"Foreign Accent Syndrome," A Short Story for Anyone Who Works in an Office
When George left university, he thought he could do anything. He thought his sixth-in-the-year first would let him go on to be a war correspondent, or a polyglottic diplomat, or something. A job that people at parties would find cool.
But now, ten years later, George did nothing.
After applying for an internship once, he’d stayed and somehow floated halfway up the foodchain of a company that most people had sort of heard of. The office was London-glum and dim and decked with Tetris-desks and the aircon made a hissing noise that made him think he was slowly being gassed to death.
One Tuesday morning, George was in a neutral coloured meeting room called PROGRESS, watching a conversation that a man with an auburn box-beard called Martin was having with a bald man George didn’t know and a sweaty man from the 4th floor.
George was in meetings in rooms called PROGRESS or VANGUARD or BLUESKY every day. Before and after and sometimes over limp Pret lunches, George was always in meetings. And though he was bright and had been at the company a long time now, he could never work out what was going on in any of them.
He could hear people talking in meetings. They discussed things. Words were kneaded and crimped into syncopated sentence sausages. Words fermented on fat tongues and lurched towards hot ears. Words oozed out of grey faces and inflated beige rooms. But nothing was ever said. No meaning was relayed to each other. No directions given. No ideas painted on brains. No fires fanned or extinguished. Just gaseous exchange. Stuff. Doughy and slack. George used to find it all immensely frustrating. Then he stopped caring completely.
“...OK guys, so I think our direction of travel is pretty clear here”, Martin said. Everything that Martin said was loud because he was Director of Something.
"we’ve got to synergise more with our partners. We’ve got to grow that dialogue.”
“Mmm, mmm”, Sweaty and Baldy agreed.
George thought back to the pastel chunks in his calendar. Was this the ‘immediate action ideation workshop’ or the ‘7-yr strategic planning meeting’? He couldn’t remember. He knew it barely mattered.
“If we’re going to take any learning from the last quarter, it’s that we’ve got to synergise more with our partners. We’ve got to grow that dialogue.”
“Yea, yea, mmm”, said Sweaty. “It’s an easy win for us”, said Baldy.
Baldy looked pleased with himself and started nodding. George thought he nodded like that wooden desk-doll that always caught his eye. The one on the way to the gloriously expansive disabled toilet that he sometimes luxuriated in.
Martin started nodding in response to Baldy’s desk-doll nod. They were looking straight at each other and nodding. There was a moment. George consciously anchored his eyebrows to a position he hoped was neutral.
“Mmm”, Martin said.
There was another tock of silence. Baldy and Martin were still nodding at each other. Sweaty looked upset that Baldy had Martin’s approval. Sweaty turned to look straight at Martin, then joined in the nodding and said, “there’s incredible leverage for us there”. He’d said it a bit too eagerly. Martin had stopped nodding. Sweaty looked defeated.
George’s mind was cartwheeling around the room. He started to think that Sweaty should have worn a lighter shirt. He started to think that Baldy looked a bit like a white version of Uriah Rennie. He started to wonder if he’d look good in Martin’s beard. Would his wife like him in a beard?
Martin and Sweaty went back and forth at the borders of George’s hazed conscious, nodding and agreeing. Then Martin took George off guard.
“George, what’s your take on that? You think that message is an easy sell?”
Martin’s stare made George’s chest tighten. Everything was suddenly too sharp and too focussed and the silence scratched his ear canal. Six white jelly-eyes stared at him in a triangle around the room. A balloon of dread quickly swelled in George’s belly. He couldn’t delay much longer.
“Great, thanks guys. Let’s action that.”
George started an ‘errr’ noise, but he had nothing to follow it. He had no idea what the message was, who he would be selling it to, or whether it would be particularly easy. Heat surged up from his collar and prickled his jaw. He slouched down. His ergonomic chair squawked a postural critique from under his lumbar. The dread-balloon had stopped his breathing. Then Martin took over again and punctured it.
“YeaNoYea. All clear on next steps?” Martin cast his beard around the room for counsel, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Great, thanks guys. Let’s action that.”
Chairs started moving from the under the desk. George let the air out of his lungs a little too loudly then slowly stacked his long, tired legs beneath his body to walk out of the meeting room. As George moved towards the door, Martin asked that Baldy stay behind for a ‘quick catch up’. George knew that he’d somehow failed by not being kept behind. He wasn’t sure how. It was always like this, he thought, with a shrug to himself.
