Good planets are hard to find, think before you print

Thursday, April 9, 2009 | |

I do it all day every day, and when I’m not doing it, I’m thinking about it. When I do it, I feel calm, and when I don’t do it I feel sick – these days I feel like I do it because I need to allay these feelings. No one knows I do it, because it’s costly for them and hard to understand. If they ever ask I’ll never tell them why. But I’ll tell you why. And I’ll tell you when. I can pinpoint the very moment – 2.33pm on Friday March 30; exactly one month from my 17th anniversary at Baird, Cleve and Parker Accountancy, and the day before the end of the financial year.

I had to choose the biggest day on the financial calendar to be late for work. It was close to 8.30am by the time I got into my car and pulled hastily out of my driveway. I hate being late at the best of times - stress physically manifests itself in my gut and in my sweat glands. So on this balmy autumn morning, I drove with the air conditioning on, sweaty from rushing around home looking for a clean shirt and tie. The drive to work wasn’t long, so I didn’t have time to cool down – as I approached the building I could feel the drips of sweat running down my spine and collecting at the small of my back, which was sandwiched to the chair, as well as a line of perspiration on my belly, which turned my light coloured shirt translucent. Fretting that I was going to get bollocked by one of the partners on the busiest day of the year, I started fossicking around in the passenger seat footwell, trying to find my mobile phone to call them. Taking my eyes off the road for a split second, I looked up to find traffic backing up behind a vehicle that was stopped in the middle of the road and blocking the entrance to our car park. I slammed on the brakes just in time, and found myself instantly panting from the shock. Poking my head out the window, I could see steam billowing out of a bonnet up ahead and the driver was clearly in distress. I was stunned to note that the most other drivers were doing for the woman was exercising their horns. Sure, I was annoyed that I was going to be at least five minutes later to work than even the most conservative of estimates, but I wasn’t going to sit there and make the woman’s day even worse, so I got out of my vehicle and approached hers. When I got to her passenger window I could see that she was crying, so I made sure to only knock lightly on her passenger window so she wasn’t startled. She smiled appreciatively and wound down the window, but gave me nothing more than grateful silence as I asked, “What can I do to help you miss?” She released the handbrake and got out of her door, then, motioning me to do the same, started pushing the long vehicle off the road and into a bus stop. As soon as there was enough room for cars to squeeze past the end of her vehicle, they started speeding through with scowls on their faces or disbelieving hands in the air.

We managed to get the wagon completely off the road, so I ran back to my own stranded vehicle to rescue it, bringing it to a stop in the car park driveway and turning off the engine. As I walked back to the woman’s car, a bus came screaming into the stop, honking at the woman and gesturing that she move on. I quickly approached the bus and explained to the driver that she was in distress but a tow truck would be ordered immediately; the driver was kind enough to radio his company to warn other busses. The woman was overcome with grief when I bent down to the driver’s window to talk – she was sniffing and sobbing, and the front of her blouse was stained with tears. When I offered to call a tow truck, she said, “thank you, but you’ve already done enough”, choking out each word. “I really appreciate your help, I can’t believe no one else came to my aid. Why wouldn’t they stop?” “I work in this building ma’am, it’s really no trouble,” I replied. “Well thank you very much,” she said. “What is your name?” “Alan Thompson, from Baird, Cleve and Parker,” I replied, pointing up at my floor. “Well thank you very much for that Alan.” We gave each other an earnest smile, before David Cleve’s horn cut through the silence – “Alan, move that bloody car!” he shouted with his head out the window. “We’ve got a busy bloody day ahead of us!” My morning’s excitement was well and truly over – it was time to get some actual work done.

