It was a dull Friday afternoon. She sat in the outer office and waited. It had been nearly an hour now, and still they hadn’t called her. She strained her ears to decipher the murmuring voices in the next room, but it was impossible; the roar of traffic from the street outside was too loud, and so was the wallpaper. She gazed at the pot plant on the coffee table, a monstrous triffid-like thing with dusty leaves, drooping with disappointment. She empathised with it. How much longer would they make her wait? She had things to do, cats to feed, crap TV to watch that wouldn’t watch itself. She rummaged in her tatty bag for her phone, then put it back. Her hands were shaking too much to use the touch screen, anyway.
The door opened. ‘Miss Ward?’
At the bus stop, in the rain. Trying not to groan out loud at the fool she’d made of herself in that office. There were others in the queue, and it didn’t do to mutter to oneself in public. She could have a good, head-under-the-duvet screaming and swearing session once she was safely home. A raindrop trickled down her neck. The sound of pneumatic drills and the shouts of workmen filled the air as Birmingham was in a constant state of being rebuilt. If they’d done it right the first time… She cleared her throat as she realised she’d said that out loud, and buried her face in her collar. An elderly lady with a tartan shopping trolley started fidgeting with her purse and unrest spread through the queue. The bus was coming.
Anna found a seat next to a large, malodorous gentleman in a rasping raincoat. Perching on the corner of the stained Dralon, she noticed a ladder running up her tights. The icing on the cake! She rolled her eyes. The windows were steamed up and sweating, so she peered at ugly streets through the front, trying not to breathe too deeply. At her stop, there was the usual dilemma of whether to thank the driver or not. She decided not, as his breaking had nearly thrown her through the windscreen. She stepped haughtily down in silence, and the bus roared away in what seemed to her an angry huff. Ah, home!
Dusk was falling as Anna put her key into the door. She remembered her house mate Sophie would be home by now, and took a deep breath.
‘How did the interview go?’ Sophie called as she bounded down the stairs in her PJs. She always wore them in the house.
‘Well, not good, really…’ Anna sighed, and dumped her bag down in the hall. ‘I tripped over the carpet on the way in and fell into the boss’s lap. It was downhill from there.’
Sophie stared innocently at her, waiting for some good news. Ever the optimist.
‘I don’t think I’ll be hearing from them again, put it that way.’
‘I’ll make you a coffee.’
Suddenly, Anna felt like crying. It was the little kindnesses. She shrugged off her coat and flopped down onto the ageing sofa. Colin the cat immediately jumped onto her lap.
‘Latte or Americano?’ bellowed Sophie, needlessly loudly, from the kitchen.
‘I need latte.’
‘Damn right you do!’
She came in moments later bearing the healing mugs and they both sipped in silence, contemplating the miseries of life. Well, Anna contemplated the miseries of life; Sophie was thinking about her date that night with Kevin. Anna could tell by the look on her face. So she drank the last drop of her latte and gave in to the inevitable.
‘So… Kevin tonight..?’
‘Yes!’ Sophie flicked back her glossy curls. ‘Our third date!’ She opened her large eyes and paused dramatically.
Anna felt she ought to know what to reply, but was too exhausted and just too introverted to know what. ‘Well, that’s… really great. I hope you both have a nice time.’
Anna gritted her teeth. She hated ‘Annie’ and also knew a big favour was looming.
‘…Annie, could you do me a tiny favour..? Would you mind staying out until late tonight? Because it’s our third date… you know… I’d like to bring Kevin back here. We can’t go to his place because, you know, he’s back living with his parents.’ She made a begging face, all cute in her Hello Kitty pyjamas, like an six year old instead of a twenty six year old.
‘Yes, sure, I’ll… Well, I can go and see my mother, I suppose. I haven’t been for a while, so I ought to go anyway. No problem.’ She smiled tightly and for a fleeting moment imagined herself bludgeoning Sophie to death with the Xbox. No, that might damage the Xbox… Should she mention these murderous imaginings to her therapist? Perhaps there was something wrong with her. She laughed briefly. One of many, many things wrong with her. But life goes on, and so would she. Even though she had to spend several hours with her mother tonight.
