NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 15 (then)

Something was just not right. A strange tickling and heaviness had been nesting in my tummy for a couple of weeks and it was getting more frequent, more annoying and more worrying. I phoned my GP and he didn’t think I needed to worry. Then all of a sudden, while I was standing at the photocopier, a sharp pain cut through my abdomen. A glance at the wall clock – it was quarter past two in the afternoon and still 3 hours to go. I squeezed my teeth maniacally waiting for the last few pages to come out. The pain suddenly became unbearable. With the last drops of my energy I grabbed my bag from my desk and ran to the toilet. “Lack of manners…this running… We could have very important clients in. I don’t know…” I could hear our new manager shouting behind my back. All of a sudden I knew I had to go to hospital. Should I tell the receptionist to call me a cab? Or should I just call the ambulance? My naked legs were covered in pale goosebumps as I looked at blood dropping underneath me. The pain was violent and agonizing and I was not sure whether I would be able to get up. What if I fell unconscious? On the floor of this claustrophobic toilet or next to the reception with those gigantic lilies in the vases on either side of the desk? High heels, treading with determination, entered the cubicle to the right and I tried to be quiet as tears of helplessness filled my eyes. Had to phone Jason and let him know. I needed him. My body no longer responded to any command and I lost any sense of time. It could have been only five minutes or over 2 hours; I couldn’t tell with certainty. Perhaps they were looking for me. I had not tidied my desk or told anyone what was going on. I felt like screaming but I could not do it and that made it even more painful. I slowly regained composure and enough energy to sort out my mess, get dressed and apply a few strokes of blush to my transparent cheeks. I knew I had to go to hospital. I also had to buy a bar of chocolate and a bottle of mineral water in the small lottery shop just outside the office in case the weakness became overwhelming and my mind slipped towards unconsciousness. My jacket was on my chair, but I could not go back. ”Could you please tell my manager that I’m not feeling well and had to go home?” I said to the receptionist and left. She looked at me with a couldn’t-care-less expression and nodded five times in a row. Two strong blokes, with tools hanging from their back pockets, were toying with the fire alarm system on the wall next to the exit. My eyes were full of pain and the last thing I wanted was to have a chat with them on my way to the lift. ”Oright luv?” asked one. I just hurried out overhearing a deep baritone saying: “Not very sociable today luv!” Jason didn’t answer his mobile phone and then I remembered that he was in Newport in Wales at a meeting. Exactly six hours later I was discharged with a box of antibiotics and a recommendation of six, seven days of complete rest. Jason just managed to get there and suggested we take a taxi. For some strange reason I preferred to go home by bus. I knew I would break down in a cab, but surrounded by other people I would try to be strong. My feet felt cold in the medium-heel black Next office shoes and 10 denier skin colour M&S tights. My head was overwhelmed with weakness and couldn’t wait to rest on my pillow. The bus turned into the stop and we climbed in. An old lady with a bandage over her forehead smiled at me. There were only five, six people on the bus. All of them fresh from leaving the hospital – hospital was the first and the last stop on this line. We looked as though we were coming home from a WWII battle; an old man in a grey shabby coat with his left arm in plaster, the lady in front with the bandaged forehead, two quiet lads in their early twenties covered in bruises and suffusions from knife cuts. And a tired nurse heading home after an exhausting shift. The driver stepped out of the bus and lit a cigarette in the shade of the lamppost. “I’m ahead of schedule…bus will leave in 5 minutes.” His voice was apologetic even if no one had asked for any explanations. “See this bandage.” The lady turned around and started her story. “I fell on a rubbish bin in the street and got blood down my shirt.” She showed me dry brownish patches of blood on her beige blouse. “I don’t know what happens, but sometimes my mind goes blank, my legs just go and I find myself on the floor. I didn’t tell them because they wouldn’t let me go if I did. My daughter doesn’t know anything. See, I can’t tell her. She lives in Australia and… You know she would be very worried and I haven’t seen her for 3 years. No need to make her worried as well…” Jason held my hand with a force I had never experienced before and tiredly and absently looked out of the window. A sharp wind was smoothly playing on the dried autumnal leaves leaving behind a whispering melody. A sound of cold and rain, a foretaste of the months to come. If it wasn’t tragic, it would be funny how in certain moments nothing seems to make any sense, life seems to lack any logic or happiness and we push ourselves to go forward, just a step more, just a little bit further, just until the end of the road, till around the corner, till the top of the hill, just that little bit more and the feeling of emptiness nestles in the vacuum