“In a minute we’ll ask you how much you expect to earn,” says the elder of the two, who lightly drums his large arthritic fingers upon the polished surface of the oak conference table. I hadn’t expected this at the start of the interview. I nod cautiously and try not to appear surprised. “Before though, we’d like you to tackle this problem,” he says and then slides a sheet of paper and a pencil with their corporate logo over to me.
A train is travelling at sixty kilometres per hour. A switch to direct the train onto a second track is three kilometres away. No problem. A second train is travelling in the opposite direction along the same track. It is two kilometres from the switch and has an initial velocity of forty kilometres per hour and it is accelerating at one metre per second squared. The switch operator is late and he dashes to flick the switch. He runs at nine kilometres per hour and is two hundred metres from the switch. I twiddle the pencil and fight the urge to bite it. There’s a shipment of oranges on the first train, kiwi fruit and bananas on the second. Will they make fruit salad?
“Hurry please!” the younger one says. My pulse races, my hands sweat and then time is up.
“Never mind,” the older one says. “Most get it wrong. It just goes to shows how overrated a degree can be. How much do you want?”
Cheap trick, nonetheless I mumble when I tell him. He leans back in his leather chair, swivels and smiles at the younger one, who pretends to read my CV. They both then turn to me and the elder one says, “You know we include a black Audi?”
“Yes, I heard.”
“And a generous allowance for black suits.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Do you have one?”
“I can get one.”
They look at one another and something unspoken passes between them. When the elder one addresses me he has a look upon his face that says the small talk is already over. “We demand a lot, but our rewards are high. We could certainly match your price.”
I hold my breath.
“Can you take the stress?”
“I think so.”
“Well if you make it through, we’ll put you to the test.”
I search for a response: I look forward to that?
The younger one turns to the other and says, “Tell him about the test.”
The elder one explains: “It’s company policy. You take the stress test every few years. There is a chamber with a floating ceiling. The ceiling is heavy but provided you work as a team and hold it up —there is a time requirement, it’s manageable.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“It’s about team work, sharing the load, holding out against the stress. Put to a practical test.”
“Ah, now I’m following,” I say although I’m not. “Sounds interesting.”
The younger one chuckles once, like a hiccup. It’s the kind of chuckle that says, “Damned fool!” “Oh, it is interesting,” he says, “It can also be bloody.”
“You know we expect you to donate blood on a regular basis?”
“I read it somewhere. For charity I suppose.”
“No, we drink it.”
I force a laugh despite the younger one’s sardonic humour. at my expense. They both look at one another, neither laugh.
“If the team lowers their arms,” continues the elder one, “the ceiling gets heavier. For every centimetre that the ceiling lowers, another ten kilograms is added to the weight. You can imagine what would happen if the ceiling slips by fifty centimetres.”
“Half a tonne?”
“Ah, they still teach maths I see. Yes that’s right,” he says. “It’s worth the sacrifice though. It only takes one rotten fellow to spoil it for the rest. It seems a shame, but we’d rather the whole team come undone in the controlled environment of the chamber than for us to do so in the financial market. We consider it quality control.”
“Sorry, what do you mean?”
“Sometimes the ceiling falls. People get hurt.”
The younger one huffs and gives the other a stern look. “Don’t dilly dally! Tell it like it is. The team gets crushed. Its flowers, a handsome payout and a touching letter to the grieving loved ones.”
“Okay, yes that is how it is,” says the elder one, “although there’s almost always one survivor.”
I suppose they’re joking, but it certainly is in bad taste. I read that somewhere—in Forbes Magazine. They were known to be ruthless and for their black humour. “Just one survives?”
“The one that drops first. That one can lay flat while the others crumple.”
“Or pop like bursting watermelons,” says the younger one.
“The ceiling stops thirty centimetres from the floor. Enough for a big head,” says the elder one, who then pats his bald scalp.
“You’ve taken the test when the ceiling fell?” I ask.
“I was the only one who walked away.”
“No, I dropped.”
The younger one laughs and slaps the table. I pretend not to notice. “Why?”
“There is sometimes a rotten egg. I had him picked when we went into the chamber. I knew he’d fold so I beat him to it.”
“You don’t get very far in this world by being otherwise,” the elder one says. They both smile at me and I hope they’re joking, but what if they’re not? I sense then that the job is mine if I want it. I wanted it—the corporate life, the big dollars. That is success, right? Perhaps they’re right—you’ve got to be heartless.
“I need a little time,” I say when the offer is made.
Still seated they watch me walk for the door and the hairs stand on my neck. They know I’m not coming back, but they aren’t bothered. Out in reception, with quickened pulses and ties drawn tight, the other applicants wait. Fresh blood is for the taking.