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Jul/Aug 2006 Fiction

The Shame Box

by Richard Bird

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor


I had already been at the company for a few weeks before I heard the first mention of the shame box. After that, allusions became more frequent, though it was never made the subject of open discussion. It was an invisible, sleeping presence, woken by muttered asides and fumbled mistakes, always leaving behind an atmosphere of moody regret that it could somehow have avoided mention.

I was at first spooked by its spectral reign in the office. It was purported to be a small wooden box of ancient origin, delicately carved with decorative symbols invoking various spirits of the underworld. And while I had always been sceptical--dismissive even--of such fairytales and superstitions, the conviction with which my new colleagues endorsed this story troubled me greatly during my first weeks at the office.

Nevertheless, after a few months, I developed a comfortable familiarity with the shame box, in name at least, and was thus able to relax and continue my work in feigned ignorance--incredulity, perhaps--of its existence.

As the weeks wore on, and as I became more adept at the work assigned to me, I found that, without asking, and without really being told, I began to know more and more about the shame box. It was evident that it roused feelings of extreme fear and dread in those who beheld it firsthand. Indeed, the naked eye registered something beneath its veil of artistry that was somehow not apparent to those who experienced its mere reproduction in a photograph or picture. At least, this was what I understood from the nervous intimations of those who claimed to have seen it.

It would be a while longer before I saw it for myself

 

"What's happening, Charles?" I asked the clerk whose desk was opposite mine.

An uneasiness had been growing in the office all morning and now seemed to have set. Most of my colleagues had gotten up from their desks and begun walking around, seemingly without purpose or intention, just wandering nervously from desk to desk, avoiding one another and failing in their attempts to look relaxed and normal.

As he stood up, Charles pretended not to have heard me, so I asked again.

"Charles?"

Still nothing.

"CHARLES?"

"Oh, sorry, Nick," he said, looking up. "What was the question?"

"What on earth is happening?"

"Nothing," he snapped, tilting his chin towards his mouth and furrowing his brow in a look of bemusement, as though he were completely baffled by my question.

"Don't tell me it's nothing," I said, lowering my voice in the hope that he would feel more comfortable if our conversation continued on a more clandestine basis. "I'm not an idiot, Charles," I whispered. "I can tell everyone's anxious about something."

He looked at me with a crazed expression, as if he had just glimpsed his own death and discovered that it was alarmingly close.

Finally, and with enormous effort, he spoke.

"It's the shame box, Nick. Someone has summoned the shame box."

As far as I was aware, I was not acquainted with the person for whom the shame box was soon to be passed around, and he was not in the office that day, either. In this regard, it disturbed me a great deal to find that, only minutes later, I was able to write in shocking detail about how much I disliked him.

That was how the shame box worked. With great care it was passed from desk to desk, smothered by those who carried it like the most vulnerable creature or delicate treasure. Once it was placed in front of you, you were compelled to open it, take out a piece of card, and log your darkest and most private thoughts about the person in question, the shamed one. There was no code or law that enforced this--participation was never made compulsory. And yet, horrible though the experience was, and despite the dread that seemed always to accompany it, everyone in the office contributed to the contents of the mysterious box quite willingly.

By the time my colleagues had begun passing it around the office, I, in my naivety, had already decided to pass the box straight to the next desk rather than lower myself to any level of involvement in the grim process--partly through strong disapproval of the ritual, but also because I was, as I have already mentioned, not even partially familiar with the shamed person for whom it was intended.

However, as soon as it came to our island of desks--indeed, even before it was anywhere near mine--I felt a primal urge to seize the box and pour the darkest recesses of my heart into it.

When it was finally placed before me, I snatched the lid open, took out one of the blank pieces of card left inside, and began scribbling frantically.

What did I write about? I hardly recall. But I know this much: once I started focusing my thoughts, I was able to visualise the unfortunate subject of our collective hate--the shamed one--with inexplicable ease. I can only guess that I must have passed him in the office or perhaps stood next to him in the elevator at some point during those first few months of my tenure. When called upon, the mind is able to remember in extraordinary detail that which it beheld months, sometimes years, before, and perhaps only for seconds. This must have been the case, for I remember honing in on his features, which stirred feelings of hate and revulsion. Similarly, I was able to recall peculiarities in his manner which enabled me to extrapolate an entire psychological profile--one far from likeable--all of which I hurriedly recorded on the small piece of card.

Afterwards, I felt exhausted but cleansed, and yet, despite my relief--despite my confession--the thought of seeing the shame box again roused absolute terror.

I have no idea what became of the shamed one, but I am certain that I never saw him in the office ever again. Nobody mentioned him, not even in passing, and I never found out what he was purported to have done to qualify for his fate, or what happened to him once he had opened the box, though it is doubtful, in the light of my own recent experience, that the crime matched the punishment.

 

After the incident, a couple of months passed in relative quiet, and I was once again able to relax and consign my memories of the day to the furthest reaches of my mind.

My comfort, however, was short-lived.

There was a woman on my island of desks--Angela--for whom I felt a deep affection from the very beginning of my employment. As we became friends, I found myself increasingly attracted to her, the natural result of which was flirtation and general frivolity. However, our romantic intentions were never made explicit, nor were they advertised publicly in the way that is so painfully common and irritating for those around. I would often catch her looking at me, as she would likewise, but our conduct was always restrained and discreet. There was nothing to suggest that we were being watched, or that what we were doing was considered in any way shameful.

