by Beda Higgins

‘Christ look at the state. I mean does the company get a bonus for employing them?’

‘To think our Cheryl applied for the job and was turned down.’
‘I know and she’s lovely your Cheryl, answers the phone nice and always looks fab.’
‘And look at her, the dog’s dinner. Important innit first impressions.’

Tania glanced over at Julie and Susan, they sniffed her smile away, they always did. Wearily she picked up her purse and went to the snack bar. Down the stairs she heard the clickity clack of Susan and Julie’s shoes behind her, they’d linked arms laughing, ignoring her as usual.

Tania sat alone in the park feeding crusts to the ducks, the bread was old and stale. She’d been in her last year of law school when war broke out. As an asylum seeker her qualifications weren’t worth the paper they were written on, she’d landed this office job because she was quick, efficient; and very cheap.

The next day Susan sauntered up to Tania’s desk, ‘I’m having a flat warming party on Saturday, d ’you want to come?’ She waited tapping her foot, sucking a fingernail.

‘I’d love to, thank you,’ said Tania trying to make her accent sound less foreign.

‘It’s fancy dress, vicars and tarts. Y ’know what vicars and tarts look like don’t you?’

Tania nodded and quickly took the bit of paper with the address.
‘See you about eight, and don’t forget to dress up.’ Susan’s scissor lips shut, and she was gone.

Tania folded and unfolded the paper all morning looking at the address. She’d make herself go. It was a chance to make friends and escape the aching loneliness.

The rest of the week she spent her spare time scouring charity shops. She picked up an itsy bitsy red sequinned dress, some fishnet tights and high heeled red shoes from Oxfam that were hardly worn. A thick circle of crimson lipstick and she was a smouldering tart. Camouflaged under her big coat she teetered to Susan’s. She heard laughing and squeals as she tottered up the steps to the flat, clutching the cheap bottle of wine she’d bought even tighter.

Susan answered the door in jeans and a blouse. She dragged Tania confused into a crowded living room full of people respectfully dressed, not a tart or vicar in sight. Susan slipped behind Tania pulling her coat off her shoulders. There were gasps, titters, several splutters.

‘Goodness Tania, you do look dressed up for a good night’ Susan teased.
A pink porky man snorted, ‘you’ll make a bob or two tonight I reckon.’

The room exploded in laughter.

Tania stuttered, ‘but you said it was fancy dress?’

‘Not me, must’ve been a communication problem, your English isn’t as good as you reckon y ’know.’

‘That’s right when you answer the phone we always have to pick up the pieces interpreting after,’ Julie joined in, ‘you make our job a lot harder than it should be.’

Tania stared at the wall of glaring faces, turned grabbing her coat and ran. She stumbled down the stairs, tripping on her stupid tarty shoes. Her heavy make-up smeared down her face, heads turned as she fled the streets.

Julie and Susan spent the next week giggling every time they saw Tania.
Tania worked alone, ate alone, slept alone. Loneliness filled her world.
At least I can make money she thought biting her lip, and concentrated on hitting targets, improving efficiency and doing as much overtime as possible.
Tania made her first friend working late at night. Bridget the cleaner leant on her broom chatting while Tania tip tapped her computer keys.

‘I know all about being an outcast darlin’. The English are a shower of bastards.’

They spent nostalgic evenings reminiscing peat fires, Irish sausages, fiddle music, ham and cabbage. Bridget brought her in some soda bread. ‘put a good dollop of butter on it, not marg.’

Harry the night watchman soon joined them. The three of them had comfortable evenings huddled round the soft blue, humming computer. They’d do Harry’s crossword, explaining to Tania the strange foibles of the English language.
One night Bridget was telling Tania about St Patrick when the office door flew open. A tall dark stranger hovered in the doorway. Harry dropped his cake, and Bridget clutched her duster in a fluster. ‘Why Mr Charles we haven’t seen you in a long time.’
Not long enough.’ His voice deep, dark mahogany, ‘nothing personal Bridget you know that. He waved, ‘Hi Harry, who’s your friend?’ his eyes smouldered into Tania. She cursed herself for blushing.

Harry lifted a knowing eyebrow and introduced Tania. ‘This is Tania she’s new.’

Mr Charles smiled, ‘Hi Tania’ and dazzled a row of white teeth for Tania only.
‘We thought you were travelling the world? ‘If I’d known you were coming home I’d have baked you some potato cakes. Mr Charles loves my potato cakes’.

‘I ran out of cash, Dad won’t cough up anymore, says it’s time to join the real world.’ He shrugged, ‘this is it.’
‘So you’ll be working here?’
‘The old man insists. Don’t know my arse from my elbow and I’m a company director apparently.’

