Jem Calder

Reward System


The following text is reproduced with permission from Jem Calder‘s debut collection of short stories, Reward System, examining office culture, pandemics and break-ups, and a young generation wondering ‘what now?’. To order a copy, visit Faber.

Six white males between the ages of twenty-seven and fifty-five are seated in a room. Their Friday late-morning conference call is over, but it is too early to be reasonably lunch.
………In front of each male – on the laminate, anti-fingerprint surface of the room’s central table – is a photocopied, spiral-bound copy of the same presentation as is currently being overhead-projected from one of the six’s laptops onto a matte canvas screen affixed to the narrower and windowless of the room’s two load-bearing walls. (The room’s two non-load-bearing walls are frosted-glass internal partitions, through which only the males’ beclouded outlines are visible to the rest of the office.)
………The males – ranked, here, ascendingly by value of height – are: 5. Perry Avery; 4. Sean Townsend; 3. Fred Honey and Ray Bannon (tied); 2. Matt Maynard; and 1. Chris Newland.
………Sean Townsend, ordinarily the first teammate to enliven a post-meeting silence, dedicates the entirety of his executive function toward fabricating something funny to say.
………Chris Newland sneezes thrice in quick succession; Matt Maynard blesses him once.
………Ray Bannon – who today wears a tongue-coloured chambray shirt that Perry Avery cannot quite keep his eyes off – says to no one in particular, ‘Did you hear today’s Ontkean’s last day?’
………Although he seldom thinks about Henry Ontkean, for Fred Honey, the act of resignation confers a kind of heroism onto the resignee; he finds himself admiring Ontkean for getting out of here. ‘Good for him. Did we hire a replacement yet?’
……… ‘Some woman, but she withdrew her application already,’ Maynard says.
……… ‘Had an issue, familyside.’ Townsend’s mind releases a joke: ‘Ontkean’s leaving? Big shoes to fill.’
………Five of the males, including Townsend himself, laugh at this witticism. Honey, the lone unlaugher, wears a problem-solving face.
………Bannon goes: ‘He certainly has a large personality.’
………Townsend leans back, tipping his black plastic chair onto its hind legs. ‘You could say he’ll leave a jumbo-sized dent in the—’
………‘Where’s he headed?’ Honey says.
………‘Ontkean?’ Maynard says. ‘Hasn’t said. Well, haven’t asked.’
………Newland fingers the access lanyard that hangs about his neck; every new starter in the building gets one, but no one else actually wears theirs. ‘I think I heard’ – he looks around the room for a second before failing to articulate the following straight-facedly – ‘he got headhunted for a tasting job at the M&M’s store.’
………More group laughter. (In a far corner of the room stands a tall, maybe perennial indoor plant; hard to say, from this distance, whether it’s fake or real – Honey cannot recall, with any certainty, ever having seen it being watered; he’s attended Friday-morning meetings for two years now and is unsure if the plant has grown at all in that time.) ‘Alright,’ Honey says, ‘c’mon,’ and the laughs peter out.
………‘Ontkean’s been here eleven years,’ Bannon says.
………Maynard echoes, ‘Eleven years’; shakes his head.
………Avery says, ‘I joined here eight years ago. I was twenty-five. Wasn’t married. Didn’t have kids.’
………Four of the six males who aren’t Honey or Townsend bite the insides of their cheeks/lips and/or nod sagely. Each of these four meditates briefly on the sailing by of time; pictures the face of a different woman.
Townsend – who landed this job out of nepotism and has never worked anywhere else – has another funny thought.. He addresses Avery specifically but plays to the room at large: ‘You started here eight years ago and you’ve been trying to leave for seven.’
……… More five-headed laughter, then a recap of open issues and executable actions, outcomes from today’s call; most urgently, amendments must be made to Avery’s presentation deck before it gets sent to the client.
………Bannon and Maynard segue into their weekly-recurrent duologue about the possibility of streamlining the firm’s approach to project sign-off, which always bottlenecks where senior creative is involved. As this discussion draws out, Townsend yawns and – seeing him yawn – Honey yawns.
………Signalling that the meeting is finally adjourned, Avery stands and circles the table, collecting together the presentation printouts he laid out earlier; the colour of that shirt, my god, he thinks, as he passes Bannon by.
………Newland rises and says something about there being Danishes in the break area, then the rest of the males rise. The sextet leaves the room and soon disbands.

