In The Flesh

By Brindley Hallam-Dennis

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

Birdlip threw down onto the tabletop the print-off.

         Sutton Bank! He exclaimed. What sort of name is that? It sounds like a landscape feature.

         The others recoiled, bent their heads quickly to their copies of the application form. Peter Stone failed to mask a distinct grin directed at Sunita.

         I don’t know what’s amusing you, Birdlip snapped.

         Mrs Dingle coughed discreetly and leaned forward to draw his fire. He is the most promising candidate so far, she said in a low voice. Birdlip squirmed. He felt uncomfortable when Mrs Dingle corrected him in front of the others.

         And the appointment is becoming urgent, Jane Field squeaked from her corner of the table.

         Yes, yes, Birdlip conceded. Very well. Very well. Peter, you’ll action that? It was, despite the question mark ending, a command.

         Certainly, sir.

         The meeting broke up shortly after that. Nobody hung around. There were no chats over the water cooler, which had not been switched on. There were no cups of coffee and gossip. Nobody had replenished the cupboard. Nobody had replenished the gossip, come to that.

         Meetings, in the flesh, were not what they used to be. They had become tetchy. Everyone was on edge. The way they were spaced out around the long table didn’t help either. People were prickly, reserved, guarded, distant, ill at ease. They were too conscious of themselves and each other to be relaxed. They were all trying to avoid upsetting the boat, muddying the waters, stirring the pot – choose your metaphor. What it needed was a damned good row, a release of tension, of feelings pent up through so many months of zoom meetings and online consultations, but nobody wanted to be the one to pull the trigger, push the plunger, pull the plug on their fragile consensus.

         The fact was, though nobody wanted to admit it, those two-dimensional representations of themselves had made for a much better meeting, at least, better than the tense encounters they’d endured since.

         It wasn’t fear of the disease made them that way. None of them were in the ‘at risk’ cohorts of the population. Even Sunita, who had rather half-heartedly cited her grandfather’s safety as a reason for attending in two dimensions only, was perfectly safe. The old man was on the client file, and everybody knew where he actually lived!

         But what if I want to visit him? she’d asked, and Birdlip had rolled his eyes and raised his palms, which she had read as, chance would be a fine thing.

         No. It was something far deeper than their fear of the virus. It was fear of each other, of what over the last year they had found in themselves.

And for Birdlip it was unease at the way Mrs Dingle could lower her voice like that, a technique she claimed to have learned from studying wild beasts in the jungle, and you could feel it resonating, vibrating even, in parts of the body that you would not consciously have brought into a business meeting.

         Besides which, Birdlip was unsettled by her actual three-dimensional presence, with all its visible nooks and crannies, and the shadows that fell too willingly into them were better enjoyed on the screen, where they could managed. Worse still, since they had resumed their meetings in the flesh, she had not, she said, found time for their regular online private sessions.

But the fact was, all of them could be managed more easily when they could be muted, and diminished, and receded, or even switched off altogether, or, as he had discovered, when they could adulterated with filters and backgrounds of his choosing. At the very least, a simple head and shoulders were all that needed to be visible.

         And the way Sunita and Peter Stone carried on. He had barely noticed it in the online meetings, but here, in the flesh, it was distracting, irritating, annoying, undermining. And Jane Field. She just ploughed on, sowing the seeds of doubt in everybody’s mind. She looked different too, in the round: had she digitally altered herself, Birdlip wondered?

         Were they not all, when he had them together around a single table, not emitting the subtle signals of disregard and even rebellion?

         Most unsettling of all, Mrs Dingle, as the meeting dispersed, had failed to give him one of her enigmatic, but subtly inviting smiles. 

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