Vending machines

The employees trickled into the room by the twos and threes depending on who shared an office with whom. A few went out again to form a short line in front of the vending machine in the hallway. But eventually they all gathered into the windows less meeting room with it’s yellowish walls at the appointed time. There were only two noticeable pieces of furniture in the room. A large table surrounded by chairs in the middle of the room and a whiteboard against one of the wall full of intelligible scribbles .

There they were joined by two managers. These were so called mid-level managers: men already too high up the ladder from them to speak to on a daily basis, but still low enough to be encountered in the corridors. Sometimes even greetings were exchanged during those awkward moments in the morning when an employee had a run in with one of those managers at one of the three vending machines in the building. Mid-level managers also used vending machines.

The men -there were only men-  had been informed by mail to attend the meeting on a short notice, the trigger being the removal of their direct superior, the news of which had arrived earlier on the day.   The highest manager took a seat at the table. Then the employees choose theirs.  Finally the other manager sat down at one end of the table and although he did not sit exactly opposite the other manager, he also did not sit next to him. There was a certain reserved distance between the two. The highest manager, a small man with hair as grey as his suit, was going to break the news, the other manager, a man with glasses and a pensive expression dressed in a buttoned shirt like the employees, was there because he was expected to attend, The hierarchy of the company positioned him in between the higher manager and the one that was leaving.

“Your manager will join us in a moment,” the highest one remarked, “In the mean time I bring you the news that he will step down from his current position.”

None of the men said a thing..

“At the moment we will have no replacement for his position. Instead we expect the foremen to take care of business. We will have individual talks during the week with some of your key people about the future of this department and its reorganization.”

The men accepted these words in silence as well, but they did look at each other, not entirely sure who of them were considered to be the mentioned key people, but also uneasy about their prospects if they were not  considered to be part of the group of key persons.

The highest manager, triggered by the uneasy stares,  tried to get a feel of the mood, but also avoided to look the men straight in the eye.   “Men, the company needs you all and we need you in the future as well. Some important projects are coming our way. Especially we will be needing you to work on the desktop replacement project. That will be some ten thousand desktops that need replacing, urgently. An important job which has been delayed far too often.”

At that moment there was a short interruption when the leaving manager arrived. He nodded to the men and sat down at the other end of the table. He didn’t say a thing, but folded his arms across his chest. It was a posture that was familiar to them all. employees and managers alike. It meant defiance, the kind that he had showed towards the other managers when it had been announced, earlier in the year, that the department was being considered for outsourcing to external interested parties.

One of the men asked the question that was foremost on their minds: “Does this have anything to do with the outsourcing project?”

There was another moment of silence before the highest manager braved himself to look the questioner straight in the eyes and deliver his answer, “No, this has nothing to do with it.”

“Then why does he leave? He has been our manager for twelve years!”

The manager looked away while he reacted with a lot of words. But those were simply meant to obscure the lack of a proper straightforward answer to the first question, which would have been very short and it would have sounded like: yes.  After the flood of words he stressed again the importance that the men would continue working as they had done before and mentioned their importance for the future of the company.

“Remember.. we need you.. for we got some important projects ahead of us.”

But who would believe a man that could not give a straight answer to a simple question everyone knew the answer to already?

Signs of Life: affluence

nightmare copy

“I used to get off the train here.”  She nodded her head towards the platform. She was sitting on one of the folding chairs that were fixed to the side of the train wagon. She had asked to sit down, because she said she was  wobbly in the morning. I could imagine she was as she was a very tall and slender girl walking on heels that made her even frailer. Her ankles seemed almost too thin to handle the stress her body put on them. .

“Oh.. not anymore? It did not go well?” Her companion said. She was a much smaller and more broader girl in build. She had long black hair that fell over her shoulders, glasses with a thick frame and a pink knitted cap. She was standing and holding to a pole to keep her steady against the movement of the train.

“I did finish the internship, but I was glad to leave.. it wasn’t a fun job.”

“Because of the patients?”

“More the work environment. I didn’t get any proper guidance. The school just told me to go there and I had to join in without any proper supervision or introduction. They were too busy because they were too short on people. “

“Must have been hard then.”

“It was, but mostly because they seldom told me what to expect. I think they couldn’t even because anything could happen at any time of the day. No day is the same in psychiatric healthcare…”

“I bet.”

