When Henry and I started dating, I promised myself I’d never use the fact that Henry worked in HR for personal gain. It was probably even more important given that we’d just recently broken up, and yet here I was, trying to convince myself that what I was doing was completely fine.
“Oh my god, you are so bad,” Bree said, giggling as I drove into the basement car park of my old hotel.
“I will laugh at you if you get your wheels clamped,” Sarah told me as I twisted into a really strange position and did a beautiful reverse park job. “They’re going to know you don’t live here anymore. They’ll have your rego somewhere.”
I put the car into park and turned off the engine. “Nope,” I said with expert certainty. “Henry told me they only check the long term area if it’s full, and…” I looked out the window: the floor was peppered with free spaces. “Looks like I just saved $60.” I grinned broadly at them, and then opened my door.
The other two were slower out of the car than me; Bree because she was carrying a schoolbag that was nearly as big as she was, and Sarah because she was still suffering the effects of alternating between binge-drinking and cold and flu tablets. At least that was my assessment, because I recognised those heavy bags under her eyes from having seen them so much in the mirror myself when I was working for Frost. She was better today than she’d been on Friday, though.
“I can’t wait to see my teacher’s face when I hand in my essay on time today,” Bree was saying as she tried to find a comfortable way to carry her heavy bag so it didn’t threaten to topple her over. I held my hand out to offer, and she shook her head. “Nah, I’m used to it. Anyway, I haven’t, like, ever handed anything in on time, and I’m pretty sure she thinks I haven’t even read the book. I should secretly film her reaction and show you!”
“You should film her reaction when she reads it instead,” I suggested. I’d helped Bree with that essay, and it was a work of fucking art. It contained enough Breeisms to obviously be written by her, but had the level of analysis I thought the teacher would be looking for.
“I should film your reaction when you see what mark I get,” Bree said, bouncing over to me so we could hold hands as we walked out of the car park. She was beaming up at me and the cold air had made her cheeks and nose pink. I didn’t realise I was gazing down at her until Sarah made a noise.
“You should both film me dry-retching over how nauseating you two are,” Sarah said dryly, but she was smiling at us as we walked down the steep hill by the hotel.
Even with a suit jacket, it was chilly this morning. People were rugged up in their trench coats and parkas, clutching their takeaway coffees close and breathing out in puffs of steam. It was all so familiar: the route we were walking, the buildings, the half-awake people in suits. I even found myself subconsciously avoiding cracks in the pavement despite the fact I wasn’t wearing stilettos anymore.
Bree had completely bare thighs and didn’t seem to be bothered by the temperature at all, she was just trotting along beside me with a big smile on her face. I bent down to kiss her again as we said goodbye, and in doing so I noticed the pearl in her cleavage. I made her stand still while I did up all her buttons and fixed her tie so it was hidden.
She made a choking noise. “It doesn’t need to be that tight!” she told me, loosening it a bit and then waving goodbye to us. “I’ll tell you what my teacher says!”
Sarah was smirking at me as we continued up towards Frost HQ. “That’s a nice necklace Bree is wearing. Is it new?”
I gave her a weird look. That smirk was suspicious. “Yeah, I gave it to her on Friday.”
She nodded once, still looking smug. “I bet she enjoyed getting it from you,” she said, trying not to laugh. “But probably not half as much as you enjoyed giving it to her.”
I groaned. I knew exactly where this was going. “Sarah, don’t be gross.”
She was laughing. “No, seriously, Rob seems to really like giving them to me, so…”
“Ugh!” I shoved her for giving me that mental image, I didn’t care how fucking sick she was. “That is way too much information!” I told her, half-laughing, half-grimacing. I was really glad Henry was never into that stuff. “I get it, I get it, it’s a ‘pearl necklace’, very funny!”
As we walked through the revolving doors of Frost HQ, Sarah was grimacing, herself. “Wow, I know I’m sick when I can’t even make a dirty joke without feeling a bit—” She stopped dead in her tracks suddenly, staring forward. “Whoa.”
I panicked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, and nodded up at the wall. “Look.” I followed her line of sight.
A five metre high print of the beautiful sunset painting I’d done for the Burov pitch had been hung facing the revolving doors in the atrium.
