Sunday, 8 January 2017

Guardians of the Watchhouse

Day 40 ( Monday January 9th 2017)

40 years is the sentence given, on March 24th 2016, to
Ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić after being found
guilty of 
genocide and crimes against humanity
committed during the 
Bosnian War

Today is the start of the first full working week of January 2017 (well at least it is in the UK). 

Be warned - today's post, by Siobhan Sheridan, is quite long for a blog, but well worth reading. It might be one to savour in your lunch break or to read by the fire when you get home this evening. It is traditional to tell spooky tales around Christmas and the New year and it is a delight to have Siobhan maintaining the tradition whilst simultaneously drawing attention to a dire hollow that so many of us may be in via her cautionary tale.

When she is not writing short stories, Siobhan is the much-respected HR Director of People and OD of the UK-based charity, the NSPCC (founded in 1884 and originally called the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children). She became a contributor to the Advent Blogs series for the first time last year and wrote one of the most popular piecesSiobhan commenced her career in a customer-facing role in retail banking and soon found herself responsible for training others. She transferred into HR via Learning & Development. She has an impressive track record, moving from Financial Services into the Public sector, where she was HR Director for both Defra and the Department for Work and Pensions, before becoming a much liked and respected leader within the Not For Profit arena. She has a strong moral core, a great sense of humour and, as her writing below demonstrates, a creative streak. Siobhan is active on social media. You can follow her on Twitter, her handle is @SiobhanHRSheri.


Guardians of the Watchhouse

Sally took another sip of her Earl Grey tea. It had been a long, hard day at work and she was rewarding herself with her favourite cuppa in the little café around the corner from her house. She was tired, it had been a long and demanding day. She gazed wearily around her.

The café was an unusual octagonal building. With seats for only half a dozen people. Originally built in the 19th century it’s interior brick walls showed the signs of many whitewashings as it had latterly been a wash house for laundry.

 Her nostrils were tickled by the faint smell of wood burning in the little stove mingled with the sweet smell of the last few cakes being served to the rag tag bag of customers coming in late in the evening before close.

She looked out of the little window beside her and caught a glimpse of the moon rising over the church graveyard. There was a poster on the wall that explained the history of the place but she was always far too busy when she was in there to read it.

She began to reflect on the day’s work and found herself smiling. A good day all in all. The new organisational values program was being rolled out and everyone was learning about what the organisation expected from them. The leadership development training program was similarly explaining the new model of leadership and the redundancies that were needed to meet next year’s head count savings were also well in train. Sally reflected on how far she had come in her career and how lucky she was to now be in a position where she was entirely responsible for the HR function in her organisation. People said she was good at what she did, whilst she always shook her head politely when they said this, she secretly hoped that maybe they were right.

Savouring the last sips of the aromatic Earl Grey she took one last look out of the window. And then another… And another…

What on earth was going on out there?

In the faint glimmer of the moonlight she could see two figures. With a spade. 

And they were pulling vigorously at something on the ground. Sally looked around her at the few remaining customers to see whether any of them had noticed but they were all carrying on with their coffee, cake and Christmas conversation.

She wanted to ignore what she had seen but felt a rising mix in the pit of her stomach of something between curiosity and fear. She grabbed her coat and laptop and rushed out of the door. The festive lights in her house window sparkled invitingly just a few hundred yards down the street but instead she turned right and through the huge old iron gates that had been the guardians of the graveyard for many years. Or so she thought.

As the scene came more closely into view she found herself looking at two men, their age indeterminable through the grime on their pallid grey faces and their clothes somewhat ragged, torn, and strewn with mud.

Sally summoned up all the courage she could muster.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ she said in a voice slightly squeakier than that which she had been hoping for.

‘Whadd’ya mean what are we doing?’ Said the taller man. ‘Ain’t it obvious.’

“If it was obvious I wouldn’t be asking.’ She said, somewhat more sternly having regained control of her vocal chords.

‘Bodies’ He said. ‘We’re here for the bodies.’

‘You’re digging up bodies? From the graveyard? What on earth! In this day and age!’

The smaller man eyed her witheringly.

‘Look I don’t know what you’re getting all bent out of shape about. You’re clearly one of us.’

“One of you! I am most definitely not one of you!’

‘Well you’re not one of them. So you must be one of us.’ He said firmly.

Resurrection Men - displayed in the Museum of London
‘I really am losing the plot here.’ Sally said. ‘What do you mean I’m not one of them?‘
‘One of them, from the Watch Tower. We saw you came from there and at first I said to Fred here that you must be one of them lot that guard the graveyard at night looking for us body snatchers. But then Fred reminded me that them’s struggling to get in to work because of some train strike or other. So then we knew you must be one of us.’

