She sees him in the kitchen, first.
She watches the way he cuts the cucumber into large, awkward shapes and uses his palm to squash the bread around them into a chunky sandwich. Little mountains of cucumber through the squashed dough, peeking through. He had used paper plates at first, she heard, but Gale left a note on the fridge about inefficiency, saving the environment, so he uses nothing now and carries it hanging between his fingers. That’s why he squashes it, she thinks: the cucumber won’t fall out. Ironically efficient.
He hasn’t seen her and now crouches in front of the cupboard, reaching far back behind the tupperware, his blank face towards the ceiling as he fingers around for something – a coffee bag, she sees when he stands. And she thought there were none: there hasn’t been for weeks. The wrapper falls on the floor and he kicks it under the fridge.
At his desk he takes off his ugg boots and moans. He takes a sheet of paper from the printer, wrapping four ginger nut biscuits in it and then beats it with a paperweight, his eyes not leaving the screen. He pours it out on the desk in a neat pile, taking a pinch and dropping it into his coffee. Another pinch that he barely fingers between his lips, barely opening his mouth, crumbs falling down his shirt. He shakes his shirt by the collar and then whips it out his pants at the bottom, shaking it again. The paper he stuffs behind the screen.
He takes a sip of coffee and then coughs on the screen, still not breaking his stare. He picks up the piece of paper again, wipes the screen and leans back in an aching, eyes-closed yawn that crushes and ripples his chin and neck. Her spine straightens, she shudders. He scratches his beard with an open palm and wipes his hand on his pants.
Jack Chellowdene, she says to herself, bending her knees against the wall to watch from the cut out window of the prayer room, you disgust me.
They meet on the fire escape stairs. Isn’t she the only one that uses them? She stops at the landing when she sees him. He continues up towards her until he is a step away, looks at her hand on the rail and then touches it. She shakes, sitting back on the step with her hand still under his giant paw. He stares straight ahead at her and reaches under his shirt to pull the drawstring on his pants tighter. His stomach is whiter than she expected. Familiar stretch lines amongst red marks from the elastic of his pants. When has she been this close to a man? And Jack Chellowdene. He sickens her, yet she trembles now – her breasts feel heavy, her hair scratchy on the back of her neck. She wants to swipe it away, tries to sit up straighter, was she slouching? His hand is moist on hers and he tightens his grip as she tries to move it.
She waits for him to say something, wishing he would. My last office burnt down, she says but doesn’t know why.
She collects herself, goes to stand and he runs his hand up her leg as she gets to her feet. Where her stockings have drooped down, saggy, he stops and looks confused. Doesn’t know what to do, now. Squeezes it, again. Nothing there but poorly-managed hosiery. She looks down at his hand in her dress. Has this ever happened before, she asks herself like she is chatting with a friend, like she does when she is driving; at her most sociable. She is faking: she knows it has never happened before – it couldn’t have, to look and feel so odd – to make her feel so disgusting and excited at once, like she’s standing naked in the freezer, gone into the beer fridge at the bottle shop in bare feet. She never did that, even, but she heard a man talk about it on the train. It hurts. Her whole body is alert, tense.
She is dimpled there; remembers rubbing them in the bath, hating herself yet unable to stop her soapy, busy hands. To be there now, where she was safe and could touch herself softly, away from his forceful hand and the hot breath. She had leaned in when she felt it, offended but drawn. What was the scent? Tobacco? Port? He smelt like her high school History teacher – sweet and musky like coffee and honey and holocaust and 20-page essays when everyone else forgot. One of the boys had said he was a drunk. She is still frozen.
He pulls both his hands back at once, her skirt dropping, puts his hands in his pockets and pushes past her up the stairs.
Jack Chellowdene, Jack Chellowdene. She sits back again and puts her hand back where it had been; imagines his pressing down on hers, again. Jack Chellowdene, Jack Chellowdene – what have you done?
In the lift she stares at the ceiling, happy to be alone there. Her feet are tingling. She wants to take her shoes off; her crotch is wet with sweat. The doors open again and the intern comes in. She hasn’t gone anywhere; has forgotten to press the button. She should get out and pretend she’s just come to the second floor, she thinks, but stays anyway. It’s only the intern. The horrid, beautiful intern with her heels and ignorance that no one can stop smiling about. She only eats salad, and then chicken on Tuesdays: “cheeky chicken Tuesday”, she said. How she hates her – should she be that awkward if she had some of that youth? No; surely she would shout and scream – bounce it off the walls of level 23, play for the big man in the glass office, at least. Listen to her: play for the big man. Who is she becoming – who does she think she is?
