‘And how long have you had the pain for?’ Annabel asked, going through Ultra-Health’s standard questions.
She had told Jess that she had started dreaming these questions, after just a month into her six-month contract with the medical insurance company. ‘Uh-huh, that’s cool,’ Jess had responded.
‘Four days or so,’ Mr Evans said over the phone.
Annabel put Jess’s lack of emotional engagement down to how her job at Ultra-Health was a temporary contract. She got that Jess didn’t want to get too invested. Annabel hoped that was about to change. She had an afternoon meeting scheduled with Simon, her manager.
‘I think they’re going to make me full-time,’ she had text Jess on the weekend. Adding a smiley face emoticon. The gulf between them would narrow when she was made permanent, and things would go back to how they had been at university.
Jess had responded with a thumbs up emoticon.
‘Right. And your GP has referred you to a surgeon?’ She asked Mr Evans.
The photocopier kicked into life behind her. They had sat her next to it. Maybe they thought she looked like someone that liked to print? Like she had a papery texture. But she hadn’t used it once, and she had no idea what everyone else was printing. The noise it made spewing out paper sounded like something in great pain, but without the strength to vocalise properly. Like, she imagined, an old man slowly dying would sound if amplified. And she had to hear this death hundreds of times a day.
‘Yes, and physio,’ Mr Evans said.
Annabel sat upright. This was a red light: multiple simultaneous referrals. She was expected, by management, to spot red lights like this. Simon was big on clamping down on simultaneous referrals.
‘We don’t normally authorise physio and a consultation at the same time. How about we authorise a consultation with the surgeon and go from there?’
That was what they called a ‘positive pivot’. She had said no to physio while saying yes to the surgeon. It was about case management. Annabel had to think about her targets. Jess had said that. Jess said a lot of things about jobs. After uni, she had just slid easily into her job in marketing at an online clothes retailer. Annabel sometimes caught herself wishing slight hardships on Jess. Nothing irreparable. Just the kind of things Annabel experienced. Enough to calm down Jess’s Employment Guru act. She wondered whether this made her a bad friend.
‘You need to make yourself indispensable,’ Jess would hand out these titbits of advice and then stand back as if she had simultaneously delivered gold, frankincense and myrrh. ‘It’s about being proactive.’ ‘It’s about making yourself available.’ ‘It’s about going above and beyond.’ It seemed to be about so many things for Jess.
‘Okay,’ Mr Evans said.
‘Great, I’ll authorise that.’ Annabel gave him the code and went through the boilerplate on his excess charges, the old man dying in the background all the while. She wondered whether being reminded of the mortality of the elderly all day at work was damaging for her, psychologically speaking.
She put the phone down and took a breath. Annabel liked taking a second to feel good about herself after authorising treatment.
‘It’s like a dopamine high, you know giving someone the code. It feels good,’ she had said last night, trying to explain what she liked about her job to Mike. He had continued to chew his pasta with exaggerated jaw movements, like a grazing cow. Mike worked in accounts, at the same company as Jess. It had been Jess who had set the date up, strongly suggesting Mike would be perfect for her. And although Annabel had almost given up dating, she had agreed because she didn’t want to say no to Jess.
‘Oh, right. Yeah. That’s great, keep at it,’ Mike had replied.
That’s great, keep at it? This had sounded like something you would say to a child who was trying to make a papier-mâche face for a school art class and was doing a sub-par job. She had wanted to like Mike. She had wanted to agree with Jess that he was perfect. And he did have some good qualities. A good jawline, a full head of hair and he looked vaguely athletic. Maybe he wasn’t exactly handsome, but definitely wholesome. The kind of man that probably hadn’t allowed himself to imagine what it was like sleeping with her. But she needed more from him than just wholesomeness.
‘I mean I’m so different from Sarah, who I sit next to,’ Annabel had persisted. ‘She’s a robot. Authorising someone or not authorising them – it’s like the same emotion for her. And she always wears this black dress to work, and soaks herself in perfume.’ Annabel was, at this stage, beginning to think that his vacancy didn’t matter. Maybe she would still sleep with him. She didn’t want to go home alone this evening. She touched the pills in her pocket. SSRIs. Her safety net; little injections of serotonin that allowed her to push through the .