“..Some could be nice at one moment and cruel the next. Depressive silent at one time and screaming their heads off at another. ”

“It is probably much easier where I work.. Elderly people are much easier to handle.”

“Yeah, unless they are demented. They can be as unpredictable as those inmates of the psychiatric hospital. Even to each other. There was once this fight we had to intervene. One wanted to escape all the time and one day she was screaming from a window. One of the others came and hit her. They started to fight. Slapping and scratching each other. A catfight.. “ She laughed.

“Sad though. Did nobody intervene?”

“We did, but it took some time before we knew what was going on because we just don’t have enough people to do all the work. Like we don’t even have time to help them shower or bathe every day.. Some even get angry at that. Calling us names. Hitting us.”

“Oh my.”

“Yeah, awful. I wish it was otherwise.”

“It is the same with us.. not enough people to get everything done. Like they fired a lot of the kitchen staff to save costs. Now people get basic meals..Very basic.” She seemed to shuddered at the thought.

“It is the same where I work now. I work with homeless people. There is just enough money for a basic meal. We focus on keeping the rooms clean, but they need new paint and a lot needs to be fixed or replaced. The television broke down the other week, so we invent games or other activities for them to do so they can socialize a bit.”

“You’ll have to do whatever you can do.”

The tall girl nodded.

“So any idea where you are going to work when you finished school?”

“I think I’ll try working with mentally disabled people. They can be selfish and nasty, but they are also very sweet at the time and funny. And I seem to get along with them well. And what about you?”

“I haven’t yet decided for myself. There is a need everywhere, but never enough money. ”

For some time they were silent. The movement of the train shaking us about.  Everyone retreated into their own shells, thinking their own thoughts or listening to their own music with their private headsets in the morning train that would transfer them from the reality of home to the reality of work or school.

“I wonder if there has been a time when it was different.” I wanted to remark.

Was there a time when there were enough people and there was enough money for everyone. I couldn’t recall such a time and I was twice their age.  It is strange considering we have now seven billion people on this planet and this is probably the most affluent period in the history of the world. Yet it seems that after the eighties everything went downhill?

Perhaps I should ask my mother?

She would need that help soon enough.

Signs of Life: dominoes

When Harold returned from the doctor his wife Janice asked ”How did it go?”

Harold was both taken aback by the abrupt question and in a quandary about a the answer. He had not expected that question so soon, but he knew she would ask it eventually. He knew he had to say something as that was the proper thing to do. Janice was his wife, with whom else should he be honest, but with her?  But he also felt that if he answered truthfully things would fall apart and then other things would topple over: dragging the next one down in turn. Events would be out of control, like a series of falling dominoes.

“Well, okay.”  Harold said and he quickly added. “We had a good chat.”

Perhaps he should not have added that last line. For with the first line he signalled to Janice that he did not want to talk about it (yet), but by adding the second he poked up the fire of her curiosity.

“A good chat? What then did you chat about?” Janice said.

Harold felt he was in a trolley put on a single track that just went into one direction: down a black hole.

“About me mostly.” Harold mumbled. Think she would let him off the hook if it was about himself. As if he was saying: this is private.

“Oh. Good! It was time you had one.” Janice exclaimed. The ‘me’ in Harolds sentence  meant ‘us’  to Janice.  Us  because it did concern her too.

“But what did you talk about exactly?”

“About my feelings…. toward others. You know..Those feelings.” He waved his hand as if to dismiss the matter.

Janice nodded. She knew: it was about sex.

“You know we haven’t had much intimacy of late.”

“Yes.” She nodded firmly. Of course she knew. She knew all too well.

“ I asked the doctor for a reference to a psychologist,,, because… you see.. I think I might be gay.” He blurted out that last line. He felt the first domino fall.



“Oh.. but that explains it.” Janice smiled.


“The not-having-sex. I thought you found me ugly or fat.”

“Oh.. I.. well.”

“But you are just gay.” She smiled and walked over and hugged him quickly before he could say or do anything else.

“So tell me when did you start to have these feelings?” She laid a kindly hand on his arm.

“I.. I have them for some time now.. feelings.. vague feelings…”  Harold said. He felt her hand warm and clammy  on his skin.

“All these nights that you pushed me away. It all makes sense now.” Janice remarked. She smiled happily and wanted to hug him again.

