A ghost story, sort of; the characters, setting and events are all, of course, fictitious, but anyone who worked in a certain UK revenue department during the last two decades or so of its existence may experience a sense of déjà vu.
“Oh, excuse me,” I said. “I didn’t expect to find anyone else here.”
I had noticed him sitting at one of the farther desks, studying some papers in an old cardboard box file. He showed no sign of having seen me, so I felt rather stupid, like someone who has just realised that they are talking to themselves, out loud.
“Well,” I thought, “I shouldn’t be here either, so if he’s not bothered..,” but I continued to stare. There was something not quite right about the scene, and I couldn’t immediately put my finger on it. The lights weren’t working, of course, as the building had been closed for several days, but it wasn’t just the slightly gloomy atmosphere that was troubling me.
The presence of the stranger was my second surprise that evening. The first had been a pleasant one; I had been fairly certain that the code for the main door lock would have been changed by now, but the management must have overlooked this obvious security measure and the last series of digits that I could remember using still worked like a charm. We had been required to vacate the premises within five days, following the discovery of asbestos in the building; perhaps it was inevitable that one or two details had been overlooked in the rush to evacuate the staff, remove all the confidential paperwork and take out the more expensive office equipment before the deadline. Only the furniture remained; chairs, desks and cupboards, including the set of drawers in which I thought I must have left my fountain pen. I hadn’t used that pen for many years, but it had some sentimental value as it had been awarded to me at school ‘for excellent work’, and I had decided to return and search for it if possible.
I looked around the floor. My team had occupied part of one of the larger open-plan areas and, in the absence of colleagues, pot plants and the trivial ornaments people used to personalise their workspaces, I had to count the rows to work out where my old desk had been. I thought I was unlikely to disturb the other visitor, who still seemed to be absorbed in his own mysterious task; he was sat well away from the route I had to follow across the room. While I was making my way between the empty desks and chairs I felt for the torch in my pocket, thinking that I might need it when the daylight had faded a little more.
Once I had reached my old desk, it was easy enough to pick out and open the particular drawer in which I hoped to find my missing pen. However, there was no sign of it there and I started looking in the other drawers and cupboards nearby. Only a few were locked and, in any case, after removing the contents, we had left the redundant keys behind in their locks. I soon realised that I wasn’t going to find the pen but, frustrated, I carried on for several minutes, rather noisily pulling and pushing drawers and flinging cupboard doors open and shut.
Then I remembered my silent companion and, feeling more than a little embarrassed, I looked again in his direction, certain that my careless clatter must have upset his concentration.
“Sorry!” I called out, “I forgot you were there.”
I waited for a response, but there was none. He quietly finished looking at some document and placed it carefully on top of the pile that was accumulating in a tray at the corner of his desk. Then he pulled out another sheet, which he laid on the inside of the box file’s open lid to read in turn. It would soon be too dark to read, so perhaps, I thought, he was determined to get through the contents of the file before the feeble light from the windows gave out completely.
I may have actually jumped, physically, when I suddenly realised what was so odd about this apparition. It was not simply that, in spite of my unexpected arrival and the noise I was making, the man had taken no notice of me. The drawers and cupboards I had been searching were all empty, of course. All our business papers had been taken away when we abandoned the building; even the stock of scrap paper had been carefully removed, as a fire precaution. So where had this man found a full box file, and what was he reading?
Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to take a closer look.
I approached my silent companion along the bank of desks at which he was sitting. I walked towards him a little carelessly so that I would make some small noises, brushing against obstacles and scuffing my feet, not wishing to take him by surprise. As I got nearer, I saw that he was wearing a long, old-fashioned macintosh and had laid a pair of smart leather gloves on the desk next to the box file. I couldn’t see his face clearly in the dim light but I had the impression that he was a late middle-aged man, going bald; he was wearing a pair of wire-framed spectacles. It struck me that there was actually something familiar about him; the coat, the way he sat, and those gloves and glasses all seemed to be reminding me of someone I had met before.
I stood for a moment just behind his right shoulder. He still showed no sign of having noticed me, and the thought crossed my mind that he might be deaf. As there was a gap between his desk and the next one to his left, I decided to make my way round and face him directly from the front. He continued to look down at his papers, but now that I had a better view of his face, sudden recognition came over me.
“Tommy!” I said, “Tommy Elliott isn’t it? But I thought you…” Somehow I managed to stifle the words “…must be dead” that were on the tip of my tongue. Tommy had retired at least ten, no at least fifteen years earlier, but here he was, looking no older than I remembered him and still, I thought, wearing the same mac and using the same gloves as had been his usual winter style of dress back in those days.
It might have been my imagination, but Tommy did seem to respond to the sound of my voice. He looked up briefly and a faint trace of a smile marked his face for a moment. Then he was looking down again. He put all of his papers back into the box file but left it open. He glanced up again, and seemed to look through me rather than at me; with his elbow resting on the desk, his right hand pointed rather awkwardly at the topmost document in front of him. I took this gesture as an unspoken invitation to examine the contents of the box myself. As it would have been difficult to do this from where I was standing and it seemed rude to pull the collection away from his hands, I returned to his side of the desk and peered over his shoulder. This was not a comfortable position for reading.
“It’s getting dark,” I said. “Would you mind if I took this somewhere more convenient?” Tommy said nothing but he sat back in his chair and dropped his hands into his lap. I leaned over him, picked up the box file and moved back to the other side of the desk. There I pulled up a chair, retrieved the torch from my pocket and switched it on so that I could read more easily.
