When the company grew to over two hundred people, each with their own birthday, each with their own birthday cake, the cleaners started to complain. The excess of uneaten cake was attracting rats, and when bodies started appearing – bloated and sugar-filled and, more than once, belly-up in the stairwell – they insisted we downsize.
When I turned twenty-five, Mitchell Advertising gave me an entire carrot cake.
It’s a year later, and I have a cupcake.
It’s five past nine when I get into work, and I can see my desk cupcake winking at me from the lift, a lone candle sticking out of the middle. Becky snaps into action when she spots me, flicking her thumb desperately over the lighter’s metal roll, sparks flying out of her hands.
The girls in my department start singing for me, smiling widely in obligation. The people not in my department blush into their monitors, mumbling along in the shared agony of an office ‘Happy Birthday’.
There’s a collective wince when they reach the high bit: ‘Happy BIRTHday, dear Jane, Happy Birthday to you.’
Most of them know about the break-up.
I expect Becky has found some way to tell them, attempting to be as tasteful as possible but barely managing to control her glee. Not because she’s happy I’m alone, but because women love telling other women new and preferably confidential information. It is a great honour to be a break-up’s town crier, especially when the break-up in question is for a relationship as long and as outwardly peaceful as mine and Max’s. Most of my team have met Max. Becky herself said how lucky I was to have him.
The birthday chorus ends, and I smile weakly.
I’m expected to say something, or react in some way, but I just keep standing there, unable or unwilling to sit at my desk because if I sit at my desk, another day of work will begin and the shaky tornado of grief will be free to descend on me at any time. I fix my eyes on the wavering flame of the cupcake. In every flame there is a small, black, empty space, and if you look at it long enough, it doesn’t seem like fire at all.
‘For she’s a jolly good fellow, for she’s a jolly good fellow . . . ’
This is not what we do here. We always stop our Happy Birthdays after the third ‘to you’. Continuing feels perverted, punk almost. A way of saying, ‘Hell, we can stand here and sing “Happy Birthday” on company time all day, who’s going to stop us?’
I scan the room for the singer: Clem Brown. His brows are straight and very black, a little bushy where they meet his temples. He’s the only middle-aged man I know who lets his hair grow past his ears.
But I don’t know him, not really. He works with the copywriters, the graphic designers, the account people. I don’t think we’ve ever spoken. I’m only ever in rooms that he is talking to. But here he is: singing for me. Singing to me.
‘And so say all of us! And so say all of us!’ He smiles, enjoying having so much control over a room that he can add an extra verse to ‘Happy Birthday’. I wonder if he’s doing this for fun, or whether he knows, somehow, that I need another minute to steady myself.
He’s just fucking around, Jane. He doesn’t even know your last name.
The two of us are the only people standing at full height – not sitting, not hunched over a printer, but straight and solid as playing cards – and it feels as though we are the only two people in the room. It takes Becky waving the cake in front of me for me to remember where I am, and to blow out the candle.
There is a card in the shape of a champagne bottle, and a bottle of cava on my desk. ‘For later,’ says Becky. There’s a heat coming off her, an agitation that says, Please, can you start eating the cupcake now?
Clem is talking to someone else, but we keep making eye contact. He crosses his eyes in a pantomime of boredom, and for a second I feel like I’m back in school, getting tiny white pieces of paper flicked into my hair.
I eat half the cupcake, and hand the other half to Becky. Sometimes I suspect that I’m Becky’s best friend. That’s not a tragedy, exactly: Becky is a good person, and I like her – but she isn’t Darla. Becky was moved to my desk two months ago, after Darla swapped departments to work in PR. Darla’s actual job has changed very little, but something about her is shinier. She walks around with a refreshed sense of purpose, a notion that her new job is both one floor up and one level up a class system that she’s invented in her own head. She is also wearing a lot of statement necklaces.
She calls me from her desk as soon as I sit down.
‘Hey there, Birthday Girl,’ Darla purrs. ‘Hungover, are we?’
‘It’s my birthday week. I’ve earned it.’
I’m rolling my eyes, but she has a point. I have been drinking too much lately, and last night was an unfortunate example of how that can turn out. I reach for the day-old glass of water at my desk.
‘There’s no such thing as having a birthday week. You have a birthday day. You’re not Celine Dion.’
‘Why Celine Dion?’
‘Dunno, just seems like she’d be pretty demanding, birthday-wise. Anyway, how did it go with Max last night?’
Becky is pretending not to listen. Darla misses nothing.
‘I take it from your silence that y—’
‘Are you taking me out tonight, or what?’
‘Didn’t we just agree that you’ve been drinking too much and should stop behaving like Celine Dion?’
‘Yes, but today is my birthday day. Today being Celine Dion is appropriate.’
‘All right,’ she says, laughing. She’s used to being the mouthy one, used to me going along with whatever plan she has set in motion. ‘Piano Bar. I’ll pick you up from your desk at six. And for God’s sake, have something to eat beforehand. I don’t want you vomming up your wine or bursting into tears.’
I open my inbox and watch the number of unopened emails wind upwards. A moment of hungover anxiety snaps at my ankles. Last night, at the Kasino club, pressed up against the slot machines with one of the Finance boys, the cartoon fruit dancing in my eyes as he stood behind me with both hands on my hips.
Did we dance? We may have danced.
Did we ...? I don’t think so.
No – I was too busy planning how I was going to go home and trick Max into falling back in love with me, and I was only staying at Kasino so I could get drunk enough to work up the courage.
Not that it did much good.
I had taken my shoes off in the hallway, putting on a show of not wanting to wake him up, when that was exactly what I had come home for. I undressed in the bathroom, peeling my tights off, hiking my boobs upwards, tightening my bra straps so they dug into my shoulders.
‘Go home,’ Darla had said, when I called her in tears outside the club. ‘Go home, and show him your lovely big mermaid tits, and remind him what a horndog you can be. You’ll be back together by morning.’
He was in the living room, shirtless under a zipped-out sleeping bag. I stood in front of him in an orange bra and knickers that didn’t quite match but at least were the same material.
‘Hey,’ he said.
‘Hey back,’ I replied, slurring my words a little. Could he smell the vodka, the cigarettes I’ve started smoking again since he stopped being the one to stop me? Did he care?
He looked at his watch. ‘One thirty a.m.,’ he said, trying to sound amused. ‘Happy birthday.’
I lay down next to him, nudging his limbs so they were forced to cradle me, and inhaled the familiar, homey scent.
‘Go back to your room,’ he said, snatching his mouth away.
‘Our room,’ I stressed.
‘Go back to our old room.’
I got up, mortified.
‘I’m sorry I was a bitch to you,’ I said, my voice cracking slightly. ‘I’m sorry I am a bitch, but . . . ’
‘You’re not a bitch. You just don’t love me any more.’
