Amanda caught the first tube into work every morning. It was sometimes hard getting up in the dark and not seeing sunlight until lunchtime, but the alternative was unthinkable. There was only ever a handful of other people on the platform. The regular five. A nightshift-dishevelled man, resigned to missing the day again, a tracksuited woman with scraped-back hair, and an office-smart couple, who arrived separately, then sat together. Occasionally, a lone student would be on the walk of shame, or a small group would shamelessly be continuing the night before. But not today. Each passenger recognised each face, and not one acknowledged another. Each stood in the same place, to use the same door, to board the same carriage as they did every weekday.
No matter how early she arrived, Amanda was never alone in the building; the security desk was staffed twenty-four hours. If Ted was on duty, he would tell her he was glad that one of them was feeling bright-eyed and bushy tailed, then offer her a sweet she would politely refuse. If it was Laurent, he would say how bitterly cold it was, but at least she was ‘bringing the sunshine,’ and she’d smile. Bob was behind the desk today, so she received the usual update on that morning’s travel situation, and gave him the usual thanks, despite being the one with first-hand experience.
Amanda was the first to swipe her way into Pergo’s eighth-floor office, waking the lights as she entered. She made the first pot of coffee, which was always the best. Someone would make a passable second pot, but after ten o’clock she’d avoid the percolator completely. People couldn’t be trusted.
It was official Pergo policy that all employees (other than Scott and Karen) should hot-desk. Amanda always chose the same corner desk. There was no through access behind, no one could casually look over her shoulder as they passed, and, unlike the other desks, it was not paired with another. Instead, it was surrounded by a reassuring personal-space moat, still small enough to avoid accusations of non-team playing. Facing Scott’s office, it ensured that when he arrived, he would see her already hard at work.
There was a lemon post-it pad next to the computer keyboard. This happened sometimes. Someone would leave something – if not a pad, then a file or a stapler – on the desk the night before, as if to claim it for the following day. When her colleagues arrived, they would blame an unaware and unseen temp, but Amanda suspected she was the butt of a joke. It made no difference. She removed the contravention of company guidelines and placed it on the supply station.
The hour or so of calm productivity between her arrival and that of her colleagues always went too fast. At least when they began to trickle in, in twos and threes, her day was already ahead of theirs. She had her break at ten, while they typed away, and went to lunch at precisely twelve o’clock, leaving stomachs rumbling behind her. The refurbished canteen had been renamed The Comfy Café and was anything but. She’d eaten there only once, on her first day. The canteen had filled easily with mess and echoes. Last night, as every night, she had made today’s lunch and, at the designated time, she took the lift down.
She was not a believer in luck, but something along those lines had befallen her on her second day. Unable to face the chaos of the canteen, she had been making her way outside. It was not until she had stepped out of the lift and the doors had closed behind her that she realised she was in the basement. The strip lights flickered, a half-hearted acknowledgement of her presence. She pressed the call button, but the light above the lift door had already passed the G and was on its way to 1. It carried on, passed 2, and then rested on 3. A crackle. Darkness threatened. On the wall opposite was a red sign for ‘Solitaire Ltd’, above an equally red arrow. Amanda looked in the direction it was pointing, but at that end of the corridor, the lights had given up completely. A lot of firms were struggling. The lights in the other direction were not enthusiastic either, but there was a corner about halfway down through which some brightness leaked in.
It turned onto a large, open space, at the centre of which was an amphitheatre with a mustard carpet. There had been something like it at school. They called it the well; the teachers called it the breakout space. It was somewhere for those too young for the common room and too old for the playground. Whatever the original purpose of this well had been, it was now a dumping ground. The carpeted section was clear, but to the side of it stood a Stonehenge of hard drives and a row of desks stacked upside down on top of each other in a terrible stutter of Hs, punctuated at the end by a knot of three-legged chairs. The room itself was formed of three wood-panelled walls, rising to a surprisingly high ceiling, and one huge floor-to-ceiling window, with French doors in the middle. These opened out onto a small courtyard and picnic bench. That first day, and on other warm days, it was there that Amanda ate her sandwiches, gazing up at rising grey and the criss-crossed glass of store-cupboard windows. When the weather was against her, she would sit on the mustard steps-cum-seats and stare at the unwanted items.