I soon realised that I was looking at a file of all kinds of personnel documentation relating to Tommy’s former career. Much of it was of a familiar kind; there were copies of sickness absence certificates, several of them reporting periods of depression, and annual appraisal reports bearing comments phrased in the usual management style (best described as ‘damning with faint praise’). The lack of indexing and the mixed nature of the papers suggested to me that this was Tommy’s own record of his time in the Department, not an official compilation.
“Weird,” I thought, “truly weird; how did he know it would still be here? Or did he have it at home and come here with it today because he heard that the office had been closed?” I was not sure in my mind which line of thought was more absurd.
Assuming that Tommy would not have been scrutinising this routine stuff in any detail, I made rapid progress down through the contents of the box, just glancing at most of the individual items. After all, this was really none of my business, although Tommy, sat silently facing me, had not made any move to stop me. I paused, however, when I came to a group of typed letters held together with a paper clip, and began to read the first. Below Tommy’s office address and a date from my earlier years in the Department I read:
I note that, following the recent annual reviews, both of my colleagues have been offered promotion opportunities but, as usual, I have not…’
“Hmm, we’ve all been there, Tommy”, I thought, but I remembered that he had spent many years stubbornly working in a post that nobody else wanted, and he seemed to have been taken very much for granted by the office hierarchy. There were one or two further, similar letters, apparently written at different dates; I began to read through them with a sympathetic eye.
‘…I was shocked to discover that Mr. Dale has been selected for promotion. You are surely aware that he has been working part-time, in effect, for most of the past year as he slips off during the afternoons to conduct an affair…’
Oh yes, I remembered Dale. It was unlikely that the management had been ignorant of the tangle in his private life; it was possible that he had been promoted, at least partly, to give him a chance to sort himself out, but I could see why Tommy would have been upset. In the event, Dale had resolved matters by setting up home with the girlfriend and had, presumably, used his higher salary in his new grade to provide support for his abandoned wife and children. Whether he had reverted to working his proper hours, I did not know.
‘…and since Mr. Williams left us to take up his new position it has fallen to me to sort out the mess he had created in several cases…’
I could remember Williams too; a nice fellow, but famously incompetent. I couldn’t think of any reason why he should have been promoted ahead of Tommy Elliott, except that he had already been working for the Department before the amalgamation with our sister organisation. For years afterwards the promotion system had mysteriously continued to favour those who had been around in ‘the old days’, even if they had been insignificant juniors at the time.
It would have taken a braver man than Tommy Elliott to actually send letters like these to the rigid, unsympathetic senior managers that ran the organisation, so it was not a surprise to see that each had a handwritten footnote: ‘Not sent, T.E.’; each, that is, except the last, which was headed ‘Letter of Resignation’ and very clearly marked ‘Sent!’ It occurred to me that Tommy had retired a few years before the normal age limit at the time; I had been under the impression that he might have been able to leave on health grounds, or under a voluntary redundancy package. I leant an elbow on the desk so that I could hold the torch steadily in my hand and read Tommy’s final letter addressed to the Departmental Commissioners.
…I have now spent more than three decades of my life working under your management. I came to you with qualifications that seemed relevant to your needs, but you have never shown the slightest interest in making use of them. I soon realised that I would struggle to achieve any career progression against the competition from colleagues who were favoured by their previous experience in an older departmental structure, and I repeatedly requested permission to transfer to another department, where I might have had more opportunities, but these requests were always denied. Apparently you have a policy of not allowing ‘transfers out’, regardless of circumstances, a policy which nobody seems able to justify or explain.
As the years have passed, I have suffered periodic bouts of severe depression and relentless frustration; I have seen reckless misbehaviour and incredible incompetence rewarded by promotion while my own achievements and sustained efforts on your behalf have been dismissed as ‘just doing your job’.
Quite recently, as you should already know, I was targeted by a bullying manager who had already driven two other people to resign. It was fortunate that I managed to weather that particular storm and I accept that the manager was found to have been at fault, but I find it completely unacceptable that she was rapidly given further promotion as a means of removing her from direct staff management responsibilities, particularly as, in contrast, I was left to recover my health and self-confidence without assistance and without even a hint of any compensation.
Now that I have (and intend to take) an opportunity to escape from your grossly mismanaged organisation, perhaps none of this bad experience matters any more. I will meekly accept the pension that you cannot legally avoid paying me; I am realistic enough to know that, although you have drastically undervalued my service and by any reasonable moral standard owe me many hundreds of thousands of pounds in recompense for your continual mistreatment, it would be both exhausting and fruitless to take legal action against you. However, I do feel entitled to ask you for just one, simple thing in acknowledgement of your failure to recognise and reward my potential and my actual contribution to the work of the Department: an apology…’
An apology; so that was what he had been hoping to find.
I had been absorbed in my task and unaware of anything outside the small circle of light cast by my torch. It came as a shock when I looked up and saw an empty desk in front of me; Tommy Elliott in his mac and spectacles, his gloves, the box file and its other contents had disappeared. All that was left in sight, and in my custody, was Tommy’s resignation letter. I glanced down again to see his last words:
“…I await your reply. Injustice can never be forgotten.”
I switched off my faltering torch and sat alone in the darkness for a few moments. Then I picked up the letter, stood, and made my way, a little hesitantly, out into the night.