In a blank, unsealed, C4-sized envelope, Henry Ontkean’s A4-sized novelty leaving card has been placed on Fred Honey’s desk for him to sign.
………The card is printed on non-premium stock paper and features, on its front, a typographic design that contains multiple swears and also the word ‘Henry’ – probably it was artworked internally.
………Honey opens the card and skims the messages already handwritten therein: ‘You’ll be missed’; ‘All best for the future’; ‘A pleasure working with you.’ Honey uncaps a ballpoint pen and writes ‘Keep in touch’ in an empty corner of the card, followed by his initials. Written down – and surrounded by so much free space – the message reads as excessively formal, soulless.
………He considers drawing a smiley face after the word ‘touch’, but doesn’t. He reinserts the card into the envelope, which he deposits on Chloe Daley’s desk.

‘What’s the meaning of this?’ Chloe Daley says, smiling toward the end of her sentence.
………‘Just a love letter, Chloe,’ Fred Honey says, standing over her as she sits.
………Honey picks up and revolutes a few times the promotional, conference-branded fidget spinner Daley keeps on her desk. ‘What’re you doing?’
………‘Working,’ Daley says.
……… ‘Are you distractible?’
……… ‘Kind of busy.’
………‘Lunch soon?’
……… For non-executive staff, Friday means dress-down; Daley wears a pre-faded maroon graphic tee with a generic surf-related slogan screen-printed on it. ‘Yeah, but probably right here,’ she says, an index finger referring downwardly to her workstation.
……… ‘Smoking today?’
………‘Mabes,’ she says, ‘I’m down to, like, five a week.’
………‘Well,’ Honey says, setting the spinner down as its weighted lobes lose momentum and cease blurring together, ‘come grab me if you’re still addicted after lunch.’

Because she is so pretty, Chloe Daley has the power to enter people’s dreams.

Fred Honey selects the last remaining cherry-jam Danish from an opened carton of Costco pastries, its cellophane veil now completely shed. A Post-it affixed to the wall behind the carton reads: ‘My treat, enjoy. – Henry.’
………The Danish has staled in the air-conditioned air. Eating it, Honey settles into a preferred fantasy of his last day here. He will bring in a Krispy Kreme premium non-ring dozen with personalised raspberry-glaze lettering that reads ‘FUCK YOU ALL’ across the individual doughnuts – twelve exact characters including spaces.
………Several feet away from him, a sleepy-looking Nick Dwyer is reheating leftovers in the break area microwave.
………‘Hi Nick,’ Honey says, around a mouthful of pastry shards. ‘Weekend plans?’
………Dwyer has not spoken for so long today his lips have stuck together. After a second: ‘I think I’m just— Yeah. I have some stuff— Going on. How about you?’ The microwave knells; from it, Dwyer removes an unlidded Tupperware containing a cuboid, cross-sectional slice of lasagne.
………‘This and that,’ Honey says. ‘Have you signed Henry’s leaving card?’
………‘No, but I will,’ Dwyer says, ‘forthwith,’ awkward and tryhard; the way he talks embarrasses them both. ‘Well.’ He holds up and shakes his lunch – which he always eats early and alone – and says, in this painstakingly cheerful way, ‘Have a good one, Fred.’

For the first time in human history, no person has to think their own thoughts if they don’t want to. Technology has opened new slots in the world through which instant, substanceless, distractive relief is accessible to the consumer at any moment.
……… Anyone you talk to is simultaneously half-present in a more entertaining, disembodied social space that exists in an onscreen tangent-reality. Meanwhile, interactions that occur between persons in physical, non-virtual space feel increasingly overburdened with a diffuse anxiety directly counter-related to the highly optimised ease of use of tech-mediated communication.
………The more we interact across screens, the rarer and less bearable our face-to-face interactions are becoming. Or, at least, that’s how Nick Dwyer feels.

