Foreign House: Ten

FRIDAY

The dining room is way too big for the 25 to 30 people in our group. They have spread thinly into little units across the room so they don’t have to speak to each other. Dorks.

There’s only about 15 employees here. The others are partners and other family members, maybe friends. That will make awkward conversation. Trying to draw out everyone’s relationship to each other without causing offence.

I’ve only worked at the company nine months, I haven’t met anyone from the team in person. I recognise a few of them but the rest are hard to identify from their 2D, onscreen avatars. About half of them are wearing surgical masks.

Almost everyone is looking down at their little black rectangles. Pull down the screen, refresh, sigh. Refresh, scowl. It makes them unhappy when it works. It makes them desperate when it doesn’t.

“None of them know what to do with themselves,” says Cindy.

“Don’t get me started. Let’s get some food.”

Breakfast is laid out on buffet trollies that they have wheeled in before we got here. Gold plated. Polished but chipped with patina.

“Wow, look at that,” I say to nobody really. Small fields of fats and proteins. Eggs in a stupid number of ways including shakshuka. Acid and spice stinging the inside of my nose. I slop some on my plate, making sure I scoop up at least four eggs. Do you even lift? I put two marbled, black coins of blood pudding on top and ignore Cindy’s disgust pushing at the edge of my awareness. Then grab a couple slices of sourdough and put it in one of those toasters that looks like a miniature, reversed ski-lift through hell.

The first time the sourdough passes through the machine it comes out still raw, or untoasted or whatever. The second time it passes through two charred turds drop off the bottom of Lucifer’s inverted mountain climber.

“Fuck off.” I pick them up. They burn me. I try to move them onto a plate before my skin blisters. I clatter my hand against the toaster’s body, burning the back of my hand and drop the turds onto the floor where they leave a sooty stain.

“What’s up?” asks Cindy.

“Fucking, stupid, devil’s ski-lift…”

“What are you actually talking about?”

“The toaster. It’s either rare or burnt.”

She takes two pieces of sourdough from the basket, twists a knob on the side of the toaster I hadn’t seen, and drops the bread in the top. She gives me a one-armed, half cuddle and we watch the bread come out perfectly toasted. “Want some ice for your fingers?”

>Be Him
>And endurance produces character, and character produces hope

“I’m alright.”

Kanu is inspecting the buffet trolley with the cereals. He ignores the bran flakes, the shredded wheat, the corn flakes. He picks toxic cereal hoops with spongy, neon candy pieces scattered through them like diabetic land-mines. He interrogates the milk and picks a carton of something non-dairy. Soya bean husks pulped into ersatz cream then mixed with water and added sugar. No flesh. Deathless, self-righteous and loaded with sugar. Added sugar blunting the jaws of young men with double chins. Soiling their metabolism. Feminising them. No, not feminising, emasculating. Sugar destroys the feminine too. Turning curves of fertility to rolls of obesity. Destabilising hormones and scorching wombs.

“What are you thinking about?” asks Cindy, frowning.

“Ergh. Sugar.”

“Sugar?”

“Yeah.”

“I worry about you sometimes. Are we sitting down then?”

“Yeah I guess. I feel like we should mingle but…”

“Yeah. Not exactly team building.”

We find a table. I see Kanu is talking to someone at the buffet. I can’t tell if it is someone I work with or someone who has come with someone I work with. Blue hair; pallid skin; dulled, mustard dungarees. Shapeless, ageless, androgynous. They’re talking to Kanu about the graphic on his hoodie. He’s biting their ear off. Excited to communicate. Engaged. I haven’t seen him like this for so long.

Someone slaps me on the back. “Ozzy,” I say, smiling. Ozzy looks like a Yacht Rock producer who had to get up early to drop his children off at school. Short, curly blond hair straight from surfing lesson. Breezeblock jaw but newborn, stubbleless skin. Grey, wool hoodie; acid wash jeans and tennis shoes like a 25 year old Gap billboard someone forgot to take down.

“Is this the elusive girlfriend?”

“Cindy,” she introduces herself, turning up moist lips. A trapped nerve of jealousy surprises me. I try to catch that tweak of emotion before Cindy notices it. I probably failed.

“And is this your son?”

“Yes,” I say.

“But not yours?” he asks without any restraint.

“No,” says Cindy.

“Well, it’s,” current year, “I have three kids by three different women.” He slaps me on the back again.

“What we going to do about this lot,” he whispers. “It’s supposed to our annual team building event but I forgot, none of them have social skills.”

“How many times have you done this before?”

“Once. Before all the COVID stuff. We had a BBQ. It was a disaster. Half of them don’t eat meat.”

“So this is only the second time you’ve actually met the team?”

“Yeah.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Nothing.”

He moves off into the middle of the tables as Kanu sits down and starts munching on his bow of Old Nick’s rings. Cindy leans over and teases, “What you jealous of?” I give her a light dig in the leg and turn to watch Ozzy.

“Welcome everyone,” starts Ozzy to the group, “to the second, not-annual, team meeting. Good job at mingling and getting to know each other. ” Our table snorts and chuckles. Nobody else does. “Tough crowd. Well enjoy your silos and staring at your disconnected screens while you can. The team building begins after breakfast.”

“What happened to the WiFi?” someone asks, a little too desperately.

“They’re working on it,” says Ozzy, struggling to contain his irritation.

“They’re working on it,” I whisper to Cindy. “Where are the staff? I’ve not seen anyone except the bellhop.” Cindy makes a grunt of agreement.

“Everyone needs to dress up warm,” continues Ozzy, “because the first activity is a bit of orienteering in the grounds and in the woods.” There is a collective sucking in of breath.

“There’s snow on the ground,” someone says.

“The hotel has dozens of sets of boots and surplus coats and they have a sporting shop for anyone who is too sensitive to wear something someone else has worn. You can throw it all on the hotel tab. No complaining. Everyone has to give it a go at least. If you fail completely that’s fine. But that’s the fun. No argument. Enjoy your breakfast.”

Ozzy goes over to get his breakfast. I struggle to crunch shakshuka dipped toast while trying to supress a smirk. I start choking and turn away from table. I see three small, white figures dart past the door dinning room, about the size of infants, but too stable on their feet to be children and too quick for me to discern any details.

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