The slogan was everywhere; on walls and doors, on laminated signs hanging from the ceiling, on partitions overlooking desks, on every photocopier and every printer, on kitchen cupboards and inside toilet cubicles. It was suffocating, Jake thought. Nauseating. Wherever you went in the building, there was no escape from those five little words that made him want to retch: ‘Teamwork Makes The Dream Work.’
The slogan had, of course, been Yvonne’s idea. She loved her motivational posters and sayings as much as she loved the small library of self-help and management books she kept in her cosy corner office. Books written by self-styled business gurus and life coaches, or, as Jake thought of them, charlatans and snake oil merchants.
Yvonne was Jake’s boss. As the regional manager of KPP Logistics, the country’s largest distributor and wholesaler of canned foods, she oversaw the day to day running of a vast 80,000 square foot warehouse, which served as a giant repository for tinned goods that were supposed to find their way to almost every supermarket in the south west of England. Quite a responsibility, Jake thought, and then wondered yet again how Yvonne was able to spend so much of her presumably valuable time devising cringeworthy team building exercises for her weary staff. Honestly, it had struck him, shouldn’t she be… well… trying to distribute and wholesale?
An ostensibly rather mumsy woman of fifty-eight, Yvonne had short golden-brown hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a perma-smile that never seemed to fade – at least never while she was patrolling the massed ranks of her thirty or so employees, gliding from desk to desk and depositing mini chocolate bars as ‘a little thank you for all your hard work’. In all the time he had known her, Jake had only once seen Yvonne without a smile, and that was when she’d been alone in her office with the door accidentally left open. In that moment, and that moment alone, she had looked profoundly sad.
As for Jake himself, he’d been at KPP for five long years – at least four years too long, he reflected. The stultifying air of fake positivity that pervaded the whole office was becoming unbearable. He doubted whether anyone at KPP really enjoyed their work; it was more that everyone knew what the consequences were if they were to be seen not enjoying it – namely ‘a quiet word’ from Yvonne in her office. Jake had never been on the receiving end of Yvonne’s ‘quiet words’, but he had witnessed others who had. Their faces on leaving Yvonne’s office were invariably ashen and pale. Sometimes they looked almost grief-stricken. The strange thing was, they would never tell anyone exactly what Yvonne had said to them. How could someone so deeply average wield so much terrifying power? It was a mystery, one that most KPP employees were all too happy to leave unsolved.
Now, as Jake sat at his desk working from paper printouts (the computers were of course still down – ‘ongoing IT issues’ as Yvonne liked to say), he felt her sudden presence behind him, leaning in close to whisper cloyingly into his ear: “Good morning, sir!” The ‘sir’ was just a pretence of course, a thing she had picked up from one of her books – ‘make your staff feel valued, important’. It always made Jake cringe because he knew full well that he was stuck on one of the very lowest rungs of the KPP ladder.
He forced out a half-smile and a tired-sounding “Morning, Yvonne.”
“Dearie me!” Yvonne said. “Once more with feeling, Jake?”
Jake gave her his best shit-eating grin and this time he almost sounded perky as he repeated: “Morning, Yvonne!”
“Thaaaat’s better,” she cooed, drawing out the ‘that’ until she sounded like a lamb suddenly realising it was in a slaughter-house. “There’s a little something for all your hard work”. Another mini chocolate bar. When she left, Jake would hide it in his drawer with the others.
“Team building at 10:30, Jake. Don’t forget.”
“Looking forward to it,” Jake said.
When the time came, Jake and his colleagues shuffled into the cramped, stuffy meeting room that could barely contain them all. It was a hot day and the air-con – like the computers – had not been working for some time. Jake took a seat around the table and proceeded to sweat profusely along with everyone else.
Yvonne was at the head of the table, presiding over her flock with the air of a proud schoolmistress.
