The following morning at work, I used all of my free time to do some very important research for the weekend.
My extensive lit review revealed that 79% of men preferred a woman with her hair down, 68% preferred a woman wearing a dress, and a staggering 85% of men reacted more favourably to women with symmetrical clothes and hairstyles. Clothes that showed off a woman’s hip-to-waist ratio fared better than those that disguised it (a hip-to-waist ratio of 0.67 to 1.18 was considered optimally attractive with a 95% confidence interval), and everyone reacted more favourably to a woman in red.
So, clearly I needed to buy myself a symmetrical tight red dress and somehow make myself look curvier than I really was.
I was scrolling through online stores with promised next-day delivery when a notification for an urgent email popped up at the bottom of my screen. It was from HR—well, from Henry—and it was addressed to ‘all staff’. It must be the official announcement of the redundancies, I assumed as I immediately put my little red dress shopping on hold to read it.
It wasn’t. It was kind of the opposite. One of the guys from Risk started reading it aloud in a really rude voice before I’d finished, too. “’HR would like to remind staff that rumours about job insecurity are not an acceptable reason to miss work or underperform, and misconduct will result in immediate disciplinary action’,” he dictated, and then scoffed and added his own commentary. “What a prick, I bet his $300k a year or whatever ridiculous fucking salary he’s on isn’t on the line.”
I grimaced. This email was a dick move, especially since Frost hadn’t officially denied the offshoring claims yet and everyone was still really stressed out. As Henry was the opposite of a dick, reconciling this long ‘we will punish you’ email with our conversation yesterday just wasn’t happening. It didn’t even sound like Henry.
“I don’t think he wrote this,” I said aloud without thinking, and then immediately regretted it because everyone started staring at me.
“What do you mean ‘I don’t think he wrote this’?” The guy asked me indignantly. “It’s from his email address and it says ‘Henry Lee’ down the bottom.”
I wasn’t sure how to explain it in a way that didn’t have me detailing the conversation I’d had with Henry yesterday, so I just shrugged and managed to force out of my mouth, “He’s just always been really nice to me, that’s all.”
Someone else snorted. “I bet he has.”
Even Spud joined in. “I’ll give you two reasons he’s nice to you, Gemma, and I bet he was staring at them the whole time,” he said, more as a gentle word of fatherly advice than an attack on me. “You know he sleeps with employees, right? Be careful there. His last girlfriend was forced to leave Frost the day after they split, and she had a huge breakdown.”
‘He’, I thought, imagining Henry correcting Min’s pronouns. Everyone was still staring at me so there was no way I was going to contradict all of them, though, even if it was on the tip of my tongue: that is not what happened.
Instead, I got back to my online shopping and exited the conversation. I can’t wait to be out of this department, I thought, and then daydreamed about working with Sarah again while I picked out dresses.
At lunch, I enlisted Sarah to help me tab through my shortlist; she had much better taste in clothes than me. While she was thumbing through them on my phone with one hand and eating an apple with another, my mind wandered back to that Henry conversation. “Why do people think Henry’s a womaniser?”
She glanced up, frowning. “Where did that question come from?” she asked after she’d swallowed her mouthful. “Are people still gossiping about him?”
I shrugged. “I said Henry was nice, and basically got told by my co-workers he’s only nice to me because he wants to sleep with me.”
Sarah snorted. “Unless Henry wants to sleep with everyone, that’s pretty unlikely,” she said, and kept scrolling through my shortlist while she spoke. “It’s just over that stuff with Min. Jason—our old boss, remember?—told everyone Min only left after she and Henry broke up because he didn’t want his ass handed to him over bullying her. People like a sex scandal more than they like a bullying scandal, I guess.” She stopped scrolling and nodded at my phone. “This one’s good,” she said, passing it back to me so I could see which dress she’d picked.
My eyes nearly popped out: gosh, it was short. Oh well, Sarah was the hook up queen, wasn’t she? If she thought it would look good on me and get me laid, she was probably right. I clicked through to the check out. “Should I tell my co-workers the truth?”
