Felix scanned the room for a response. I knew he wanted me to look up. He was perched on the edge of a table, his legs stretched out in front of him, his body twisted discreetly in my direction. I added trees and two stick figures to my doodle of a house. Felix re-phrased his question and threw it out again.
“Can anyone think of a time they felt they were being bullied or harassed ?”
My phone vibrated on the table. It would be Marianne. A woman with glasses answered Felix and was whining about something that had happened when she was a child. Her voice was barely audible and her lips moved so slightly I was surprised she had managed to form words at all. I checked Marianne’s text and sent a quick reply. Felix nodded along obediently as she quivered through her story but his eyes kept flicking in my direction. He was barely listening to her.
“Thank you for sharing that story with us, Amanda. That must have been very painful for you.” Glasses woman smiled meekly.
Felix turned to face me full on. “Eleanor, what do you think might have motivated those girls to treat Amanda so badly ?”
“I have no idea, I wasn’t listening.” His eyes locked with mine for a moment as if he were struggling to look away. Felix hadn’t been listening either. I could tell by the stock response he had given. A faint smile passed over his lips and a flush spread in his cheeks. I returned his smile and he broke his gaze, returning to tend the childhood traumas of glasses woman.
The following morning The Bitch was waiting at my desk when I arrived at work. I don’t know how many of those pointless training courses she has sent me on in the last couple of years. Group therapy for people who don’t know how to have a conversation without throwing their toys out the pram. I tossed my bag under my desk and she tapped her watch with a long pink nail.
“One to one in ten minutes ?” The post mortem. She said it like it was a question but it wasn’t. She would be so calm and so reasonable as we picked over my failings.
“I know, Susan.” I smiled at her. Her opportunity to serve me another shit sandwich. Oh, you’re so good at this, but unfortunately another fucker has complained about something you said and by the way you’re brilliant at that.
“Eleanor, do you want to grab a coffee in the cafe today ?” This was a good sign. Usually verbal warnings, or even unofficial warnings are conducted in private.
“Yeah, that sounds good, Susan.” I smiled at her.
We chatted on the way down the stairs about the weather of all things. I found a table in the corner and she paid for cappuccinos. As she cleared the milk and sugar from the centre of the table, I knew she was getting down to business. She brought out a pile of papers, a pad and a pen.
“Eleanor, how do you feel training has been going ?” Using my name, taking control by asking questions, casual. Nice work. Obviously been reading up on her people management.
“Yeah, I think it’s been going well. It’s…, well, it’s interesting.”
“What specifically do you think has been interesting ?”
“Just, you know, learning stuff, meeting people from other departments.” She kept my eye contact for a long time. I waited for another question but she just kept looking at me. “And…learning more about being appropriate.” I wasn’t sure what she wanted from me. She looked down at the pile of papers.
“I spoke to Felix and he recommended some extra reading. He says it’s not too dense and there are some fun exercises in there too.” She slid a pile of photocopies in my direction. “You can use some of your personal development time if that helps.”
“Can you tell me yet who complained this time ?” Susan’s eyes darted up to meet mine again. She took in a breath as if preparing to speak but then just shook her head the smallest amount and looked away.
“Just do your reading, Eleanor. I need to see some evidence you are taking this seriously. I thought we were getting somewhere.” Her tone had changed and I was not sure why. She had written nothing on her pad but stood to leave. “Don’t be too long.” She took a few steps away from our table and turned back in my direction. She looked directly at me and narrowed her eyes. She parted her lips as if preparing to speak but changed her mind. As she turned away from me again she seemed to mouth the words, “I will finish you off.” With that she clipped off across the cafe in her heels.
I stared after her till she disappeared out the door and wondered what she meant. There was a compliment slip attached to the photocopies she had passed me with a note in small, neat handwriting. I imagined Felix’s delicate hand scratching out these letters with his pen. Pensive, tight little markings, taking up as little space as possible. He would have taken some time to compose his words to me. I imagined his eyes seeking out mine for approval as I read.
