Thursday, 13 September 2012

Another Shot of Workahol

In a dream I once had, I stumbled into a bar. The chairs and tables were a sad off-white colour and I remember feeling heavy…

‘Gimme another workahol!’ I cried to the bartender.

He fixed me with a steely eye as he wiped a non-existent beer glass. ‘Nope, bub, you’ve had enough,’ he said.

I leaned against the wood-panelled counter. ‘I gotta have another shot of workahol: my wife don’t understand…’

‘Don’t understand what, sir?’

‘Why I gotta do this, ‘ I screeched, waving my workaholic beverage tankard at him, ‘Why I work-work-work all day an’ all night!’

The bar-keep leaned closer. I knew that, if I could gain his confidence, he’d soon have me fixed up. He glanced once to each side of him, checking for spies. ‘No-one,’ he whispered, ‘but no-one, understands…’

‘Aw, gimme just a little one - one for the road – hey!’ I laughed. ‘You don’t understand either. I mean, why should you? You’re a dispenser of the wonder-drug, Overwork, purveyor of the Protestant Ethic. Why should you worry about a little old geezer like me, high on Overtime, strung out on Time Management?’

I paused for breath. The bartender smiled.

‘I was like you once.’ A faraway look came into his eyes. ‘I was up on downers. Way back. Up on downers till I was down on my uppers.’

‘The hard stuff,’ I gasped.

Again, he laughed. ‘The hard stuff! Look at yourself, my friend, your eyes are shot red with years in front of a computer, your hair’s thinning with financial worry and personal over-exposure at interminable board meetings. The rose tint has worn off your spectacles after years of polishing them in moments of crisis. Am I right?’

I nodded.

‘And you want more. You can’t live without the pressure. But, I’m not your boss. Look, I was like you: a slave to the machine. It made me wretched. What’s worse, I was married then; to a beautiful girl. At first we were happy. I threw myself into my work as a turf accountant. Life was sweet, or so I thought.

‘But I began to spend more time at the office. I chained myself to that desk. I told myself I was doing the right thing, that I was doing it for her.

‘But you know, don’t you, how wrong I was. You know I was only escaping the responsibility of being close to someone, anyone, myself even. I was on the run and I didn’t know it.’

I kept on nodding for fear of interrupting him in his passion. He went on, barely pausing to breathe.

‘I would go to meetings all over the world, at any hour of the day or night. Work was its own justification. I felt I could do anything. Whatever I did, work excused it. 

‘I was never knowingly cruel. But I lived for nothing but work and the rest of my life was swallowed up by creeping neglect. I neglected my wife. I had children. At least I think I did. They appeared at breakfast one day: two teenage boys. They called me father, so I assumed they were mine.

‘My wife seemed to accept all this until, one day, at a meeting, I opened my briefcase and found a pound of courgettes, a tin of Bonio and three fish-paste vol-a-vents instead of the usual paperwork. My wife had snapped, you see. When I came home that evening, late, I found she had gone. The kids too, whoever they were. There was a sort of note. It said:
“Darling, you love your work more than me. I hate the way your eyes sparkle when you talk of odds and form. They never sparkle when you look at me. I have taken the children with me. Don’t try to find me. I have left you for a younger man with large biceps and no job. Your dinner is in the recipe book. I hope you can remember what the kitchen looks like. Don’t come after me. 
Yours sincerely,
‘I was devastated. I gave up bookmaking at once. Of course, I never found out where she went. I went from bad to worse, found myself in the gutter eventually, begging for every scrap of workahol I could get. That was all I had left. I threw away my last shreds of self-respect trying to find the pressure of work on street corners.

‘In the end, I came here to this workaholics’ speakeasy, where tired old businessmen and middle managers come to talk shop and have people hassle them. Oh, I know I serve the stuff. Lots of do this now! and what about those sales targets, Smith? But I see myself as a kind of saviour too. Sometimes there are those I can help. Turn them away before it’s too late…’

He seemed to run out of steam. A wistful look crossed his face as he twisted his dishcloth in his hands.

‘Gee,’ I said, ‘What about another…?’

‘Go home. Bub!’ he cried. ‘Save yourself. It’s not too late for you. Have you heard anything I said? All you get here are bogus deadlines, ersatz orders and meaningless shop-talk. It’s all phoney. Half the faces beside you tonight will be dead of heart failure in ten years – or else managing their own workaholism programme. Go home!’

I stood up and cried with a drunk’s resolve: ‘I will. Yes, I will…’ I felt myself falling, dragged down by that incredible weight.

I woke with my face embedded in a pile of shredded computer paper. I had, as I thought, been dreaming. Well, I’d not thought I was dreaming while I was dreaming, rather, that realisation came through with my abrupt awakening.

I had fallen asleep while working late at the office again. I rubbed my eyes and looked at my watch. Only ten o’clock, I mused. Still time to finish that quarterly report.

© BH 1990, 2012

I can't for the life of me remember what I was doing in 1990 that prompted this. I have a vision of a basement bar in Bridge Street, Aberdeen. Why? I couldn't say. I suppose I had the archetype of the 'my wife don't understand me…' conversation between drinker and barman, that, and the paradoxical coinage of 'workaholic'. I could never get the '-aholic' suffix. I mean, as if a drinker could be addicted to 'alc'… Then it just got kind of surreal.

Mind you it only just predates the first version of the European Working Times Directive. Prescient, or what?