Sarah made a face and shook her head. “Rumours die by themselves eventually if you don’t feed them.”
That was an interesting idea. I thought about it for a minute or two, wondering if it kind of explained why there was no official statement about what the unions had said. “Maybe that’s why Frost won’t confirm or deny the offshoring stuff?”
Sarah didn’t look so sure. “Maybe,” she said, “but I reckon there’s heaps more to that story we don’t know.” She seemed a bit distracted, and when I asked her about it she sighed heavily. “Your co-workers aren’t the only ones causing drama. Mine have apparently arranged a ‘surprise’ for me after lunch and I am deeply, deeply concerned.”
After lunch, it was only 20 minutes before I got a cryptic text from Sarah. “FML. Are you working late tonight?”
I am if it means I can go home with you, I thought, immediately cheering up. “Probably, how come?”
“Come up to the Women’s on 36.”
I glanced over at Anil’s office—he had a couple of the Risk guys who’d been drunk all day yesterday in there—and then snuck over to the lift and went to go find her.
She was in the Women’s on Level 36, and with her in there was an enormous box with an even bigger novelty ribbon stuck to it. I thought it was an inflatable paddling pool at first, until I walked around to the side of it and saw a blurry picture of naked shoulders and a baby and the words, ‘Premium Birthing Tub’.
“What?” was the first word out of my mouth as I slid the ribbon aside so I could read it better.
“Exactly,” Sarah said. I could see in the mirror that her arms were crossed. “Omar asked me yesterday in a meeting if I’d changed my mind about not taking maternity leave, and I told him no—she’s due in the Christmas holidays, right? I’ll get a couple of weeks off anyway—and so my co-workers thought they would use corporate funds to buy me this: a birthing tub. So I can ‘pop in here and have the kid and then get straight back to work’.” She looked wholly unimpressed.
I smothered a grin. It was actually an accurate assessment of Sarah’s attitude towards work, but I knew she was a bit sensitive about people judging her for her decision to let Rob do all the parenting, so I didn’t say anything like that. “So what are you going to do with it?”
She groaned. “I have no idea. They somehow managed to buy it on the expense account, so do you know how much paperwork I’d have to do to return it? And it’s not like I want to draw more attention to that account being used for non-work-related expenses by hauling it in front of finance with a cancelled purchase order. I don’t even know if I can sell it. Is it corporate property? Is it personal property? Who knows.” She threw her hands in the air. “I guess I’ll take it home tonight and worry about it there.”
Sarah had a meeting that finished at seven, which meant I was stuck trying to look busy until Anil left at about six. He watched me thoughtfully for a couple of seconds before he left—maybe Henry had already spoken to him about that Marketing secondment?—and then bid me goodbye.
Once he was gone I had the whole floor to myself, so I had three pod coffees (we were only supposed to have two a day), and then got bored and went downstairs to wait in the atrium café.
I was watching all the men in suits on their way home trying to decide who I’d sleep with if I had to, when I noticed there was a tall, slender guy in a hoodie hanging around the atrium entrance. He looked like he was trying not to be seen—he had his hood up—and I was busy jointly worrying that he was some sort of criminal and also admiring how good he looked from behind when he turned around.
It was Min.
Whoops… I decided to pretend I hadn’t been checking ‘him’ out as ‘he’ recognised me and walked over. “Fuck this place,” she—he?—said with false cheer. “Is Sarah out yet? I brought the car in.”
It wasn’t long before she was, and the two of us awkwardly carried the birthing tub into the lift and down to Min.
Min smirked when she saw the box, but tried to conceal it. “Should you be carrying that in your condition?”
“I’m pregnant, not dying,” Sarah told her, and then nodded sharply at a free corner. “Just help.”
Min joined us in loading it into Sarah’s tiny old hatchback, and then I proceeded to try and fit beside it on the back seat. Despite the number of people Sarah boasted could fit on this back seat—both sitting up and horizontally—there was hardly enough room for just me and the box, and I ended squished against the door.
