Oswald - A Sunrise short story

Oswald

A Sunrise short story

The rain finished lashing the car as Beckman approached the outskirts of town.

That’ll save on the carwash for another week.

He looked around the black-on-black interior.

Maybe not on the vacuum though.

A few minutes later, he eased the now-whiter Caddy into one of many free spaces on the lot of The Pegasus Corporation. Again he wondered why Mr Malvolio had chosen premises with such a surfeit of parking area. Seldom was there more than a handful of people onsite, and there wasn’t even anything like a quarterly staff meeting or annual shindig on the warehouse floor. Of course not—that would take up valuable time and money. The salesmen knew what they had to do—what other missives could be necessary?

He locked up and went inside the bland, boxy two-storey building. 

The comfortingly familiar tap-tap-ting of Miss Broomhead’s old typewriter floated into his ears as he walked up the single corridor leading to the bijou office suite.

I wonder if she actually prefers archaic technology, or if Ol’ Stingy won’t spring for a new one for his dutiful PA?

‘Afternoon, Mr Spiers.’ Her hands paused in mid-air.

‘Hi, Miss Broomhead.’ Today, her beehive sported two hairpins tipped with enamel bees. He was never sure whether these occasional items were (1) included for comic value, (2) a function of kooky individuality, or (3) an indication of appalling fashion sense.

Of course, he could have asked her, but that would have meant asking her.

Conversations with Miss Broomhead were on a Business Level Only. He didn’t know why—they just were. There was no contractual clause, nor previous faux-pas as a guideline. They merely hadn’t had a personal conversation during his entire tenure, so starting now would just have been odd.

The typing resumed—tap-tap overlaid with the chink of her two red bangles.

“Conversation” over.

He scanned down the line of dark wooden pigeonholes set on the opposite wall.

Hallwork, Yong, Quittle, Bludge, Rattertonhurst, Gusp, Zowl, Spiers…

…Gusp?

He leant in.

Where was Follic? Had Cad Follic’s pigeonhole been moved?

He checked all forty apertures.

No.

Had Cad Follic unexpectedly moved on to pastures new? Perhaps ones where the roster of employee benefits numbered in the positive integers?

‘Miss Broomhead?’

Hands paused. ‘Yes?’ A faint, querying smile on un-showy but precisely lipsticked lips.

‘Cad Follic no longer with us?’

‘No, Mr Spiers. He was attacked by a tiger, the day before yesterday.’

Beckman blurted out an impromptu laugh at the stupidity of it.

Her brow furrowed. ‘I don’t think it’s very funny, Mr Spiers.’

He swallowed hard. ‘No. Er… that is… I mean.’ He pointlessly ran a hand through his hair. ‘Really? Wow.’

‘Yes. He was pitching to a business client. The man’s pet tiger took offence at Mr Follic for some reason and… well… he’s no longer with us.’

No longer with us? Us=fired/quit, or us=six feet under?

Same outcome.

‘And Mr Gusp…?’

‘Is his replacement. He started yesterday.’

Beckman nodded robotically. ‘Uh-huh.’

She offered a querying look, and when he wasn’t forthcoming with anything tangible, she resumed punching ink onto paper.

Wow. Poor Cad.

Hang on?

Does that mean…?

He was above me in the Salesman of the Year rankings. Surely I’m up a place now? Surely. Mr Malvolio would never transfer Cad’s sales tally across to this new Gusp guy—it would be unfair advantage, not to mention uncharacteristically generous of the old swine.

Wow.

Woo!

I’m up a place! Best year yet!

He restrained himself, just in time, from punching the air. Instead, he collected his pay check advice from the pigeonhole and headed out to the car park.

An unfamiliar car had arrived, and exiting it was a new face. The face was barely five feet above the ground. The body was stocky, the hairline very receding. Beckman reckoned the guy was easily fifty.

This guy’ll be a pushover.

He slowed as they approached each other. ‘Gusp?’

The guy stopped and cocked his head. ‘Yeah?’

‘Spiers.’ Beckman jerked his head back towards the building. ‘You the new guy?’

‘Yeah.’ He offered a fat, taught hand. ‘Oswald Gusp. Taking over Cad’s territory.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘Sorry old business.’

Beckman hung his head in sympathy, while still not ready to accept the facts at face value.

Was Cad eaten? Mauled? Blinded? Had his Salesman Patter cranial lobe been gored? 

