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A story for Haiti: The E.S.M. © mmSeason

Saturday 16 January 2010

I have no connection at all with Haiti. But they really didn’t need the earthquake.

Crossed Genres have started the Post A Story For Haiti campaign and it works like this: authors are posting stories online, to read for free. I think these are all stories that have never been published elsewhere. [UPDATE: They’re not <i>all</i> previously unpublished, but i believe most are.]

Free fiction, all you readers! There’s a catch, of course…

It’s becoming common for writers to post their work and ask ‘whatever payment you think it’s worth’. This works like that, only this time, if you enjoy my story (or any of the others over at the Crossed Genres) page, please donate to a charity involved in the Haiti relief efforts. Crossed Genres suggest some charities you could give to, or there’s the Disasters Emergency Committee donation page.

To help the Post A Story For Haiti campaign grow, you could also link to the Crossed Genres page (and here, if you like this story).

Thank you.

The E.S.M.

© 2009 mmSeason

I installed the ESM on the Thursday but they called me back in on the Monday. Had to be me as so few engineers were up to speed with these machines yet.

It was doing nothing at all, they said. Turned out nothing wrong with it, no errors on my part; they hadn’t set it up properly with their staff details.

‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘Easy mistake to make, and I’ll put a note in here for Version 1.0.2 to have that a bit clearer in the manual.’ They felt foolish, of course. I left them my own number to save going through the menus if they needed to call us again.

* * *

The very next day the secretary was on the line before 10 AM. Quite a small company, only the one girl-sorry-woman in their Admin. Surprising really, I’d have expected a bigger business to be shelling out for this kind of thing while it was still cutting-edge, but that goes to show how much I don’t know about the commercial side.

The problem this time was apparently everyone was so laid back, no work was getting done. I popped in, it wasn’t out of my way and their coffee was good. They’d started with it on the default settings. I explained a bit about customising. I did think it was odd no one had read the manual in its entirety over the weekend – I had mentioned doing that when I first installed it. By the book, me, tick all the boxes, especially with a new product. The boss, name of Bill or something like that, said it was his bedtime reading now and he was getting to grips with it.

Well, they shouldn’t have switched it on without being completely comfortable with the details but I didn’t say that, no point by then. My job’s keeping the client happy, which doesn’t include blaming them.

Bill and I had a bit of a chat about it. Nice chap, bit nervous in his manner, but very chatty. I had the impression the company was his baby, you know, his brainchild and he’d built it up from scratch. They employed about fifty people – I knew that from having to fiddle with the Simplifier’s settings. He’d clearly made a go of the business, which goes to show the feeling I’d started with, that he hadn’t got the head for the technicalities, probably did him an injustice.

I can’t say I was a hundred percent confident he had the hang of it, but I did stress, when I left, how important it was that he really study the Customisation chapter before turning the signal up any higher. I gave them an extra copy of the manual, so the secretary could take it to bed too. My private feeling was she’d get the hang of it quicker and then he could hand over to her and stop worrying about it. But that goes to show how much I don’t know about judging people on first impressions.

* * *

Next day, I got a call just before noon. It was the boss himself and he was in quite a state. Apparently the secretary, Angie, had struggled all morning to adjust the ESM. Bill had been out of the office somewhere, and he came in to find things out of control. That was how he put it, on the phone to me. I had a mental image of the tension between them, she maybe trying to get something out of the machine that it wasn’t designed for because he’d said that’s what they were going to do with it. But not for me to make judgements.

Anyway, he demanded I get in there as soon as possible. His tone was more than the situation warranted, I thought. Goes to show how much I didn’t know.

I called in to Central and told them not to fit any last-minutes in that afternoon, and got there about the time I would normally take my lunch break. I ate my sandwiches in the van. Tell the truth, I wouldn’t have wanted to pass this job on to any of the other engineers even if they’d had the technical knowledge, because I like following a case through to the end – and it’s always more interesting when it’s a new product.

But I was irritable before I entered the building and when I got to the secretary’s office I was in a foul mood. That told me we really did have a problem on our hands. The Emotion Simplifier was only meant to affect people it was programmed with. And it was affecting me just because I was in range. I felt furious with the manufacturer, which was another thing. Fury was supposed to be beyond the spectrum of intensity.

Angie was at her desk and looked like she’d been crying. ‘Glad you decided to show up at last,’ she said stiffly.

‘Quick as I could get here,’ I replied with jaw clenched.

She pulled a disbelieving face, at least I thought it was. ‘Good god, woman, I’m missing my lunch break for you,’ I snapped. Unprofessional of me. I bit my tongue, too late.

‘You want gratitude! After the way you’ve ruined my morning!’

She stood up, looked helpless, and rushed out as if it was the only way to control what she might say. I heard the door of the Ladies’ slam.

Through in the photocopier room where we’d put the ESM, Bill was stood reading the manual. It was crumpled, as if it had been screwed up and flattened out again. His right hand was swollen; looked pretty sore.

I really didn’t feel like making smalltalk. I resisted an impulse to shove him aside, much as I thought he deserved it, and walked around him to get a look at the machine’s settings.

Someone had got them in a real tangle. My idea was to start with turning the basic output to relaxed before trying to see what was wrong with the selectivity. But it took me a few minutes just to see how they’d got it in this mess, as on the face of it the aggression wasn’t set very high. Turned out the passivity setting was right down, but that’s deep in the sub-menus and it wasn’t the first thing I thought to check. Meanwhile Bill was yammering in my ear about the time he’d had and how I personally had probably bankrupted the company.

I was working hard to contain my annoyance but I think we both realised how much it was getting to me when I slammed my fist into the wall as a substitute for his unreasoning face.