She didn’t mention the place to anyone upstairs. She sometimes wondered if she should, but they wouldn’t be interested in her mealtime habits. Besides, she didn’t want a chatty invasion of workers. She used to fear a sudden telling-off from a caretaker, but it wasn’t breaking the rules if you didn’t know the rules. In three years, no one had told her what they were, and she had spent all but four of her lunch breaks here, the world oblivious to her.
Today, she stood by the French doors and looked up at the square of clouds, ripening to a dark grey, then walked back towards the steps. Reaching into her bag, she located her sandwiches and sat down.
A man was standing in the centre of the well.
He was not much older than Amanda, with dark, slicked-back hair, and was wearing a blue pinstriped suit. He was not from Pergo. Not that she knew her colleagues’ faces, but the wrong colour lanyard hung around his neck. Red.
‘Good afternoon.’ He sounded as though he were beginning a meeting or presenting a quiz show.
‘Hello.’ The thought of discovery had always been stomach-churning. It wasn’t just the loss of privacy, it was the fear of being branded a trespasser in her own territory. Over the years, she’d conjured up an arsenal of excuses, but now that the worst had happened, she was trapped between attack and retreat.
‘I’ve come down for my lunch.’ She could justify her presence. Could he? Then again, he hadn’t asked her to, and now he knew this was not her floor. ‘Do you work here?’ she asked. Let him be the one to feel he didn’t belong.
‘Solitaire. You’re aware of us?’
That was a pointed question, but she would not allow it to stick. ‘The company on the other side of the lift?’ He had no authority here. ‘I hadn’t realised you were still going.’ Take that, intruder.
‘You work for Pergo.’
How did he know? Her cheeks began to warm.
He extended a long finger towards her chest.
Amanda looked down at her ID card. She flushed pink. ‘Are you here to look around?’ She tried to sound benevolent, as though she could forgive his presence. For now. This would have been more effective had her voice not quivered.
‘In a manner of speaking. Reconnaissance. We are each searching for something.’ He smiled, but his eyes did not join in. He gestured towards her with the magnanimity she’d wanted to project and took a step forward. ‘Please forgive my interruption.’
For the first time, Amanda became aware of the drawbacks to her location. She could excuse herself, and make her way back upstairs, but how long had he been there? Had he seen her come in? Wouldn’t it look odd, if she walked straight out again? He might take it as an admission of guilt, or notice her unease and take offence. Besides, even if she tried to leave, how long would the lift take to arrive?
Though he was standing and she was sitting, she had the higher ground. She began to unwrap the foil.
He ran a hand over his hair. ‘Do you eat here every day?’ This was not casual but rhetorical. ‘Pleasant.’ He looked over to the courtyard, taking another step towards both it and her. ‘Secluded.’ He nodded towards Amanda’s sandwich. ‘Please, do not mind me.’
She did mind him. She minded not knowing whether to be annoyed, or scared, or intrigued. ‘What is it that you do?’ She took a bite.
He held out his hands, palms up, politician-style. ‘We afford people the opportunity to reach their full potential.’
This was vaguely familiar. Something that had been chatted about over her head. ‘Life coaching?’ She took another bite.
‘There are similarities. We assist with the realisation of aspirations.’
‘I see.’ She didn’t. She could, however, see how such an ambiguous-sounding business might fail. ‘And what, specifically, do you do?’
‘Everything.’ He sighed, then shrugged; mock humility following mock weariness.
‘So, you’re the managing director?’ Of course. The hair and suit reeked of the ignorance of fashion that came with privilege. His skin was generally wrinkle-free, yet somewhat leathery. He could have been a hard-living thirty-something or a well-preserved over-fifty. He had the confidence of both. The triumph or failure of a company would have little impact on him.