Baird, Cleve and Parker Accountancy moved to its current site in 1994, when it was still known as Parker and Baird Accountancy Services. David Cleve and I were both juniors, there two years. Nothing much has changed around here since – certainly not the décor. Quentin Parker’s first wife designed this place to match what I remember to be her dress sense back then – pinks, floral prints, and gold. The round backed armchairs in the foyer are a dusky pink, client chairs in our offices are floral with gold framing, and the reception is a vision of very early 90s chic – a warm brown wooden hub, with matching gold fixtures and fittings. Every morning I turn a gold plated door handle, smile as I walk past Jeanette and her gold plated name tag, pick up my mail from the gold plated letter sorter, look up at the black and gold plated calendar clock, and down at the gold plated “Employee of the Year” trophy and its matching photo frame, at which point the smile leaves my face. The photo frame has been empty since March 2001, when Jeanette’s then partner Lawrence left the firm – and her – abruptly and without warning. She removed the photo from the frame instantly and it’s been idle ever since – I think everyone’s forgotten about the accolade; everyone except me.

Every March I pull the longest hours. I work from 7am til 10pm some days, come in all weekend, meet with clients and file forms with the IRD left, right and centre. It’s hard work, I’m always here alone and it can get really boring around here, but it’s work that needs to be done. At the beginning of every financial year my clients thank me for the service I provide, and Quentin Parker always mentions how grateful he is for my diligence, but outside of the mandatory inflation-adjusted pay rise, I’m never rewarded. I even knew when I saw the gold plated signage out the front being removed that day and the “New Millennium – New Partner” flag hanging in the window that they were going to appoint David Cleve, but I never once said a word. Every year when March rolls by, I turn that gold plated doorhandle and greet Jeanette with more enthusiasm as the days inch closer to year-end. I scan over our garish reception at the nameplate, the calendar clock and the trophy, hoping that the next thing I see is my chubby face starting back at me. April inevitably rolls around and the cycle starts again. If only they knew how happy it’d make me; how it’d make all of this worth it. But I could never tell.

Friday March 30 was memorable because it was so different – I was off my game and completely unfocussed on my work after the stress of the morning, and I couldn’t get that poor woman’s face out of my mind. She was so happy to see someone help her out, even someone like me – the way she looked at me made me feel like a knight in shining armour; like a saint. I can’t remember the last time I felt so gratified in my workplace, so I let myself revel in it for a couple of hours before checking the clock and finding that I had around seven hours of work to do in the space of three. I set about frantically getting my work done as quick as I could, when Quentin Parker walked past the glass frontage of my office and knocked on the door, holding a piece of paper folded in half in his hand. I was sure it was going to be some sort of complaint from a stressed and waiting client, but from the look on his face I could tell it wasn’t negative.

“So I hear you’re a bit of a star Alan!” he exclaimed, loud enough so Jeanette in reception looked up from her screen, smiling. “This here lady’s pretty happy that you came to her rescue this morning, she sent through a commendation email.” I smiled as he handed over the piece of paper and said, “Well, how lovely of her, she didn’t need to do that.” Quentin pointed at me, cocked his head to the side and in a fatherly tone said; “Now don’t go saying that Alan, it sounds to me like she did indeed need to do that”. I started to feel uncomfortable and gestured towards my computer – his compliments sounded condescending, and the work was actually piling up; I did have to get back to it. “Well yes, I will let you do your job,” Quentin said, “but just remember Alan, you’re the star of the show here on this day… this month… this year!”

As soon as he was out of sight I unfolded the paper and hurriedly rushed through the text. She’d sent it to the generic office email, hence why it hadn’t reached me directly; this was probably also the reason Jeanette was grinning so readily. The woman from the car’s name was Melanie Simms, and she worked in marketing for a natural gas company – “what a nice job,” I thought. Her email was short but confirmed everything I’d been thinking about myself that day – it was magic.