I felt like he was trying to cut my wrists with safety scissors. I brought my hands to my eyes.
‘Go to sleep, Jane.’
I did what he said, but slept naked in case he changed his mind. He didn’t.
This is why I didn’t want to sit down, I think. That’s the trouble with memories: if you’re still and sober, they have a better chance of finding you.
The excitement of my office birthday is quickly forgotten, and I try to lose myself in work. I am looking through six pages of focus-group testing to try to find a hook: something all the human lab rats are saying but not saying.
HOW DOES THE PRODUCT MAKE YOU FEEL? ANSWER BELOW IN THE SPACE PROVIDED
CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THIS ANSWER?
WOULD YOU BUY THIS PRODUCT IN THE SUPERMARKET? WHY OR WHY NOT?
No, wife does washing
On and on like this, someone half-heartedly filling in a questionnaire because they were promised a fiver and a custard cream at the end of it. Unimaginable sums of money are built on these answers. If enough people from the focus group say that it made them feel ‘clean’ then you can guess that the client will go with ‘FEEL CLEAN’ as the slogan.
I look around to make sure no one can see my screen, and log into JollyPolitely.com.
My twin sister graduated as a doctor and is getting married next year. I would be happy for her – I AM happy for her – but my mother can’t stop comparing us. I have a steady but unremarkable and badly
paid job in the civil service, and am single. As you can probably guess, I don’t come off that well in these comparisons.
It’s not just my mum either: as soon as anyone finds out about my sister, my ordinary life suddenly seems like a massive failure. Do I need to take this as a nudge to improve my circumstances or do I need to stop mentioning my sister?
Yours, Spinster Sister
When I was a kid my mum used to slip a letter under my door a few minutes after the clock struck midnight on my birthday. Usually it would be about the day I was born: what I looked like, what everyone thought of me, why they decided to name me Jane. (The nurse said you would be tall, she wrote once, like Jane Russell.) One time, she wrote about the day she found out she was pregnant.
I wasn’t ready to be a mother, but I felt ready to have a friend.
She doesn’t compare me to anyone because she doesn’t have anyone to compare me to. When she married Paul she inherited two stepkids, two blonde bowl-cuts called Polly and Allie. Eight and ten then, fourteen and sixteen now. Their lives are a puzzle to her, I think. It’s like she has walked into a living room where a movie is already playing, and there’s no space for her to sit down. So, she hovers: Oh, is that the guy from the Bond films? No? Why is he— Who’s that? Okay.
Dear Spinster Sister,
I couldn’t care less about your sister. Honestly, she doesn’t sound all that impressive. So she’s engaged – anyone can be engaged. So she has a better and more meaningful job than you – do you know what you have? Weekends, and evenings on the couch, and the flexibility to not risk a human life every time you go to work. Meditate for a moment on how fabulous a life that is.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from answering strangers’ problems on the internet, it’s that people like to be reminded of how brilliant they are. It is the adult equivalent of going to see a shopping-centre Santa Claus. You have doubts about his legitimacy, sure, but once he’s looking into your eyes and telling you that he’s heard amazing things about you, you’re sold. It doesn’t matter that his beard is fake.
Let’s look at the rest of your letter. Here are some of the words you use to describe your life: Ordinary. Unremarkable. Failure. These are not the words of someone who is completely okay with how their life has turned out. Should you improve your circumstances? Maybe, yeah. Take a night class, or tell your mum you’re taking a night class. Either will get her o your back for a bit.
Also, if your friends think your sister is better than you, well, they can go be her friends. If I were your friend, I would sit on your couch and talk shit about your sister all day. I’m sure it can’t be that hard to find other people like me.
I don’t know if it’s the right answer, or even the most appropriate answer. I don’t have any qualifications for being Jolly. Some of my readers think she’s a retired therapist, and some think she’s a fourteen-year-old boy. I don’t tell them anything.
After about an hour of answering letters, I start house-hunting on Gumtree. A part of me wants to believe that this thing with Max will blow over, and in the meantime I’m merely window shopping. This allows me to be picky and judgemental. One flat has a shower in the kitchen. There’s a house that has six bedrooms and one toilet. A man who says he will let a woman live with him rent free, as long as she is beautiful and quiet and cooks well. I send that one to Darla, gleeful, and pretend I’m going to request a viewing.
I’ve never done this before. I moved to London when I was twenty-two, lived with some girls from uni for six months, and then moved in with Max three weeks after meeting him. He was twenty-six then, the same age I am today.
I hated our flat when I first moved in: all sharp edges and black furniture and chrome bathroom fixtures. It’s near Canary Wharf, and maybe for that reason it reminded me of a high-class prostitute. You are not meant to love this at. You are not meant to kiss this flat on the mouth. I sat on the hard sofa and I thought: Someone has paid a lot of money to make you look this anonymous.
I remember Max, in the doorway, the first time I went over. He had been living there a year, but his face when he saw my shopping bags, bursting with Lidl wine and Arborio rice told me that this was the first spark of clutter the flat had ever seen. I remember his eyes when I told him I would make him dinner, his mouth when he told me he had never had risotto before. His hands when he didn’t know how to cut an onion properly.
‘If you lived here, would you make me risotto every day?’
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘If you were good.’
‘I would be good,’ he said. Then he lifted my bra strap from where it had fallen, between my elbow and my shoulder, and placed it carefully in its rightful place. He kissed me on the curve of my neck. I was skinnier then, with elegant, protruding clavicles. We would both become softer and rounder over the next few years, our lives filling up with risotto and grated parmesan and bottles of white wine. ‘Happy-fat,’ I called it. We would tuck in our chubby limbs and sleep soundlessly next to one another like two strays who had been rescued and re-homed as a pair. We would discover what it was like to feel full.
A tight little tear falls to my keyboard, hitting the spacebar square in the middle. I rub my face, hoping I can limit it to just one drop. I will not be the girl who cried at work on her birthday.
Becky notices. Like it or not, Becky always notices. But for once, she knows the exact appropriate way to deal with this situation.
She clears her throat. ‘Jane, do you have a minute? I need your eye on this.’
She leads me into an empty meeting room, and without one word passing between us, I burst into tears.
A few hours later, Becky, Darla and I are squeezed around a table for two. There’s an enormous champagne bucket full of prosecco taking up almost all the table space, so we have to hold our glasses. We each take awkward, second-long micro-sips, our lips pursed tight. The Piano Bar tables are too close to the floor, so we’re all sitting sideways, our legs sticking out like we’re on a DVD cover for a show about interesting single women.
