She’s still at work even though it’s past seven. She just showered in the cubicle in the ladies’ toilets and now she’s sipping a glass of white wine at her desk, away from the party. She snuck up there before anyone else and poured herself a big one while the other P.A’s were still at their desks. He’s there now, doing whatever it is he has to do. She’d rather leave him to it. He can miss her.
Except he doesn’t leave it long enough. He comes bustling out of the lift, the ones that play radio stations, leaving a trail of pop music in the hallway as the doors open and close. He looks worried as usual.
What are you doing at your desk? Why aren’t you at the drinks? he asks her. There’s no one around so he sits down next to her on an empty swivel chair and kisses her. The rhythm of his kiss brings to her mind a mobile phone being plugged in to charge, the battery sign endlessly emptying and filling.
You smell amazing, he says. Like cedar wood.
Disco, she says. I just showered. She points to the tub of cedar wood moisturiser she keeps next to her computer screen. The lid’s calligraphic letters promise to relieve her of all stress, to take her into a cedar forest just by rubbing her hands.
You going somewhere fun tonight, Miss Clean?
No, I just felt like a shower. I wanted to vanish and turn into water, she says.
They want me back up there, he says, looking forlorn.
She doesn’t say anything. She picks up her glass of wine and walks into his office, the one he has been allocated strictly for private meetings. Not even she gets to sit in there, even though she’s his primary assistant – her desk is outside. He follows her. They face each other and she undoes his belt-buckle and then gestures to him to undo the rest while she removes the silver cat’s head brooch pinning her shirt closed at the neck. He puts his hand down inside her underwear. She pauses for a moment and then does the same to him. No one can see them, no one would dare come into his office without knocking, but there’s still a tiny part of her that fears being discovered. Except there’s nothing to discover. They all know and they don’t seem to care. She gets there faster than expected. Through a slight kink in the drawn metal blind she can just about see a cleaning trolley minus a human dozens of metres away and she reaches for her wineglass and takes a gulp. He’s the one lagging behind, even though he’s always ready from the get-go, despite having to be one floor up, shaking someone’s hand.
Finally he gives up.
I’d better get cleaned up, he sighs. You ok? You need anything?
She watches him go off to wash his hands. His legs are long and thin, making her think of saplings, wheat growing tall. Suddenly she longs for the fir trees where she grew up in Colorado, not this lone island of cloned buildings in this huge tangled city. London. A city she chose a long time ago for a different man and a job she chose for the money.
I’ll see you up there? he says.
In a minute, Boss.
Do you have to call me that?
She gives him a stare as he leaves.
By 5am she can’t sleep so she simply gets up and goes to work. When she arrives, the sky is still dark blue, almost violet, the same shade as when she left yesterday and for some reason her wine glass is still on her desk, with its red lipstick print. The office is empty. She could trick herself or someone else into believing she never left yesterday night, like the last ten hours have been edited out. Now she’s here, she wishes it was evening and she could go home. She’s so tired she feels nauseous, like she has jetlag. She feels a pull towards the bathroom, the urge to shower and examine her skin but she’s already had one this morning and she heard a radio voice in the lifts on the way up talking about how parts of England are now as dry as East Africa. She pictures an expanse of hard cracked earth, fissures, lone weeds prevailing.
A few hours later the other two assistants in her section arrive and settle at the island of desks and computers they all share. Both fortyish blondes with bad dye jobs. She wishes she could just tell them. Lose a stone, dye it back to brown. She wishes they could just tell her too but she knows what they would say.
The slightly younger one has a little girl and talks about the girl’s father like he’s an employee she shouldn’t have hired. The older woman is alone but she’s ‘ready’, she says with a smile, like she’s about to do a cartoon high dive into a barrel of water far below.
When she was promoted to executive assistant it felt like she was alone with him all the time, even when they weren’t in the same room but now she just feels alone. People leave their jobs every week in this office, saying goodbye via mass email, inviting everyone for a beer. The whole place feels past tense. There is talk of the building complex being sold but it is so big she wonders who could buy even one of the buildings. There is a designated social area every hundred metres, like emergency exits on a plane, with sofas and plants and coffee stations. There is one station that has a real plant, not a fake like the others. Something tropical she can’t place. She is used to mountain plants and trees, not palms and cacti that remind her of the California desert where her mother now lives. The cleaners dust the leaves every night. The plant is the size of a tree but with the build of a plant. It makes her feel miniature. She touches it every single time she walks past.
