Ashworth sat in the chair as comfortably as his nerves would allow. He was unfamiliar with wearing a tie for work and the clumsy knot felt heavy around his neck, like a noose. The suit he had bought on the weekend felt baggy and unfamiliar. The ergonomic boardroom chair forced him forward from his usual slouch, making his neck hurt.
“They’re here,” muttered Cosgrove from off to the left.
Three people filed in from behind him, led by his manager Salter. Nods and acknowledgements bounced off them. They sat themselves down on the opposite side of the table to the staff of Wilson & Worth, sliding themselves into their seats with a silent ease. Behind them, the walls were floor to ceiling glass. Even the dull morning light cast a shadow across their pale faces. They sat still. A contrast of grey suits on greyer skies.
Salter stood up to address the team, looking unsteady on his feet and unsure of why he had stood up at all. “Good morning. So as you know, this week sees our company undergo an audit from the Ombudsman, and the three gentlemen sitting here,” he waved a faltering hand at the suited visitors, “have been sent to come and help us make the decisions we need to in our department about efficiency savings and redeployments.” His voice trailed off as one of the suited visitors coughed slightly, clearing his throat. The employees opposite him stirred in their seats as the man sat in the middle began to talk.
“Thank you, Mr Salter for that warm introduction.” His voice was thin and cold, as if someone had turned down the volume when Salter had finished talking. “Firstly, let me introduce myself and my associates. I am Mr Wallace, on my left is Mr Edwards and on the right is Mr Burke.”
The two other auditors sat still, hands crossed on their laps, eyes focused on the middle of the able.
“I’m sure you are all very worried about this audit and have prepared for it for weeks. We see a lot of that on our visits.”
His colleagues on either side of him began to nod simultaneously, eyes slowly blinking.
“But don’t worry. We are here to “help”. This country is in a recession and you people provide a service to the public. That means you answer to them and you answer to us. All we want to do this week is make sure that your team is fit for purpose. That you can do your jobs. That you are contributing.”
He looked at the team sitting in front of him. His eyes watery in color but his focus fixed on the faces looking back at him. To Ashworth’s right, Cosgrove was the first to break the silence.
“So will people be sacked? Laid off?”
Ashworth felt his stomach drop away at the thought. Sweat flooded his underarms and his suit became too restrictive, he wriggled and shifted in his chair. Wallace looked at Cosgrove first, his face devoid of anything reassuring. Anything emotive.
“Of course not. The Ombudsman does not have the power to remove people from their jobs; all we can do is make recommendations about how staff can be trained better or redeployed in a way which makes the most of their skills. We want to help utilize you, make your organization strong again.”
Wallace smiled. It took time for the corners of his mouth the stretch upwards, pulling his lips with it, revealing small, off-white teeth. His eyes stayed the same, drinking them all in. To Ashworth the whole thing looked forced, a put-on. But the answer had reassured him, even if the unusual behavior of the auditor had not. Christ knows now would have been the worst time to lose his job. Penny was more than five months gone and her parents were hovering money over them, sniffing for any gaps in Ashworth’s ability to provide for their daughter or their unborn grandchild. The thought of going to them cap in hand was barely worth considering.
Off to Ashworth’s left, Salter raised himself to his feet, looking unsure as to why he was stood up and everyone else had stayed seated. His voice felt too big for the room, rendering Wallace’s voice more like a whisper than ever. “So, the auditors will have a meeting with Mary Gough the head of service and myself and then we will hold individual interviews with each of you. These guys,” he waved his hand at the auditors and visibly flinched when he saw Wallace’s flicker of annoyance at the casual wording of Salter’s sentence. “This team of auditors will be very busy over the next few days so I would ask that you direct any questions to me in the first instance and we can go from there.” He paused and the three auditors silently pushed their chairs back and began to rise from their seats.
“Does anyone have any questions before we depart?” The staff were already on their feet, Ashworth was almost at the door, desperate to free himself from the tense, fusty environment. As he heard Salter mumble a quick “no,” more to himself than anyone else, he wrenched the door open and shoved it wide enough for those behind him to make it through before heading back to his desk.