Darla is annoyed with me for inviting Becky. That’s what you do, isn’t it, after you’ve collapsed on your desk neighbour in a fit of vodka-infused tears? You invite them to have a drink with somebody who hates them.
Darla would jump in here and stress that she doesn’t hate Becky, she just doesn’t want to spend any of her spare time with her.
‘Not enough people understand the distinction between work friends and friends who you also work with,’ she would say. I know this, because she’s said it a million times – fag in hand, aghast that not everyone understands the myriad informal social cues that she has invented.
‘People need to understand the difference. I’m more than willing to grab a sandwich with a work friend, but there are very few people at Mitchell who I want to hang around with after work or at the weekends. Maybe I need to start handing out badges, to let the work friends know. Not everyone can be a weekend friend.’
‘What do you think all that was about earlier, then?’ I say to Becky, who has been twitchy since we got here. ‘With Clem Brown singing?’
I’m partly trying to make conversation, but I’m also still dazzled by the gesture. After my cry in the meeting room, the image of him standing, singing – to me, for me, at me – was the first one that settled in my mind.
‘Sorry, who?’ says Darla.
‘Clem Brown. You know, he works in—’
‘I know who he is. I mean, what was he doing singing to you?’
‘He sort of picked up on the “Happy Birthday” song. Did the extra verse. The “jolly good fellow” bit.’
‘You know what they say about him?’ she says, after a second. ‘HUGE flirt.’
‘I’ve never heard that.’
‘Well, you wouldn’t, would you?’
She has a point. Underneath everyday Mitchell, there’s Single Person’s Mitchell. The single, glamorous, most attractive members of staff who spend every Thursday night in one of the terrible clubs on Carnaby Street, and who seem to operate via an information black market of kiss-and-tells. I haven’t been single since I joined Mitchell, so much of what happens on these Thursdays is a mystery to me. But something about Darla’s tone makes me think that this is less about Clem, and more about someone else receiving attention that she hasn’t coordinated, and on the floor she used to work on. Darla doesn’t suffer from Fear Of Missing Out so much as a Rejection Of Missing Out: if she wasn’t there, then it didn’t happen.
‘When does she start singing?’ Becky asks, twisting in her seat, searching for the performer, the living jukebox who sings old hits every night while standing uncomfortably close to you. ‘I can’t wait to see what she sings.’
‘She doesn’t start till later, usually,’ says Darla, seeing her chance. ‘So if you’ve got somewhere to be . . . ’
With that, the singer stands up and starts belting out ‘Life on Mars’. Becky’s face lights up. She looks like the inside of an orange, the very moment after you cut it in half.
‘Oh, I love this one. It’s so sad, isn’t it, him being dead? I know he wasn’t really our generation, so it feels a bit false to act very sad about the whole thing. But I remember, when my dad used to sing “For the Longest Time” when I was little. And when I heard that he’d died, I just cried and cried, thinking about my dad singing that song.’
‘That’s a Billy Joel song.’
‘The Longest Time.’ Darla turns to me, a smile rippling across her face. She looks into my eyes like a long-lost lover, grabbing my hand in faux-desperation, and starts to sing.
‘Woah-oh-oh, for the longest time.’
We giggle, and Darla – being Darla – takes it as encouragement. She keeps singing, keeps clutching me, and commits fully to being Billy Joel. She talk-sings about her innocence being gone, and how happiness does indeed go on. Another hot, choking cry rises through me like spit before vomit.
She wraps her arms around me, and sings over my shoulder, her body heavy with devotion. I sink into her, happy to be in the arms of the last person in London who loves me.
I tell her then, with her black hair brushing my cheeks, the thing I have been too afraid to tell anyone. I whisper it to stop my voice from cracking.
‘He met someone else.’
Her head moves sharply to Becky, to make sure she’s not listening, then back at me.
‘What?’ she says, disgusted. ‘What? Max? That’s why you broke up? Because he’s fucking somebody else?’
I nod, but even I know that’s not the whole story.
‘Her name is Kim. He says they haven’t done anything yet, but that they want to.’
‘Oh, Jane,’ Darla says. She’s not afraid to hold me for a moment and say nothing.
She pulls away and puts her hands on my face.
‘Let’s get fucked up.’
With that, Darla drops her coldness with Becky, and Becky’s nervous talking dries up as a result. We drink, and we make friends with strangers. We sing loudly, and badly, and happily. There are moments when I think: This is better. This is better than staying with a man you don’t love, just to feel the other side of the mattress sag.
Every few minutes some newfound friend of Darla’s grabs me by the arm. ‘So it’s your birthday,’ they say. ‘How old are you?’ And I tell them, and they shake their heads and say how I’m only a baby, and how it makes them sick to think about it.
We relocate. We find ourselves at a bar, then another bar, and before I know it we’re in a burger bar and it’s one in the morning. I turn to Becky and Darla, grinning with deep, meaty joy. I want to tell them I love them. I want to tell them I need them.
‘I am buying your food,’ I announce, gesturing with my debit card. ‘Because I love you. And because it’s my birthday, and I’m an adult, and when one is an adult, one pays the bill. One entertains their friends. One holds exquisite dinner parties in the middle of crowded restaurants.’
I head to the counter and I see a familiar head in front of me in the queue.
Without thinking, I pounce. I do that thing when you try to surprise someone from behind by pretending to be a mugger.
He spins around, panicked, and then relaxes into a new state of unease. ‘Jane,’ he says uncertainly. ‘Jane.’ He tugs a woman into view, and I am dimly aware of her saying hello.
Max is with someone. And then, as a dark yellow queasiness rises through my body, I realise that Max is with the woman that he left me for, four days earlier. This is Kim, Kim is real, and mere feet away from me, accompanying my boyfriend to a burger restaurant on the night of his ex-girlfriend’s birthday.
‘Oh, uh, hello,’ I say, and some crude and masochistic element of my emotional make-up forces me to stick my hand out and shake hers. ‘I’m Max’s ex-girlfriend but we still live together. We don’t have sex, though.’
Kim’s eyes widen. Did I want her to look like me? Maybe. Maybe so I could say: He couldn’t handle me, so he got a no-fuss model. So I could say: Well, he certainly has a type. But she looks nothing like me, although she doesn’t look enough not like me for it to be interesting. I can’t say: He must have been sick of my shit, so he went for my opposite. So I can’t think: Well, I was one of a kind.
She looks like an ordinary twenty-something woman in the way I look like one. She has too many coats of mascara on, so her lashes are spidery and brittle under the restaurant’s strip lighting. Her mouth is the kind of mouth that only happens when you apply lip-liner, and an undercoat, and then blot with a piece of tissue paper like grown-up women do. It’s a first-date mouth. It’s an ‘I’m meeting someone’ mouth. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘I think it’s great how you guys are managing to get on while you sort your living arrangements out.’
