on his way to a holiday camp while one of the Wehrmacht wrote his postcards for him. He got out at Laburnum and looked for his blonde from next door. No sign of her. Dean told himself this was just a casual interest in something pretty and besides, there were plenty of other fish in the sea, though in this assessment he didn’t include Rebecca Cleary as she was too statuesque or model-like to be in his league. That day he had faked working to avoid having to ask her a question and had waited until Con returned to put the question to him.. Only now did he think she might be taking that as some sexist comment that as a woman she wouldn’t know anything. He resolved as he was walking down the ramp to the level crossing that tomorrow he would, if he needed to, make a point of asking Rebecca something. Something that a ‘no’ to wouldn’t be embarrassing, of course.
The front door was open when he got home and he could hear music playing. This was a good sign, as he doubted that burglars would have music playing while they were burgling or hang around to listen to some records while they could’ve been removing stuff instead. He walked into the loungeroom and was about to say ‘G’day’ when he stopped, his mouth hanging open on an uncompleted ‘g’.
There were two women dancing. One was Angie, wearing a red bra and panties and not looking in the least appealing in such a combo and the other was a taller, blonde woman with legs so good Dean’s attention was actually dragged away from her breasts, which had fallen out of her bra and were bouncing with the energy of the dance. He stood transfixed for about one second and then ducked (silently, he hoped) into his room and closed the door.
“Bloody hell,” he said. “Poor Brian’s missed this.” He had intended to go out and watch some TV but that would’ve meant siting on the couch with the sound down trying to ignore the two nudes behind him and they of course would have to ignore him if they wanted to continue their dance fest. He heard the music stop and for a second dreaded that he’d been seen in what must appear to them as some sex-starved ogling, but after a moment another record went on.
The blonde wasn’t the same blonde as Dean had seen lying on Angie’s bed the other night, unless she had cut her hair since then. And grown a lot taller, though Dean admitted it was difficult to judge someone’s height lying down. He tried to concentrate on the book he’d grabbed but it was pretty difficult. It wasn’t every day you saw two naked chicks dancing with each other. It wasn’t any day in Dean’s experience. As distracting as the book was, Dean was aware of an involuntary reaction that guaranteed he wasn’t leaving his room for the next half hour at least. In the loungeroom another record was playing and there was now loud laughter to go with it. The sun wouldn’t be down for hours. Brian was probably at the pub, where Dean wished he was about now. He resolved to keep reading until the music stopped. Then it should be safe enough to leave his room. Unless, good God, the dancing was the precursor to something more intimate. Dean at first felt assured that they’d carry this on in Angie’s bedroom. As the music continued he just hoped they would.
Increased pressure on his bladder eventually drove him to the toilet even though the music was still playing. He had not heard dancing for some time and the record was an LP. It was Pink Floyd’s ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and side two had been on repat for the last hour. Dean thought that ‘Atom Heart Mother’ as one of the weakest records of a band he remembered, albeit with no emotional attachment, from his teens in the 70’s. He had heard no-one go upstairs so he didn’t go into the loungeroom and he went to the toilet as quietly as he could. He had no option but to flush the thing and that would alert the two girls to his presence, but he could probably make a quick move from the toilet to his room before they could get out of the loungeroom to spot him.
What the hell am I worried about? he thought. I’m paying my rent. I should be able to watch TV if I want to and if two girls are asleep on the couch…I hope they’re asleep on it. Bloody hell. I don’t even have any keys yet!
But he washed his hands quickly and flushed the toilet and was back in his room almost before the flush had finished. Around six o’clock by his ticking alarm clock he heard two sets of footsteps go up the stairs and he knew it was safe to come out and turn on the TV.
Billy walked in around 7:15 and said ‘G’day’. Dean answered him and turned back to the news. “Catch,” he said and tossed something at Dean, who surprised himself by catching it.
“Keys!” he said.
“Yep,” Billy said.
“Thanks. What do I owe you?”
“Nothin’. Better check ‘em first. There’s one for each of the outside doors.”
“There’s four here. Ah, a set for Brian.”
“Yep. You’ll probably see him before I do. What’s this crap?”
“Oh, just the news.”
“Are you watching it?”
“I’m just waiting for the weather.”
“Weather’s shit. What else is on?” He pushed the button on the TV and it changed to Channel 10. “Ah, MASH. That’s a better.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Dean quietly. “No worries.”
“Is Angie home?” Billy asked during an ad break.
“Er, yeah, “ said Dean, wondering whether he ought to say something about the other girl. No, it was none of his business. “She’s upstairs, I think.”
“Hmph,” Billy said. “Better see her.” He showed nos gins of moving. At this point there came a knock at the front door and Dean gratefully went to answer it. It was Brian. He seemed to want to go in to watch TV but Dean forestalled him. “At last we’ve got some keys,” he said, “so let’s for Christ’s sake go to the pub.”
“Okay,” said Brian, pocketing his keys.
At least it explained who Angie’s friend was.
On To The Eighth Chapter
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Get Me The Hell Out Of Here!