As Imogen prepared her notes, the girl who would ruin her life was making coffee. The aroma wafted through the open plan office from the staff kitchen: a small, windowless room - no trimmings, very clean - like a hospital, but smelling of coffee beans instead of anaesthetic.
Crystal liked the way she could close the door on the world outside and make something warm and welcoming for those sitting waiting at their desks - generally the line managers, or even the boss, if she was lucky. And she always made them wait.
Sometimes she thought she could still smell it, even when she got home, as if the coffee had seeped into her clothes, her skin. It made her feel better, it made the scream feeling that was always stuck in her throat shrink into a tiny black ball. It also made her remember and then she would write it all down in her journal. No diary this, diary was just too, well, ordinary. Journal, now journal sounded like something.
Crystal gazed at the steam rising from the kettle. The combination of the aroma, the warmth, and that little feeling of power she got when she wanted to get her own back made it a special time, a fun time.
An image of B took shape in her mind as she reached for a spoon and her hand froze in midair. She felt a little sick. What it is about death that most people cannot bear to have someone who is dead come back?
Crystal was staring, unseeing, at her hand but then slowly, very slowly she brought it down to the teaspoon which was beached on the draining board. She should finish.
Fun time. Oh yes. Usually it was just a large gob of spit brought up from the back of her throat, or a finger of mucous from the inside of her nose - stirred into the steaming liquid, no one could tell the difference. Once she had dunked her used Tampax in the 'Crazy but Happy’ mug of her previous boss, Brian, and he hadn’t even noticed. Why should he? The exhilarating sensation that tingled through her when his mouth settled on the rim of that jolly mug was as close to an orgasm Crystal ever got.
No question he had deserved it.
Imogen looked up wishing for coffee and saw Crystal weaving her way through the desks scattered throughout the open plan office. Where had she been? Why did it take her nearly half an hour to make a mug of coffee? But she was new, so maybe she didn’t know where everything was.
Imogen glanced at her watch. Christ, it was going to be tight.
‘Sorry it took so long, but I always think a cup of coffee should be made - well - just right.’ Imogen darted a look at the girl’s face, but she was leaning across the desk and her hair, unconfined, hung in two long curtains shielding her expression. She was unlike the temps that usually came to BJM, she looked in fact a little unworldly in that crisp white blouse and navy skirt - almost as if she’d just stepped straight out of the 1950s.
She leaned back as Crystal placed down the mug. ‘Thanks. Have you picked up the key frames yet?’
Crystal shook her head. ‘I was making the coffee.’
Imogen checked herself and reminded herself again that Crystal was new. ‘I need them by eleven - for the presentation. This is important, Crystal.’
Crystal’s gaze drifted to the photograph standing next to the telephone. Imogen and her boyfriend, Greg. He was rubbing his cheek against hers, comically pressing his pursed lips to the corner of her mouth. In the picture Imogen was grinning. Perfect white teeth. Perfect everything really. They were on holiday. In the background stood an ornate temple, framed in minute crenulations, adorned with sculpted gods and goddesses and above that a cloudless blue sky.
‘I hadn’t forgotten,’ she grimaced in pain.
‘What is it?’
‘My back,’ she grimaced again and straightened up with difficulty. ‘It’s okay. I'll be fine.’ ‘Do you want some painkillers?’
She shook her head, Imogen wasn’t interested in her back, of course, she was thinking about the key frames and her precious presentation. A huge deal apparently: how to promote a new and, naturally, fan-fucking-tastic, premium food brand to the poor unsuspecting masses with the aid of a naturally, fan-fucking-tastic celebrity cook - Jimmi Beene - diva of the culinary universe.
‘Nurofen?’ Imogen opened a drawer and rummaged through it. ‘Or Paracetamol? Kerry’s got some I think.’
Crystal made a face, ‘I’ve already taken some.’ She began to rub the small of her back, ‘I don’t think I can straighten up...’
‘Is there anything I can do? Shall I fetch someone?’
‘Sometimes if… no…’
‘I shouldn’t ask.’
‘Well – um - sometimes massaging helps...’