“Many are called, few are chosen, ay?”, George said to Sweaty, smiling a pale smile as they edged along the awkward corridor outside of PROGRESS. Sweaty stopped and pinned George with a straight-headed stare. He looked sad, thought George; sad and confused. Sweaty waited for George to say something more and when nothing came, nodded like a soldier, and left towards his cubicle on the 4th floor.
Alone, George was dazed with boredom but glad that it was over. Another pastel chunk batted away before home time, he thought.
George trudged down the glass and concrete stairwell, left the building through the security card doors and strode towards Pret for his lunch. As he crossed the road, George thought he might have finally had enough. He’d go back after his hummus wrap and resign, he thought. He thought that a lot.
And it was while he was thinking of resigning that the blue Ford smashed into his right side and left him creased and folded and cold on the black road.
In his hospital bed, consciousness trickled into George’s brain. A woman was talking to a man somewhere near where George lay. The woman’s voice was harried and educated and familiar. After a time, enough of George’s mind was working for him to realise that the voice was his wife’s.
George loved his wife. He loved the way she whirled and danced to music with her hands. He loved that she used to say things like, “Did you fart, or did I fart...”, and then, (by implicit admission) “...or did no one fart..?” He loved the way she’d introduce him at dinner parties as, “George, my first husband”, when she was annoyed with him. He loved the way she looked after her ailing father without ever complaining that her siblings didn’t.
George’s mind now had enough power to tune into the conversation happening above him.
“So yea, he’s drifting in and out, but we’re pretty confident he’ll be up and about soon. He’s been quite lucky.”
“OK. Good. Good. Thank God”, said George’s wife. George still had his eyes closed, but knew that his wife would have been holding her face with her long fingers and drawing down on her pale cheeks like a beautiful version of Munch’s Scream. She always did that when she wasn’t in control.
“One thing though.” George felt his ribs creak as he breathed short and thin. The bleeps from the machine next to him hurt his head. “His speech.”
George counted two more bleeps and three bips before the man started talking again. “He seems a bit...confused. He...uh...doesn’t seem to be able to make much sense.” “Right...”
George knew that she would have been staring, unblinking into the doctor’s eyes. The doctor would have found her eyes glorious and bright and wild. The doctor would have found it difficult not to have been flattered by her gaze.
“Mmm. So, it’s rare that it happens, but very occasionally when someone experiences intense trauma, like Mr Thomas has, something happens to the brain in the language centre and ...ummm...they find it hard to reconnect with their natural way of speaking.”
"I’m developing a strategy to future-proof myself against this outcome moving forward.”“Yes. In George’s case, it seems that words come out very fluently, but they’re all a bit confusing.” “Oh. Err...OK. Is it permanent? Is it going to last?”
“It’s hard to say. I’m sorry.” George heard his wife soft-shoe a half step back. The doctor waited before going on, “This is an extremely rare case, not one we’ve ever seen before. George could get better overnight or, well, it could be more difficult...”
George and his wife held their breath together. George felt his chest go tight. He coughed. “Oh, looks like he’s waking up again,” said the doctor.
“Ohhh”, said George’s wife, in a strange flat voice. She tumbled towards him to throw her arms around his head. George enjoyed the pain of her embrace.
“George...”, she broke away and looked down at him.
George opened his eyes. Though his vision was blurry, from the way his wife looked at him, he knew he had to apologise for all this.
George rubbed his eyes, then breathed in and gathered the air to speak. “I’m...I have full accountability around this Holly, but I’m developing a strategy to future-proof myself against this outcome moving forward.” George stopped speaking. What had come out of his mouth just then? He had meant to apologise, and had decided on the right string of words. But when he tried that, when he tried to filter the words out of his mind and release them from his mouth, different, clanking, sticky words rolled past his teeth, leapt off his lips and re-entered his head through his ears. And when they swaggered into his brain, these imposter words, these words that had come out his mouth, confused him. What was he saying? George’s confusion spread to his face and wrinkled his eyes.
“OK...” Holly turned away from George towards the doctor. “OK”, she said, again, turning back to George. George’s stomach dropped.
George looked at Holly, and ached with love. He wanted to tell her. He continued, “Holly, I really value what you bring to this partnership.”