“Welcome everybody,” she began. “Thank you all for coming.” As if we had a choice, Jake thought. “Before we start,” Yvonne continued, “I just wanted to say that I know we’ve all been experiencing a lot of challenges recently.”
Yvonne used the word ‘challenge’ when what she actually meant was ‘problem’. Since, according to her books, ‘there are no problems, only challenges’, she had explicitly forbidden the use of the P-word ’ by anyone at all, in any context. It had simply been erased from existence. Anyone who did chance to use it – even by accident – would be given ‘the quiet words’, and this was enough to deter almost everyone. Almost everyone, Jake reflected as he formed the word in his head and repeated it inwardly over and over to himself: problem, problem, problem. Prob. Lem. He never wanted to forget that this word existed. It had become precious to him, like a fragment of some ancient, holy text.
“The thing about challenges…” Yvonne was saying, “… is that we learn from them, we grow stronger because of them. And in time we overcome them. But!” The sudden, high-pitched enunciation made several people visibly jump. “But… there’s only one way to overcome a challenge, and that is… anyone?”
Jake had a ready answer to hand, and now he struggled with all his might not to say it out loud: By first acknowledging the ‘challenge’ for what it really is: a problem.
“By working together,” Olu said. Olu was one of Yvonne’s favourites. He was loyal to the point of absurdity.
“Thank you, Olu!” Yvonne beamed. Olu couldn’t help but grin contentedly as he soaked up the sudden – if not altogether spontaneous – round of applause from the rest of the team.
“Well done, Olu!” squeaked Felicity, whose largely unrequited crush on Olu had yet to subside.
“By working together,” Yvonne reiterated. “And that means… anyone?”
“Teamwork.” Olu again.
“Gosh, Olu. You’re on fire today!” Yvonne said.
“Well done, Olu!” Felicity yelped again, and looked suddenly crestfallen when Olu failed to acknowledge her for the second time.
“Teamwork.” Yvonne repeated the word slowly, languorously, with a half-fanatical glint in her eye. “So… we’re going to do a Round Robin now, and I want everyone to give it two hundred and twenty percent.”
Jake stared at Yvonne with undisguised loathing. Yvonne, whose understanding of the term ‘Round Robin’ wasn’t altogether correct, and whose grasp of the meaning of a percentage was two hundred and twenty percent shaky. Yvonne, whose ruthless language policing would’ve made even Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ squeamish. Yvonne, who had more power than she deserved, and who wielded it secretly, behind closed doors. Well, Jake thought, not anymore.
Yvonne brought out her brightly painted single maraca – a now familiar totem – and started to shake out a slow, steady rhythm with it.
“I’ll start us off then,” she said, and, in time with the maraca, began to chant the words: “Teamwork makes the dream work.” After two or three chants she passed the maraca to Olu, who kept the exact same rhythm going as he in turn sang: “Teamwork makes the dream work”.
Without any eye contact, Olu passed the maraca to Felicity, who did her best with the rhythm, but was always a little shy when chanting.
Felicity passed it onto Shanelle, who barely bothered with the maraca at all, but belted out the slogan from deep within a booming, powerful set of lungs.
Shanelle passed it onto Graham, who did a camp, theatrical maraca shake as he chanted the slogan with the chirpy, reassuring voice of an EasyJet flight attendant.
Graham passed it onto Diane, who passed it onto Sundeep, who passed it onto Tony… and so on and so on around the table.
“Teamwork makes the dream work.”
“Teamwork makes the dream work.”
“Teamwork makes the dream work.”
Jake braced himself. He had made his decision. When the shaking maraca finally appeared in front of his nose, held out for him by an impossibly eager Beverley, he simply did nothing. Beverley gave the maraca another shake – perhaps Jake hadn’t seen it? But no, he was – what on earth?! – Jake was slowly and firmly shaking his head, with both hands resolutely down at his sides. The maraca drooped. All around the table there was a heavy, expectant silence.
“Jake?” Yvonne said quietly.