By comparison to the meeting room, his desk seemed welcoming. The grey sky that dominated the floor to ceiling windows had lightened, sparkling squares of light reflected from the sodden rooftops of the city. Ashworth took his phone from his desk drawer and flicked at the screen. A message from Penny.
“How was the meeting? The bump misses you nearly as much as I do. Love. P. xx”
Despite the atmosphere around the office and how frowned upon it was to be seen to be doing anything other than work, he leant his elbows on his desk and typed out a quick reply.
“It was OK. Salter made a knob of himself – as per. I just want to be home with you both. Love you. Xx”
He allowed himself a smile as he pressed send, a quick glance at the ultrasound photo of the as yet unnamed baby Ashworth reminding him of what he was missing at home, what he was here for. He looked up to see Mary Gough staring at him over the shoulder of Salter as they stood talking. Her black trouser suit hung severely from her bony frame, giving her an angular appearance. There was no mistaking the look in her eyes, Salter could have been saying anything to her but her focus was only on Ashworth. He sheepishly put his phone back into his desk drawer, checking that it was on silent.
Over to Mary’s right, the auditors stood in a tight circle, Wallace looking around the office and making notes in a small, leather bound notebook. Ashworth was willing to bet he had small, precise handwriting and his notes were curt and to the point. He looked away, regaining his composure. No one was ever sacked for sending a text message, he told himself as he flicked through the pile of papers in his tray. He tried to return his breathing to normal, shaking his tie loose and flicking his top button open – massaging the place where his collar had dug a design into his windpipe. His computer beeped at him, flashing amber alerts popping up quicker than he could close them down. Meeting requests, overdue reports and unanswered emails swam before his eyes. Around him he could hear keyboards clattering, urging him to join in and keep up, to get some work done.
He sighed and looked out of the window again, looking out over the skyline of the city, old slate roofs angular and sloppy looking intermingled with taller ’70s concrete block offices and the small smattering of glass fronted buildings in between. His desk phone began to flash, the angry LED bleeping red. No ringtones were allowed in the office as they were deemed too distracting. The call was from an unrecognized number and Ashworth told himself it was probably a sales call. Nothing more. He let it ring out. A movement in the corner of his eye made him turn his head back round to the right, the auditors were moving away. Wallace stayed where he was making notes in his small notebook, his pale eyes looked up and met Ashworth’s before he put his fountain pen back inside his jacket pocket and followed the other auditors out of the room.
At lunchtime, he picked up his jacket and walked out through the revolving doors onto the streets of the city. The wind immediately assaulted him, tugging at his hair and the bottoms of his trousers. The streets were damp from the shower that morning and felt gritty, dusty under his shoes. He’d forgotten his lunch again and scalded himself for having to waste money at the nearby supermarket when he should be saving every penny for his new baby.
On the short walk to the shop, he took his phone from his pocket and decided to give Penny a call. She answered on the second ring.
“Hey babe, how’s things?”
“I’m good, Simon. We both are. Are you OK?”
“Yeah,” he replied, trying to sound more upbeat than he actually felt, “just walking down to the shop, needed some fresh air.”
“And I suppose that has nothing to do with the fact that your lunch is still in our fridge?” She laughed, “it’s OK, I am eating for two after all.” He smiled, enjoying how her voice seemed to warm his soul. “So how are the big scary auditors? How many have they ruthlessly culled from the team?”
He smiled again, feeling the tension of the morning slipping from his muscles. He entered the shop, heading for the food-to-go aisle. His nose wrinkled as he scanned the bland packages, looking for a remotely interesting sandwich. “What do you expect? They’re auditors – bunch of fucking geeks who have probably never kissed a girl in their lives.”
He picked up a chicken tikka sandwich, enjoying Penny’s laughter before turning to leave the aisle. He froze when he saw the three auditors standing a few feet away. The stark lighting of the shop accentuated the sharp creases of their suits and the wrinkled lines of disgust on their faces. “I-I-I,” he began to stutter, hoping against hope they hadn’t heard him but the way his stomach sank told him it was a losing battle.