‘Martha,’ the older blonde says. ‘Martha, how did you meet your other half?’
‘Gary? Oh, we met when we were teenagers. Kept getting smashed together at the same parties.’
Their conversations are always like that, like a stone being thrown across the water in that particular way so it will bounce three times before it sinks. The older woman is always the one throwing the stone. When he’s not around, she tries to salvage these conversations, so she turns to the older blonde.
‘Why don’t you and I go for a drink? See if we can’t chat up a fella or two.’
‘Even if there’s no one, it’ll be fun.’
‘I thought you had someone,’ the older blonde replies.
‘No,’ she says, voice staccato. ‘I don’t.’
The next day a giant plume of smoke billows up over all the buildings. It is so thick it is easy to see where the smoke ends and the air begins. She likes this neatness, this definition. There’s a nearby plastics depot on fire, she reads on Twitter. She reads about the unholy stench, the spreading blame. There’s no emergency drill sounding despite all the practice drills they’ve done during the year. She feels an itch on her shoulder. A mole? No, a whitehead blown up from nowhere. This job, she thinks.
People get up to take pictures on their phones of the buildings dwarfed by the smoke so they don’t see her dark grey coat with its fake fur collar slither off her chair and glide away, levitating a foot above the floor, nearly invisible against the dark grey carpet. Grey on grey until it turns beige, then russet, then grows legs and a head and a tail. It is a large male fox. It meanders slowly down the long wide hallway past the new toffee-coloured wooden walls. She watches. The vertical wood panels blister as if restraining a fire, then darken, green sprouting up and out through the bark, green upon green, at first with the flatness of a theatre set, then endlessly thick. The fox heads towards it.
‘Come back,’ she cries, getting up and following it. The fox turns its head for a moment and grins, yellow eyes flat as glass. It turns away and vanishes into the deepening forest. She returns to her desk. The blondes both tell her she looks she she’s seen a ghost. Have a Treat, says the younger one, offering her a piece of chocolate like a small brown pebble.
I want to see you, says her boss that afternoon when they are in his office getting started, her stockinged foot creeping up his trouser leg. I want to go slow this time. I don’t have to be anywhere this afternoon. We’re always rushing. You never let me see you.
No, she says, you’re the one who always has to rush off.
Please let me see you.
You’re seeing me now, she says.
You know what I mean.
It’s been six months but he’s never seen her fully naked. Their affair hasn’t even left the office. He barely leaves it himself and when he does, he leaves in a majestic way. Dubai, Australia, Singapore. She doesn’t think he’s even touched her in full daylight.
OK, she says. You asked for it.
She takes everything off without his assistance and folds it quickly like she’s in an examining room. Then she stands very still, facing him. From the undersides of her breasts to just above her knees are red marks interspersed with whitish scars from the spots she has continuously aggravated and even welts fussed up from practically nothing. He has felt some of them directly with his hands before but seeing them is different from feeling them, she knows that much. The flat scars are pale and smooth. In certain lights they look like tiny plastic inserts, like the circles that fly off when she holepunches his meeting agendas in their plastic folders.
Christ, he says.
She stares at him.
You’re not well, he mumbles, grasping for words. You should take some paid leave. As of now. I’ll get the department to cover it.
How about the department covers a cosmetic dermatologist? she asks.
Whatever, he says.
An hour later, after he has left, she goes for a walk. People are always telling her it’s good to do that. Plus her coat is still missing. There is a lot you can do to find lost things here, online forms, mass emails to the right distribution lists. There’s even a lost property department. You can walk this office for a rectangular mile without leaving it. But when she gets back her coat is on the back of her chair as usual. It’s warm all over. Did a very overheated person borrow it? Unlikely. She strokes the furry collar a little as if it might yield an answer. Then it happens. She doesn’t talk but words leave her silently like a scent and she knows they are received. Doing it is instinctive, like a talent she knows everyone has but feels unique when you first use it.
I thought you’d left me. I thought you were gone in that forest forever.
A moment passes and new words are volleyed back.
