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Sunday, 25 December 2011

Santa's rep and the matter of substance (A Christmas tale)

So here I am, telling you how I met up with a representative of Santa Claus last week. It's strange but there was something inspiring and at the same quite ordinary about her. The conversation we had appears below but some people reading it will miss the sense of cameraderie that permeated our exchanges in that house in Brisbane, on a sunny late December day. I just sat and listened while she talked. I sat in the chair at the kitchen table and during lulls in the conversation thought about the odd series of events that had brought me to this place.

First there was the hashtag. Or, rather, there was no hashtag but there was a column that appeared to the left of my home column, rather than the right. TweetDeck had suddenly seemed to be frozen but it was just dissonance flashing across the face of the application like ripples emanating from a stone cast into a still pond. Then I noticed it. Next to the symbolic icon representing the home column, a small rectangle rendered by the program in a shade of grey lighter than the background colour, there was a new grey box and I clicked on it, in doing so revealing a new column in which there was a single tweet with the hashtag #bestoffer. I quickly read the tweet.

Merry Xmas jobseekers. Journalist wanted apply here: bit.ly/0iU4nPe #bestoffer

The link led to a page on a site in Finland. Surprisingly the address given was in Brisbane, which is about an hour's drive from where I live. I knew the street because I had been to the city on a number of occasions in the past but central Brisbane is a dull, dirty place and there was nothing in the address to give me much hope. I rang the phone number displayed.

"Thank you for calling SC International. Please hold the line." Then there was the sound of sleighbells and an old man's voice going 'Ho, ho, ho'. I waited.

"Good morning," the woman's voice said. "Would you like to make an appointment for later this week? We are interviewing a few candidates and have time on Thursday at 3pm. Is that suitable for you?"

Of course, I said.

"That's great. You don't need to bring anything with you at all. Is there anything you'd like to ask at this point? We often have questions from candidates who call this number."

"I'm sorry, I just wanted to ask what sort of job am I applying for?"

"Of course. We are looking for a fair witness to bring our message to the world. You won't know but we monitor a lot of social media and one of your tweets triggered an alert in our system. We thought you might like to apply for this job because of that reason. It sounds extraordinary, I know, but we have to communicate with all stakeholders and each year we try to find someone with your skills who we can trust."

"Skills?"

"We read your website."

"But what's a fair witness?"

"It's from a novel published 50 years ago. Do you read science fiction?"

"I think I know the one. I'll be at the address given at 3pm on Thursday. Thank you for giving me this opportunity."

I cut the connection and set the handset on its recharging stand. The red charge light came on. I stood up intending to have a shower. It was Tuesday just before 5pm. The sun was shining. A car drove past my building toward the estuary near the local shopping strip. In the park across the road a young man wearing a pair of shorts walked toward me holding a surfboard under his arm. Apart from him there was no other soul in sight.

#

I parked the car under the art gallery and walked from Southbank across the bridge into the bustle of Brisbane's CBD navigating my way through the shoppers and office workers, the legal clerks and the parking rangers, the mothers and fathers, and the children slumped in strollers like bulky toys. In the building's lobby I stopped in front of the directory board looking for the name of the company I had come to visit. Third floor. I headed for the lifts and pressed the call button and waited.

When the lift arrived I stepped aside as a woman holding a set of manila folders in her arms exited and headed for the street. The sounds of cars swishing by came into the lobby like backing drums in quiet jazz. As the lift doors closed these sounds ceased and a soft hum began as the lift started its ascent, which ended soon at floor three. I stepped out and walked down the carpeted hallway toward a door at the end of the corridor. On the door was a name, Pendleton Serviced Offices, and next to the door was an intercom panel with buttons. I pushed the door open and entered the reception area where a man at a counter directed me toward the side of the building, to an open door. Inside the room were a chair, a teak-veneer desk, and a set of windows looking out over the street. A woman in her early thirties with her hair twisted into two coils on each side of her head, a red skirt suit, and green high-heel shoes was standing off to the side, next to a door leading to another room.

"Good afternoon, Piers. I hope the rain didn't bother you too much. We haven't been lucky this week, have we?"

"It's fine. No problem. Good to make it on time. I parked in Southbank and walked."

"Take a seat and I'll be with you in a minute." She stepped sideways through the door and closed it, leaving me alone. The rain fell softly outside the windows. I looked at a snow dome positioned at the corner of the desk. Inside was a winter sylvan scene with a sleigh, a creek, and pine trees. A small brown house sat at the back of the panorama like a nut. A figure was crossing a bridge over the creek holding a bundle of sticks in his arms. Apart from the snow dome there was a small lamp on the desk, a telephone, and a bottle of orange juice that had already been opened.