“Are you OK babe?” Asked Penny. Her voice full of concern.
The auditors continued to stare at him, three sets of pale eyes met his, issuing a silent challenge. None of them said a word. Ashworth let his eyes drop to the floor before turning away. “Yeah I’m fine P, I’m just at the till so I’d better go. I love you – both – so much. I’ll see you later. Bye.” He heard her reply before putting the phone down and paying for his sandwich.
He trudged back to the office oblivious to the steadily increasing rain, feeling nothing but the silent stares of the three auditors burning into his back as the three silent grey silhouettes walked silently back to the office behind him.
The next day, he was met at the door of the office by Salter. His boss was a loud character, his critics around the office said he was boorish, too much of a “bloke” to run a team properly. Ashworth couldn’t honestly say that, the odd foot-in-mouth comment aside, he’d never found Salter too bad as a manager. Salter greeted Ashworth enthusiastically as he exited the lift, shifting his weight from foot to foot, wringing his hands together before thrusting them into his pockets where he jangled his change loudly.
“Morning Simon,” he greeted Ashworth, “how are you?”
“Morning Jim, fine thanks. And you?”
They walked through the office door and towards Ashworth’s desk by the window. The sky was significantly brighter this morning, blue sky tinging the edges of the clouds.
“Yup. Superb mate.”
Salter lingered by Ashworth’s desk as he unpacked his lunch and notepad from his suede satchel.
“I, erm, need a favor please Simon.”
Ashworth looked up from his drawers as he hunted for his USB memory stick. Rummaging through sheaves of paper, scattering pens off to one side. “Yeah sure, whatever.”
“The auditors want to observe some of our staff at work and I’ve said they can come and sit with you. They’ll be here at 9. Is that OK? Thanks.”
“Fuck!” Ashworth caught his hand in the drawer as he quickly closed it. He looked up into the reflection of the office in the floor to ceiling glass windows and saw through eyes blurred by sudden tears that Salter had already moved away from his desk. The older man hadn’t even turned back at the sound of Ashworth hurting himself.
Wallace arrived as Ashworth was turning on his computer. The auditor seemed smaller, more frail than he had in the initial meeting. Up close his skin was greasy and his eyes, whilst still keen and sharp, seemed more pale as if missing their previous spark. Wallace’s handshake was firm and his hands were soft despite being bony.
“Good morning Mr Ashworth.”
“Good morning… sir,” replied Ashworth, wondering why he had addressed Wallace in a way he hadn’t done since he was at school.
“I trust Mr Salter has told you what we are looking for today?” Wallace’s voice was clear and precise but Ashworth could still detect the taint of a well hidden accent.
“To some extent yes. I assume we need to talk about my role and workload? Will you be needing access to the case management system?”
Wallace’s face remained impassive. Ashworth was reminded of a particularly painful job interview he once had for a firm down in London, the managing director had worn the same look throughout Ashworth’s bungled presentation. “Yes, in time,” Wallace replied, the expression on his face still neutral, “your computer has loaded.”
Ashworth swivelled in his chair as the screen filled with dozens of amber alerts from his email account. He looked to Wallace who kept his eyes firmly fixed on the screen, his right hand twitching as jotted in his notebook. “Sorry about that,” Ashworth said as he scrambled towards the mouse, rapidly closing down reminders of tasks half finished, emails not replied to and meetings missed.
“It’s quite alright, everyone has their own way of working.” Ashworth did his best to ignore the inflection at the end of the sentence. “Tell me, Mr Ashworth, when will your wife give birth?”
“Erm, in three months.” Stammered Ashworth, disarmed by the question.
“And do you hope for a boy or a girl?”
Ashworth felt the only way to proceed with the interview was to be honest. “I’d rather a boy, but as long as the baby is healthy, I’ll be happy.”
“Excellent.” Wallace turned his body away from Ashworth’s screen and sat facing Ashworth, their legs almost interlocking in the cramped area under the desk. “You need this job don’t you?” He looked directly into Ashworth’s eyes. “Don’t lie to me.”