Kate Batchelder shuffles together a loose sheaf of papers on her desk; like a newscaster, knocks them into an even-sided stack. That’s that, she thinks, definitive, all her morning’s tasks completed, that’s that.
………She thinks it again several more times as she carries the papers over to the paper shredder; enjoys the looping, ouroboric logic of the phrase: That’s that that’s that that’s that.
Already operating the shredder when she reaches the print room is Chris Newland.
………‘Hey Chris,’ Batchelder says, which goes unheard beneath the shredder’s industrial whirring. She feels like she’s standing too close behind him, so retreats enough backsteps to where she’s leaning up against a wall.
………Newland’s deep focus on the act of inserting paper into the shredder’s maw has relaxed all the muscles in his face. After he finishes feeding in one document, he withdraws another from a ring-bound binder labelled ‘SHREDDABLE’ and loads it into the machine.
………He flinches hard when, eventually, he becomes aware of Batchelder’s presence. ‘Jesus. Sorry, Kate. Didn’t see you there. Be one minute.’
………‘Take your time,’ Batchelder says.
………But Newland being Newland, he starts rushing and, within moments, he’s overloaded the shredder by forcing a too-thick batch of papers into its entry port. On the shredder’s frontal console, an LED that usually glows solid green now starts blinking red.
………‘Hell on earth,’ Newland says to himself; the formerly relaxed muscles of his face all tightening. He attempts to manually unjam the wad of papers, but the shredder is uncooperative. ‘So. Impractical,’ he says – long pause between the words.
………It takes Batchelder a second to think to offer to do something. ‘Should I go fetch Gigi from downstairs?’
………Newland grunts bisyllabically (‘Nnn-mmm’), his face magenta-ing as he wrangles with the stuck sheets of paper, some of which tear apart in his hands.
………Batchelder knows better than to offer reasonable advice to someone who is still in the commencement phase of getting annoyed. Even so, she says: ‘Let me quickly run and get Gigi, he can always—’
………‘I know I can fix this,’ Newland says, his voice shading hostile, ‘I just can’t do it with you standing there watching me.’

Ray Bannon has upbuilt his post-divorce self-confidence through a regimen of high-intensity interval training, sensible eating and measured participation in online fora dedicated to pick-up-artistry and men’s rights activism.
………A useful thing Bannon has learned from the manosphere is to remember one personal fact about each of his co-workers, and then to make casual reference to that fact when engaged with them in conversation. By doing this, he hopes to be perceived as likeable and charismatic. For instance: Chloe Daley is training for a half-marathon; Leanne Kelly has an infant son; Fred Honey recently went through a bad break-up.

Sean Townsend passes Gigi Parras in the hallway, says a swift: ‘Heya, Gi.’
……… Parras says a heya back, but does not look at Townsend.

Gigi Parras’s office reputation is he’s a stickler, plays with a straight bat.
……… Attends, but does not drink at, Thursday after-work beers. Is unmarried and of indeterminate age. Does not participate in the weekly officewide lottery syndicate. On weekends, has been sighted wearing the exact same smart-casual kinds of clothing as he wears Monday through Friday. When talked about in groups that exclude him, is criticised only, if at all, for coming across as aloof.

Although the office is definitely dated, it is impossible to isolate exactly which era the office is dated from.
……… Leanne Kelly distinctly remembers hearing someone once mention that Pullman, Townsend & Pyatt’s headquarters were established here in 2002, but the building itself is clearly way older than that – like mid-seventies to early eighties.
………Funny how none of the executive staff understands that it is easier to pass the time in a pleasanter room. As in, why make us all sit here under fluorescent striplights, yellowing drop ceilings; why make us endure crowded desk space, never-changed potpourri – even just some minor renovations would make a big difference. It’s like, can’t we have anything nice?