Then, we sat in traffic for eternity while I slowly became two-dimensional and Min kept glancing in the rear-view mirror at the box and chuckling to herself.
Back at Camp Presti, the three of us were carrying the huge box up Sarah’s back stairs and into the living room, and Bree, Min’s little blond 18-year-old girlfriend, looked up from her sea of study materials spread across the dining room table as we dumped it in the living room.
It took her a second to realise what it was, and then her eyes lit up. “Oh my god!” she said, immediately forgetting her studies, springing up from the table, and rushing over to us with her curls bouncing around her shoulders. “You’re going to have the baby here? That’s so exciting! It’s supposed to be really beautiful to give birth in the home the baby’s going to grow up in, surrounded by the people who care about you!”
Sarah looked unmoved, unceremoniously tossing her handbag on the table and taking off her blazer. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m going to have my baby in hospital and pumped full of so many drugs that I won’t know where I am or who’s with me.”
Bree’s delighted smile fell. She glanced at the box, confused. “Then why…?”
Sarah sighed. “It’s a gag present from my co-workers.”
“Oh.” Bree probably knew all about what those guys were like from when Min was working in Marketing at Frost. She was silent for a moment, her eyes intent on the box. “Well, are you going to open it?”
Sarah squinted at Bree. “No.”
Bree was still looking at the box. “I think you should open it.”
Min sighed audibly. “I think you should get back to your prac exam so you finish it before Henry gets here to mark it.” She bustled her protesting girlfriend back to the dining table and pushed her to sit down in front of her study materials again while Sarah snickered at them.
It was pretty entertaining watching Min wrangle Bree, but I was more interested in something Min had said. “Wait, Henry’s coming over? When?”
Sarah stepped out of her heels, teasing me over her shoulder. “Oh no! You’d better quickly get drunk!”
Min ignored her. “Yeah, he’s got a dinner meeting first but he’ll be here after. Why?”
“Because she needs to know how quickly she has to leave so she doesn’t need to have another conversation with him.”
I gave Sarah some serious side-eyes before I answered Min. “We got an email from him at work today that I wanted to ask him about. Here,” I passed my phone to Min so she could read it, and watched her eyebrows progressively travel down her forehead.
When she was done, she handed it back to me with a distasteful expression, and said exactly what I’d been thinking, “I see what you mean. Henry did not write that.”
Sarah, who was now taking out her earrings, was less surprised. “I write stuff all the time for Omar to send out, one of his staff probably put it together.”
Min didn’t look convinced that was what’d happened, but she didn’t say anything.
Sarah noticed, and stopped mid-earring removal, fixing her with a suspicious expression. “You know something.”
Min was unfazed. “No, I just know Henry.”
Sarah abandoned her earrings and advanced on Min. “No. That’s not it. You know something about this union-job thing, don’t you?” She turned to me, explaining, “Min was over at Henry’s last night.”
“Remember how I said he doesn’t tell me stuff about work? Yeah.”
Sarah scoffed. “Oh, come on. After all that crap went down in the newspaper and with the unions, you go over there and he doesn’t debrief to you about it? Not buying it.”
Min stared back at her. “We played PlayStation for three hours, and we went to bed,” she said flatly, and then glanced at Bree who was clearly listening to us. “Also, can we maybe postpone this inquisition? I’m pretty sure there won’t be questions about Henry’s day on Bree’s Psych exam.”
Sarah reluctantly agreed to that, and just as Bree had finished the exam and managed to convince Sarah to let her unpack the birthing tub, the doorbell rang.
We all looked up. It was actually a surprise; none of Sarah’s friends bothered with the front door—we just all wandered in and out of the back one at leisure—and I hadn’t heard the doorbell in months.
There was only one person who’d bother to ring it.
Sarah looked across at Min and then, like the mature adult she was, she shot up and ran towards to the door before Min could answer it.
Surprising no one, Henry was behind the door when Sarah pulled it open, smiling pleasantly and about to greet her.
