Hi there, I’m not dead, in case you’re wondering. Just took a little, ahem, two-month break from any creative activity whatsoever. Ok, almost three-month. And it wasn’t even a break, it was more like a coma, in which I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy even reading or fantasizing about anything. Nothing at all, least of all working on the novel or painting. It’s like my body and my mind rebelled against any further demands on my time. I stopped doing anything not directly related to keeping my job and spent my free time wisely by going to several doctors, demanding to know what’s wrong with me. Finally, my physician sat me down.
“The bad news,” she said, “is that there’s nothing wrong with you. Physically.”
She went on and on about stress management and yoga, and I made feeble promises to “look into that” but of course didn’t. I am back with the living now, and it’s only thanks to an emergency vacation to Queensland and the renewed hope that I will move there someday. If you are by chance contemplating moving to Australia, do consider Queensland. Yes, it’s hot and humid, and full of bogans, but they are nice, happy ones. You could move to the cold, miserable Melbourne and I guarantee you would find plenty of bogans, only they would be depressed and aggressive. Plus, I must have finally reached the age where I find high concentrations of humans no longer exciting, instead oppressive and suffocating. I’m old.
Ah, but back to the exciting news! One week in the sunshine, away from angry customers and meaningless bureaucracy, and I am back! Today was the last day of my leave and I managed to break the inertia by not only writing a whole new chapter but by painting as well. I don’t have a progress photo of the latest portrait, instead here is me working with my new friend, rescue Eclectus named Archie (I am using water soluble oils and only linseed oil as solvent, in case you’re worried about toxic fumes). He is actually interested in what I’m doing:
And now, for the proof that vacations are important and necessary, and so worth the money. The chapter I feared I’d never write.
I forgot all about it for the rest of the week, mainly because I was dead tired. Melbourne winter and taking public transport to work in the city meant that even if I wasn’t sick, I was either getting over “something” or fighting off the next something else. Work was stressful, as usual, and I ended up taking thick folders home almost every night, even when I knew I was just going to fall asleep on top of them. Even Clare seemed a bit down. We had a new starter, some young hot shot, and one of the partners did an awkwardly overenthusiastic introduction of him, after which the new guy talked for at least twenty minutes about his resume and aspirations. I expected Clare to drop a burn about it, there was enough material in that speech for a whole stand-up routine, but she just went back to her computer.
“What about the new bloke?” I said, trying to get something out of her.
“Who, Joe? What about him?”
“What was that thing he said about what it takes to succeed? I swear, he was looking at me when he said that. And what’s with the suit and the haircut…looks like a real estate agent, doesn’t he?”
“I guess.” She shrugged. “They are all like that, aren’t they?”
She turned back to her screen and I turned back to the nagging thoughts about my life, specifically on how it did not turn out the way I expected. I’m not even sure what it was I expected, just certain that I never wished to be so consistently miserable, with both short-term and long-term forecasts indicating further downpours of gloom, with possible strikes of bad luck. There was the seemingly unsurmountable mountain of divorce to cross, and who knew what awaited me on the other side? Most likely rejection, by men I was hoping to date and men or maybe even a woman I was hoping to woo in an interview. Just six more months at Rich&Richer and I could look for a different version of it without getting branded a flight risk. I wasn’t looking for a promotion, just a place that didn’t provoke suicidal thoughts.
I jumped in my seat, then inwardly cursed myself.
“Yes, Mr. Bigford?”
“The landfill people are here.”
“Oh!” I shuffled through the papers on my desk and pulled out a folder. “Here’s all the background info. I’ve put tabs in, so it’s easier to find – starting from when it was a bluestone quarry. I managed to find some newspaper articles on the illegal dumping, here, I put the red flags at the top. The EPA notices are at the end, and I have drafted some speaking points, here. Preliminary, of course.”
He thumbed through the pages and I could see he was pleased. A wave of pride came over me, so strong that I almost choked up. William Bigford was never big on praise or even smiling, but I understood why, he had a certain image to maintain. He wasn’t fatherly, but then again I was not familiar with any expressions of fatherly love. I just wanted approval, desperately. I was willing to work overtime for it.
He looked up from the folder. “Tell you what, Rose.”
I swallowed hard.
“Why don’t you go get us a couple of lattes and a cappucino from downstairs? Here,” he shoved something in my hand, “get something for yourself, too.”
He left with my folder and for a minute or two, I just stood there, looking down at the twenty in my hand.
I was in the kitchenette making yet another cup of green tea, when the new guy walked in. I wasn’t trying to schmooze him, he just kept opening one cupboard after another and finally I felt that I had to say something.
“Cups are here,” I pointed out. “Are you looking for cups?”
“Yes,” he said and smiled at me. Genuine, non-real-estate smile. “Thank you so much.”
“No probs,” I said. “If you need Stevia, I have a stash. There’s only sugar. Unless you like sugar.”
“Thank you. I don’t use either. I drink black coffee, no milk or sugar. But thank you very much.”
Up close, he didn’t seem at all stuck up, maybe even nervous about starting a new job. Maybe even nervous about making new friends.
“I’m Rose,” I offered my hand.
“Joe,” he shook it. Not in a crashing macho way, just a normal handshake. And eye contact.
“I’ve heard all about you,” I said. “This morning, I mean. Quite a CV you have there.”
“Oh,” he said and started to open and close cupboards again. “I hate talking about myself, but it’s expected sometimes. Where do you hide your coffee?”
Something inside me fluttered. He was nice. Nice, normal, funny, not to mention successful. Maybe even single.