He took a step backwards, out of her reach.

“Janice? I just told you I have gay feelings and you start to hug me.” Harold said.

“Because I am happy you found out. It must be such a relief for you. But also for us. It explains so much.”

“But Janice.. it means you and me…. us..  there is no….”

“I still love you, Harold.I always loved you even when you pushed me away.” She stepped forward as if to hug him.

“Janice…Don’t you understand.. If I am gay that won’t change. I don’t feel like being intimate with you.” He stepped out of her reach again.

“Oh, of course..” She said. Her eyes showed hurt. She was still moving towards him, but slower now.

“When I am gay  I love men, not women.. Janice. You are a woman.“ He said

“Oh.” Janice’s eyes filled with sudden tears. She stopped right there..

“I am sorry.” Harold imagined the second domino toppling.

“But what about us? I can’t live with someone who doesn’t want to be close with me, Harold. We share a bed..A double sleeper. We share a house. We have kids. A life.A married life.”

“I know..We might have to sleep in separate beds..” Another domino fell over.. the next one would follow suit.

“For how long? And what are we going to tell our family? Our friends?” She started to cry,

“I don’t know, really. I had hoped it would go much slower than this.”

“I can’t live like this, Harold. I can’t live with a man who doesn’t want to be with me. Who doesn’t love me.”

“I know.”

“You know? It sounds like you planned it all. Like it was all part of a scheme you set in motion. The ruin of our life.My life.” She started to cry more and become angry.

“I did not plan this.. although.. I felt one thing would lead to another.” Harold said.

“You ruined my life.  You ruined the  lives of our kids, Harold.  What are you going to tell them?  Daddy loves men, not mam?” she laughed sarcastically, “You ruined everything..  Years ago. You could have told me earlier. Why now? Why so late? ” She ran out of the room sobbing. He could hear her footsteps on the stairs fading away.

Harold walked over to the window and went over the what had happened in his head. He looked into the dark garden of their suburban house with three storeys, two children, three cats and one dog.  Their car was parked in front and his motorcycle parked in the alley at the back. He had only considered being gay: he felt a vague attraction to men, but he actually couldn’t say if that was the truth of it.

Whenever he looked at other people. men or women, he felt nothing. A dead feeling possessed him.  It was what he meant to find out to therapy. When Janice had cried he had just felt distant and cold, like when someone in the papers or on television was crying. He sympathised, but he no longer felt that pain in his heart, like a hand squeezing it hard,  when Janice was sad. He felt sorry for her, but no longer sorry enough to stay with her. He felt like a different person had taken possession of him, but he knew it was just himself, but differently: colder.

He wondered what would happen if he found out he wasn’t gay at all, but just repressing his feelings because that was the only way he could deal with her. He knew he was sure he would not want to go back into a relationship with her. Any relationship for that matter.

He knew that was probably going to change at some later date for he had two friends who had been divorced and had felt exactly the same. Perhaps that is how you dealt with a divorce, only he needed another excuse, a bad excuse.  He could also have said he did not love her and wanted a divorce.

Perhaps that was all that had been needed.

Signs of life: the last voyage

The last voyage
The last voyage

She caught my attention because she was so there: standing tall with her arms folded in front of her chest and her defiant gaze that seemed to say to everyone around her: ‘I dare you, I dare you  to say something about it, I  dare you to assume; dare to conclude, to judge’.

He was wearing shades, a black jacket on blue jeans and a big brown leather bag that made him lean sideways.  He was next to her, but also behind her at the same time. Like he neither wanted to be next to her nor following her, while she didn’t want him to be either and certainly not in front of her. So she paced with long steps to keep ahead of him and he had to keep up dragging his heavy load. A reluctant chase.

Suddenly she halted a few meters further on the platform, making him stop as well after a minimum exchange of words. The bag thudded on the concrete. I  imagined it  to be bursting with voluminous books containing hundreds of pages made out of frail paper filled with miniscule lines. Like a pocket bible. Books filled with all the words they would ever need, but would never say to each other if they could help it. Words that would no longer see the light of day.

He turned towards a bicycle shop that was at one side of the raised platform and a few meters lower. He lifted the shades to put them on the top of his head and then put his hands in his pockets to stare at the rows upon rows of cycles inside the shop.

She looked the other way, with her back to the shop and staring at nothing in particular because she was mostly focused on looking away from him. Her arms were still folded in front of her chest.

