Tuesday 27 September 2011

Fear and Loathing

Triple-shot latte

Sarah Evans

It was instant loathing.
        You were slouching by the window, profile lit by morning sun. Carefully spiked hair. Perfectly ironed shirt. Aryan good looks. I bet you’d never struggled for anything in your life.
        My smile was irreproachable as Harry beckoned me over.
        ‘Lynda, this is Max. He’ll be joining you on the team.’
        ‘Good to meet you,’ I said. Your eyes were glacier blue, your clasp a touch too firm.
        Technically we were the same grade.
        ‘Had to offer him Associate Partner. Wouldn’t take anything less. I’m sure he’ll pay his way.’ Harry had explained. And you’ll be a full Partner soon. Surely that was implied. ‘We were all impressed with him. Of course he answers to you on the Hardman project.’
        I hoped you understood that. Your CV was somewhat slim from what I could see. I could picture just how you’d have bull-shitted your way through the interview.
        My desk was by the window: corporate prime estate with its river view. St Paul’s behind, Tower Bridge in front. You were opposite, but in the middle, squeezed between two analysts.
        Within three days you’d switched desks. How you did you do that? Negotiating a four-way rearrangement in which everyone traded down, but you. It had taken me years to get the desk I wanted.
        Now you were in my face. I’d take a micro-break, looking out over swirling pewter current. My returning gaze would find your wry smile and raised eyebrow, as if you’d discovered some insufficiency.
        You’d come up behind: ‘Which client are you billing this for then?’ Not as if I’d spent more than a couple of minutes Googling for a hotel break. Your tone was jokey and collusive. But I heard its undercurrent: you’d caught me out.
        It took one team meeting to fire those first impressions to an immutable glaze. You were late. ‘Meeting overran,’ you said. But you were sipping from a steaming Starbucks’ cup. You swung back on two chair legs, like a bored schoolboy. I waited for the perfect moment to pull you up. Then you straightened, and stared at me defiantly. ‘I don’t see why we don’t just…’
        Sheer arrogance! Only a few days in, and telling me the path we’d structured for months might be made much simpler. The problem was, I could see immediately that you were right. I fired off a dozen reasons why you weren’t and waited for you to argue.
        Your shrugged response – ‘you know best’ – was infinitely worse. No-one else said anything. I knew they knew: I was being perverse.
        You undermined everything I did and said.
        You made a point of always being in the office earlier than me. You never left before me. Setting up an arms race neither of us could win. It wasn’t that you worked hard. I overheard the personal calls, watched as you gossiped at the coffee point. I wasn’t the only one who Googled.
        ‘Harry dropped by at ten last night,’ you made sure to let me know. ‘I sorted him out.’
        This was how it should be. Shorter hours meant effective delegation.
        Nobody would buy that.
        You were unfailingly polite. Opening doors. Stepping back to let me out of the lift first. Playing on the weakness of my gender.