‘Right,’ Mike said, taking an extraordinarily long sip of his kombucha, draining almost half of it.
‘And, get this,’ Annabel said, persevering still. ‘I caught Sarah and my boss going at it at work’.
‘It?’ Mike asked.
It was an exaggeration. She had caught Sarah and Simon together, but they hadn’t exactly been ‘doing it’. Unless ‘it‘ was a kiss. But, as far as kisses went, it was full on rancid middle-aged necking.
‘Yeah, it,’ Annabel said.
She had only caught them because she had left her purse in the office. They hadn’t noticed her return. She had filmed them kissing and sent it to Jess. She followed up with a, ‘do I wait for them to finish or just go get it #fuckmylife‘.
‘Defo Wait,’ Jess had replied.
‘He’s got a wife #asshole,#metoo’ Annabel had typed. Jess had sent her back a picture of a thumbs down. It didn’t seem to adequately capture the emotional damage of Simon’s actions. She sent Jess back a large fist emoticon. That moment had been the closest she felt to Jess in a long while.
‘Like… sex?’ Mike asked.
‘Well, no. Kissing. Disgusting, right?’
‘Right. Does she work full time?’ Mike said.
Annabel had stared at him. This was his response to her story about Sarah and Simon? Was this him telling her that maybe she should stop shit stirring on Sarah because she had got herself a permanent contract?
‘Yeah, she’s full-time,’ Annabel had said, feeling herself shrink into the chair. She had wondered whether her loneliness was visible. It felt like a skin to her.
She had spent the rest of the meal thinking about what she was going to tell Jess. She knew if she said Mike was dull and also seemed okay with Simon’s multiple levels of fucked-upness, Jess would take it personally. Their conversations, these days, always seemed to become twisted. When had that happened? When had they gone from talking long into the night, in their student house, while sitting on their couch with a bottle of gin and microwaved pasta bake. She wanted that shared sense of solidarity and excitement back. Of them against the world. Was it only her that felt that? Had Jess forgotten?
The red light on the side of Annabel’s computer screen started flashing, shaking the memory of last night from her. The flashing light was a warning that she was taking too long to answer the next caller.
The photocopier behind her still churned. Now people were gathering round it shrugging their shoulders. It must have broken. This happened often. The photocopier losing its mind and printing the same thing over and over again. The breakdown always fascinated everyone. The spectacle of this office beast of burden breaking down pulled people in. Annabel wondered whether everyone secretly thought it was the canary in the coal mine heralding a corporate apocalypse.
Today, rather than being excited by the printer’s meltdown, she felt fatigued. She had an allocated break in another two hours. Sure, she could pretend that she needed the toilet earlier, but she had to be careful. Management would notice persistent irregular bowel movements. That was what she had been told by Sarah when she first arrived. ‘What, really? Like how long it takes me to take a shit?’ she had said in response. As. A. Joke. Sarah had looked at her with disgust, and hadn’t said much to her since.
Screw it, she thought. She needed a break. Sarah looked at Annabel as she got up from the chair. It was a look that said, do you not care about making full-time? Are you so ruled by your digestive system that you cannot wait an hour? Annabel wanted to ask Sarah why she hated her. What had she done? But Sarah’s dislike of her had become just another ordinary but unexplained part of the office to her – the same as the coffee machine which produced undrinkable coffee that everyone then drunk anyway. Or the way everyone thanked each other, via email, for emails that had been sent to them, continuously. Thanks for your email.
As Annabel walked to the toilet she imagined Sarah squeezing her buttocks all day, and then rushing home only to violently soil herself as she ran up her stairs. Annabel imagined Sarah slipping on her own faecal matter, falling down the stairs and pulling a tendon in her foot. Maybe Simon would rush over to her home. And her husband would catch them together. She imagined Sarah calling her, begging to see a foot surgeon and a physio simultaneously. Sobbing because she couldn’t walk to work. Because her marriage was breaking down. But no, sorry Sarah, just because you shat yourself, ruptured a tendon and are now being divorced by the only man that will ever love you, you don’t get to see the physio and the consultant simultaneously. Let’s just see what the surgeon says, and go from there.
