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From Issue 54
Debt recovery officer Lenka has yellow hair, with roots growing out down the strands. Every month the hairs, as she calls them, are cut and dyed. Her nails are hot pink, but she’s cool, a Tony Leung, or Jean Seberg (though the cigarettes in her rucksack are Marlboro, not Lucky Strikes). She goes through a cutting-down phase, and then quits altogether, coming in to work with a patch on her shoulder, which she moulds and presses as if to smooth the nicotine’s passage inwards. ‘It’s just plastic,’ she says. ‘I think it’s a placebo to be honest.’ She also has a book, which she reads covertly when work is slow. She announces that in 32 hours the amount of oxygen in her body will have increased by two per cent, she looks forward to that. In 50 years, now that she has stopped, she will have the same chances against cancer as everyone else. She looks forward to that. Throughout the day she snacks on fruit, and little potato crisps cut in the shape of bears. She is careful with the English language, which is not her own, asking a colleague to read over her emails before they go out, and consequently operates at a grammatical level significantly more accurate than that of her fellow workers. Elsewhere, capitalised common nouns are rife, unchecked. Met with an unfamiliar word, Lenka looks it up and will use it, in the future, with some style, never letting up on the slow incremental build of her knowledge.
Her eyes are so pale as to seem sometimes disconcerting, as when, apparently busy on the phone, she turns, all the while soothing the difficult Mrs So-and-So in her lyrical English, to smile across the desk at Susan, showing the slightly pointed tips of her teeth. Just then her wideset eyes make her something not quite of this world, and Susan shakes her head in sympathy, and taps her pen on the desk, wishing she were five years younger, five pounds slighter. Lenka’s desktop background is of a wood in autumn, bronzes and russets, crisp in the sunlight, reminding her perhaps of her former home, the always-abbreviated Czech. Susan’s desktop still blankly displays a virginal blue. Two months into a job, she thinks, considering the joyful effect on the soul of Lenka’s Octoberish vista, is really too far in to be asking how to change the wallpaper.
Gone 11, Wednesday, mid-week, well into the new quarter. Some invoice queries, one deceased client in particular causing a stink from beyond the grave: a troublesome relative stands between the Team and the Funds, firing off missive after poorly-punctuated missive, which never fail to reach Susan’s in-tray, despite the repeated substitution, perhaps wheedling, placatory, of Allright for her maiden Allbright. She’d taken the name back after the divorce, hoping it would deliver up some of its promised incandescence. No such luck, the air-conditioning wreaks havoc on her skin and she feels tired around the eyes all the time nowadays.
Lenka aims an apple core at the waste-paper bin and scores. She stands up and stretches.
Tea?’ ‘Yes, oh please,’ Susan says, and holds up a mug, second of the morning. She watches her colleague’s narrow and straight back move away, dipping sinuous and strong about the Team to take orders for coffee decaf, another tea for Dot please – puts the tea in Team! – and a fruit one, winter berries, Kat in the corner is on a detox, end of a relationship slump, self-worth needs an upper. Susan, eyes back front, wiggles the mouse but it’s crashed, pointer locked in its spreadsheet prison, leaving the secrets of the formula =SUM(C3: C19) hidden. ‘System down?’ asks Dot. The others, vigorous, mock frustrated, give verbal assent, but Susan only nods. For her there is some little dissatisfaction, cut off mid-task, an email in the inbox posing a question she cannot quite answer, and the thing of the tea – two months in the job so really her turn, but when she offers up her services, ready to arm herself with the floral tray and a list of desired beverages, it’s always a non-starter. ‘No, not for me, thanks Sue,’ quarter past 10 or three-forty apparently the mystical times when her teammates don’t want a drink, and they continue to look very busy at their work-stations, leaving her making tea for one and sipping it too fast, resenting the insipid liquid as it burns her tongue, branding her with its non-communal aspect. Here comes Lenka now, competent, capable, balancing her microcosm of Team in front of her with ease. Susan is too grateful for this superior liquid, and is made aware of this fact by Lenka’s mm-hmm and nod, the only response necessary to so many simpering thank yous.
The mornings are slow, she’s not on the phones yet, but is ever poised cat-like for the times when they ring wistfully unanswered, while Joan is on a cigarette break, perhaps, and Dot over at the scanning station, but always as her fingers yearn toward the receiver, in swoops team-leader Liz, and Susan smiles, a little sadly, and applies herself to allocating the cheques – really, after all, she’s too busy to be dealing with these old-age pensioners, delusional, amnesiac, tortoise-slow under their living-room lamps, phoning up to ask the date, or their own name.
The temperature has dropped, a shiver of air-con animates this section of the office, while over in Accounts there’s a heatwave. They’re all in flip-flops and short-sleeve blouses, enjoying the tinted glass panorama over the car parks, which stand in for formal lawns, to the gas container beyond; a fop’s folly closing off the view. Sunshine catches in the foil of sweets for another Team birthday. Cold though, here, and about the Team goes the dialogue, is it just me or – no, it’s really, was so sunny when I got out of bed. Kat is booking annual leave, to exclamations of you lucky thing, Cyprus, oh you deserve it a nice girlie do, pamper yourself, and she leans back in her chair and sighs, and would be stretched on a deck with a cocktail and an empty sky, and in this is happy. Yes, she deserves a break, time off, after what Jason did and Chelle supposed to be her mate the bitch, and she allows herself the indulgence of eyes closed, forming shapes across her lids of the men she will know, for now lilac and green imprints on her eyelids, promises of fumbling escape in dusty lands. ‘Only seven days to go,’ she says aloud, grinning, then opens her eyes; seven days to go means only 14 before she’s here again, swivelling circles on a chair designed to maximise the efficiency of its occupant, and the nights will be getting longer again, and soon it will be winter, three years here and her mum forgetting to go to her appointments, to feed the cats. Kat stands up: ‘Toilet,’ she says, tipped abruptly off the bobbing lilo of a good mood.
