Killing the Cat

Keith June 29th, 2009

“Hey, what does that sign mean?”

“What sign?” asked the taxi driver.

“That one that just says ‘Miller’,” asked the passenger.

“Dunno, never noticed it.”

When the taxi arrived at the airport terminal, Brian pulled out his briefcase and bag, and wandered in towards the airline lounge. He tried to remember whether he had seen that sign before or not. Like so much of the scenery on the frequent trips to Sydney Airport, he was not really consciously aware of it. He was usually mentally reviewing the last meeting of the day, or contemplating the prospect of getting home again.

At the service desk, while checking on the possibility of an upgrade for his seat, he asked the attractive, uniformed girl behind the desk if she had ever noticed the sign.

“What sign, Mr. Crewe? No, I can’t say I’ve ever seen it.” Brian put it out of his mind, as he walked over to the bar for a quiet gin and tonic while waiting for the plane.

Some weeks later, as he quietly sipped an early cup of coffee in the lounge at Tullamarine, Brian’s attention was diverted from the newspaper by an announcement over the PA. “Would Mr. Miller, passenger on flight 416 to Sydney, please report to the service desk.”

“Huh!” thought Brian, the name triggering a memory, “I wonder what he looks like?” He looked back down at his paper, not taking the thought seriously. A little later, the boarding call came, and he pushed away his empty cup and walked off to the departure lounge.

“… so, I’m sure you will agree, that if we accept the results of the trial as indicative, we should see some true business benefits achieved by the full implementation of the new system.” Brian was pleased with the results of the presentation. The MD personally thanked him, and promised sign-off at the next board meeting. He smiled quietly to himself as the taxi battled the Friday night traffic down Botany Road.

“You’re pretty happy with that, Brian?” asked Kevin.

“Sorry? Oh, yeah. I didn’t expect such a quick response from them, I must say. Your explanation of the changes in the technology really helped, too.”

“No worries,” responded Kevin. “That’s why I’m part of the team – hey, that must be their Alexandria office there.” The taxi crawled past a large industrial site.

“Yes, that’s it,” confirmed Brian. Suddenly, another sign caught Brian’s eye. “Kevin, what’s ‘Miller’?”

“What’s who?”

“Oh, it’s probably nothing. I’ve seen that sign a few times, but I have no idea who or what it’s about. I don’t even know why it’s caught my eye.”

“What sign? asked Kevin, “I can’t say I’ve noticed it. After all, I don’t get up here as often as you do.”

“Never mind. You’ve got your work cut out for you now, getting the delivery schedule arranged …” The conversation wandered back into business. Later, at the lounge, while talking about their respective plans for the weekend, Brian just caught part of the announcement: “… please report to the service desk. Mr Miller.”

That night, as they walked to the bedroom after a late tea, Brian said to his wife: “Funny coincidence. I keep hearing the name ‘Miller’.”

“Oh?” said Michelle, “What about it?”

“It just seemed an odd coincidence.”

“Uh huh. We had a Mr. Miller in our office today. Business consultant, down from Sydney.”

“Really? There was a Miller on the plane down tonight.”

“Couldn’t have been the same one, then.”

“No, I guess not. What time do the kids need to be at this party tomorrow?”

Sometimes, the mind can play strange tricks on us. Insignificant, unrelated things can appear to become overwhelmingly important and meaningful, and take on strange new meanings. There was a story once about a ‘roadie’ for a rock band, who finally figured out why microphone leads always seem to disappear, and power cords seem to accumulate. He explained his theory to his sceptical colleagues, but got short shrift. One day, a new bass amplifier just appeared on stage after a show, as if by magic. Before our hero was able to convince anyone of his discovery of a new form of evolution, he was found back-stage – dead. Hanging from a power cord.

Brian dredged through his e-mail. “How can I possibly have 60 new messages?” he demanded of Louise, his Sales Assistant in the next office cubicle.

“Well, you have been in Perth all week.”

“But I was checking my mail on my lap-top!”

“Obviously not often enough. Did you get the one about the presentation by Miller?”

“Miller? No, who’s that?”

“They are the new multi-media company we are entering a joint venture with” advised Louise.

“Never heard of them. But I’ve certainly heard the name before.”

“Really? They’re fairly new.”

“Never mind. I can’t see the message. I must have deleted it already. I can’t afford the time to go to all these free lunches.”

“Okay. I’ve heard that they are pretty good operators. The Sydney office saw them last week. Everybody was impressed.”

***

“Now, Belinda, it’s time to turn off your light and go to sleep.”

“But, Daddy …” she pouted.

“No, that’s enough reading now. You can finish your book tomorrow night.”

“But Mr. Miller said we have to finish it by tomorrow!”

“Who?”

“Mr. Miller. He’s our temporary teacher. Ms. Ritchie is having a baby, remember!”

“Oh, yes. I forgot. Anyway, it’s too late to read any more.”

“When’s Mummy coming home?”

“She’ll be home tomorrow, when you get home from school.”

“Oh, good. I miss Mummy.”

“She’s only been away at her conference for two days.”

“I know. But I still miss her.”

“Okay. Good night.”

“Good night, Daddy.”

Brian dimmed the light, and gently closed the door. He went off to the study to finish typing up a sales report. He looked at his watch. Michelle should have finished dinner by now. On cue, the phone rang. He picked it up quickly, before the noise disturbed the children.

“Hi darling!”

“Hi. How’s the conference?”

“Good. Tiring, though. I’m going straight to bed.”

“What? You’re not staying up partying all night?”