‘Eleanor, I hope you enjoyed the course. We really must stop meeting like that ! Joking aside, here is some out of school reading. I really appreciate your participation in the course but it does no harm to do that little bit extra. Enjoy ! Felix’
I read his note three times to be sure of what he was saying. I pulled the note off the photocopies and folded it into my back pocket before heading back upstairs. I left the photocopies on the table. They were only Felix’s cover.
Marianne always cooked on a Wednesday. We took turns except for Fridays when Marianne picked up fish suppers while I buttered bread, warmed plates in the grill and made a pot of tea. A leftover from when our parents were alive. Nothing like a wee fish supper to pick up your spirits at the end of the week Dad would say, rubbing his hands. Mum went to the chip shop, I buttered the bread, Marianne heated the plates and made the hugest pot of tea. We would sink into the sofa with our scalding plates on our laps. No table for us on chips night. What a treat. I loved, most of all, the melted butter running out of my chip sandwich greasing my lips. It seemed the fire was always burning in this memory but that can’t be right as we had chips year round. We had no television back then. Dad would say, there is nothing out in that world I would want to bring into my house. Not one thing. Not when I have everything I could need right here in this room. So it was, the four of us, tucked safely into this little house. Marianne and myself, we continue to stoke the embers of those fire lit Friday nights.
And then, two years ago, they were gone. Dad died slowly, painfully, in a hospital bed surrounded by strangers and machines. Four months later, Mum suddenly, tucked up to her neck in her own bed. She was lying on her back and her mouth was open a little. Marianne says she still wishes it had been her that had woken first that morning. I knew she was dead when I found the kitchen empty and in semi darkness. No tea, no toast, no condensation on the windows, no electric light. But I still climbed the stairs and entered her room. I could see, even in the half light that her eyes were wide open and staring, but still I crossed the room and placed my hand on her cold cheek. I could see that there was nothing there, nothing left. I ripped back the cover and tried to shake the life back into her. I screamed at her to stop being stupid over and over again.
We had a television now but it wasn’t switched on. I picked idly at the pasta Marianne had made. She isn’t a very good cook.
“What’s going on with you ? Are you going to eat that ?”
“I’m just not really that hungry.”
“Hmm.” She carried on eating but eyed me now and again. I thought about making polite enquiries into Marianne’s day but changed my mind. Instead I carried my barely touched plate through to the kitchen and washed up the dishes. I stuck my head round the door on the way past the living room and told Marianne I needed an early night. In my room I re-read Felix’s note too many times to count.
I was at my desk early the next morning, typing.
Hi Felix, no, too flippant, Dear Felix, no, it’s not the nineteenth century, Felix, too abrupt. I went for Hi Felix but I hated myself for the chirpiness of it.
Thanks for the out of school reading. I have started working through it already. I agree, we should stop meeting at work. I think we should do that little bit extra too.
What do you think ?
And I sent it. His reply came almost immediately and the bitch was copied in.
I am glad you have found your way through the material. If you wish to discuss the usefulness (or otherwise) of the training, you should request a one to one with your manager who I am sure will be happy to discuss.
I read and re-read the email. I could find no trace of his usual shy advance. She must be watching Felix too. I twisted round in my seat to check if anyone was behind me before typing.
I wish we could talk more openly. Would you like to come my house for dinner tonight ? It is my turn to cook, I’m making sausage and mash. My sister will be there but we can go to my room after dinner. She doesn’t talk much anyway and is really quite old, much older than me. Actually, she is about your age.
Ps my parents are dead so you don’t need to worry about them intruding J
I worked in stops and starts for most of the day, checking my emails every few minutes waiting for his reply. Nothing. He must just be busy. Or he could have had a half day. In which case his out of office would surely be on ? I read and re-read the message I had sent, scanning for anything that may have been misinterpreted but there was nothing. By three o clock the words I had sent were running through my head in a loop. Etching a deep groove I couldn’t pull my mind out of. Over and over again. Broken only occasionally by ’stupid bitch’ and ‘fuck him’ drifting around in the background. I could take no more. I got in the lift and pressed Floor 5.
The lift doors opened onto the fifth floor reception. The receptionist was efficient. “Can I help you ?”
“Yes.” I had a loose plan, “It’s just I think I may have left my purse here when I was on training last week.”
