By Ranjit Kulkarni
On a normal working day, Robin Warne would be in some corporate meeting this time in the afternoon. But today was a light afternoon at work, to his delight. So he sat at his desk staring at the laptop screen, pretending to be busy. At his level in the company, he couldn’t afford to look as if he had no work. He read news ensuring no one else saw him. In a corner of the screen, he had an eye on the stock market as it was time for its closing. Nothing on his face indicated the fact that he was free. It had an artificial expression of overwork.
The face was not as uncluttered as his workspace though. His cubicle was always in order. Photographs of his family, a coffee cup, papers related to his work organised well. He looked at them, mused over his free afternoon, and thought life was not that bad.
In fact, it was rather good.
His colleague, James, dropped in at Robin’s desk.
“I need a small piece of help from you. Are you free for a few minutes?” James asked.
Robin looked up from his laptop after a gap of a few moments. In those seconds, he closed the browser and shifted to his email. It’s a bit dicey to answer such direct questions in corporate circles. With experience, he had found smart ways to evade them.
“Let me check my calendar, one sec. By the way, what do you need?” Robin asked.
James paused for a few seconds and continued. “Well, it’s a personal favour.”
“Hmm. Ok – I have a meeting at 4.30 pm for which I need to go through some slides,” Robin said. “Looks like I am open for the next thirty minutes. How may I help you?” Robin asked. It was an expert example of well-enacted keenness within his fake busyness.
“Great, it shouldn’t take more than ten minutes,” James broke into a smile. “There is a friend of mine who has got an offer from Microsystems Corporation.”
“Oh OK, that’s wonderful,” Robin exulted, and broke into a grin. He had genuine, fond memories of working there a few years back.
James shuffled his feet. He stuttered and his face showed some hesitation before he spoke.
“I was.. umm.. chatting with him and… looks like…err.. he would appreciate some help on.. umm.. the company and their work culture. I wanted to check if you are open to.. well.. helping him with a brief chat as.. I think.. you have worked there earlier?”
Robin patted James on his shoulder, not losing any opportunity for one-upmanship.
“Oh James. Feel free to ask for help. No worries. Microsystems is a great place to work,” Robin affirmed. “Give me his number. I will call him when I have some free time,” he said.
James moved closer to Robin in small steps. He sneaked inside his cubicle and slipped on to an empty chair opposite Robin. Then he whispered over Robin’s shoulder. “Actually I am sorry for this sudden request, Robin. But he has come over to the office. His name is Steve, and he is sitting in that meeting room in there.” James pointed to the glass room on the other side of the corridor.
Robin peeped over his cubicle to the meeting room. A man stood inside the glass wall.
“Oh, he is here? That’s cool,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, but with eyebrows raised.
“Yeah,” James mumbled, with a sheepish smile. “If you could drop in and have a quick chat, that would be great.”
“Yeah sure. Anytime. I am here to help. Will go right away,” said Robin.
“Thanks a lot, Robin, for your help. Sorry for the trouble and the short notice,” James said.
“By the way, could you let me know when you finish?” James asked, walking out.
“Will do. No worries. Happy to be of help,” said Robin. He stood up and started walking towards the meeting room.
The meeting room had a large table with six chairs. It had glass walls and doors.
“Hi. Are you Steve?” Robin asked after he entered.
Steve stood facing the external facing glass wall. It had a view of the road below. He wore a grey suit with his hands in his pocket. He had his back to Robin as he entered. Robin could sense a certain swagger in the way Steve stood. On hearing Robin, Steve turned around.
“Yes, I am Steve.”
“Ok great. I am Robin. James told me about you,” Robin said, thrusting his hand forward.
The smile on Steve’s face disappeared and his face turned pale. “Oh – is it?” Steve asked.
Robin’s extended hand stayed hanging. Steve didn’t shake it, and asked Robin to sit. Robin pulled a chair with a scowl on his face. He sat down, getting his hand back, shaking his head, facing the floor to hide his scowl. He was about to ask Steve to take a seat.
