Henry’s office was at the south end of Level 35, and the waiting area had floor-to-ceiling windows with a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour. I wasn’t sure I needed that much sun in my face this early in the morning after all the wine last night, but at least I didn’t have to sit in the main HR waiting room which was full to the brim with seething, grumbling employees who were clearly out for blood. More kept arriving in the lifts, too—and I was super glad Sarah had made good on her promise to give me a 6:30am wakeup call, because it meant I got in early enough to avoid wading through all those worried people to get here.
I should have been worried, too. And I was—well, sort of. I’d downloaded a whole lot of statistical analyses about offshoring in Australia with the full intention of reading them to see if I agreed with the conclusions, but I’d had the first PDF open on my phone for twenty minutes and hadn’t read a word of it. I had other more pressing matters to attend to.
I kept thinking about last night and the fact that I’d actually wanted to have sex with very pregnant, very taken best friend. In the cold light of day, it was an uncomfortable thing to remember, even if I had been really drunk.
Maybe I’m gay, I thought, and then laughed at myself. Of course I wasn’t gay: I’d had several boyfriends in the very distant past and, okay, those relationships hadn’t gone so well, but I’d definitely been attracted to the men I’d been with. I’d also danced with and pashed loads of guys in clubs in all my years of drinking, and there’d even been a guy on the train this morning I’d noticed was kind of hot. In fact, the closest I’d gotten to a girl-on-girl experience was that one time I kissed Min—and I wasn’t sure exactly where she fit on the spectrum, but it seemed to be closer to ‘guy’ than ‘girl’, so I was pretty sure it didn’t count.
Yup, Gemma, you’re just lonely, I reassured myself, trying once again to read that offshoring doc.
But… then again…
…maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a little peek at the stats…?
I opened my browser and googled ‘what’s the prevalence of female homosexuality in Australia?’ and was tabbing through the results, trying to decide if Wiki was more reliable than a government health webpage for data that I could—
I jumped and reflexively flipped my phone over. Henry was leaning out of his office right behind me, looking over my shoulder. I panicked, turning bright flaming red: he definitely would have seen my screen from that angle, and I had no idea how to explain what I was doing.
Unlike his evil ex, though, Henry wasn’t running a blush tally and none of his preferred pastimes included ‘affectionately’ teasing me. In fact, he didn’t make any sort of reference to my cheeks or indicate that he’d seen my screen. “Sorry for startling you,” he said with a warm smile instead, “I promise I don’t normally creep up on people. Please, come in.”
Somehow managing to set aside my horror that Henry might have seen what I was doing, I stood up with shaky knees to follow him in. Time to make an idiot of myself, I thought, sighing internally. I was off to a good start.
As I walked past him, though, raised voices up from the waiting room caught his attention and the warm smile fell from his face. He took a few steps out of his office to peer up the hallway, straight at the mob of anxious, frustrated people waiting for HR to attend to them. He then turned back to me with a very neutral expression. “Hmm,” he said mildly, and then gave my shoulder an apologetic squeeze. “Would you mind waiting here for a moment?”
He was going to—“You’re really going to go in there?” I asked him outright, surprising myself by actually speaking. Risk had been so angry yesterday, I had a mental image of those people tearing him limb from limb like hungry lions.
He looked unmoved. “Well, I’m not going to ask my staff to do it,” he said like the answer was totally obvious. Then he straightened his tie and walked calmly down the corridor towards the lynch mob. I could hardly watch. Any second, I expected the crowd to swallow him up and start shouting at him, or swearing, or, like, beating him up or something…
…and then after he’d spent maybe 20 seconds addressing them all, they all hung their heads and started dispersing towards the lifts, muttering to each other.
I gaped at him as he returned. How on earth had he done that?
My question must have showed on my face. “Magic,” he told me, eyes twinkling as he showed me into his office. For a second, he really reminded me of Min.
His dry sense of humour wasn’t the only thing he shared with her—they were both six-foot-something and Korean, and, as I read on the name plate on his desk: Henry Lee, Director Human Resources, they both had the same surname. They also shared a lot of history; apparently Henry had been really in love with Min and they’d dated for ages, but then she came out, transitioned and left him for a schoolgirl literally half his size and age. Okay, so it hadn’t gone quite that badly. Putting it that way made Min sound really selfish and cruel, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was tough for both of them, but they came out the other side of it as best friends.
Henry was still single, though, despite the fact Min had moved on. It was kind of awful of me, but I found myself being reassured by that. At least I wasn’t the only person who wasn’t getting anywhere in their love life.
On thinking that, though, the guilt made my blush come back with a vengeance. I sighed at myself.