‘I find titles unhelpful. They’re so often barriers to success. For how long have you worked at Pergo?’ He checked his already scrupulously clean nails.
‘Are you quite content?’ He raised one eyebrow.
‘Yes.’ Happiness was relative. She had systems in place.
‘How would you describe your relationship with others?’ He was at the foot of the steps now. The eyebrow was still raised and the smile was back. His teeth were rather long and very white. She felt as though she were being interviewed by a shark.
‘You choose to eat here. Alone.’
‘I like to have my own space.’ Her turn to be pointed.
‘And that is precisely the kind of need that we endeavour to address.’ Taking a step up, he held out a hand. ‘It was a pleasure to meet you, Amanda.’
It wasn’t clammy, nor was it cold, but the hand held hers for too long and her spine tingled. In one fluid movement, he released her, put his hand in his waistcoat pocket and produced a card.
‘Should you be interested.’
The card was red, with Solitaire written across it in a raised font. Below that was what she at first mistook for the symbol for pi, then realised was a rudimentary picture of a desk. Above it, an empty thought bubble emanated from a circle. When she looked up, the man had gone. She walked to the corner. The lights begrudgingly flickered in the empty corridor. She turned the card over and saw there was an email address. No name. No phone number. She tucked it into the inside pocket of her bag.
There was a patter behind her and she turned. The patter became a march and then a stampede. The heavens had opened. Pools were already forming on the uneven and darkening courtyard. Paving stones became walls, became sky. Light began to shine through the lower, taciturn windows, trying to turn the puddles golden. The room had changed. He lingered in the air.
Something moved. A bird? The rain was falling in heavy sheets. She squinted. Across the courtyard, within the frame of a reluctantly glowing window, was a distorted cameo. She watched it move back and forth across the window, for five minutes, maybe more, unaware of her presence. When the rain began to tire itself out, so did the head. It stopped, turned, and then grew steadily larger as it approached the glass. It became a face. A pale face with dark eyes that peered through the window. Amanda took a step back, then held up a hand. The face was pressed hard against the glass now, pallid nose squashed to one side. Two shapes appeared on either side of the head. Two fists hit the glass. Amanda jumped. They thumped again and again. Sunlight flashed and the noise stopped. The rain had finished. The window was empty.
At the end of the corridor, Solitaire’s lights were on. Had they always been? Shadows without owners stretched towards her. It hadn’t been him, the face in the window, she felt sure of that. But then, who? She pressed the call button. Caretaker? The lights began to dim. A bored intern? She pressed again. There was the sound of chains grinding. Was someone down there? The lights went out. The doors opened. She rushed in, hit the button and pinned herself against the back of the lift, heart racing, banging against her chest like a fist on a windowpane. The doors closed.
On the eighth floor, the harsh lights and half-full desks of Pergo were a comfort. By the time she made it back to her desk, her pulse had calmed to an energetic jog, but her cheeks burned at the thought of her foolish behaviour. She quickly wiped her eyes, before anyone noticed the tears that pricked at their corners. But there was no one there to notice. That was something, at least.
She logged on to the computer and opened a document. At the end of the first page, she realised she had no idea what she’d read. This would not do. She tried again, but her mind wandered down to the basement. She would not give in to this. The third time she had more success, and was soon lost once more in her work, so much so that she was startled by the return of James and Catherine. There was never a rush to take the desks nearest to her each morning, and they often ended up being Amanda’s neighbours, James arriving flustered, with complaints about traffic that she found difficult to listen to when his bluster took up so much space; Catherine a little beforehand, calmer, but almost as loud, with tales of the school run.
Catherine was mid flow as she sat down. ‘Of course, Tobias is devastated not to have passed the entrance exam, especially when Melodie did. He’s so much brighter than she is.’ She had never let a one-way conversation faze her, and so, over time, Amanda had learnt she was married to Clem and had three children: Francine, Tobias and Melodie. Catherine now threw her hands up. ‘We didn’t think she’d pass at all! I must show you this fantastic set of after-dinner games I found. They’re exactly your sort of thing.’