No one had mentioned putting it on display, not ever, and seeing it here was the first I’d heard about a decision to showcase it. No one had asked me; no one felt they needed to ask me, apparently. They hadn’t even extended me that courtesy. It was like a big fucking punch in the face reminding me where I was and what had happened to me here.
“That’s new, I swear to god,” Sarah told me. “It wasn’t here on Friday.”
I had no trouble believing her; this level of fuckery had Sean Frost written all over it. “Just in case I forgot who was going to be at my meeting with me,” I said, exhaling. There was a plaque underneath it, so I took a few steps forward to have a look. “’Marketing, Frost International’,” I read aloud. “Of course, no credit to the actual artist.”
Sarah was shaking her head. “Can they do that, though? Like, legally? You painted that, after all.”
I pressed my lips together for a second. “Yes,” I answered. “It’s in all our contracts that our work here is property of Frost International, which presumably means they can do whatever they want with it.”
“Yeah, but I always assumed that clause was just to protect Frost against us leaving and stealing their contacts and clients,” she said. “I didn’t think it was for this sort of ‘I’ll do whatever I want with your art’ thing.”
“It’s not. But apparently they can do it anyway.” I gestured at it.
Sarah breathed out. “Wow,” she said. “Wow. Well, your meeting is going to be interesting.” She checked her watch as it slipped fashionably down her wrist. “Yikes, I’m going to be late.” She gave my arm a squeeze. “Bye, Handsome! I’ll see you at lunch. Knock ‘em dead, okay?”
“In my dreams,” I said dryly, and then waved to her as she went through the security turnstiles. When she was gone, I looked back up at Sean Frost’s greeting to me, expecting to despise it.
I’d actually never seen my work blown up to full size like this before. It had been printed at full quality with a gloss finish and set in an aluminium frame, too: that would have cost thousands. And if I was 100% honest with myself, it… well, it looked really great. I accidentally found myself liking it despite who’d done it and why. For a couple of seconds I was really conflicted about that, because on one hand Sean had erected this as an enormous ‘fuck you’, but on the other, aesthetically, it looked fantastic and was a great colour feature in the greyscale atrium. It drew the eyes, everyone was glancing up at it as they walked in, and it looked like it had been purpose-made for the wall, just like the beach painting I’d done in that café in Broome.
While I was considering it, it occurred to me that they were two similar pieces, both apparently purpose-designed for their location. The beach one was rough, with warm colours and choppy brushes, this one was smoother, cooler and looked like a million dollars inside this corporate atrium.
The marketer inside me said: Min, you could find commissioners for this sort of stuff. I raised my eyebrows, thinking that over. I probably could, couldn’t I? Someone had to make all that corporate art. Smiling, and took out my phone. “Thanks for the idea, Sean,” I said smugly, and snapped a few photos of the work from different angles to include in my portfolio.
I checked the time before I slipped my phone back into my pocket: it was ages before my meeting. It had seemed polite to accompany Sarah to work because she wasn’t feeling great, which unfortunately meant I was here at Frost HQ at 8am when I wasn’t due here until 9:45. None of the shops around the CBD were open yet, either, unless you counted hotel lobbies, chemists and cafés.
Well, I needed to pick up my mail from back at the hotel, didn’t I? I could collect it and then dump it in my car prior to the meeting. It gave me something to do at least, so I headed back into the cold to retrace that familiar route.
Back at the hotel, the reception clerk didn’t recognise me and called me ‘sir’ a few times; she’d obviously been absent in the last week I’d lived there. When she found out who I was, she made me stand there at the reception desk while she loudly apologised for what felt like five minutes over what apparently amounted to horrible transgressions against me for thinking I was a man. I don’t think I’d ever left that lobby in such a hurry or with as many people staring at me.
I didn’t have as much mail as I thought I’d have, so while I stepped into the lift and headed down to the hotel basement to put it in my car, I started opening it.
There were a couple of hotel receipts, a quarterly statement of the enormous payments on my Lexus—I’d need to address that at some point, because I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to cough up $500 per fortnight for much longer—a couple more advertisements for lawyers, and that was it, nothing else. There was no information about the meeting that was happening today, which was the whole reason I’d decided to collect my mail in the first place.