Henry pretended not to notice as he rounded his desk, indicating a seat opposite him. “So, how are you, Gemma?”
Lonely and desperate, I thought as we sat down. “Good, thanks. You?”
He made a so-so gesture. “I’ll be fine once I find somewhere that will rent me a suit of armour,” he said with a grin. “Now, Min was very cryptic about why you needed an appointment with me.”
That seemed to be a question. “She didn’t say?”
“No, he didn’t,” Henry subtly corrected me, reminding me that to him and most other people, Min was now a ‘he’. I winced. Yup, there it was: me making a dick of myself… and back to being bright red again.
He moved right on, though. “And it would make sense if you’d wanted an appointment this morning, but he asked last night?”
I couldn’t figure out what he meant. “This morning…?”
His eyebrows went up. “You didn’t see the paper?” I shook my head, and he sighed deeply. “Well, I don’t normally buy it myself, but I nearly inhaled my coffee when I saw it this morning…” He leant down beside his desk and snapped open his briefcase, fishing out the Sydney Morning Herald and tossing it on the table in front of me.
I picked it up. I didn’t have to look very hard to see what he was referring to: plastered across the front page was the headline in big block letters, ‘FROSTY CHRISTMAS SHOCK FOR 480 WORKERS’, with various sub-headers talking about how the jobs would be gone by Christmas, and profiling employees holding their kids and worrying about losing their family homes.
“By Christmas?” I read aloud.
Henry’s lips were in a tight line. “It’s speculation,” he said. He didn’t sound happy. “But because of it, two thousand people are going to be lying awake in bed every night wondering if they’re in the 480—and that number is fictional, by the way.”
I brightened, looking up at him. “So it’s not true!”
He made a face. “Officially, there’s no comment yet.”
“Unofficially, no one would run a story like this unless there was the possibility of changing the outcome,” he pointed out. “Everyone knows Frost has been looking at offshoring for the best part of a decade. But it’s still very irresponsible to make two thousand people worry before there’s been any firm decisions made. Very irresponsible.”
Huh. “But everyone in Risk yesterday seemed really certain they were going to lose their jobs…”
Henry paused for a moment, his brow lowering. I was suddenly aware of him watching me very closely, and I thought I’d said something wrong. “Yesterday?” I nodded. When I didn’t elaborate, he prompted, “What happened yesterday?”
He was staring at me. I felt like I was the one confessing something; it made my voice waver. “I didn’t go, but apparently in the union meeting they told a whole bunch of people that Frost is offshoring their jobs?”
His expression was completely unreadable for a few moments, and he sat back and took a couple of really obvious deep breaths. “That meeting was supposed to be about enterprise agreements, which is why management wasn’t allowed to go.”
I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t been there, I didn’t know exactly what had happened…
He was shaking his head. “I should have guessed,” he said eventually, hardening. “God, I should have guessed. I was barricaded with the rest of upper management in a ridiculous meeting into the small hours of last night because the MEU insisted they needed to speak with us… and of course, after the shock I got reading the paper this morning, I haven’t read my emails yet or checked my messages yet…” He ran a hand through his hair. “Those sneaky bastards. I really will need that suit of armour.”
I almost couldn’t bring myself to say it in case it was super inappropriate, but I did anyway: “And I thought my job sucked…”
He looked up at me, surprised for a moment—in that moment, I was absolutely certain I’d made a huge mistake and insulted him—and then he broke into a smile. It was like releasing the pressure valve in a boiler. “Yes, want to swap?” he asked dryly. “I’d love to be fixing spreadsheets right now instead of this mess. Anyway, thank you for telling me, Gemma. I’m glad I heard it from you first. It gives me an opportunity to prepare for how much trouble I’m going to be in for not being able to control our relationship with the unions.”
I didn’t know why it would be Henry’s fault that the unions were trying to protect our jobs—wasn’t that exactly what they did?—but I also felt like it wasn’t really my place to ask him why he’d be in trouble for it, so I didn’t. “I guess you probably can’t tell me if I’m losing my job or not, then…”
He gave me a gentle smile and shook his head. “But since you’re here, there’s other things I can do to help you plan your future, regardless of what happens with your current position.”
Awesome, can you help me figure out how to stop crushing on my best friend? I thought wryly, but let him keep talking.
“For example, I took a minute or two to have a look at your employee profile, and I noticed you haven’t had a career plan in place for nearly four years.” He looked a bit concerned. “Did Anil not offer to go through them with you?”
I grimaced. Anil was not the problem. “Yes, he kept asking to do them for years, but I never handed them in on time so he gave up.”