There was a long pause. Amanda looked up to find Catherine peering over her glasses, this comment having been inexplicably directed towards her. ‘Thank you.’
The afternoon fell into a hum of typing, Catherine’s energetic chatter and James’s occasional grunt. At half past two, Catherine rose in uncharacteristic annoyance. ‘Oh, rats! Have you seen this?’ She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘There’s a whole staff meeting at three thirty.’
Amanda clicked on the mail icon.
‘What is it now?’ James asked.
Catherine began to energetically expound theories. ‘Expansion… merger… surprise party…’ As Amanda read through the message, she could see no suggestion of any of these, but nothing to rule any of them out.
‘I will be livid if I’m late leaving,’ Catherine continued. ‘We’re going to the theatre tonight and I need to give Francine inhalation before we go.’
‘What are you watching?’ asked James.
‘The name escapes me, The Life of somebody or other. It’s am dram, but one of the actors is a very good friend of ours. He’s marvellous. He could be professional. We saw him in something last year, and he’s incredibly tall but was playing a much shorter character, and, do you know, he spent the whole performance on his knees! It rivalled anything on the West End.’
James nodded sagely at his monitor.
Amanda considered standing at the back of the conference room. She’d be both in the management’s eyeline and not have to walk past anyone. However, this might give the appearance of her having been a late arrival. Of course, sitting in the front would be far too much. Quickly, she walked halfway down the room, keeping her eyes to the floor, and sat at the end of a row.
Scott entered the room at precisely half past three, Karen hot on his heels. As soon as they were both through the door, she took a couple of double-quick steps and was level with him by the time they passed Amanda. Scott took his jacket off, put it on the back of a chair and rolled up his sleeves. Karen stood beside him, ever hopeful he might require backup. She had the misplaced confidence of the unaware.
Scott smiled. ‘Hi everyone, and thanks. Firstly, for getting here at short notice, and, secondly, for getting here on time.’
Karen’s supercilious face reminded them that neither had been optional.
‘Thirdly. Well done! The last three months have seen a real increase in productivity and you need to give yourselves a round of applause!’ He spread his arms wide, as if to give his hands a run-up to the clap that followed. Karen followed suit and Amanda felt as though she were in a room of sea lions until Scott began to flap his hands up and down and the applause subsided.
‘I met with the finance guys today.’ He paused, and gave a thumbs up to the front row. ‘They’re really positive about the outlook going forward, but, you know, that doesn’t mean we can’t want more. We’re the best at what we do because we know we can always make ourselves even better. So, I’d like to share with you a new initiative we’ll be rolling out tomorrow.’
He looked to Karen, who handed him a sheet of paper.
‘They’ve—’ he looked down at the paper, then up, ‘sorry, we’ve been working with an outside agency on a way of interrogating the factors that are preventing each and every one of us from reaching our full potential, and of subsequently optimising each employee’s success.’
He paused. There was a low murmur in which Amanda did not participate. Karen glared at those who did.
‘It’s called Whole Office. We’re getting rid of the hot-desking.’ Another pause. Another murmur. Scott glanced down again. ‘Desks will be reassigned weekly. Every Friday, Karen and I’ – Karen beamed like a bride at the groom’s speech – ‘will collate each employee’s productivity data for the week and, the following Monday, you’ll be given new desks. At the end of the month, Karen and myself,’ (she was about to explode) ‘along with some hand-selected elves,’ (the room laughed) ‘will use the data to decide the optimum workstation and team for each employee.’
Another pause. There was no murmur, just the silence of anticipation as he consulted the sheet of paper once more. ‘You may wonder, and I certainly hope an inquisitive Pergo mind would wonder, what the point of this is. Our ultimate goal, as always, is to increase productivity at every level of the company.’
Amanda closed her eyes. If she’d believed in anything, spiritual or magical, this would have been the moment to turn to it. Why start tomorrow? Why not next week? At least then there would be time to prepare herself.