On the way over to my car, I checked through the envelopes again in case I’d missed the letter from Frost the first time. I hadn’t; it just wasn’t there. Weird.
I tossed the opened envelopes on the front seat and was on my way out of the car park when I noticed a familiar shade of bottle green on a car parked off to the side.
I glanced towards it automatically; that was the exact shade of Henry’s car. On second glance, it kind of looked like Henry’s car, too. It was hard to see in the dim lighting and from all the way over here, though.
No, Min, the responsible, mature part of my brain told me. Turn around and walk out of the car park. Whether or not it’s Henry’s car is none of your business anymore.
I made an executive decision to completely ignore that part of my brain and go over to investigate, and I’d only made it halfway over there before I noticed the brand of air freshener that he liked hanging from the rear-view mirror.
This was Henry’s car, and it was parked underneath the hotel in the long term area.
What’s it doing here on a Monday morning? I wondered as I went over to it, peeking in the window and then being disgusted with myself for being so nosy. That was something Bree would do. I walked a few metres away and leant against a concrete pylon, frowning at the car.
His car being here and in the long term area didn’t necessarily mean he was living here; he used to park down here all the time when he was staying with me. That’s how I learnt about the ‘free’ parking for guests that I was oh-so frugally making use of today myself.
Maybe he’d just leant his park under Frost HQ to a contractor or a client this morning. It was the type of thing Henry would do.
Or… maybe he was staying here? There were heaps of reasons he might not have been at home: maybe he was finally getting his kitchen done—something he’d been planning for ages—or he was getting some sort of other renovation, or maybe there was just some other reason why he couldn’t be at home.
Like the phone ringing nonstop for days, for example.
Fuck. I bent double at the thought of that being it, swearing some more. It was also something else Henry would do: it would mean he didn’t need to be bothered by the phone and he had the perfect excuse for not answering. It had ‘Henry’ written all over it.
I should apologise to him, I thought, taking my own phone out. I should apologise for the fact he feels like he can’t even go home because of my mother. I’d started to thumb out a text to him when I realised texting him was ridiculous. I couldn’t tell him I’d noticed his car down here and walked over to investigate, because that came across as Bree-level stalkery. Henry would forgive me because he was Henry, but I shouldn’t take advantage of how easy-going he was to do reprehensible things. Intellectually, I knew that. But, ugh, my chest tightened at the thought that I was still wrecking his life and I couldn’t even apologise for it.
Since I had my phone out, I changed the recipient. “I’m turning into you,” I told Bree, and then explained what I’d done and sent the message.
School hadn’t started yet, so she replied straight away. “haha you are!!! im contagious!!!” she followed it quickly with, “um so I was thinking i should probably go home tonight bc its been a few days but i have the tablet w me………….”
I laughed once and rolled my eyes. “So you want me to pick it up, right?”
“if i say yes will you totally kill me…………………..? also i have this group thing to do straight after school in the library so maybe at like 530 or 6? its ok if you cant ill just stay over again”
I groaned. Well, uni didn’t start until the end of July, so it wasn’t like I had anything else to do this afternoon, was it? “It’s fine, I’ll be there at 6.” Her reply was a string of about fifty love hearts and the same number of exclamation marks. It was difficult not to smile at her enthusiasm.
My smile faded as I put my phone away and was once again faced with Henry’s car. I spent a minute or two convincing myself there was definitely nothing I could do about any of it, and then I gave the car one last troubled glance and left.
I wasted an hour or so drinking a massive Red Bull underneath a gas flame heater at a café, counting down the minutes until 9:30 when I headed back up to Frost HQ. I arrived with a few minutes to spare before the conciliator was due to collect me. I wasn’t sure how long the meeting was supposed to take, but just in case it dragged on and on, I decided to pre-emptively go to the toilet so I wouldn’t be haunted by that Red Bull in the middle of it. I spoke with security and got permission to use the facilities behind the lifts.
Then, I was struck with a new dilemma. I very nearly automatically walked right into the women’s because I’d been there so many times, and it was only seeing my reflection in the stainless steel door that made me keep walking past it. I looked like a guy, I had the packer in, I should be using the men’s. It was on the other end of the short corridor, and I was about halfway to it when a group of macho white guys—probably clients—hustled into it, laughing to each other about the footy.