‘Look I am not one of you and I am not one of them. I’m an HR Director for Gods sake!’

They eyed each other and nodded knowingly.

‘Look Missy Jean HR Director, everyone knows that the only people who can see a body snatcher is another body snatcher, and the Guardians obviously. We wish that they couldn’t as we’d earn a lot more money if they’d leave us alone but they can. So take your pick?’

‘Now if you’ll excuse us.’ Said Fred ‘We’ve done here and your yelping about God has put me right off my stride digging, so we’re off now. Got all the bits and bobs we need for this evening.’

Resurrection Men, by Thomas Rowlandson
From the Wellcome Library
And with that they set off dragging a heavy linen sack in the direction of Tower Bridge.

She was left with no option but to head for home. Back out the gate and past the café which was just beginning to close. She popped back inside briefly, the warmth of the fire sending shivers through her chilled bones. No one seemed to notice her, and there was certainly no indication that they had witnessed the scene outside. She took her glasses out of her bag and leaned in to read the poster on the wall.
‘Built in the 19th century this building was a Watch House for guards to look out for the body snatchers who would use the dark cover of night to try and exhume recently buried corpses to steal away for medical research or other purposes.’
Putting her glasses back into her bag she headed home to wrestle with trying to sleep.
Finding it Hard to Sleep - by Karole Amooty, 2012
The next day at work she tried to get the previous evening's events out of her mind. Perhaps she had been working too hard, perhaps she needed a break. Yes, that was it, she would book a holiday or a weekend away to look forward to in the New Year.

“Sally’ her reverie was interrupted by Anthony…

‘We need to get the content of the Values added into the Performance Management system this week. Have you signed off the behavioural framework yet?
She had taken that home to do yesterday evening and the scene in the graveyard had distracted her.

‘I’ll look at them before I leave today Anthony. Important that we get them in place before year end so that people's year end performance ratings really depend on it.’

As the words formed on her lips they felt strange to her. Almost like a foreign language that didn’t quite feel real.

It was very late that evening when she returned towards home having stayed to the do the work that she had promised to Anthony. 

She walked slowly along the street, accompanied by a single urban fox out foraging through bin bags left out for the morning collection. 

As she approached the café she expected to find it in darkness as it was long past their closing time but through the window she glimpsed movement and a little glimmer, like candlelight flickering on the ancient glass. The door was slightly ajar. Burglars, she wondered? It seemed unlikely, not much in there to steal. She pushed the door just enough to peak her head around it. The fire was flickering invitingly in the wood burning stove and a wave of warmth tickled her skin.

“Hello lovely!’ he said cheerily ‘Everything alright? Come on in if you like.’ He was a smiley man with eyes that twinkled mischievously behind his dark rimmed glasses and seemed to light up his beautiful grey hair.

“I’m G’ he said ‘this is T.’ Looking down to the stone floor she glimpsed a shaggy little dog. ‘G&T” he laughed heartily at his own joke.

“What are you doing in here at this time of night? I thought they were closed.’

‘Well ‘they’ are, but our business has to go on doesn’t it! Fight the good fight and all of that!’ He laughed, a huge hearty laugh which seemed to pierce through her slightly dark mood. She found herself becoming curious about this man and his little companion.

‘When you say ‘our business’ what do you mean?’ she said.

‘Do sit down lovely, you look like your legs are going to buckle underneath you. 

Let me get you a cuppa and then we can chat. Earl Grey isn’t it?’

‘Perfect’ she said sinking wearily and gratefully onto the wooden bench.

‘Well, clearly you are one of us or you wouldn’t be able to see me.’ He eyed her over the top of his glasses, eyes bright and warm. She melted under the gentleness of his gaze and began to sob.

‘What’s up lovely? What’s up?’

‘I don’t know. I met them last night you see. And I could see them too. And now I can see you. And now I feel really scared and confused and…..’ her sobs were getting deeper, she was gulping for breath in between words and desperately trying to do something about the river of snot streaming from her nose.

He handed her a handful of napkins. “What are you scared about lovely?’

‘I’m scared that I’m one of them. That I’m a body snatcher.’ She wailed loudly as she pronounced the last words, pulled her legs up onto the bench and hugged them into her chest, rocking backwards and forwards slightly and sobbing.

‘There, there.’ He smiled gently. ‘Tell me all about it.’

And in between sobs, she tried to explain.