When the train stopped she moved towards the doors  without giving him one look. He put on his shades, lifted the bag and followed her. When the doors opened they both stepped inside at the same time. Just before she was inside she stopped for a brief moment and gave me this intense gaze. There was a bit of defiance in it, but also – deeper – a sense of resignation. A resignation about  having to put up with someone you want to be miles away from, but you had to be with for this one trip. Just for this one last trip.


A life in addictions: tobacco

Smoking is one addiction I certainly can’t blame my parents for. My family did and does not smoke and I can’t recall anyone ever smoking in the wider circle of our family, except for my granddad on my father’s side that is.. I remember a picture of him sitting in a easy chair holding a cigar in his right hand. One day, when I was still very young, someone told him smoking was bad for his health. He probably nodded, put down his cigar and never smoked again.

Some years ago I was going through my grandfather’s legacy and  I found  some old black and white pictures from family parties from the fifties. The tables had white coffee cups filled with cigarettes. Like snacks you could take one if you felt like it. I think these didn’t have filters either so the rooms on those pictures were definitely cloudy. Smoking was a social activity like any other and everyone seemed to be happy and joyful. The spectre of cancer had not yet risen.

I did smoke because of my family background, I learned to smoke when I was in my early twenties when I started to study history at the University of Amsterdam. One day I was paging through a series of role play books in the American Book Center in Amsterdam,  when someone approached me and asked me if I liked those books.  I said yes and he introduced me to a role playing group.

People of this group also played in another group  and via that group they knew other people who roleplayed too.  It turned out there were a lot of people about my age who studied at the university and played role play games. Roleplaying soon became just one of the activities that we did: we went to movies, hung out in parks chatting till the sun came up or sat at the home of a good friend of mine playing risk and watching MTV and TMF. In those days those channels still broadcasted mostly music clips. I think they stopped doing that nowadays. At least whenever I happen to turn on the television and switch to MTV the channel is filled with anything but music clips.

It  this group of people that started to smoke. Actually some started to smoke as an extension of smoking weed. Weed was introduced by someone who made a  weed cake. People liked it, but making a cake like that took too long  and  therefore we bought weed to mix with tobacco. Later on hashish was also introduced. It also was cut up and mixed with tobacco.

Soft drugs are however expensive, so the habit developed to smoke tobacco in between the weed and hashish. And that is how smoking as a habit developed. After about one and a half year of doing soft drugs, everyone suddenly stopped. It was over like that. Just like you flipped a switch.

Smoking tobacco however did not stop that sudden, but lingered on for a long time. Some friends never smoked (I have to grant them that), some smoked for a very short time, others smoked for a very long time.. till their forties.

Here is a wicked formula that you might recognize: Alcohol and smoking are intertwined. Smoking increases the desire for drinking, drinking increase the urge to smoke.. Add salt to the equation and you might not find it strange that some bars hand out free salted peanuts. Salt creates thirst which is quenched with alcohol, alcohol creates the desire to smoke.

Still, over the years, one person after the other stopped smoking.  Two friends kept on smoking however, until one suffered a collapsed lung a few years back and the other got diabetes. They both were urged by their doctors to stop smoking because of health reasons: they had to.

Nowadays smokers in my country have been marginalised. I am currently in France where people are still allowed to smoke in cafes and restaurants. In the Netherlands this is forbidden. This policy started some years ago when a law was passed to protect employees from working in conditions where customers smoked. Everyone knew this law was an just an excuse to prohibit smoking. It is interesting how anti-smoking we have become. Interesting because we are far less strict regarding that other big drug: alcohol. Interesting also because smoking mostly affects the smoker, but alcohol has a tendency to affect others as well. But alcohol is too big to be touched.

People found a way around the law though:  if you did not have employees, the law did not apply. Hence bars develop where the owner ran the bar without employees.  However, this was just a stay of execution: this year the law was amended. Now smoking is just prohibited in any public place. It won’t surprise me that the next law will prohibit smoking altogether except for smoking in your own home.

I sometimes see the odd collection of smokers huddling together at the entrance to the office building I work in. If they don’t get some smoke related disease they stand a fair chance to catch a cold, for they have no shelter against the weather.The smoker has become the modern day pariah.