Then it was the office Christmas drinks.
        I divided my time strictly according to rank. I pretended interest in others’ holiday plans. I deferred to Harry, used my allotted minutes judiciously, laughing louder than his wit warranted.
        I wasn’t going to give you the satisfaction of ignoring you.
        You sat amidst a female conclave, flirting shamelessly, the way you did with every other woman in the office. You leant back, sweating masculinity from every pore, legs apart, your thigh pressed against Katie one side and Leila on the other.
        I was used to the rank-and-file breaking off their conversations, waiting for me to set the agenda. You continued embellishing your story – what was it? Nothing worth remembering. Katie’s eyes flickered between us as she tried to choose where her best bet lay.
        ‘I’m heading off,’ I said, bored suddenly by the pretence, wearied by the muscle aching smiles. I turned to make my exit.
        It wasn’t the drink that made me stumble; I hadn’t drunk much. Red-faced merriment might seem jovial in a man; in a woman it looks absurd.
        Perhaps it was the heels, higher than usual in an attempt not always to be staring up at you.
        Perhaps it was the momentary relaxation, as I passed out of being observed and into being myself.
        In any case, walking down the steps something gave. I crashed down onto the mezzanine landing.
        I had already scrambled up before I heard you. ‘Are you OK?’ What instinct had told you it would be to your advantage to follow me? Your voice was a parody of concern.
        ‘I’m fine.’ Though I hadn’t yet figured out if I was or wasn’t. You took my arm.
        ‘Where does it hurt?’ Your other hand moved over my hip in a pretence at a pain-easing rub.
        ‘I’m fine. If you’d just let me pass.’
        ‘Not sure I can do that.’ I recognised the honeyed tone you dripped over our pouting PAs. ‘Can’t have the manager of our most lucrative project damaging herself.’
        You kept hold of me down the remaining stairs, hindering, not helping.
        The night air slapped against our faces. My short black dress did nothing to keep away the freeze. You pulled me under the bridge…
        …and kissed me.
        I tasted tannin, breathed in sandalwood, felt the graze of your stubble. We kept our eyes open. Our tongues matched the rhythm of the waves as they lapped the bank. You drew away first. I saw the mocking glint in your pupils and hoped mine glittered with as much acerbity.
        We kept to separate sides as we climbed away from the dankness of the low tide and up to the bridge. My ankle hurt, but I paced fast, matching you white-mist breath by white-mist breath. I started to walk across, the wind tangling my hair and blowing the short dress shorter. Christ, it was cold! I thought it would be safe now to turn and hail a taxi. A black cab pulled up. The door opened; you leaned out and beckoned me in.
        Insisting on remaining in the cold would just be stubbornness, and you’d know it. I let the fuggy warmth envelope me and gave my address to the driver.
        We sat in window-gazing silence, just like we didn’t chat in those taxis to and fro from client sites. Except this time your arm stretched across the seat; your hand grasped my thigh and worked its way under my skirt.
        We arrived. I let you pay. You followed me up to my flat.
        It was me who pushed you against the wall, who started tugging at your jacket, and undoing the buttons of your shirt. If you tried to use your strength against me, I’d scream.
        But you simply reciprocated step by step, never overtaking. You accepted my lead, surrendering to my will.
        Until I no longer wanted you to.
Later, we picked ourselves up off the floor. My toes curled on something hard and cold. I waited for you to go. Instead you followed me into the bedroom, where we separately removed the last traces of clothing. I didn’t look at you, couldn’t bear to see the victory in your eyes.
        In bed I curled up tightly and your body spooned close against mine. I listened as your breathing slowed into sleep. I could smell your sweat, mingling with the fish-market scent of sex.
        It had been so long since I slept with another’s arms wrapping me in an illusion of intimacy. It became one of those sleepless nights when you question everything you’ve become, all those relentlessly pursued goals, every choice you’ve ever made. What insecurity drove us to this, the constant proving of company loyalty and commitment? I entertained fleeting fancies. Ours would never be a hand-holding office coupledom. But perhaps there would be the exchange of glances, too swift for anyone to observe. We would collude together, while appearing to conspire against.
        But as the night deepened, then lengthened towards morning, the fancy vaporised. I tensed with fear for the consequence.
        Conquest remains a male preserve.
The alarm shrilled into the continuing blackness. You jerked away: ‘Christ, is that the time?’ You took an age redressing. Through slitted eyes I glimpsed the well-honed body that my hands and mouth had shamelessly explored the previous night. A shadow fell across my face and I felt your weight pressing down the mattress. I waited for your words, already flinching from the blow of sarcasm.
        Your fingers ran through my hair.
        ‘See you later.’ Your voice gave nothing away. You would enjoy keeping me guessing.
        I walked tall into the office, my tongue running over my swollen lips. I could feel the bruising on my body and knew your flesh would be hurting too.
        You formed the centre of a huddle. How had you got home and changed, and still arrived before me? They all laughed. Katie. Simon. Greg. Your long frame was angled into a sneer as your eyes flicked towards me.
        I know that look: pure masculine conceit.
        I clicked through emails and checked my schedule. I saw you glide towards the window, mobile to your ear. Your eyes leered at me as you embarked on some smirking conversation I could catch only snatches of. ‘Special night.’ Said with cocky emphasis. The immediate office wasn’t enough for your gossip.
        I reached into my bag for the small bar I’d found in my hallway earlier.
        Coffee. I needed coffee. And a few minutes to consider.
        In Starbucks I caressed the memory stick. What would it contain? A confidential report with our company logo? Copies of internal correspondence?
        You had been careless.
        I printed my message on a napkin in neat capital letters. Found in black cab, with a time and date. You would have done the same.
        The headquarters of the FT were only a short detour. I sipped my triple-shot latte, then slipped the metal bar, wrapped in soft tissue, into the letter box.
        My day was packed with meetings, each dovetailing importantly into the next. My mind was focussed as I made snapping decisions and delivered clear analysis. We were never alone. As I glimpsed the smug look on your face, I pictured the sequence of events.
        Security scandal, the headline in the FT would read. Or probably not. There would be a phone call to Harry. The editor was a golfing-friend. He’d tip Harry off, extract a return favour.
        I’d seen it before, the three-way interview in the glass-box office: Harry, woman from HR and red-faced employee. It was hard to imagine you blushing. You would be accompanied to your desk to collect personal items, before being stripped of your security pass and escorted from the premises. Such a breach would not be forgiven.

        I rose from my desk early. You raised your eyebrows.
        ‘Working part-time?’
        I awarded you a tight smile. ‘Looks like it.’
        Just for second the smile you mirrored back was warm and deep.
        ‘Wish I could join you. Harry wants to see me.’ Your face was clear and open; lacking any one-upmanship. What might you have read in mine?
        Katie caught up with me as I waited for the lift.
        ‘Good party,’ I said. I wasn’t going to act ashamed.
        ‘Yes.’ She laughed. ‘Max was saying Leila got off with Alastair.’
        I skipped just half a breath.
        Arriving home I felt flat, the empty evening stretching out before me. Harry could be having that conversation right now.
        I climbed the stairs to my apartment and remembered the previous night, the thrill of you watching every hip-swing. I found them laid outside my door: a dozen blood-red roses, and a card.
        In memory of a special night.

Bio: Sarah Evans has had dozens of stories published in magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize, Momaya Press, Earlyworks Press, Tonto Press and Writers’ Forum. She lives in Welwyn Garden City with her husband.

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