‘Can I just say something, though,’ Perry Avery says.
………Several of them are standing in the break area debating a politics-adjacent issue that has dominated mainstream news coverage now for weeks. What began as a loose,  current-affairs-based conversation between two people has overrun into an argument spanning five raised voices.
……… ‘Can I just say,’ Perry Avery repeats, and then goes on to also repeat, verbatim, a point he heard on talk radio a few drivetimes ago.
………After Avery finishes, Sam Wendt raises a counterpoint, with which two of the four other persons in the break area also vocally agree.
………The foremost agreer is Chloe Daley, who proceeds to speak informedly and passionately about the issue at hand, although – sobering thought – the more she talks, the harder it becomes for her to actually tell if she even really cares about the issue, or if she’s just reciting a series of prefabricated talking points that’ve been fed to her via a giant cross-media broadcasting apparatus. If the former, why doesn’t she care more? If the latter, what’re all these thoughts doing in her head?
………Now Chris Newland speaks up in defence of Perry Avery. (As Newland’s eyes meet Daley’s, he experiences a flashback to a recent dream in which he nursed, babylike, at her breast; the dream-image rises momentarily in his mind before, just as quickly, he suppresses it.)
………Wendt then rounds on Newland, then Newland responds to Wendt and Daley. As he does so, Daley notices a good amount of plaque deposited along the gumline of Newland’s bottom row of teeth. Not wanting to look at the rest of him, she stares down at his shoes as she offers her rebuttal. Again, while she talks, the same strange feeling as before. Something impersonal about everything she’s saying; someone else’s words she’s using.
………Still, Ray Bannon – arms folded, nodding – seems to agree with all Daley’s opinions about the politics-adjacent issue; makes these little humming noises of affirmation.
………Daley’s getting involved in this conversation was wholly self-inflicted. She never should’ve asked Avery and Bannon what they were talking about; she only came to the break area to make coffee.
………See how Newland, who’s talking now, clamps his eyelids shut every time he blinks. It’s a nerves thing that’s impossible to un-notice after you’ve noticed it – a tic that worsens in Daley’s presence, like he’s winking at her with both eyes.
………Out of the goodness of her heart, Daley listens to Newland; lets him explain back to her a bunch of things she basically already knows.
……… Then Wendt interrupts Newland and, while all the men are arguing, Daley quietly exits the break area. Only when she arrives back at her desk does she realise she forgot to make the coffee she went over there to make in the first place.

………Yesterday, Gigi Parras stayed behind after hours to leave an anonymous note in the top drawer of Sean Townsend’s underdesk bureau.
………After Parras printed out the carefully worded note and psyched himself up to deliver it – having triple-checked to ensure the building’s custodians had finished performing their final daily clean-up – he crept, semi-crouched (note folded into four; stowed in his shirt pocket), across the deserted office floor.
……… Deep intake of breath as he knelt by the bureau; with one smooth gesture, he slid open its top drawer, where a few bunched-up Kleenexes, which Parras momentarily mistook for the cut heads of white roses, rolled down slowly as if to greet him.
……… As the Kleenexes morphed, in Parras’s perspective, from the clustered petals of perennial flowers into their real, three-ply tissue-paper forms, he slammed the drawer shut in disgust; stood up, awash with sudden horror, and paced multiple circuits of the empty office (note still folded in shirt pocket), hands on his hips the whole time.

Kate Batchelder has learned, in the course of her life and career, to tolerate discomfort by strategically distracting herself from it. For instance: she listens to podcasts while she does data entry to separate herself from the task.

Passing by the break area, Ray Bannon double-nods and says, ‘Ladies,’ to Chloe Daley and Leanne Kelly, who – once he’s out of earshot – commence mocking his calculated, impersonal friendliness; how, in conversation, he manages to strike this totally unique balance of being both somehow coldly transactional and also weirdly personal. ‘It’s like he’s talking to himself in a mirror when he talks to you,’ Daley says, ‘like he’s practising.’
………‘He always asks me about my son,’ Kelly says. ‘It’s creepy.’
………‘And the aftershave he wears’ – Daley checks over her shoulder, making sure he’s definitely gone – ‘even when he leaves a room, he’s still basically there. It’s like there’s a perfume ghost that haunts wherever he’s been.’
………All that, combined with his embarrassing, croupier-style fashion sense of waistcoats and pomade, Kelly says: ‘It makes you feel sad to talk to him.’