How could I ever leave you? There is nothing in this world as lovely as you and never will be. Meet me in the bathroom in five minutes.
Oh. OK, sure.
There is no one in the ladies’ when she goes in. She’s not afraid exactly, but she’s wired – on edge – so she goes to the centre of the room. There is something safe about the centre of a room, she is convinced. Away from the corners. Things lurk in corners. If there is inescapable danger, it will find you quickly in the centre and then the end is hastened. So she stands right in the middle of the room letting the fluorescent light illuminate her. She wants to say where are you? but she can’t get it out, she’s already lost the knack. Then a very tall red-haired young woman in rags comes out of the nearest cubicle. There are dark stains on the rags and her body. She bends over and the rags turn to fur, covering the bare skin, the arms turn to front legs and she is a fox. It skulks around in a semi-circle and grins, staring at her the whole time, licking its teeth, working its long jaws.
‘What are you?’ she says out loud. She has to say the words so she knows all this is real and she is not talking to fox-coloured air in her mind.
This is the real me. The fox doesn’t talk either but if it had a voice they’d be a man’s words. She doesn’t hear. She absorbs. The force of the silent words is strong enough to knock her over.
I had to turn human briefly to get in the bathroom. Too many people around outside, says the fox.
You have something at the top of your left shoulder blade, he says. Something that wants to come out. Badly. Does it itch?
‘Yes,’ she says.
I’d get it out for you, the fox says. But not with these paws and teeth. So you must get it out. Do you want me to watch?
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I would like that. I can’t see it properly, even with these mirrors everywhere.’
I promise no one will come in here, says the fox.
Take off your shirt.
‘You promise no one will come in here?’
Time has slowed right down, says the fox. I can wrap an hour in the skein of a second.
Carefully she removes her white work shirt, placing it next to the sinks, hoping it won’t get wet.
You’re even lovelier without your shirt on. All that bare skin. It’s so bright, I can hardly look.
She plucks a paper towel from the dispenser on the wall by the sink, places it on standby, pulls her bra strap off her shoulder and pinches the skin up as far as she can to see the spot. The contortion crescendos in pain as she closes in.
Squeeze harder, says the fox. Get it all out. That stuff is voodoo.
‘How do you know?’
You humans store your misery in a thousand ways.
‘What makes you think I’m miserable?’
Observing how content you are now. You have blood coming out of your shoulder. Get down on the floor and I’ll clean you up.
She folds her legs and sits on the cold blue floor. This makes her feel like an animal, relating to the world from a low, horizontal place, her eyes meeting the fox’s eyes at the same level until she turns her back to give him her shoulder. He approaches her slowly and then licks her whole shoulder, licks the tiny cavity she has made. Delicious, he says. He seems expert at whatever it is he is doing, she can feel in his tongue strokes the years of fighting, crunching, gripping like a vice to the death. Then stripping meat off the bone, ripping through tissue and membrane. Her shoulder feels nice now. When she looks in the mirror there’s just a neat puncture where his tongue has been, where her long nails bit the skin. She takes a sharp breath.
I know what you’re thinking, says the fox. But I don’t love you in the way that makes me want to kill you.
‘Does that mean you love all the rabbits and chickens you’ve…’
Oh yes. I love them more than they can ever know. But not in a way you would understand. And not like how I love you.
‘I love you too. I love you so much.’
The fox looks at her and she realises she was mistaken, not in how much she is loved by him but how that love shows on his face. Of course, the face of a fox does not have the same readable expressions as a human face. He grins simply to bare his predatory teeth, not to allude to anything between them that excites him. Now his eyes look sad when they meet hers but she doesn’t know what to think. In his world, which might be quite different from her world, sadness could be the feeling that is craved the most.
‘I want to ask you something.’
‘Tell me about that forest you went into,’ she says.
You saw it for yourself, says the fox. He cocks his head to one side.
‘Can you take me there?’
He shakes his head. There is no doubt what he means by that.
When she returns to her desk the blondes eye her tenderly, tell her they are sorry she has to take time off. We’re not here to judge, they say. As long as you take the time to go through whatever it is you’re going through. Let me make you a cup of tea, the older one says. Don’t pack up just yet.
Thank you, she says, but first I need a shower.
Something huge is in store for her, for certain. She can’t fully feel it yet, but she knows it’s coming.