“OK George”, said Holly, lowering herself down to George to squeeze his broken body. ***
During George’s convalescence, Holly’s unbidden kindness made George fall deeper and deeper in love with her. He’d always loved her before, but it was a kind of an ‘us against them’ love. George often thought there must have been a German compound noun that described it better.
The new love was something else entirely. She always knew when he needed itching (“I’m going to throw this shirt away you know”), or when he was tired and needed a nap (“Night-night, my little crushed fly”). Or when he’d had enough and wanted left alone (“I’ll just be out doing the weeds”). Or when he needed a bit of admonishment to keep him straight (“Come on now George, no more box- sets till you can walk to the shop”). He realised after a time that he was actually scared of the new love. Scared because he was practically and emotionally helpless without her.
In the first few weeks, Holly teased George about his condition. She’d say, “I’m just making a cup of tea, George...have I got your buy-in? Do you have any issues around that?”, and, when George was searching around for the remote control under the big red sofa cushions, “Let’s set up a working group to locate that key item”. She always knew how far to push the joke. In her mind, George was going to get better, and they’d be able to look back on moments like these and smile.
But George was not getting better. And as months went by with no improvement, looking after George and her Dad at the same time was wearing Holly out. She looked frayed and exhausted and her patience was thinning.
“We’ll take that offline”
Once, about three months into his recovery, George had tried to tell her how grateful he was. He’d thought of a lovely way of saying it, in their own-brand couples dialect. But when he tried to say this out loud he just said, “You’re an incredible asset and we’ve got to work on shaping incentives to make sure we keep you happy and stretched and working hard.” She let the words reach her without looking up from wiping the table where George had just eaten her lovely stew. “Stretched?” she said, her eyebrows leaping upwards from her green eyes. George braced himself against the terrible silence, fixing his eyes on his empty bowl. “Fucking stretched George? You want to fucking work me any harder?”
Holly ran outside the house into the summer rain. George watched her go and followed her with his gaze as she collapsed down into the garden bench. Tears formed behind his eyes and his sinuses swelled. “We’ll take that offline”, he said to himself and winced after he heard his words boomerang back.
George looked into the little mirror that Holly kept on the table for a final make-up check before she went out to work. He brushed a hand through his greying hair. He realised that Holly hadn’t touched his hair in months. She used to love playing with the chunky clumps of his old-teenager hair. George looked back out at Holly. He let the tears roll down his face without picking up a tissue to dam them.
The day George worked up the courage to get back on the commuter train and go back to work was the day of the year-end review. That was when everyone at George’s company would meet in the half-a-soup-bowl conference room called HIVEMIND at the bottom of the building to hear the directors (whom he recognised from their intranet thumbnails) give presentations about the year past. George knew it would be all day drivel, but at least they got lunch for free.
The day was drawing to the end of its last session and a man with an expensive looking suit walked to the stage to give a talk. George recognised him from TV as the head of a big computer firm. He was giving a talk titled ‘The Future of Disruptive Technology: Inspiration, Innovation and ITeration’. Looking at the programme for the day, George wondered if those two letters were meant to be capitalised like that.
The clock edged around towards 5pm. The man on the stage was now asking people in the front row a question. George wasn’t sure what the question was. He heard one person answer with a sentence that emphasised the word ‘personalisation’ and another ‘communality’.
“The low hanging fruit for us is in upskilling ourselves to a more matrixed way of working.”George thought about Holly. He thought back to the way things had been before the crash. He felt sick that a lot of his thoughts were directed at how he could stop her leaving him. His mind went back to their big argument and a wobble of nausea rippled through his abdomen. They’d never argued like that before. Had they? Maybe they had. George couldn’t remember the last time they’d had a proper conversation. The thought terrified George.
Suddenly the man at the front looked up, shielding his eyes from the white lights. “Now then”, the man said with a vicious grin, “How about some of you guys hiding further back?”. George was sitting in one the chairs at the end of the row and because of the way the light was sucked in from the door to his right, he was clearly visible to the man on the stage.
“What about you?” the man at the front asked, gesturing to George.
When he was at home recovering, George had completely forgotten this feeling. The heat, the pressure in his chest. George tried to breathe. Then his mouth started talking.
"We’ve got to recontextualise ourselves and extend out into the market ecosystem"
“The low hanging fruit for us is in upskilling ourselves to a more matrixed way of working.”