Ashworth looked at the floor, feeling a red hot flush of shame rising from his chest to his neck to his ears. “Yes. I do. More now than ever.”
The auditor breathed out slowly through his nose, his thin chest rising and falling under his immaculate shirt and tie. “You’re drowning here.”
“I’m not at all! I – ” Wallace raised a hand and cut him off.
“You’re drowning. The whole team is. I’ve seen the case files, I’ve seen the to-do lists and I’ve seen the way Salter carries himself. You work hard. You care. You’re some use here Simon. But not in this team. Not in this role. I want you to think about that over the next day or two, think about what is important. Speak to your wife and make the right decision when the time comes.”
Ashworth sighed, slumping back in his chair and feeling the tension lift from his shoulders. His relief was palpable but there was still a twinge of doubt surrounding it. “But how can you decide this without even seeing my caseload? Or speaking to my clients?”
“Do you think an audit begins on the first day we walk through those doors? Far from it. We’ve known about this for months. Preliminary work was done, inquiries made. We are very thorough Mr Ashworth. We do not make mistakes.”
“I understand,” replied Ashworth, hoping to hide his doubts.
“When the report comes in, prepare for new opportunities. Be open minded and think about your family when the time comes. You’ll be fine.” Wallace’s lip peeled upwards, revealing his small teeth and dark gums. Ashworth pulled his best impression of a smile back at the auditor before shaking the man’s bony hand as Wallace got up to leave.
The atmosphere in the office was buoyant by Friday afternoon. The auditors had delivered their final address and had briefed Salter on when he could expect the final report. Many of the team stood in the windows watching the auditors walk the short distance to where their long, black saloon car was parked.
“No expense spared at the Ombudsman is there?” joked Cosgrove as the car disappeared round the corner. “Glad to see the back of those fuckers. Who’s coming to the pub?” His suggestion was greeted by shouts and whistles by his colleagues.
“You coming Simon?” he asked Ashworth.
“Yeah, of course!” replied Ashworth, “just texting the missus.”
“You and that wife of yours. Love’s young dream.” Cosgrove smiled at Ashworth but his eyes were looking past him, fixed on Janine from accounts. “Wouldn’t mind a bit of something like that myself,” he muttered.
The office emptied quickly, the pub was only five minutes’ walk away and Ashworth could almost taste the first pint. Salter walked up next to him, hands in his pockets, his top button undone and his tie already loosened. “I can’t wait for a pint,” said Ashworth.
Salter looked up from the floor. “Me too mate. Me too. Been a long bloody week with those miserable sods poring through everything but we’re through it now no matter what happens.”
The air seemed lighter than it had at the start of the week, Ashworth breathed it in, making the most of the Friday evening buzz that the city was beginning to unfurl. “You’re right. It’s a time to be optimistic and see what happens next.”
“Of course it is,” said Salter, slowing his pace. “Could do with a crafty fag to be honest. Keep me company for a minute yeah?”
“Sure,” said Ashworth. Cosgrove shouted over asking what they wanted to drink. Ashworth signalled back two pints. They stood on the pavement opposite the pub, the back street was quiet, the pub served good beer and was out of the way somewhat meaning it was rarely full of tourists like the town center. Salter took a deep drag of his cigarette and offered the packet to Ashworth who waved it away.
Salter stood and smoked his cigarette in silence, looking up and down the street. Ashworth took his phone from his pocket and read a message from Penny. “Love you so much my husband. Hurry home to us later please. P. XX” He smiled and looked up at Salter, the look on the man’s face made something heavy settle on his chest. “Are you OK Jim?”
“Yeah. I think so. Who knows?” He cleared his throat and nodded his head. “Your ride’s here.”
Ashworth turned and saw the long, black car slowing down, a few yards away. Its glossy exterior reflected the lights from the pub in the door panel. “Jim – what’s going on?” Salter shrugged and carried on smoking his cigarette, the smoke blowing away on the increasingly crisp breeze.
