Statistically speaking, the average Australian woman graduates from high school, has sex with eight different people—Aussies are the second most promiscuous people on the planet, apparently—and then she settles down and marries her boyfriend at 28.3 years old. She’ll have her first kid to him at 29, her second at 32, and then pack it all in and be divorced by 40. The good news is that she’ll have a further 5.3 sexual partners after her divorce, and she has a 1:3 chance of getting married to one of them and living happily ever after by her 50s. At this point she’ll own her own house—with a 17% chance of owning an investment property, too—a car worth $13,500, and rate her overall happiness as a 7.7 out of 10.
So, according to the maths, you’d have thought that by 28.9, I would have been married, pregnant and on a smooth trajectory towards living happily ever after.
Well, that wasn’t me.
This was me: hungover, sharing my rented one-bedroom flat with my grumpy old marmalade cat, and rating my overall happiness at maybe a 4.
I was a statistical outlier, that dot way out there by itself on the edge of the chart: a redhead (3% prevalence) with a Mathematical Science degree (1% prevalence), working in the mining industry (3% prevalence), and even if I was sort of lax with my definition of what actually constituted sleeping with someone, I had not slept with eight people. I hadn’t even been on dates with eight separate people. I was about as far away from ‘most people’ as it was statistically possible to be.
Most regular people also didn’t screw up their whole day before their alarm even went off in the morning, either. As an outlier, though, I figured I was totally capable of bucking that trend.
Which is why I found myself groaning and shielding my sore eyes from the sunlight streaming through my window at 6:30am. Gosh, my head was pounding, I needed to stop drinking on work nights, especially if it was getting this light in the morning now. Though, it… did strike me as odd that the sun was out this early in October, and I—
…Oh, no… it was only 6:30am, wasn’t it…?
I sat bolt upright with one hand on my aching head and the other feeling blindly around for where I’d put my phone last night. Even the light of my screen hurt my eyes and I had to squint really hard to—it was 7:12 already? No! I was going to miss meeting Sarah!
I sprung out of bed in a panic—knocking my ankle on the bedframe and swearing the whole block of flats down—showered in two minutes flat and then ran around in my bra and undies looking for where I’d put my dress suit yesterday. There weren’t many places for it to hide in my tiny one-bedroomer, and I found it laid out on the kitchen bench and, consequently, I also discovered why my grumpy old cat wasn’t sleeping on top of me when I woke up this morning.
…because he was sleeping on my navy dress suit. All over it, with all of his long orange fur.
“Crumpet!” I hissed at him, shooing him off my blazer and holding it up to inspect the damage. It was disastrous. The amount of fur on it defied the amount that could possibly be attached to a single cat, let alone moulted by one overnight. “Oh, no!”
It looked terrible, but it wasn’t like I had a choice about whether or not to wear it—I didn’t have time to look for anything else if I wanted to meet Sarah at the train station! I threw it on, paused to sigh at my reflection, and then ran out the door.
I suppose I could have rushed straight to the station just to be sure I didn’t miss her, but I’d been looking forward to surprising her with a drink from her favourite café—the one we always used to go to.
The barista recognised me the second I pushed the door open. “Gemma!” he said, a big smile on his weathered old face as he leant on his elbows on the counter. “Long time no see! Where have you been?” He pretended to glare at me. “Have you and Sarah been cheating on me with another café? Is it that guy around the corner? I will take him out.”
I had to laugh at that; I forgot how much I liked him. “No,” I promised, “Sare got pregnant, and her boyfriend worries about her catching the train in the cold so he mostly drives her to work now.”
The barista made an ‘ah’ expression. “Well, congratulate her for me!” Then, thinking for a moment, he took a huge, almost McDonald’s-level enormous cup off the top of the coffee machine. “We have jumbo cup now. If she’s drinking for two, maybe she should have that instead?”
It was so comically large that I just had to get Sarah’s hot chocolate in it, and then with some difficulty I ferried our drinks to the station, and with even more difficulty, I somehow managed to awkwardly juggle them as I tapped on and went through the turnstiles in time for the 7:31. There was even a bench free—good thing, because the jumbo hot chocolate practically needed a seat of its own.
I sat down beside it, chuckling to myself about the weird looks it was getting. Gosh, Sarah was going to just love that thing; I couldn’t wait to see her face when I surprised her with it! I angled myself towards the gates, trying to spot Sarah’s sleek dark brown hair or hear the clip-clip of her signature Jimmy Choos on the platform. There were a lot of stylish women in suits standing around me, but none of them were her. By the time the 7:31 pulled up and everyone piled into it, I hadn’t seen her.
