Death of a Research Engineer

A jest after Chekhov (adapted from Constance Garnett’s translation) for his friend J. M., who sent this story one Monday morning,wholly unsuspecting of consequences…

One fine evening, an research engineer called Jay W. was sitting on a booth at the cocktail bar of the Duck & Waffle, gazing through the glass walls at the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater. As he watched the sleepless city he felt at the acme of bliss. But suddenly… (In stories one so often meets with this “But suddenly…” The text generators are right: life is full of surprises!) But suddenly his face puckered up, his eyes disappeared, his breathing stopped… he took his eyes off the wondrous scene, bent over and… “Achoo!!” he sneezed, as you aptly presumed. It is not reprehensible for anyone to sneeze anywhere. Web developers sneeze and so do police commissioners, and sometimes even cabinet ministers. All humans sneeze. W. was not in the least confused, wiped his face with his handkerchief, and a polite and decent man as he was, looked around to see whether he had disturbed anyone by his sneezing. That is when he sensed the maggots starting to wriggle in his stomach. He saw that a prim gentleman sitting in the circular leather couch next to him was carefully wiping his monocle and his Google Pixel 37A+ with his glove and muttering something to himself. In the prim gentleman, W. recognised Dr. P., a senior executive working for M. Inc, the parent corporation of W.’s current employer.

“I have spattered his device,” thought W., “technically he does not work in my company, but still, it is awkward. I must apologise.”

W. gave a cough, bent his whole person forward, and whispered in the executive’s ear.

“Pardon me, your Profundity, I spattered your device accidentally…”

“Never mind, never mind.”

“For goodness sake excuse me, I… I did not mean to.”

“Oh, please, no matter! Let me have my Old Fashioned in peace!”

W. was embarrassed, he smiled stupidly and fell back to gazing at the view. He kept watching but he was no longer able to feel bliss. He had begun to be troubled by an unfamiliar sense of unease. A few drinks later, he walked by Dr. P.’s couch, and, as he got close to him, overcoming his shyness, muttered:

“I spattered your device, your Profundity, please forgive me… you see… I didn’t do it to…”

“Oh, that’s enough… I had forgotten all about it, and you keep bringing it up!,” said the executive, moving his lower lip impatiently.

“He has forgotten, but there is a fiendish light in his eye,” thought W., looking suspiciously at the executive.” And he doesn’t want to talk. I ought to explain to him… that I really didn’t intend any of it… that it is in our biological conditioning, or else he will think I meant to spit on him. He doesn’t think so now, but he will think so later!”

On getting home, W. told his partner of his breach of good manners. It struck him that his partner took too a frivolous view of the incident; it was a little worried, but when it learned that Dr. P. worked for the parent corporation, it was somewhat reassured.

“Still, you’d better go and apologise,” it said, “or he will think you don’t know how to behave in public.”

“That’s just it! I did apologise, but he took it somehow queerly… He didn’t say a word of sense. There wasn’t time to talk properly.”

The next day W. put on an Italian pair of shoes, had his hair cut, donated to his favourite charity and went to find Dr. P. to explain; being ushered into the executive’s sky office he saw there a number of shareholders, and among them the executive himself, who was busy interviewing them. After questioning several shareholders the executive raised his eyes and looked at W..

“Yesterday at the Duck & Waffle, if you recollect, your Profundity,” the latter began, “I sneezed and… accidentally spattered… etc…”

“What nonsense… It’s beyond anything! This farce is over. What can I do for you,” said the executive, swiftly addressing the next shareholder.

“He won’t speak,” thought W., turning pale, “that means that he is angry… No, it can’t be left like this… I must explain to him.”

When the executive was done with the last of the shareholders and was turning towards the glass elevator, W. took a step towards him and muttered:

“Your Profundity! If I venture again to trouble your Profundity, it is simply from a feeling, I daresay, of regret!… It was not at all intentional if you will graciously believe me.”

The executive made a lachrymose face, and waved his hand.

“Why, you are simply making fun of me, sir,” he said as the iridescent door closed behind him.

“Where’s the making fun in it?” thought W., “there is nothing of the sort! He is an executive, and yet he doesn’t seem to understand. If that is how it is, I am not going to apologise to that percenter any more! The devil take him. I’ll write an e-mail to him, but I won’t go. By Jove, I won’t.”

So thought W. on the Overground home; he did not write an e-mail to the executive; he pondered and pondered, watch his laptop screen in anguish but could not come up with a single line of that e-mail. Waking up the next day he simply had to explain in person.

“I ventured to disturb your Profundity yesterday,” he muttered, when the executive lifted enquiring eyes upon him, “not to make fun as you were pleased to say. I was apologising for having spattered your device in sneezing… And I did not dream of making fun of you. Should I dare to make fun of you, if we should take to making fun, then there would be no respect for individual liberties, there would be…”

“Bugger off!” yelled the executive, turning suddenly purple, and shaking all over. None of the shareholders even flinched. Instead, the vast hall suddenly fell silent, except for a few distant squawks of gulls in the clear blue sky.

“Wh… What?” asked W., in a whisper turning numb with horror.

“Bugger. The fuck. Off!” repeated the executive, slamming his hand on his iDesk.

As before, Dr. P. quickly shifted his attention to the closest shareholder at hand. The rest of the room followed suit, with relaxed, business-friendly chats going on as if nothing had occurred. The same cankerous wriggling broke out in W.’s stomach. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, he reeled to the elevator, went out into the street, and kept staggering along… Reaching home, mechanically, without a last glance at his mobile, he lay down on the carpeted floor and died.