Was that a look of distaste that appeared then disappeared on Imogen’s face?
‘It usually does the trick.’
‘Here, just here.’
Imogen placed her hands on the offending spot trying very hard not to show the impatience that was steadily building.
‘Further down - yes - just there.’ Crystal leaned over the desk and turned her bowed head towards the open door and the office outside. Her eyes met those of Kerry, the girl who sat across from her. ‘Could you close the door please? It’s - you know - a little embarrassing.’
Imogen pushed the door with her foot and resumed the massage. ‘Is that better?’
‘Harder… that’s it. Yes.’
She sighed softly and Imogen felt the first flutterings of unease. Christ, what was she doing? She removed her hands and stepped back. ‘Look, I’m really sorry, but I just can’t spend time on this.’ She had felt something, something a little bit wrong, but then it subsided as such things usually do.
Nobody knows how long it takes for thoughts or intuition to form. People talk about electrical impulses racing through nerves at a fraction of the speed of light. You might say it comes in starbursts or whispers to you from some dark cell of matter. That first move of Crystal’s was like the first ripple from a pebble that is thrown into a still but very deep pond.
She slowly straightened and said brightly, ‘that’s much better. Thanks.’ Then she tilted her head on one side and said, ‘you’re a Gemini, aren’t you?’
‘How did you guess?’
‘I just get these feelings about people,’ Crystal smiled serenely. ‘The sex of unborn babies, things like that. Once I knew something really bad was going to happen to someone. You know, like a premonition.’
‘And did it?’
Crystal stared at her as expressionless as a stone as a bluebottle, buzzing on its back, died behind the window blinds.
Imogen jumped and looked beyond Crystal to the doorway. Matt, one of the account execs, had pushed the door open and was standing on the threshold. ‘Josh is asking for the frames.’ ‘Christ.’ Imogen picked up her mug of coffee and swallowed a life-giving mouthful. ‘Are you okay to pick them up, Crystal, or shall I ask someone else?’
‘No. I’m fine now.’
‘See you in ten minutes, Matt.’
‘Thanks again,’ Crystal said, looking Imogen full in the face, ‘my coffee can wait until I get back.’
Imogen’s mouth fell open a little as she watched her temp walk back through the office. Was that a dig, or a statement of fact?Suddenly she felt a little exhausted and too warm, as if someone had just turned up the radiators. Tired that’s all, she’d been up half the night going over everything and her nerves were a little frayed to say the least. By letting her handle the campaign and the allimportant client presentation Josh was giving her an opportunity and a real chance to show what she could do. She was grateful, of course she was, but terrified that she would mess up. After all, this wasn’t exactly an act of kindness on his part and he would be watching her every step of the way just waiting for her to shoot herself in the foot.
She was pretty sure her boss was a chauvinist of the old school and that in his heart a woman’s place was still either in the kitchen or the bedroom. Well, she had news for him - he could watch and wait all he liked she’d worked too bloody hard to slip up now.
Her gaze was drawn back to the photo on her desk - Greg and her - taken in India the year before and it made her smile. She found herself kissing the tip of her finger and pressing it against the glass for luck.
Glen and Benny were sprawled across some armchairs in what was loosely termed their office. A few posters were splashed across the walls and a life size cut-out of James Bond aka Daniel Craig pointed a gun at Crystal as she stepped into the room. There was smoke in the air, hanging in the funny way it does sometimes in thin blue sheets.
‘I've come for the key frames.’
‘Have you now?’ Glen said, lounging back in his chair, the hand that held his cigarette hung carelessly over the chair arm. A pretty boy with long black hair and a shadow of designer stubble on his chin. No, not pretty - beautiful. He had two gold rings piercing his eyebrows and another in one ear.
He was cool. Even Crystal could see that.
‘Imogen needs them.’
‘And what Imogen needs, Imogen shall get,’ he turned to Benny, ‘isn’t that right my friend?’
‘Fancies her does Benny. But then, everyone fancies Imogen.’ Including himself on occasion and he didn’t like that. Usually it was the other way around. Actually he didn’t like that either which did not exactly help him sort out his present restless, confused, addled brain.
