Marlon had never liked Jasu Shan, but now he was happy beyond words to see her. Ms Shan was abrasive and talked over him and would change the topic of conversation right in the middle of one of his sentences, and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it because she was the General Manager and he was just the Duty Manager.
When Ms Shan taken ill, Marlon had been quietly pleased. He'd expected corporate to put someone else in charge for a while, preferably some quiet little pen-pusher who would take care of the big picture stuff and leave Marlon to the rest. In fact, head office had made Marlon acting manager. He'd been doing double duty as General Manager and Duty Manager in exchange for a nominal--and temporary—raise in salary.
Even that he might have coped with, had sales not started tanking when the DIY Barn had opened. That had put him in the awkward position of being both the good-guy boss he liked to believe himself to be--champion of his staff against the penny-pinchers at head office--while simultaneously acting as a penny-pincher from head office. It was vexing.
Now Ms Shan was back. Supposedly, she'd made a complete recovery, but Marlon doubted it. She seemed slower and weaker than she had when she'd left. There had been a time when Marlon would have welcomed this change, but weakness is never welcome in the person you hope will shoulder your burdens.
"So you cut hours rather than laying off staff?" Ms Shan said. She was from Mumbai, originally, but had come to Australia by way of Canada and the US, and had the strangest accent Marlon had ever heard.
"Mostly. I had to let Zorbar go."
"Zorbar? Malay guy? Outdoor furnishings?"
"Ape-man. Garden centre."
"Oh, him," Ms Shan said with a shrug. "Well, I have to hand it to you: if there are any layoffs, they will blame me, not you."
Marlon considered defending himself from the implication, before deciding that it was actually pretty fair. "Does that bother you?"
Ms Shan shrugged. "More than you'd think."
A pang of guilt struck Marlon. He'd always thought of Ms Shan as a pure corporate robot with a spreadsheet for a heart. Perhaps her brush with mortality had changed her. Then again, perhaps he had misunderstood her from the start.
They passed through Paints, with its tiers of colourful metal tubs towering up towards the roof. As if in proof of her humanity, Ms Shan smiled at Nalda Teheintausand, who worked in that section and ran the Kids Kraft Korner on Saturdays. "Good morning Nalda."
"Greeting acknowledged," Nalda replied.
"How's the Kraft Korner going?"
"Der number off human children in attendance has been decreasing," Nalda said. "Suggestion: rename der Kraft Korner with der correct English spelling. Increased linguistic precision may result in increased human children activities. End suggestion."
Ms Shan blinked confusedly. Marlon wondered if she'd ever had such a long conversation with Nalda before. "How are those new papier-mâché products moving, Nalda?" he said.
"Sales levels adequate. Request additional hearts on sticks. Zey are romantic and in much demand for pair-bonding ceremonies."
"You mean weddings, Nalda?"
Marlon smiled and moved on. "Where's she from?" Ms Shan said.
"It's not really a 'where'," Marlon said. "More of a 'when.'"
Ms Shan kicked a stray bag of steel wool that lay on the floor. Definitely changed by her ordeal, Marlon thought. Before, she would never have let that much emotion through the corporate mask.
"Tell me, Marlon," she said. "Besides you and me, is anyone here a normal person?"
"Adam's pretty down-to-Earth."
"Malay guy. Works in Outdoor Furnishings."
They walked into the break-room, causing an outbreak of guilty looks. There's nothing like managers walking into the break-room to make completely blameless employees wonder if they're doing something wrong.
"As you were," Marlon said.
"Everything okay?" Ms Shan said. The response was nothing but a round of vague grunts, but that seemed to be what she expected, so she just moved on towards the hot water boiler. She sniffed the air, which reeked of air freshener. When word had arrived that she had recovered, Marlon had been forced to reinstate the 'no-smoking' policy, and spared no expense in concealing the evidence of past indiscretions.
Gwen, who seemed guiltier than most, was handing out coffees. "Belinda," she said. "One sugar, right? Adam, that's yours."
As Marlon watched, Gwen paused and swallowed before handing a steaming mug to Norman. Marlon sighed. He'd always known that she was a little sweet on the boy, but she seemed to have gotten worse.
"Oh, cheers, Gwen," he said. Gwen looked at Norman expectantly, but the lad just blew on the surface of his tea and kept reading the centre newsletter.
"What's an MK-Ultra?" he asked. There was a round of shrugs, and he went back to reading.
Ms Shan sat at the table, everyone drawing back as she did so. "So you're feeling better then?" Adam asked.
"Oh, much," Ms Shan said. "By the way, thanks everyone for that get well soon card."
Marlon observed another round of guilty looks as the teammembers struggled to remember if they'd signed. Smiling, Marlon helped himself to a coffee and sat in a plastic chair at the table as the break-room chatter resumed its usual pattern of everyone talking over everyone else.
"How's your tea, Norman?"
"Still a little hot, thanks, Gwen."
"It was pretty bad for a while, but they say I've made a complete recovery."
"Oi, Marlon, is there any chance of getting next Tuesday off?"
"Anyone know where some place called Roswell is?"
"They had to make an incision here, and siphon out about a litre of…"
"Go on, it'll get cold."
"Tuesday? What for?"
"And who's Adam Weisshaupt?"
"No, Adam Weisshaupt."
"Oh, shit, is that the time? I'd better drink up."
Norman rose quickly, slurping down his tea as he did so. Gwen grinned expectantly. Ms Shan was holding both of her arms out sideways, like an exaggerating fisherman, to demonstrate the size of whatever it was that had been removed from her abdomen. Her arm struck Norman as he rose, catching him off guard and making him lose his balance. His feet slipped under the table, his chair tumbled over and he fell into a seated position on the fetid break-room floor.
Ms Shan stood and reached down to the stricken lad. "Are you alright?"
Norman looked up, annoyed. His face went slack. A big silly grin spread across his olive face.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, I'm fine, Ms Shan. I've never been better."
Marlon hadn't quite puzzled out the meaning of this before Gwen rose and ran, sobbing, from the room.