Either way, this was the competition now—or at least one of them. One of Pegasus’ forty road warriors.

I hope you know what you’re in for, Oswald.

Plus, note to self—Google “how to defeat an angry tiger”. Can’t be too careful out there.

‘So, uh, welcome I guess. Where were you before?’

‘I was… uh… kinda in the delivery business. But the same package every time.’

That didn’t compute, so Beckman went with, ‘Sure, well, good luck.’

Oswald nodded. ‘Thanks, Spiers. See you around, maybe. Got to check in with… Walter, was it?’

‘Warehouse? Yeah.’

‘Yeah. Good. Gotta fill the old trunk, ready to pick up where Cad Follic left off.’

‘Absolutely. See you around.’

Oswald nodded curtly and ambled off, chunky legs moving awkwardly, like a triceratops.

Heading in the opposite direction, Beckman couldn’t help slowing as he passed Oswald’s car.

It was a burgundy Lincoln Continental, post-Moon landing, pre-Beckman birth. On a bad day it might get parked across two different time zones. He peered inside. There was a booster cushion on the driver’s seat.

He watched the diminutive newbie disappear inside the building and eyed the acreage of Detroit iron.

Compensating for something, Oswald?

A couple of miles from his apartment, Beckman caught sight of the Caddy’s odo tick onto 99,996.

Not wanting to let the moment absentmindedly pass him by in the morning, he went round the block three times until the magic figure appeared, then rolled up to his apartment building and disembarked for a night in a familiar bed.

As he whipped up some food, fed Bogie the leopard gecko, and turned on the TV for background company, his mind ticked over what Oswald had said.

How could you deliver the same package many times?

If you were a pilot? A musician (at a stretch)? If your employer was really bad at matching orders to customers’ delivery addresses?

He set his ageing laptop on the table and Googled one-handed as he munched through pasta.

It didn’t take long to come up with results for Oswald Gusp.

His mouth fell open. His lower jaw might well have hit the tabletop with a comedic ‘Clang!’ 

He pushed the last of the dinner aside.

He absolutely, categorially, one-hundred-percent didn’t want to, but he pressed Play on the video anyway, curiouser than a cat with a death wish.

From the video’s thumbnail, he knew exactly what to expect, and didn’t want to see it—or need to see it—but saw it anyway. And when he’d seen generally what he expected to see, he unaccountably didn’t stop, not even when he saw specifically something he thought he’d probably see. Yet, having seen it, he was caught like a rabbit in the headlights—watching, disbelieving, pondering, then repeating the sequence until it was blindingly clear that he wasn’t dreaming, hadn’t been told the wrong name, or Googled the wrong name, and that he’d actually done what he’d done and seen what he’d seen. More than that—his eye had not been drawn to Oswald’s less than statuesque hight, nor to his significant pate. Something much worse.

His mouth was still hanging open, now drier than the Atacama.

He filled it with beer, then slapped the lid of the laptop down and tried to expunge from his mind what he’d just found.

He’s just another colleague. Just another name on the roster, another position on the rankings. Merely a different Schmoe to compete with, and, hell, probably hardly bump into, ever.

All the same, that’s a VERY different line on the resumé.

Did Malvolio know about that? Had Miss Broomhead followed up the references?

He doubted it. Her ultra-conservative head had been remarkably un-exploded that afternoon.

He took a moment, gazed at the TV screen, tried to let its dance burrow into his mind and wipe out the afterimage of Oswald’s past career.

Eventually, the more palatable world of fiction subsumed the frighteningly real discovery of his new colleague’s previous métier, and the evening returned to some kind of normalcy. 

Even so, he did set an especially early alarm. 

The clock on the wall in Miss Broomhead’s ante-room ticked round to 07:30.

He never considered it her own space per se, rather the Styx through which one had to pass to enter the realm of Mr Malvolio. Seldom did anyone get called into the CEO’s office—Beckman had only seen it twice—and the only time anyone looked forward to it was when they thought they might have hit the jackpot of Salesman of the Year. Such a man would walk in a mere mortal and return as a god, never needing to work again. Certainly never again needing to encounter Oswald Gusp and his… startling secret.

He carefully (some might call it “furtively”) leafed through the items on Miss Broomhead’s desk. Quickly he found Oswald’s resumé in the OUT tray. Handling it as though the paper itself was soiled, he checked the Previous Employment section.