It had taken a while to get her ancient Fiesta to start, so Anna was later than she’d planned. It was almost 8pm when she drew up before “Gardenia View”, her mother and stepfather’s new six bedroomed house. She walked past the stone cherubs, tugged the faux-antique bell pull and waited several minutes as muffled sounds of an argument came from within. At last, the oak double front doors flew open and her mother’s voice cut through the cold night air, “Daahhhling!”. She threw her arms open as if for a warm embrace, but held her daughter stiffly away from her before pecking her briefly on each cheek with prickly lips.
“Hi Mum, how are –”
“Now darling, you know I prefer ‘Mummy’. Come in, come in! Angus was just boiling the kettle, weren’t you Angus?” – shooting her husband a narrow look – “Now then, you haven’t seen our new conservatory!” She swept through the spacious hall towards the dining room (more double doors) whose end wall had been knocked down and, behold, a conservatory now stuck out into the large garden.
“Wow Mum – Mummy – did you get planning permission for that..?”
“We don’t bother with that! Who’s going to know?” came Angus’s voice from the kitchen, followed shortly by Angus himself bearing a tray of matching mugs.
“Ah! Good! Well, let’s go into the lounge, then, where it’s warmer.” Anna’s mother led the way into the long, immaculate room. There were two very upright sofas stranded at one end of the vast expanse, at antisocial angles to each other, with a shiny reproduction antique table between them. Anna perched at the end of one and shivered. It didn’t seem much warmer. At the other end of the room was a baby grand piano on which her mother would hammer out modern Christian choruses. A huge Lladro stork glared savagely out from his china platform on a side table, and various other Lladro figurines joined him from the mantle piece and other tables. From every side, Anna was simpered at or scrutinised by cats, ballerinas, geese and nuns.
“Let’s have the fire on, shall we?” declared her mother in celebratory tones. She picked up a small black stick and flourished it at the fire place. The ‘real flame effect’ gas fire failed to roar into life.
“Angus! The fire is broken!”
“I doubt it, dear.” He took the remote from her. “It just hasn’t been used since last year.” Angus pressed the button again and this time a small row of blue flames appeared.
“Turn it down, turn it down!”
“It’s on its lowest setting.”
“Well then.” her mother smiled, perching opposite Anna and taking a mug of tea. Angus did the same, and they all sat and looked at each other, blowing on their steaming drinks. The brass clock on the mantle piece chimed eight, followed by the cuckoo clock in the hall.
“So, how did the interview go? You didn’t say on the phone.” Her mother sipped her Waitrose tea daintily.
“Oh! It went well, I think. It’s hard to tell… They said they’d let me know.”
Angus harrumphed. Her mother set her mug down on a china coaster. “Well, at least you’re getting interviews now. June at church says her son thinks the IT industry is recovering again. And he should know – he works for MicroTech.” A smile. “And Carol’s daughter has just qualified as a solicitor! I told her how well Marie was doing, though.”
“Ach, yes, Marie is doing very well indeed, considering she has no PhD.” her stepfather agreed, folding his arms and directing a piercing look at Anna.
All around the room hung brass-framed photographs of Anna’s younger sister, Marie. Marie graduating, Marie with large groups of friends, Marie’s first wedding, Marie’s second wedding, Marie standing by an Airbus A380. She was director of operations for the whole of Europe at Your Travel, having worked her way up through the company. Anna didn’t begrudge Marie her success, but the constant comparisons… There was only one small photograph of Anna, taken when she was twelve years old and much slimmer.
“Well, I’ll keep trying. My programming skills are still up to date, my CV is pretty good, I think. And I’ve just got to get away from Humphrey Hill.”
“Well, I should think so.”
“It’s making me miserable.”
“Yes, there’s that as well, I suppose.”
“I’ve got to think of my mental health, Mum-my!”
Her mother and Angus laughed heartily at this. “Just get out of that Estate Agents and into a job more suitable for a Ward.” Her mother said with finality. “Now then, we haven’t told you the news! Marie is pregnant!”
Unbidden, an image of herself bludgeoning her mother to death with a Lladro stork sprang into Anna’s mind.