‘It is.’ I smile gamely. ‘It really is. So great.’
Silence hangs between the three of us, a moment of mutual appraisal, to size up what role everyone is playing. Who is the drunkest? Me. Who is the most awkward? Max. Who is going to tell her friends later about her horrible date with that new guy she’s seeing? Kim.
‘I have to go now,’ I say. ‘For ever. Goodbye. Enjoy your date.’
I whip by my table and bundle my coat and bag into one hand.
‘Max is here. I’m going. I love you. I hate me. Bye.’
I run onto the street, lighting a cigarette and tugging my jacket on as I go. My name is being shouted behind me.
I keep walking.
‘JAAAANE. TALK TO ME. PLEASE.’
I turn around and there he is. Hands in his pockets, beard trimmed to a perfect right angle around his jawline. Max has new trainers on.
‘Do you want to share a cab?’
Me and my partner have been together for two years and have always had sex with a condom. Now we’re moving in together and he wants me to go on the pill. Only thing is I have the herpes virus and I don’t want to give it to him in case he gets mad and dumps me. What do I do?
Max may have signed the death warrant on our relationship, but I was the surgeon who butchered us. It’s hard to know when it started, except that one day I began to hate him. Or, at least, I acted like I hated him. If I had known how to stop, I would have. If I had known how to push the growing black contempt to the bottom of myself, I would have done it. But it was like I couldn’t help myself: when I wasn’t criticising him, I was ignoring him. When I wasn’t raising a condescending eyebrow at his work stories, I was picking a fight over nothing.
There isn’t a court in the country that would convict him for fucking someone else.
I let him get in the cab with me, and we both pretend like Kim was never there. I turn her over in my mind endlessly, though, committing her appearance to memory. She’s thinner than me, I think. The ‘happy-fat’ that Max had told me never to worry about – the curves that made me softer, sexier, plusher – seems to expand in the taxi, rising like dough as we sit in silence.
When we get home, I try not to embarrass myself.
‘I’m not going to try to have sex with you again,’ I say. ‘And I want you to know that it wasn’t your fault, what happened. I know it’s a cliché to say it, and I know it doesn’t count because you broke up with me, but – it really wasn’t you. It was me. I’m the one who wasn’t right for this relationship. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t. Maybe I’m too young to be in a serious thing. Maybe I’m too young to feel married. I—’
I sway a little, and keep one hand on the door frame to steady myself. I’m confident that I’m doing a good job until, moments after the word ‘married’, I run to the bathroom and vomit into the toilet bowl.
As I hobble to my feet, I feel another warm pool of spit form in the corner of my jaw. A warning that more, much more, is on its way.
I slump on the bathroom floor, and Max scrapes the hair off my face, rubbing my back very gently. I vomit. We manage to laugh a little, between retches, and I think: if I were a film director, I would use this shot. I would zoom out on us on the tiles, letting the open door frame us, letting the darkness of the flat surround the scene as I zoom out further and further, until we are two dots in the middle of the picture. It feels like the perfect way to signify the end of my relationship with Max, and it is, because in the morning he is gone and a week later I move out.
I assume you have already explored the idea of lying to your boyfriend – or partner, as you call him, which is very grown up of you. For this approach, your options are limited: you can say you went to a public swimming pool and picked it up, or sat on a dodgy bus seat, or disposed of cotton buds unhygienically. There are any number of false and disgusting ways you could pick up genital herpes. Be creative!
Why have you avoided telling him this very basic thing about yourself ? Nowadays, STDs are incredibly common, even a little glamorous. If I had one, I’d be shouting about it from the rooftops, telling everyone about my adventurous unprotected sex. My guess is that you have always felt on the back foot with your partner: maybe you have always felt like he was a little better than you, a little smarter, a little richer, a smidge out of your league. So, you’ve been hiding your imperfections from him. You’ve been putting up a barrier, both physically (TWO YEARS and you’re still using condoms?) and emotionally (what, you were NEVER going to tell him about the herpes?), hoping he’ll never see who you are. My guess is that you feel a little bit like an impostor, and have never fully relaxed into this relationship.
Let your guard down. Be honest about yourself. Let him see the real you, even if the real you is literally riddled with herpes.
On the second Saturday after I move out of Max’s flat, I decide to go for a walk. I’ll go somewhere new. I’ll have an adventure. I walk, and walk, and walk, and try to take deep, long breaths while I do it.
Can you be homesick when your home isn’t yours any more? I moved into my new at two weeks ago, and I can’t get over the gnawing feeling that I am in the wrong place, and that whoever is in charge of writing The Jane Show is temporarily off sick. The story of my life for the past four years has been a rotation of Max and work, work and Max. Now I live in a two-bed with a woman who I’m only 90 per cent certain is called Shiraz.
‘Shiraz. Nice to meet you. Bathroom’s here. Bathmat needs hanging up after every shower or the tiles rot. Water pressure is shit but you get used to it.’
‘Shiraz? Like the wine?’
I’ve tried looking at her post to determine how she spells Shiraz (maybe it’s just ‘Shaz’? Maybe it’s ‘Sharon’?) but it all just says S. COLE. I haven’t said her name since because I know I’ll say it like the wine and I don’t want to, because she scares me. I hang up the bathmat every time.
Shiraz (?) is out almost every night, so on the nights I’m not at the pub I poke around, trying to get used to the place. Her flat looks like the set of a nineties sitcom, in that there are magazines fanned artfully on coffee tables and big, silk flowers in bigger ceramic vases. In essence, it’s a woman’s flat, but it has a curious lack of personal items that might make it a girl’s flat. There are no photo collages of friends, no clutter of ASOS soon-to-be-returned items. Everything is neatly tucked away with feminine precision. A man wouldn’t mind living here, but he isn’t supposed to want to.
I don’t even want to live there, I think, the back of my legs straining as I descend Telegraph Hill.
At weekends, Shiraz goes into full nest mode. She cleans out the fridge, scrubs the bathtub, stands in front of a Pilates DVD and does all the things you’re supposed to do if you’re an adult, except I always assumed that no one actually did them. I’ve been hiding in my room, laptop under my chest, tackling the large task of watching everything on Netflix. I started with the romantic comedies. That’s what you do when you stop living with a man: you watch all the things he’s never in the mood for. So I blitzed the classics first, the Nora Ephron ones that even cynics acknowledge are classics: When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, that kind of thing. After that, the quality started to drop off. I cried at Maid in Manhattan. I went on Kate Hudson’s IMDb page and downloaded pretty much all of her movies from the early noughties, the ones where Matthew McConaughey looks like the human equivalent of a cheesy Dorito. Before I knew it, I was watching Legally Blonde 3 with a bottle of Pinot next to me.