“Package Delivery Services” – 2004-2017

Well, you’re creative with job titles, Oswald buddy.

He carefully replaced the paper where he’d found it.

‘Hey Beckman.’

He jumped three feet in the air—a feat which would have stunned his grade-school gym teacher. Beckman was no Bob Beamon.

He even managed to simultaneously turn towards the owner of the voice. Maybe the teacher had merely needed to switch his methods from encouragement to shock tactics?

‘Jeez, Wilbur! You wanna kill off a second employee within a week?’

Wilbur held up a hand. ‘Sorry, B. What gives? Why so early? Not like you.’

Beckman gestured at the desk. ‘Clearly, trying some industrial espionage before anyone arrives. Why you in so early? Not like you either, I might say.’

Wilbur held up the other hand. ‘Busted, okay?’

Beckman glanced up at Wilbur’s hat, which was almost always a baseball cap, and certainly different every day. Today’s legend was “INSERT HEAD HERE” with an arrow pointing downwards.

Probably a wise choice for an unusually early start.

‘You were coming in here too?’

‘Yeah, but something different.’ Wilbur checked around. The office was still patently empty. ‘The new guy.’

‘Oswald? Me too.’

Wilbur’s hands dove into his pockets. ‘Oh. Well. Cool.’

‘Resumé?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Why?’

‘Thought I recognised him.’

‘Recognised him?’ Beckman’s mind did cartwheels—many not pleasant.

‘Yeah.’

‘But I thought he was an…’ Beckman also checked around redundantly, and lowered his voice, even more redundantly. ‘… “adult performer”.’

‘Oh. Yeah. Then it is him.’

Beckman’s face instinctively creased into distaste, which he quickly shook away. After all, it wasn’t a crime—neither to be a viewer nor a… participant. ‘You know him?’

‘Know? No. Know of? Yeah.’

‘You’ve seen…’ He tailed off deliberately, thrust his eyebrows up.

Wilbur pointed. ‘Then so have you.’

‘Only last night.’

‘Ah.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Okay.’

‘Yeah. Guess I… misspent my youth elsewhere. That’s all.’

Wilbur nodded slowly. ‘Yeah.’

Silence blew through.

‘Is it on there?’ Wilbur nodded at the desk.

‘Yeah. “Package Delivery Services”.’

‘Ah. Right. So he’s not… ashamed or nothing. Not hiding it.’

‘He’d have trouble hiding…’ Then Beckman stopped, realising the word “it” could be misconstrued.

Too late. Wilbur, who could have construed it, didn’t.

‘Yeah,’ he chuckled. ‘Trouble hiding that.’ 

At which point Beckman was transported back twelve hours and Oswald’s unconcealed secret flashed through his mind again.

Thanks Wilbur. Trust you to be a jock about it.

Beckman sighed. Best not to be holier-than-thou ass and try to rise above it. Wilbur was a good guy—the best thing to a friend he had at Pegasus. Besides, if you couldn’t laugh about something like this, what hope was there? It was probably the most exciting thing to happen at work since Paulson Foss had inexplicably told Mr Malvolio what he (and pretty much everyone else) thought about the guy, and been fired on the spot. Foss was lucky—Malvolio could have simply let his pet Gila monster Bruno loose, and washed his hands of any unfortunate poisonous bitings which might have transpired.

Beckman forced a chuckle. ‘Yeah. I think it’s safe to say Oswald isn’t built in proportion.’

‘Bet he gave loads of glowing references. All from people called Candy or Lolly, happy to confirm that he was able to deliver packages twenty-four seven.’

‘He’s trying to cure headaches now—back then he was more likely to give a girl one.’

Get your mind out of the gutter, Beckman Spiers. This is a co-worker.

His face fell. Creditably, Wilbur’s did too.

‘We all got secrets, B.’

Beckman nodded, even though he personally had an entirely skeleton-free closet. ‘You won’t tell I was…’ He pointed at the desk, and around the office.

‘Course not. I mean, I was too. You know, just confirming it was him. Idle curiosity, is all.’

Beckman nodded more vehemently. ‘Sure. Past is past. Like you say, we’ve all got something.’

‘What’s yours, B?’

‘Huh?’

‘Your little secret?’

‘Secret?’

‘Misdemeanour.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Little thing in the past. Slight untruth on the resumé.’ Wilbur leant in.