Poor smokers, I sometimes think, until I sit on a terras in France having my lunch spoiled by some French smoker blowing wafts of tobacco in my direction. Then I appreciate it that someone banned smoking from our public spaces.


Signs of life: legacy

When my father died from a sudden brain bleeding I had my brother sign a paper together with me that rejected his inheritance.My brother was already diagnosed as a schizoid, so I had to tell him what to do. Not that he didn’t understand, but I had to tell him these things regardless for whether  he knew what was going on: he didn’t understand the consequences. .

Rejecting my fathers inheritance was no surprise to me, for I had already seen this one coming. The real surprise would be next year, when the tax office send me a letter telling me that I owed them taxes over sixty thousand. The reason for us to reject my father’s legacy was tied in with taxes however. Let me tell the tale.

“My father told me to get five thousand dollars as he was promised. ”

The young man behind the counter, I think he must be in his thirties, looked down on me. His face was set in a disapproving look. He was sitting next to two other people who sat behind the same grey counter handing out money the same way they were doing to me. The office was a shed that looked like a large sea container that was painted white overall on the inside and the outside, but was accentuated with grey at various points to break the monotony of white. Most of the paint had worn through.

I could have sworn he was about to spit, but he did not do so. Instead his hands disappeared under the counter and when they returned they placed an envelope on the counter. He took out a stack of bills and started to count them slowly. “One, two, three, four, five…”

All the while he did not look at the bills but at me. He ended at twenty-five.

“Twenty-five times hundred. That makes twenty-five hundred dollars. Twenty-five hundred, son. That is what is in this envelope.”

“My father said it was going to be five thousand. He said we need it for the holidays. They said they would pay that, because they owed him much more.”

He looked down on me for a long time. Then started to recount the stack ending at twenty five again. “Twenty-five hundred. That is what is in the envelope. That is all you get for now. He gets more in a few weeks.”

He handed the envelope to me, but just before I could take it, he snatched it away, “Count the amount and then sign here.” He pushed a paper forward. I had to count the money and then sign a paper.

A boy of fourteen.

I walked away, feeling his disdainful eyes following me.

My father was outside in the car. I told him the news. He did not say anything, instead stepped out of the car and walked into th eoffice. There was a lot of shouting as my father yelled at the guy behind the counter.. Eventually he left the office again. They had given him an additional five hundred dollars.

Without much words the incident was pushed aside into oblivion and we went on holiday, with two thousand less than was promised, but somehow it was enough.

“They never paid the full amount.” My mother told me later on.,

“It was all ‘black’ money. Unlisted money. To evade taxes. It was never in the books so there was never any proof what  they owed to anyone. It was how they conduct business. You can’t get any work, unless you do accept to work like that. Then they don’t pay you what they owe you. So they eventually owed my father tens of thousands of dollars, but then never paid the full amount.”  I got it. Like a drug. They gave you just enough to keep going, but never the full amount, because they knew you had no proof whatsoever. Eventually they owed you tens of thousands of money, perhaps hundred thousands as they never paid you the full amount. Always with the promise you get it next time, so you keep on going and the more they owe you the least likely you are going to stop.

“And then the taxmen came. They said: based on what you made previously or on you profile you ought to pay us this kind of money, but you never paid the taxes you owe us. And that times so many years.. It was a considerable amount. A huge amount.”

“Which you didn’t have as you never got it in full in the first place and what was spent was gone.”

“Then they declared you father bankrupt and there was this taxes due punishment for years hanging over his head..”

“Once you start to make money again, you have to pay taxes. And that is why we reject his legacy,” I said, “because any taxes my father has to pay has to be paid by his children after his death. That is how the taxes work. The sins of our fathers…”

And I signed the papers and had my brother sign them too. We both rejected his legacy, because there was nothing he had left us but a huge debt after his sudden death at fifty-three.

Signs of life 4: Fuzz

“No!”  Meena, the eldest of the two daughters said with an indignant expression on her face  when her parents proposed to go to the market fair.

Eve, the youngest, fell into an uncomfortable silence squeezing a plushie against her chest. She did not dare to go against her older sisters opinion, yet she feared her mother’s displeasure equally. She withdrew into the only direction she could: into herself.

“We never go to anything that we like. We always have to go to these boring things you like.” Meena continued waving her frail hand about,  ”I am not going and that is final!”