‘Ah sure Tania ‘ll help you out, she’s almost a lawyer and is virtually running the place.’
Mr Charles raised an eyebrow, ‘hidden talents eh Tania?’ He sauntered over to her desk and perched on the edge, ‘could you teach me a thing or two?’
Harry and Bridget nudged and winked and bustled away in a puff of busyness.
Mr Charles sat close, ‘shall we begin?’

Tania nodded seriously and showed him company information that would be useful to him; stocks and shares, employment profiles and suggested ways they might increase efficiency. He pulled up a chair to be near to her, their hair touched with a graze of feeling, he breathed deeply taking her in. A glance at his watch nudged her elbow, she crossed her legs and caught his shin, he smiled. Their eyes shone wide in the computer light, late and later talking in hushed voices, snatching glances, so close their skin burned.

Bridget and Harry peeped from behind a cabinet. ‘It’s written in the stars’ sniffed Harry.

There was no hiding their love and lust, they were smitten. Each night Mr Charles would come down to the office for his lesson in the finer details of running a business, and each night their lessons ended in the open mouthed language of love. Harry and Bridget kept their secret, and brought blankets and food, but the only thing that satisfied their hunger was each other.

During the day Mr Charles remained holed up in his higher kingdom. Soft carpets, percolated coffee in china cups, polished desks, gold cufflinks. He reclaimed his throne with an insight and understanding of the company workings that surprised his father pleasingly, while Tania stayed in her office corner, quietly smiling to herself.

‘So what you going to wear to the Christmas party Julie?’

‘Dunno if I can fit into my velour purple dress I’ll wear that. What you going to wear?’

‘Oh I’ve got this fab red halterneck, it looks gorgeous with my platforms. I hope I get a dance with Mr Charles, he’s lush.’

‘Not if I get there first, has he got a girlfriend?’

‘No one seems to know. Rumour on the block is he’s gay, he’s oblivious to the flirt divert attention round here.’

‘What a bloody waste. He’s so dark and mysterious gives me shivers just thinking about him.’

‘Well we’re all in with a chance, it’s just gossip from the typing pool.’
‘I’m going to look so gorgeous that even if he is gay I’ll bend him straight.’
They laughed and looked over to Tania’s corner, ‘what you wearing Bugalugs? Maybe that tart’s dress you wore to my party Ha Ha.’

Tania told Mr Charles about the gay rumour.

‘Good, it’ll keep the vultures off my back.’ He played with a strand of her hair. ‘Why don’t you come? Let’s just do it; who cares what anyone thinks, you’re the one for me.’

‘I think there will be easier ways to break the ice, particularly with your Father, and anyhow, I’ve nothing to wear. Really I’d rather not go, it’d be too difficult.’
‘You look great in anything, but best in nothing.’ He undid her dress buttons and she slipped out and into his arms.

Tania worked late the night of the Christmas party. Mr Charles had to attend, company etiquette. Harry and Bridget sat with Tania, Harry brought a tot of brandy and Bridget some Christmas cake but Tania still felt miserable.
‘I think you should go, bugger what they’ll say.’

‘You don’t know what the other girls are like, they’ll make my life hell.’
‘Don’t let yerself be a second class citizen.’

Harry smacked his lips, ‘Bridget’s right pet, come on, no arguing we’ll get you sorted, pass me the phone Bridget,’ he punched in a number, ‘Hello Audrey love. ‘Y ’know that young lass I’ve been telling you about, well we’re going to help her get to the Christmas do. Aye I know you said she ought to. She needs something special for it, okay I’ll see you in five minutes.’

Harry’s wife Audrey arrived; a blond buxom no nonsense woman. ‘Hello Pet, I’ve brought Mrs Patel with me, she’s a wizard with her needle, isn’t that right Mrs Patel.’

A small Indian woman stood smiling behind Audrey with armfuls of bright materials.

‘We’ve brought lots of colours to try against you.’

‘Mind you, you’ll have your work cut out there Mrs Patel, there’s not a pick on her, I’ve seen more fat on a greasy chip,’ laughed Bridget.

Audrey played with Tania’s hair, trying to tease it into a backcombed beehive. ‘Take no notice Pet, there’s nothing a bit of cotton wool padding can’t sort out.’

The women scuttled Tania into the coffee room and danced round her, wrapping her in swathes of beautiful silks and satin. Mrs Patel’s nimble fingers nipped and tucked, pinned and fastened. Tania emerged later magnificent in a glorious gown. Harry whistled, ‘you look like a bleeding princess’

Bridget dabbed her eyes, ‘Ah sure you’re only gorgeous.’