Someone’s late, I thought smugly as I watched the train disappear down the tracks, thinking I could finally tease her about being late for once. I checked my phone to see if she’d messaged me—she hadn’t—and finished my latte. Never mind, we’d still make it to work on time if we got the 7:46.
By the time that train arrived, though, Sarah still hadn’t.
That was the last train we could catch to work and arrive on time; the 8:01 would make us about 15 minutes late. It was really unlike Sarah to be late to work. I sat there, biting my lip and staring down at the silent phone in my hands. She always messaged me if she was going to be late.
She wasn’t here, she hadn’t messaged me, and there were way less people arriving at the station now.
I couldn’t ignore the knot in my stomach.
She wasn’t coming after all, was she? I’d bought this big hilarious jumbo cup of hot chocolate for nothing.
I exhaled, sinking down into the bench and feeling suddenly really stupid for spending $8.00 on a novelty drink when Sarah only told me she might catch the train this morning. It was just that I used to enjoy catching it with her so much, it didn’t even occur to me that ‘might’ didn’t mean ‘would’. I thought she’d be just as excited as I was to be commuting together again…
I shouldn’t have rushed, I thought as I looked down at my cat hair-covered blazer and my stockingless pale legs. I hadn’t even done my makeup. That wouldn’t matter for most women—especially women like Sarah who looked amazing with or without it—but because I was a redhead, everything on my face was practically blond until I de-blonded it. The people on the opposite platform were probably wondering why I had no eyebrows.
I stood as the 8:01 was announced, craning my neck hopefully towards the turnstiles one last time. When I didn’t see her, I dropped the jumbo cup I’d bought especially for her in the bin beside me with a clang, and squished onto the train all by myself.
On the train, no one would even stand near me. Intellectually I knew that was because they had dark suits and I was basically a human-shaped orange cat, but it felt symbolic, somehow. Sarah would have found it hilarious. She can laugh at me about it over lunch, I promised myself—she was so busy these days that our standing 20-minute lunch dates were basically the only time I saw her—or at least I can tell her over lunch if I didn’t get fired for being so late again…
I leant my forehead against the closed door, and gently banged it there a couple of times. Why did I keep doing this to myself? Sighing, I stared out the window as the train departed.
I’d always liked the train ride into central Sydney from the North Shore. It went across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and you could watch the gleaming skyscrapers of the CBD approaching across the harbour. It was quite a change from what I used to see on my way into the city: I’d lived Westside my entire childhood and the view from those trains was basically just graffiti tags and dirty factory walls. I’d probably still be living out west, except Sarah bought a house on the North Shore about five years ago and I struck jackpot by managing to rent a flat close by so we could keep commuting together. We did, for years.
It was still really strange catching this train into the city without her.
From Wynyard Station to Frost International HQ was downhill, but that meant nothing because I wasn’t really a runner. In fact, Mathletics was about the closest I ever got to competitive sport. Despite that, though, I made it through the front doors before 8:45, minus my makeup, my stockings and my dignity.
I didn’t really want to face my co-workers without any eyebrows, but I also didn’t want to lose my job by being even more late than I already was, so I passed by a chemist without going in and took the service lift direct to Level 22—I know, we weren’t supposed to do that, but I watched security enter the code once—and made a mad dash for my desk before my supervisor noticed I was missing from—
—he was at my desk, sitting in my chair.
Oh, no… I stopped abruptly the moment I saw him, and he swivelled slowly around to face me. “Good afternoon, Gemma,” he said neutrally, his heavy black eyebrows low over his eyes.
He was like the patient, Indian version of my dad, and he had the same you’ve disappointed me frown. “I know, I’m so sorry, Anil! I’ll get started!”
He was still staring at me. “Finance has been bothering me about why you’re not answering your phone for the past 10 minutes, I had to come out of the big meeting to see why that was.”
That wasn’t enough, apparently. “Is there something you want to tell me, Gemma?” He leant forward and said more gently, “You’ve been punctual for seven years and now suddenly you’re late all the time, and look at you,” he gestured to my cat hair, and also probably to my lack of stockings, eyebrows, and generally dishevelled appearance. “What’s changed, Gemma? Are you having personal problems?”
Was I ever. Thinking about them, I could feel my face going red.