Harry, the father, tried to reason with her, but she was not going to listen: hormones and peer pressure were much more important for the budding teen than whatever considered arguments parents brought to bear.

Jane, the mother, then played the power card. “We all go and that is final!”

Meena grabbed her hand-held, stomped upstairs and closed the door of her room with such an audible bang that even the neighbors heard it. Everyone got that message. Then she started to whatsap all her friends that parents were the worst creatures in the universe by far and her parents were the vilest of the bunch.

Jane then shouted up the stairs that Meena should come down this instance or she would be facing a week of extra chores. Eve started to pout her lips and Harry began to tell Jane that maybe they should reconsider this fair business.

“See, even father doesn’t want to go!” Meena shouted, she triumphantly rubbed the words into her mothers face.

“I didn’t mean that!” Harry said, hearing how his words were being twisted into arguments for the defence.

“What then do you mean?”  Jane said. She felt slightly backstabbed by her husband but also knew that her eldest was twisting the knife on purpose. At the same time she saw her youngest discomfort and she grabbed Eve’s hand.
Harry smiled disarmingly at his wife. Meena had walked halfway down the stairs not wanting to give in to her mother, but also not wanting to face a week of extra chores. She looked down on the scene with her arms folded in front of her chest.

Purr the cat sat in front of the door that led to the garden. She mewed at it and glanced at them to see if they would notice. Purr was certain that door would open sooner or later, and if it didn’t  she would lie down on her cushion on the couch. From that vantage point  she would then stare at them with an expression that seemed to say: what on earth are you all doing?

Signs of Life 3: Breach

Day 7: 13:15

Too many, John Atkins, systems engineer for Pacific Shipping Incorporated thought while he browsed his logs. He was at first intrigued by the large amount of failed logins on one of his monitoring servers. It wasn’t easy to pinpoint the source of the alerts as the logs contained a lot of information, most of which were only relevant in a specific context and in this context was mostly clutter. After he had applied a series of filters, he was still left with a lot failed attempts, but what worried him the most were not the failed one’s: they were the one’s that had succeeded.

Day 7: 13:55

Peter Seeren walked in into their office. Peter and John shared the office. Each having two desks bordering one another and thus making a huge desk. Each contained three screens connected to two computers. Peter also had a laptop.
“You look like you need a coffee.” Peter said.
“I think we have problem.” John said.
“What is?”
“These attempts to log in on our monitoring servers.”
If this statement had come from any other than John, Peter might have said something like: “Are you sure?” Or, “Aren’t they from this or that.” Instead he sat down and said, “How big a problem?”
“A big one.”

Day 7: 14:15

“Yes?” William Balking picked up the phone.
“William. This is John Atkins.”
“John. How can I help you?” William asked.
“Can you run a virus scan on some systems?”
“As soon as possible.”
“As soon as possible? During production times?”
“That might impact the production, you know?”
“Yes, I know.”
William was silent for a moment,”We better have some high up people approving this, otherwise we got hell to pay if it blows up in our face.”
“Yes. I arrange you that approval.”
“I get to work then. Do you have a list of the systems.”
“It is in the mail.”
“William opened the mail. Forty five systems. Not that many..” William scanned the list, then whistled loudly. ”Those are not just any systems..”

Day 7: 15:35

Security Officer Harry Townsend was a very thin, slender bald man in his late fifties. He sat down with the two system engineers: the short broad shouldered John, a silent serious man with short black hair and the taller younger Peter, with brown hair. All three were clean shaven.
The two men gave the security officer a summary of their findings.
“So what do you think is happening?” Harry asked.
“The infected systems are running programs that try and log in to other systems. And they are succeeding.” John said, “And it is not a virus. We checked those systems.”
“So what should be done about it?” Harry asked.
“We can disable the accounts.” Peter said, “but this might cause systems to fail.”
“Can we disable specific accounts?”
“We can, but they are the important accounts.” John said, “The one’s that make things run.”
“What can we do without actually disabling them?”
“We can change the passwords of the administrators. Those don’t directly involve the operations of the systems.”
“At least not on ours.” Peter said.
Harry nodded,”Ours. As in the central ones. Those we maintain ourselves.”
“And the ones we don’t run directly?”
“We have not looked at yet. We can’t.” John said.
“Unless the chief security officer gives the command.”
“Or we inform the local staff?” Peter said.
“Have we any evidence they are affected?”
“No.” John shook his head.
“This can cause a panic. We should be sure.” Harry said, then continued,”We do the central ones and I will ask the chief security officer. I expect he will have a meeting with management about this.”