I’ve been regular with my Jolly columns, at least. I got about a hundred comments on my response to the Herpes Woman. Even though a few weeks have passed since I published my answer, it seems to find life on other communities: it pops up on Tumblr and Reddit, and then debates branch off on their own, like immigrant children of the original discussion. Some of them link back to my blog, and I got more hits that week than any other week for the last year.
I let Jolly’s victory over herpes stroke my ego a bit, refreshing the page again and again while walking. Look, Jane, I tell myself as I scroll through the fan comments, stopping at the ones that praise me and my wisdom, these people are talking because of you. You’re doing okay, really.
This is the most useful thing, I think, about having an online alter ego with a somewhat significant following: the readers make the bad days feel a lot less awful.
My legs are getting tired, but I’m impressed at how far I’ve walked. I’m at Tower Bridge now. A crowd of tourists let out a collective ‘ahhhhhh’ as the bridge rises to let a boat through. The pigeons, gathered by the bridge and fighting over a chicken nugget, utter upwards in the commotion, startling everyone.
During my first year of university, an art student fed some pigeons a bag of popping candy until their stomachs exploded. We waited for someone to do something, for someone to get expelled, but nothing ever happened, and for two days the campus grounds were covered in feathers and bird parts. I washed my hands in the Student Union toilets and something wet, round and calloused slipped between my fingers, skidding around the enamel of the bowl. I looked up what it was: gizzard. I held it in the palm of my hand for a long time before flushing it down the toilet.
People at my uni were always doing inexplicable things for fun, and if not for fun, then to be ironic, and if not to be ironic, then to just exist. And that’s one thing you could say for Jolly Politely: she existed to people right away. Her first appearance was in my uni newspaper. I wrote advice columns in response to letters I had written myself. I pretended to be a professor with a madly obsessive crush on one of my students, and I dropped obvious, scandalous hints as to who the professor might be. I invented questions about Facebook etiquette, and one-night stands, and disappointed parents, and by the time my fifth column had been published, I was starting to get more invested in the answers than the questions. I invented Jolly in a bid to seem clever, but it was her heart that people wanted, and it was my heart that people got. It seemed, at the time, to be more useful inside her chest than in my own.
I pause at a pedestrian crossing near Trafalgar Square, completely baffled at where to turn next. What was I doing in Central London? If you’re not a tourist and you don’t have a boyfriend to drag around a museum, what was there for you in this city?
A couple stand outside the National Gallery, poring over an extendable brochure. I wait to feel something, some loss, but it doesn’t come.
Truthfully: I don’t miss Max. I don’t long for his touch or call him and hang up or contemplate what a mistake I made. What I do miss, however, is the space in my life that Max took up. It’s easy to fill a weekend in London when you’re a couple. You wake up late. You lounge around. You fail at making poached eggs. If you’re feeling ambitious, maybe you go to the Natural History Museum or Columbia Road Flower Market. Or you see your other couple friends. We had three other couples that we saw on rotation, and I sometimes felt like we just met up with them to talk afterwards about how much superior our relationship was. ‘Did you see the way she orders him around?’ ‘Did you notice him looking at the waitress?’ ‘Do they seem happy?’ It occurred to me only during the final weeks of our relationship that the other couples were probably doing the same thing.
I’m outside the door of my office building, perplexed as to how I got here. That’s the thing about London, I guess. No matter what you do or how many museums you visit, you’ll never escape the instinct that you are here to work.
I don’t know what else to do, so I go inside. They keep it open twenty-four hours a day, a casual reminder that there’s no such thing as being too dedicated. The security guard is Skyping his relatives as he nods me in. I switch on my computer and look at my Jolly emails.
Dear Jolly Politely,
Last year I had a miscarriage, and ever since I have been terrified of getting pregnant again. My husband still wants to try, and my doctors tell me that there’s no reason I shouldn’t have a healthy baby. Ever since we started having sex again, however, I’ve had nightmares. They always start the same: I’m eight months pregnant, and the baby starts eating me from the inside. I think it’s cramps, or I’m about to go into labour, but then I realise too late that the baby is eating my heart and liver and lungs and my body goes into shutdown. I am awake before the baby is born but lately the dream has developed. Now, I have an emergency Caesarean section and when it’s born the baby is Paul Dano from Little Miss Sunshine.
I start laughing at my desk. I can’t help it. I Google Paul Dano to make sure I have the right actor: yes, that one, with the bowl cut who was in There Will Be Blood. It’s all too bizarre and sad, and I’m cackling at my desk when Clem Brown rounds the corner.
‘Oh. Hello,’ I say, and minimise my screen quickly. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I come in on Saturdays sometimes. Get a jump on the week while it’s quiet. Plus I can rummage through everyone’s desks for snacks and spare batteries.’
I smile, and he waits for me to explain what I’m doing here.
‘Me too,’ I say, and luckily there are some printouts of focus-group research on my desk. ‘I was just laughing at this guy’s answer.’
‘Is this what you do, then? Go through info from focus groups?’
‘It’s part of what I do.’
‘What else do you do?’
He is genuinely interested. I stiffen at the memory of his birthday song: For she’s a jolly good fellow.
‘I . . . send a lot of emails? And I try to propose ideas based on what I find in the focus groups?’
‘What do you mean, “try”?’
His insistence is making me uncomfortable: like I have suddenly acquired a TED talk that I haven’t asked for.
‘I mean, no one usually listens to my ideas because I’m only an account exec.’
‘Ah. Well. We’ll see,’ he says, and then bonks me on the nose with the top of his pencil. It’s an odd little gesture, because he isn’t touching me exactly. But it’s intrusive and intimate, like his ‘Happy Birthday’ song to me. Could the ‘jolly good fellow’ thing be a coincidence, or is he senior enough to have access to my internet history? And if he does, why does he care?
‘Hey,’ I say, ‘you sang to me.’
‘You sang me the end of “Happy Birthday” – the “jolly good fellow” bit.’
He looks at me blankly. Maybe he doesn’t know about Jolly, then.
‘It was a few weeks ago,’ I say. ‘The second of June.’
‘No, no, I remember. So how old were you?’
‘Not so very old, then.’
I don’t know why I say it, but immediately there’s an atmosphere. Old enough for what, Jane? I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, but it came out sounding flirty, almost, and far too forthcoming to a man who’s old enough to be my father.
‘Right,’ he says, and after an awkward pause he leaves me alone and staring at my computer. I blink at it until I’m sure he’s gone, and then leave.
Back at my desk on Monday, I have an email from Deb in the New Business department, asking me to be on a pitch for Fat Eddie, an oven pizza brand, and to join their first pitch meeting. Today.
‘What’s up?’ Becky asks.