#

They had been impressed with my tweet, they had done further screening using online resources, and had particularly taken notice of my LinkedIn profile and what it said about my aspirations. My aspiration was, I told Lace Bracken, who wore Christmas colours and didn't drink coffee, to be a writer. I had always wanted a Bohemian life and she nodded.

"We can't let you know until Sunday but we think you will have a good chance. You need to bring a number of things next time. I assume you have a voice recorder?" I nodded and said 'Yes'. "Good then. Can you tell me if you will be using social media over the next few days?" Again I said 'Yes'. "Ok, then keep an eye out for the sort of thing that happened before. There will be an indication if you are successful. We will call you anyway on your mobile later on just to make sure. And thanks for coming."

#

It was a big house, too big for two people. The directions had taken me off the Gateway Motorway just south of the river into a suburban neighbourhood. Lace Bracken stood at the door with the flyscreen held open in front of her. Behind her the front door stood open inside the house. She was framed in black and wore Christmas colours: a red singlet and green jeans with yellow low-heeled shoes. Her hair was the same as before: two coils on either side of her head. I parked on the grass next to a red Prado sitting under a gum tree. In front of me stood a safety fence running around a swimming pool, with shrubs and trees growing madly on the far side of the water's surface. A hose ran from the house into the pool.

Inside the house it was cool. We sat down and Lace started talking and didn't stop for two hours. The voice recorder sat on the table between us, its LCD clicking over the minutes in silence. I had a pen in my hand and there was a notepad in front of me which I occasionally used in order to remind myself of something so that I could ask a question later. Transcribing this interview would take days, I knew, but what I heard so astonished me that I didn't begrudge the organisation all the work this assignment would entail.

#

Lace Bracken was part of a large, multinational not-for-profit organisation. SC International operated on every continent and in every country. No surprises here. There wasn't a lot that she could tell me that I couldn't easily imagine. This was due to the corporate structure which gave access to information in an isolating, non-linear hierarchy. There were a lot of things that Lace herself did not know. The technology, for example, was highly sophisticated but she didn't know how it had been secured or who the Lowlanders were.

"There was a rumour about how hard peace was to maintain," said Lace. "They want to secure it throughout the universe, or something. I just heard some people talking in an unguarded moment but there's never any corroboration for the more outlandish ones, the rumours. You just get smiles."

And there were other rumours, she said, of an interstellar connection with some sort of technology transfer, a rigorous screening process that had been completed successfully by the organisation hundreds of years earlier, in fact a lot of rumours. These rumours passed through the organisation by way of the usual channels. Personal relationships were important but the organisation's cellular structure made it hard to ascertain the truth of all rumours for certain.

Lace smiled reassuringly. "I do know that it's got to do with the tree. Chimneys? Nobody has them anymore except in the countryside and in a few inner-urban suburbs in the big cities. Not worm holes, either. But definitely a transfer mechanism. You can quote me on that. It's some sort of dematerialisation technique, like a physical modem, if you like.

"The main thing is to set up a tree. Without some sort of marker like this there can be no transfer. Like a Japanese wish tree. Yoko Ono is famous for them, you probably know. There has to be the intent. Without the intent we can't make the connection and the modem doesn't work. It's out of our hands. It's part of the system. You ask, we supply. Simple really. The Boss is another thing entirely. Nobody meets him, at least not on my pay grade."

Lace had visited the Arctic early on in her time with SC International during a work orientation trip but the organisation's headquarters is so huge that she only had time to meet a few people, mainly new recruits like herself and the staff sergeant who conducted the in-house training sessions.

"He was funny. He told me to wear my hair like this because it was traditional. He loves tradition! Elves do, in general, and I've met a lot of them. Tie pins, badges, medals, that sort of thing. There's a lot of paraphernalia involved once you get into the operational side of things. My work is mainly liaison."

Lace had graduated from UTS with a degree in international relations and communication five years earlier and took the transfer to Brisbane because her husband, a chef, got a good job offer in the city.

"There aren't a lot of elves in Australia. There doesn't need to be. It's like the military nowadays. You've got these staffers holed up in a bunker in the Arizona desert operating remotely all these aerial drones. We work in the same way. The hardware is all at HQ and there is a team of technicians looking after that side of things. Operators tend to stick together. Human resources is very senior. On the sourcing side you've got buyers, mostly elves of course, all over the world. We have good relations with all the major retailers but that side of things is considered to be entry-level. The big decisions are made by the standards committee which is also at HQ. They decide who's been nice, for example."