He noticed, and spent a couple of moments staring at me. I think I’d basically imagined every possible scenario of ‘You’re fired!’ before he made an agreeable noise and stood up. “Get counselling on Frost’s cheque book if you need it, I’ll give it the sign off. But don’t forget you start at 8:30.” I was halfway through releasing the breath I’d been holding when he added as he walked away, “And you can take the time you missed out of your lunch break.”
…my lunch break?
Groaning, I flopped into my chair. So much for lunch with Sarah… And so much for my happiness level being maybe a four. It was definitely at least minus four right now. Or less, maybe minus a thousand.
Pushing aside the feeling that Anil had let me off way too easily for being repeatedly late, I opened my queue.
I was the problem child of the back office; not only because I forgot everything and never read my emails, but also because I was the only person at Frost with a job like mine and no one really knew where to put me. It wasn’t because I had a really cool, really unique job, either. Not at all. While my cohorts from the graduating class of Mathematical Science were all over the world doing super glamorous things like disaster climatology, or forensic analytics, or even cryptography for government intelligence agencies, what was I doing?
I was fixing broken spreadsheets. Forever.
You can’t even imagine the ways in which the allegedly highly intelligent people in a Fortune 500 mining company like Frost International could mess up a single formula so that all the linked spreadsheets started turning out really obscure, really weird errors, but it was crazy. Locking them didn’t help, either, because then they got upset that they couldn’t make oh my god important changes to things like the cell colour. I always tried to consult on this stuff when I constructed the damn things, but no, apparently being able to change the font was more important to this company than a spreadsheet that worked and continued to work without my intervention.
With a heavy sigh, I got out a notepad and began to write some of the formulas longhand so I could see where the issue was. Gosh, this was so boring.
Honestly, this job had seemed pretty cool when I was 21 and freshly out of uni—and it was so awesome that my friends and I could join a huge graduate program and all get really well-paid jobs together—but seven years later the last of them had left except for me and Sarah, and Sarah was getting leadership roles now. Meanwhile, I was getting nagging emails asking me for an ETA on Finance’s broken ledgers.
Mid-morning, I’d gotten up to get myself a coffee and was surprised to find that our really swish pod coffee machine didn’t have the usual line of people waiting to use it. In fact, there was no one in the kitchen. It was like the twilight zone; I didn’t have to fight all the other women on Level 22 for the skinny milk. On my way back to my desk I suddenly realised why that was: the entire department was empty.
I stopped in the middle of the floor and surveyed the vacant workstations around me. Come to think of it, no one had said hello to me when I came in this morning, had they…?
I went back to my desk, feeling uneasy. Was there something I was supposed to be at…? I checked my calendar in Outlook to find out, but it was empty. That didn’t mean much, though, because I was pretty hopeless at accepting invitations. Then again, even though I sat in the Risk department, I wasn’t really part of it and they very occasionally had staff meetings without me. I hoped that was it.
By midday when they still weren’t back, though, I decided I probably needed to make sure I wasn’t supposed to be somewhere. Maybe we had training today or something? I dialled Anil’s number.
He didn’t answer. I squinted, trying to remember my conversation with him. Actually, hadn’t he mentioned coming out of some meeting…? I leant back in my chair and looked towards his office; the door was closed and the lights were out.
My heart lifted. Maybe I could steal a few minutes with Sarah for lunch after all…? I spent a minute or two frantically cleaning my blazer with the clothes brush, grabbed my purse and snuck over to the lift, heading to Level 36.
The first thing I noticed up there was that half of Marketing was missing, too, which was weird. The other half was full of terrifying alpha male extroverts who were eating lunch and chatting, and one of them whistled to get my attention, waved, and called across the floor, “Look who it is! Hey, Gemma!”
Oh, no. I went bright red. I probably should have said hello back and had some level of polite conversation with them like any normal person would, but instead, I went and hid in the women’s toilets.
Sarah hadn’t been at her desk anyway, so I waited in the toilets for a few minutes, and then had to leave so it wouldn’t look like I was doing anything shady in there by myself.
I hung around near the lifts for a while in case she came back from wherever she was—there was a much-frequented Red Bull vending machine there, so when people passed me I just pretended to be very engrossed in making a selection—but there were a lot of men up here and no Sarah.
Every time the lift opened I took a breath, and every time, she wasn’t in it. When I’d been waiting for around 20 minutes, I conceded defeat. People were beginning to trickle out of whatever meeting they’d been in, and Anil might be back by now. I didn’t want my absence to look like more than a toilet break. I told myself ‘just one more minute’ a couple of times, and then when those one minutes were up, I got into the lift myself, feeling like a deflated balloon.