‘Shit,’ I said as the knuckles began to swell.

I still kept my wits about me and got the basic settings back to calm.

‘That’s so much better,’ he said. He went to shake my hand but both our right hands were badly bruised. We grinned at each other.

‘Thank you very much indeed,’ Bill said.

‘That’s not sorted the root problem yet.’

‘Well, it can wait. At least long enough for us to have a cup of tea,’ he said.

We went down the passage to the drinks machine, enjoying the heady relief. I heard Angie back in her office, singing to herself. Bill got me a white coffee after I’d just told him I take it black, and we roared with laughter.

‘I have been anxious to get this ESM up and running,’ he confided. ‘Especially after the delay in the first place.’

‘That wasn’t our delivery division, that was right back with the manufacturers,’ I said.

‘Oh, I understand that, not blaming your department. But I need to have the Simplifier working properly by the end of this week, you see, and when I placed the order we would have had a bit longer to iron out these teething difficulties.’

I knew it wasn’t just teething problems. Something was going on that wasn’t covered in the Troubleshooting chapter. But I could savour my coffee before troubling about that.

‘What’s your hurry, anything important happening on Friday?’ I normally wouldn’t pry into a manger’s plans like that but I wasn’t my usual careful self.

Bill didn’t take offence. ‘What it is, you see,’ he said, ‘is this. The business is on the rocks.’ He edged further from Angie’s door and lowered his voice. ‘Only she and I know that, and I haven’t told her the worst. It’s, er –’ he looked at me with wide, sad eyes – ‘it’s the end.’

I showed sympathy in my face, I hope.

‘My accountant gave me an extra two weeks but I can’t put it off any longer. I’ve got to tell the workforce before this coming weekend.’

That explained why a small business, a failing business, had coughed up for this ground-breaking and expensive piece of kit. Myself, I would have said it was extravagant in that situation, would have wondered if that kind of decision was how come they were failing to begin with, but finance isn’t my area of expertise. Bill’s hope was to have the staff in the perfect frame of mind for when he had to deliver the blow.

I scratched my head. ‘Your absolute deadline, then, is the day after tomorrow. I’ll do my very best.’

And I did. I truly did. I don’t like a system to get the better of me. It’s why I got into this job, I like getting right into the nitty-gritty of a question, getting at the anatomy of it so to speak, and finding how it all goes together. Once you’ve got the shape of how it works, often it’s obvious why it isn’t working.

I spent the whole afternoon there. Angie started off finding some ice for our hands and I heard about the morning she’d had. Fights on the shop floor, couple of resignations. She’d handed her notice in herself as soon as Bill walked in the door – now I’d altered the machine’s settings, though, he wasn’t taking that seriously. But I could see why he now sent a clerk out to buy cream cakes for everyone.

I had to turn the ESM off while I tried to see what was making it affect me, in fact everyone on site, even though they had started off (as I’d advised) trialling it on just one small set of people. Bill had selected the under-thirties and had taken humour down as low as it would go to try and get more productivity out of them. I had to admit that wasn’t a bad plan to start on, though I probably would have started with it not quite that low, to see how it went.

The point was, though, everyone had lost their sense of humour completely, all of them.

I explained this to the Helpline. I spent a long time on the phone to them and I have to say they were very pleasant, fully professional. I was feeling tired by then. They wanted me to switch the Simplifier back on to reproduce the problem. I was reluctant after having had a pretty emotional hour while I was tweaking the settings. I kept saying the selectivity was bust, not functioning at all. They wanted to observe that while they were on the line, so I did have to turn the ESM on at least for a half-hour. Bill said he couldn’t simply send the workforce home without a reason to give them, and the Helpline said it needed them to be there anyway so we could tell how the effects went. It got pretty fraught. Central was calling up wanting to know why I hadn’t got to my 3 PM client and Angie was in floods of tears at one point, Bill sitting on the floor unable to find words to talk about anything. I could have wept, myself.

In the end the Helpline said they’d have to have the machine back to check it over. I got onto someone fairly senior and she told me they had one there, in their own workplace, and it was working fine. The ESM had passed all tests at every stage of the design process but since going to release, not enough were actually in use in a customer environment for meaningful statistics to have been gathered. I said, ‘If they’ve been tested and they work, then they work, don’t they?’ But she said the testing environment can never replicate every situation you can come across in the field.

I explained the urgency of Bill’s requirement. He grabbed my phone and put it to her himself. (I took the opportunity to turn the ESM off again.) He emphasised that they had waited longer than agreed for delivery in the first place and started talking about a refund. It finished up with them agreeing to bring a new Simplifier and take the old one away, first thing the next morning. Their chap would set it up and make sure it was all running smoothly before he left.

Of course they didn’t need me for that. I was interested, though. It was the first ESM I’d installed, and as I say I like to feel I know a system. I planned to give them a ring on the Friday, thinking no one may be in the office to answer the phones the next week, but it was frantic that Friday what with my backlog of calls after bumping clients down my list in the early part of the week, so I never got to it. But I saw them on the local news in the evening. It was extraordinary, four dozen people crying their eyes out as they came out the gates. Some of them couldn’t even speak to the reporters. There was a shot of Bill in his car, leaning on the wheel, sobbing.

Shame, really.

* * *

I found out later, after the recall, that I was one of only four engineers in this country to ever install an Emotion Simplifying Machine. And I was the luckiest. We all got called in to iron out glitches in its operation. One got killed by an irate client, one got trampled by a stampede of typists and would never walk again. And the other got in some kind of loop with the programming. He’s happy, completely happy and relaxed. They can’t get him to think about earning a living.

Goes to show.


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