Then one afternoon the boss came up and asked me into his office for a "brief word."

He was an unusual man--casually dressed, pleasant and agreeable--and not in the least the type of person you would expect to be the most senior member of staff. He was certainly not the kind you could imagine yourself feeling nervous and edgy around, but nonetheless this was how one felt, and this was the general consensus in the office.

He closed the door quietly and sat on his desk, spreading his legs out casually and swinging them loosely as we spoke.

"How have your first few months with us been?"

"Good, I think."

"Yes?" he replied, probing in a friendly manner, inviting me to explain myself in more depth.

"Well... I think they've been good," I said, thinking in particular of Angela, "but you're probably better qualified to judge, though!"

He threw his head back gently and chuckled--our informal chat had gotten off to a good start.

"I suppose you're right," he said after a while.

"And?" I said, daring to imitate his own line of questioning.

"Well, in my view, you've fitted in very well."

"Thank you, sir."

"It is for that reason, in fact, that I am giving you the morning off," he said, before adding quickly, "tomorrow."

Having worked so hard recently, I was thrilled at the prospective of a few extra hours in bed, though something about his insistence that it be tomorrow, rather than a day of my choice, caused a slight feeling of nervousness and suspicion in my stomach. I quickly dismissed it as paranoia and hypersensitivity, brought on by the bizarre discomfort that the boss, by all accounts an admirable man, roused in those he reigned over, and I resolved to take advantage of his kind offer.

"Tomorrow? Are you sure, sir?"

"Absolutely."

We chatted for a few more moments about something incidental before I thanked him and left.

 

The next day I awoke suddenly a full hour before usual, and far short of my scheduled awakening for that particular morning. All night something had been trying to work its way into my conscious mind. It finally did at the most infuriating hour.

In all the excitement of meeting the boss and charming him with my relaxed and witty banter, I had forgotten to make a crucial call to an important client. A deal I had been brokering for months would now be on the verge of collapse unless I made a trip to the office, organised my papers, and made the call. Would the boss be angry with me for declining his generous offer to stay at home? Surely he would be more angered by incompetence?

After careful consideration, I left for work slightly later than normal, but with plenty of time to close the deal without any fuss.

Feeling good, I marched happily into the office, greeting colleagues magnanimously as I passed them, and strolled on towards my desk, which was pestiferously situated at the back of the enormous open-plan floor. After passing the first few desks, however, I began to suspect that there was, in fact, something seriously wrong, of which I was either the cause, or else some incident had occurred earlier at work, for they were all staring at me with apprehension and alarm. I marched on through an uncomfortable silence, but the nearer I got to my desk, the more convinced I became that--no mistake--I was somehow at the center of something bizarre.

By the time I got to my desk, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. Slumping into my chair, I looked around the partition wall to see whether I was still being watched by the entire office, and indeed, each and every eye was upon me.

I turned to Charles, who immediately averted his own anxious gaze. Well, he was not going to feign innocence with me--not again!

"What's happening?" I demanded forcefully.

"What do you mean?" he said.

His voice seemed to break whatever spell they were all under, and suddenly the office sprang back into life.

Above the fresh noise, I persisted.

"Why was everyone staring at me just then?"

"They weren't. They just didn't expect you. I thought you had the morning off?"

"Surely the whole office can't have known that I had the morning off, Charles?"

"Well, you know, word gets around..."

After an unreasonable amount of effort, in which I drew on all my mental and physical reserves to fight off frequent surges of paranoia, I put my head down and began readying my papers for the big call. Whatever I had just walked in on, it was best to leave it until after I had closed the deal, for I needed all my wits about me. Moments later, the office seemed unusually noisy, which I put down to sheer contrast. Nonetheless, I was tempted to move into one of the meeting rooms to make the call, but eventually the room quietened down and I was able to concentrate on the job at hand.

Half an hour later, while I contentedly typed up the details of a successful deal, a voice from above made me jump out of my chair.

"Nick?"

I looked up. It was Angela.

Having looked at her for a few seconds as she loomed in the foreground, the background of the office suddenly came into sharper focus. Either my senses had numbed, or the deadly silence had returned. I scanned the room in a fractured state of consciousness.

"Angela, what is it?" I asked, half-aware of everyone in the office straining to hear me.

"I have something for you," she said, performatively.

I had already begun to suspect the worst, but my eyes confirmed my fears as I looked down at the dreaded object she was cradling in her arms--

The shame box!

She held it out to me, but I was too terrified to take it. A look of awkwardness spread across her face. She waited for a few moments before transferring it tidily onto my desk. She then took a step back to judge my reaction.

Sick woman! My other colleagues were wearing the same solemn expressions I remembered from the first time the shame box had been summoned, and yet she--whom I'd thought held me in the highest regard--was smiling!

I glared at her with all the concentrated hatred of betrayal.

"The shame box," I gasped.

"Yes," she said, "it's for you."

There was a hint of encouragement in her voice, as if to say, "You can do this, Nick. You can do this!"

Don't shoot the messenger.

As I brought my hands towards the box, I had no idea what to expect--except shame, of that much I was quite sure. But what else besides? Humiliation? Physical revulsion? Madness? Death?

With my eyes closed, I slowly lifted the lid.

Inside lay a single piece of card.

"We hope you have enjoyed your first six months with the company. Congratulations. Your probationary period is complete. Welcome to the family."

I looked up, and the boss, who had stood watching the whole episode from the other side of the room, locked the office doors from the inside, the others slowly converging on my desk.

 

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