Photo: Daniel Reche
He sits in a corner, hunched over a computer with headphones plugged into his ears. He is barely noticeable unless someone is specifically looking for him but nobody seems to want to. You would not have known of his existence, but for that trip in the elevator where he practically flattened himself against wall, sweated profusely and refused to emit any sound. Perhaps being in the presence of a high ranking woman who is the Head of Business Development is a tad intimidating for him.
“Who is he?”, you ask your colleague. “Does he work in the mailroom?”
“Oh no, he is Gunther, the features writer. He has been around for nearly two years.”
“Two years and I learn about him now?”
“He is quiet.”
The word quiet plays around in your mind for the rest of the day. During your meeting with the Koreans at 11 am, when there is a lot of shaking of hands, you think you need quiet. During the Input session with the Strategy head at 12 pm, when there is a lot of unnecessary dialogue, you crave quiet. During the working lunch with the CEO, when there is a lot of fake laughter, again the need for quiet creeps up. Colleagues of convenience, you call them. Transactional and dispensable, you tutt under your breath. Finally at home in the company of three toddler boys and a fatigued house husband, when there is a lot of consoling, you think you could do with complete quiet. Your mind pulls up the image of the employee who has managed to cultivate this total isolation around himself. What is his life like, you wonder when you eventually collapse into bed.You imagine him to be a bachelor, too socially awkward to be involved in an intimate relationship with a girl, with his head buried in a pile of porn. Alternatively, he could be whiling away all his time watching slashers on his laptop in a dark dingy room, while munching on crisps and popcorn. In either case, he is a loner, living in a space eclipsed from mirth.
Aren’t you surprised when a few days later you receive an email from Gunther requesting time to do a feature on you for the monthly company magazine? He arrives at your office at the agreed upon time and seats himself rather self-consciously on the chair diagonally opposite you across the desk. His blonde hair is neatly pulled back and he looks intently at you, with half a scowl spread over his brow. He pulls out his list of questions from his folder and holds his pen in mid-air as though waiting for your cue to begin. You swirl in your chair, pull your left leg over the other and let the heel dangle out of the loafer in an attempt to create a relaxed atmosphere. After all, you are not interviewing for any job or appearing for an examination, are you? As you ease into the conversation, he asks you about your journey in the company, your aspirations for the team and targets you are seeking to achieve in the coming year. He scribbles furiously and nods at your responses to demonstrate his agreement with what is being said. “Are we done?”, you say finally as you sink into your chair. “Indeed, we are.”, he replies. “But just before we wrap up, I‘d like to know a bit about you”, you say. His brow picks up, suggesting that this is a fairly unusual request for which he is inadequately prepared. He places his pen on the writing folder, crosses his arms across his chest and braces himself for any enquiry into his life. What you manage to tease out of him what that he is the only son of a meat packer, has managed to put himself through journalism school through borrowed funds and is living in a studio flat on Warden Road, towards the extreme right which makes up the dodgy part. The picture he paints of himself seems to be congruent with your initial theory of him.
Post this interaction with Gunther, you seem to run into him everywhere — by the elevator bank, by the coffee machine, in the cafeteria. Where has he been hiding all this while? There is a perceptible change in his behaviour towards you; the look of alarm has been replaced by a slight smile and an eagerness to initiate a conversation though the words are not free flowing and the exchange is terse.
“He has an air of sadness about him”, you remark to your colleague.
Your colleague looks up from her work with some surprise. She has a penchant for gossip.
“Well”, she goes. “It’s interesting that you say that. I heard that a lady from Accounts once pursued him and after multiple attempts he finally consented to a date. But she found him to be so wound up and monosyllabic throughout the evening, that she felt drained and burst into tears at the end of it. Who knows what kind of burden the man is lugging around?”
You walk away when you notice a sinister look of glee on your colleague’s face. Why do certain people gain delight in another person’s pain? They are but colleagues of convenience, you remind yourself.
Then one day Gunther shows up at your office rattling some papers in his hand. “I’ve written a short fictional story. I was wondering if you’d care to read it,” he says hesitantly. “Sure”, you respond and offer him a seat across your desk as you dive into his material. It is a story of a young boy coping with the mental issues of an abusive father. After reading the story, you turn towards him and remark that it is very moving but it does not feel fictional and more likely, it is the story of his own life. His face falls and he looks embarrassed. Then hot tears scrunch up his face. He grabs the papers from your hand and exits your office in a hurry.