Annabel closed the cubicle door and sat on the toilet lid. She realised she was crying. This random outpouring had started happening more frequently lately. She wondered whether it had started on her walk to the toilet or just now. Annabel breathed deeply.
She sent Jess a text: ‘crappy morning’. Although, in truth, it hadn’t been that bad. She hadn’t had any abusive calls yet. She added a turd emoticon to her message, then regretted it. The turd looked too jovial and well-formed to do justice to her mood. She saw that Jess was typing and leaned back against the tile wall. Jess stopped typing. Annabel waited for the message.
When she was permanent at Ultra-Health, she thought, all the weirdness in her relationship with Jess would iron itself out. Jess would stop processing her as someone to help. They would go back to how it was when they were at uni.
Had Jess forgotten to press send? She looked at her watch. 10:58. She had been in the toilet for seven minutes. Too long. She fished around quickly in her pocket for the pill packet. One a day, her GP had said, but she found it helped to take two occasionally.
The second half of the morning went more quickly. Two shoulder injuries both requiring authorisation for steroid injections. No problems there. And the photocopier had sorted itself out. By midday, Annabel was feeling better. Jess texted to say she had booked Carlos for lunch, an Italian vegan restaurant that looked expensive. ‘Hope that’s okay, it’s just opened and has had great reviews’. Jess then added a gif of a baby rubbing their stomach in front of a plate of food.
Did she not know that it wasn’t OK? Did she not understand that spending £25 on tofu oat milk carbonara was a financial disaster for her? But to say no felt like it would be a buzzkill. If she said no to lunch at Carlos, then wherever they went would be haunted by her cheapness. Still, she resented the way Jess had framed it. The use of the child gif. Like in some way this was not only a test of her financial resilience, but also her humanity. As if saying no to bruschetta would be to squash the dreams of this young spirit.
When she got to the restaurant Jess was already at the table, looking at her phone. She looked like an advert for executive success. The kind you would see in the cultural section of a business magazine. A sleek trouser suit. Annabel felt ragged and unkempt in comparison.
‘Isn’t this place great?’ Jess said, putting her phone on the side of the table.
‘Yeah,’ Annabel said sitting down and trying to control her panic at the prices on the menu.
‘I’ve ordered, don’t worry,’ Jess said smiling.
‘You’ve ordered?’ Annabel repeated trying to process was going on. She had thought that maybe she would just get the soup and say she wasn’t hungry.
‘Yeah just a selection of everything.’
Annabel stared at her. Everything.
‘We can share right?’
‘Sure,’ Annabel said, feeling like she was in free-fall.
‘Anyway. Are you prepared for this afternoon then?’ Jess asked.
‘This afternoon?’ Annabel asked unable to focus on anything other than the cost of the tofu bruschetta.
‘You’re job meeting. I guess we shouldn’t jinx it,’ Jess said.
‘Oh right,’ Annabel said smiling, as it was no big deal.
The idea that she wouldn’t get offered the job felt like a stomach punch. She tried to discreetly breathe through her smile.
‘It will be good for you,’ Jess said, rubbing Annabel’s shoulder.
Annabel wondered whether their words would go back to how they used to feel, when she went permanent. It would stop feeling like their friendship was based on nothing but the past: university halls, pre-drinking cheap wine before going to clubs, and the fun one night stands that had disappeared almost immediately on leaving Uni.
‘I think it will be really good for you actually,’ she added, when Annabel didn’t respond.
‘Right,’ Annabel said. ‘I kind of want to just forget about work for half an hour.’
She wanted some downtime; a break from the constant evaluation of her opportunities and value. More than this, she wanted to be able to talk to Jess about things other than work or the future.
‘I totally get that,’ Jess said, looking like Annabel had just slapped her in the face. Annabel realised that Jess thought she was being rude.
‘Cool, I totally get that, but if they ask you where you want to be in three years, what would you say?’
Why was Jess going on about the job? Why couldn’t she take a hint? Annabel started to feel herself shrinking.