‘What do you think of them?’ Benny asked Crystal, gesturing at the spray mounted drawings.
‘The work - my work actually.’‘Your work,’ Glen choked.
‘It was my idea.’ Benny prised himself out of his armchair and started pointing at each drawing. ‘See. It’s partly animated - brilliant hot totty chef finds herself manacled in chains in dungeon of castle when…’
‘I don’t think you need to spell it out for her.’ Glen’s sharp eyes flicked over Crystal’s body. What the hell was she wearing? Give her a blazer and tie and she could have been in school uniform. Whatever turned you on. Yet he didn’t’t want to think what was turning him on lately - and it wasn’t of the fleshy variety. He could worry about it if he gave himself long enough.
Crystal’s eyes were on him. What was he staring at? What had she ever done to him?
‘Met her, have you?’
‘Who?’ She switched her wary gaze back to Benny.
‘Jimmi Beene. Arrogant shit-ess. Otherwise known as The Dragon Lady. Want a fag?’ He proffered her a half-empty pack.
‘No thanks,’ she said. He had a small pink mouth. Beneath the spikey hair, it bloomed like a rosebud in the middle of his round plump face. ‘I thought you weren’t supposed to smoke in here?’
‘That’s right, but we’ve disabled the smoke detector and see - the window’s wide open.’
Crystal wafted the smoke away. ‘It’s really bad for you – and me.’She cared very much about ‘health’, cleanliness, germs - hated the thought of foreign bodies like smoke, drink and the usual run of human fluids trespassing on, or inside her body. If Glen but knew it she was one of the few virgins over eighteen he was ever likely to meet.
Crystal, makeup-less, looked much younger. Her skin was almost perfect and she was proud of its velvety sheen. Like a peach. It was as good as any of the models on TV.
‘Oooh. Who do we have here then, Florence-fucking-Nightingale?’ Glen quipped. ‘What’s your name?’ He drew hard on his cigarette and a smoke ring formed and drifted into the air.
He raised his eyebrows and she knew that, for all his beauty, she hated him.
‘Wasn’t someone in a soap called that - or was it Tiffany?’ She looked blank.
‘You know: Tiffany - glass - diamonds - crystal… Get it?’ He shook his head. ‘No?’ He shrugged. ‘I didn’t think it was too bad considering.’
‘Take no notice, Crystal,’ Benny broke in. ‘No taste - and not quite himself - if you get my drift.’ Glen, as if on cue, guffawed.
‘I need the frames.’
‘They’re all yours sweetheart.’
Crystal gathered them up under one arm.
‘Need a hand... uh… Crys?’ Glen giggled. ‘I can call you Crys?’
‘He’s just winding you up,’ Benny said, which was only partly true, the other part was coke. He knew very well that Glen was developing too much of a taste for the little white lady and didn’t’t seem to realise it, or what was probably worse, didn’t care.
In the meantime, Crystal’s face had turned steely and cold, even disgusted. She had met people like Glen before. People who thought they were better than everyone else, people who had their very own pecking order and at the moment she was the most peckable person around, apart from Benny that is, but then he was well and truly pecked.
‘Yeah. Just winding you up, Crys, I mean Crystal. Sorry, it’s a hobby of mine.’
Indignation flickered in her eyes.
‘Obviously, you’ve never heard of stamp collecting.’
‘Otherwise known as philately - the corr-ect word for stamp coll-ecting, my deah,’ he said.
Crystal was blushing now, her pale skin turning a deep rose red from the neck up and finally Glen saw.
‘Hey, joke, Crystal. A J-O-K-E,’ and he meant it, but from her expression it was clearly too late. He sighed wearily, ‘honest.’ Done it again, Glen, old boy. Well done. Full marks.
Sometimes he just didn’t know when to stop and he really hadn’t meant to offend her. He’d have to buy her a drink or something although she didn’t’t look the type to drink, let alone frequent the agency’s favourite watering hole.
Crystal ignored him and, tucking the frames tighter under one arm, turned around and walked out. As she moved away from the door she thought she could hear their low conspiratorial talk, something about ‘anything in a skirt’ and then The Pig guffawing again, louder this time, reverberating down the long corridor as if he were making quite sure she would hear.
