Appreciation of Assets

Friday, 27 July 2007

(One of my early attempts at a short story for the women’s magazine market.)

Helen Withers, the office manager, would loom over my shoulder. “What are you doing?”, she’d demand. I’d patiently explain that I was preparing a spreadsheet for the board meeting. So then she’d say “Well can you leave that now. I want you to sort out this stationery order” or “I need you to sort out the details for the sales conference”. I knew that Mr Stone wanted his spreadsheet ready for five o’clock but I didn’t feel I had any choice but to do what Helen asked, even though it wasn’t my responsibility, because she was my boss and I couldn’t risk losing my job.

Every time this happened I’d hunch over the computer, furiously applying myself to the work with a clenched jaw. I knew I was worthy of better things, and one day when I’d shown what I could do a door would open and I’d be able to fulfil my potential. Since I had to give up my college course after Mum died, to keep house for Dad and the twins I didn’t have that all-important piece of paper so I was going to have to work hard to show my mettle.

At ten to five I’d find myself outside the door of Michael Stone’s office with my heart pounding and beads of sweat cold on my forehead. I’ve always been confident and determined, but I’d be feeling so ground down that I’d knock timidly and then mumble an explanation about not being able to finish.

Michael was always kind. I’d been temping at Charnley & Loveless for about three months when I was invited to join them full time and it slipped out that it was the Finance Director himself who had asked for me to be placed on the payroll. We’d worked together preparing his board reports and we’d got on well. Although I didn’t have a formal qualification I’d picked enough from my accountancy classes to know a thing or two about how a business worked, so that I made myself indispensable to him. Everything had been going fine. But I’d reckoned without Helen Withers.

A voice deep down inside me wanted to tell Michael how Helen was constantly distracting me from my work for him. But my confidence was low. I felt that there were eyes on me all the time, waiting for me to slip and make a mistake. I didn’t speak up because I thought he would take her side and not believe me. But he never complained. He’d look at me with grey eyes full of sadness, and just ask me to stay behind to finish the work.

“He lost his wife a year ago,” said Penny Mottram one morning as we were waiting at the sandwich trolley. “She had leukaemia. He’s found it hard to get over it.”. The trolley was a welcome break in the routine of the morning. It gave us a few minutes to gossip, and it gave me a brief respite from Helen’s constant interference. I picked out a chicken salad baguette. “The baguettes are good,” I remarked to Penny, “but the chicken salad would come alive with some black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.” That’s one of the things Mum taught me, after she had her stroke and I had to cook for the family. She was such a good teacher.

Something about Michael’s eyes touched me deep inside. He was a very attractive man, successful and still in his mid-thirties. But he seemed lonely. I knew he worked in his office every evening, long after everybody else had gone home. There was a lost little boy about him and I felt my heart reaching out. I wanted to look after him, just as I’d looked after Dad and the twins. I wondered if he ate properly. And then I had an idea – something I could do for him. I could make sure he had a meal while he was working late.

I spent that evening preparing a salad of salmon and penne and coriander with some little cherry tomatoes, and the following morning took it to the office in a plastic container with a fork and spoon wrapped in a napkin. Now and then during the morning I fell into daydreams, with shivers of pleasure at the thought of how much he would appreciate it.

Helen loomed behind my shoulder again, dumping a folder of papers on my desk. “Mr Stone asked me to give these back to you to correct”, she said. Her lips were taut and her voice harsh and shrivelled. “These needed to be sorted out days ago. You’re sloppy, you can’t just leave everything to the last minute, you’re going to have to learn to prioritise your work”.

“I finished those on Monday,” I wanted to blurt out, but the words wouldn’t come. I could feel the eyes of the others locked onto me and my cheeks were burning with shame. My shoulders stooped over the computer as if to make myself as small as possible. I would have melted into it if I could. And yet I knew it wasn’t fair, I was good at my job and those papers could have been given back to me for correction two days ago.

When the sandwich trolley came round I told Penny Mottram what had happened. “You’re being bullied,” she said. “Helen knows you’re good at what you do, and she knows that Mr Stone thinks the same. You’re a threat, because you’re better at the job than she is and she’s jealous, so she tries to put you down all the time. Don’t worry about it, if it wasn’t you it would be somebody else.”

“I hope you’re right Penny”, I said. I took my baguette and something made me lift it to my nose and sniff it gently. “Mmm,” I said, and unwrapped the clingfilm a little to make sure. “There’s lemon in this, and black pepper too. Perhaps I’m psychic! I know it’s not good if you’re on a diet but what would make it even better would be some chopped avocado in it to give a contrast of flavour and texture. That makes a real luxury sandwich, something to cheer you up when you’re feeling down.”