inside us. When we got home, Jason turned the telly on and I went straight to the bedroom, undressed impatiently, put my thickest pyjamas on – the purple ones with a big ugly frog on the front and a prince on the back – and just fell on the bed. My hands were cold like ice but my forehead was radiating heat as if it was a fireplace. They did warn me in the hospital. There is always the possibility of getting a high temperature. Hence the antibiotics. But nothing too worrying. These things just happened and there was nothing we or anyone else could have done to stop it. It would feel like influenza and after 5-6 days in bed it would go. I tried to warm myself up by squeezing into a foetal position and breathing deeply and loudly. Jason phoned in next morning and stayed at home, grieving with me. From the bottom of my bag I dug out a small sack that contained you, wrapped in many layers of toilet paper and a Marks & Spencer’s plastic bag. You were just lifeless tissue. It didn’t seem right to flush you down the toilet, or put you in the rubbish bin wrapped in a piece of toilet paper. Instead, I asked Jason to bury you at the end of the garden. Nine weeks and two days. That’s how long you stayed with us. I never could understand how could they be so accurate, but two weeks earlier the scan had showed your beating heart and the operator said you were 7 weeks and 2 days old. Jason took the shovel from the shed and buried you next to the red rose. I stayed at home for a whole week. In shock. I listened to the voices from the neighbouring gardens, fascinated by the strength and immensity of the timeless tree that we shared with the garden on the other side. I imagined it whispering in the wind and telling the stories of all the inhabitants of this address. Every afternoon the chap next door shared a cigarette with his sixteen year old stepdaughter and teased her about her boyfriends. His voice was supple and caring. I stared at the clouds and read newspapers from the previous day while sipping cups of camomile tea. A depressing feeling of emptiness and purposelessness took over. I knew it would not change and that I had to wake up. Life must go on. “Maybe you should try to leave the house… Maybe even try to go to work. It will keep your mind occupied… It will help you to get better… It’s helping me…” Said Jason kneeling in front of me, gently holding my hands and looking into my teary and distant eyes. Heading to the station next morning I realised that he was probably right. When you are on your own you tend to think too much, and your thoughts descend into a negative abyss, a dark and suicidal place deep inside. Just putting on some proper clothes, a little make-up and leaving the house made me feel better, even if I could still feel shivers all over my body and saw you in every corner that my eye could reach. You came and left like a summer storm, a perfect moment – but such a short one.


***


“Clearly doctors' appointments are important and necessary, but because I cannot offer this to everyone, I need you to minimise any personal commitments that require us to flex outside of the agreed flexi time. I would appreciate your support in avoiding the risk that anyone might feel flexibility is not given equally.”
This was the memo I found on my desk the morning I got back. It was from my line manager, a tall and curvy woman a few years younger than me, who had been in charge for just over a year. A copy of it was distributed to everyone in the company, but I felt as if it was particularly addressed to me. Since she had taken over our department I had had many days off, both sick and holidays, but that was due to unfortunate circumstances – hospital appointments, specialists’ interventions, scans – which I could not do anything about. I tried to like her, but it was a hard and constant self-discipline. I should have liked her. It’s more pleasant to work for someone you actually like. Or at least someone you respect. The problem with her was the reciprocity of feelings; she didn’t like or respect me either. However, she was the manager and had, somehow, the luxury not to like her employees. I didn’t. She established a state of fear. No one knew where she had come from and what she had been doing before or how indeed she had landed this managerial job at GlobalGlot when she still thought that the language of Yemen was Yemenese. She had long and peroxide blond curly hair. Most of the time she would gather it in a bun and this would give her the look of a strict boarding school headmistress. Her hobby was horse riding and I always imagined her undoing her hair and riding a black horse like a cross between lady Godiva and Boadicea, with a leather whip in her right hand and madness and fury coming out of her ears. Her face was ruined by years of deep teenage spots that she always covered with a thick layer of some expensive foundation.
She called me in and asked me to justify my absence.
“I had a bad food poisoning and after that I felt very weak and needed a few days to recover…” I told her concealing the real reason. Anyway, I wasn’t required to bring in a certificate as I was off for less than seven days.
“One week off for food poisoning?”
The more she dug, the more I was determined not to share with her the details of my emotional and physical rollercoaster. She knew I wasn’t telling her the truth and that made her even more furious.