In his capacity as acting IT engineer, Gigi Parras has obtained back-end access to the keystroke-logging employee-surveillance software installed on every desk and laptop in the office. In principle, this software allows Parras to gather anonymised, unbiased datasets to generate employee engagement and cyberthreat-detection insights for the overall dual companywide benefits of (1) improving operational efficiency and (2) strengthening information security. In practice, Parras uses this software to snoop on the digital private lives of his colleagues.
………Via the software’s management-side interface, Parras can, in real time, monitor all the small data his co-workers enter into their computers: every message they send; every note they take; every question they ask of a search engine. To have access to all this information, Parras thinks, is to be as good as omniscient in the modern age.
………Nothing in the software’s TOS, nor in the company’s privacy policy, explicitly forbids Parras from running his own personal digital panopticon per se, although he does so in total secrecy, well aware that he’s, in bad faith, exploiting a loophole that’s contingent upon a rare alignment of multiple open windows of opportunity which all have to do with PT&P’s recent corporate restructuring and subsequent mismanagement of its internal resources – the only thing he’s really violating, in other words, is his coworkers’ trust, which isn’t, technically, a fireable offence.

Nick Dwyer can barely make his eyes go across the screen to read the paragraph of text he’s copyediting for Perry Avery. Summoning his entire effort of will, he still cannot muster the readerly strength required to process the sentences currently open on his laptop without taking a break between each word to reflect on how much of a chore this simple task is proving to be.
………The sub-two-hundred words of text Dwyer has to edit are intended to preface a presentation deck scheduled for internal sign-off and client delivery by close of play this afternoon. Realistically, there are at most thirty minutes of actual work here for Dwyer to complete, although the task will take him somewhere in excess of three hours to fulfil – or that, at least, is how long he’ll log the task as having taken him to fulfil when, later, he updates his daily timesheet.
………Small projects like these depend upon a level of inefficiency to turn a profit: the bureaucratic business model of the creative industry is to strategically over-allocate professional resources; the opposite of labour-saving. The more billable time you can expend on a project, the more money the company can justifiably charge to its client. The best work ethic you can have around here is a bad one.
………Dwyer highlights and unhighlights a field of electronic text; makes some minor grammatical amendments: flips a few sentences from passive to active voice; dumbs down some smart words, smartens up some dumb words. Honestly, though, you could replace this whole thing with lorem ipsum and no one would even notice the difference; clients only look at headings and graphics anyway.
……… The insertion-point text cursor blinks, expectant, on the document’s open page. Dwyer’s mousepad with memory-foam wrist support itches where his skin abuts the cushioning.
………He forces his eyes to scan another sentence left to right, releasing a small mammalian whimper as he does so – every additional word he reads extracts something vital from him.
………His mind wanders and, reflexively, he launches his web browser; clocks back into a trance-like, internet-induced state of sensory dislocation; forgets all about his wrist on the ergonomic mousepad.
……… He opens a pair of new tabs in which to commence work on his two main personal side projects; when absorbed in either one of them – be it his long emails to Julia or the short stories he secretly composes from his desk – the hours pass smoothly and full of meaning.

Only not so secret, the stories – nor, for that matter, the emails to Julia – given that every keystroke and mouse-click Nick Dwyer inputs into his company laptop is real-time tracked by Gigi Parras.
………Right now, it looks to Parras like Dwyer is rewriting the ending of one of his stories in between moments of light copyediting in an almost-due presentation file.
………It is, of course, incredibly embarrassing to have someone see you futzing around on the web, but it is also secondhand-embarrassing to bear witness to another’s futzing. But as much as Parras is ashamed of his spying, he simply cannot look away.
………His direct-dial extension rings; he answers; it’s Chloe Daley raising a ticket. Whenever she opens a new tab in her browser, it loads up a website called ‘about:blank’. What should she do about that?
………‘That’s normal,’ Parras says.
‘Are you sure? It seems pretty abnormal to me.’
‘You can change your homepage settings using your browser’s toolbar.’
A pause. ‘Or the Preferences menu.’ Another pause. ‘I can come up and show you in five minutes?’
………‘Could you?’
……… It’s always something here. Perry Avery can never connect to a printer. The meeting room’s Wi-Fi speeds are too slow. Last week, a phishing email circulated around the office that took the form of a warning about a phishing email circulating around the office.
………Parras checks for any interesting recent activity on Daley’s laptop; via his live key-log readout, sees she’s spent the last fifteen minutes search-engining the ‘about:blank’ issue.
………Meanwhile, Leanne Kelly looks up a celebrity’s height, then converts that resultant height’s unit of measurement from metres into feet and inches.
………Caroline Rochefort is browsing project director interviewee candidates on an integrated professional networking and recruitment site.
………Kate Batchelder is reading an advertorial article on a Condé Nast-owned website.
………Sean Townsend is – well, we’ll get to that.
………Parras removes his lunch from his satchel, an energy drink plus tinfoil-wrapped cream-cheese bagel. He does a little chair yoga – rotates his underworked shoulder cuffs; leans side to side then to and fro, stretching his flank and lumbar areas.
………Elsewhere on the network, he observes, Fred Honey is parasocially scrolling through Chloe Daley’s Instagram grid from the remove of an anonymous burner account. He (Honey) does this every few hours, browses Daley’s photos, videos and stories; has been tracking her wellness journey online now for months.
………What must it be like, Parras wonders, to be pretty à la Chloe Daley? To receive low-hundreds of unique daily visitors to your social media profiles? To stare into a virtual mirror that tells you back how good you look? The images on her Instagram attest that it must be pretty nice.
………Looking through her selfies, Parras ponders the quiddity of Daley’s face. As with any kind of information, the more he’s exposed to it, the less valuable it seems.
………Remembering now that he has a professional obligation to the owner of the face displaying on his screen, Parras minimises the fantasy of images and rises from his chair. With a dead leg due to how long he’s been sitting, he shambles upstairs like a zombie.