‘We could have waited until Monday to roll this out. But, hey, who am I kidding? We just couldn’t wait to get stuck in!’
A few people put their hands up to ask questions, a few others to make sycophantic comments, and then they were all dismissed.
As the staff made their way out of the room (after Scott and Karen, of course) the murmur became louder and annoyingly positive. There was a dull ache in Amanda’s stomach.
She tried to focus on her work for the short time that was left, but the white noise of the office was not enough to drown out the noise in her head. Her work was exemplary. She did not need anything optimised.
When it was time to leave, the rota was yet to be announced. Should she stay longer? But why make today any worse? There was too much upheaval as it was. She said a perfunctory goodbye to James and Catherine. James quickly put his mobile phone face-down on his desk. Catherine looked disconcertingly on the point of hugging her.
‘It’s not that I mind change, but I do think it’s a case of better the devil you know! Cheerio! I must remember to bring those games in for you! Honestly, James, these melatonin tablets have done wonders for me.’
‘Thanks.’ Amanda made her second swift exit of the day.
The faces on the journey home were always different and always too many. She got on the right carriage, but could not secure the right seat. It would not be long until she could shut her front door on the disorder of the day. She held on to that.
The next morning, Amanda and the rest of the regular five stood in their usual places, boarded through their usual doors and sat in their usual seats in their usual carriages. Laurent was on duty at the security desk and Amanda smiled as he paid her his usual compliment. On the eighth floor, the reception lights were already glaring. She swiped in and, as she opened the door, Karen trotted past, holding an A3 poster, red bordered and laminated.
‘Good morning, Amanda!’ Karen looked directly into Amanda’s eyes, pinning her to the spot as she pinned the poster to the wall. ‘It’s all there!’ Karen’s smile elongated her chin, and Amanda was reminded of how a snake could dislocate its jaws around its prey. ‘You’re the first!’ Karen said, tapping the poster. Amanda nodded. Karen raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders, and Amanda was reminded of what happened to the prey next.
The poster was an office plan. Inside each rectangular desk the name of an employee was written in dry-wipe marker. Amanda’s eyes went straight to her corner. She did not hope to find her own name there, but whose would be? Empty. Was that better or worse? She scanned the rest of the plan, but could not find herself. She scrutinised it more carefully. Had she been forgotten? Had there been a complaint about yesterday? Just when the tears were about to come, she found herself.
She had been thrust into a nest of four in the centre of the office, equidistant between a water cooler and the photocopier. A thoroughfare. The names around her generated a faint memory, nothing as vivid as recognition. There was probably still an hour before they would arrive. She took off her bag and coat, made a pot of coffee, then sat down to work. There had to be a semblance of normality and, after all, a quiet office was a quiet office. But Karen strode self-importantly in and out of her peripheral vision and, by the time people began to giggle in, Amanda had barely started.
Her first neighbour arrived at nine o’clock. His blonde hair was styled too young for his ham-coloured face. ‘Can you believe this?’ He grinned.
Amanda wondered if, not knowing anything about her, he might expect her to grin back. She shrank behind her monitor.
‘I’m John. Who are you?’
His eyes widened in recognition. ‘Was I talking to you at Jess’s do?’
She shrank even more at the thought of it. ‘I don’t know her. Sorry.’
‘Oh my god! You don’t know Jess? You’re going to love her. Everyone loves her. Well, not everyone, she can be awful, but that just makes me love her more. Wait till she gets here.’
‘I think we’re going to have a right laugh this week!’
It would be hell. Amanda became further convinced of this when John leapt to his feet. ‘Can you believe this?’
A life-sized and well-loved Barbie ran and hugged him. ‘I know!
John gestured between the two women. ‘Jess – Amanda – Amanda – Jess.’
‘John!’ shouted Jess, pointing at him. Apparently, this was hilarious. ‘We are going to have such a laugh!’ They both turned towards Amanda. For the second time that week, she thought of sharks.