She interrupted him. “Look, I know you’re tired so I’ll make this quick,” she told him very seriously, “you need to tell us what’s going on with the union stuff. We won’t tell anyone.”
Henry stared at her for a moment, and then put his hand on the door handle and went to pull it closed. “Sorry, I think I have the wrong house.”
She laughed a couple of times and then grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him inside. “Okay, not everything, but what’s going on with Gemma’s job at least?”
“I’d love to,” Henry said amicably as he let himself be towed down the hallway by a forearm, “but I don’t talk work outside work.” He gave me an apologetic smile as she pulled him into the living room and sat him in a chair.
Oh. I guess I wasn’t going to ask him about who’d written that email, then. Well, on the bright side, at least I didn’t have to spend half the evening working up enough courage to start the conversation with him…
Sarah had decided to pretend he hadn’t refused to discuss work. “What do you drink?” she persisted. “Gem will go to the bottle shop and buy six of it and then you can just tell yourself it’s not your fault, you got drunk and accidentally told us what’s going on.”
He laughed, and put a warm hand on top of Sarah’s on his shoulder, shutting her down. “I understand your concern, I do,” he told her. “And in your place I’d probably be asking me the same thing, but I can’t say anything, Sarah. You know that.”
She threw her hands up in the air. “Fine, I tried!” she announced, and then flopped down in a chair across from him. “You are a vault.”
He smiled, looking genuinely complimented. “Thank you, it’s one of the reasons I managed to end up as HR Manager. Now,” he said, slapping his thighs and looking around the room for something. His eyes fell on Bree’s study materials and the empty chair. He frowned. “Where’s Bree? I thought she was doing an exam for me.”
“I’m here!” Bree announced, emerging from Min’s bedroom in a bikini. “Can we go through my prac exam while I’m trying out the birthing tub?”
We all stared at her.
Sarah snorted and started to giggle, and gosh, Min’s face… It looked something like The Scream before she put it in her hands.
Henry, on the other hand, had a supremely professional expression like there was nothing at all unusual about what was going on. “Sure,” he said easily.
“Awesome!” Bree declared, and then proceeded to bounce out onto the back decking where she’d obviously dragged the tub.
Min tried to call after her, “Bree, it’s cold, put on a—” The door was already shut. “—t-shirt…” she finished to herself, and then put her head in her hands again for a moment. When she emerged, she turned helplessly to Henry and said, “I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t look like he wanted an apology. “Come on, I want to see how she’s doing with those p-value questions,” he said, patting Min’s back and chuckling.
After they’d gone, Sarah stood and leant right in close to my ear, whispering, “Yeah, I bet he’s really curious about whether or not she knows what do to with the ‘P’.”
Yuck. I shoved her. “Not everyone is as disgusting as you,” I told her as she laughed and slung an arm around my shoulder.
We followed them out to the decking where Bree was bent over double, trying to work out how to make the inflation pump work. To his credit, Henry definitely wasn’t watching her. He ducked inside to grab a pen and the prac exam off the dining room table, and then sat down in a deck chair and began to flick through it like there wasn’t an 18 year old in a bikini about two metres from him.
Some womaniser, I thought, leaning against the railing. If he was, he’d be checking her out right now.
It wasn’t as if Bree’s bikini was super-skimpy or anything—it wasn’t—but Bree had one of those full-figured, cup-runneth-over kind of bodies which made almost everything she wore look slightly pornographic. I wouldn’t have said she was chubby, exactly, and she definitely fell within that optimum 0.67-1.18 hip-to-waist ratio interval, but she looked soft and inviting and anyone who wasn’t Henry would definitely have been checking her out.
See, I can’t be gay, I thought, watching Bree. If I was, I’d totally be ogling her while she’s bending forward like that.
Then, I double-took at what I’d just thought and made a face. Why did I keep thinking that when I obviously wasn’t? It was almost like one of those ‘don’t think about pink elephant’ experiments where as soon as someone said it, you couldn’t think of anything else even though it was literally the most ridiculous idea ever. And it really was, because in my entire life it had never occurred to me to get with girls before, and I’d had plenty of opportunity to pash them at the many, many clubs I’d gone to since I’d turned 18. I was never interested.
