I suppose I had never taken him seriously. His constant whinge of people not listening to him became rather like the wallpaper. You knew it was there but you couldn’t have described it if your life depended on it. Funny thing was, in the end my life did depend on it but, of course, I didn’t know that then.
As a member of my section his complaints often seemed to be directed at me particularly. He was always complaining that he had a great contribution to make to the company and that I, as his line manager, was not only stopping the company from improving but, worse still, I was killing his career. Of course, as I had marked him down as one of life’s constant moaners, I took very little notice of him. Now I wish I had.
I first heard about his suicide three days after I had returned from holiday. I felt rested and enthusiastic about my plans for improving the company’s efficiency. I knew I was becoming the blue-eyed boy of the company and I suppose, if I’m honest about it, I didn’t much care how I climbed the greasy pole to success. I knew some people didn’t much like me but frankly I thought that was their problem.
When my boss told me about Gary hanging himself I thought I had misheard him. For a second or two his voice seemed very far away and I had to ask him to repeat what he had said. Even when I had understood and listened to the story about how colleagues had told my boss that Gary was getting increasingly depressed, I felt no guilt. There seemed to be a feeling among some colleagues that I had been primarily responsible for Gary’s death. Apparently I had refused to listen to all his suggestions for improvement and in the end his self-esteem had been so low that he thought of himself as totally worthless.
All this seemed to me to be the ramblings of the deranged mind. It simply proved how right I had been not to listen to a word he said. And there, as far as I was concerned, the matter rested. Sad, yes, but it had been Gary’s choice not mine. We could all make choices in our lives. We were not just creatures of circumstance. I admit I did pause for thought when one colleague seemed to be trying to warn me about some kind of hollow threats Gary had been making towards me shortly before his death. But, in the end, I simply regarded these as pathetic attempts on the part of this colleague to unsettle me and probably destroy my position so he could step into it. Well, I thought, it isn’t going to work. And that, I said to myself, is the end of it.
Unfortunately it wasn’t the end of it, it was just the beginning. I noticed the problem first when we were sitting in the restaurant. Perhaps I had been affected by Gary’s death. Certainly I had made something of an effort to, at least appear to, be listening to my staff. This evening out had been my suggestion. I was worried that my popularity with my colleagues was such that nobody would show up. But a dozen people did come and I did my best to appear interested in their sad, little lives. I was looking at Marie when it happened. As I listened her voice became quieter and quieter until after a minute or so I could see her lips moving but no sound was coming out. What frightened me more than her lack of speech was the fact that all other noise in the restaurant went on as normal.
At first I tried to pretend that I was listening to her, nodding and smiling in the right places, I hoped. Unfortunately, after a few minutes of her speaking, she stopped and looked at me with that expectancy that clearly said, go on it’s your turn to speak. I laughed to cover my embarrassment but eventually I had to admit that I had not heard a single word she had said to me. I gave her no explanation, I didn’t have one. I don’t know whether she simply thought I was being rude. I stood up from the table, making an excuse about needing to go to the toilet.
In the toilet I looked at myself in the mirror and spoke out loud. “What the hell was that all about?” I asked myself. My voice was perfectly clear. I could hear myself speak quite normally. Perhaps, I thought, I can only hear my own voice. Just as this terrible thought occurred to me another of my colleagues entered the toilet and spoke.
“You alright, John. You look a bit pale around the gills. Been giving it a bit too much of the house wine?”
My relief was immediate and almost overwhelming. Only an immediate thought that I would look pretty stupid stopped me from embracing my colleague and saying something daft like, “I can hear.”
Several days passed and I began to think that I had imagined the whole episode when it happened again. This time I was meeting with a client and a junior colleague who was there to learn from myself some aspects of my sales techniques and at the same time to takes notes of the meeting. When I tried to look back on the episode and make sense of what had happened I thought that, before the client’s voice stopped, I had heard a quiet voice somewhere inside my head. The voice was speaking to me but it was not my own. It sounded familiar but I could not place it. I thought it said – listen, listen.
What I knew for sure was that I stood up abruptly and, after making a feeble excuse about having to go and get some notes, I hurriedly left the room. I can still see the looks exchanged between my junior colleague and the client as I blundered out. Even with my distress I remembered thinking this will get back to my boss. My obsession with my career had always made me a classic ‘A’ type personality. With this personality came high stress levels as a matter of course. Today they were higher than I had ever known them.