Jess and John had all of Catherine’s energy, but whereas Catherine was happy to take full responsibility for a conversation, ‘The Two Js’, as they called themselves, were persistently inclusive. They were convinced there must be an event or a person they had in common with Amanda, despite all indications to the contrary. Finally, when she felt too exhausted to deny one more acquaintance and knowledge of their apparent faux pas, the last member of their team arrived, dishevelled and heavy lidded.
‘Hi!’ shouted Jess and John in unison. Heads turned at neighbouring desks.
‘Alright.’ He squinted at them and slumped down in his seat.
John introduced the rest of the group.
‘Graham.’ He nodded, in agreement with himself. Amanda found it almost inspiring how he was able to field questions from The Two Js, while starting his workstation and without properly waking up. He leant back, bouncing gently against the back of his chair as he answered. His responses were a careful balance of non-committal mumble and vague recollection.
‘Nah mate. Couldn’t make it. Had a thing. Heard good things though.’
Amanda squirmed her way through the morning by counting down the minutes until lunchtime. At ten forty, twelve o’clock was a distant glimmer of hope. Thirty minutes later, it became a possibility, and in another half an hour she could almost touch it.
At eleven fifty-eight, she steeled herself. She couldn’t see Jess’s screen from where she was sitting, but she was either working hard or composing a drum solo on her keyboard. Moving slowly and quietly, as though trying not to wake a sleeping predator, Amanda locked her computer, picked her bag off the floor and stood up.
The drums fell silent.
‘What are you up to?’ asked Jess.
‘Ooh! She’s making a run for it!’ grinned John.
Amanda froze, caught in the act. What was wrong about this act she really couldn’t say, but she knew she’d done wrong. ‘I’m just going to lunch.’
‘Oh no, Mands!’ John put two hands up for emphasis, ‘hang on for a bit and we’ll all go together.’
‘Yeah, Mands,’ Jess wiped a finger under each eye, then checked the tips for mascara, ‘we were saying we’d try Buttylicious.’
This was clearly news to Graham, but a De Niro-esque shrug suggested he might be amenable.
Amanda felt her lunchtime escape begin to slip away. How could she pull it back? ‘I’ve already brought something with me.’ That wouldn’t be enough.
The Two Js looked at each other and Amanda now understood what ‘side-eye’ was.
‘I thought you might have to get back for a client,’ said Jess.
Why hadn’t she thought of that? It wasn’t as though any of them had a clue what the others actually did. ‘Well, I should really be at my desk by one. Because of the time difference.’
‘No prob, Mands!’ John waved her away.
Jess winked, her false eyelashes an army of spiders dancing a menacing can-can. ‘Okay, babe. See you later!’
Five minutes later, Amanda felt able to breathe once more, as the lift doors opened onto the basement. The strip lights barely acknowledged her. Sanctuary. She paused before turning the corner.
The well was empty. She was alone and it was good. She chose a step facing the window and took out her lunch. So good to be alone. The computers sat monitorless and blind as ever. The sun poured deceptively through the glass, making the world seem warm. There was a noise behind her. She turned. No one. He wasn’t there. Air rattling through the vents. Another noise. She stood up.
She walked to the hallway and called again. The lights flickered in annoyance. Solitaire was in darkness. It was an old building. It made sounds. This week had put her on edge.
She sat back down on the opposite side of the well. She wanted to feel the sun on her back. That was why she had sat there. The clear view of the exit was coincidental.
Alone at last. She stared at the space where he had appeared. Where he – what was his name? She found the card. No name. Just ‘Solitaire’ and an email address. But he knew hers. Why had he not told her his when she told him hers? She replayed the conversation in her head. That was rude. Another reason to be glad of his absence. To enjoy her own space.
He didn’t come that day, or the next, and by the end of the week she’d stopped worrying that he would. She ignored the questions that struggled to the surface each lunchtime. She would not allow them to pollute her escape from the turmoil of the office. The Two Js’ determination to include her was constant and aggressive. Graham was no defence, oblivious as he was to the fact he was under attack himself.