“I… I’m sorry,” Jake whispered, looking at anyone – anywhere – but at Yvonne. “I can’t do this anymore.”
Felicity gave a perturbed little squeak and brought her hand up to her mouth. She looked like she was witnessing a high speed motorway collision.
Olu huffed and shook his head – as if Jake had just said something incredibly offensive, which, of course, he had.
Yvonne’s perma-smile was fading rapidly. “What do you mean, you can’t do this anymore?”
Jake – who up until now had not quite mustered up enough courage to look Yvonne squarely in the eye – now fixed his gaze firmly and unflinchingly level with hers.
“I can’t, Yvonne.”
“I mean… I won’t.”
Around the table there was a cacophony of sharp breath-intakes, followed by a final pathetic rattle as Beverley dropped the maraca.
“Won’t?” Yvonne said disbelievingly. “Why on earth not?”
“Because,” Jake said, suddenly, blissfully devoid of all fear, “it’s becoming a problem.”
“Oh!” Yvonne cried hysterically, putting both hands up to cover her ears, but it was too late. She could not unhear the obscenity. Then she took a few deep breaths to compose herself again and said; “Jake, would you come with me to my office please? I’d like a quiet word.”
Jake shook his head, his lips curling into a half-smile. “Nope,” he said decisively. “You can either talk to me here, in front of everyone, or not at all.”
“Well!” Yvonne opened her mouth to begin a sentence that hadn’t yet been formulated, then thought better of it.
Jake stood up and said quietly, almost humbly, to the other distraught faces: “I don’t like it here, so I’m going to leave. Now.” And he did just that, closing the door softly behind him.
As Jake made his way down the stairwell to the ground floor reception area, he thought for a moment that he might have just made the biggest mistake of his entire life. But even before he reached the bottom of the stairs, he had cast such doubts aside. After all, there was a whole world out there waiting to be explored, a whole other life to be lived. It would be difficult, of course it would. That was why most people stayed. It was always easier to stay than to leave. But a lifetime of quiet tyranny under the ever-watchful eyes of Yvonne Cooper was something he could no longer bear. Anything was better than that, surely.
Jake passed the empty reception desk and made his way along a short corridor to the fire exit at the rear of the building. With his hands on the bar that opened the door, he paused, drew a single deep breath, and pushed down on the bar. The fire door swung open, and there in front of him, in the blazing heat from the afternoon sun, was the car park.
He stepped out onto the tarmac and looked around furtively. There was no-one around; just a load of empty cars, some with smashed windows, some with tyres let down – or no tyres at all.
Now he saw that there were people here after all – or rather, what used to be people. The blood wraiths had done their work; empty, leathery sacks of parched and wrinkled skin were all that now remained of those unlucky enough to have been caught in the Maelstrom. Everyone knew the wraiths needed flesh and blood and organs to survive – but why did they take the bones too?
From somewhere in the cloudless sky above, Jake heard the unearthly, guttural wail that told him he had already been spotted. He sighed, turned and retraced his steps back to the fire door. He went inside and clicked the door shut behind him. Oh god, he thought. What a bloody fool I’ve been.
He went back to the stairwell and traipsed up the stairs again until he reached the first floor. He was already thinking about what he would have to do to make amends for his behaviour. Yvonne would probably send him on another dangerous trip to the warehouse to gather more food tins.
He made his way through the empty open plan office and knocked timidly on the meeting room door. “Come in, Jake.” Yvonne intoned. Her voice sounded muffled.
Head bowed, he opened the door and shuffled back to his seat. Most people were looking at him with a mixture of pity and embarrassment. All except Yvonne, of course, who now regarded Jake with all the arrogant triumphalism of a conquering emperor.
“Jake,” she said reasonably, “I’m prepared to overlook your use of the P-word, on one condition.” She offered him the maraca. Jake took it without hesitation. “Say the words, Jake.”
And through his tears, he did. “Teamwork… m-makes… the dream…. w-work.”
Philip Miles asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work