Struggling with her defeated umbrella, Anita had rounded the corner of Quay Street and collided with a similarly encumbered commuter, his face hardened into a discontent not solely the result of this encounter.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry. Sorry I couldn’t…’ she offered to his retreating raincoat. Stooping, she retrieved her bag from the oily puddle where it now lay, partially submerged. It was only as she mounted the stairs to the glass entrance hall of Flightline call centre that it occurred to her that he was equally culpable.
In the empty lift, Anita rummaged in her canvas bag for indigestion relief. Her fingers brushed the letter that had escaped its envelope. She touched it gingerly, fearful that it had become damp, but it was well protected in a small plastic folder. She exhaled slowly in relief.
Dear Miss Brown,
Thank you for the tape. We are delighted to…
The lift stopped on the fifth floor but no one got in. She pressed the button for the eighth, where she got out and let herself into her office: the size of a largish cupboard.
She was greeted, as always, by her large desk calendar proclaiming the date in bold blue font: 12 October 1992. The calendar also boasted daily motivational instructions. However, having discovered that these encouraging mantras repeated every four years, Anita no longer felt pressured into attaining its ideals of self-realisation. She forgave Cavan and Price Stationery Solutions for this limit to their originality, much as she hoped they would forgive her for failing to live up to their daily inspirations.
People seemed to move on quickly from Flightline. Many wouldn’t see out that four-year cycle; certainly not any of the call centre staff. Anita, now entering her third cycle, could be said to be at the stage when she accepted that this was really all there was.
We are delighted to invite you to an audition…
Her office, which was really an ante-room to the ‘Managerial Suite’ (a larger office with a fancier title) in which the Manager (regional sales) of this well-known travel firm was based. Her room originally had the title ‘Presonal Assistant’ stuck onto the teak varnished door.
Anita carefully placed her cling-filmed cheese sandwich and juice box on the shelf on which the kettle and a set of six cups with matching saucers were displayed. Making tea for managerial meetings was one of the roles expected of her; the task she disliked the most. The many differing combinations of milk/sugar/bag strength was confusing enough without coffees, both caff and decaff, being factored in. She hoped that the increasing murmurings about a vending machine would eventually be realised. If any dreams were ever actually realised here.
…delighted to invite you to an audition on Thursday 2 November…
There had been a total of four managers since Anita arrived eight years ago in March 1984. The first one, Mr Ollerenshaw, was dispensed with less than a month after hiring her – some confusion over expenses. The second, and much younger, incumbent, Gareth Franks, hadn’t bothered to hide his displeasure when introduced to his personal assistant. His eye drifted dismissively over her small straight frame and he recoiled visibly at her difficult wiry black hair. He removed the offending misspelled title from the door and ordered a new metal one. When it was fitted two weeks later Anita registered that she had morphed into an ‘Administration Assistant’. Mr Franks lasted almost seven months until he was removed. Anita wasn’t exactly sure what ‘sexual shenanigans’ entailed but, unlike several of the call centre’s female staff and one rather hysterical merchandising rep, she was quite relieved that he had been moved on.
He was succeeded by Beth, a softly spoken Welsh woman with a reassuringly methodical outlook. Anita blossomed during those two years, temporarily acquiring responsibilities for minute-taking and attending minor meetings. A couple of times they had worked together through their lunch hour and Beth had sent out for sandwiches. She actually sent someone who wasn’t Anita.
It was Beth who overheard her singing. On that delightful afternoon, Anita found a rare confidante. It was Beth who told her of the professional choral college. Places were limited and admission stringent, but someone she had known had studied there and been highly successful thereafter. She lent Anita her fountain pen to write down the details. It was very disappointing when family circumstances took Beth back to Cardiff, but Anita still had her pen. She kept it in a small box in her locked bedside table, together with a card she intended to send her, if she ever happened upon her address.
The current manager was Mr Russell – or Terry, depending on the amount of formality the circumstances required. Being neither fraudulent, predatory nor in possession of a sick mother, he appeared relatively secure in his position.
Anita’s office had a large interior window to the left of her desk enabling her to witness workplace camaraderie from the Admin office next door. Soundproofing meant she could view the seemingly incessant jollity but she could neither participate nor identify its source.
They laughed a lot, particularly Grace and Mandy; shoulders shaking in cartoon parody. Deliberately performative. She tried hard not to look. If she unwittingly caught their eye, it seemed only to exacerbate the mirth.
There were five females in that office, and all had been issued with new badges proclaiming their recently bestowed division of administrative responsibilities: personnel, health and safety, staff rotas, leave and sickness, union. Anita’s badge boasted no extra embellishments, just the name she was given thirty-seven years ago: Anita Brown.