Three weeks into the Whole Office programme, and it was everything that Amanda had feared. There was too much change, too much energy, too much enthusiasm. It was distracting. The day always began as it should. The regular five; the first tube. But she kept finding that someone else had arrived in the office before her. She was fading. At least the basement was still hers.
Although the world beyond the building had not quite shed the winter, the courtyard could make extremes of any kind of weather. It trapped breezes into a wind tunnel. A shower would threaten a flash flood. Today, the sky was a cold but clear blue, and the concrete was dusted with diamanté. Brisk air greeted her when she opened the door, warming when she stepped into the light. The plant pots that had lain barren all winter were dotted with green.
Amanda closed her eyes and put her legs up on the bench. There was no noise of traffic or air conditioning or even birds, just the slow tap, tap, tap of the blinds against the window. She opened her eyes. The blind-free windows stared blankly back.
The lights were off. The windows were empty. She resumed her pose and closed her eyes once more.
‘Some sunshine at last.’
Using her hand as a visor, she squinted towards the voice.
‘A pleasure to see you once more,’ it continued.
It seemed as though she were staring into a lava lamp.
‘I have startled you. I apologise.’
He hadn’t. She knew the voice and had known it would return.
‘Not at all.’
His shape began to solidify.
‘Nice to see you too.’ It wasn’t. Not here, but his arrival had put her on the back foot once more.
‘There have been changes since last we met.’
Amanda looked towards the plant pots and nodded.
He smiled at them and then at the sunshine, but stayed in the shadows. ‘And how is your work?’
How could she explain the turmoil? The invasion? ‘Fine.’ Why should she try? ‘Yours?’
She felt a pang of jealousy.
‘We are currently in a period of great anticipation.’
‘What are you anticipating?’
‘We have been given assurances that one of our most coveted regions will soon be receiving an influx of innovation.’
‘I see.’ She could see him now, but as to what he was talking about, she was at a loss.
He smiled, mouth alone. ‘A position has become available, and we believe that we have finally found the perfect fit.’
‘You did not contact me. You remain content?’
‘I’m sorry, I hadn’t realised I was meant to. Yes.’
‘It was not required, but it was somewhat expected. And work is proceeding well?’
She felt both that she should not answer and that he already knew what she would say. ‘There’s a new initiative.’
‘I believe so.’ He nodded.
She added, ‘It’s a fantastic challenge. How did you—’
He interrupted, ‘You are surely not one who would embrace disruption.’
She wanted to leave, but his presence in the doorway had a permanence she did not want to pass. She looked at her watch, but the sun reflected off the face and the time was unreadable.
‘You will be late?’ He produced a pocket watch. ‘I am also in that danger. Until next time, Amanda.’ And he was gone, before she could say goodbye, or ask who it was she was saying goodbye to.
She looked towards the window where the face had appeared last time they met. But today, it was empty, as it had been every other day since.
The next day, when Amanda was apprehensively pouring the coffee that someone else had made, Catherine nudged her. ‘Have you heard?’ As usual, she didn’t wait. ‘They’ve brought forward the reviews.’
‘Who knows? Maybe it was Karen’s idea, or those Solihull people or what have you, but the list’s already up. You’re this afternoon!’ She grinned and squeezed Amanda’s shoulder.
Amanda would have liked time to prepare, naturally, but she had nothing to fear. She’d like to walk in with something though. Was there anything she could print off in time? She’d have to miss lunch. That would be the fifth time.
When it was time for her review, she looked through the glass of the office door. Scott was gesticulating towards something on his desk and looking up at Karen who was standing over him, shaking her head. Amanda knocked on the door. Scott jumped and Karen glared. Then, both quickly composed themselves, and Scott smiled as he beckoned Amanda inside.
‘Hi, Amanda,’ he said, thrusting his hand in her direction. Amanda shook it, then Karen’s, before all three sat down. He turned to Karen. ‘Would you mind?’ Her stony façade crumbled and she passed him a file. He turned back to Amanda. ‘So, how have you been enjoying our new initiative?’