The usual nose-to-tail Monday morning traffic was made worse by pouring rain, and Anna was glad she was on the bus and not driving her elderly Fiesta. At least she could close her eyes.
It had taken ten minutes to travel a few yards and she felt sick, but it wasn’t travel sickness. It was the thought of spending yet another week working at Humphrey Hill. “No, be calm. I can survive this,” she thought. “I’ll look at the job websites as soon as I arrive and send off some more CVs. And get coffee. Definitely coffee.” And if the bus took all day to get there, that would be fine by her.
But it didn’t take all day. At two minutes to nine, Anna shook out her umbrella and entered the confines of Humphrey Hill Letting Agents. Her desk was one of two in a sparsely furnished room with three doors leading off it. Beige carpet, beige walls and beige chairs were Mr Hill’s idea of trustworthy decor. He didn’t like plants; they were an unnecessary expense.
Anna removed her dripping raincoat, hung it over the back of her chair (no coat stand: an unnecessary expense) and listened for signs of life.
“HACK! HACK-HACK-HACK! Eeeuugh,”
Mr Hill was evidently in and enjoying his twentieth illegal cigarette of the day. And, as Sade was oozing from the spare PC, Mr Hill’s son Graham must also be in his office. He played Sade’s “Diamond Life” all day, every day because he felt it lent the agency “a touch of class”.
Anna sighed and sat down at her desk, her back to the plate glass window showing all the deceptively spacious (but inwardly decaying) properties on Humphrey Hill’s books. She switched on her PC before heading to the kitchen for a reviving coffee. She was heard.
“Annaaa! Fetch me one while you’re HACK HACK going.”
Anna took a very deep breath and opened the door to Humphrey Hill’s office. Mr Hill was a barely discernable figure, just visible through billowing clouds of smoke.
“Here’s my mug,” he slammed it down on the desk. “I’ll have tea. Not the cheap stuff, mind. HACK.”
She took the mug and hurried out, shutting the door before exhaling.
In the tiny, windowless kitchen Anna filled the kettle. Footsteps approached as she was rinsing out Mr Hill’s ash-filled mug. It was Graham, dressed in his usual grey suit and grey tie. He grinned when he saw her.
“First brew of the day, eh?”
His gaze came to rest, as always, on her bust. Today, this was enveloped in a fluffy jumper which was loose everywhere but stretched tightly across her outsize breasts.
“Hahaha!” he said again, his eyeballs straining in their sockets.
Anna turned her back on him and stared at the kettle. “Boil!” she thought, “For God’s sake, boil!”
Eventually it did, and she poured water into her cafetiere and over Humphrey’s Yorkshire Tea (Gold) tea bag. Graham reached across her, brushing her boobs, to get the kettle.
She got safely back to her desk having avoided further groping or smoke inhalation, and already felt exhausted enough to return home. But it was five past nine, and she had email. She scrolled. There were many supermarkets with outstanding offers she could not afford to miss, houses for sale in her area way out of her price range, and a message from someone called Barry instructing her to “save BIG on your replacement Gas Boiler”. Just as she was plunging her cafetiere, her phone rang.
“Hello, Humphrey Hill Letting Agents.”
“HACK HACK HACK!”
She held the phone away from her ear.
“Come to my office Miss Ward, I have a HACK letter to dictate.”
Anna’s stomach headed directly south as she grabbed her notepad and pen and again braved Humphrey’s lair. This time it was slightly less smoky – a window was open and the fumes were escaping into the rainy street. The walls – initially beige, now patchy dark brown, were at least visible now. She took her place on the other side of Mr Hill’s huge, cluttered desk and perched her notepad on her knee.
“Take dictation!” He ordered, positioning half moon spectacles on his nose.
“Dear Mister… Whatever his bloody name is… Scoppyoffalis? You’ll have to look that up. Comma. Regarding your letter of the, er… 18th? Whatever it was. You’ll have to look that up. Comma. You are not comma repeat not comma entitled to your full deposit back comma as a teaspoon was missing comma from the property err Chapel Road I think. You’ll have to look that up. Comma…. Yours sincerely et cetera.”