You carry the guilt home but do not mention anything to your husband. In the stillness of the night though you think about him again. His loneliness seems to trouble you like an itch on your back that is hard to reach. What would life be like if you had no witness for it? Balzac’s quote comes to your mind: Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine. You snuggle up to the body lying next you and feel grateful for its warmth.
A few weeks later an email arrives into your inbox. It is from Gunther and has been sent to all the employees. You open it with curiosity. The note is a damning letter criticizing the company culture, pay and governance. It accuses the managing director of gross incompetence and mis-management. You read the contents in a state of shock. Has he been drinking? Has he completely lost it? Has he been so frustrated with his stint in the firm? Then why hadn’t he left earlier? Minutes later, a recall message arrives, followed by an open apology by Gunther who states that the note had been sent by accident and that he deeply regrets any hurt he may have caused through his rant. But the damage has been done. You hear that the Human Resources has called him in for a meeting and has suspended him for a couple of weeks. You have mixed emotions when you learn about this — on one hand, you are sympathetic towards this lad given his background and personality, but on the other hand, there is little excuse for his behaviour. It is certainly in the disciplinary territory and you decide to let Human Resources handle the matter.
A month later, you run into Martha- the communications editor.
“Your boy, Gunther had spoken to me about a feature. When are you planning to run it?”, you ask.
“That may take some time.”
“What happened? I know he had been suspended but I expected him to resume after a couple of weeks.”
“Five days into his suspension, Gunther stormed into the office looking gaunt, unshaven with a wild look on his face and started breaking the furniture around here. We were afraid that he might hurt somebody and had security remove him. Human Resources might have the latest update on him.”
You march into the Human Resources department to find out more about Gunther. A lady in a braid and a pin striped shirt looks up from her file when you mention that you are there to inquire about him.
“I’m afraid we had to terminate his services”, she replies. “We spoke to him and realised that he needed help. We tried to get him admitted to a mental care institute but he refused. In the end, we decided that he was too unwell to work here.”
Your heart sinks like a sponge weighed down by a pound of fluid. But your face reveals none of your disappointment when later in the evening you celebrate your tenth wedding anniversary with your family. Gunther crosses your mind and each time you choose to shut out his face.
It has been two years since Gunther’s exit from the office and you have moved on in your career to become the Director for New Business, won an award for Best Businesswoman of the Year, and despite your work commitments, have managed to attend every major game of your kids. One day, a parcel arrives at your office. It is in a green envelope and the handwriting is scratchy. It reads:
To Belinda M. Rami Enterprises. From Gunther F.
You immediately tear open the envelope to discover a book inside. It is a collection of short stories written by Gunther. And on the first page is a dedication. It bears your name. Below is a handwritten message – Doing the only thing I can i.e. write.
You read the stories page by page, very intently and feel a lump in your throat when you come across the one about the abusive father which he had asked you to read earlier. All the stories are poignant, haunting and felt real - like they are chapters of his life and this is his attempt to explain himself and allow an outsider into his private life. By the end of book, your body feels hot. You try hard to swallow but then tears well up and begin flowing. You instantly pick up a pen and start writing:
Reading your book has been a deeply emotional experience for me. I now understand your world and you much better. You have bravely fought off the legacy of mental struggles to produce work that anyone would be proud of. As they say — A phoenix must burn to emerge. You are that phoenix. This beautiful book marks the arrival of an immensely gifted writer and is a testament of your resurrection.
You pull out an envelope from your drawer, fold the letter into it and lick the flap shut, only to realise that you have no address for Gunther to put on it.
Eventually you manage to uncover Gunther’s address by approaching the publisher of the book and send the note to him. It seems that he has moved from the dodgy end of Warden Road to a place even dodgier. But you never hear back from him and it turns out to be yet another disappointment in a string of many. On a few occasions, you think of hauling yourself over to his place to check on him, draw him out into the external world. Then one day on an impulse you show up at his doorstep, only to discover that he has moved again but no one knows where. You stare at the locked door of the apartment and feel as if you have accidentally let go of the string of the kite you were holding onto for long. The kite is drifting away and all you can do is watch it twist and turn in the autumnal wind. Oh dear, you are too late. Now you have no other option than to let Gunther be himself, which is lonesome.
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