‘I’m fairly sure no one asks that question anymore,’ Annabel said.
‘I got it for my job. It’s a classic. I’m just trying to help,’ Jess said shrugging.
The phrase my job seemed to have a sharp resonance to it. Did Jess enjoy her failure, Annabel wondered. Most of the time she thought that Jess was just struggling to adjust to their new context; her success and Annabel’s failure. Annabel got that having to negotiate that divide was probably draining for Jess too.
‘I’ll think about an answer to that,’ Annabel said, trying to shake the idea that Jess enjoyed her failure.
‘I’d tell them that you would like to start looking for management opportunities at that time. You know something that makes you look interested without being pushy or aggressive. They want to feel that you’re committed, but aren’t threatening to them.’
Was that delight in Jess’s tone? Subtle but unmistakable. Did Jess revel in her failure rather than find it awkward or straining? How immersed had she become in the favourable comparison between herself and Annabel? All the things Jess had that Annabel didn’t. A long-term boyfriend, James. Permanent employment. Non-medicated stability.
How far does your pleasure at your relative success go? Annabel wanted to ask but couldn’t. Do you get James to dress up as me, while you pleasure yourself shouting ‘you’ll never get a full-time job,’ at him? And do you get James to beg for your employment advice? ‘Please, just another insight, another labour market titbit, another piece of vocational perspicacity.’ And do you then shout things like ‘go above and beyond’ or ‘make yourself indispensable,’ while climaxing?
‘That’s what I would do anyway,’ Jess said shrugging. Annabel realised she had just been staring at her friend. She smiled. A smile that tried to communicate she hadn’t been imagining Jess and James in some sadomasochistic career adviser role-play.
Annabel felt a temporary relief when the food arrived. Tiny plates, with scattered colourful herbs a distraction from their conversation.
‘This looks great, doesn’t it?’ Jess said.
‘Sure,’ Annabel said wondering whether it was too late to say she wasn’t that hungry and that she would just have a coffee. Jess gave her one of those looks that seemed to say, ‘don’t ruin this for me.’
The rest of the lunch blurred for Annabel. She half-listened to Jess talk about how she had started hot yoga classes, and an avocado and almond diet. Annabel wondered whether avocados would be something she would buy when made permanent.
‘Jesus, is that the time,’ Jess said checking her phone. ‘I’ve got a call at half past. I’ve got to go, sorry the time just flew.’
‘Oh, yeah I didn’t realise we’ve been here that long,’ Annabel managed instinctively reaching for her wallet.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ Jess said. ‘I’m paying. It’s like… a celebration of you. You know, for your meeting later this afternoon,’ Jess said leaning across and squeezing her hand.
To Annabel, Jess’s offer to pay felt more like a rescue operation than a gift. What did Jess want her to say?
‘Thank you Jess. This restaurant was great. But I’ve given myself multiple hernias thinking about how I’m going to pay for all the tofu we just ate. And you paying for it is like receving the kiss of life and being slapped at the same time. And I know it makes you feel good. And it’s a nice thing to do for someone. Maybe I should be more grateful. Maybe I’m being oversensitive. But the whole experience makes me feel guilty, and a failure.’
Annabel knew she couldn’t say that. Jess wouldn’t understand. She would think that she was being ungrateful; just another sign that they were drifting apart.
‘Thanks that’s like, so kind of you,’ Annabel said, smiling.
‘I’d love to get coffee but I completely lost track of time,’ Jess said. ‘You don’t mind do you?’
‘No, that’s totally cool,’ Annabel said wanting to get out of the restaurant.
‘I’ll settle up on the way out,’ Jess said while standing up and putting her coat on.
‘Thanks,’ Annabel said.
‘It was great to catch up. Let me know how it goes’ Jess said, hugging Annabel. And then she was gone.
Annabel watched Jess leave, and realised they hadn’t spoken about Mike. Was this because Mike had told Jess it hadn’t gone that well? She wondered what he had said. And whether Jess hadn’t mentioned anything because she was embarrassed for her. Or maybe Jess had just forgotten about the date.