He succumbed to a prolonged fit of coughing and waved her away with his hand.
Anna returned to her desk and typed up the letter along with its plague of commas. She had once, soon after she arrived, attempted to correct Mr Hill’s eccentric punctuation and her efforts were returned full of red biro. Since then she hadn’t bothered.
Just as she sent the document to the printer, her email program chimed.
“From: MicroTech Birmingham. Subject: .NET Software Developer Position.”
Her fingers paused mid air and she found she couldn’t click on the link. She took several deep breaths before her hands would move again.
Her eyes scanned the screen. “Dear Miss Ward, thank you for your application for the position of… blah blah… we would like to invite you…” Yes! An interview, next Monday. Her brain immediately began planning. She would make another excuse to the Old Man (she was having a lot of teeth problems at the moment…) and go over her CV again. Be calm. She could do this!
She spent the rest of the day on a cloud of happiness. She could tolerate the choking fumes of Humphrey’s lair, Groping Graham’s lewd stares, even Sade. She wouldn’t be here for much longer, then she could give them the finger! She imagined the scene with a contented smile on her face. The damp bus ride home passed almost unnoticed and she rushed in to tell Sophie.
“Soph, I’ve got another interview – at MicroTech!”
“Oh my God, MicroTech?!!” Sophie hugged her and then actually jumped up and down with joy. “This calls for a celebration!” she trotted to the kitchen and emerged clutching their dusty bottle of Drambuie.
“To starting your career. Your proper career!” said Sophie. She really could be quite lovely sometimes.
Anna spent that weekend preparing. Interview outfit: check. The skirt was wearing a bit thin at the seat, but passable if she didn’t turn her back on the interviewer for too long. Blouse: check. It was presentable, and she would wear the locket her ex bought her in a fit of uncharacteristic generosity. CV: check. She scanned it over and over again, looked at MicroTech’s site to memorise their “mission statement”, and tried to calm her nerves. Really, really tried to calm her nerves.
Monday came. Humphrey Hill had been told of her continuing dental work. (To which he replied, after a fit of coughing, only by saying “hmm” and narrowing his eyes). She had found the place without a problem, and she was early.
Standing in front of the huge glass and steel edifice that was MicroTech’s regional headquarters, she saw the small, plump, frightened-looking female reflected back at her. Oh dear, no. Look confident, woman! She pulled back her shoulders and her boobs bounced forward like two footballs. She hunched them in again. The main thing to remember was that she was (fairly) smartly dressed and had the skills they were looking for. “Yes!” she said aloud. She pushed the door open, strode inside and was immediately cowed by the vast, cathedral-like space of the entrance hall.
A model-thin receptionist with heavily made up eyes scrutinised Anna as she crossed the marble expanse.
“Can I help you?”
“I – I’m here for an interview,” whispered Anna, arriving eventually at the desk. “Anna Ward”.
Shaved-off-and-drawn-on-again eyebrows were raised, and a red talon traced down a list on the receptionist’s screen. “Oh yes, I see your name. Take Lift C to the third floor and wait there.”
Anna scuttled away to Lift C and pressed the call button several times. She could feel the receptionist’s eyes on the worn fabric of her skirt. She stabbed the button again.
Her hands started to shake and she knew she had to get a grip, so she took her CV from its plastic folder and read it through again. The words flicked past her eyes, but her brain registered nothing. Her brain was a wild animal, roaming at will through the forest, sniffing leaves, pausing to take a dump, doing whatever the hell it wanted. How on earth was she going to get through this? She could never, ever pull this off! What had she been thinking? She stood up to leave.
A young, prematurely bald man stood in front of her, holding out his hand.
“Hi, I’m Chris, leader of the .NET team. Thanks for coming.”
He invited her into a small room where just one other man was sitting. Well, boy was sitting. He was younger than Chris and still had his spiky dark hair. They were both smiling at her and looked like normal, friendly human beings. She could feel her panic subsiding. And when they offered her coffee, images from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” faded completely. She was going to survive this, she thought. She smiled.