I kept my head down for the rest of the day. When Helen tried to interrupt me with a stationery order to be sorted I smiled sweetly at her. “I’m afraid I haven’t got time for that,” I said. “Mr Stone’s report to the board is my top priority at the moment. Why don’t you ask Adam to do it?”. I watched her lips parting and closing but whatever poison she was preparing for me wouldn’t come, not just then. She turned away and stalked to her own desk.

At a quarter to five I knocked on Michael’s door. “Here you are Mr Stone,” I said, handing him the sheaf of neatly printed papers. He looked tired, there were shadows under his eyes. “Thank you Sally,” he said, but his voice seemed to come from a distance. “I asked Helen to pass these to you on Tuesday, has it taken you this long?”

I summoned as much confidence as I could find. “Helen didn’t give them to me until this morning,” I replied, but I knew I was blushing and my hands were shaking. The next thing to do seemed hard now, but I breathed deeply and produced the bowl of salad. “I thought you might like something to keep you going while you’re working this evening” I stammered, but I couldn’t look him in the eye. “I made it myself. I hope you enjoy it”. I put the bowl on his bookshelf, with the cutlery on top of it. Then I mumbled goodnight and walked away quickly.

That evening I found it hard to eat myself, but I persuaded myself that Michael would really appreciate what I had done for him, and gradually I felt a thrill of excitement that made my skin tingle. After I’d gone to bed it took me a while to drop off to sleep, but eventually I slipped into a drowsy dream in which I went into the office to be met by Michael’s grey eyes, no longer sad but full of warmth and thanks. In the dream I could see those eyes across a candle-lit restaurant table, his hands reaching out across to mine and taking my fingers gently…

Helen Withers was waiting for me when I arrived in the morning. I’d hardly got my coat off and sat down. I didn’t need to see her, I could feel her shadow looming over my shoulder again. “Have you sorted the stationery order like I asked you?” she demanded. Oh no, I thought. I’m off balance, my eyes are still full of sleep, my head needs a cup of coffee to clear it, and I’m not ready for a fight. Keep cool, I told myself. Don’t lose your rag. “I was busy with Mr Stone’s report yesterday,” I said. “You were going to ask Adam to do it, remember?”

“Adam’s got other things to do, he’s much too busy,” she fired back. “I asked you to do it”. She was shaking her head slowly, her lips clenched tight, like a headmistress faced with a hopelessly delinquent child. I felt a surge of rage boiling up inside my breast and I had to clench my fists so tightly that the knuckles turned white. I said nothing, but reached out for the green folder and turned to the computer screen, muttering murderous oaths under my breath.

There was one shred of hope for me. I waited until Helen was busy on the phone, then went over to knock on Mr Stone’s door. “Have you got everything you need for the board meeting”, I asked. Michael looked up from his desk. I looked hard for the warmth and appreciation in the grey eyes, but there was none. They were cold and distant and more than a little puffy. “Thank you,” he said. “Helen will tell you if I need anything”. He looked down again. No thanks, no appreciation, nothing. A cold aching despair began to well up in my stomach. The blood drained from my face and my eyes began to sting with tears.

I glanced at the bookcase and saw the bowl and cutlery exactly where I had left them, untouched. I took them to the kitchen and flung the lot into the bin. In the washroom I looked in the mirror at raw, bloodshot eyes with streaks of dark mascara trickling down onto pale cheeks.

My body felt like a hollow shell. There and then I began to draft in my mind the letter of resignation that I would hand in that day. My head was whirling and my mouth was dry as I rehearsed all the petty humiliations. But where would I go? What would I do? I couldn’t count on a reference from Helen. There didn’t seem to be any way forward.

When the trolley came round I whispered to Penny Mottram what had happened and how I was feeling. “Don’t keep banging your head against locked doors,” she said. “You’ll only get a headache! You may find there’s a door wide open where you’re not looking.” And then there was another voice speaking to me, a warm, chocolate-brown voice that was saying “I’ve got a chicken and avocado baguette if you’d like one. Something to cheer you up when you’re feeling down”.

I looked round to see the sandwich man taking something from the bottom of the trolley, and looking directly at me, his eyes – they were blue, I noticed – piercing directly into my own. I’d seen the man before, but I’d never noticed him. Now I saw him properly for the first time with his dark brown hair and smiling eyes, and I saw the badge on his overall – Don Greenway, Homestyle Catering. And I realised that he had been seeing me all the time, and he had been listening carefully to the suggestions I’d made. I was burning with shame for not noticing him, but it didn’t seem to matter. Not now.

 

We called our restaurant The Two of Us. We wanted a name that suggested the intimacy we found with each other. Every evening, before we open, I make sure that there are candles on the tables, and a little vase of golden tulips, and people seem to like it, because we’re full every night.

 

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