Didn’t she have youth once? She remembers always feeling 40, looks at her flats: the sole is coming off, they’re meant to be mustard but they look like a browning banana skin, streaked and dirty and they probably smell worse. She’s wearing a pale blue shirt: blue and banana, like she’s some fading tropical scene on the back of a cereal box. She always wanted to be a woman: mothers her little brother until her Mother doesn’t anymore, and then it’s for real. That’s when everything but her stomach begins to feel flat and hard. She gets those breasts everyone always wanted: whole handfuls of them that come with back aches, shame and a baggy dress to hide it all in. She’s allowed to hate the intern, she tells herself, but not now: she has to focus.
She can’t afford embarrassment, stays in the lift. How long will she feel like this? It eludes her. She has to focus. Her thighs had slapped against his, she remembers that. That noise, that noise, that cool sweat afterwards. She had wanted to lay down, be naked and think about it a moment. It didn’t last long. It didn’t last long enough. She closes her eyes now.
He breaks his chair. Sits on it and it gives out and doesn’t even look surprised; like he meant it or something. Rolls it away with the back still hanging off and pulls in the chair next to him: Joan’s in sick today. He’ll never last, not here. They’ll eat him up. There she goes again: who’s she kidding? No one’s ever been fired. Joan would sit on the floor before she frowned. She envies him. She wants to break her chair, she wants to not care. She’d never pull it off, yet it seems too familiar. She’s been on the other side, she remembers. To have him in her corner, to be with him there: to let him front for her with his offensive disinterest.
He’ll go to the toilet soon. What does he drink before he comes to work, to wee at 10am everyday? Coffee or juice? He has his coffee white, so white. She likes to imagine a teaspoon of milk in her tea, but never measures it out so she doesn’t have to use a sponge on the spoon to get that milky slime off, but she knows it’s a perfect teaspoon. He pours the milk with a splash: an indeterminable amount everytime. She’ll meet him on the way, this time he’ll see her. She was late yesterday, he would have said something if she was there sooner: he would have.
He’s whistling like a kettle on the boil but quiet and bored. He sees her and tries to acknowledge her with one of those small smiles that marks finality – the end of a conversation, the yes I saw you, great – the eyes scrunch up and you tilt the head a bit. He doesn’t tilt his head, doesn’t break his whistle and so purses his lips when he smiles. She giggles; it’s cute, but he grunts like the kettle’s all out of water and walks off.
She reeks of him, she can tell. She despises everything on her desk: the photos of her nephew at the Big Banana, the mug from her Mother – were they always so depressing? Was it necessary to not use the mug – she could have had one cup, that was the point? Oh, if he’d only made her one cup of his coffee from that secret hiding place. To be a part of his secret hiding place. Is she that middle-aged woman in loose pants with smelly underarms? Is she her Mother? She wasn’t meant to be her Mother.
When did she find the time to spend 14 years at this desk? She was meant to be busy. It’s not familiar, and she’s wiping around everything: there is dust, dust everywhere. The hours she has spent here and she couldn’t even get it right. She can’t remember one moment of any worth – some good reports, maybe, that time the man from the glass office sat on the corner with that tiny black stubble, like it’s a secret that he’s a man, and asked if her name was Janie. No it wasn’t and he gets off quickly to go look for Janie. He wore cufflinks, his look made her gulp, but nothing like Jack Chellowdene had made her feel.
There aren’t enough tissues, now her hands are dry and dirty and itchy from the dust and she wants to move desks, move offices, move bodies, silence the monologue that accuses her. She gets hot, her neck itches and maybe she’ll throw up. Her nose is blocked. She might explode, she thinks. She might just. Her whole body annoys her. Jack Chellowdene, Jack Chellowdene, what have you done to me, she asks.
Her entirety roars for him, yet he is a cave. She can touch the walls, but there is nothing to hold, to keep, only she continues to look – expecting something more, wanting to find some hope within him. She’s surrounded by cold walls and her voice echoes and bounces and it’s not a whisper anymore and it comes back dusty but no one can hear her: there’s no one to hear her and she just hears herself again and again.