From: Melanie Simms
Date: Fri, Mar 30, 2007 at 2:23 PM
Subject: Deepest thanks and gratitude
To Whom It May Concern:

This morning whilst driving to work, my vehicle broke down outside your building. I was stranded, helpless and completely upset by the lack of help from the drivers around me. A man by the name of Alan Thompson was the only driver who actually approached me to help get my car get off the road and into a nearby bus stop safely, and he did so quickly and politely. He even stopped a bus driver from screaming out his window at me. My car has since been towed from outside of your building and is at the mechanic’s, but I honestly think that I would still be in the middle of that road if it had not been for Mr. Thompson. I hope this email finds him or his employer, as he should be thanked and praised for the help he gave me in my time of need. I am truly grateful.
Yours Sincerely,

Melanie Simms

The email warmed my heart. I read over it six or seven times, letting her words fill me with glee. “I hope this email finds him or his employer, as he should be thanked and praised for the help he gave me in my time of need”. I thought to myself, “Surely this would gain me the Employee of the Year award,” as I folded the email back in half, placed it in my top drawer and went back to my hasty, hurried work.

The next Monday I was right on time for work, 8.30am on the dot. I turned the gold plated handle quickly, swung the door open with fervour and beamed at Jeanette. “Good morning, hero man!” she laughed. I did a small bow before collecting my mail from the golden letter sorter and checking the calendar; Monday 2 April, 2007; my day to shine! Darting quickly from the calendar to the trophy, I saw the frame behind it, still empty. “Jeanette?” I enquired. “Yes Alan?” she replied. Turning my head away from the frame but leaving my eyes affixed on the wall behind it, I raised an inquisitive finger towards it. “Just wondering, is there a reason why-“ I froze. “A reason why what Alan?” My palms suddenly got sweaty and I could feel the agitation of stress crawling under my skin. “Ne-never mind,” I said, shrugging my shoulders and heading to my office, devastated.

I sat at my desk and gave the reception area a cold, unflinching gaze; I was furious. How could they not give me the award? I was a hero that day! I was fucking Hercules! Even if they weren’t going to recognise my accountancy efforts, the least they could do was give me the bloody Employee of the Year award, it was early April after all! Sick with rage and consumed with such stress that my glasses were fogging up, I reached into my top drawer for my handkerchief to clean them, only to find Melanie’s email, only this time I noticed her email’s footer. It had her company’s logo and her contact details, then below it, a logo of a small green tree and the words “Good planets are hard to find, think before you print”. I grabbed my hankie, cleaned my glasses, mopped my brow and took a deep breath. Think before you print. Quentin printed the email – he must have at least recognised the importance of Melanie’s sentiments enough to print it. I felt a calmness fill me from the feet up, and when it got to my mouth I shouted, “He must actually appreciate me!” I was loud enough for Jeanette in reception to look up at me, puzzled. I thought to myself, “If this is the only victory I’m to achieve here in my 18th year, so be it”. I folded the email in half and placed it in my briefcase; this one was coming home with me.

That night, as I lay in bed, still positively fuming over Quentin Parker’s decision not to give me ANY sort of end-of-year accolade, I thought of the one person who appreciated me. I got Melanie’s letter out of my briefcase and read it over and over again.

I was stranded, helpless and completely upset by the lack of help from the drivers around me.

…and he did so quickly and politely.

…he should be thanked and praised for the help he gave me in my time of need.

“What a beautiful woman she was”, I thought to myself. It had only just occurred to me how stunning this woman was – piercing green eyes, long blonde curly hair; a fetching blue blouse… I shouldn’t have just moved her car, I should have asked for her number! Not that she’d go for me anyway, she was far too beautiful and clearly focussed on moving her car out of harm’s way to notice me. I could never ask her on a date, and part of me didn’t want to pursue it either – I had this perfect little pocket of Melanie memories that didn’t involve money squabbles, they didn’t remind me of how messy and undomesticated I can be, that didn’t remind me that they’re getting too old to have children. In my head, she was perfect, and that’s where she was going to stay. I pulled a postcard my brother sent me from Costa Rica off the wall and replaced it with her email.