Chris introduced the lad with spiky hair as Tom, then told her briefly about MicroTech and the project his team were working on. He asked her if she had any questions, and she was relieved she’d prepared a few intelligent-sounding ones to ask. Afterwards, Chris said,
“So, Anna, tell us a bit about yourself.”
She told them about her degree and her work experience and all the time they both nodded and looked pleased.
“We’ve seen your freelance work on your website, and it’s pretty impressive,” said Tom.
“Thanks,” she blushed slightly and stared at the table.
“We’re developing browser-based software in our team and the guys are a bit…” Chris looked at Tom, “under-developed in their visual skills.”
“In other words, we need it to look a lot better.” added Tom. “That would be your job. Do you think you could do it?”
“Well, I… probably… yes. Yes, I could,” answered Anna, remembering to sound positive.
They chatted a bit more and before Anna could finish her coffee, they were standing up to shake her hand again.
“So, we’ll just check your references, and then we’ll be in touch,” said Chris, smiling.
“It’s been great meeting you,” added Tom.
The time had flown past, and she had felt at ease and happy. As she left the room, she felt optimistic for the first time in months.
For the rest of that day and the next morning, Anna kept her mobile beside her, waiting for MicroTech to call. But no call came. She consoled herself with the thought that they probably had other people to interview, and tried to concentrate on typing Humphrey’s commas. Then, later that afternoon, after only her 67th time of checking, the email she was waiting for appeared.
Re: .NET Software Developer position.
Eagerly, she clicked.
“We regret to inform you… on this occasion…” Her hands froze on the keyboard and tears pricked her eyes. How? How could it possibly be? It had gone so well – she was exactly what they were looking for, they practically told her so! Before she could stop them, the tears rolled down her cheeks and she was reaching for her phone.
“No! Don’t do this – you’ll only make things worse!” said the sane voice in her head. But the forest animal wasn’t listening.
“Hello, I’d like to speak to HR, please. Yes, I’ll hold…” A sob. She blew her nose hurriedly.
“This is Jane Richardson, HR,” came a clipped voice.
“Hello? I’m phoning about the .Net developer position. My name is Anna Ward, and I’d like a debrief if that’s possible, please.”
“Yes, certainly. Anna Ward…” tapping sounds. “Ah, yes. Chris was impressed with your interview, but, er… I’m afraid one of your references wasn’t satisfactory.”
“What? But… I don’t understand… Which reference?”
“Well, I shouldn’t really discuss that with you…”
“Please!” Anna sobbed involuntarily and dug her nails into the palm of her free hand.
“Well, alright,” the woman’s voice softened. “The reference was from… a Mr Graham Hill.”
After Anna put the phone down, she dug the nails of both hands into her palms. She sat in silence for a while, staring at her drab Humphrey Hill screen saver, tears coursing down her face, asking herself what she’d done to deserve this. She was generally on time, she sometimes even worked late… Yes, she took the whole hour for her lunch, but that was in her contract – surely she was entitled to that? Her work was acceptable; in fact, she knew she could do it with one hand tied behind her back. And she’d stopped trying to make improvements. The Hills wanted things run as they always had been – no changes, no improvements, thank you very much.
So… what had she done wrong? Nothing. She could have done nothing. Graham must have lied.
The sound of a door opening, and Graham himself came out of his office holding a sheet of paper.
“Anna, we’ve got another new property – err,” he glanced at the sheet, “42 Wilmslow Gardens. Needs putting on the system.” He walked over and put the paper on her desk, then glanced up at her boobs before turning back. He never saw the redness of her eyes or the expression on her face.
She snatched up the sheet and did as ordered, her fingers thundering over the keyboard as if to break it. Then, after finally hitting ‘save’, she stood up abruptly and strode to the kitchen where she filled the kettle and slammed it onto its base. She stood, grasping the worktop, breathing hard and trying to control herself. Images of throwing boiling water over Graham ran through her head even as the tears still fell.
Footsteps. Graham’s again, she could tell.
“I heard you passing and thought I’d join you for a brew,” he said to her breasts.
“Why, Graham?” She thumped the side with one hand.
“Well… because it’s nice to have a bit of company, isn’t it?” he said mildly.
“You know full well what I’m talking about. The reference, the REFERENCE!” she heard her own voice shout.