It just wasn’t going to happen today for me, was it?
I must have looked pretty sad, because a girl I kind of recognised in the lift plucked up the courage to say consolingly to me, “Don’t worry, I’m sure it will all work out.”
That seemed like a really nice thing to say—strange and super left-field, but nice—so I thanked her as I got out at 22. It did mean that I needed to look less miserable, though, if even random people I hardly knew could tell I was.
On my way back to my desk, I was just taking a deep breath and trying not to look like the sky was falling in when, through the partitions, I could see a pair of long legs crossed at the ankles on my desk. They were wearing a pair of familiar Jimmy Choos.
Oh! I’d recognise those legs anywhere!
I didn’t need to fake a smile anymore, that was for sure. As I got closer to my desk, I spotted that long dark hair falling perfectly over the shoulders of a neat black suit, a pair of slender wrists with stylish selection of bangles on them laced behind her head, and as I said, “Sare!” with transparent enthusiasm, she looked over her shoulder and gave me this bright open smile. It was like staggering up to an oasis in the desert.
“There you are!” she said, lifting her ankles off my desk, standing up and leaning in for a hug without even caring about the residual cat fur on me. She smelt like Sarah, and the French perfume I’d bought her for Christmas. “I thought you were at the union meeting. I was about to send someone in undercover to get you.”
Union meeting? “Oh, that’s where everyone is…” I said as I stepped back from her. Gosh, I needed to get this stupid smile off my face this very second. “I probably couldn’t have gone to it anyway.”
She nodded once and with purpose. “Damn straight you couldn’t. We have a standing lunch date, and I’m much more important than enterprise agreements or whatever they’re talking about.” She flashed me a smile as she grabbed her handbag. “Now where do you want to go? Just to the food court, maybe? I’m starving and Junior here says whatever we have, it needs to be slathered in grease.” She patted her round stomach.
‘Slathered in grease’ sounded pretty good to me—I hadn’t eaten anything yet today—but I had a feeling the union meeting had already finished. I stopped her. “Anil saw me come in late again this morning…”
She raised her perfect eyebrows, and then laughed. “Okay, Gem, I have a question, how does a mathematician extraordinaire keep coming in late like normal people? Aren’t there numbers on a clock?”
I thought about those two missed trains and the hot chocolate, and pretended to laugh with her.
She hooked an arm affectionately around my shoulder. “I love you, Gem,” she said, definitely not understanding the effect those words had on me, “but you’re completely hopeless.”
She was right, I totally was. Just not for the reasons she thought.
“So, anyway, I guess you’re stuck at your desk?” I nodded. She paused for a moment, deep in thought, and then leant gracefully back, picked up my phone and dialled four numbers. “Hey, it’s Sarah,” she said authoritatively when someone answered. “I know this is outside your job description, but can you go downstairs, grab two plates of nachos and bring them to Level 22? Thanks, I owe you one!” When she hung up, she explained sheepishly, “I have interns now, and they’re all desperate to get on my good side.”
I didn’t blame them. “Thanks. I haven’t eaten yet,” I confessed, sinking into my chair as she sat herself up on my desk.
“Huh,” she said thoughtfully, considering that and giving me the once-over. “…and you’re not wearing stockings despite the fact you hate how pale your legs are, and you’re not wearing makeup.” She was waiting for an explanation.
It was on the tip of my tongue why I’d rushed to the station this morning, and I ached to say it. I couldn’t, though.
At my silence, she laughed gently and warmly squeezed my shoulder. “How is someone as amazing as you so completely hopeless? Maybe I should start giving you wake up calls again.”
I perked up. Waking up to her? “That might help,” I said as mildly as I could.
“Then it’s decided,” she announced and then tilted her head at me. “Anyway, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you without makeup. Honestly? I kind of like the au naturel look on you.”
“I don’t,” I said flatly. “I prefer having eyebrows and eyelashes, but I left my pencil at home with my stockings.”
She immediately looked smug. “You are going to love me, then, because look what’s in my handbag.” She reached into it and spent a second feeling around in the bottom before her hand emerged with a dual eye pencil/mascara wand. Rather than hand it to me, she gestured at my face. “Close your eyes.”
Was she offering to—? “You’re going to do it for me?”
“You bet. I’m the pro. Come on, close those baby blues.” I couldn’t close them fast enough.