He chuckled. “They’re optional, Gemma. No one’s going to get in trouble.” He tapped the space bar on his keyboard to wake up his monitor. “Well, perhaps we could go through that process now so you have a training plan in place? Let’s focus on your goals, first. Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?”
Married, I thought immediately, and then for some reason imagined myself side-by-side with Sarah in her bed, like I had been last night.
Crap. “Sorry,” I said, turning bright red and feeling like a kid who wasn’t paying attention in class. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” he inquired, and I shook my head. “Well,” he continued, “let me give you some ideas. Do you see yourself in management? Consulting, maybe? Do you even see yourself in a corporate job, or are you interested in branching out into teaching or research? A bachaelor of mathematics does lend itself well to a variety of different careers.”
Dad had always wanted me to get into teaching or academia. I wasn’t interested. “I hope I still have this job?”
He smiled slightly. “You said your job sucked a minute ago.”
Um. “Well, I like working for Frost, anyway.”
He mouthed ‘ah’, and relaxed back in his chair. “Alright, perhaps we can upskill you, then. There are a number of departments that could benefit from your experience with formulas and statistics. Do you have any interest in finance? Or even something completely different like engineering or resource management? Frost Energy has lots of on-site resource engineers and a good grasp of maths is essential for those jobs.”
‘On-site’ didn’t appeal to me for obvious reasons. “Can I just get another job in this location?”
He nodded slowly. “Any departments take your fancy?”
Hah, I laughed to myself when it occurred to me. “I don’t suppose you have any positions going in Marketing…?”
I expected him to immediately laugh with me and be like, ‘oh, don’t be silly, Gemma, someone like you who is the opposite of everyone in Marketing could never work there, hah hah!’ but instead, he was completely serious. “It’s actually funny you say that,” he told me. “We used to have a young statistician working in Marketing—he left us to head to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in April and we haven’t replaced him yet.”
The smile fell right off my face. “Wait, really?”
He nodded. “So if you have a genuine interest in moving to that sort of job, I could speak with Anil and Omar—he’s the acting Marketing manager—at seconding you there for a week or two to see if you do like it.”
I knew who Omar was. I’d heard Sarah and Min talk about him. Or rather, I’d heard them talk about how happy they were that he wasn’t the old marketing manager Jason, who was the one who’d bullied Min out of her job. “Wow, okay! Thanks!”
He smiled. “If you could just hold off mentioning it to Sarah and Min or anyone else until I have approval, though, I’d appreciate it. It shouldn’t take too long.”
He didn’t have to worry, because as if I’d tell Sarah that I specifically asked. How would I put that? ‘Hey, Sare, it’s not enough to work in the same company and have lunch with you every day, so I put in a request to work in your department, too!’ Yeah, I definitely wasn’t going to say that, and I hoped Henry wouldn’t. “You won’t tell them I asked, will you?” I blurted out, and then immediately regretted it and returned to my regular shade of pink.
I thought he would get all suspicious and want to know why, but he didn’t. He just had his usual pleasant and neutral expression. “Of course not. I’ll be discreet.”
I exhaled. “Thanks!” I told him, my stomach fluttering at the thought of maybe being able to work with Sarah full-time. Oh my gosh, we were going to have so much fun!
I was so absorbed in my excitement that it took me ages to notice he was watching me with a private smile. He chuckled when he saw me looking. “I’m going to have a really challenging day today,” he confessed. “But this was a very timely reminder of why I moved into HR in the first place: having people look at me like that.” He nodded at me and my big smile. “Thank you. I forgot how much I enjoy the basics.”
I thanked him profusely as well, and since he obviously had stacks of work to do given what was going on with the unions, I floated out of his office and spent a few seconds beaming out of those huge windows at Sydney CBD.
I wouldn’t have to worry about hardly seeing Sarah anymore! I felt like I could literally just leap out the window and fly through the air.
Ironically, the very person I was desperate to share my great news with was one of the people I’d been specifically instructed not to tell. I considered telling her anyway, but then felt really guilty because Henry was one of those people who you’d rather kick a puppy than lie to. I should probably at least tell her that I didn’t have any real news about whether or not my current job was going to be offshored, though.
I took my phone out to text her on my way back to the lift, but stopped in my tracks when I saw what was still on the screen: the results of ‘what’s the prevalence of female homosexuality in Australia?’.
The top result read ‘Most studies find between 1-3%’—which was coincidentally the same stat for just about all of my other variable attributes.
Gosh, I hope I’m not, I thought, continuing down the corridor at a more subdued pace. That would make this whole thing of seeing Sarah naked and wanting to work in the same department kind of creepy. I felt uncomfortable about that all the way back down to Level 22.