I stopped in the centre of the corridor. Did I really want to go in there with them? Everyone kept telling me I completely passed as a guy and very few strangers ever addressed me otherwise, but I was acutely aware at that second that ‘man’ was an oversimplification. It wasn’t right, and I felt like if I went into toilets with a bunch of men like that, somehow they’d just know. I wasn’t sure what the protocol for men’s toilets was, either, but I had a feeling a guy using a stall for a short period of time would probably be considered weird, and what if one of them put two and two together, looked hard at me, picked me as female, and confronted me over it?
Yeah, no. I turned and took a few steps back towards the women’s, and then, considering the alternative, stopped again. I couldn’t go into women’s toilets looking like this, there might be girls in there.
There were various pictures hung along the corridor, and I found myself staring at my reflection in the glass of one of them. Well, what the hell was I going to do? Just never use public toilets again? Neither of those toilets was right, both of them might cause problems for me, and I had a weird, philosophical moment where I decided the whole idea of splitting the toilets into men’s and women’s was ridiculous. Surely the world would save space and resources just having one set of toilets for everyone? Still, there wasn’t anything I could do about it right now, so I had to decide which was ‘righter’: men’s or women’s. In looking between my two imperfect options, my eyes fell on the unisex disabled toilet off to one side.
Bingo, I thought, and went into that.
I was done in time to be collected by the conciliator, too, so I went back out to wait for them, whoever they were.
I’d done a few nervous laps of the atrium before I checked my phone again: 9:52am. It was still 8 minutes to the meeting; perhaps the conciliator had got caught up doing something and was a few minutes late.
They hadn’t picked me up at 9:57am or 10:01am, either, though. That was more concerning. It was really important I made it into that meeting so that I could make sure the investigation ran its full course and Sarah had as long as possible without Jason as a manager—that was why I was here, after all—so I made a pact with myself to wait until 10:10am and then call HR. I hoped they weren’t all upstairs waiting for me.
When, at 10:10am the atrium was empty except for the people at the café, I took a deep breath and called the HR switch.
“Human Resources, Frost Group,” a cheerful voice answered.
“Hi, this is Min Lee, I was expecting a conciliator to come down and collect me from reception at 9:45am?”
She made a noise. “Huh, I didn’t think we had any conciliations running at the moment,” she said, “I’ll have a look.” I could hear the scroll wheel on her mouse. “Nope, no conciliations. Are you sure that’s what you were expecting?”
“It might not be on the main system,” I said, and then winced at having to say it, “I used to be in a relationship with Henry Lee. You might be able to find the appointment in Sean Frost’s calendar?”
“Oh. Well, I don’t have access to Mr. Frost’s calendar,” she told me, “but I haven’t seen him this morning, I don’t think he’s in. Henry has access, but it’s probably not appropriate to get him involved and he’s in with the unions all day anyway. What’s it regarding?”
“It’s about the complaint I made. I was supposed to have a meeting that started ten minutes ago.”
“Okay, let me have a look,” she said, and then spent what felt like a hundred years reading the screen while I was supposed to be upstairs in that meeting. I really hoped they wouldn’t cancel it because I wasn’t there. I did not want Jason back as Sarah’s manager.
“Okay,” the clerk said eventually. “Okay, that makes sense. Our assistant manager James Chen is running the complaint because of its sensitivity, there’s nothing on the main database. I’ll transfer you through to him.” I made an affirmative noise and she put me on hold.
“Min,” a man greeted me; James, presumably. I’d spoken to him a few times over the years, but not enough times to recognise his voice. “It’s pleasure to speak to you again! I gather you’re calling about the complaint delaying your entitlements?”
I blinked. “Actually, no,” I said, trying not to sound as rushed as I was. “No one came down to collect me for the meeting that’s happening right now. The ‘directions interview’, I think it’s called? I’m really late for it.”
“Oh,” he said, sounding surprised. “A ‘directions interview’? To be honest, I’m not even sure what that is. It’s not an HR issue, are you sure you called the right department?”