“Oh, have you just noticed it missing ?”
“Umm, no but I…I never thought to ask here till now.”
“Oh, OK, what does it look like ?” I described the cheap, plain black purse that currently lay in my bag under my desk. She disappeared through a door in the frosted glass partition behind her. As the door opened I caught a glimpse of Felix. He was leaning on a post, holding a coffee. His eyes met with mine and his face lit up and he nodded at me. Yes, he nodded. It was absolutely clear, he was coming to dinner. And then the door closed softly.
I didn’t need to wait to hear if the training department had my purse. Felix was coming home with me. It was simple. I would just wait outside. Sausage and mash suddenly seemed far too mundane. I would knock off early. I thought no-one would notice. I would run to the shop and get a treat for dinner. Lobster ? Something French ? Flowers ? I collected my bag from under my desk and, after sending the last email I would send in that job, I sped off to the shops.
I’m just going to run to the shops and get some lobster. I’ll see you outside at five-ish. Wait for me.
The Bitch led me back inside the building at 5.10 pm. How she got wind I was out there I will never know. She made me Felix’s flowers off the table and put them on the floor. She said she couldn’t see me properly over them. I was agitated because I was going to miss Felix. He must have been held back as he had not come out of the building yet. I had bought dressed crab instead of the lobster.
“Are you listening to me, Eleanor ?”
I had no idea of what to do with a lobster and was glad I had realised this before getting the thing home and embarrassing myself in front of Felix. The crab lay, together with a bottle of champagne, in a carrier bag under my seat.
“Eleanor, is there anyone I can call to come and support you ?”
“Well, I’m supposed to be meeting Felix from training outside right now. You could get him.”
“No Eleanor, I mean someone you know. It says in your record here your next of kin is Marianne Robinson. Do you want me to call Marianne ?”
I rose from my seat and crossed to the window. I could just about see the street.
“Elanor, please sit down.” I heard the click of a phone receiver being lifted. A pause. She spoke quietly, “I think it would be helpful if you could come through for a few minutes.” A man with a beard I had seen a few times before entered the room within seconds. I returned to my seat.
“Do you want me to call Marianne ?”
I sighed. “She wouldn’t come.” It was true. Marianne never broke her routine.
“In which case, I need you to listen really carefully. You are at the end of the disciplinary procedure. You have received all of the verbal and written warnings that are available to you. This afternoon you left your desk unattended for a period of two hours between three and five pm. There is no alternative course of action left available to me other than to inform you that you are dismissed with immediate effect.” Her voice was shaking a little as she spoke but her eyes never left my face. Her serious little ferret face.
“Can I go then ?”
The man rose and said, “I will escort you out.” He opened the door for me. I gathered Felix’s flowers and food.
The Bitch spoke in a softer voice as I headed towards the door. “Eleanor, do you want me to call you a taxi ? I don’t like the idea of you going home by yourself after hearing this news. I wish you would let me call Marianne.”
What was wrong with this woman ? Would she never give up ? “I already told you, I’m meeting Felix outside.”
“No Eleanor, Felix went home early.” It was a pathetic lie. Like a child saying the first thing that comes into their head. “He doesn’t want you to contact him again.” How would she know ? Oh, yes, she had been keeping an eye on Felix too. A hot fury rose inside of me.
I struggled to breathe but managed to squeeze out some words. “I don’t need to do what you say anymore. “ I sounded like I was almost crying. I wanted her to know it was my rage talking.
The man with the beard came down in the lift with me and all the way to the plate glass of the front door. He said nothing to me the whole time. Out in the cold, I walked a little way from the front door and leant against the wall. The security guard came to look at me every now and then. Felix’s flowers were starting to droop, the wrapping bashed. He may actually have gone by now but I knew he didn’t go early. I wondered if Marianne might consider some crab for dinner for a change. I could always come back tomorrow to meet Felix. I would have to really. Otherwise he would think I don’t care. He will think I walked away of my own free will and left him alone. I need him to know I would never do that.
I had one last look at the door before leaving my station. The second manager and the security guard looked relieved as I left. It might be wiser to wait round the corner tomorrow. I could bring a little gift as an apology.