The following short story, Secrets & Sequins, was published as runner-up in The Oxonian Review’s annual short story competition. It can also be read on their website here. I’d like to thank them for their support and encouragement. It’s great to be among such talented company. A common theme of my writing is escape. Not sure what that says about me, but Secrets & Sequins was fun to write anyway.
The photocopier clacked away. A broken slat of Venetian blind flapped against the window. Norman twisted in his chair, enjoying the pleasing crack as several of his vertebrae clunked into place. He’d always enjoyed clicking his bones, likening the sensation to popping bubble-wrap.
He stared out at the city. It was hot and still. The sky was a bleached grey. The sun was heating the pavements and squares, burning its way through the cloud and smog. A diesel train passed over Victorian arches bursting with buddleia, squealing on the points.
Up on the ninth floor you could only hear the drone of traffic and the clang of pile-drivers preparing executive flats. Norman sniffed, wiping his nose with a starchy hankie. The office smelt sour and sweaty, but he had to suffer the scratchy throats and tickly coughs because Hilary the Office Manager liked closed windows. Hilary could feel a draught at five hundred yards, blindfolded. She was going through the Change and talked about her body parts constantly. She kept talking about problems ‘down below’ and the doctors despairing with ‘her bits.’ Behind her back they called her Hilary the Orifice Manager.
Melissa frowned at him. Melissa thought Norman fancied her. She thought everyone fancied her. She had a huge tattoo on her arm of a woman playing a double bass – something that would never have been tolerated when Norman started work at LPKP. She could barely hide her loathing. He’d heard her whispering in the kitchen about ‘those Cornish pasties’ on Norman’s feet.
The door swung open. Hilary waited for someone to speak. When no one did, she said: ‘My course gets cancelled last minute. Guess why? Our course leader’s got man flu.’
Norman swallowed. Hilary had been booked onto a seminar called Agenda for Change. He’d looked forward to this for weeks and now his peace had been snatched away.
‘Were you born in a barn?’ Hilary snapped.
She snatched at the flapping blind, slammed the window shut and snapped the catch into place. Norman took a deep breath. It already felt like being shut up in the loft in summer.
‘We shouldn’t have to work in these conditions,’ Norman muttered.
‘Did you say something, Norman?’
Norman hammered away at his keys. Hilary emptied her hemp shopping bag, clattering her umbrella, lunchbox and car keys onto her desk.
‘I see you’re busy then?’ Hilary said.
Before Norman could answer Hilary turned her back and began to talk to Melissa in whispers. Norman tried to shut them out by leafing through the internal post. There was a pension update and a plea to give blood (Jerry from Accounts had scribbled ‘worth it for the custard creams alone, matey’ on Norman’s card). A green envelope meant HR. Norman’s heart fluttered. One day, this would be his marching orders and sooner rather than later if the Orifice Manager had anything to do with it. Norman did more than most, but he went through his life with a guilty sense of ‘getting away with it.’
He opened the envelope beneath his desk. KPLP had funded a sustainable forest in Norway, it said. Well, good for KPLP. Norman tugged the letter free and began to read.
As a loyal and trusted member of Team KPLP we’d like to share our success with you. As a member of our Elite Club you can take advantage of a number of stunning offers…..
Norman gnawed at his cheek. Team KPLP. Bloody Hell, they’d be high-fiving and wearing baseball caps next. The first of these super deals was a discount on his funeral. The card folded inside the letter had a picture of a shiny, lacquered coffin with a bouquet of flowers in cellophane on it – the kind forgetful husbands bought from petrol stations on anniversaries. ‘Planning for your funeral,’ it said. ‘It’s never too early to start.’
Norman’s stomach growled as his screensaver kicked in. He reached for the mouse, but just a second too late to prevent an image of a smiling, pinstriped Simon Harcourt filling the screen. Simon Harcourt was LPKP’s CEO. He was tanned with bleached teeth and spiky, bog-brush hair. He was handing over a cheque to a freckled kid in a wheelchair. The kid had a basketball on his lap, while Harcourt was waving a tennis racket. Norman had no idea why.
When Norman started work at LPKP there was a canteen that served spotted dick and custard and a Christmas party where old Mr Lipton tried to stay upright long enough to play a ruddy-cheeked Santa. Both had gone, along with Norman’s preferred screensaver – a black and white shot of a windswept, foam-spattered beach in Anglesey. It was Norman’s comfort blanket. He would stare at that image and be transported, sniffing the salt-air, wiping the grit from his brow and listening to the pebbles chinking and rattling through the surf. It was a place where Excel-sodding spread-sheets didn’t exist for starters. Now he had to stare at rugger-bugger Simon Harcourt putting a bit back.
Norman’s stomach growled again. Hilary turned and glared at him as if he’d farted.
‘Someone’s skipped the most important meal of the day.’
You’ve never skipped a meal in your life, Norman thought. He opened his drawer and took out his mug. Someone had pinched his NYPD cup, so he was reduced to using a ceramic reindeer whose red nose lit up when hot fluids were added. He took a teabag and a digestive and followed the trail of spilt coffee and oxtail soup that led to the kitchen. The minute hand flicked almost imperceptibly to eleven thirty seven as he glanced up at the silver wall clock.
‘They don’t have a clue, do they?’