Day 8: 10:35

“I have been asked to do as much as possible without causing panic.” Harry said.
The two engineers John and Peter looked at each other briefly.
“I have been asked to ascertain the threat and as such I got the permission to hire an outside agency.”
“Maybe we can see about what we can do at the moment. Like disabling some accounts. We can hold a meeting with engineers team.”
“That is a good idea, but only with one or two. Arrange it with your manager.”
When the two administrators had left Harry picked up the phone and started to call that outside agency. He was calling the best even though the company would have to pay a hefty price for it.

Day 10: 12:20

“A hacker.” Harry said and he placed his hands flat on the security incident rapport on his desk. It had big letters across it: confidential. He looked at the man in the Armani suit who had laid it before him that morning. His name was Richard Thompson. John and Peter had joined them, as had William had being the one responsible for anti-virus system and Mark Cramer, who was the main network engineer. They all had read their copies of the rapport.
“Yes. It’s a hacker.. he or she gained access to a computer using an email about ten days ago. It was disguised as a business mail. The receiver opened the mail, double clicked the attachment and that set up a connection to the hacker.” the young man with sleek neatly combed hair, wearing the Armani suit with silk tie said. He had a small briefcase with him and read the rapport the five security company engineers had made for him. They had descended on Pacific Shipping Incorporated like birds of prey and started to uproot everything..
“But…our mail has got checkers for that.” William said, “Our anti-virus programs check for harmful programs in the email.”
“Indeed.. but this was not done by internal mail. It was done via webmail from a third party.” Thompson said.
“The block against that was removed by order of Berling, former CEO. He kept in touch with people via third party mail. He was supported in that by the board.”
“You mean Berling, the one that now works for Sea Containers United?” Peter said.
“Yes and before us he worked for a few other big companies, switching jobs every few years as is normal for people at that level. It was unhandy for him to have his mail transferred from one company mail system to another when he switched jobs.” William said, “So he approved an order to have those blocks removed.”
“But how can that hacker gain access… we got firewalls?” Harry said.
“I read here that they only work from the outside in, but this program worked the other way around.” Thompson said, “It was made to setup a connection.
“Blocking internet traffic from the inside out was considered inconvenient. We never got the approval to do that. I think is was director of the business that thought it harmed the ease with which to do business.” Harry said.
“But the antivirus system…”, Peter said.
“It’s not an virus. Just a small program that makes a connection to the outside.”
“But the system that ran it. I mean when it is stopped and restarted, it would have killed the program.”
“Not necessarily. For one, it could have restarted itself. For another, the system was never restarted by the user.” Thompson said.
“Because of cost savings the company delayed replacing the computers and those old one’s became very slow to shutdown and startup. It could take like twenty or thirty minutes. People stopped doing that to save time.” Harry said.
“We know that.” the engineers nodded.
“So gentlemen. The situation Pacific Shipping Incorporated is in is dire. This hacker has hacked his way into crucial systems.” Thompson said.
The others took this news with a grim silence.
“And the only way out of this is to change all passwords at once, rebuilt those systems that have been compromised and implement lock down security and maintain it.” Thompson said.
“Were local systems infected too?” Peter asked.
“We don’t know.” Thompson said. “We did not check their systems.”
“There has not been any formal statement yet.” the security officer said. “So I have no leverage.”
“So.. We don’t know?” Peter said.
The men sitting around the table looked at each other. The engineers, with the exception of Peter, had worked a long time in the company. They knew what was going to happen.
“We could of course give you an extensive advice of what can be done to implement the required security.” Thompson said with a vague smile.
Harry nodded at that,”It is one of the follow up actions. Learn from the lessons learned.”
Thompson eyed the security officer. The room was silent.
“Lessons learned.” Peter said. “And will we implement those?”
“That is for management to decide.” Harry said while he placed his hands together making the fingers touch the one one the other hand.
Peter looked at the faces. The smiling one of the external consultant. The unreadable one of the old security officer and those of his co-workers who looked at him with that knowing glint in their eyes.
“We could implement some changes in the new systems, so over time it gets implemented everywhere when systems are replaced.” John said.
“And how about implementing them with local systems?”
“They won’t let us touch them. We need higher management to give the go ahead. We need to convince everyone with this rapport..” Peter demanded.
“It is a confidential rapport.”, the security officer said. “I understand from the chief security officer that it will be reclassified as highly confidential.”
“What does that mean?” Peter wondered out loud..
“That only a selected group of people can read it.” Mark said, “Only for a special group of people.” He lifted both hands to symbolise the double marks.
“So we can’t use it to convince the local people.” William underscored.
“Not unless higher management allows use of this.” Mark added and held up the rapport.
“Which they won’t.” William said. “Since they would have to admit to some painful errors.”
“We can off course make a risk assessment rapport.” Thompson said. “One that exactly advises what errors to amend and how.”
“But wouldn’t people know about it, with the password changes, rebuilds and such?” Peter asked.
“Maybe they do, but the strangest things happen in companies, so everyone accepts it as another strange fluke of the nerds and after a while people forget. Or want to forget.” Thompson said.
“Make that rapport. We try and implement what we can.” The security officer said.