‘They’ve invited me on a pitch, Becky.’
‘Oh my God,’ she says, her hands flying to her face. ‘That’s huge, Jane. Huge.’
For once, she’s not exaggerating. A pitch is how Mitchell feels people out. The obstacle course that usually happens before a promotion or a pay rise.
‘Why do you think they’ve asked you, then?’
‘I don’t know, Becky, maybe because I’m good at my fucking job?’
I sound like Darla at her worst, and I feel guilty, but I can’t help but be irritated.
‘I’m sorry, Becky. I’m just on my period,’ I say, truthfully. ‘I’m a bitch today.’
I wave a tampon wrapper in her face to prove it, and Becky smiles, happy to be friends again.
Period aside: I am amazed they have asked me. When I joined Mitchell, I had expected creativity and glamour, and lots of artful slouching around on beanbags with bearded men. I bulldozed into meetings, convinced that the secret to success was having lots and lots of ideas. I realised – maybe because someone told me, or maybe I picked it up from the stony responses to my over-eager suggestions – that while there’s no such thing as a bad idea, there is very much such a thing as an unqualified one. And the people who were qualified to have ideas at Mitchell had no interest in adding me to their ranks.
After six months, I stopped trying so hard. After a year, I started phoning in my suggestions. Two years and one break-up later, my work barely scrapes ‘adequate’. The pitch meeting is at 2 p.m., and I use my lunch hour to go into Boots to buy some tampons and lipstick. I’m the first person in the meeting room, until Deb walks in. She’s the head of New Business, and the only woman in the agency to have her own department. She has been on maternity leave twice in the last four years and somehow hasn’t let go of an inch of her power, despite the fact that almost everyone senior at Mitchell is gunning for her job. I want to know how she does it.
A few copywriters – the people, I remember with vague embarrassment, who used to roll their eyes whenever I spoke in meetings – trickle in, heads together, talking about Tinder. I pretend to make notes, but can’t think of anything, so I start making lists of everything I have in the fridge at home. This is when David Lady arrives.
David Lady is sexy, but in a specific sort of way. He looks strong, but not the kind of strong that seems practised or self-conscious. He doesn’t have any muscle definition to speak of, but strikes me as the sort of guy you would call if you needed to lift a grandfather clock. His nose is a little crooked and his hair isn’t complicated, which I like, because men’s hair has become far too complicated over the last couple of years.
I have had a crush on David Lady for just over a year. If I’m honest, it started when I fell out of love with Max. ‘You’re like a monkey,’ Mum had laughed, when I confessed my feelings to her over wine. ‘You don’t want to let go of one branch until you have your hand on another.’
He sits opposite me and gives me a tiny man nod, the kind that’s more like a nod in reverse, where his chin bobs upwards and I can see the stubble on his neck. There’s something about him that makes me wonder whether I’ve shaved my legs lately, and whether he would notice or care if I hadn’t. I press my knees together, bare under my summer skirt, as if trying to convince an imaginary nun that I’m not thinking about having sex with him.
I try to look anywhere but directly at him, and open up Jolly again on my phone.
Now, I have an emergency Caesarean section and when it’s born the baby is Paul Dano from Little Miss Sunshine. I don’t know what any of this means but I don’t know how to stop it. How can I put my fear aside and just try again?
Little Miscarriage Sunshine
I start talking to her in my head, and I pretend she’s my mum in the days after Dad left: both of her hands wrapped around the blue mug she liked best, hoping for a smile or a joke or the answer. I pretend that she is the one haunted by the ghost of Paul Dano.
Dear Little Miscarriage Sunshine,
I can tell by your brilliant sign-off that you’re fully aware of how dually tragic and hilarious this all is. That’s what makes me think we could be friends. If you don’t mind, I’m going to treat you as if we are friends.
My darling, I’m so sorry. You’ve had an awful year, one you do not deserve, but one you have got on with anyway. I have never had a miscarriage, nor tried to be pregnant, but I do know what it’s like to be one thing and then very suddenly be another. I was a girlfriend, then I was an ex-girlfriend. I had a beautiful flat, then I had no flat. It takes adjustment. You had a life inside you and now that life is gone. You shouldn’t be expected to move along and be cool about a new baby. As I say: it takes adjustment. You are doing fine. You are making jokes. You are dealing with it.
I don’t know a lot about the actor Paul Dano but when I go on his Wikipedia page it says that his ‘trademark’ is that he ‘often plays characters who receive beatings’. I don’t know how much I believe in dream interpretation, and I don’t know who compiles Wikipedia pages, but nonetheless: you are beating yourself up, and you are using the actor Paul Dano to do it. It makes me think that you might blame yourself for what happened, and maybe you’re as afraid of the idea of your own failure as you are of miscarrying again. This always sounds like a cop-out coming from agony aunts, but even so: maybe you should talk to a therapist.
Godspeed, pal. I’ll be thinking of you.
As I sign off, Clem walks in, which means the meeting has started. Everyone sits up straighter, except Deb, who is still writing an email and hasn’t noticed. I look from Clem to David and back again. David is stocky and fair, like the eldest son on a farm. He’s very much ‘my type’, as Darla is fond of saying: sunny, open-faced, playful. Clem, meanwhile, has something that edges, very slightly, into femininity. He reminds me of an old issue of Jackie my mum had saved, with a thirty-five-year-old Mick Jagger on the cover. ‘Isn’t it weird, the way they pushed this adult man on teenage girls?’ I asked once. ‘It was the late seventies,’ she said, as if that were the answer to everything.
Clem flicks a presentation on to the screen: a picture of six rather sickly looking pizzas. Pizzas where the cheese sags like melted plastic. I remember these pizzas: they’re the same brand that Max and I called ‘our guilty pleasure’ when we were happy, and what I just called ‘guilt’ when we weren’t. I remember eating an entire one in the bathtub after a two- day-long sulk.
‘Ta-dah,’ he says.
An audible sigh falls over the room.
‘All right, all right. Not glamorous. Fine. I know. But Fat Eddie happens to be a subsidiary of a major Italian food chain, so if we impress them on this, we might get invited to pitch for the whole company. I’m talking penne. Pesto. I’m talking blue cheese, guys.’
It’s amazing how many conversations at Mitchell go like this. The agency mainly specialises in food advertising, so we talk about cheese and sausages as though they were fossil fuels.
Deb, having finally looked up from her phone, is ready to speak. ‘And once you have cheese, it puts the agency in a brand-new category. It will allow us to go after Big Dairy. Not just milks either. Yogurt.’ She looks at me, as if to say: You’re the only other woman in this room, and you will get off on the notion of yogurt.
