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Mr Heath

by joba 

Posted: 02 November 2003
Word Count: 2323

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Mr Heath

Mr Heath was a fair employer. Before working for him Ulf had too many jobs and none of his bosses were as good as Heath. The money was good too, twice as much as the average and more than Ulf had ever earned. He could afford most things he wanted these days and looked back on the time he had worked there as well spent. He was glad to have left behind the fractured mess of employment which had gone before. A reliable income, a house, a car. Directly or indirectly Heath had provided for all of these important things.

Heath’s competence in his field was so complete all that Ulf had to do was to take the keys he was given every day and attend the address on the envelope Heath handed him with them. There were aspects of the business which seemed to hang in the air, unsupported, which anyone with a normal sense of curiosity would have to question. But this was Heath’s skill. His employees came from a variety of backgrounds in terms of education, social status and so forth. Both men and women were employed in equal number. None of these things were a factor in the work. What Heath prized above all in new employees was a certain detachment of temperament. Vacancies only arose when an older worker decided to retire. The business never expanded, though there was ample opportunity. And there were no restrictions on when an employee could retire or leave. A climate of satisfaction tended to persist in the workplace. When someone did go there was no fanfare, card, collection or get-together; a simple announcement would be pinned on the board outside Heath’s room the day after they had gone. The detachment for which they had been chosen manifesting itself again at their departure. No rumblings or gossip beforehand and no ripples afterward, only a simple note. Then nothing.

The work was, by its nature, solitary. Consequently any esprit de corps was limited to polite exchanges between workers as they visited Heath’s small, neat office. At the back of his room sat four grey filing cabinets in the old style, the type which gave a satisfying clunk when opened or shut. Four drawers in each, equipped with dividers, containing clients - people. When clients left the gap was filled with another from the infinite waiting list, an almost seamless transition from one to the next. This morning Ulf sat and waited outside the office to be called in. As he did he looked up at the notice board. A square of paper sat alongside the usual adverts for local businesses and sheets containing hand made classifieds (with the tear off and keep tassels). A familiar sight, it read; “Alice Peters left yesterday”. Each letter had been physically struck into the page by Heath’s old typewriter and a smile crept onto Ulf’s face as he took the message in. Alice was old when he started, nearly ten years ago; in that time their conversations had been cursory but she was a calm and comforting presence which he would miss. Sadness would not properly describe what he felt, sorry to hear she was gone but glad that her well earned retirement had begun. His brief reminiscence was broken by a turn of the handle. From inside the door emerged the previous employee, envelope and keys in hand. Ulf tracked his movements towards the lift for a second and lent back in the chair preparing to propel himself through the office door once the other had passed him by.

Sunlight avoided the room even though it was bright outside and the Venetian blind was pulled up away from the window. There was enough light to see perfectly well but the summer outside managed not to pierce the room’s atmosphere. Once inside, Ulf shut the door behind him and took his usual position, across from Mr Heath. The chill in the room and the low hum were accounted for by the portable air conditioner wedged into the corner. “I do dislike the heat” Heath said as he slid the envelope and keys over the desktop toward Ulf. As he read the address on the front of the envelope he reached for the miniature scythe letter opener in the broken mug used to house pencils and pens on Heath’s desk. With a single stroke of the instrument the envelope was open. Ulf reached inside and pulled out the sheet of paper. No reaction registered on his face which was almost perfectly still, interrupted only by the occasional slow blink. When he had finished reading the page he flexed his fist around the bunch of keys and found an appropriate pocket for both them and the envelope.