I was busy heading back to my desk and rehashing all my failed relationships to look for clues, when I noticed the ambient noise-level in Risk was higher than usual. That was made even weirder by the fact there were half the usual number of people sitting at their desks.
“Is there another meeting?” I asked Spud as I sat down, looking around us.
He was on Seek.com, scrolling through vacant positions in the commercial risk category. “Nope, about five people called in sick and another bunch of them went to have a drink at PJs.”
“At 8:30 in the morning?”
He shrugged. “I think when you find out you’re going to be made redundant, any time of the day is a good time to drink.”
I thought about what Henry said about nothing being set in stone, but knew implicitly not to say anything. The unions might end up being right anyway, even if they were being ‘sneaky bastards’ or whatever Henry had called them. Instead, I logged in and opened my queue.
I’d only scrolled for about three seconds when I realised there was absolutely nothing in it. Not even Finance were complaining about their ledgers, which someone—and I knew exactly who—always broke. “Spud…” I asked over my shoulder, and he made a ‘hmm?’ noise. “Do you know if Finance is another one of the departments who are going to lose their jobs?”
“Yup. Admin, too.”
Oh. Well, that explained the lack of work I had this morning. Normally when this happened, I’d just do Risk’s leftover number-crunching, except that no one was working and it would be weird if I asked to, which meant that I suddenly had free time.
…to do whatever I wanted.
I looked furtively around me to see if anyone was sitting too close, and when I was satisfied they weren’t, I got right back to the top secret research on my phone.
The numbers were pretty comforting, actually. The percentage of girls who identified as gay was something like 1.2%, but a whopping 20% of women reported having same-sex attraction or experience. That was a pleasant 94% of same-sex-attracted women who weren’t gay. Those were good odds for me.
I ended up downloading the full research paper and reading it through—less comfortingly, most of the women who reported having same-sex experiences were of the ‘I had a lot of fun in my youth’ variety. I almost wished I’d stopped at the numbers.
I was also beginning to wish that, like this 94% of non-gay women, I’d been way more promiscuous at uni. Sarah had barely spent a single night with her knickers on—although, to be fair, she was a serial monogamist and was generally in relationships—but I found it much harder to find someone I was prepared to go home with. Everyone used to tease me about how picky I was. Right now I wish I’d been less picky, too, because then maybe I’d be one of these women who talked in hushed voices about how much fun they’d had in their youth instead of what I was now: someone who wanted to do crazy drunk college things like getting it on with her girlfriends when she was nearly 30 and everyone else was way past that.
Basically, all roads still pointed to getting laid sorting me out. And, given that I’d expected to royally screw up my meeting with Henry and I hadn’t, I felt there was hope for me managing to hold an actual conversation with strangers yet. I could just go out this weekend, try really hard not to be picky and bring some guy home to sort me out.
I shared my decision with Sarah at lunch while we were sitting in a nearby foot court, and she laughed openly. “About time!” she declared, hunting for olives in her Greek salad. “When was the last time you hooked up? 1801? Anyway, tell me more about what Henry said. Like, exactly. Word for word. People often subconsciously communicate the truth without realising it. I bet he did.”
We picked apart what he’d told me about the offshoring stuff—what I could remember of it, anyway—and then Sarah tapped her plastic fork against her chin and considered it. “I’m with the unions on this one,” she told me. “I mean, it sucks for Henry that he’s going to get in trouble and I guess he’s right about two thousand people worrying about their jobs, but if less people lose their jobs as a result, isn’t it a happy ending?”
“Henry was not happy, though, and he knows more than he said.”
Sarah shrugged. “I’m still pretty sure the unions are only trying to help you guys, though,” she decided, and then popped another olive in her mouth, mumbling through it, “Did he say anything about your job specifically?”
Oh! I’d nearly forgotten! I took a deep breath as soon as I remembered the good news again, and I was bursting to tell her that she wasn’t going to be alone in a ‘department full of misogynists’ anymore. I’d promised Henry I wouldn’t, though. Ugh.
I managed to smother my excitement. “Um, not much. We went through a career plan, and then he said he’d speak to some other managers about looking for work in another department for me.”
Sarah smacked her hand on the table. “That’s it!” she said, pointing at me. “That’s basically a confirmation your job is one of the ones going. Otherwise why would he bother being so helpful?”
“Because he’s Henry?”
She ignored that comment. “Anyway, this offshoring stuff is a godsend. You’re way better than some pseudo-IT spreadsheet fixer. Now you’re going to end up with a better job, better pay and probably a better team, too.”
