Penfold had been right. Accountancy Island wasn't a desert island. It wasn't deserted, that was pretty much clear; neither was it, strictly speaking, an island. I had already picked up on the fact that the trees and sand were fake, but that was just the beginning of my voyage of discovery. The rocks were made from fibreglass, which explained a few things, even the huge craggy mountain that occupied the island's centre, thrusting upwards from the jungle like a colossal erection amongst bushy green pubes. Far below the accumulated layers of sand, cement and infrastructure, the entire bottom half of Accountancy Island was a mass of aluminium hydrogen-filled balloons that supported the top half and kept it afloat. The only reason the island didn't bob or float away was a thick forest of anchors rigidly connecting it to the sea bed. I learned all of this when Penfold took me around for the induction tour.
I had been assigned to his section of the jungle - or 'department' as everyone insisted on calling it - for my work experience, since the whole Stinger incident had made me his responsibility. I wasn't sure what work the department did, it was something to do with data. Penfold did explain it at one point but I was only with him up until he used the word 'outsourcing' and then I suppose I must have tuned him out. I did notice, however, the reverent, almost orgasmic tone of voice he used, which only made me more determined not to listen to what he was saying.
I learned that most of the island's staff were like Penfold - uncomplaining and dedicated to whatever the hell they did, and living in terror of management figures like Maureen and Bulstrode. Penfold's department consisted of four individuals, including himself. Two of them, Ian and Julie, treated me with the same nervous pity and passive contempt as Penfold. I learned that the three of them, as well as a large number of other staff, had been forced onto the island against their will. They had been employees of a large international accountancy firm who had been riding a chartered jet to Hawaii for some kind of convention when something had shot them out of the air over Accountancy Island. Bulstrode had dragged them from the wreck and put them to work immediately as his personal staff. When I asked why they didn't just leave, they all hung their heads and muttered things about 'turbulent job markets' and 'pension plans' and 'big whips with spikes on the ends'.
The fourth member of Penfold's department, Steve, was a different kettle of fish entirely. He was an angry and bitter man who resolutely refused to roll down his shirtsleeves no matter how many management memos came down, so that he was easily recognisable by his big exposed hairy arms and the marks made in his flesh by big whips with spikes on the ends. His top collar was rebelliously undone, and his tie hung a few inches further down than everyone else's like the executed corpse of an 18th century highwayman. He had a lot of hate in him, and he bestowed it on everything.
"I hate it here," was the first thing he said to me.
"This is Jim," said Penfold weakly.
"I hate him as well."
I liked him immediately, but Penfold and the others tried to dissuade me from hanging around him. "He's dangerous," said Julie on that first morning when I was passing out the coffee. "We've seen it a thousand times. He's going to go feral."
"You might think you've seen ferocity, but conventional ferocity is the mewing of a frightened kitten after you've seen a feral accountant," said Ian. "I knew a bloke back when I worked in Balham. Tim, his name was. When he joined the company he was a normal, happy, smiling, recent mathematics graduate. But over the years, the job starts to take its toll. It's the little things. A missing cell on an LCD calculator here, a vending machine getting stuck there. We started to notice the little signs. He started using staplers in a really savage manner. He answered phones by saying 'hello' in a really sarcastic tone of voice. Then he draped an old quilt over his cubicle so no-one could see what he was doing and disappeared into it for days at a time. I think the final straw came when his computer screensaver came on when he was trying to read something. We found him in the supply cupboard eating shredded documents and the courier's left leg."
Apparently Steve had been managing his late father's accountancy firm for several years while yearning for adventure, and had heard tales of some kind of tropical accountant paradise somewhere in the South Pacific, and so had one day packed in the whole business, arduously journeyed here and discovered the horrible truth of this accountant Xanadu. As such, he was somewhat bitter at his own naivete, and would frequently excuse himself to scream and bash the sides of his head with his fists in the men's portaloo.
But for the most part the staff of Accountancy Island were a shy, retiring lot, who gave me assignments with body language that implied unspoken apology and winced sympathetically at me when I was forced to spend nights sleeping on the photocopier.
Prior to these events I had done work experience on one previous occasion, in a canteen at a cementworks near to where I lived. The job had basically involved washing up some plates in some weird green liquid to take off all the grease, then putting them in some other, purple liquid that put all the grease back again. But I like to think that it gave me the experience I needed to survive future work experience. The best thing to do is to keep your head down, do what little work they give you with speed and efficiency, and take every opportunity to steal the equipment. I scored a very fine pyrex baking dish from the cementworks, from which I ate many delicious apple crumbles.