Day 10: 12:55

“It is a pity. We could have used that rapport to proof we need to tighten security. Now we get a rapport suggesting the same thing, but there is no urgent reason to implement them.” Peter said to John when they had returned to their room.
John nodded.
“Maybe if production was seriously affected something would happen.”
“Perhaps..but we don’t want that to happen.” John said.
“It is like telling people we need a fire-brigade when you need a fire to convince them .”
“Something like that.”
“But now everything is hushed up. The rapport will never get out.”
“Perhaps.” John said. “But people talk. We don’t live on an island.”

Day 11: 17:15 Dave’s Pub

“Have one on me, John.” Charles Dorn smiled at Atkins and handed him a glass of beer, cold with small drops to the outside. The music played Jailhouse Rock loudly. The only other person was the bartender James, who was cleaning glasses.
“A beer..Wasn’t it all tea for you. And to go wild: coffee.”
“You know I don’t want to make a habit out of it.”
“So how are things with you people up in the Ivory Tower.” Charles said with a grin. ”Or does the beer speak for you?”
“You still see the others? Friday afternoon?”
“Of course. They all drop in at times. Every Friday afternoon. We have a drink and a chat.Nothing serious, really.”
“Well, Charles, we had this problem…” John Atkins whispered.

Signs of life 2

Despite the drizzle the red male cat had been outside in our garden the whole morning. He had been  making those weird howls males make when they are in heat. Somehow he had found out that we had a female cat even though she had only been with us for a few months and only outside for one.. Her name was Saar and she was a beautiful Maine Coon, with long grey and black hair, intense yellow eyes and a  bussy plume for a tail.

She was the third cat in out house for we had two castrated male cats as well. A small red one called Sam and a black grey one called Moos. The names were taken from two fictive characters invented by the Dutch humorist Max Tailleur, who had them talk to each other as part of his jokes.

Sam was the smallest of our two cats. He was a nervous, somewhat unpredictable cat who had a fear of men. Probably he had once had some kind of traumatic experience with a man and it took him a long time to get used to any man, like our neighbor who took care of our cats when we were on holiday. On the other side Sam was most social of the two and was the one who sometimes played with Saar.

Moos was almost the opposite of Sam. He seemed to be unaffected by anything going on around him. In fact, although he was aware of things around him, it looked like he did just did not seem to register them.  You couldn’t call him relaxed, so perhaps he was an autistic cat. He was a buddy of Sam, but he completely ignored Saar.

The drizzle had stopped at noon, but the red male had kept on howling. Saar had taken position on a blue plastic table at the other end of the garden. It felt like she was cautiously curious. Not quite sure about his intentions but curious about his behavior. The male saw Saar on that table and started to sneak towards her.

My eldest daughter, unaware of what was going outside opened the garden door to let Sam out. He had been sitting before the door casting looks at us that meant to say that he wanted to have that door opened.  Sam saw the red male crouching in the grass. Something clicked in his head and he charged. The red male was oblivious of the oncoming Sam, until he was on top of him.  He gave a surprised meow and fled.  Sam chased him, but my eldest called out to him and he stopped.

We  fantasized about the reason for the charge and came up with all kinds of explanations, but we all agreed that the one our eldest gave was the most fitting.

“Perhaps he was just fed up with the incessant howling.” she said.