‘It’s been an enjoyable challenge.’ It sounded as convincing as she’d imagined it would.
‘How have you found working with different departments?’
‘Yes, it’s been interesting seeing how others work.’
‘In what way?’
‘Could you give me an example?’
She cast her mind back to the conversation she’d had earlier in her mind. Nothing. ‘Just, generally.’
He kept eye contact with her.
Her head was full of echoes.
Karen leaned forward and smiled, her face becoming more gargoyle-esque.
Something finally bounced back to Amanda. ‘I suppose, the way that certain departments are already integrated to a certain degree and the job management and multitasking that that entails.’
Scott’s smile wiped the one off Karen’s face. ‘Great. Karen, make a note of that.’
Karen glowered and did so.
‘Could you elaborate?’
‘I have a greater understanding of my position within the company.’ Amanda’s confidence was returning. ‘Learning about other roles has had a positive impact on my own.’
‘Really?’ Scott looked towards the corner again, and the gargoyle was on it straight away. ‘So, how long have you been with us?’
‘Just over three years.’
He looked down at the cardboard file on the desk. ‘Thirty-nine months at the end of this month, in fact.’ Looking up, he seemed somehow apologetic. ‘Almost cause for celebration.’
He continued, ‘I also see from this that your productivity has increased, year on year.’
She nodded. This was not news.
‘Unfortunately,’ he was now making direct eye contact, ‘whilst the rolling out of the Whole Office approach has really motivated people to take ownership of their work, your personal output has decreased. Would you care to expand on why that might be the case?’
‘Or do you disagree with the data?’
She would never disagree with the data.
Karen was making absolutely no effort to hide the grin on her face.
‘Perhaps…’ She paused. How could she agree without accepting blame? ‘Perhaps in coming to understand the intricacies of the company, my work has become more considered and, therefore, this has led to a temporary reduction in my output. Now that the initiative is coming to an end, my work can return to its former level…’ What else? ‘Enriched by the experience.’
‘Well, that would certainly be one explanation. However, they’ve–’ Karen coughed. ‘We’ve,’ he corrected himself, ‘decided, after consulting with our advisors, to stick with the programme.’
Amanda nodded. Speaking was not an option.
‘What has become apparent is that whilst your work has fallen below the expected standard, it doesn’t seem to have been affected by a particular department or group.’
Karen leant forward once more. ‘It’s been really quite a consistent decline.’
Scott turned sharply. ‘Thank you, Karen.’
‘In fact, you’re the only member of the Pergo family on whom Whole Office has had a negative impact, so the natural assumption would be that it is not the initiative which is at fault. And, as you know, we’re all about moving forward to the next stage, not trying to catch up to where we’ve been.’
‘Of course.’ She felt the ground beneath her open up.
‘But, they, that is, we, feel that perhaps it would be better if you didn’t come with us.’
And she was falling. It was one thing to struggle on in these messy conditions, but to have to create a whole new routine from scratch!
Scott was still talking. ‘That being said, you have, until very recently, had an exemplary record.’ But she could barely hear him. His voice was somewhere far away. ‘Fortunately, our advisors have a position available which might be more suitable for you.’
Karen passed him a red file.
Every day, Amanda sat at the same corner desk. There was no access behind. No one to look over her shoulder. The desk was not paired with another. It was surrounded by space, not another desk, not another person in sight. Even the corridor lights didn’t venture down this far. They flickered somewhere in the distance. It was hard getting up in the dark. Not seeing sunlight. But there was no alternative. When she’d first arrived there’d been a window. One day, she’d seen someone through it. The next, it was gone.
Far beyond the reluctant strip lights, as the first tube arrived, there was only ever a handful of other people on the platform. A nightshift-dishevelled man, resigned to missing the day again, a tracksuited woman with scraped-back hair, and an office-smart couple, who arrived separately, then sat together. The regular four.
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