“And also your absences in general this year…”
“What about them?”
“Well…what can I say… They have been so random, so sporadic… A few days here, a few days there and most of them taken at very short notice. It’s difficult to manage you if you are off so much!”
“When it comes to the annual leave that’s completely up to me how and when I take it, isn’t it? And anyway, that will not be a problem anymore as I’ve used up all my holidays for the year!”
It was then that I saw Medusa for the first time. Her long hair suddenly started to move and I realised that she had snakes moving about her head. The terrible monster from the Greek mythology was there in front of me and I was petrified; my trembling knees froze with fear as she turned me into an immobile stone. I expected long snakes of her hair to stretch towards me and squeeze me until I disappeared into thin air. We were all scared of this horrible and ugly creature, with her untamed destructive forces.
Medusa’s office had a huge lightless window facing a slightly higher building, a narrow tower next to a deserted office block with a constant turn-around of squatters. Every sunny day they would take out their deckchairs and sunbathe undressed on the roof terrace ignoring overworked grey suits in the surrounding buildings. Our main entertainment that summer was created by a couple of enviably stunning squatters having sex there - oblivious to our occasional bashful glances or very much aware of them.
When one thing goes wrong in life, everything else follows, just like dominoes. I was desperate for an oasis of calm, of a place where I was in control and could get on with my life without sadness and tragedy, and in a poignant way I was hoping that my work - which I had grown to like over the years - would provide me with it. I would get up in the morning after yet another night without much sleep but filled with recurring nightmares and feel a sharp pain in my stomach knowing that I had another day ahead in Medusa’s realm.
“Yup…the research is remarkably good… I’m very surprised. You gave enough depth where necessary, just a superficial brushing where appropriate and you also made it quite interesting!”
It was a gloomy and foggy day and a thick cloud of pollution had descended onto the roofs of the neighbouring buildings. For the last few weeks I had buried myself into a project on additional translation services we could offer.
“And the presentation is also really good” said Medusa.
“Well, I’m glad you like it. I gave my best… And I also enjoyed doing it. It was interesting and challenging…” I desperately wanted to sound enthusiastic and passionate. To a certain extent I genuinely was. I just needed a lifesaving jacket to hold onto.
“However, I would like Joanna to do the presentation at the conference next month. I hope you don’t mind.”
After all those compliments, this came as a shock.
“But, why…? I thought I was going to do it…after all the work I’ve done on it…”
“You seee… you are probably aware of this yourself and I’ve already pointed it out to you… Basically, your accent is too strong. It is not that I have a problem with it. Actually I think it’s cute. But then your strong accent makes it difficult to understand sometimes... People from all over the world will be attending the conference and we have to make sure that everyone understands what we are talking about. Joanna has a great presence and I’m sure she’ll attract new prospects!”
“But… My accent has never been an issue before! I’ve lived in London for over ten years. I studied for Proficiency in English and...as far as I know people always understand me!”
I tried to fight back; to protect myself; even if it was painful and I knew I wasn’t going to win. No one can do anything about their accent. It’s part of your body. Accent is a handicap; or a talent – depends on your line manager, obviously. I could feel a pain at the back of my head, a shock that spread through me as if it was a bolt of lightning.
“I also think it’s unfair… After I’ve done all that work…”
“I’m afraid that’s how it works in the business environment... At least in London...” Medusa was persistent. “It might be different in the country you are from, but here you always do things for your boss and don’t get the credit. Welcome to the world of real business…And it is actually a request from above and I can’t do anything about it.” She looked directly into my eyes, summoning up all her harmful powers in yet another attempt to break me, and then she stretched her lips into a thin smile.
“When can you start training Joanna? She’ll probably need a few hours to prepare?”
“Whenever…” I said with resignation.
Joanna from Marketing was a stunning girl in her late twenties. She was tall and so slim that you could easily miss her if she turned sideways, with long blond hair and flirtatious eyes. She had got married to her college sweetheart, now a banker, just over a year ago and they had bought a flash apartment overlooking the Thames. As I tried to explain the findings to her over and over again and she kept translating it into marketing vocabulary that didn’t make much sense to me, I noticed that she wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. Maybe that would explain her frequent lunches with the married head of the other department. I was mean; deliberately not including all the information she might need. Oh, well...
A few days later I was again in Medusa’s den.
