The fire alarm sounds. Some surprised faces look around the open-plan office as the Fire Wardens stand up, put on their high-viz vests and begin to usher people out of the building.
Sandra checks her desktop clock. Yesterday’s staff email advised 11:03 am as the scheduled time for the fire drill. She sees 11:18 am on her desktop clock and rolls her eyes. “Typical…”, Sandra grumbles to herself. She stands up at her desk and takes her coat from the back of her chair, noting the overcast conditions through a nearby window. The Fire Wardens continue to direct their disinterested colleagues towards the exits as others remain seated or stand in groups and chat. For those on their third coffee of the day, this is still too early to pretend they are functioning human beings. A few people carry their thermal mugs with them as they head towards the exits. Sandra hesitates to join the crowd, waiting for her friend Bernie to pass her way so that they can walk out together.
As the office slowly empties out, Bernie emerges from behind a wall of shuffling bodies and approaches Sandra’s desk while still zipping her coat. Bernie raises an eyebrow and nods to the passing crowd.
“Good thing it’s only a drill, half this lot would rather burn than walk outside.”
Sandra laughs, “Oh sure… it’s calm now. But if the real thing happens… If there’s ever an actual fire in this place -”
“We’ll be grand,” Bernie cuts in, “We’ll already be outside after starting it.”
Giggling as they go, the pair step in at the back of another group and make their way to the stairwell. Four flights of stairs to descend surrounded by work colleagues that neither woman could name – with their actual names, that is. Not long after they met at staff induction, Sandra and Bernie found themselves struggling to remember names of other staff. It was understandable in those initial weeks. There were too many new faces. But, time passed and people settled in to routines. Sandra and Bernie became close friends and, at the same time, neglected to acquaint themselves with the rest of their colleagues. At this stage, however, not knowing a work colleague’s name could be quite embarrassing. How could you turn to someone you have worked with for months and ask for their name? You couldn’t, the women agreed – so they didn’t. Instead, Sandra and Bernie avoided using names at all, except when they would talk to each other about work. For these conversations, the pair agreed on invented names for talking about their fellow staff. It didn’t take long before Sandra and Bernie could only see their co-workers by the names they had bestowed upon them.
“Seriously, though,” Bernie starts with a hint of mischief, as the pair round the corner on a mid-level landing, groups still descending the stairwell sluggishly ahead of them. “What do you think would happen… if it was the real thing? A real fire, I mean…”
Sandra considers this for a moment. “In an ideal world, we’d be in the elevator when the alarm goes off.”
Bernie nods along. Some would fear getting trapped, but once the fire alarm sounds, an elevator goes to the ground floor and sits there with open doors. Instant evacuation.
“In a not-ideal world,” Bernie counters, “one where we’re at our desks most of the time, which is this very world… what happens then?”
Sandra grimaces. “Oh, it’d be brutal,” she answers, “there wouldn’t be any of this calmly-exiting-the-building farce. That lot would be climbing over each other to get ahead just like they do for everything else.”
“I reckon we’d come into our own in that situation,” Bernie says with a cheeky grin. “It’d be chaos, survival instincts, anything goes in the name of getting out alive. We’d settle a few scores on our way out, alone. Just think of the people in line with your immediate path to the exit…”
Sandra knows. She knows the first person she would climb over on her way to safety. She knows and she feels in no way guilty about it. It would have to be Printer Hog. Printer Hog sits two desks nearer to the exit than Sandra. She appears – outwardly – to be like any other female in her mid-twenties. Except, that is, at any time of the day when Sandra needs to use the printer. There’s Printer Hog, talking the ears off some randomer while an unending stream of sheets spew out of the machine. By the time Sandra finds the printer unoccupied, it’s out of paper. Coincidence? Sandra doesn’t think so. It occurs with such regularity that Sandra is convinced that Printer Hog plans it. In the panic of an actual fire, Printer Hog would meet the business end of Sandra’s elbows. No question about it.
“Yeah, Printer Hog would be the first one knocked out of my way,” Sandra says. “How about you?”