The morning passed in a replica of the many preceding it. Mr Russell – Terry – was at head office, so Anita answered his calls, took messages and typed a report on last month’s team building conference; a document that could easily have been photocopied from the any of the previous years. In parallel, life carried on behind the soundproofed window with a bustling hilarity that refreshed with each visitor. Staff dropped in and out of their offices more freely when the manager was not present. Only occasional callers dropped in at Anita’s office, and that was usually just to check the diary.
At noon, and just before she unwrapped the sandwich prepared the night before, Anita steeled herself and rang home for her check on Mother.
The answering voice was a customary mix of aggression and vulnerability.
A remarkable question seeing as the phone call timing rarely varied, and hardly anyone else called their little semi. It was widely known that Mrs Brown, plagued for many years with assorted physical complaints, slept very late.
‘Mum, it’s only me… How are you feeling this morning?’
‘Eh? Dreadful, what do you expect? And those Weetabix were horrid. All crushed and yucky.’
Anita routinely set out her mum’s cereal and tea cup on the kitchen table before hurrying off for the 7.40 bus into town.
‘Sorry, they were a bit crumbly at the end of the packet.’
There had only been two left, an oversight, so Anita had gone without breakfast. She moved the ear piece from her ear as her mum began to loudly clear her sinuses.
‘I don’t want them like that. I’ve left them. You need to bring new ones. Hang on—’
There was a short gap until her mother returned, presumably with a handkerchief, and began to blow her nose for maximum impact.
‘I was thinking… I might like porridge, actually, now it’s getting wintery. Warm me up.’
Anita marvelled that her mum could be cold. Her excessive body weight and continual running of the central heating meant that the house was stifling at all times of the year. The running costs made a significant dent in Anita’s salary.
‘You’d have to heat the porridge up, Mum.’
‘Well, if it’s too much trouble for you.’
‘It’s not too much trouble.’ Anita’s voice was deliberate. She had learned to take breaths between each sentence. ‘It just wouldn’t stay warm until you get up.’
‘Oh, I get up too late, do I?’
Anita tried to deflect.
‘No – how about if I get both, then you can have porridge at weekends?’
The voice changed to wheedling and childlike.
‘Only if it’s not too much trouble? I don’t want you thinking I’m a burden…’
Daily crisis averted for now, Anita half-listened as her mum complained about something on that nice Richard and Judy show, before quickly terminating the call. Doubtless, that story would continue into the evening. From the corner of her eye, she watched Mandy sweep back into the office waving a new carrier bag and begin some kind of tantalising reveal of its contents to enraptured colleagues. Sequins glinted on the brandished skimpy item. After fussing over it, Grace and another of the girls (Anita had forgotten her name – Kacey or Stacey or something) grabbed their coats for their own sojourn to the Arndale.
In her desk drawer, Anita still had Mandy’s phone number scrawled on the back of a work memo. They had had lunch together once on Mandy’s first day. As the only other female on the eighth floor, Anita had been instructed to show her round at lunchtime. But Anita rarely left her office in the day, unless it was to collect food orders for meetings. She had peered at the colourfully embellished creature through the glass, wondering if she could get herself sent home instead; her nervous stomach was certainly becoming worse. But Mandy had bustled in at twelve wanting to know where the local eateries were and Anita had found herself walking alongside her glamorous companion to the nearest sandwich shop; the one that the managers preferred. She’d blinked at the confusing chalked menu of combinations unheard of and listened whilst her new colleague chose something complicated with avocado. Even the bread was baffling. When it came to her turn, Anita faltered and chose cheese, allowing Mandy to recommend extras to ‘sex it up a bit’.
All afternoon the illicit, over-priced sandwich churned heavily in acidic guilt as her plain sandwich from home lay accusingly in the cabinet, growing stale in her sightline.
There had been one other occasion on which she was included. Not long after Grace arrived, Anita was invited to join her and Mandy on a shopping trip. Despite a mixture of discomforts, Anita had accepted. She had promised to buy Mum some thermal underwear so this was ideal. As soon as they had arrived at the Arndale, she realised how badly she had misplayed this opportunity. She was never included again.
Next door, Mandy was standing at their shared window, smiling and holding the sequinned dress to her body. Was she looking for Anita’s approval? Anita smiled uncertainly in her direction. Mandy continued to check her reflection in the glass.
She probably assumed Anita would never have reason to own a dress like that…
Dear Miss Brown,
Thank you for the tape. We are delighted to invite you to an audition on Thursday 2 November at Stanford Studios, Covent Garden, at 2pm. On arrival, please ask for Carrie.
London. That’s where she would wear a dress like that. In London, she imagined, you could wear anything you liked.
Her phone rang.
‘It’s me, Mum. You rang me!’
‘Eh? I’ve got no ham. Why didn’t you get any ham?’
‘Because you’d gone off it. You wanted the beef slices, remember?’