‘So this is actually a big one, even if it doesn’t seem like a big one,’ continues Clem. ‘Let’s start off with some word association. Everyone’s going to tell me what they think of when they think of Fat Eddie.’ He gestures to the first copywriter, the one sitting next to him.
‘Microwaveable pizzas,’ he says, bored and Northern.
Clem writes it on the whiteboard and moves onto the second copywriter, who is beardy and always wears a baseball cap. More mumbling.
It’s Deb’s turn next. ‘They’re not mum-friendly. They’re stuffed with E numbers and the packaging is so clunky that it makes them a freezer liability.’
The men in the room look at her, puzzled. She lets out an exasperated sound. ‘Freezer space is a big thing for mothers. Every frozen item in the supermarket is fighting with a jumbo pack of ice lollies, not to mention frozen meat and fish.’
This is a power play from Deb, and it’s beautiful. Deb doesn’t apologise for being a mum. I’ve seen women let slip their children’s names and then cover their hands over their mouths immediately, as if trying to grab the words and stuff them back in. When you ask them what they did at the weekend, they lower their voice to just above a whisper, as if they are secret junkies: ‘You know, mum stuff.’
Not Deb, though. She uses her motherhood as a point of difference, never letting anyone forget that she is one of the most desirable advertising demographics in existence: the wealthy white mother. She aunts her motherhood, but she doesn’t let it soften her. She invents phrases like ‘freezer liability’, and she makes them sound like they’re something everybody says.
Clem writes it up with a slightly pained expression on his face, as if he’s already bored of having to consider ‘mum’ opinions.
I am too busy studying Deb when it’s my turn to say something about Fat Eddie pizzas. Everything about how shit they are has kind of been said already.
‘I wouldn’t eat them . . . ’ I begin, and the room takes my pause as a sign I’m about to say something brilliant. Even though I’m only about five or seven pounds over my usual weight, I feel doughier than the pizza I’m trying to pretend I don’t eat. The ‘happy-fat’ I gained with Max in my early twenties – which, let’s face it, wasn’t fat at all, but hips and an ass – was expanding, settling and saddening. ‘Unless I was depressed.’
This is the only comment that is not written on the board. I try not to look hurt, but Clem picks up on it anyway.
‘Before we begin,’ he says, gesturing to the room but looking straight at me, ‘I want to make sure everyone knows Jane Peters. She’s worked with focus groups, so she’ll be our codebreaker for the next couple of weeks, when it comes to audience insights.’
I can’t help but feel grateful. A codebreaker. Like I’m one of the women in Bletchley Park, and not an aimless 26-year-old who gave up being interested in this job over a year ago. I want nothing more than to prove that I’m not the jam-faced idiot I was when I joined Mitchell two years ago. I want to prove to myself that I’m not the recently dumped daughter of a broken home, trying to convince herself that she’s worthwhile by keeping an anonymous blog. I want to stand up in front of my snobby colleagues and tell them to go fuck themselves. I don’t want to tread water any more. I want to be brilliant.
‘Oh,’ Clem adds, his eyes still on me, ‘and she loves it when you sing to her.’
Darla still lives with her parents, and she knows how that sounds. She will occasionally refer to her family as ‘the people I live with’. I don’t blame her for not moving out: I’ve been to Darla’s house, and I’d struggle to leave a fridge with that much expensive yogurt in it. But despite her freedom, and despite her Muslim parents turning a blind eye to what Darla gets up to, she still chooses to do Ramadan every year. This year, it’s in June, so Darla starts working through her lunch hour so she can leave a little earlier.
It’s Ramadan, then, that is indirectly responsible for me dropping a bowl of soup on David Lady’s shoes.
I start bringing lunch to work, thinking that I can save money while Darla abstains. I’m taking my soup out of the office microwave and trying to do it with two paper towels, which I know before I’ve started is a rookie error. Everything from this microwave comes out either cold or burning hot, and this time it’s the latter. I yelp, my fingers slip through the towels, and it’s only then that I see David Lady behind me, and only then do I ruin his shoes.
He doesn’t say anything, but he has a face. It is not a good face.
‘Oh, fuck. I’m so sorry. I’m a tit. I’m a useless tit. Let me help you,’ I say, daubing him uselessly with more towels.
‘No, no. It’s fine. You’re not a tit.’
‘I am. I’m a useless fucking tit. I’m so sorry. Let me . . . ’
‘Buy you new shoes?’
‘I was thinking more in the buying you lunch territory.’
‘Shoes AND lunch? You’re very spendy for a useless tit.’
We smile. He takes off his shoes, runs them under the sink and we walk to the sandwich place while he’s still in his socks. I can feel myself nurturing the crush on him I had developed when Max and I were still together. I am already turning this whole incident into an anecdote to be told and retold later in our imagined relationship. I would tell him how embarrassed I was, and he would tell me how he wasn’t mad, not really, and that he thought it was cute. I would say: I can’t believe you walked shoeless to get a sandwich with me. And he would say: I would have walked over hot coals. I would say: Or soup. And he would kiss me and say: Yes, darling. Or soup.
In the meantime, however, I can’t think of one single thing to say to David Lady. I have our future relationship all figured out, but our present is a total mystery.
‘How do you think the pitch is coming along, then?’
‘Oh. You know,’ he says, while sorting through the rubbish sandwiches. ‘They’re all the same, really. I only took this one to work with Clem.’
‘Is he good, then?’
‘You haven’t worked with him before?’
‘Well, you must have done something to impress him.’ He picks up a falafel wrap and hands it to me, giving me a look like ‘are you sure you want to buy this for me?’ and I nod and take it. ‘He tends to work with the same four or five people over and over again. He’s tough, and he makes everyone stay late, but he usually wins the pitch in the end. Good to be on the winning team.’
‘I’ve never been invited on a pitch before.’
‘Well, there you go then. This is going to be great experience for you.’
A few people have said this, but it’s been a week, and so far I’ve not had much to contribute to the pitching process. I never have anything good to say, so I take very good notes instead. This is probably for the best, as Clem tends to ask for ideas and then immediately give a bulletproof reason why they would never work.
As we make our way back to the office, we find more to talk about. There’s a gentle confidence to David Lady, which is amazing, considering how much a man with the last name ‘Lady’ might be tempted to overcompensate with his masculinity. I had never noticed before, but he has a slight Northern lilt to his voice, one that lets the middle of his words bubble upwards when he’s happy. When I ask him about it, he smiles.
‘My mam’s from Sunderland. She moved back there when she left my dad when I was small, but I still spent all my summers there. No one ever notices, though.’
‘Well, I did.’
‘You did,’ he says. ‘I’d say you notice a lot of things, don’t you?’
I don’t know what this means, so I just smile back. ‘My dad moved away when I was younger, too. To Switzerland. Here’s to our broken homes, I guess.’