“Yes, very sure. A conciliator was supposed to come down and pick me up at 9:45am, and Sean Frost is going to be at it, too.”
There was a pause. “Uh,” James said very politely. “That sounds… well, I’m not sure where to start. First of all, if there’s a conciliator, it’s a conciliation, not whatever you called it. Conciliations only happen at the very end of a complaint where the employee doesn’t agree with our offer to settle the matter, and it’s very, very rare. We do maybe two a year. The investigation on your complaint only commenced last month, which is why there’s a hold on your entitlements. We’re definitely not at conciliation stage yet.”
“Oh.” All of that sounded reasonable.
“Additionally,” he said, “very occasionally Sean will sit in on meetings in our department, but it’s usually only for matters that have company-wide implications. Not individual conciliations, he’s never done that, he just doesn’t have the time.”
I took a moment to process that, and when I had, it didn’t make sense. “Okay, I’m really confused, I’ve been invited to attend a meeting about the complaint, but no one seems to know about it.”
“Min, everything regarding your complaint is handled by me, and I haven’t booked a meeting for you. I think you must be mistaken about which department you need to speak to. I can put you through to Omar in Marketing, if you like? He’s not involved with the complaint, though.”
“No…” I said, straining to try and remember what Henry had said. I considered looking at the letter on my phone while I was speaking to James, but I was worried I might accidentally hang up on him and look stupid. “No, it’s definitely an HR issue, I’m sure of it.”
“I’m sorry, Min, but I don’t know anything about it. It wasn’t booked by HR. Apologies for the mix-up.”
Nothing made sense about this mysterious disappearing meeting. “But I received a letter about it…” I said, before I realised I had never actually received that letter, only a soft copy of it from Henry.
He paused again, and it was a bit too long for my liking. “Min, who sent you that letter?” there was gravity in his voice. I think he might have guessed the answer.
I inhaled sharply. Whoops, I thought. I didn’t want to get Henry into trouble. “I don’t know,” I answered hurriedly. “I don’t have it on me. Sorry if I seem… out of it. I’m just confused.”
“That makes two of us,” James said honestly. “Is there anything else I can do for you, seeing as I’m unable to help you with that meeting?”
“No, that’s fine,” I said, and then thanked him, hung up, and stood in the middle of the empty atrium like an idiot.
Just… what? Why would Henry be calling me in the middle of the night to tell me about meetings that didn’t exist? He’d certainly believed it existed—that much was clear—so it couldn’t have been his fault. I tabbed through to my email and I opened the letter he’d sent me on Friday night so I could read through it more carefully than I had at midnight. It was very specific about the meeting being today, at this time and here. I scrolled down to check who it was signed by and the name made me even more confused. Printed down the bottom of the page was, ‘Signed on behalf of James Chen, Assistant HR Manager’.
But I was just speaking to him, I thought. Literally, he told me he doesn’t know about it, and his staff clearly aren’t getting involved in my complaint, and Henry would be the only other person who would have authority to sign things on behalf of James, unless James is lying and—
My eyes fell on the painting that had been hung in the atrium, and suddenly a piece of the puzzle fell into place: Sean Frost. Henry wasn’t allowed to access my file: that’s why I’d complained to Sean about Jason in the first place. Sean was the next manager above James who had access to my personnel records, and Sean was the next manager above Henry who’d have the authority and the signature files to sign on behalf of James.
My hackles rose. The bastard, I thought, the fucking bastard. Sean must have created this mess: a fake letter for a fake meeting. After all, he’d made Henry believe he was attending, hadn’t he? Somehow Henry had gotten his hands on that letter and, even though he wasn’t supposed to be involved with my file, he’d forwarded it to me and called me about it. I didn’t feel good about this, because I was standing here, wasn’t I? I’d shown up for the fake meeting. I did not feel good about this at all. I needed to get out of this evil fucking building asap.
I went all the way up George Street to wait for lunchtime, and I was still trying to piece it all together when Sarah and Gemma came out to eat with me. They listened as I explained what had happened, and then they looked at each other, mystified.
“Why do you think he would do something like that, though?” Gemma wondered aloud.