‘Me? No. That’s too tough. It’s yuck. Yucky yuck.’
Anita listened as her mum faked retching, to make it entirely clear how nauseated she was by the out-of-favour sandwich meat.
‘A tin. In the cupboard, Mum. But—’
‘I can’t be opening tins. What do you expect me to do, cut my fingers off? Bloody bleed to death I would, and who would know? I’d be dead before you bothered to get home.’
‘I’ll put some open on a plate for tomorrow.’
‘Riiiight.’ Mum dragged out her vowels as if talking to someone of limited comprehension. ‘I’ll wait till tomorrow for my lunch then, shall I?’
‘Mum, I have to go, my boss is here,’ Anita waved at his imaginary figure. ‘But I’ll call at Kwik-Save on my way home for Weetabix and ham. Have some jam today.’
‘Well, I don’t want to be any trouble. But if you’re going—’
Anita cut her off. She kept the receiver to her ear to keep her line engaged. A face appeared at the small security window in her door, so Anita began a conversation into the receiver to discourage the would-be visitor.
The would-be visitor – Craig – was not skilled at reading signs, so he pushed open the door, invading Anita’s territory.
‘Mr R in?’
Anita politely ended her pretend call, and, fumbling for the rarely used desk diary, doubled checked the date: Wednesday 12 October. Empty. Most days were empty since the managers had been issued with mobile telephones. Her role was now a little more unclear.
‘No. He’s off-site. Did you have an app—’
Craig cut across her official response.
‘Just needed to clear tonight’s plans with him. Tell him we’ve got the GPO social room from five till eight. Buffet at six-ish… Drinks vouchers, one on arrival for everyone. I’m on the door.’
A huge smile accompanied his speedy recounting of plans. He was clearly relishing his role as this year’s social secretary. Anita looked down at the empty diary. She should write some of that down.
‘Can I tick as attending?’ He brandished a pen over his self-important clipboard.
‘Sorry, I need to get home on Wednesdays as—’
‘No, I meant him.’ Craig indicated the door with a nod of his head.
Anita swallowed hard but couldn’t prevent colour rising in her face. She put her head down, checking her drawer.
‘Don’t know, sorry.’
This workplace was incessantly social. Anita had been to a couple of events when she first started but hadn’t been able to sufficiently relax. Mum was nervous if left on her own in the evenings. If no one actually noticed her attendance, her absence would be equally unmarked.
Mr Russell – Terry – arrived back around two, bustling in with outdoor air and looking too large for Anita’s small space.
‘Any calls Neet?’
Wincing at the abbreviation, she just shrugged. They both knew that nothing important came through her anymore.
‘Oh, the social boy,’ she couldn’t bring his name to mind, ‘he came to give you the arrangements for the—’
‘Yeah, great, can you type these? Need them today.’
Anita picked up the audio tapes. She would be late again tonight.
‘Coffee would be great Neet. I’ve got a meeting now.’
Filling the kettle in the toilets, Anita encountered Mandy reapplying her make-up. She felt obliged to find something to say. Something normal, something that other girls would say.
Mandy looked startled as if Anita had been invisible.
‘Thanks. Err… It’s Estee Lauder – in the free gift.’ She pouted at her refection, whilst appraising Anita in the mirror.
‘You should try lipstick.’
Anita demurred, shy at the unfamiliar interest.
‘No, you should. Just because your lips are thin doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear it. It would make them a look a little more noticeable at least.’
Mandy wafted out in a cloud of freshly-applied perfume. Anita filled the plastic kettle to the top then took it into a cubicle. She needed to lock the world out for a few minutes. The aria she used to sing solo – before she’d had to give up evening practice – played around her lips. Sitting on the toilet seat, she rummaged in her bag just to know that letter was there.
Also in the bag, and protected within its own small plastic folder, was a yellowing greetings card; the only Valentine she had ever received. Despite its age, Anita didn’t want to risk her mum destroying it so it remained with her, transferred immediately if she replaced her bag.
Bernard was the Minister’s son. She’d met him in her first Saturday job at Smiths in the village, the year after Dad died. The card was formal, old-fashioned for a teenage boy. He’d turned up for their Sunday afternoon date wearing a tie and a too-big jacket. He’d talked about himself whilst devouring sausage and mash at the noisy café near the presbytery: how he loved motorbikes but his dad wouldn’t let him have one. When he left home, he informed her, he would have at least three, and join a biker gang.
As they walked through the park afterwards, he regaled her with big plans to travel, to live in America. Anita’s ambitions remained unexplored. At her front door, he frightened her with a clumsy physical lunge in an attempt to kiss her, pinning her against the brickwork and scratching the back of her forearm. Anita, frozen at this unforeseen attack and squirming at the possibility that her mum was spying through the curtains, had pushed him away in horror. He’d looked like he was going to cry as he strode off towards the bus stop. The next week in Smiths, he ignored her until she was just packing up to leave. Then he had leaned across and hissed:
‘You’re not all that, you know. I can do much better. Already have.’