“Uhuh”, said the man on the stage, shielding his eyes again and looking for someone else to question. But George was still talking.
“But if our direction of travel is to take on the gorilla players here, we’ve got to think bigger. We’ve got to recontextualise ourselves and extend out into the market ecosystem with a more enterprise- wide, module-centric approach. Moving forward if we all think more in terms of scalability, we’ll be able to ramp up our key metrics in a really tangible way.”
George’s response to the question (that he didn’t hear) provoked a kinetic wave of activity across the whole room. Heads twisted and talked to each other. Suits rumpled and shook themselves out of hibernation. Agitated mouths chattered caffeinated interest. The people in front of George turned around to look at him. One of them was Martin. Martin whispered to Baldy on his right, paused, then pointed straight at George. “Let’s catch up”, he said. George shuffled in his seat. “Sure. Let’s grab a coffee”, he heard himself say loudly so that other people could hear. He’d never said that to anyone before. He didn’t really like coffee.
The book that George’s NHS psychiatrist told him to read said to celebrate any success in his life. So, after his promotion, George decided to take Holly out to the Italian restaurant they both used to like.
The good news might take the edge off their recent travails, he thought. Might be what the book would call a ‘breakthrough’. And there were always hilarious grotesque West London gilet types at the restaurant. The people they always used to enjoy poking fun at. Holly agreed and managed to persuade her younger brother (who tried and failed with a tame excuse) to do dad duty at the hospital.
“It’s a great position. Basically I’m now Strategic Co-Director and head of the Tiger Team core efficiencies taskforce reporting straight into C-suite. Remuneration-wise, it’s pretty robust too”, said George.
Holly was rolling her fried spinach balls along the white dish. She gently tapped down on the spinach balls in time with the long loud notes coming from the piano in the corner of the room, guiding them around the curved edge of the glazed ceramic. Her eyes were blank. George was desperate to reach her. He wanted to make a joke about the idiotic pair of rounded tortoise-shell spectacles to their left who were moaning about the ‘claggy’ tiramisu, or the old man with the liver spots and imperial accent asking for the second most expensive red. But he knew he couldn’t.
“That’s great George, you must be pleased.”
George began speaking again before Holly had finished. “I think the impact for us all is going to be huge. It could be transformational for us Holly.” There was a heavy silence between them. George tried to apologise for what he was saying with his eyes, but Holly wouldn’t look at him. She would have seen that look if she held his eye contact. She would have understood. She would have understood. But she was somewhere else.
George probably gave up then, but the end came anyway. He looked down. Holly’s phone was vibrating on the table. She grabbed it to her ear. George saw that the name on the screen was her brother. George’s stomach twisted and he stopped a forkload of calzone in mid-air. Holly got up and walked away. After a moment or two, she collapsed down to her knees and let out a horrific scream. George froze.
A few months later, George was on a ledge watching the traffic below him worming and honking along the street. He could smell their terrible fumes and feel the irritation of the drivers. He’d thought about coming up here before, of course, just never had the guts to go through with it. But getting this far, this time, had felt fine – logical even. He felt his blazer flapping in the wind and clenched his teeth.
Holly had left him that night she’d lost her dad. George was silent throughout her packing and leaving, desperate not to say anything that would make it worse. She rolled her flowery mini suitcase down the porch, stopped at the door and turned to look at George. Waiting with her hand on the doorknob, she stared back at her husband with her orange beret plonked messily on the side of her head. Waited, waited. George bit his lip. From the way she looked at him, she knew what he was doing and was gravely appreciative.
George looked down again. He realised that a man behind him was talking.
“Come on, dude.”
George hated being called ‘dude’, but its ridiculousness in this context nearly made him smile.
“Come on. Just step back from there.” His voice was shrunken and uncertain. He was doing what they do in films. George felt sorry for what the guy was always going to be a part of.
George breathed in slowly, lowered his shoulders and half-turned to speak. But he realised that he had nothing to say. The fact was he had nothing to live for. Nothing. Holly was everything and she didn’t want him anymore, so here he was. Breathing, breathing, breathing. Feeling time fall like marmite off a knife towards the final cowardly act.
He knew that people in the office would be perturbed. HR might even give them half a day off. But it would never reach real shock. It had to be personal for that and there was no one beneath George’s toes who even knew where he went to school. So after the half day off, nothing would have changed and everything would soon be mouse clicks and keyboard pecks again.