It was 1:30 when Annabel got back to her desk. Another hour and a half until her meeting with Simon. She felt deflated by her lunch with Jess. What would she say if they asked her where she wanted to be in three years? Would she say she wanted to be like Sarah? She shuddered at the idea.
She took two calls about hip operations in a row. She felt good about authorising both. The photocopier had stopped spewing out paper. The air filled with the low hum of people taking calls. The soft tap of keyboards: everyone thanking one another for the emails they had just received. The relative peace was almost serene. By the time it was 2:45, she had started to feel better. She got up and wandered across the office, feeling Sarah’s eyes on her back. She didn’t want to be late for the meeting with Simon.
‘I’d like to be a pivotal member of the team.’
That’s what she’d say if she was asked what she wanted in three year’s time; committed but unthreatening.
The room was small and windowless. She sat down and checked her phone. She scrolled through stories about forest fires, a gang shooting in London, and an American celebrity who was being accused of appropriating Latino culture.
‘Hi Annabel,’ Simon said, causing her to jump and quickly put her phone in her pocket. She knew it made her look guilty. As if she shouldn’t have been using a phone while she was waiting.
‘Hi,’ Annabel said standing up. He looked tired. She wondered whether he and Sarah were still going at it after hours in the office.
‘Hello,’ Charlotte said, walking in behind Simon.
‘Oh, hi,’ Annabel said, surprised. Charlotte was from HR. She looked like a cartoonish headmistress to Annabel: pencil skirt, and grey hair cut into a short bob. Annabel guessed it made sense that she was here. If they were going to offer her a job they would need HR in the room.
‘This is going to be a difficult conversation and I don’t want you to take it personally,’ Simon said as he sat down. ‘We’ve had some reports,’ he paused, looking at Charlotte.
‘Do you want to sit down?’ Charlotte asked Annabel.
Annabel realised she was still standing up. She was trying to process what Simon had said. It was like being punched in the gut by someone invisible. She felt it but didn’t know where it had come from or why. And it had happened so fast.
‘So like I was saying, we’ve had reports that you’re not getting on with some of your colleagues,’ Simon continued.
‘Yes. We have to look into all the reports we get. You understand that right?’
Annabel shrugged. She hadn’t realised reports existed. Who was reporting on her? What kind of East Berlin Cold War bullshit was this? Was someone sitting behind a camera following her around marking her interactions with her peers out of 10. Colleague appeared to distance themselves from Annabel in the lift. It is assumed she is a malodorous individual who has zero regard for basic standards of personal hygiene. Minus points. Annabel appeared to steal someone’s almond milk, from office fridge, for her own tea. Possible kleptomaniac that has no respect for property rights or civilisation. Likely anarchist. Minus points. Annabel eats lunch alone outside on park bench. She must be a social maladroit who wilfully cultivates her own loneliness. Might be plotting something. Is she behind continual photocopier breakdowns? Minus points.
‘We have reviewed reports that you take long breaks, and that sometimes you can be a distraction,’ said Simon.
‘I don’t understand. I don’t take long breaks.’
Annabel felt like she had gone into a state of paralysis. She needed to fight. That’s what Jess was always saying to her: you’ve got to be assertive. She was professional. She had a good call rate. Good customer feedback.
‘We’re not saying you do necessarily’, Charlotte said. ‘I mean, we will of course check the footage and do our due diligence.’
‘Check the footage?’ Annabel asked.
‘Time away from desk. That kind of thing. We want to make sure these reports are fair. You understand that, right?’ Simon said.
Why did he keep asking whether she understood?
‘We’re worried about morale. We are a team and we’ve got to think about how everyone fits into that.’
Annabel’s mind raced. She tried to pin down exactly what they were saying, but all she could see was Jess’s face twirling in circles. And then when she looked up Jess’s head sat on Simon’s body.
‘It’s okay. Sometimes these things don’t work out. It’s not anyone’s fault,’ Jess-Simon said. He had the same aloof register Jess had used at lunch to say, ‘I’m paying, it’s like a celebration of you.’
‘We’re going to give you full pay for a month, and you don’t have to finish your contract,’ Charlotte said, her head morphing into Mike’s. Annabelle felt hot and dizzy.