Bernard still lived in their town, and still with his parents. He worked at the TSB and drove his dad’s old car. As far as she was aware, he had never married.
But she kept the card, just for proof that someone had once cared enough.
Back in the office, she’d obviously taken too long. Terry was in the doorway, frowning. Several people peered out from chairs in his office, clearly all dying of thirst.
It was twenty to six before Anita lay the finished typing on Terry’s now empty desk. He hadn’t moved any of the cups before he left, so she would have to wash them. She really should ring Mum to tell her she’d been delayed but that would undoubtedly delay her further. Her last job was changing her calendar in preparation for her morning arrival. She enjoyed this organisational task, rejecting people’s foolish superstitions. Ripping the leaf off, she read the message. Be brave, take a leap into the unknown.
In the lobby, the ex-military doorman informed her, unnecessarily, that it was stormy outside. ‘It will clear in 10 minutes,’ he added with the self-importance of someone personally informed by the Met Office instead of his portable radio.
The rain was heavier than earlier, and it was going dark. Her coat was too flimsy and still a little damp from the morning. She’d wait it out. It would be unpleasant walking round a chilly supermarket if she was wet. She sat on the scratchy formal reception chairs, chosen for visual appeal rather than comfort, listening to his limited and repetitive small talk.
‘Booked a holiday yet? You’re very lucky, you lot… Very lucky indeed!’
His feelings about being doorman for a travel company and not qualifying for staff travel were well known. Employees of Anita’s rank were entitled to one free standby return flight per year. As her mum refused to countenance air travel, believing it synonymous with instant catastrophe, Anita’s benefit remained unused.
The rain appeared to be easing, and earlier than Stan had foretold. Anita adjusted her battered brolly, placed her shopping list in her coat pocket, the one that didn’t have a hole in it, and stepped outside.
Sometimes just before sleep, in that time that was truly hers, she imagined using that flight for a trip to London. The Manchester to London shuttle, a fitting way to arrive for an audition. But despite the invitation remaining always in her mind, whole and perfect, she rarely indulged the details when fully awake. Rational doubts cast too harsh a spotlight over its flaws, and exposed the reality of limitations: who would help Mum? Where would she stay? What if she wasn’t good enough?
Or worse – what if she actually was?
For a short and fateful moment, she allowed herself to imagine a freedom that saw her accepted into the Covent Garden Choral College, and to envisage an altered life, a different future. But dreams are dangerous when they forgo natural caution, and even more so on busy crossroads in bad visibility. The blue Datsun came speeding down Quay Street without taking the conditions into account. It was inevitable. The shocked eyes of the driver met those of the startled woman in the road, before the moment of impact, and the airbag inflation that broke his glasses but saved his life.
Time slows in the immediate aftermath of a serious accident. Initial hesitancy over procedures or who is in charge is immediately followed by clamouring and panic. All traffic stopped. Stan, who had appeared instantly on hearing the collision, hurried back inside to secure his place in the drama by ringing the emergency services.
And from the GPO club next door, colleagues emerged to take in the scene. Mandy and Grace were both crying before they even knew what they were crying about. Someone asked for identification and Mandy obliged, although she had to think hard to remember her last name. Anita’s canvas bag was passed to Mandy, promoted by circumstance to the role of friend.
‘Someone should ring home. Has she a husband?’
The girls looked flummoxed. Anita was being covered by someone’s overcoat.
‘Er no. She lives with her mum, I think.’
‘Has she an address book?’
Somewhere they could hear sirens approaching. Mandy opened Anita’s bag.
There were few things in there: A black and white photograph of a man clutching a little girl, both with wiry black hair; a wide-spaced comb with a brown scrunchie wrapped round its broken teeth; some Rennies; an old-fashioned flowery card covered in grimy plastic; and a letter.
Sliding the contents from the envelope, as Grace covered her with the umbrella, she scanned its contents.
She wasn’t sure of what she was reading. It seemed that Anita was invited to sing at an audition in London.
Mandy was shivering, underdressed for the outside incident.
‘I didn’t know that she sings. That seems weird. Can’t imagine it.’
The girls looked at the letter together, whilst the street bustled with importance. The ambulance tried to manoeuvre round stationary traffic to the shaken driver, and the road filled with people in uniform. Rain fell heavily and pooled on surfaces, lending ground reflection to street lighting. Venues opening up for evening spilled out curious staff eager to engage in this communal experience. Overhead, crimson remnants of an earlier sunset bled into a darkening sky.
‘Yes. Look, it’s dated 1988.’ She calculated on her fingers.
‘That’s four years ago. I wonder if she went?’
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