I told myself that I must have some form of intermittent infection in both my ears. I went to my doctor’s and he examined them. I can still see the look in his eyes as he gave me the results of his examination. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with either of your ears as far as I can tell,” he said.
“So what the hell is the problem?” I almost shouted.
“Have you been under any pressure at work, recently?” he asked.
I knew where this line of questioning was going but I answered his question.
“I’m a highly paid executive in one of the country’s top companies, of course I’m under the pressure. Pressure goes with the job.” Unlike being a backwater GP, I thought, but did not say it. “Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to be snappy.”
Actually I was apologizing as much for the unspoken thought as for my irritation.
“I could,” he said tentatively, “arrange for you to see a psychiatrist.”
I knew it was coming. I didn’t blame him for saying it but nevertheless it made me angry. I felt my blood pressure rise.
“Look I said,” standing up abruptly, “if you haven’t got any better ideas than that tired old chestnut, then I’m afraid I’ll have to go.” And with that I left.
The third of my little turns, as I had come to think of them, frightened me and made me angry in equal amounts. This time I was in the pub with three or four friends, well acquaintances anyway. We were talking about work interspersed with the usual chat about football and women. I looked across the noisy, crowded pub and saw a face I thought I recognized, but before I could place it the face faded before my eyes. I did not, however, have chance to consider the implications of the sudden vision and its disappearance before the music died, the noise faded at first to the gentle swish of the sea on some pebbly shore and the conversation of my friends seemed to be sucked into some aural black hole. In a way it was quite pleasant but then I felt sick. I leaned forward with my head in my hands trying to take deep breaths. I thought I might faint but before I could I felt myself falling forward, knocking over our table and scattering the drinks and ashtrays from its surface.
When I came round I was lying on a bench seat in the pub with my friends gathered round me. They looked at me with a mixture of concern and pity. I heard one of them say to another -“He’s losing it.” I thought he was right. I was going bonkers. They took me home and put me to bed. The voice inside my head repeated over and over. “Now will you listen?” I could not shut it out.
As I think about it now I realise how foolish I must have looked. My psychiatrist said that I had stood there shouting at my colleague, David. It had been several weeks since my episode in the pub and once again I had begun to convince myself that the voice in my head and the sudden bouts of hearing loss, whilst definitely real, had been only temporary. The presentation to the board was probably the most important I had ever given. I knew my career depended on it particularly given the increasingly popular view that, somehow, I was losing my grip. I knew one good presentation and I was on my way again. A lacklustre performance and I was probably history.
So important was this opportunity that I decided I needed a plan just in case my affliction seized me during the meeting. I had arranged for one of my few supporters left in the department to attend the meeting. He would sit by my side and, if I lost my hearing, he would scribble me a note or, at worst, make some excuse and break-up the meeting. As I think about it now it was a crazy plan, but, at the time, I was desperate and so, given what I had promised him if he helped me, was he.
So the meeting started and, with David sat on my right hand side, I felt as confident and as prepared as I thought possible. For the first twenty minutes everything went fine. I was confident and articulate. I was going to be alright. Then the noise of the fan of the laptop began to drown out the voices asking me questions. I felt the cold sweat begin to drip down my face and I tugged at my shirt collar as if to let in more air. I saw the lips of the managing director move but, of course, no sound came from them. I looked down at the note David was scribbling at my side. The note said – Now will you listen? I looked from the hand to Gary’s grinning face. “You hear me well enough now, don’t you, mate?” Gary’s face said.
“Fuck you, Gary. Fuck you, you’re not going to destroy me.” Apparently, I carried on shouting and screaming for several minutes until the smiling face of Gary faded into an astonished face of David. Now I could hear the amazed babble from the rest of the people. I ran from the room.
My psychiatrist says I’m suffering from stress and that I have nothing to worry about but I know better. He thinks my hearing losses and my sightings of Gary are simply psychosomatic manifestations of my high stress levels. He thinks that Gary does not exist except within my over-active imagination.
I do realise that Gary’s a ghost but that doesn’t matter to me because I know that he’s out to get me. What he doesn’t know is that I have a plan to get him first. I know where he lives and I know how I can find him. I just need to kill myself first. The rope is in the boot of my car and I’m going home now to bring this to an end. I’m going to get Gary once and for all.