I bit down on my smile. I was definitely getting a better team. You’re going to be such a great teammate and supervisor, I thought, watching her mining through her salad for the good bits. It was going to be like that time we’d worked in an ice bar together when we were travelling around in New Zealand during the winter holidays. It’d been a blast. The place had been so cold Sarah had worn this enormous parka to work and was serving drinks in big, fat gloves.
She wasn’t wearing a parka now. She was wearing a thin pinstripe shirt with three of the buttons open and a necklace that sat directly on the ‘v’ of her cleavage. I’d never have the courage to wear something like that, but she was rocking it. With all that gorgeous skin and self-confidence, how could she not?
My eyes tracked down into her shirt. I saw those last night, I realised. She just had her top right off in front of—
—at that second, Sarah looked up from her salad and caught me staring at her chest.
My heart stopped. I frantically looked away, my treacherous fucking cheeks burning as I froze in panic. Oh no, oh no, I thought, reeling; any second that smile would fall and her expression would harden and—
She just snorted. “What? Did I spill food all over myself again or something?” she asked, craning her neck to look down her shirt and brushing off the swell of her stomach like there was crumbs on it. She must have actually found something there, because she laughed. “Seriously, Gem,” she said, picking whatever it was off her shirt and flicking it away. “You are such a prude—just tell me if I’m spilling food into my rack, you don’t need to stammer and blush and die of embarrassment over saying the word ‘boob’!”
I should have been relieved that she thought that’s why I was freaking out. I wasn’t relieved, though. I seriously wasn’t. My heart was pounding in my chest and all I could think of was gosh that was close! Too close, far too close! I didn’t even want to know how weird it would get if she knew some of the things I’d thought about her. Everything had always been so easy between us, ever since the beginning. It was one of the things I’d always loved about being her friend, because I was normally so stiff around people. Not around Sare.
It haunted me for the rest of the day: how close I’d just come to wrecking ‘us’. Sarah was switched on, it wouldn’t take her much more to figure it out.
That afternoon most people left work early, but I felt bad for Anil so I at least waited until the clock struck five to head off.
It was dusk when I got home. The last of today’s sunlight was filtering through the gum trees outside and my big bay window into my cluttered little living room, and my asshole of a cat was lying upside-down in a patch of it in the middle of my old couch. My place wasn’t much to write home about, but I loved living here. It was close to everything, and in summer, I could stick cushions on the ledge of my big bay window and sit with it open so I had a breeze on my face. The carpet was tatty and the wallpaper was super dated, but I’d fixed that by covering my floor in assorted Ikea rugs and almost plastering my entire wall in hundreds of photos.
Most of them were me and Sarah. Some of our other friends were in them, too—people we used to see a lot more of when they were still working for Frost. Most of them I hadn’t seen in months, now. There was the odd ex-boyfriend or two in group shots, some family members—my dad snuck into a couple of the birthday ones—but most of them were just Sarah and me, the two of us. In Brazil. In Italy. That one time we decided to drive around Australia in her mum’s old Commodore with hardly enough money for petrol. There were even some more mundane shots: drinking on her patio at sunset, a joint selfie of us both looking wrecked during swatvac, and a picture of Sarah on a beach somewhere writing in a travel diary.
Gosh, I’d loved those. I’d tried to keep one myself when I took a solo trip to Thailand recently, but it wasn’t fun filling it in alone. We’d always written in them together, with stories and anecdotes and diagrams of what we’d seen and done during the day. Late at night, when we were tired, or drunk, or premenstrual, we’d write other things in them, real things. Things we were scared about. Our hopes and dreams for the future. Everything that mattered to us.
I still had them under my bed, in a stupidly expensive fire retardant box I’d bought especially so that nothing would ever happen to them.
Remembering them was like hearing a siren’s call, and I ended up on my knees beside the bed, wriggling the stupid box out from underneath it.
They were still safe inside, arranged by year. I sat and poured through them for ages, flipping the pages and laughing at memories I’d nearly forgotten. There was so much history here, in these diaries. They were the museum of us, full of treasures and relics and… fuck, I couldn’t ruin it! I couldn’t ruin it like I nearly had today, because what on earth would I do without her?
I wanted a whole life with her, making new memories like the ones we already had—and I was on the cusp of another chapter in our lives, where we’d work together, as well. It would be so much fun, I could just imagine it: all the new routines we’d create and what our business trips would be like together.
I couldn’t ruin it over some silly girlcrush.
I cradled the last travel diary I’d just read to my chest, hugging it there with both arms. I just needed to do whatever I needed to do to stop thinking about her like I had been recently. And I needed to do it quickly.