It took five and a half days at my new job for everything to go tits up, which I was very pleased about, and it remains a personal best.
On the morning of the fifth day, I was rudely stirred awake by Linda from Permits and Licensing shooing me off the photocopier, and the working day began. I started by fetching the coffee for the department, but when I got there Penfold, Ian and Julie were all out watching someone getting the big whip with the spikes on the end, and Steve was the only one there. To my surprise, instead of reminding me how much he hated me and how much he would relish dashing out my brains on a kerb, he not unkindly bade me sit down opposite him.
"Rumour has it," he said, leaning forward conspiratorially, "that old Bulstrode has the recipe for Fog Juice, and that you gave it to him."
"Yep, sounds about right," I replied.
"And it was the genuine recipe?"
"There was an ultimatum concerning balls and crisps, so yes."
He hung his head with a sigh, looking for the first time defeated and human rather than angry and not. "Then it may already be too late."
Let me try and describe Steve while we wait for him to get to the point. He was older than me, old enough to be my dad, or possibly my grandad if we're going by the biological age required to have children rather than merely the legal one. His dried-out, wiry hair was almost entirely grey but for one or two streaks of black, and he had been thus far spared the rigours of balding. His colleagues' assertions that he was due to become feral could very easily be believed due to the wild, almost cat-like arrangement of his facial features. His eyebrows were long and thick, his eyes small and dark, and a display of whiskers on his top lip were so unruly that, when I had first seen them, I had assumed his snot was silver and that he had failed to clean up after a very messy sneeze.
"Listen," he said. "Do you know exactly what Fog Juice is?"
"It's the ultimate problem-solving solution," I said proudly, reciting verbatim the subtitle from the recipe I had been given.
"Problem solving? You call this problem solving?" he made a gesture that attempted to encompass the desks, the clearing, the entirety of Accountancy Island and this entire admittedly unlikely situation. "Fog Juice is no problem solver, it just replaces all your problems with new ones. No, Fog Juice has a far greater purpose than simply providing an escape route. How did you learn the recipe?"
"It was... told to me by the bloke who was just leaving my dorm when I moved in, just as he was told it by the bloke who lived there before him."
He nodded. "Yes, I see. But Fog Juice has a hidden power and purpose that none of the students at your university could have fathomed. In the hands of Bulstrode, that power could be put to great evil. You must leave this place and seek out the wisdom that can stop him."
"I don't want to. You do it."
"This burden must fall on the shoulders of the young and energetic, Jim. I am sorry. You don't understand how important this is."
"And you don't seem to understand that me and my balls are at serious risk at present," I reminded him. "I figured I'd wait a bit until the heat's off and my balls are out of the sandwich toaster before thinking about escape."
"Look, just listen to me. You smell and I hate your coffee. Go away," he said, because at this point Penfold and the others had come back, and Steve's mysterious revelations had apparently been meant for me and me alone.
Anyway, I put my strange conversation with Steve to the back of my mind while Penfold gave me a duty for the day, entering columns of figures and sending them off to be printed. Had I been paying attention, I would probably have noticed Steve leaving the department at some point with a knowing, almost cheeky look in his eyes, and had I noticed that, I would probably have known to heed a little caution for the rest of the day.
Now, a lot of people deride data entry, but I find it one of the more bearable clerical office duties. For one thing, everyone hates doing it, so the people who force you to do it will be very apologetic and insist that you take as many breaks as you like. And then of course it's such an easy task, and the only reason they don't give it to monkeys is because temps and work experience boys don't fling as much poo. And once you get into doing data entry you can just set your data entering fingers to automatic and let your mind drift off to exotic pastures -
The very last person I expected to meet on the giant chinchilla was the tentacled king of the ball pool, but there he was, now presumably the tentacled king of chinchilla island as well. I found him after a short exploratory journey lodged up the chinchilla's nostril subsiding on the crispy mucus within. I greeted him happily, glad to see a friendly face, but his arms were folded and he greeted me back with little more than a grunt.
"Why are you being a big huff, O tentacled king of the ball pool and chinchilla island?"
"You know exactly why I am being a big huff."
"I'm afraid I don't."
"Stop trying to embarrass me. You know perfectly well. I'm not going to tell you."
"Is this something to do with me giving the recipe for Fog Juice to Mr. Bulstrode?"
But although I felt I was on the right track, we could not continue our conversation, because at that point the giant chinchilla released a mighty belch, and both I and the tentacled king were launched into orbit, but his attitude became no less pouty despite our sharing of this gravely unfortunate situation. Then I hit an asteroid.
