The trees in the atrium are dying. Nobody can stop them. Specialists have hung small cloth teabags full of biological agents in the branches, and still every morning the building’s smooth marble floor is covered in the detritus of fallen leaves. Some evenings cones and danger tape separate an area in which the specialists work, but the trees still cannot be saved. The company buys a new tree, which arrives with its base wrapped in dark black plastic, and its foliage covered in hole-punctured transparent plastic, but it too is soon as sick as all the others.
Ecological malfeasance say some, bringing these alien plants so far from home. Bees or other insects may be the answer, say others. In truth, nobody knows where the trees are from. Though they have small, intensely green leaves and something that looks like creepers growing around their squat trunks, there is no name for them, no plastic spatula embedded in the earth with both common and Latin names. Are they so different from the trees on the street outside? Those trees are not dying, and the trees in atrium are dying. Everyone is certain that the trees in the atrium are dying.
The trees reach almost to the balconies of the second floor that surround the building’s central lightwell. On a sunny day, to stand underneath them is to feel the light of the sun, intensified in heat and reduced in harmful radiation by the glass of the building’s ceiling, dappled by the small, intensely green leaves of the trees. Being environmentally controlled, the building does not admit of much weather, but if there is a rare, slight breeze, the light of the sun may ripple in and out of vision; it may feel like being stroked.
The building is a new and well-planned place to work: many are jealous of those who work here, those who benefit from a subsidised canteen and a free gym. The atrium is a busy, social area. People hurry beneath the trees to have meetings, to get coffee, to enter and exit the building. Sometimes they forget that the trees are dying, and then remember. Occasionally, an employee is found sitting on the granite pedestal around a tree, sobbing silently. Everybody avoids them, everybody pretends that they don’t do it, but everyone knows why.
It is rumoured, though only rumoured, that there are high-level meetings about the trees, that senior management have discussed the problem but are at a loss to know what to do about it. No mention of these discussions ever appears in the public minutes of executive meetings, and in the monthly staff meetings, senior managers deny that the problem with the trees is not under control. Packets containing a beneficial biological agent have been hung in the branches of the trees, they say: you may have noticed them, they look like teabags. A new tree has been bought.
Perhaps we would be better off without the trees, say some. They clutter the view of the atrium. If there were no trees, we could see this building the way its architect intended. Nonsense, say others: the trees are an integral part of the building, they complement its human and architectonic flow. There is an original maquette of the building in the corner of the atrium, and it is inspected. A perfect scale model of the building, it contains tiny plastic desks and even tiny plastic employees going about their business, but no trees. See, say some: the trees were an afterthought.
It is suggested that the dying of the trees is not a natural process. Somebody has been seen touching a tree in a way that was suspicious: it was late at night, or perhaps early in the morning, a lonely time. Should we not touch the trees? asks someone. Does it hurt the trees to touch them? We shouldn’t ever touch the trees, says someone else. It’s not right to touch them, they didn’t ask to be brought here, they didn’t ask to be touched. It makes me feel better sometimes to touch them, says another person. I would like someone to touch me if I were dying. Only touch them gently, says someone.
In the restaurant on the fifth floor, when it’s noticed that there is an odd tang to the usually bland ocean pie, questions are asked about what the trees might be putting into the atmosphere of the building. Is it the trees themselves, or perhaps the small cloth teabags containing mysterious biological agents that still perch hopefully in the branches of the trees? Nobody knows what the bags contain, nobody has been told. Does the ocean pie really taste different?
There are more leaving parties than normal. People are definitely leaving the company in greater numbers than usual. Everyone has a good reason: they are moving cities, have a better job, pursuing studies or giving birth to children. Nobody is leaving because the trees are dying: it would be ridiculous to leave because of the trees, and besides it is a good building and a good company: there is a pleasant atmosphere and above-average benefits.
Cylindrical monitors are placed in offices and working areas on all floors, to measure the contents of the air. Perhaps it is the atmosphere that is killing the trees, it is suggested. Perhaps our breath, full of artificial colourings and flavourings, carrying tiny particles of dioxin and poison, is killing the trees, someone says. Perhaps we are the problem: the trees are just not compatible with us. We should leave the building to the trees.
Hope comes with spring. New leaves appear on the trees, tiny buds at first and then growing, glowing with chlorophyll: as intensely green, those who can remember say, as the leaves were when the trees first arrived, when the building was new. Certainly greener than the previous year. The feeling of being stroked by the dappled sun when there is a rare slight breeze is treasured, and some arrive for work early just to stand for a few moments in the April sunshine filtered through the roof and branches.
The company prospers. Many of those who left, when people were leaving, have not been replaced, and the company’s wage bill lowered. The company wins a new contract, and though those who are left must work harder to fulfil the contract, everybody is somehow happier because there is work to do. The packets are removed from the branches: maybe they have been successful, though there is still no available wisdom on what the packets contained. It was a pesticide, say some. Invisible agents were attacking the trees and now they are gone. The trees are healthy.
After a long bank holiday weekend, one that many people have made into four days by taking an extra day’s leave, on Tuesday morning, one of the trees is dead. The few leaves still clinging to its branches are grey and crackled, the rest lie on the floor, beyond the reach of souvenir hunters, behind cones and danger tape. Nobody knew that a tree could die so quickly, nobody was ready. Some say it was the new tree that died, and so its death is not really indicative of anything. Others say that it was one of the original trees, and that the new tree is healthy. Of these others there are some in turn who regard the new tree’s health as a good sign, and some who feel that, being newer, it will merely last a little longer than the others.
The next day the dead tree is gone. Was it dismantled or dismembered first? There is no sign of chips or sawdust on the marble floor in the central lightwell, and yet it must have been chopped into pieces says someone, because both front and rear entrances of the building are small revolving doors, suitable only for people: even a dead tree that size could not have been exported through them. If that’s the case, asks someone else, how did the new tree get in here in the first place?
The next few days are days of great anxiety: people wait to see if the other trees have taken a lead from the dead tree or if they will continue to hold onto their small, intensely green leaves. In the fraught atmosphere, questions are asked about the trees in interdepartmental meetings, and managers, normally dismissive of such questions, admit their ignorance of the situation and promise to join temporary project groups. People are afraid of being left off the distribution list of emails about the trees. They look over each others’ shoulders at email clients, scanning subject lines, searching for the smallest hint.
Soon, though, everyone can gather all the information they need with their eyes: the remaining trees have resumed their slow march towards death. The small cloth tea bags reappear, but soon even they fall onto the floor. A member of the maintenance team is assigned the duty of sweeping up the leaves: a small, glum man, he sweeps his v-shaped scissor broom from one end of the floor to the other constantly. To stand underneath a tree now and look upwards into the rippling September sun is to risk being hit in the face with a leaf.
Tears are commoner now that everyone knows the trees are finally, properly dying. Touching the trees is no longer frowned upon: everybody understands the need to touch the trees, and when they leave the building sometimes they touch the trees outside on the streets too, wondering what makes them such strangers to death. People are caught in meetings idly doodling pictures of trees: not trees like the trees in the building but ornate and psychedelic trees, ones that are better. Trees that will live, if only on paper.
It’s not long before the holidays when the last tree dies and, as has become routine, it is gone the next day. Everyone makes a big deal out of looking forward to the Christmas party and secretly plans to find an excuse at the last moment for not attending. As a small group of employees leave the building one early December night, someone says well now we can see the lines of this building, we can see what the architect intended and someone else is heard to say that the way the architect intended this building was not so great after all.