Graham’s smile faded. They stood in silence regarding one another as the kettle boiled and switched itself off.
“Oh, that,” he said at last, shrugging.
“What? Is that all you can say? I didn’t get that job because of you! The interview went really well! What did you say about me? You know I do a good job here. You must have lied!”
“No, not at all, Anna. Calm down. I had no need to lie, as you put it.” He rolled his eyes. “The fact is, you’re never anywhere to be found at lunchtime, and you dress very… inappropriately for the office.” His eyes fell to her boobs again.
“Rubbish! I just take my lunch hour, as I’m entitled to do. And I never wear anything low cut! There’s nothing I can do about… ” she waved her hand in front of her udders.
“Don’t give me that,” said Graham quietly, taking a step closer to her in the tiny space. “You put them on display deliberately. You’re well aware the effect they have on men.”
Looking in her eyes for once, he took another step, bringing his body into contact with hers. The stench of Hugo Boss almost overpowered her, and then she felt the hardness in his trousers. He pushed himself against her.
“You know full well, you little bitch.”
He reached up, grasped her left breast hard and painfully and pressed his mouth to hers.
Anna shoved him away and ran.
Back at her desk, she swept up her phone, threw it in her bag, grabbed her coat and left. Outside, the cold hit her face and traffic noise assaulted her. She went up the street at a half-run, heading for the nearest cafe. Her breath caught painfully in her throat, and she was aware how odd she looked. Hair flying, coat half on, feet wobbling in high heels which she had never been any good at wearing. She stopped, panting, at a zebra crossing, then tried to walk more calmly as she turned the corner. She reached the cafe and pushed open the door. The smell of coffee on warm, stuffy air greeted her as she approached the counter. There was no queue at this time in the afternoon, so she got her latte quickly and sat down by a window. She placed her shaking hands round the hot glass and let the steam rise to her face. She could still feel his erection pressed against her and smell the cologne on her clothes… She wanted to claw her body until she scraped off her own skin. She shuddered, and sat there, staring out of the window and seeing nothing, for the next hour.
It was the sound of the cafe staff placing chairs on tables which finally roused her, and she unwound her stiff fingers from the now cold coffee. She couldn’t go home. Sophie was very young and immature, there was no point in telling her. Her mother; she would tell her mother. Surely even her mother would be helpful at a time like this..? Surely. She stood up, still trying to convince herself, and headed for the bus stop.
Graham didn’t make an appearance that day, or the next, and Anna began to relax just a little. Then, the following morning, as she walked down the street towards Humphrey Hill, she saw something which made her stop suddenly. A police car, parked outside the letting agents, its lights flashing. A police officer standing outside the office door, his legs apart, facing the road as though guarding the building. Anna felt her heart start to pound as images flashed through her mind. Had Graham murdered Mr Hill? Had Mr Hill murdered Graham? Had Doris from the hairdressers upstairs finally had enough of Mr Hill taking her parking space and torched him with hairspray and lighter?
The officer in the street turned his head to look at Anna so she began walking again, and then stopped in front of him.
Mr Hill and another officer were talking as Anna walked through the door, and they fell silent as they saw her. The door closed behind her and the bell jangled. She clasped her hands in front of her, standing there in her coat, and said nothing. A hundred episodes of detective series flitted through her mind – “you have the right to remain silent…”, “don’t incriminate yourself!” – along with a running commentary on how ridiculous she was to feel guilt of any kind. Mr Hill was there, so it must be something to do with Graham’s recent absence. Well, she hadn’t murdered Graham. Not in real life, anyway.
“This is her,” muttered Mr Hill, gesturing with his cigarette. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got things to do.” He went into his office and slammed the door.
This officer was tall, dark, and as Anna took in with one quick glance at his face, handsome. Which was hardly calculated to make her any less nervous. His hat was under his arm
“Miss Anna Ward?”
Anna nodded and cleared her throat.
“I’m Detective Inspector Harris and my colleague outside is Police Officer Rimmer. We’re here regarding an attack on a young woman on the night of the twenty third of this month in the vicinity of…” he consulted his notebook, “Spencer Street”.