Norman’s shoulders tightened as Hilary and Melissa’s chat followed him into the kitchen. They couldn’t even grant him the peace to make a decent cuppa. Hilary was rifling through a packet of cardboard cracker biscuits. The box had a tape measure running round it and a woman in a leotard with a manic grin. Norman had heard the argument so many times he was word perfect. I know its bird food, but I’ve no choice. I only have to think about chips to put on weight. I can’t touch chocolate. It goes straight on my arse.
Norman pressed the teabag against the mug, willing it to steep. Rudolph’s nose lit up.
‘They want to make the cost of car insurance the same for men and women,’ Hilary said.
Norman stirred his tea, dinking the fine bone china with a teaspoon. He could feel their eyes boring into his shoulders.
‘We’re better drivers, so that’s fair, isn’t it?’ Melissa said.
It was quite a claim: Norman had seen her attempting a three-point turn in her Polo. The Coventry Road had been brought to a standstill.
‘If there was any justice we’d get tampons on the NHS,’ Hilary said.
Norman took his lunchbox from the fridge.
‘What’s in Norman’s lunchbox, I wonder?’ Hilary said.
‘Nothing much, from what I’ve heard,’ Melissa said.
She gave a sour smile. Back at his desk Norman ate his sandwiches silently. He dropped his lunchbox into his rucksack and took out his mobile phone. His phone was a brick – something else they made fun of – but he didn’t need satellite positioning or the ability to tell people all over the world he’d just enjoyed a great packet of crisps. He fumbled through the menu and chose SMS.
Up in about five as usual?
He pressed send and caught the screensaver in time to flick through the BBC News page. Norman loved to look at the ‘Most Read’ stories. People weren’t interested in world famine or funding for the NHS, but they did care about a two-year-old tabby called Mister Jim who’d trekked 61 miles to his owner’s former house. Norman started as his phone bleeped. Hilary was back at her desk, watching.
‘Damn scammers!’ Norman said.
Hilary shook her head. Norman glanced at the screen.
I’m already there, twinkle-toes. Bet the dragon’s watching U!
Norman tried not to smile. ‘You know the sort of thing,’ he said to Hilary, shaking his head. ‘His assets have been frozen and-’
‘That’s why he’s called you, Norman. Your assets have been frozen for years,’ Melissa said.
Hilary snorted and Melissa creased up in laughter at her own joke. Norman got up, smoothing the creases on his trousers. ‘I fancy some fresh air,’ he said.
Melissa pulled a face.
‘See that you’re only half-an-hour,’ Hilary said.
Outside, in the corridor, Norman’s shoulders slackened. He walked into the lobby and listened at the stairwell until he was confident no one was coming. He pressed for the lift. The light blinked on Ground, then First, for what seemed like an age. Norman’s feet tapped away at the lino. Just as the lift passed the seventh floor Greg Starr came out of Finance clutching a box-file.
‘They get slower,’ Greg said, nodding at the lift’s pedestrian progress. Norman nodded. Greg clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth in lieu of conversation. As the lift doors opened Norman slapped his forehead. ‘Wallet,’ he said, ‘I’ve a brain like a sieve.’
‘Want me to hold them?’ Greg said, grabbing the doors.
Norman shook his head. As soon as the lift had gone Norman pressed again. This time the second lift shot up from Ground. Norman stepped inside and took the service key from his pocket. As the doors closed he opened the control box and turned the key a quarter. The lift only went as far as the tenth, but with the service key Norman was able to access Floor 12.
The lift bonged and Norman stepped out on 12. He gave a nervous smile knowing Chas would be watching the CCTV in reception. A Christmas bottle of scotch bought Chas’s loyalty. Norman pushed through the double doors, securing them behind him with a chair. He took his dinner jacket from where it hung above the storage crates, straightened his tie and slipped into his special shoes. He took a few steps, sliding with the grace of a featherweight boxer.
‘Twinkle-toes,’ Elaine said.
She blew him a kiss. Her perfume was musky. She’d slipped into her emerald sequinned ball gown while Norman had negotiated the lifts.
‘My Latin lover,’ she said, winking.
‘Where is the Latin Quarter of Wolverhampton?’ Norman said.
The room had been used as storage space for years. They’d cleared a dance floor by pushing the dusty boxes of brochures and leaflets into a square perimeter. Elaine had swept and polished the lino with a rotary cleaner borrowed from the basement. She tapped her watch. Norman nodded and took to the floor. She pressed Play and the room filled with the sound of the Tango as she joined him.
They danced for precisely twenty-one minutes. Norman drank in her perfume and held her chin at his fingertips. He held her waist tight and felt her close against him.
‘You’re learning,’ she said.
Her skin was damp. Her voice was almost a whisper. Norman trembled, feeling his trousers stiffen as her breath tickled his ear. Elaine looked into his eyes.
When the music finished he hung up his jacket and took the fire escape stairs two at a time. At half past twelve Elaine Calvert from Procurement and Norman Fleeting from Inward Investment sat down at their desks a little flushed, but perfectly composed.
‘Had your fresh air, Norman?’
‘Feel better, do you?’ Melissa said.
‘Much better, thank you,’ he replied. ‘A little leg-stretch does you the power of good.’
‘I don’t know how you cope with the excitement, Norman. I really don’t.’
Me neither, Norman thought. But he didn’t say it.