#

The Prado's shadow was long on the lawn by the time I got into my car, backed it carefully up the driveway, and manoeuvred it slowly down to the street. I stopped to check for traffic then turned right. The road was flanked by tall trees and the occasional gate all the way down to the main drag, where I turned right again. At the lights I stopped and at the green signal I turned right onto the ramp leading to the motorway which would take me north over the river and up the coast to my own home.

There were a lot of things I would not be able to write about. No one would believe them and full disclosure might have ramifications for me personally. Primarily the message was about doing things for other people, I knew that. Children demonstrated delight, which their parents loved. Mothers and fathers offered rich treats, which their sons and daughters loved. Friends said nice things to each other, which their friends loved. Even the shopping was somehow replete with purpose, like the squads of elves at SC International HQ in the Arctic Circle. They went about their business with determination and resolve, intent on fulfilling the wishes of seven billion people.

Since the 1950s, Lace had told me, their job had become more demanding as the global population rose rapidly. Every fifteen years another billion souls to think about, plan for, listen to. There was something miraculous, she said, about how the organisation had adapted to these new constraints. "Like the loaves and the fishes," she said with a smile as I made a note on my pad.

"We know there are questions people have about how it all works, and that's why we asked you to come and talk to me here, in my big suburban house. We're all just employees but the corporate ethos is deeply ingrained and most of us find it extremely rewarding to work here."

#

"There's one thing I think we should cover in a bit more depth," I said at a point near the end of the interview after remembering a note I had made a bit earlier. I leafed through the rumpled pages looking for the place where I had made the note I wanted to review. Time was running out. "You mentioned the loaves and fishes, and this is clearly a reference to the Christian gospels."

"Yes, Piers," Lace waited for me to elaborate.

"I just want to know if there's a connection between the organisation and the religious tradition."

"Sure. Look, the traditions you are talking about predate the organisation. My understanding is that a decision was made at some early point in the business to leverage the power of those traditions. But remember that those traditions are themselves predated by others which would have served us just as well. That's my understanding.

"In the early days the organisation was a lot smaller and a lot less influential than we are now. Some people might balk at my admission and even think we should be accountable for this decision in some way, but it's probably too late for that now. SC International runs a very professional operation but we're not like a government, which represents its constituents and can take actions for the common good on behalf of all of them."

"Even governments have trouble making major changes."

"That's true. Our traditions basically help to sustain the integrity of the organisation as it changes to changing circumstances, such as new technological methods or demographic shifts. But underneath those traditions is, hopefully, a more substantive notion. Goodwill to all men and that sort of thing, right? The important thing to remember is that the organisation has survived not because of the religious tradition, but alongside it. If there are common elements –"

"It's because there's something essential in them that makes them desirable –" I completed Lace's sentence for her. I kicked myself quietly. It's a bad habit but it was because part of journalistic discipline is to closely track what your interlocutor is saying. The habit ensures that you can juggle a number of different things in your mind at the same time.

"Something essential. Like forgiving others when they do you wrong. Yes."

Before leaving I asked Lace why there were two graduation photos on the kitchen wall.

"One was from UTS for my bachelor's degree. The other one, with the red frame and green mounting, is for my 'graduation' at the company. They call it 'substance', for some reason. Just the way they talk. I got substance and they took this photo. There were others too who got it but not everyone gets through. I was lucky, I guess."

'Substance?' I thought when I arrived home and parked the car under the building, in my allocated spot. Standing under what? Positioned subject to what? You are part of a large organisation. You have limited access to information. You hear rumours about the inner workings of the complete entity but have no way to verify everything you hear. You do your work, get paid, get promoted. Or not. I wondered how Lace's career with the organisation would go. Would she, too, get to sit on the standards committee?

#

The lift arrived and I used my access key, pressed the button for my floor, and heard the motor start as the lift began its ascent. Inside my apartment there was the usual mess with books and magazines everywhere, the inner tube for a roll of wrapping paper, receipts from a few local businesses, some laundry still sitting in the blue plastic basket I used to carry it down to the washing line, a pink tin of coloured pegs. Outside, the evening was coming on like a thought. The roundish moon had begun to separate itself from the atmosphere's rich milk, ringing itself with light captured from the sphere of superheated gas that sustained the life of everything that grew on the blue-green orb, tethered in the void, which I inhabited.

I plugged in the voice recorder, sat down, opened up the audio manipulation software, moved the digital file onto my hard drive and, using the replay foot controls that were permanently stationed on the carpet under my desk, began to type.

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