The key he had been given was a master copy. He slid it into the lock and it turned with satisfying ease. A good quality lock was typical of the building, Ulf thought. On the way up the stairs (he was wary of lifts) the effect created by the smart décor and triple glazing was completed by a vase of fresh flowers on every sill. Ulf withdrew the key and pushed the door open. Once inside, a furious cacophony of smells assaulted his nostrils. Coupled with the heat, bad even for summer, the effect was so unpleasant that Ulf was tempted to leave the door wide open and to hell with the privacy Mr Heath demanded. Steeling himself he shut the door behind him, “I’ll get used to it in a minute” he told himself. It was the same every time, if it was any different the individual would hardly be in need of Heath’s unique services. But even by those standards this was a bad one. As quickly as he could Ulf picked his way through the flotsam and jetsam of unopened mail and dirty clothes which had washed up against the skirting. He avoided the bedroom and headed into the study. Reaching over the mounds of debris on the desk he pushed the window open. He leant closer to the opening created for a moment as the pollution on either side of the window switched places. The swivel chair at the desk held a swathe of folders between its leather arms which Ulf heaved onto the floor to clear a space for himself. The previously important folders cracked and slid away as Ulf sat down. One or two had spilt their contents. The usual collection of turgid reports. Doubtless it had taken hours to assemble the closely typed text which now stared forlornly up with no hope of engaging any interest. Maybe even a lifetime. They were worth something though. The value of what lay in those papers was on display all around him. Although the flat was small it was small and expensive. The squalid aspect of the place was only superficial and could not obliterate the professionalism of the décor. From the polished floor, up the pastel elegance of the walls and on to the high white ceiling the natural style of the place asserted itself. On each wall an expensive frame housed a print of some quite famous modern art some good, some bad. Taken as a whole the prints made no sense. By no means was Ulf an art expert, one of the many fields in which he was gloriously uneducated, but the total effect was hesitancy. It was almost as though the person who had chosen them was trying to second guess the taste of a much hoped for visitor without any knowledge of not art, which is excusable, but self.

The bag Ulf carried with him contained certain staples of his work. He got up from the chair, put it in the corner of the room and opened it up. A few books were on the desk, which he decided to leave, alongside more dense statistics and printouts as well as glossy brochures for Byzantine financial products. Although the floor was thick with rubbish it took little time to consign all of it to the chute. He continued to avoid the bedroom. Moving around the rest of the rooms the stench was still close to overwhelming. The epicentre lay in front of the sofa atop what appeared to be a coffee table. A crowded mini-metropolis of aluminium and paper take-away tubs had congregated there, all attempting to avoid the drop to the stripped pine wastes beneath. Decomposing chicken, rice, noodles and other delights, all with a fresh coat of fur, were attempting to escape this flimsy incarceration. Their odour sent on ahead to conspire with that of the overcrowded ashtrays which populated every room. By the time Ulf arrived in the kitchen he had become used to the tale told by the place, even so he left the contents of the refrigerator undisturbed until he had made good the rest of the room. The silver grey, designer obelisk stood quietly humming in the corner as he crammed the crockery and cutlery into the washer. He went over to it, the kitchen now clean, and pulled on the handle. The well made hinge held the weight of the heavy door easily, the contents now revealed to him were a surprise at first but somehow fitting.

It was perfectly clean. And almost empty. Aside from a tub of easy spread butter two cans of cheap booze, with their gaudy complexion and a plastic scarf tying them to each other at the neck, there was nothing. No eggs in the holders, no fruit, vegetables or even milk (the client must not have liked tea). Freezer below was the same, untouched. Not even a frozen pizza or ready meal for one. By now the place smelt a little better. All the windows were open and most of the putrid rubbish which had greeted him was long gone. He revelled in a brief sense of satisfaction at another job well done. Walking around for a minute the place seemed almost untouched. A show flat once again. Undisturbed by a life. The bedroom waited.

Even after ten years Ulf found this the most difficult part and put it off until the end. Heavy black curtains blocked out all the light and he could see nothing at first, his sight fooled by the sudden switch to black. Stale smoke hung in the air as he stepped further into the dark. Hands flailing before him he was lucky to encounter a rail at the bottom of the large bed. It was in the middle of the room and, concluding the window was beyond it, he ventured further. His eyes accustomed themselves a little, managing to make out curtains he drew them back and opened the window. Turning he saw it in the new light. The client.