And I’m not interested now, really, which clearly means I’m mostly straight and maybe a tiny little bit bi like almost every girl is, I decided, and then worried about the very clear memory I had of Sarah topless from the other night. I needed to deal with this.
“I’m going out on Friday night,” I found myself saying. “Who’s coming?”
Min had surrendered to Bree and was busy trying to unkink the garden hose for her. “Out where?”
I shrugged. “A club, a pub, somewhere we can—”
Sarah cut in with a smirk. “Somewhere she can score.” I gave her a dirty look.
Bree stood up from messing with the pump and looked hopefully at Min. Min shook her head. “You have an exam on Monday.”
She made a face. “Next weekend, then?”
Sarah answered before Min did. “Next weekend works better for me, too, actually,” she agreed, “I have reports up to my eyeballs at work and I don’t want to be too exhausted to do them. Plus, Rob will be back then and he can come, too.” She looked across at me. “Is it okay if we postpone your thing until next weekend, Gem? I promise I’ll be more fun if I’m not totally stressed out.”
I thought about how helpless I was the second I saw any of her skin. I couldn’t wait that long, but what could I do? I didn’t want to force Sarah to come with me and I didn’t want to go to a bar alone. “I guess…” I said, the air slowly seeping out of my lungs.
“Okay, it’s settled then, we’ll all be your wingmen next weekend.” She clapped me on the back. “Well, I’d better eat something and then get started on those damn reports. You want me to zap something for you, too?”
I probably could have hung around—technically these were all my friends, too—but with Sarah shut away doing reports and the others all mostly occupied, I kind of felt like a third wheel. “No, it’s okay. I’ll probably just head off home…” I wanted her to stop me. I actually kind of wanted her to invite me to stay the night again.
“Okay, see you tomorrow then!” she said instead, giving me a brief hug and then heading inside.
I exhaled. Well, it had been nice to spend this little bit of extra time with her, I supposed; it certainly beat just going straight home to Mr Crumpet at 5pm and watching Netflix for 6 hours. I said goodbye to the others, and then grabbed my handbag from the living room and went to leave.
Min followed me to the front door and politely offered to accompany me home in the dark. I joked, “How far do your services extend? Can I borrow you for the weekend, too?” expecting her to laugh with me.
She didn’t laugh. In fact, she just watched me, looking concerned. I stopped abruptly; gosh, that sounded like I was hitting on her, didn’t it? Especially after Sarah had told everyone I wanted to hook up on the weekend! Crap! I threw my hands up in a ‘wait’ position. “No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean I want you to come home with me or anything.” Ugh. “I mean, not walk me home like you offered to, but come back with me to, you know—”
“—I know,” she cut me off, at least not letting me flop around uselessly like a fish out of water. Then, glancing over her shoulder to check Sarah was still in the living room, she stepped forward and closed the front door so we were alone together on the porch. “You still want to go out this weekend, don’t you?”
I made a face; I’d forgotten how perceptive she could be. “Yeah,” I admitted.
“It really can’t wait one more weekend?”
I shook my head.
I expected her to go all third degree on me, Sarah-style, and I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say if she started asking questions. I was pretty sure everything I said except the truth would sound like a terrible lie, and I usually blushed like wildfire when I knew I sounded like I was lying. I couldn’t lie about it, and she’d guess straight away the moment I said ‘Sarah’.
She didn’t do anything of the sort, though. Just like Henry hadn’t yesterday, she didn’t probe at all. Instead, she just nodded once, slung her hands in her pockets and took a few steps towards Sarah’s front stairs. Then, she looked back at me, waiting for me to follow her.
I’d done this walk a thousand times in the dark and nothing bad had ever happened to me. “It’s okay, Min, you really don’t need to walk me home…”
She shrugged. “Maybe not, but if I don’t, I’ll worry about you,” she said simply. “And I’m coming with you wherever you decide to go this Friday, too.”