“Ha ha! I don’t think so!”

“How was your dinner?”

“Great. I was talking to John over dinner. He’s very entertaining.”

Brian felt slightly miffed. “John?”

“You know, John Miller, the business consultant.”

“Oh, right. Did you say Miller?”

“Yes, he’s been facilitating our business planning session this afternoon.”

If I hear that name again today, I’ll scream, thought Brian. “Okay. Busy day tomorrow?”

“Yes and no. Golf for most of it. John’s offered to teach me how to play.”

“How nice. I thought you couldn’t stand the game?”

“Maybe it’s time I changed. Might help my career.”

John changed the subject. Eventually they said goodnight, and he put down the phone.

The world of dreams is a strange place, where reality blurs, and everything seems perfectly logical. When you wake up fully, you realise how unreal things were in that limbo of the mind. As the dream-world slips from your grasp, you laugh about how it could ever have seemed real.

Brian was restless. He couldn’t get comfortable. Dreams faded in and out. He was at a service desk in an airport. The man at the desk looked up and asked if he was Mr. Miller.

“No, I’m Brian Crewe.”

“That’s all right, Mr. Miller. We had a message for you, that’s all.”

“No, I said my name is not Miller.”

He was handed a phone. The voice on the other end said that there was a call from Miller, would he hold the line, please?

Belinda tugged at his sleeve. She said, “Look at my picture, Mr. Miller.”

Then he was walking into his office.

“Why’s the company sign been changed, Louise?”

“Didn’t you know? We are now working for the new company; the joint venture with Miller.”

The phone was in his hand again. He was asking to speak to Mrs. Crewe, please.

“I’m sorry,” said the receptionist. “She’s in a meeting with Mr. Miller. Can I ask her to call you back?”

Brian woke up suddenly, in a sweat. He stumbled out of bed, and got a drink of water. He tried to make some sense of the dream, but it receded from his memory as he grappled with it.

The next day in the office, he asked his colleague what was happening with the new joint venture.

“This supposed to be a big secret, you know,” Kevin warned him. “Don’t spread it too far. But from what I’ve heard, they have their own sales force. I’m a bit worried that some of us mightn’t be around for much longer.”

“You’re joking! I haven’t heard anything like that. I thought it was just a joint venture.”

“Sure,” said Kevin. “That’s where it started. But it looks like going a lot further than that.”

“We’d better look busy. You know that Sydney deal looks like unravelling.”

“That’s bad news, Brian. What happened?”

“I don’t know. It started going bad as soon as this Miller thing started up.”

“Hey – you said something about a sign on the way back from that meeting in Sydney. Must have been a bad omen.”

“I don’t believe in omens,” said Brian, “but I’m starting to wish I hadn’t seen it.”

Brian felt ill as he drove home from the office that night. Suddenly, everything seemed to go dark.

Stress can kill. Threats and fears that have no tangible reality can take on enormous proportions in our mind. Sometimes, we can consciously combat these fears. Other times, we are not even aware of the chimaeric nature of these fears. Our body doesn’t know the difference. The feared, imagined world is reality, and the body acts accordingly.

He woke up in a hospital bed, feeling somewhat disoriented. Michelle faded into view.

“What happened?”

“Don’t you remember?” Michelle asked anxiously. “You had a car accident last night. We’ve been very worried.”

Brian gradually became aware of a variety of aches and pains. There was a plaster on his leg. Michelle smiled bravely at him.

Over the next few days, Brian slowly recovered. Doctors talked to him about stress, and the need to review his lifestyle. He could see green grass outside his hospital window. He couldn’t remember the last time he had paid attention to such a view.

Kevin came in to tell him how much they missed him in the office. “You know that merger thing? It’s all off. Nobody seems to know why. We finally got approval for the Sydney project, too.”

“Great. Although, somehow I find it hard to get excited just at the moment.”

The doctor talked to Brian about taking some extended leave from work. “I’m taking a few weeks off myself, next week,” he said.

The children came in often. Belinda was bursting with the news that Ms. Ritchie was back at school, and had brought in her new baby to show everyone. Michelle talked about her work occasionally. “It’s just as well you have plenty of paid sick leave, and that medical insurance is covering everything. I wouldn’t be keen to go back full time.”

“I thought you wanted to advance your career?”

“Well, sometimes. But I like to have time at home. The kids have really needed me this last little while.”

“What about all that business planning you were working on?”

Michelle paused. “Well, that seems to have gone quiet. That consultant has changed jobs, and gone overseas. Everyone seems to have lost interest in that now.”

Brian was lying back in his bed that night, slowly drifting off to a peaceful sleep. The nurse came in and checked his pulse, and gave him his medication. As Brian settled down, she slid the card with the departing doctor’s name out of the holder at the head of the bed, and replaced it with a card for the new doctor. It read “Dr. Miller.”

First published in “TableAus”, the Australian Mensa magazine, Jun/Jul 1999.
Also published in
Issue 49 of Ibn Qirtaiba, the former Mensa SF SIG’s regular publication. 

2 Responses to “Killing the Cat”

  1. RJon 27 Sep 2011 at 12:40 pm

    I forgot how good this is. Noticing things like ‘Miller’ and then connecting them as patterns in your mind is a primitive instinct left over from our hunter gatherer days. It helps to track prey and find your way back to familiar places without getting lost. There is not much use for it now and it usually just confuses things in the mind. I always notice the Volkswagen symbol :S

  2. Keithon 27 Sep 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Well, thank you! :-)

    It’s known as the Reticular Activating System, by the way.

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