Beckman thought quickly. ‘Nothing. I got nothing.’

‘Nothing?’

‘Nothing.’ He shrugged.

Wilbur narrowed his eyes, then smiled. ‘I reckoned so. Paragon of virtue, you, Beckman. You always said, I always knew.’

‘Certainly no… unmentioned previous… entertainment-related roles.’

‘No. Sure. Me either. Well, I mean, I did, but, you know.’

Beckman unavoidably recoiled slightly. ‘Entertainment-related? You?’

‘Sure. I used to mix with the ladies.’

Don’t get jealous now.

‘ “Mix”.’

‘Relax. I was a vision mixer on Miss World for ten years.’ Wilbur smiled knowingly at his wordplay.

‘That’s solid, Wilbur.’ He looked around. Go on—ask. ‘Did you, you know…?’

‘Get any?’

‘Yeah.’

‘No.’

‘Right.’

‘Yeah.’

Beckman nodded at nothing in particular. ‘So, to work, I guess.’

Wilbur straightened his cap. ‘I guess.’

‘Yeah.’ The clock ticked. ‘About Oswald?’

Wilbur brightened with excessive interest. ‘Yeah?’

‘He starts at zero on the sales chart, right?’

‘Sure. This because it means you’re up one place now?’

‘No.’ Beckman coughed. ‘Well, yeah.’

‘You’ll do it, B. I have faith. Tenth year for you this year. Gotta mean something, right?’

‘Still a ways to go. But, yeah, I guess seventh place is my best yet. Might be in with a shot.’

Wilbur smiled cruelly. ‘Oughta release a few more tigers, huh?’

‘Across state, sure.’ Beckman replied with a false impish grin. He’d never knowingly cheat to win the prize. He was probably the only guy at Pegasus who wouldn’t bend the rules to get the annual gong-and-passport-to-retirement. He also knew Wilbur knew that too.

‘Wonder if they put the poor cat down.’

‘Hope so, for Oswald’s sake.’ He clicked his fingers in annoyance. ‘Shoot. If I’d known right away, I could have brown-nosed Malvolio into taking over Cad’s territory. Heck of a lot better patch than my tumbleweed breeding ground.’

Wilbur nodded. ‘What’re you gonna do, huh? Easy come, easy go. At least no tigers out your way.’

‘Hope to hell not.’

‘Snakes though.’

‘And more than twelve-inch ones.’ Beckman winked. ‘See you around, Wilbur.’

‘See you, B. Sell well.’

Beckman headed out to the Caddy, keen to put all thoughts of wildlife—desert-dwelling, garden-dwelling, or trouser-dwelling—out of his mind.

First order of business: coffee.

It was just after two in the afternoon, while Beckman was gallivanting through his fifth Coffee Planet serving of the day—trying to convince himself he’d be able to meet Oswald in the future without glancing downwards—when his cell rang.

‘Wilbur?’

‘Hey, B.’

‘This is unusual. What—we make a mistake?’

‘Huh? Oh, no—it’s him.’

‘Okay.’

‘Okay.’

‘So?’

‘So? Oh, yeah. He was just here.’

‘You didn’t say anything?’ Beckman interjected, suddenly horrified.

‘Say? That? No. No—he was just putting in a huge stock order. Need to get a semi-trailer loaded.’

‘Oswald? On his first day? A semi-trailer!’

Walter’s sigh veritably puffed through the speaker. ‘Yeah. Said he went back to the tiger guy. Cad never closed the sale. Guy was keen—maybe out of pity now. Anyway, he’s this hot shot—wanted to put the product on his employee benefit medical plan. Got a lot of employees. So—semi-trailer.’

‘Ah, snap.’

‘Yeah.’

Beckman pushed his own sigh down the mouthpiece. ‘Thanks for calling, Wilbur.’

‘Sure. Thought you should know.’

‘Yeah. Thanks.’

‘Beckman?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Puts him back above you now.’

‘Already? Ah, snap,’ he breathed.

‘Sorry, B.’

‘Yeah. Thanks Walter.’

‘Sure.’

Beckman thumbed the End button. Drained his coffee.

Shook away the disappointment.

‘Easy come, easy go.’ 

Chris Towndrow

Playwright & author. Three professional adult pantos have sold out their runs in Guildford in the past 3 years. Currently planning for 2017.