The man in the cubicle next to me is crying.
I can hear the muffled sobs through the carpeted box walls that I have worked in for the last two years.
I heard his telephone ring in that far off back-office room of my mind that takes notice of the things that happen while you are busy typing emails, wrestling with Excel or doing whatever fills your pay-packet, week after week. I remember his mumblings as they rose from a subterranean bass to an almost feminine pitch. Faster and faster he spoke, the sounds not forming words over the divider between us, but approaching like a foreign language, half heard, half understood.
The antenna inside that detects disturbances in the rarefied atmosphere of the office was sending signals marked with small red flags to my consciousness. An eyebrow raised as I paused, lifted my head as a gazelle does when the faintest scent of lion is transported across the plains, and turned slightly to his side.
Irritation crossed my mind. Irritation, always the first reaction to anything that takes me from the safety of normal and into the danger of unknown. A flush of adrenaline wakened my office-dulled senses. My body clicked to the “on” position. The raised eyebrow crashed down to a frown. I was suddenly wide awake, aware and aggravated.
In this new state I sensed that the clicking of keyboards and other conversations in the immediate area were dying away. It reminded me of the last office observance of ANZAC Day, the gentle slope to silence as work was left unattended for those moments and then the slow crescendo back to normality. But at this moment there was no returning to the drone of the office, we were silent, we were listening.
The man next to me continued. I still could not make out what he was saying, but loud globs of sound were flung over the protective wall of my cubicle. Flying like magma from an eruption, the projected emotion searing hot and fiery red, the sounds burned into my ears. My mind pencilled in his gesticulating arms, the flushed face, the widened eyes. My ears strained to make sense of what he was saying.
Inside, irritation matured to ire.
Dragging yourself day after day into your noughts and crossed cubicle area, where the cut of your suit clearly identifies what pay scale you are on, can make you bitter. Not the tittering “look at me I am making fun of the boss” bitter, but the serious “I would rather be dead than be here some days” feelings of hatred and despair. These feelings are occasionally hinted at, in the communal kitchen, over the lunchroom table, in the aggravated way a suit jacket is pulled on. I understood my fellow workmates. They were like me, wound springlike to the point of breaking. Teetering on the edge of action, yet bound by office politics and rules to abide by the rules. The rules were being broken by my labour neighbour.
The man in the next cubicle then stood up. I knew this because I heard his chair (the standard low backed gas lift in charcoal grey) slam into the wall beside me. The miscellaneous reports I had thumb tacked up 18 months ago shivered slightly. I felt my ears twitch animal-like as they responded instinctively to the perceived threat and my chin tucked into my chest in a defensive manner. Around me I heard indrawn breaths as my colleagues also ducked.
A gobbling, strangled sound came from the man. He began banging his hand on his desk, faster and faster, louder and louder. My eyes narrowed at each blow until my field of vision had contracted to a small area near my right hand and the phone. My fingers closed into a tight fist, my breathing had gone from being held to almost panting. This display of raw terrifying emotion by him in my office was just….too….MUCH!
My mind was made up.
I half rose to take this situation into my own hands when the man next to me went silent. For what seemed like ten whole seconds the office was a vacuum. No phones rang, no gossip near the water dispenser, no voices. I tried to imagine what had changed this ranting man, had halted him mid howl.
The sound of a blunt blow to flesh followed by another and another destroyed the momentary calm. My heightened senses detected two sets of breathing over the carpeted wall, then three, then several, some sounding decidedly feminine. More slapping, thumping sounds and then of something heavy falling to the ground. These sounds continued for several minutes, slowly tapering off. The breathing went from several to a couple, to only one.
The sobbing started.