The car pulled to a halt, Ashworth squinted at the tinted windows trying to make out the shape of the auditors inside. The rear door swung open, the opposite way to most car doors exposing a wealth of space. The three auditors sat on the crisp, clean tan leather seats – all with their eyes firmly fixed on him.
“Jim,” Ashworth began to panic, his breathing accelerating, “seriously what is going on here you fucking arsehole?” His voice was becoming higher, squealing for help.
“Please get in Mr Ashworth,” said Mr Wallace. “There’s no reason for all of this. Believe me, you wouldn’t want this to get any uglier than it needs to.”
Slumping his shoulders like a defeated boxer being led from the ring, Ashworth trudged the few steps to the door and began to climb in. He looked over at Salter stood alone in the car park. The older man raised his hand to wave, silhouetted against the growing darkness by the lights from the pub. He didn’t say a word as the door shut behind Ashworth, closing him off from the world.
Inside the car, Ashworth shifted in his seat, uncomfortable in the silence and the abrupt way in which he had been ordered into the vehicle. Behind Wallace, a black screen was raised, blocking the rest of the car off from the driver. The car sped through the quiet backstreets of the city. Ashworth leant over and buckled his seatbelt, cursing quietly under his breath.
As the car rounded another sharp corner and gradually slowed to a stop, Wallace knocked on the screen. “That’ll be all for now Thomas.” He called to the driver, his voice more vibrant and excited than Ashworth had heard it before. Next to him, Edwards and Burke leaned forward in their seats and smiled.
“I know you are wondering why you’re here Simon, why we had to be so surreptitious in the way we came and collected you. You see, we deal with a lot of people of all walks of life and the majority don’t really appreciate what they see as our interference,” said Burke. His voice more lisping and harsher than Wallace’s.
“Wallace here asked you a few questions the other day, got the measure of you so to speak… He’s good at that kind of thing,” said Edwards, flashing a knowing smile at his colleague. Wallace didn’t react. “Changes need to be made Simon, big changes. You are drowning in work, you’ve admitted it. To keep your job, will you let us help you?”
Ashworth swallowed. His seatbelt began to feel as though it was actively restraining him, the air in the car became stale making his throat dry, he needed a drink, water, anything. “I don’t understand. What do you want from me?”
“Redeployment” said the three auditors in unison. Their voices creating a sort of low harmony that resonated in Ashworth’s chest.
“I told you, whatever it takes to keep this job, I’ll do whatever else you need me to do. Please. I’ve got a child on the way. My wife needs me.” His throat constricted as he spoke, tears crowding his eyes making his vision blur.
“We’re so very glad to hear that,” said Wallace, drawing himself up in his chair, stooping under the low roof. His colleagues followed suit, their backs bent almost double as they rose out of their seats.
As Ashworth watched they began to change, slowly at first but then faster. Small, sharp lumps protruded from their suits, punctuating their arms and legs in between their joints. Their heads rolling around the axis of their necks, spikes protruding from their shoulders. Their fingers joined together, forming sharpened edges to the end of their hands, swinging dangerously on the end of limbs growing ever longer. Finally their heads snapped back and from the skin in their neck other faces began to force their way through. Long, snout like noses were accompanied by intelligent yellow eyes. Skin and clothing fell away leaving contorted, pale grey flesh underneath. Ashworth frantically waggled the door handle, willing it to open, trying to rip the thing out of its holding. His palms smacked against the tinted window leaving greasy, panicked palm prints. He shouted himself hoarse.
Wallace, or whatever remained of him spoke. His voice was thick as if coming through deep water. His mouth was full of dark, thin teeth, a mouth full of needles. “Thank you, Mr Ashworth for accepting redeployment. I can’t promise that the process won’t be painful, but believe me, you will be better for it. You’ll become a much more useful member of society when the process is over. We all did.”
Ashworth opened his mouth to reply and the three auditors lunged for him as one.
Dan Howarth is a writer from the North of England. Like all Northerners he enjoys rain, pies and the tears of Southerners.