‘And did you go there for holidays? To Switzerland?’
‘No.’ I wonder how to phrase it without bringing down the tone of the conversation. ‘No, I never did.’
He nods, and in that moment, we’ve started something. We’ve made our first trade of private information, our first step towards intimacy. He walks me back to my desk. Where, even more surprisingly, Clem is sitting.
‘Oh hello, you two,’ he says. I blush horribly. He nods a hello at David and shows me a thick, stapled document. ‘I wanted to give you this. See what you can get from it.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a detailed profile of the Fat Eddie customer. What they like, what they don’t like, what their wives think of them.’
‘Because every person who eats a frozen pizza is a man whose wife has gone out for the evening?’
I mean it in a playful way, but it comes out sounding irate. And maybe I am a little annoyed: after all, pathetic food is a human right we all enjoy. David looks uncomfortable, and Clem looks not in the mood.
‘Do you want to go through it, type up the main points of interest?’
It’s posed like a question, but really it’s an instruction. His tone says: Do this now, please.
David goes back to his desk, thanking me for lunch. Clem lingers.
‘New friend?’ he asks, gesturing to David.
I shrug. ‘I spilled soup on his shoes.’
‘Ah. That old ploy.’ He rolls up the paper and bonks it on my nose, like he did with the pencil before. ‘Try not to go spilling soup about too much. We have a pitch to work on.’
I’m in the office until 8 p.m., going through the document for Clem. It’s boring work, but methodical in a comforting sort of way, like rearranging your bookshelves. Plus, there’s nothing to go home for. Last night I drank a whole bottle of wine in bed with an ease that frightened me. So I highlight, and make notes, and type them up. I feel like a model citizen, and wonder if this new gap in my life – this Max-shaped hole that seems impossible to fill – could be taken up by a dazzling new career. I think: Maybe it’s okay to not be passionate about something if you’re really, really good at it.
And I am capable of being good. I know that, or I at least suspect it. The people who read Jolly seem to trust her entirely, but I’ve somehow never been able to turn Jolly into a transferable skill. Every now and then, I consider putting her on my CV as evidence that, if nothing else, people listen to me. But I can’t imagine being Jolly if I knew people were reading it, knowing I was Jane. It would ruin the whole thing.
I don’t think Clem ever goes home. He always wears the same sort of clothes – a black overcoat, a black T-shirt, jeans – and I begin to think his clothes are simple so he can keep a stash of identical T-shirts under his desk. I wander into the kitchen to make myself a tea, and find him at the table, his coat perpetually draped over the other chair, papers in front of him. He orders Thai food and asks if I want any. I say no, still conscious of my Fat Eddie misery pounds.
‘You must be starving,’ he says.
‘I’m really okay,’ I say.
Even so, when his food comes he makes me up a plate, a baby-sized portion of Pad Thai with one delicate summer roll on the side. ‘It’s too boring to eat alone,’ he says and I join him, moving his coat off the chair. As I fold it over a nearby desk, I catch the smell of him: cologne on deodorant on shampoo on what must be his natural scent. Spice and citrus and wood, heat and hair oil and skin.
This is what you smell like.
‘So,’ he says, like a child king waiting to be entertained. ‘What’s your story?’
He moves his chopsticks in circles in the air. ‘Generally.’
‘I don’t know. I’m not sure.’
I realise, with no small degree of self-pity, that I am telling the truth. ‘I’m enjoying the pitch, though.’
He laughs. ‘Are you?’
‘Sure. I’m not sure why I’m on it, exactly, but I’m grateful to be getting the experience.’
‘Why not? You’re old enough.’
I blush then, and he smiles at me like he knows that I’ve been kicking myself for that weird ‘old enough’ comment. It’s not nasty, though: it’s more like he remembers how easy it is to say odd things when you’re nervous, because he was once nervous himself.
‘I see you in the meetings, you know. Hiding. You’ve been hiding here for two years, by the look of things.’
I must seem wounded, because he touches me on the shoulder, reassuring me.
‘Because, you know, you see someone at work on a Saturday, and you think, Why haven’t I heard about this hard-working young woman? Who is hiding her away from me, this girl that comes in on a weekend? So I found your file – sure you were some kind of rising star – and you’ve not so much as had a raise since you started here.’
I don’t know how to feel, or how to respond. It feels like he’s complimenting me and insulting me in the same breath. Jolly would call this kind of behaviour ‘negging’. She would say that Clem is trying to make me feel insecure so I’ll rely on him for compliments. It’s not a bad way to manage a new employee, I suppose.
‘Well . . . ’ I say, groping for some kind of explanation for my uninspiring career. ‘I graduated in a recession, so that was a whole thing.’
He waits for something better. I dig down in the weeds and pull something up for him.
‘I guess I don’t really know what I’m for. What I’m doing here, I mean. In this agency. Or in life. Hah.’
He nods. ‘I felt that way. For a long time, actually. But you know, if you keep at it, people notice. And once people notice you, things have a way of ...’
‘Falling into place?’
‘No. Not that.’
He does this. I’ve seen him do it with other people. He leaves his sentences hanging open like an unlocked back gate, and it feels intentional. He wants you to rush in to close it, and feel stupid for doing so.
‘Not falling. That makes it sound like an accident, because I worked hard. And as people moved me upwards and onwards I stopped feeling like a fraud. You’ll see. It happens to everyone.’
If you’re a man, I think while looking into my noodles.
‘I mean, it happens more if you’re a middle-class white guy, I suppose.’
I laugh. ‘I didn’t want to say it, but I’m glad you did.’
‘I suppose you’re a bit of a feminist then?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘There’s more of you around these days, aren’t there? And don’t think I didn’t notice that pizza wife crack earlier on. That got your back up.’
He watches me twist a noodle idly around my chopstick.
‘Are you all about Sheryl Sandberg? Are you going to lean in?’
Something passes between us. Something small, indistinct, like an animal with glowing eyes. My skin prickles. The way he said ‘lean in’ makes me all too aware of my body, my breasts, the way I’m bending towards my plate. I’m uncomfortable, but I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it at all.
A second later, and it’s gone. I finish my food and go back to my desk. I text Darla.
‘When is Ramadan over?’
‘A week. Why?’
‘Let’s go out dancing when it is.’
‘Ahhhhh. Finally ready to meet your rebound shag?’
I pack up my bag and make for the lifts using the most inconvenient route possible, back through the kitchen. I’ll say I left my lunchbox there, I think, not totally sure of why I’m bothering to furnish a lie.
Clem is gone, but his coat is still where he left it. I pick it up, formally at first, as if trying to figure out who it might belong to. Keeping one eye on the bathroom door, I pinch the shoulders, bring it towards me and softly inhale.