Since Nick Dwyer moved back with his parents in the spring, often mornings he’ll carpool to work with Ray Bannon, whose weird, rigidly polite twins will sometimes – on the overnights for which Bannon’s custody allows – be seated in the back of his mid-size hatchback. Bannon’s children look like old men and barely ever say anything; just operate their handheld personal devices.
………The air freshener in the car, which hangs from the rearview, is one of those mentholated, tree-shaped ones. Years of sunlight having long since dried the scent from it.

………Fred Honey had a pleasant country upbringing which he feels he is now, in some way, paying for. In his youth, he was always quick to laughter; had a natural sympathy with musical instruments; matriculated into his high school’s gifted and talented classes; played on sports teams, etc.
………These days, in the post-onset of his thirties, he’s becoming something of a loner: most weeknights he spends gaming solitarily or, occasionally, with his roommate; weekends he sees maybe an outside friend or two at an overcrowded/-priced bar for drinks.
………To one of these friends, Honey recently remarked that he feels as though he’s living his days stacked on top of one another. When the friend asked Honey what, exactly, he meant, Honey said the main thing he’s been feeling, lately, about his life is that he only really experiences each day beneath the overlay of all his previous ones, meaning his days are, in effect, thickening; weighted beneath the accreted, layered memory of every preceding, near-identical day.
……… Downplaying their nascent concern, the friend, who holds a BSc (Hons) in psychology, asked Honey if he could articulate the feeling in any further detail.
………It’s like the world is congealing around him, Honey said, sipping the foam head clean off his pint, ‘due to, I think, constant repetition. As in, the more I do the same things over and over, the heavier the quality of the reality around me in which I do those things becomes. And then, the more things stay the same, the stucker I get inside that reality, the harder it gets for me to ever make any proper future changes. So, I’m grinding slowly to a halt, is what it feels like. Succumbing to entropy.’ To settle the conversation with a joke, he added: ‘In other words, I’m business-as-usual depressed.’
……… The friend laughed. They were thinking about how best to, non-invasively, get Honey to open up a little more, when he went ahead and opened up a little more entirely of his own accord.
……… ‘It’s like – d’you ever feel like you used up all your good luck in life early on?’
………The friend said no, not especially.
………‘Or, wait, at your work, d’you ever feel like something happened that morning, but then, when you go to think about it, you realise it actually happened, like, a week ago? Or a month – or even a year ago?’
………The friend said sure.
………‘Well, see, that’s exactly how I feel. Except I feel like it all the time.’

Only when the air conditioner in his executive office suddenly ceases noising overhead does Matt Maynard realise he’s been hearing it non-stop for the past two hours. It’s as though a new underlevel of silence has opened up beneath what he’d formerly thought of as silence’s absolute baseline. As though now he can really think.


Jem Calder was born in Cambridge, and lives and works in London. His fiction has been published in The Stinging Fly and Granta. Reward System is his first book.

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