Jess-Simon and Mike-Charlotte continued to talk. She heard their faint mumblings, beyond the white noise of her mind. ‘Pay for another month,’ ‘it’s a good deal: two months off work, full pay,’ ‘no need to come in tomorrow.’
Mike’s question from last night, ‘is Sarah full-time?’ on loop in between the crackles and murmurings of Simon and Charlotte. The sound of the photocopier starting up again outside the room. Jess’s question barked into the cacophony, ‘Where do you want to be in three year’s time?’
And then she was being ushered out of the room by Jess-Simon. Mike’s head on Charlotte’s body still screaming at her from inside the meeting room. Does Sarah work full-time? And then as she stepped out of the door she heard him shout. Jess pities you.
‘Enough,’ Annabel shouted at Mike’s-Charlotte. Mike’s face vanished, leaving Charlotte staring back at her as Simon closed the meeting room door, leaving her and him standing face-to-face outside of the meeting room.
‘I think it’s time you left,’ he said. ‘I will have security move your belongings.’
Annabel felt the office coming back into focus. She knew who lay behind this. She knew it was Sarah. Sarah’s reports. Telling Simon that she took long breaks. That she had small bowels. Telling him that she was a bad worker. Bad for morale.
‘I know about you and Sarah,’ Annabel said, filling with rage at the thought of Sarah and Simon, locked in adultery, and planning on how to kick her out of the company.
‘I have a video on my phone. You and Sarah.’
‘What video?’ Simon said. Annabel could see he was buying time, trying to think. It felt good to be the one who was applying pressure. It was so much easier on this side of the fence. She pulled out her phone and scrolled through her messages. Finding the video, she pressed play. Images of Simon and Sarah flashed up on the screen, the pair of them pressed up against the desk, his hand groping her in a simulacrum of teenage lust.
‘What? Where did you get this?’ Simon’s face turned red. It reminded her of that flashing light on her desktop screen telling her she was being too slow to pick up the next caller.
‘Does that matter?’
‘You know filming people is illegal.’
‘Oh, shut up. I know you were firing me because of her. It’s Sarah isn’t it? She said those things. She’s been writing those reports.’
‘We’re not firing you. Just… not renewing your contract,’ Simon said.
‘Renew my contract. No probation period and a 10% raise, and I won’t tell your wife. That’s the deal.’
‘That’s blackmail,’ Simon said, almost in pantomime shock.
‘I guess it is. And what would you call fucking another woman?’
She liked the way the word fucking sounded. Hard and sharp in her mouth. It felt like it could cut him.
‘How do I know you won’t just tell her anyway?’
‘Think of it as mutually assured destruction. If I told her, you’d fire me. There’s no point.’
Annabel felt some of her anger leaving her as she said this. The idea that she had been channelling Simon’s wife now felt ridiculous. A lie. Annabel was using Simon’s wife. She wasn’t defending decency. But, surely, she was still on the right side of history? Surely, she was righting a wrong, even if it was just a personal one?
‘Jesus,’ Simon said. ‘I didn’t expect this from you,’ he said spluttering, his face reddening in anger rather than embarrassment.
‘Yes or no?’
‘Fine,’ Simon said, the veins on the side of his temples looked like thick blue canals; near bursting point.
‘And I don’t want to sit next to Sarah anymore. You’re lucky I don’t ask you to fire her,’ Annabel said, more to test the limits of her newfound power than anything else.
‘Trust me, I will sit you well away from Sarah.’
‘And I will go to the toilet whenever I want.’
‘Sure,’ Simon said, looking slightly confused.
Annabel went back to her desk. She winked at Sarah, who pretended not to see her. There were 10 waiting calls.
She checked her phone. Jess had sent her a text message. ‘How’d it go?’ she had included a gif of a basketball player slam dunking, and then followed it with a question mark. It was the question mark Annabel focused on. She started typing out a response and then decided not to. Maybe she would respond later. Maybe not.
Time Oke is a lawyer and writer. His short stories have been published in anthologies, magazines and websites including Michael Terence Publishing, The Writers Club, Storgy and Scribble. Tim is working on a book of short stories and a novella.