“Well I met them last night and one of the things that they said that they were taking peoples bodies to use for their own purposes and sometimes just bits of peoples bodies and discarding others bits.’

‘Yes, that’s what they do I’m afraid.’ His face was more serious now but still gentle.

‘Well when I was at work today I realised that’s what I have been doing all this time. It’s exactly the same. We take people who are perfectly lovely human beings and ask them to bring their bodies to work but only in the way that we want them to. To let us use bits of their bodies and their brains but not other bits. We bring them in, pay them a wage and tear out their heart and soul. We use the bits of them that we want, while we want to, and then discard them when they’ve served their purpose. I thought what I was doing was good and useful and important and it's not….it’s HORRID!!!!’ And with that she flung herself onto the cold stone floor, the sobs wracked her entire body now as she buried her head in her arms.

T looked at his master for permission and, seeing him nod encouragingly he padded over to her, wriggled his face under her arm and gently started to lick away her tears. G waited for T to work his magic and slowly Sally’s tears started to slow. 
G picked her up from the floor and led her back to sit on the wooden bench.

‘It really is ok’ he said. ‘You see, all of us who are Guardians in the Watch Tower were in your position once too.’

“Really?’ Sally couldn’t quite believe that this Magi-like being had ever been as screwed up as she was feeling right now.

‘Yes. Of course! HR folks, consultants, learning and development types, all Guardians now. It’s really important, if you are going to do the kind of work that we do, to have skirted on the edge of the deep hollow that is the Dark Side. Without understanding that you can’t really hope to understand how to help the living truly live. Body snatching is a tricky thing and it happens very subtly, in many ways and in many different parts of life. What you have experienced until now has equipped you very well to become a Guardian. In fact, I’d say you are already well on your way.’

Sally found herself feeling a little calmer.

‘So what do I need to do? I don’t want to be a body snatcher.’

‘Hmmm. Now let me have a good look at you.’ He sat for a long time and watched her. It didn’t feel uncomfortable like it usually would if someone was staring at you Sally thought. More as though he was really seeing her. Looking into her heart.

After a long pause he looked at her over the top of his glasses and smiled.
‘I know precisely what the next step in your Guardian training should be. I think you need an opportunity to reflect on all that you have experienced but it needs to be somewhere that will nurture you and take care of you. I sense that this has all come as rather of a shock. You will need to be ready for the next stage. These body snatchers are tricky beings and you need to be firing on all cylinders.’

Rare body snatching headstone, Stirling, 1823
Showing a person fighting back against them.
“OK, a rest sounds good. I had been thinking about taking a holiday’ said Sally.

‘I’m going to suggest that you go to spend some time with some of the Guardians at Berkhamstead Heights. You must be absolutely sure that you want to follow this path before you go there. You will never be able to go back to seeing things the way that you did before. So before you decide, are you absolutely sure you want things to be different?’

Sally looked away and thought. She remembered back two nights before and how happy she had been with the day’s work that she had done. She knew that the work that she was doing people valued her for. It was what had made her successful, taken her into fabulous jobs in amazing organisations. Her parents were proud of what she had achieved. She was surrounded by a network of other people who did the same things in the similar ways. And it was easy, she didn’t really have to think about it anymore, models and structures and processes fell off her tongue easily and were implemented with practiced ease. At this stage in her life she could easily continue with that for another few years and then shuffle off into the world of part time assignments or something. Or could she?

The little dog clambered onto her lap, turned himself around twice and curled up in a ball she reached down to stroke his beautiful soft curly fur. She could feel his breathing becoming slower and more regular and the warmth of his body warmed her legs. This little animal, so trusting, so loving, so totally and completely giving of himself. He was really quite phenomenal. Phenomenal. The word reminded her of a gift that she had been given once by a young man that she had coached. He had given her a copy of Maya Angelou’s book ‘Phenomenal Woman’. With a beautiful note inside about how she had helped him to reclaim who he was and to decide to leave the organisation that he was in and move on. It had touched her deeply. She remembered crying when she read it. Gradually other examples slipped into her mind of times that she felt that she had helped people to be able to bring the whole of themselves to work, in all of their beautiful glorious technicolour detail and her heart began to lift.

She turned back to G.

“I want to go.’


‘Yes. To Berkhamstead Heights. I’m ready.’

He smiled. They rose from their respective wooden benches and he gave her a gentle hug.

“Have a wonderful time.’ He said cheerily. ‘And perhaps come back to the Watch House to see T and me for another cuppa when you get back.’

The Watch House Cafe, Bermondsey Street, London

1 comment:

  1. Great work Siobhan - beautifully written, and an excellent concept...