The next few days of work were the absolute worst – I was so overcome with cold, focussed rage that I couldn’t do my work adequately; I thanked my lucky stars it was April. On the phone to the IRD every ten minutes kept me busy, as did their positively dire hold music – Phil Collins’ “Holding Back The Years” was the poorest of choices… “I’ll keep holdin’ on, I’ll keep holdin’ on”. The feelings of rejection and hurt were triggered by this slew of easy listening, and I was angered every time I heard Jeanette’s voice or my email notifier showed that Parker or Cleve had been in touch. “DEL-EEETE!” I said aloud before I even had the chance to read whatever it was they had to say. If only I could delete these bastards from my life. I wish I could show them.
The days started moulding into one – the turning of the handle, mail collection, calendar date recognition – everything felt stale, horrid and disgusting. Then, on April 23, the end-of-year thanks started rolling in. The design firm two floors up sent me an e-card.

From: Pickles Design
Date: Mon, Apr 23, 2007 at 11:07 AM
Subject: FWD: You have been sent an e-card
Dear Alan,
Your friend PICKLES DESIGN has sent you an e-card, thanking you for YOUR HARD WORK THIS LAST FINANCIAL YEAR ALAN THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR ALL YOUR HELP. Please find your e-card attached.


A rabbit wearing spectacles beamed back at me from my picture viewer – “we’re hoppin’ along nicely thanks to all your help ALAN”, it read. They liked my work! I was so pleased, especially given the fact that I’d cost them more money than first expected. And the rabbit! He was too cute for words. I thought about taking this memento home, like I did Melanie’s email. Instantly, the words of her email came back to me. Think before you print. So I did. And I printed it.

Before long I had five emails on my wall.

A kind and personable accountant.

Alan is a real asset to Baird, Cleve and Parker.

Our firm has really reaped the benefits of Alan Thompson’s hard work.


he should be thanked and praised for the help he gave me.

They made me happy, they made me grin; they made the frustration of my firm worthwhile. Did I ever think to write back to commend them on their commendations? Plenty, I just didn’t have the time.

As winter started washing over the city, the emails waned. Like the other 17 years I’d been at the firm, people forgot the duties of a diligent accountant all too quickly, and the fan mail stopped. I would go home at night, stare at the five emails that so often brought me joy and validation, and felt flat. What was I to do now that the love levy was dry? Clients went about their days. Jeanette never looked up from her desk. Quentin Parker never stopped by my office to give me motivational truisms from behind an extended finger. I hadn’t received a legitimate email in two days. I was back to the doldrums. Then a message came through from our old office supplies chain; the ones we’d dropped back in 2004 when we found a cheaper source.

From: Sales
Date: Wed, June 27, 2007 at 04:31 PM
Subject: Please update your details
Dear invoicing,

We recently sent your office our new catalogue, but have had this envelope returned to us. We have not received any recent orders from your company, so we would like to ask that you reply to this message with your full contact details including website URL and fax number. At City Office Supplies, we aim to bring you the best, most affordable office products, and hope that our great range and superior service will bring you back to our in-store and online stores again soon.

Thanks again for choosing City Office Supplies – we look forward to continuing custom with your fine company in the future.

Yours faithfully,

Norman Burrows
Customer Service Representative
City Office Supplies

We look forward to continuing custom with your fine company. Your fine company. I imagined what it would be like if it were my company. Thompson, Baird, Cleve and Parker even had a good ring to it. I printed the email instantly and took it home. I had run out of drawing pins, so my newest e-conquest was left on the floor. My next batch of flattery, accumulated over the next few weeks, was inevitably placed on top of it. When that pile fell over, I started another. When that pile spilled all over the floor of my room, I started another on top of the deluge. Every day I would scour my emails, looking for a commendation of any sort – thank yous from clients became kind regards from fellow accountants or old friends. Every day I printed positive emails and took them home. Once they covered my bedroom floor, they became my new bedside table, then a coffee table, then something to rest my shoes on. Soon my emails became bookends, then took over the entire bookshelf. The more emails I printed, the better I felt about work, the better I felt about the name on the door, the better I felt about the empty employee accolade frame. Every printed morsel brought me another small piece of comfort – another tiny moment of gratification where I got to feel like the star. Think before you print.