But he noticed that he was already sitting when he looked up. “Quite an arrogant guy, this Steve chap,” Robin mused as he formed his first impression.
“What did he tell you?” Steve asked.
Robin gathered himself from his thoughts. “James told me that you got an offer from Microsystems Corporation. Congratulations,” Robin said and this time did not put his hand forward. “He said you needed some help before deciding.”
Steve smiled staring into blank space. “Yes – that’s right. I am currently working with Net Solve Corporation and was wondering if it would be a good move. How long did you work with Microsystems?”
This was too abrupt for Robin’s liking. No courtesies. No thank you. No permissions. Straight question. Like an interview. The temperature in Robin’s head started rising steadily.
“Well I worked there for around four years. It is a nice place. They are a decent bunch of people, who….,” Steve cut Robin short mid-sentence. “Yeah, I have heard so,” he said.
Robin fumed this time. He looked Steve straight in the eye to ensure he realised his displeasure. But Robin found that Steve was looking through him.
“Did you know anyone in marketing?” Steve asked Robin, and turned his head to the right, as if waiting for an answer to fall on his left ear.
“Yes I worked with Roy, the chief marketing office of the company,” Robin boasted.
Steve flashed into a smile on hearing that. He made no eye contact. He glared at the table from time to time, as if trying to remember something. Robin was not quite sure why.
“Wow. That’s amazing. I will be reporting to Roy. How is he to work with?”
“Well, he is a decent guy. Quite good to work with. He supports you well….” Robin paused because he got distracted. This guy wasn’t let him talk with all his fiddling around.
Right in the middle of a conversation, Steve turned his attention to the ceiling. It was distracting. He then looked at the window, and then the table. Robin felt like this was a stress interview he was going through. Every time Steve asked him a question, he pretended to look somewhere else when Robin answered.
“Don’t keep shifting. Give me your attention, you are the one who asked for help,” Robin wiped the sweat on his brow and muttered under his breath.
Instinctively, he felt like he should stop. But then he told himself that this was James’s friend. He had already pretended to have a big heart, ready to help. So he continued.
“Mr. Roy will give you all the freedom to operate. Generally, he will spell out his expectations upfront, but leave it to you beyond that.”
Robin stopped again. He felt thirsty and got up to get some water. He walked to the other side of the table and got a bottle.
Steve continued asking his questions neglecting Robin.
I have never seen a more self-obsessed guy, Robin mused. Let me get some water at least, he thought. What a self-absorbed jerk I am stuck with, Robin told himself. Such people don’t deserve help, he thought.
“Great. That’s good news. And how is Microsystems as a company?” Steve asked.
Robin picked up the bottle of water and took a gulp.
“Well, it’s ok,” Robin said. Enough of this help business now. I am not going to speak up. Let him keep asking. Now I will pretend as if I don’t care, Robin thought.
“Is it a good place to work in general? Does it offer good growth?” Steve continued.
“It is not bad. One sec.” Robin said. He walked towards Steve. “Do you want some water?”
“No thank you.” Steve said.
There was a moment’s silence as Robin had another gulp of water. He waited for more questions. Steve continued.
“Is it a nice place to work? Do they allow flexible work timings?” Steve asked but Robin stayed silent. “Is work from home part of the culture?”
There was an awkward silence. Robin expected that, by now, this guy Steve will get it. Just looking at Robin’s body language, it was clear that he was no longer interested. That he had lost his attention. But that didn’t happen.
Robin gave a cold reply. “Yeah, it is decent. Everything depends on your situation,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s true, of course,” agreed Steve flashing into a smile again.
“So when are you joining them?” asked Robin, changing the topic. He was now getting ready to close out the conversation. He had had enough. What arrogance and swagger, Robin thought. Constant fiddling, lack of attention and lack of basic courtesy to add, he thought. Enough of this help business, Robin decided.
“They expect me to join next week. But I will be taking a month or so.”