“Hydro,” Bernie replies without a moment’s hesitation.
Hydro speaks exclusively in incomplete sentence fragments and questions that are not always questions (Like, oh my God? That’s just, y’know? Yeah? I mean… Right?) at a volume probably audible on the floors immediately above and below her own. Her presence in the same office means that she is deemed equally capable of Sandra and Bernie’s work and that is a cause for immense dissatisfaction. Although they had only recently abbreviated her name to Hydro, Hydrogen Head was first referred to as “that air-head” by Sandra and Bernie. This lasted until they concluded that it was, in fact, an overestimation of Hydro’s mental faculties. Air-head became Hydrogen Head after a quick Google search later stated that Hydrogen is lighter than air and, combined with Hydro’s bleached hair, the name stuck.
“Fair choice,” Sandra responds, thinking of other possibilities. “I’d have a go at tripping up The Ogre if I met him on the stairs.”
Bernie laughs. “So appropriate – he’s never shut up about that holiday since he came back, he’d only love a good trip, the hairy, melted-face Shrek!”
“Ah no, honestly,” Sandra adds, imitating a deep, monotonous voice, “You wouldn’t believe the price of things there, I swear…”
Bernie grips the handrail of the stairs, doubling over in fits of laughter. She wipes tears from her eyes and gathers herself to make up the small gap her outburst has allowed to form between them and the next group on the stairs.
“You need to warn me before you do that,” Bernie says, still giggling. “Absolutely spot-on, though.”
Sandra makes an exaggerated curtsy in response to Bernie’s praise, also signalling that it is Bernie’s turn to select the next target of their hypothetical escape plan. Bernie takes almost an entire flight of stairs to make her decision.
“I’d give Mr Crabs a swift kick down-stairs.”
“Ew, gross!” Sandra reacts.
“I mean down these stairs,” Bernie explains, indicating the stairs they’re continuing to descend.
“Still though,” Sandra says, “Your poor foot!”
Mr Crabs is a young lad on their floor who pictures himself as a ladies man, yet appears to everyone else to be a bit of a lecher. From the tales of staff nights-out, Mr Crabs’ only known preference in a partner is their interest in him. Without either inhibition or the restriction of charm, he flirts with any woman in earshot in the office, stretches every time a woman passes by in a basic act of display, while yawning or grunting somewhere on the vocal register between tennis player and porn-star (both mid-service). It is easy to see why Mr Crabs is held in low esteem by Bernie and Sandra.
“Even kicking him is still touching him with your foot,” Sandra squirms, “I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
“I know,” Bernie cringes, “He must be so riddled with STIs that he probably wanks with a condom on for fear of catching something from himself!”
This time, Sandra nearly falls over in hysterics.
“BERNIE! MY GOD!” she howls.
The pair make their way down the final flight of stairs, still needing to cross the car park to their assembly point. Along the way, Sandra and Bernie discuss a few other co-workers that would receive no mercy in an actual fire: Swamp Thing for her body odour, Squirrel Face for his loud chewing, Have-A-Look-At-This for still not knowing how to do her job over a year later and somehow still being employed, Bog Boy for getting out earlier on Fridays ‘to travel home Wesht’, Airy Fairy for singing along louder than the radio, the Incredible Bulk for making every conversation be about protein somehow, Empty Chair for turning up late or not coming in at all or taking more holidays than working days per year, Builder’s Arse for never wearing a belt but leaning over all of the time… There are a lot of names on the list before Sandra thinks about anyone that she would help in the same situation. But her mind draws a blank. Other than Bernie, there’s no one that Sandra feels she would help in a real fire. Her only responsibility is to get herself to safety and everyone else is an obstacle. Sandra stops.
“Bernie,” she asks, “are we terrible people?”
Bernie looks at Sandra and thinks for a moment.
“You know what, Sandra…” Bernie starts, hesitating slightly. “We are. We are terrible people. But -” she says, pointing a finger, “so is everyone else here.”
“Oh…” Sandra mumbles to herself. “God, I should really look for a new job…”