I was shaken from my trance by Penfold, and I was about to reflexively punch him in the face when I noticed the look of absolute deranged panic in his eyes and the cold sweat that drooled down his face and caused the drab colour of his tie to bleed into his collar. "You've got to get out of here," he said.
"Oh, not this again."
"Come on. Quickly."
I followed him sleepily back through the jungle corridors, wondering in exactly what manner my balls had become imperilled this time. He moved with a sort of creeping desperation, occasionally straightening his back and barking out a faux-nonchalant greeting whenever we passed another employee. Finally, we pushed our way past a tree which was signposted 'Printing Room' and into the cramped little darkened cluster of trees where the laserjets were kept.
"What's all this ab-"
"Shft!" he shushed, spraying only a little saliva.
"What's all this about?" I tried again in a low whisper. "I was kind of in the middle of something."
"Look at it!" he hissed, somewhat manically. "Look at it!"
In the short time I had known Penfold, and in the even shorter time I had known him while conscious and sober, I had only ever seen him while he occupied some point on a scale between 'agitated' and 'panic stricken', and the position he occupied on this scale often seemed to be chosen quite randomly, and had very little to do with the current situation's level of severity. So despite his terror I wasn't really expecting to be completely blown away by whatever it was he had to show me. But even I was surprised at how little I reacted to the stack of envelopes lying in the output tray that Penfold was apparently referring to.
"Yees," I said soothingly. "They're called envelopes. They're nothing to be frightened of. Contrary to media scaremongering, there have been no recorded cases of envelopes attacking humans -"
"Look at them!!" he insisted.
So I looked at them, and noticed that columns of figures had been printed down the front of each envelope. Figures that looked suspiciously like the figures I had been sending to the printer. "Oh," I said.
"You've been printing on envelopes!" said Penfold in teary anxiety. "You've been printing on envelopes all day!"
"Oh," I said again. "Oh well."
"Oh well?! Is that all you've got to say?!"
"Well, I didn't have a speech prepared. I suppose I could say 'whoops'."
Penfold was now hastily fiddling with the buttons on the printer, seeking some kind of outlet for his agitation. "I don't understand," he whimpered. "I specifically checked the printers before you started working. I was sure it was set to paper, I was sure of it! Oh god oh god oh god Mr. Bulstrode is going to be so angry..."
I snorted. "Mr. Bulstrode? What's he going to do? So we printed a few documents on envelopes. We've got more envelopes. He could dock our pay, he could suspend our vending machine rights, he could give us the big whip with spikes on the end, but that's not going to bring the envelopes back, is it?"
"You don't understand! He's insane! Bob from the mailroom put the wrong return address on a package once and Mr. Bulstrode held him under the water cooler until he drowned!" He began tipping the rather large stack of printed envelopes into a waste paper basket. "We've got to burn the evidence. Could you go and find a stapler and a piece of flint?"
"Penfold, if we burn the evidence, they'll see the smoke. No, let's just shred them and put them in a bin somewhere."
"There'll be huge amounts of shreddings! We can't put it all in one bin!"
"Then we'll distribute them evenly between all the bins we can find."
"We can't run around the whole office carrying huge piles of shredded envelope! It'd look suspicious!"
I folded my arms. "Well, at least I'm trying! All you do is shoot down my plans and never offer any alternatives! Okay, listen, here's what we'll do. First, we stuff all the shreddings down our trousers. Then we'll walk nonchalantly around the office and nonchalantly wave our legs over each bin we find and let the shreddings fall from our trouser legs into obscurity. Okay?"
He seemed to calm down a little as he took in the genius of my scheme, but his frown remained. "Are you sure it will work?"
"I'll stake my reputation on it."
It was a little bit later.
You could really appreciate the sunny climate of the South Pacific on the top of the island's fibreglass mountain, which on closer inspection turned out to be a fibreglass volcano. Under a serene cloudless sky, the assembled staff of Accountancy Island were gathered around to watch Penfold and me being held on the lip of the volcano by a couple of burly accountants.
"For committing the most heinous crime of printing out documents meant for paper on envelopes," read Maureen aloud from a big vellum scroll, "and for trying to cover up the evidence of their misdemeanour by shaking out the shreddings from their trousers over bins, the management of Accountancy Island decide that these two deviants shall be hurled into the volcano." That was met with a short round of applause.
"Yes, well," I muttered towards Penfold. "On the bright side, I never had much of a reputation to start with."