Her fingertips touched my cheeks, steadying her hand on them. She did my eyebrows first—so gently she gave me goose bumps. Thank goodness I was wearing long sleeves. It wasn’t until I could feel her lean away from me to dip the mascara wand that I realised I’d been holding my breath, and when she leant back in, her thumb was resting on by bottom lip. Gosh, my skin was tingling underneath it. It felt like the sort of touch someone would give you just before they kissed you—running their thumb over your lower lip—in this moment we were sharing, I could imagine her leaning in and touching those perfect, soft, beautiful lips of hers against—
“What is this, a salon?” That was Anil’s voice. I jumped, flinging my eyes open and in my panic, the wand poked me directly in the eye. Yelping, I clutched it as he continued, “What are you doing down here?” That must have been to Sarah.
There were tears pouring out of my poked eye, and I could feel I was probably getting mascara everywhere. Confirming that, Sarah was looking at me and biting down on a giggle. She spoke to Anil first. “I’m just doing her makeup so she doesn’t have to leave her desk for even a minute,” she told him like it was no big deal. I thought it was super insubordinate before I remembered that Sarah was a supervisor now too, or a ‘Lead’ or whatever the Marketing version of that was called. “I ordered her lunch up here, as well. I’ll be done in a sec and she can get right back to work, I promise.”
Then, like nothing was wrong at all, she pointed at me. “Close your eyes,” she directed. Caught between two supervisors, I opted to do what she said. I could feel my poor supervisor staring at us while she cleaned my eyes up with a tissue and expertly did my mascara again. It ruined the moment for me.
“There,” she said eventually, leaning back to admire her work, and then putting the pencil/wand back in her handbag as she stood up. “I should probably head on back up anyway. Can you tell Andy to bring my nachos up to me when you see him?” she asked me, and after I nodded, she made a guilty face at Anil. “Sorry, you can have your employee back now.”
“Thanks,” he said dryly, and made me worry that I was going to get in trouble again. I don’t know if I was or if I wasn’t, but he just gave me a pointed look and went back to his office and firmly closed his door. He didn’t usually do that—and he wasn’t usually grumpy, either—which made me worry that he was even more angry at me than I thought.
I probably should have worried a lot more about that, but the skin on my bottom lip was still singing where Sarah had touched it, and I couldn’t stop admiring myself in the reflection of the computer screen. I really liked the way she’d done it. I was busy smiling dreamily at a formula on my notepad and wondering if Sarah would do my makeup every day if I told her how good she was at it, when I began to notice my co-workers shuffling glumly back in from the union meeting.
Not that Risk isn’t a super boring job, but they looked even more reluctant than usual to get back to it. I watched several of them sit in their chairs, run their hands through their hair, and a number of them grabbed their mobiles and ducked away to make private calls.
“You look pretty cheerful,” one of my co-workers commented bitterly to me while I was watching them. “Then again, I guess you’re not really in Risk, are you?” He turned back to his computer and opened Seek.
I just gaped at the back of his head for a moment. Had I done something to upset him…? I wasn’t even sure I’d spoken to him before. He wasn’t inviting me to speak to him now, either—and I wouldn’t have, I mean, what do you even say to that?—so I just swallowed, and turned back to my formula. Maybe the enterprise agreements negotiations had failed or something and we weren’t getting a pay rise this year.
A couple of minutes later when I’d victoriously discovered the missing bracket and was re-working the formula in the sheet, the guy who sat behind me—Spud, everyone called him because he was completely bald—flopped into his chair and, loudly groaning, leant back and put his forearms over his head. “Fuck it,” he said through his forearms. “Fuck everything.” He was in his late fifties and generally a level-headed person; it was kind of weird to hear him swear.
What was wrong with everyone?
“Are you alright?” I asked him, because he was making a really strange noise.
He took his forearms off his head and twisted to look at me. “Yeah, I’m great,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Never better. I’ve just found out I’ve worked here for fifteen years for nothing. Just fantastic.”
I probably looked like a deer in headlights. “Oh, okay…”
He was about to say something, when he double-took and his expression changed. “Wait a minute, you weren’t in the meeting, were you?” I shook my head. Recognition passed over his face, and he sat up. “Well, sorry to be the bringer of bad news,” he told me, “but the word on the street is that Frost is offshoring half of their back office as of next year—all the non-client contact jobs. The entire Risk department is going to go. Naturally that’s fucking bullshit, so the unions are bringing in the big guns to fight it in court. I don’t think they’re going to do anything except delay the inevitable, though.”
Frost is offshoring half of their—what? “So what does that mean?”
He looked exhausted by the thought of it. “It means we’d all better start working on our resumes.”