The fawn coloured sheets seemed pretty clean at first, until he touched them and realised they were originally white. Eyes closed, a thin arm reached out over the covers. Veins showing through the alabaster skin containing them. He took the pillows and placed them on the floor next to the bed. Removed the cover and rolled it onto the floor. Usually so hard working, colleagues would wonder why it was not at its desk by six; as always. Ulf stripped the bed and looked for some fresh sheets in the room. While he remade the bed it seemed to stare at him, tongue dislodged and lolling aimlessly out of its mouth. The fine Egyptian cotton sheets fell easily into perfect hospital corners. He replaced the covers and drew them back in anticipation of their cargo. The body was light and malnourished. He took it in his arms and stood for a moment in front of the bed. It was still warm. He wondered about Heath as he had done every time before and lay it down, pulling the cover over. The head fell back into the generous pillow and seemed at rest in a way. The rest of the room wasn’t too bad. A little mess in the bedroom gave the place some humanity so he left it be.

Ulf took little time disposing of the bed linen and made a final check. The place looked good. Anyone coming into it for the first time would be pleased. The boy could be remembered as his family imagined him. Not how he was. As he left Ulf finally decided to ask Heath all the questions which the job begged. Tomorrow.

He went home and slept easily having made this resolution. The next day he woke mechanically and headed back to work for the next assignment. Waiting in the corridor he noticed that the previous day’s announcement, about Alice, had gone. A small patch of cork awaited the next retirement. Time stretched out. Once again the drift into daydream was interrupted by the familiar sound of the office handle twisting. He had resolved to go straight in and ask Heath how he knew but on facing him Ulf’s courage faltered. He decided to wait until Heath had given him the next envelope. Without saying a word Heath slid the envelope over the desk but strangely there were no keys to accompany it this time. He looked across at his employer who smiled back benignly. The envelope lay face down. Ulf picked up the unique letter opener in anticipation. Finally curiosity overwhelmed him and he steeled himself to ask the question. Before he could speak Heath uttered “Turn it over”. Obedient as ever, Ulf abandoned his inquisition and took the envelope in his hand. He held the small instrument in one hand and dextrously flipped the envelope with his other.

For a moment he could not make out the hieroglyphic which faced him. Finally taking it in he realised the address on the front was his own.

The next day the cork space was filled with a new notice. It read “Ulf Winder left yesterday. A valued employee.”

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Comments by other Members

Anna Reynolds at 12:37 on 03 November 2003  Report this post
Joba, this is a strange, chilling piece of writing. Economical and only saying what it needs to. The details are good to-'A little mess in the bedroom gave the place some humanity'. There are some typos throughout and places where you could maybe just tweak and tighten words- 'flotsam and jetsam' are at odds with the otherwise spare, clean and original language you use. I suppose if I had a question, it would be why does Ulf choose that day, that client, that particular experience to act as the spur for questioning Mr Heath? (even though he doesn't actually get round to it, Mr heath presumably instinctively knowing his time has come?) I just wondered what had been different or special about that client to make Ulf decide to challenge the status quo? But it's a facinating and unusual piece.

Jumbo at 23:02 on 13 November 2003  Report this post

Like Anna, I found this a chilling story.
But I also felt slightly confused by a couple of points. First, I couldn't decide if the boy in the bed was an ex-colleague of Ulf's who had been retired and, second, I wasn't sure how much should be read into Ulf's retirement notice. Is he the next one for the treatment? I don't know. Maybe I'm being a bit slow, but I felt the story has such a great potential that - for me - wasn't quite achieved.
A couple of repetitions of words that disrupted the read - there are two 'goods' in the first paragraph, and two 'retires' in the second.

The story has a Stephen King feel to it. Great atmosphere and a great idea!



Richardwest at 10:13 on 14 November 2003  Report this post

Sorry, I'm late in catching up with this highly original piece of work: what on earth (or perhaps, not on earth) was its genesis? Filled with menace and ambiguity, it's a journey into a shadow world where no certainties exist to light one's way. I can't pretend to have fully understood it, but with something like this ready comprehension hardly matters: Mr Heath's dimension is not mine, so it's not surprising I'm lost in its strange, cold labyrinth.

Great stuff!

All best --


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