“Alright then. Hope my inputs helped and wish you all the best.” Robin got ready to finish. “I need to get into another meeting now.”
Robin got up from the chair and prepared to leave.
Steve got up too, and with a smile, he thanked Robin. This time Steve put his hand forward for a handshake. Robin left it hanging and left, with a sly smile.
He walked down the corridor and went back to his desk. Good riddance, he muttered. Not a
world to help people, he told himself. He checked his laptop to see if he had got any email.
There was nothing new. He went back to the news that he was reading before this useless meeting with this self-important guy.
Later in the evening, James dropped by.
“So how was it?”
“Well, it was fine. I gave him all the inputs on Microsystems he needed.”
“Ok great. Thanks a lot for your help.”
For a moment, James thought of stepping out, but then stopped.
“By the way, how did you find him?”
Robin looked at James not quite sure what to say.
For a moment, he thought he should tell James what he thought. That he found the guy haughty and that his behaviour offended him. But then, he decided against it. What’s the point? He was never going to meet him again. Why offend James for no reason? Steve was his friend after all. But the anger in his head was fresh. It was difficult to keep it under a lid.
“Well, the guy seemed ok. Microsystems has selected him, so he must be good at the job, “Robin shrugged his shoulders. “He needs to work on his focus and humility,” Robin said.
He didn’t exactly spill his heart out, but he got the message across. A corporate career of many years had made him an expert in such communication.
“Hmm. I am not surprised,” James said.
“Well, of course you know your friend well,” Robin laughed. James had an embarrassed smile on his face. Robin found James receptive and decided to be direct.
“The way he looks around and completely disregards someone whom he has asked help for. It’s atrocious, to be honest.”
James looked down to the floor as if hanging his head in shame. He twitched his lips and twisted his cheeks in what seemed like disappointment.
Robin noticed it and consoled James.
“Anyway, don’t worry. I have given him all the inputs. Unlike him, I gave him whatever attention I could,” Robin said. He thought this was enough. “By the way, how do you know him?” He asked changing the topic.
“Hmm.. He is my old classmate from school. I know him for 15 years now. He wasn’t always like this,” James confided and grew pensive.
“Yeah, well, people change with success. I have seen the humblest of people turn into high-handed jerks paying no attention to those in front of them. They neglect you as if you don’t exist.” Robin laughed off from his experience.
“Hmm. This is not the case with this guy. It is something else.” James went into some kind of deeper thought after saying that. He paused for a few seconds, and then started speaking.
“I should have told you before the meeting. But he doesn’t like it, so I held back,” James informed Robin.
“Told me what?” Robin asked, his curiosity now piqued.
“I forgot to tell you before you went in that Steve is blind. Almost.“
Robin looked up to James from his desk. He stood up disturbed with this bolt from the blue. Stunned into silence, his face lost all its colour. His eyes turned white in shock.
“He lost his vision due to an illness over the past 5 years, and now he is 90% blind. He does not wear sunglasses or carry a stick or tell anyone,” James murmured. “His eyes look like us. But he can only make out that you are there, but nothing more than that. So he keeps guessing where you are and looks there. Or if he can’t, he turns his face elsewhere. It is awkward. But it is because he is almost blind.”
Robin did not quite know what to say. His mind went back to the meeting room. In his mind, he re-ran the sequence of events during his conversation with Steve. James patted Robin on his back getting him out of his jolted condition.
“I should have told you earlier. But I missed it completely as I got busy,” James said. Then he added, “He called me a while back. He asked me to say thanks a lot for all your help.”
Robin dropped down on his chair and stared back into his laptop screen. He tried to focus on what was on the screen but could not concentrate.
Ranjit Kulkarni’s work so far includes short stories, articles, and novellas, many of which, he is told, have made people think and smile. His work has appeared in Literary Yard, Indian Periodical, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Potato Soup Journal, Setu Journal, CC&D Scars, Ariel Chart, Active Muse. More details about his work can be accessed at https://www.ranjitkulkarni.com