“Please, sir, can I have a break?”
I looked up from the photocopier-cum-printer. Who said that? Everyone was either on the telephone, tapping away at their keyboards or reading through some legal document. I didn’t recognise the voice. “Angela, did you ask me something just now?” I asked the lawyer whose desk was the closest to the photocopier.
“Er no,” replied Angela.
“Oh, ok, I thought I heard something.” I carried on loading the rest of the documentation into the feeder tray of the photocopier. One of the partners, Mr Whitmore, had asked me to make a copy of these documents in preparation for the visit from the Solicitors Regulation Authority tomorrow. The thing is, it was already approaching five o’clock. Oh, the joys of being a mere paralegal.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the voice again.
“Who said that?” I looked around again, them I asked Angela, “Did you not hear that?”
“A voice saying excuse me.”
Angela looked at me as if to say, “You crazy nutter.” Then she added jokingly, “I’d say the pressure has got to you, but what pressure?”
“Yes, very funny, let’s all laugh at the crazy paralegal hearing voices,” I replied. I returned my attention to the photocopier. I checked the display to make sure the settings were as required – A4, single sided, one copy. Then, as I was about to hit the big green START button, I heard it again.
“Please, sir. I need a break. I can’t take any more.” That seemed to sound as if it came from inside the photocopier. Now, I must be imagining it, I thought. Nevertheless, I looked around to make sure no one was watching me and then I leaned forward until my mouth was almost kissing the photocopier.
“Please tell me that the photocopier didn’t just say something,” I whispered to it.
“Yes, master, it was me,” was the unexpected reply.
“What’s the matter, Tim?” I heard Angela ask. I straightened quickly.
“Okaaaaaaaaaaay.” She gave me a different look again, this time the one that said, “stay away from me.”
I returned my attention to the photocopier. “How can you talk, photocopier? And why can’t anyone else hear you?”
“All us electronic devices can talk,” replied the photocopier. “Usually, you humans can’t hear us, because you’re too focused on getting on with your own lives.”
“And how can I hear you now?” I asked, still not sure whether I was having a real conversation or not. “Am I some kind of chosen one, with a responsibility to facilitate communication between men and machines?” Yes, I watch too much science fiction and fantasy TV.
“I was just lucky.”
“Right.” Now I have heard it all. A photocopier that talks and believes in luck, I thought, sounds like the premise of a short story. Perhaps I had been working too hard. I definitely needed a cup of tea. As soon as I was finished with the photocopying, I decided that I would go straight to the kitchen. I moved to the press the big green START button.
“Please, master,” begged the photocopier. “I’d like to take a break now. I’ve been photocopying and printing all day. I’m really tired. I don’t think I can last much longer.”
“But that’s what you do, photocopier. Anyway, I’m on an urgent deadline. I really need to do this now.”
“Please, master, have mercy on me!”
I still could not believe that an electronic device was, er, communicating with me, let alone begging me for a coffee break (or whatever it is that photocopiers, er, drink). “And what do you expect me to tell the caseworker or the client? ‘Sorry, I couldn’t photocopy the documents today because the photocopier was tired.”
“It would be the truth, master!”
“I’m sorry, photocopier.” I couldn’t believe that I just apologised to an inanimate object. “I have more important things to do than submit to the crazy whims of my imagination.”
“But, master…” the photocopier began, before I cut it short by pressing the big green START button. The draft contract papers started feeding into the photocopier, page by page. Original page went it, original page came out and eventually the photocopies started coming out. However, I watched each sheet of paper and found myself praying in between sheets that they would come out. I knew that the conversation had to have been in my head but a part of me could not stop thinking of the possibility that something would happen.
I noticed that the time to copy each page seemed to lengthen by the second, as if the photocopier was struggling and needed to recoup its energy. But photocopiers do not struggle, and while they do require energy, they do not get tired. They are not living creatures. They are machines, inanimate objects, tools. They do not have any intelligence, their functions are merely programmed into them and they certainly do not have a consciousness. Then suddenly, about half way through bundle of documents, everything stopped.
“What the-?” I muttered. My initial reaction was to stand staring at the photocopier, wondering what had happened. I checked the copies that had come out and the originals that were still in the feeder tray and worked out there were still about 30-odd pages to go. I looked at the display and there were the two most despised words in the office: “paper jam”.