Bridget’s brother-in-law waited in his taxi outside. Tania stepped gracefully into his black cab and blew them all a kiss before being whisked away.

At the Grand Hotel she glided into the oak panelled hall. Mr Charles stood morose by the sweeping staircase surrounded by a gaggle of secretaries. False laughter tinkled off the chandeliers. Tania floated drawn towards him. Their eyes met across the crowded room. ‘Excuse me.’ He pushed through the powdered and perfumed hoards. He took Tania’s hand gently with a bow, and placed his other hand in the small of her back, ‘shall we dance?’

‘Well who the hell’s that?’ sneered Julie.

‘Dunno, but I’ll make it my business to find out and make her life a misery.’
Tania and Mr Charles danced all night, no one else got a look in. They swirled and twirled and set the dancehall alight with grace and beauty. Neither took their eyes off the other.

Monday morning the office was awash with gossip. ‘Who was that d ’you reckon Julie?’

‘Dunno, a bleedin’ stick insect, God I wish I could show him what it’s like to have a real woman.’ She wriggled her hips.

‘That bloody golden frock, it was like one of those from a Paki shop.’

‘Carol from sales says she’s from Persia, some kind of royalty.’

‘Is that Carol who swears she’s a size twelve and wobbled round like a blancmange in a pink tutu?’

Julie shouted over to Tania, ‘Eh Buagalugs you work late, did you see anyone leaving in a golden frock Friday night?’

Tania shook her head and kept her eyes on the screen.

The secretaries were buzzing to find out who the mystery woman was. At coffee Carol was full of it. ‘I’m telling you she had no shoes on. I reckon she’s a bleedin’ Hobbit, had horrible hairy feet, you must have noticed or were you all pissed as farts. He’ll dump her like a ton of bricks once he gets a look at those hooves.’
Tania’s face burnt. Shoes were the one thing Bridget and Harry couldn’t sort, she’d kicked her own lace ups off going into the ball, the long dress covered her feet; or so she thought.

An hour or so later Steve the porter brought in Tania’s brogues and dangled them in front of the office staff, ‘someone left these at the dance, anyone know who’s they are?’

Julie’s eyes narrowed, ‘ee, I recognise them from somewhere. It’ll come to me, and if Carol’s right they’ll lead us to the golden slapper.’

Tania tucked her flip flopped feet under the desk, they were all she could afford, wondering how on earth could she get her brogues back.

The secretarial hubbub was interrupted by shouts from the director’s office. There was a hush over the whole department as everyone tuned into the thunderous argument between Mr Charles senior and junior.

‘I don’t care about Miranda you want me to meet. I don’t care if she has the right background, and good city connections. I’ve told you, I’m in love.’

‘Oh for God’s sake, not another crush.’
‘No Dad listen to me, I don’t want anyone else. I’m in love.’
‘Well who is it?’
We danced all night at the office party.’
‘That skinny bint, good God, you can’t be serious.’
‘I’m sick of this facade, I’ll show you how serious I am.’

Mr Charles junior stormed out of the office. He swept past the open-mouthed secretaries, past the admin. staff, past Steve the porter still dangling the shoes. He headed for the furthest corner of the office space where Tania’s desk was tucked away. He gently rested his hands on her shoulders. ‘Come on darling it’s time.’ He pulled her to her feet, and looked into her eyes, ‘I can’t spend the rest of my life living a lie, I can’t pretend anymore.’

Tania stood close to him trembling, she reached out and put her arms on his waist to steady herself. He unbuttoned her cardigan and shrugged her out of it. He softly touched her face, fingers tracing round to her eyelids, peeling her false eyelashes off. He took a tissue and gently wiped her make-up away, smudging bruises on high cheekbones. Lastly, he slid her bony shoulders out of her dress and as the office stood stock still in shock he slipped his fingers under Tania’s boring brown bobbed hair and peeled off the wig. The costume of a woman lay redundant on the desk leaving a small male, dark haired Toni, sheepishly entwining fingers with Mr Charles.

Mr Charles unlaced the unclaimed brogues and knelt before Toni, slipping one foot in, then the other. He laced them gently and firmly, and looked up winking at his lover. They held hands and tip toed out, weaving through the boggle eyed gulps and gasps, closing the door quietly behind them.

The affair caused quite a kerfuffle upstairs, Mr Charles senior sacked anyone on the spot found gossiping about it.

But in the empty office building at night Bridget and Harry were free to talk often about them, knowing love like theirs was a rare gift. ‘Like a fairytale wasn’t it Harry?’
‘It was indeed Bridget, it was indeed.’

Copyright © Beda Higgins & National Short Story Day

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