“Because he’s an asshole,” I said, quoting Henry. I could hardly eat, I was still so wound up. “And Henry’s going to feel fucking awful when he realises what’s happened. I finally have a legitimate reason to text him and I don’t even want to break it to him.”
“Yeah, but the stuff Sean did to you over the pitch was for something, so what’s this for?” she asked between bites of her focaccia. “Do you think he did it just to mess with you, or…?”
I shrugged. “Maybe he’s still angry with me about the fact I managed to get that pitch through.”
“Maybe it’s not even about you,” Sarah suggested, still looking as uncharacteristically pale as she had this morning. “Because it started with Henry, don’t forget.”
I felt uneasy about that idea. “I hope not, because I don’t really care about Sean messing with me,” I said, “but Henry’s dealing with heavy stuff at the moment and he’s—”
“—a grown adult,” Sarah reminded me, stabbing critically at her salad. “He’s a great guy, I get it, I like him a lot. But you broke up with him, Min. You need to let go. This is only your problem to the extent that Sean is fucking with you, too.”
It was difficult to just ‘let go’ when my own mother was driving Henry out of his home, though, wasn’t it? I opted not to tell them about that.
Sarah interrupted my teeth-grinding by making a frustrated noise and pushing away her salad. “I swear to god,” she announced, “I am actually dying. I can’t even eat a garden salad, I feel like I’m going to vomit all over everyone.”
“Charming,” Gemma said, but she was smiling. “Maybe it was something you ate?”
I had a thought. “I hope it wasn’t Bree’s cooking.”
Sarah put her head in her hands. “You ate that, too,” she pointed out. “No, I swear, I am dying. My body is like, ‘Sarah, you’ve had too much alcohol and too many drugs and now it’s time to die’. Ugh.”
Gemma reached over and rubbed her back. “You just need a holiday,” she said optimistically. “Come on, didn’t you want to go to Thailand and Cambodia and all that? You should take all that leave you have saved. We can go together, those places are supposed to be amazing. It’ll be so much fun!”
“Hah,” Sarah said loudly from her forearms, “annual leave, that’s for people who want to be on boring investment projects for the rest of their marketing careers. Nah, I’ll save my holidays for a big payout when I quit in a couple of years. You know, if I don’t die of everything first.”
“Oh…” Gemma looked a bit deflated. “Well, the offer stands,” she said, and kept rubbing Sarah’s back.
Sarah didn’t lift her head straight away, even though there was a pronounced silence while Gemma and I glanced nervously at each other. She didn’t usually complain, and she certainly wasn’t a fan of people fussing over her, and that made me worry about how bad she actually felt. “Seriously, Sarah, be careful,” I warned her. “I made myself pretty sick trying to be the model employee at Frost.”
Sarah looked up from her arms. “Yeah, but you’re the World’s Most Anxious Person,” she pointed out. “You don’t count.” She groaned and put her head back in her hands. “I’m getting old, I need to stop drinking so much.”
“Uh huh,” said Gemma, like she’d heard that before. “That’s definitely going to happen.”
Since Sarah wasn’t going to eat her food, we paid for everything and then wandered slowly back downhill towards Frost HQ. Sarah was still complaining and hanging off Gemma. “Save me from my project,” Sarah whinged, shaking her. “Save me! I’m going to vomit all over my spreadsheets.”
I was watching her closely. “We can’t help you with your spreadsheets,” I told her, and then, figuring I’d be driving past anyway, added, “But I’m meeting Bree at Cloverfield at about 6, so I could pick you up at around 6:30, 7ish if you want a ride home.”
“Oh my god, this is why I keep you around,” she told me with exaggerated appreciation, and defected from Gemma for a few seconds to hug me around the middle. It was something that Bree did often, and weird to have Sarah doing it. I pretended to ruffle Sarah’s hair the way I did Bree’s curls, and she hissed and batted my hands away.
“In your dreams, Toyboy,” she said, giving me a weak grin, and then draping herself all over Gemma again. “But I will totally take you up on that lift if you promise to keep your hands to yourself.”
I waved goodbye to them at the front entrance of Frost HQ, and watched them disappear through the turnstiles and up into the lifts. This place, I thought, shaking my head and looking at my uncredited painting front and centre in the atrium.