Then, as the thought finished, he eased the air out of his lungs, shook his head once left, once right and then jumped forward, off and down.
George blinked his eyes to see a man smoking and leaning on a gate. He had wings coming out of his back. George was struck with instinctive shyness and lowered his head, accidentally landing his eyes on a piece of paper crumpled in the angel’s hand.
“Apparently, I’m not hitting my KPIs.”
“Yea, it’s my appraisal”, the angel said, holding it out in his palm. “Boss gave me a ‘developing’, whatever that means.” The angel clenched his fist, whipping the paper back towards himself. “Apparently, I’m not hitting my KPIs.” The angel made a ‘can you believe that?’ face. George wasn’t sure how to respond. The angel pored over his paper and read aloud in a mocking voice, “A development point – Peter should be more cognizant of the valued corporate culture when selecting candidates.”
The angel breathed in hard, filling his lungs. “Well balls to that. This is my gate.” He pointed at his muscular chest.
George took a step back and looked around him. He realised that the gate that the angel was leaning on was enormous, reaching so high that he couldn’t see the top. The angel was enormous, too, about 8 ft tall. The proportions made George’s head spin. Wasn’t it over yet? George tried to shake his head clear.
The angel took one last drag on the cigarette, cast it on the ground, then looked straight down at George. “Look mate, you’ll be fine. You should see some of the idiots that I’ve let in here lately. Just relax.” His tone was friendly and open, like a school nurse comforting a child with a grazed knee.
George was frozen in his shoes. He couldn’t move. His eyes remained low.
The angel went on, “But I’ll warn you that I really can’t take any more bullshit. I’ve had enough of it.”
The angel nodded his head solemnly and fixed George with a serious ‘you see where I’m coming from?’ stare. A stone dropped in George’s belly. His feet felt heavy. His eyes burned.
“So...what’s your name?”
George’s mind was still spinning. George’s mouth said, “George Thomas, Strategic Co-Director.”
“George Thomas. OK.” The angel half closed one eye and pursed his lips. He looked part bored, part contemptuous. George knew the look. He used to do it himself. It made him feel sick.
George’s cheeks burned. The angel rocked back and forth on his massive feet. He looked down at his piece of paper, then back up to George.
“George, the obvious question is – why should we take you on?”
The angel’s tone had changed. George’s chest wound tighter and tighter. His mouth opened and shut. He breathed in short.
“George.” The angel placed both his hands on George’s shoulders and widened his eyes to capture George’s gaze. “This is the easy bit.”
“Uhh”, George knew what was coming. He breathed in shortly again and let his shoulders drop. This was it. He let it happen.
“Well, I think there are a number of key priority areas where I can add real value...”
The angel cut him off, shaking his head and exhaling hard out of his nose, “...George. Just start again. Answer the question.
George looked at his scuffed shoes. He felt like crying. He bit his lip and breathed in hard through his nose. This was it. He breathed in again and spoke to the floor, “I think if we take the sky-view on this one and just A3 it, what becomes clear is that it’s a no-brainer for you.”
The angel waited for George to finish. George avoided his glare, keeping his eyes trained on his fraying shoelaces. He knew. The angel waited a few more seconds. He dropped his massive head.
“Another one. Christ alive.”
The angel released his arms from George’s shoulders and turned his back. “OK. I think we’ve heard enough.” He signalled to his right and clicked his fingers.
Suddenly, a great bright light shot into George’s eyes, stunning him. He felt his body falling slowly backwards. There was a density in the air. A jammy viscosity. Then, firmness. His back had landed on something. He lay still.
After a few moments, George realised that the great light had dimmed and opened his eyes. All was white. Posh-egg white. Dimpled, textured white. George swallowed hard. What was this bit? He gathered himself up to standing and looked up and back. All white. There was a humming noise. George span around. Nothing.
Shapes were forming out of the whiteness. A blue chair. A green fire exit notice. George felt the scratchy cushion of the chair and then cautiously eased himself into it. His long legs stack underneath him. His back straightened. His throat felt tighter. He realised that something colourful had wound around his neck. The humming had turned into a hissing noise. Beige table top. Grey concrete walls. Someone was preparing to speak from the end of the room and pointing at a graph. The man had an auburn box-beard.
“This, gentleman, is our future”, he began.
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