Dale jerked awake. He grabbed the phone from his underwear.
"Big staff morning tea. There's platters! Where are you?"
Dale was fully alert now. Catered meetings equalled a free meal. If he stuffed himself enough he wouldn't need to buy lunch, and that would mean he could go his entire lunch-break without having to speak to another person.
He stood quickly, feeling a tingling sensation in his right leg. The whole limb still slept. He peered out the cubicle, the restroom was empty. He dragged his legs to the sinks and then out the door, heading for the big meeting room. He tried to walk like he wasn't limping. Faking it 'til he made it.
A woman with bright red lipstick was patrolling the empty cubicles. They made eye-contact. He glanced away.
"Hey," she called.
Dale froze. She'd noticed his gait! She couldn't mention it out loud, surely. It felt like it should be corporate policy to keep those kind of observations to yourself.
"I was looking everywhere for you," she said. "Everyone's already in the meeting room. Come on, don't keep Mike waiting."
Dale was primarily relieved she hadn't mention the leg, and found himself falling into stride with her brisk pace all the way to Meeting Room One. She pulled open the door and Dale stepped into the front of the room and most people's worst nightmare. The back of a podium, a crowd of hungry-eyed Compucon employees staring at it, and a long table of pastries and fruit protected by an invisible barrier of an impending public speech.
"Hey there." Mike stood beside him on the makeshift stage, leaning against the back wall. A small, expensive-looking carry on suitcase with its handle up stood next to him. Dale wondered if there were things in it, or if Mike brought it with him to make him look perpetually busy. He pondered if he should buy one for himself.
"Hello," committed Dale.
Dale knew who he was talking to. 'Michael Silvers - Regional Director, APAC' on company press releases. Mike when signing off his quarterly VLogs. Dale had watched them all on mute at his desk when he'd had audiobooks he wanted to listen to.
"Ten years, hey?" Mike chuckled. "I bet you know where all the bodies are buried."
Dale didn't know what it was ten years until, so he remained silent.
The woman, Mike's administrative assistant, stepped up to the podium. She demanded attention using only her body language, throwing sand over the smouldering hum of conversation.
"Thanks for your patience. Please welcome your regional director this morning to say a few words."
Mike took big steps and collected the microphone from her. "Thanks," he said as a flimsy applause petered out. "I won't take up much of your time, I know you've probably all picked out your cupcakes, and we're all busy people."
Dale felt a pang of guilt, which may in fact have been culpability.
"But," Mike continued. "I do think it's important to take a minute every now and again to reflect that it's the people who are ultimately the key to a business. We can sign large contracts, make big profits, deliver exceptional value to our clients, but none of these would happen without great people. Human beings, all of you, are Compucon's most valuable assets."
Dale wondered if this was the preface to another downsizing announcement.
"Today," Mike continued. "We're celebrating a milestone for one of those important assets. A man who needs no introduction to any of you, as today he is celebrating having been here for ten years!"
The crowd applauded. Dale went to slap his hands together too, until he realised the rows of people were looking at him while they clapped. Mike looked straight at him. He felt an uncomfortable notion wash over his entire body, including his half-asleep leg.
Ten years. Him? Was that possible?
At some point Dale had known the exact date of his first day at a global consulting firm destined to shortly be acquired by Compucon. Later on he'd at least been able to recall the month. Now the year seemed a little uncertain. Soon he might not even recall the decade.
While Dale spun his memory he half-listened as Mike spoke phrases about loyalty, pressure under fire, and attention to detail. He mentioned the synergy that emerged when one person remained in one job over ten years. The expertise that developed.
Dale considered if he had any expert knowledge. He knew that thirteen seconds was the required factor of multiplication if you wanted the kitchenette microwave to present your mug handle in the exact place it had started.
"A leader, even without the title," Mike said.
And it was true that at some point over the years, between restructures and promotions and retirements that Dale had gone from working at Compucon with people who'd started before him, to now working at Compucon with people who started after him. A certain level of unspoken respect had been shown to him the past few years. His colleagues seemed to draw the simplest explanation, that Dale had worked there so long because he knew what he was doing. Maybe he'd abused that assumption too much, his seniority by obscurity.
Mike was nodding. "And there are a number of projects that would never have been possible without his level of experience."
The only flicker of recognition he had for the projects Mike rattled off was the names. It was possible he'd been assigned to them, or at least charged his time against their project codes. Had he wasted the best years of his life working on them? Or procrastinating? Drinking coffee and reading articles on the internet?
Maybe he had been involved in those projects. Was the him he thought he was, really the him he had been? Mike spoke with such effortless confidence that Dale felt confused. Maybe Mike knew the real him?
It couldn't be ten years. But maybe it was?
Mike continued to extol Dale's virtues to the crowd. The speech lasted a harrowing seventy seconds. Then he beckoned Dale forward, into the limelight. Dale's guts squirmed. He forced himself off the wall. Mike shook his hand and passed him an envelope. A fifty-dollar coupon for Ultimate Fishing Supplies peeked out.
Fishing? Really? Dale didn't like fishing at all. Or maybe he did. Compucon seemed to know him better than he knew himself.
Mike turned back to the crowd. "Please give a hand to one of Compucon's most treasured people, Christopher Gurkeerat."
Compucon applauded. Dale looked at the front of the envelope, it said Christopher. Was he really Christopher? No, he knew he was Dale. But no one he worked with realised that. Or cared enough to delay morning tea.
After the speech I found Dale with a plate piled high with pastries, his back in a corner.
"Do you want to go get a coffee after that?" I asked.
He nodded, still chewing.
"Christopher was that Indian guy who they made redundant last year. He must still be in the HR system."
Dale swallowed. "I didn't think it could really be my ten year anniversary today."
I laughed. "No, Dale."
He look relieved, like he still had time to work out what the real Dale wanted to be.
"Actually your ten year anniversary was yesterday."