“You put down two hours overtime for last week…”
“Yes…I did… On Friday night I stayed till seven-thirty in order to finish a translation for an American client…”
“Yes…and what?”
“Inge was still there and she told me that I should ask for paid overtime…as other people do…”
“Who told you that you have the right to paid overtime? Inge works in the financial section and she has to do overtime but you… Why wasn’t that done during your basic working hours?”
“I spent the morning with Joanna, then a long meeting…I just did not manage to do it and I could not leave it for Monday…”
“Let me be clear to you… You are not entitled to paid overtime. Therefore, forget it. If you don’t manage to finish something in time, I’m afraid there are no excuses and you have to stay longer and finish it. Or you have to do it faster. It’s hardly rocket science, is it?”
“Ok sorry about it… I didn’t know there were different rules for different people and departments. It was Inge who saw me and said to claim overtime…”
That evening Inge also told me that Joanna and Medusa regularly claimed the overtime - but I was not blunt or brave enough to mention it – and that Medusa was doing everything to get rid of her. Inge was an ambitious German girl who had joined the company a year earlier and always played by the book. Not only did she look strict with her short blond hair and sharp slim face, she also hated any sign of dishonestly and could not stand Medusa. We could occasionally hear loud arguments between the two of them. Then she left, overnight, without explanations. Later on we found out that she was working in a financial institution in Canary Wharf and doing really well.
Then all of a sudden you break down, when there are no straws left to clutch at, when all your nails have broken and you can’t climb that wall anymore, when there are no more pills to take to get rid of the constant pain; you break down deep inside, invisible to the outside world, and all in the tiniest fragment of time, in the split second when you least expected it. And you are not sure whether next morning you will be able to get out of bed.
In a desperate attempt to lose some weight after years of hormonal overdosing, I was eating my salad at my desk in the corner, when Medusa appeared behind me with a fax with yet another client request she couldn’t and didn’t want to deal with.
“What the hell are you eating!?” She shrieked and half of the office turned around.
“Oh, just a salad… Avocado, sweetcorn and feta cheese for some flavour…”
“Gosh, it looks revolting! Who the hell eats that disgusting stuff… Are you pregnant?”
Ok. She couldn’t have possibly known and I never told her the real reasons for my absences. As many times before, she just jumped in, arse before feet. But it still hurt. Badly.
“No!”
I shouted out, cross, annoyed and upset, I didn’t care if the whole of the office heard me. Since Medusa joined the company, shouting and screaming had become an everyday event with admin girls leaving the office in tears and running to the park nearby to calm down. I would not let her do that to me.
“Why else would you be eating those disgusting things?”
“Maybe because I like these disgusting things!
And tears quickly accumulate underneath the surface, just like lava in a volcano before eruption; they brew and reach the boiling point and just when you feel like you are going to explode, you pull yourself together and keep a straight face. And time ticks on inexorably, like on a stopwatch and all of a sudden you accept your powerlessness, your fate. You become a fatalist without realising. What else could you have done? What the fuck else could you have become, anyway, and all in just another unsuccessful effort to save your sanity?
The other day the CEO sent an email introducing the new marketing manager.
He has a wealth of relevant experience in this field and he is married with three young children. His hobbies are playing golf and spending time with his children. The fact that he had three children and liked spending time with them was the most important information. No university degree or examples of his work, but his family history, as if the fact that he has children makes him more suitable for the job than some sad childless weirdo.
I was in the kitchen making my morning coffee when I was asked a question by the new chap from Finances, Inge’s replacement:
“So how’s your family?”
“Family?” I looked back. “It’s only me and my husband, actually…”
“So, you don’t have kids?”
“No… I don’t…” I took a sip from my mug and he lowered his eyes and rushed out of the kitchen.
It must be something in someone’s natal constellation or genetic code, maybe a system error or failed formula, that determines your position in society, your achievements and failures, your popularity or unpopularity. And all along, the only thing you want is boring normality.
Maybe it was time I packed it all in. And resigned. And left everything behind. There was not much to leave anyway. But then unexpectedly, Perseus found his way to GlobalGlot and by next week Medusa was nowhere to be seen. And that night I dreamed of a girl running around our garden and trying to pick up a rose from a stem with sharp thorns. She was wearing leggings with strawberries and snails on and a red T-shirt and had messy ginger hair. She jumped exultingly but she never turned around and I could not see her face. I knew, I just knew that was you. And I had to stay.