19: A Message From the Boss

Linda is coming down in the lift. She is leaning her head against the doors of the lift. They are cool. They are helping her to think. She's just seen The Boss, 'in person' for the second time in her life. The first time Linda saw the boss, she started bringing alcohol into work. Now there's been a second time, she think she might need to stop.

The doors open and she walks out into the library. Her legs are shaking so much that the carpet doesn't feel like carpet at all, but the surface of a large sponge cake.

Bob is using sellotape like rope, and is tying the legs of the plastic chairs together. He's arranging the chairs in a long line in front of the doors. Katerina is lifting piles of westerns and Mills and Boons from the shelves and stacking them on the chairs. They are making, Linda realises, Some Kind Of Barricade.

Linda needs John. John is leaning against one of the windows. He is breathing on the window and drawing hearts and arrows into the condensation. Every time Bob shouts a command or an instruction, John flinches. He is humming, and he looks happy. Linda wants to crash through the sellotape-chairs-paperbacks barrier and escape into the world outside. She wants to breathe in the traffic-and-chips scented air outside the library. She wants to know she will never, ever have to burp alka-seltzer when she is singing 'Head Shoulders Knees and Toes' ever again.

'John,' - Linda says. John turns and looks at her. He smiles, and Linda thinks, for one second, he is going to hug her.

'John,' she says again, because he is turning back to the window. 'I need your help. I've had a message from the boss.'

John pulls himself upright, looks over his shoulder at Bob, Garry and Katerina, who are still building the barricade, and coughs.

'You went up there?' Linda nods. 'Do you need a chair? Shall I get you some ice?'

'I've got a message,' she says again, 'could be some instructions.'

'Okay,' he says. 'What is it?'

'793.809,' says Linda.

She is reading the numbers from the back of her hand. Some of them are smudged, but her hands were trembling when she wrote them down. She can't be blamed. No-one else was going to go up there for instructions, were they? John closes his eyes. Linda wonders what he is doing. She wonders if his mind is full of Browne cards and filing cabinets. John inhales sharply and opens his eyes.

'Escape and escapology. Give me the next one.'


John laughs. 'That one's easy,' he says. 'Puzzles and mazes. What's next?'


John takes a long time to answer. Linda looks at him carefully. He is frowning gently, and his nose is twitching. Perhaps the answer isn't in his head, Linda thinks. Perhaps he is sniffing it out of the air. Linda counts in her head. She gets to twenty eight and John still doesn't answer.

'Do you know, John?' she asks, 'we can Google it, if you like?'

John looks at her. He opens his mouth, and closes it again. Linda puts her hands up. She is scared. She forgot about John and Google.

'Sorry, sorry John. I forgot. I just forgot. It's this music,' she waves her arms, 'I'm dehydrated, it's the stress.'

A few years ago, there was an incident with John and Google. Now no-one is supposed to mention it to him. No-one is supposed to even use the word in his hearing. Linda made the addition to the Staff Manual herself. She thumps herself on the side of the head. She, of all people, should have known better.

'Keep it together, John - come on now.'

'Loneliness,' John says. 'That's what it is.'


'301.113. It's loneliness.'

'Right.' Linda is looking puzzled. The messages from The Boss usually make some kind of sense. Perhaps the music is affecting her too.

Katerina has stopped carrying books and comes over to stand by John.

'Do you really know the whole of Dewey off by heart?' she says. She breathes out between a gap in her front teeth. Her breathing sounds almost admiring. Linda wonders if John is concentrating, or just swaying for the sake of it.

'Don't distract him,' Linda says, 'there's two more, John, are you up to it?

John waves his hands, and keeps his eyes closed.

'Give them to me,' he says, 'while I'm in the zone.'

'Okay. 621.38454. Five decimal places, John. I'm sorry. Can you do it?'

John waves his hands in the air, as if the answer is floating by him. He inhales deeply. He tugs the hair at the back of his neck. Katerina looks at him.

'John,' she says, 'we're depending on you. I know you can do it.'

Linda repeats the number. There is a crash from by the non-revolving doors.

'Citizen's band pigging radio!' Bob shouts, and bounds over. He is sweating heavily, but suddenly, Katerina doesn't seem to mind. 'Citizen's band radio!' he shouts again. 'Come on, Kit-Kat, we need you over here at the main defences.'

Katerina and Bob hurry away. John opens his eyes and crumples against the wall. Linda pats him on the arm.

'Five decimals, John - you can't blame yourself. You're not a machine.'

'What's the last one, Linda?' John asks. His voice sounds soft and hollow, because his chin is on his chest and his shoulders are slumped.

'It's, well, it's 331.137,' Linda says, hesitantly. 'I know that one.'

'Yes,' John says. 'Unemployment. We'd better tell the others. But first, if you don't mind, I'd like a moment alone.'

John turns away. He pulls the cuffs of his jumper over his hands, cups them over his mouth, and screams into them. Then he blunders away, towards the Computer Room.

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