“Well,” I said in a conspiratory tone, “You’ve come to the right place. We have an all-in-one coffee machine – one push of a button and you can have your free espresso in just a moment.” I gestured with a flourish to the large black apparatus in the corner.
“You don’t say,” he whispered, leaning towards me. “Free coffee in a law firm charging clients by the minute? Surely, this is an oversight of the management?”
I squinted at him. “It’s proven to be a generous return on the investment.”
“How so?” He moved to inspect the machine.
I looked at his back. Broad but not bulky, the V accentuated by the perfect cut of the silvery-blue suit. I forced myself to look away.
“For starters, there’s no need to go downstairs and waste valuable company time. Imagine seventy-six employees taking what? Three daily breaks of ten minutes each?”
“Unthinkable.” He turned and smiled again.
“Not to mention productivity. The caffeinated workforce–”
My heart dropped back to the deep dark hole, where it belonged. “Yes, Mr. Bigford?”
I have learned to read people over the years of trying to please first my father and then Alex, but you didn’t have to be a mind-reader to know he was pissed off. Employees of Rich&Richer are not supposed to chit-chat anywhere in the office, unless said chit-chat is billable. He shoved the landfill folder into my hands.
“Call them and set up another meeting, next week.”
I put Joe out of my mind for the rest of the day. It was easy – a skill you learn with years of experience in squashed expectations. A man like this most definitely has a partner, I told myself. He wasn’t wearing a ring, but Australians are notorious for getting married only after about a decade-long engagement, a house and a couple of kids. And he’s too pretty and well-groomed to be straight anyway. And new to the company. With time, he will figure out my place on the ladder and will start passing me folders rather than looks. Best to be disappointed early, before it hurts too much.
It was Friday and I was planning to excuse myself from the after-work drinks, on the account of being under the weather, which was true, but Clare practically begged me to come. She wanted to tell me about her Tinder dates, but I think she just didn’t want to go home.
“Okay,” I said. “One drink, and then I’m leaving.”
It was a two-for-one happy hour and we each had a margarita, and then another one. Damn it, I just love margaritas. I love licking the salt off the rim, which is stupid, because the salt costs practically nothing. Plus, it makes you bloat.
Clare was getting animated from the alcohol and reliving her most recent date disaster, but I could not stop checking the door.
“And then he said he would like to bite my neck! Rose!”
“Did you hear what I just said?”
“Yes. The guy was awful.”
“Yes, of course he was, but did you hear why?”
“He wanted to bite you?”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “He’s into BDSM! He wanted to tie me up and hurt me.”
“Oh. I didn’t know you’re into that.”
“I’m not! Seriously, what got into you today?”
“Nothing.” I rubbed my finger along the glass rim, but all the salt was gone. “I so need another job.”
“You and me both. How about another drink for now?”
I was about to say no and that I need to go home, when Joe appeared next to our little table. “Hi there. Can I get you ladies a drink?”
Clare snorted. “Ladies? Which ladies are you talking about?”
Joe seemed unsure for a moment and I slapped Clare’s hand, only half-jokingly. “Why, thank you, good sir. If I could trouble you for a margarita, I would be much obliged.”
“Make it two,” Clare said, and once he left, whispered to me, “What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing,” I said. “What’s going on with you? Why are you mean to Joe?”
“Joe? Are we on the first name basis with the real estate agent?”
“Stop it,” I slapped her hand again. “He’s a nice guy, you’ll see.”
He came back with our drinks and he was nice. He listened to Clare’s Tinder stories and my stories about Pa and his cats. He told his own, mostly about growing up in Queensland and then about his parents divorcing and moving to Sydney with his mum. None of his stories mentioned a partner of any kind. He offered to buy another round, but I insisted on paying, like I always do, even though I usually end up kicking myself for it later. “You need to let the man take care of you,” I could read in Clare’s eyes. “Don’t be so damn self-sufficient and persistent.” She didn’t touch her purse all night.
Joe helped me put Clare in an Uber when it became clear she couldn’t risk getting on the train with some shady characters that might pick up on the fact she was no longer entirely there. He waited until I got an Uber too and kissed me lightly on the cheek before walking away. He was nice, but for some reason, I wanted to cry.
When I opened the front door, as quietly as was possible, given the rusted hinges, it was probably around midnight. I took off my shoes and tiptoed in the dark towards my room.
Thieves and robbers don’t call you by your pet name, but I almost had a heart attack during the long second it took me to realise that. Pa’s voice was coming from somewhere in the living room. I found the switch and turned on the lights – he was lying on the sofa, rubbing his eyes.
“Sorry, Pa. Why are you sleeping down here?”
“I wasn’t, Rozochka.” He struggled to get up, so I had to help him. “I was waiting for you.”
“Why? I told you I was going out.”
He blinked at me. “I wanted to talk to you. How was your day?”
“My day? Pa, you stayed up till midnight to talk about what I did at work? Even I don’t want to talk about it.”
But we did end up talking for another hour, although it was mostly about why he didn’t join the University of the Third Age. He did go to the city, just as he promised, but the crowded tram and the crowded streets got to him.
“Everybody was pushing, Rozochka. Zey were so unhappy. I was unhappy.”
I tried suggesting that he might go mid-morning, after the rush, or on the weekend, even though I knew there would be tourists, even on a miserable day, but he was adamant.
“I like here. I can walk. I walk to vet and store, and nobody is pushing me.”
I was too tired to argue and that’s where the whole thing might have ended, if only I wasn’t so damn persistent.