The key won’t turn. Maureen wiggles it in the lock until the edge of newness is knocked off and it engages. The door opens. She can’t believe how easy it’s been.
“I thought,” Zep said, “it would be good to have a one-to-one.” There was that hint of intimacy in his tone, as if he was about to share a secret.
She picks up two bulging carrier bags and steps in. She hopes she’s bought enough. She pushes back the hood of the long mac she’s wearing, draws out the white gloves from her pocket and stretches them over her fingers. An electric frisson of excitement and fear tingles along her nerves from scalp to toe. She’s never done anything like this before.
“You’ll have seen,” he said, “we’re reorganising the group. Merging our team with Ben’s.”
“Yes, I saw the e-mail. Congratulations.” She wondered how Ben felt about being booted down to Ops. Zep smiled, his self-deprecating, winner’s smile. It’s always struck her as an absurd name. Short for Zeppelin, like the band.
She pushes open the door to the living space. It’s all open plan, with cool-coloured walls and pale wood. She tries to picture Zep here, his white-blond hair, bleached skin that burns at the slightest hint of sun. She takes in the bachelor toys, all the latest in electronic gadgetry.
“We want the team to have a fresh identity; we’re giving it a new name. It needs to be much more than just the sum of what’s there already. ‘Blue Sky Vision, BSV.’” His self-satisfied smirk told her it must have been his idea.
She thought the name ridiculous, but she said, “That sounds really… imaginative.”
She takes the bags and places them on the beige sofa — fabric not leather. She sits beside them. Pink-stained water seeps out — something must have squashed. She picks out an orange. Her nails cut into the skin, throwing out a fine spray of tangy citrus. She peels the top half in a continuous spiral, then plunges her thumbs in deep, opening it out so she can dig her teeth into the sweet flesh. She tosses the peel into the middle of the albino rug, wipes her latex palms on a cushion. Time to get down to work.
“I’m going to be candid,” he said, as if this was a virtue. “You have a real talent for being organised, for getting things done efficiently. The work you did on the expenses system was first rate.” She had thought she would die of boredom on that project. It hadn’t seemed her job, but someone had to do it, and it was she who had been asked. She felt herself shrivel under his small, mean words.
The over-ripe cherries leave red trails on the apple-white walls, as they slither down from their airborne collision. The bananas are easily flattened, exude the bruised scent of fermentation, and fit neatly in place of a video. She mashes the others to a pulp and grouts the air vents of the plasma telly. One ring of finely sliced pineapple glides into the DVD, a second fits the computer drive. She leaves the sharp knife sticking up in the middle of the ash table.
“Going forward the team needs people with creativity, people who can ask the big questions.” His chest expanded with this vision of himself. “Risk-takers who will take the initiative, be bold.” She’d always thought he liked people to do as he commanded; he had always declared himself pleased with her careful reports. “And to be frank,” that air of taking her into his confidence again, “I don’t see that as being you.”
The blueberries explode one by one in the microwave. The fridge stretches nearly to the ceiling; she may as well see if he has anything to contribute to her enterprise. Pomegranate juice, all those anti-oxidants, couldn’t be better. She trails the carton over the scattered papers on the desk, opens each drawer in turn, setting up a cascade. She saves some to leave dripping into the back of the PC. She heads upstairs.
“We will of course pay you in lieu of notice. And take your time today, to clear your desk.” His benevolence beamed out in a boyish grin. He must be half her age. He must have known that, at fifty, finding another job would not be easy. “I’m sure you can see it’s for the best, for everyone.”
The bedroom is perfect. A cream, long-pile carpet laps around the edges of a king-sized bed. The strawberries land in a scatter; she does a neat heel twist on every one. The raspberries squeeze to paste between her fingers, releasing their floral aroma. The pulled-back duvet leaves a smooth, ivory canvas for her work of modern art. She’s glad she bought a good quantity.
She sat at the desk which had been hers for ten years. She looked round at the colleagues, who had never become friends. Her nails dug into the fleshy pads of her thumbs, as she swallowed back the tight hurt accumulating at the back of her throat, which threatened to spill over into messy mucus. She might as well have lunch before gathering her things.
She covers up her flaming composition. The goose-feather duvet lies pristine, awaiting her final statement. She takes the pouch of passion-fruit coulis and snips off one corner with the scissors considerately left lying on the bedside table. She starts to form the letters slowly in looping curves.
His coat was thrown carelessly over hers on the coat rack. Her hand slipped easily into the inner pocket, tightened over the small piece of metal. There was a key-place by the station. She would pass it on her way to her usual sandwich shop. The original could be replaced without anyone ever knowing. “Use your initiative,” she told herself.
She looks down at her words: Being Bold. She watches as the letters blur and fade and disappear from sight.
Sarah Evans has had stories published in a number of magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize 2008, Momaya Press, Earlyworks, Tonto Press and Writers’ Forum. She lives in Welwyn Garden City with her husband, and is part of a small writers’ circle who meet regularly in London.