All afternoon the system is down. Susan resorts to envelope stuffing, glad to have perfected this mechanical action, scoring a precise crease below ‘Financial Services’ so the address hovers bang centre in its little window, causing no unnecessary confusion and delay in the post room, because really the two men who work up there are semi-literate beings, wheeling their trolleys about and grunting their thanks to whomsoever pauses to hold a door for them. One, the older, reminds Susan of her ex-husband, a little, around the jaw. She always smiles at him; he never looks her in the eye, and she is left smiling at the world.
‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ Lenka says, waving a letter and swooping about in her chair to face Susan. ‘What is it?’ Susan manages, and after peering at the document and returning to one of her envelopes, she is dumbfounded for a minute to see the little plastic window revealing only the white backside of a piece of paper; in the wrong way round. It’s a funeral bill, as it turns out, Lenka uttering surprise at a coffin fully furnished – ‘What, is there a TV in there or something?’ She followed a funeral procession on her bike that morning, hates them. Great start to the day! And Susan laughs and says, ‘Funerals are horrible,’ which is not what she means at all, being someone who, naturally melancholic, is drawn to these occasions of communion, knowing for once exactly how to behave, even while acknowledging the deeply clichéd weight of the words which come so naturally to the grieving. At her mother’s funeral she was referred to as Katherine instead of just plain Kate, and every time those two added syllables asserted themselves Susan felt the whole thing becoming more and more detached from her, her sensibilities, until she was burying a stranger. Just her father’s weakened frame, silenced for once in his cocksure life, and the dignity of those who knew how to hold themselves, being not closely linked to the late Mrs Allbright, not aware of her somewhat regressive views on immigration policy or her obsession for completing magazine surveys for credits she never got the chance to cash in. Twelve years ago, already. ‘What are you going to do with a funeral bill anyway?’ Susan says, laughing to show that this is in jest, and is rewarded with ‘exactly, exactly’. Lenka lowers her voice then – ‘Can you smell something? ’s like burning candles, or cables. Something. Smells like a funeral’ – then she sets to, fiddling at the back of her computer for loose connections, for the lingering odour of death which sure enough has set in with the afternoon, something smoky and sweet, and Susan joins in, pointing her long nose in the direction of the filing cabinets and inhaling. ‘Worse thing is, smells like my family,’ Lenka adds, pausing her fruitless search, cradling her mug of tea close to her belly. Susan picks up her own mug and places it against her stomach: a mirror, swollen and blotched with time, held up to the vitality of youth. She imagines Lenka stretching to paint the corners of her newly done-up kitchen, magnolia flecks on her cheek, humming a tune to herself, and is glad.
‘Want to see how many apples I’ve eaten?’
There is no time for a question mark in response, for Lenka has already dropped to her knees, head under the desk. Susan, slowly, relishing, puts the mug down and kneels, cautiously, moving her head forward, tilting it up. Gleaming jewel-bright against the mock-pine underside of the desk are the red and green stickers of a thousand apples. ‘It’s bad, isn’t it?’ says Lenka, but Susan has no words.
Soon the system is back and Lenka is busy with recovery letters, and then is getting up to leave, saying, ‘See you tomorrow’. And it is as if they have coursed a route together, traversing sticker stepping-stones, green then red, red then green, through the ever-renewing office air, and its particles of flexitime, and rules governing acceptable use of ICT, and monthly team by team stats pinned up by the printer. She says ‘I hate it, every day of the week, see you tomorrow, until Friday and it’s see you Monday, every day for the next thirty years,’ and Susan can say only ‘Yes, well bye, let’s say bye,’ and the younger woman nods and replies in kind and is gone, leaving Susan staring through her blue screen, making circles with her mouse cursor.
Four-thirty already, and Dot comes and perches her lumpen skirt on the sweep of desk, and Susan smiles up, beatific, to share with her some of this sweetness, but the old girl in an undertone tells her, concisely, that the boss wasn’t happy with the deceased spreadsheet, it was missing the details in the right-hand column; not to worry, but next time, be sure to. Yes, Susan says, she’ll be sure to, next time, only she hadn’t known before, and she carries her apologies with her to the bus stop, where she stands in the blustery centre of an August gale, under a heavy sky in which seabirds tumble and cry. In a lighter mood, a former, crisp and tang of a mood, she might have noted how really it was like being by the sea; behind the iron railings not an industrial park but a sloping beach and the hiss of stones under the retreating tide. As it is, she has a headache coming on, and remembers that tonight is the weekly shop, and just then it is as though all of the hours of her life are lined up before her like tins on a shelf, and she is knocking them down, one by one by one.
JENNY HOLDEN is 26 and lives in Cumnor. When not distracted by working at Jesus College Oxford, her addiction to The Wire, and trying to be a ‘proper adult’, Jenny writes in a combination of short bursts and long agonised sessions, taking inspiration from travel plans and conversing with anyone who’ll listen about reading and writing. She has published in Horizon Review, Brand Literary Magazine and Literateur.
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