You’ve been an enormous help, thank you.

Your work is great, thank you.

Awesome stuff with the accounts Alan, you’re a star.

Thanks heaps BCP.

Let me know what to do next and we’ll go from there; I can’t wait!

I haven’t heard from you in a while Alan, do get in touch.

Thank you for your generosity.

Yours sincerely.

Kind regards.


Last week I noticed that my bedroom is now in perpetual darkness – no sunshine can seep through the mounds of paper I have stacked six feet high, but their crisp white brilliance brings enough light for day and night. Now, they line the hallways. There are stacks of them up against the mirror in the bathroom. All over the coffee table. Next to the gas hob. Think before you print. I did and I do and I will. I’m becoming increasingly fearful of paper cuts – some days I can barely make it to my kitchen because the hall is blocked by white A4 paper. My sofas wheeze under the weight of the mail. I cannot cook on my kitchen bench with the piles stacked high. Cupboards are unusable; so are saucepans. You don’t have to reach further than arm’s reach to find something beautiful around here, because it’s everywhere. This is my home – here with every piece of gratitude I could ever want.

There’s something on at church on Sunday, could you please come?

Isn’t it a great day in the city today?

Thanks for calling yesterday; I just needed to talk to somebody normal.

Each little piece of earnest prose is a sign that I’m a good person, and that I’m appreciated. At night, I can hear them telling me that it’s going to be okay. They appreciate me. Baird, Cleve and Parker don’t worry me at all any more. When I feel at my worst, I find more commendations and print them. Days when I don’t do it are either spent at home or pouring through archived messages at work, searching for something; anything. Every day I’m a little calmer, a little nicer and a little more tolerant of Baird, Cleve and Parker; even Jeanette. Our stationery bill is on the rise, but Norman Burrows at City Office Supplies is a good man who is full of praise for my work, and I run the account. Your fine company. This week I bought a second briefcase, from City Office Supplies of course. Every night I open it and remove the day’s findings.

We appreciate your custom.

We thank you for your payment.

Cheers Alan.


The other day, I came across The Email again. Subject: Deepest thanks and gratitude. I read it aloud and felt her words dance out of my mouth and around my house. He did so quickly and politely. I propped myself up on a stack of late 2007 commendations and shouted her words into the top of the hallway mirror, which was peeking out under a telephone table stacked high with February 2008 tidbits. I HONESTLY THINK that I would still be in the middle of that road, IF IT HAD NOT BEEN FOR MR. THOMPSON. The next day I printed it in full colour gloss. I took the proof from the printer, blowing on its colours as I attempted to dry the ink quickly. A small green tree from a natural gas company. Think before you print. Think.

I mounted it in a gold frame.


Anonymous said...

I was just having a quick stroll through this because I've only got an hour on the internet but for some reason I thought I'd read this despite the length. I'm glad I did. Your writing is always good and I now actively read the magazine since you took it over but this was incredible.

For some reason it reminded me of Chuck Palanuick's (spe?)writing and particularly his characters. A little more toned down, perhaps a little like Douglas Coupland's stuff. Particularly important was the layout of the story without a clear end. I love that. Writers often feel the need to wrap things up cleanly and that will often detract from the story.

Simply put, I loved it. You need to send it somewhere, anywhere.

Amanda xx

Hannah JV said...

That's awesome Amanda, thank you so much for reading!

Maddie said...

from begining to end, that was a smooth, brilliant story. your writing is very inspirational, but the content is very moving as well.
keep up the GREAT work, i can't wait to read more!