I keep my head down. There isn’t much getting done but best not to reveal that; not just now. The filing cabinet in her office slams and a cup bangs on a desktop. A sheaf of papers rustles for five, ten, fifteen, twenty seconds. The door is ajar and the faint odour of rage is seeping slowly through the crack, burning my nostrils just a touch, like the first disappointing hint that although the stew is looking all right, the bottom of the pot is crusted black. Her phone goes and she gives it four rings before answering it, although it is at her right hand. Her tone gives nothing away but we exchange a glance.
When she calls my name I am alarmed. What have I forgotten? Now: to be meek or defiant? The moment is too short to decide: best to endure quickly. Kicking the chair back it gives a little squeal, giving voice to the piglet of anxiety in my guts. Ten steps and I am gazing down at her from where she glowers behind her desk. There is a small pool of cold coffee forming a skin on top of a small pile of forms.
Sit, she says.
Close the door there, she says.
She looks at me a few moments too long before speaking. I decide I will go with defiant. I don’t know why she is angry but like an airborne virus it’s making its home in me now.
I went to that meeting today, she says, and I asked you to prepare two folders for me. I got to the meeting and there was only one folder. I asked you to arrange this yesterday before I left. Did you not hear me?
A wave self righteousness approaches my shore. No, I say calmly. You asked for one folder to be prepared, so that is what I did. I wrote it down. When I asked you if you would need copies, you said no.
Do you live in a fantasy world? she asks me. A pause. I wish, I reply. Oh you think you’re funny? she says. Your negligence embarrassed me today. It embarrassed me. It embarrassed this whole company. I’m really growing tired of your carelessness.
I consider my next move.
If I misheard you, I apologise, I say.
She leans in. And another thing she says. She fixes me with a gaze like a razor. It has been noted, she says, by some of the other staff, that you do not write your ‘eights’ correctly.
My ‘eights’ I ask? genuinely confused.
Your eights, she says coldly. She is speaking very deliberately. You do your eights like this. She picks up a pen and to my amazement she sketches in the air how anyone would write the number 8: in one swift movement starting at the top, swirling down and then curving back up again to the top.
I am in shock.
In this office, she says to me, we do our eights like this. She raises her hand into the air and draws two consecutive circles, one on top of the other.
Hang on, I say. It has been noted? By some of the other staff? Which staff?
Another pause. Oh, she says, I couldn’t possibly say.
That’s utter nonsense, I say. Nobody could possibly complain about the way I write my eights. Nobody would. I…I can’t believe what I am hearing.
Au contraire, she says, and I am alarmed by the inexplicably smug tone. Almost everyone in this company has come to me about this. I mean, it’s up to you, she says. If you want to continue doing your eights the way that you do, that is up to you. But that’s simply not how it’s done in this office.
Okay, I say.
If I ask you to do something, you do it in future, do you understand me? she says.
Yes, I say. I get up to leave.
I return to my desk, somewhat bewildered. I stare at my colleagues, working silently. I look at my desk, at my work. I pick up my pen. I draw an eight, in the usual fashion. I draw another; this time, two circles atop each other. I draw another circle, and another and another and another and soon one of the circles trembles and it’s swelling and it opens wide on top of my desk, and I raise my feet and climb inside it and find myself blissfully descending deep, deep down into its dark and fertile warmth where not a single number can reach me.