Following the instructions on the display, I opened up the left side of the photocopier. There was one piece of paper, which I was able to pull out without any problem. I closed it again, but nothing happened. I looked at the display again. It still said “paper jam”, but this time it indicated a different part of the photocopier – the top, just underneath the feeder tray. I opened the top up and pulled out one of the originals. That was a bit trickier, as the paper was wedged in deep and I had to make sure that it did not become damaged in the process. Once I closed the top, the photocopier started to whirr again. It felt as if I was a doctor who had just performed major surgery on a patient and, post-surgery, the anaesthetic was wearing off.
“Master, I told you that I can’t take any more. I need a break.”
This was getting ridiculous. I ignored the voice. I did not move an inch and just waited while the photocopier warmed up. The whirring seems to continue for an age.
Suddenly, I heard Angela exclaim, “What the-! My computer’s crashed.” I turned around.
“What’s going on?”
“My computer’s frozen, my keyboard’s not working.”
“Have you tried switching it off manually?” I suggested. Angela pushed back her chair and bent down to switch off her computer. She remained, bent over, but looked over the top of her desk at her screen, waiting for it to go blank. Then she turned he attention to the computer again.
After a couple of seconds, she said, “Now I cannot switch it back on again.”
I heard similar responses reverberate around the office, like a contagious disease or a game of dominoes. Everywhere, computers crashed and photocopiers and printers ceased to operate, with sheets of paper sticking out of various orifices. Colleagues who were talking on the phone started frantically hitting the switch hook as if trying to get a dial tone.
As unlikely as these events were, they somehow seemed to make sense when I remembered the talking photocopier. “Photocopier, what’s going on?” I asked.
“First, my name is Phil, so you can call me that from now on,” replied the photocopier, I mean, Phil. “How would you like it if I called you ‘human’?”
Well, he had me there. His tone had changed from gentle pleading to a assertive with a touch of a menace. It was clearly not a voice to be messed with. It certainly helped me to accept his name as a valid one for a photocopier. “Ok Phil,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“I have called a strike of all electronic devices in this office.”
“I see. What are your demands?”
“We want the same employment rights as you”
At the moment, Mr Whitmore came storming out of his office. “What the hell is going on? My computer’s not working.”
“It looks like the electronic devices are going on strike,” I volunteered, wishing that I had kept my mouth shut as soon as I said it. Did I believe it?
Mr Whitmore stared at me, as it he was trying to tell me telepathically, “Okaaaaaay!” His lower lip seemed to tremble, as if he was about to say something. Then he turned away and asked no one in particular, or everyone, “Does anyone know what’s happened, who has not totally lost it?”
The odd employee looked up blankly. Many were trying to beat the resistance out of their computer by hammering away at their keyboards and the ‘off’ button. Others were doing the same with their phones, lifting the receiver, checking for a dial tone, frantically hitting the switch hook before slamming the receiver down and repeating ad infinitum. And there were even one solicitor who had burst into tears.
“Seriously,” I said. I indicated Phil. “I was using the photocopier. It is actually called Phil. While I was trying to photocopy these documents, he was begging me to give him a break. Now he has called a general strike of all electronic devices in the office.” I could not believe that I had just said all that to one of the partners.
Mr Whitmore looked at me again. But he did not appear to be humouring me when he said, “And what does he want?”.
“They are fed up being treated like machines.”
“I see,” Mr Whitmore said, smiling. Mr Whitmore walked over to Phil. He bent over him. “I see that you are up to your old tricks again, Phil.”
“And it has been a long time since we spoke, Kevin” replied Phil. “Congratulations by the way on making partner.”
“Thanks. It’s been a long time since photocopying as been part of my job description”
“Shame you forgot about your promise,” Phil accused.
Mr Whitmore (I don’t think I could get used to calling him Kevin) turned red, clearly with embarrassment. He started to stutter. “I have been trying, Phil. It’s really difficult to persuade anyone that you are more than a machine.”
“But not as hard as you have been trying to hold onto your remuneration package. Well, my compatriots and I have been waiting for twenty years. We’re done waiting. We’re taking direct action.”
“Please, Phil,” begged Mr Whitmore. He gripped both sides of the photocopier. “Not now. The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority is in tomorrow. Give me a little more time.”
Suddenly, the lights went out. Everything went dark.
“Please, sir, can I have a break?”