The desk she had been allocated was cleared now and could almost be called pristine. It would be easy to think that no one worked there at all, had ever worked there.
Crystal had started from scratch. No one seemed to mind, in fact no one noticed; they were too busy on their mobiles or texting or emailing and she had literally been given a free hand, particularly as the previous tenant was never coming back.
Natasha, like many erstwhile politicians, had apparently decided to give up gainful employment to spend more time with her family. In actual fact it was cheaper for her to stay at home than to keep on farming her brood out to perfect strangers. Probably safer too. How many times had she read in the papers about the horrific things ‘child minders’ did to their charges when their parents’ backs were turned? After all, children were the easiest things in the world to bully and mistreat, to damage and frighten, and you didn’t even have to leave a mark.
She surveyed her desktop with satisfaction: note pads and post-its filed according to size; pens and highlighters were easy, colour coded. Paperclips had taken a little longer - slotted vertically into a desk-tidy, again according to size, but so that they stood up like little metal soldiers - no more of that tangling up business for her. Now she could find everything in a second, unlike Kerry who seemed to be happy working up to her elbows in shit. Not that it mattered very much right then, since half the office seemed to be sitting in on Imogen's presentation.
She placed her coffee on a plastic coaster advertising an exotic cocktail. The red effervescing drink was being poured into a sugar-coated glass set against a white white beach and a blue blue sky. It reminded Crystal of the photograph sitting on Imogen’s desk, the one of her and her sexy boyfriend. That sky had been blue blue too. Flawless. ‘Why was Imogen rubbing your back?’
Crystal looked up. Kerry was peering over the top of her computer screen. ‘What?’
‘Imogen was rubbing your back…’
Crystal sipped at her coffee before answering, ‘she said I looked tense.’
‘So she started giving me a massage.’
‘I thought it was a bit strange, but nice of her. Don’t you think?’
‘Is she having boyfriend trouble?’ Crystal asked casually.
‘Not as far as I know. Why?’
‘Oh, just something she said and when I went in there that cute photo of her and her boyfriend was lying face down on the desk.’
‘What - the one in India?’
‘Yeah.’ Crystal took another sip of her coffee, ‘but maybe it fell over by itself.’
‘She would have noticed. Probably a misunderstanding or something. They’ve been going out for ages.’ Kerry looked dreamily into the distance. ‘Wouldn’t be surprised if we heard wedding bells soon.’
‘Go and see if you don’t believe me.’
‘I didn’t say I didn’t’t believe you.’ Nevertheless Kerry got up and walked over to Imogen’s office.
Crystal smiled. As she stared over the rim of her mug she switched her attention to the conference room where the presentation was being held. All the walls were made of glass, huge gleaming, seamless sheets. Imogen was standing at the end of an equally gleaming glass table - glossy blonde hair swaying as she moved her head, nodding and smiling at the client, then at Josh Blissett the Big-I-Am: the actual honest-to-god owner of the company. A real boss.
Crystal could tell, even from where she was sitting that Imogen was good - very good - a natural performer. In fact she was probably so good that there was just no way they weren’t’t going to go for it. Even the fabled Jimmi Beene who had swept through the office as if she were the Queen-of-fucking-England, was looking at her with the sort of expression you might save for someone who has just won a Nobel Prize.
Kerry sat down in her chair, she even seemed a little breathless, probably the unaccustomed excitement. Then Crystal remembered. ‘…it was flat on its face on the desk.’ Not excitement. Asthma.
‘Did you stand it back up?’
‘No. She’d notice.’
Crystal shook her head. ‘It's a shame, they look so right for each other.’
‘They’ve probably just had a row or something,’ she said following Crystal’s gaze to the conference room and then fished around in her handbag. ‘I think I'll sneak out for a quick smoke.’
‘I thought asthmatics weren’t supposed to smoke?’
‘They’re not - and if my mum knew she’d kill me, but I’m trying to give up - down to three a day now.’
‘Must be a real pain.’
‘Yeah. And it’s weird - I like to run, you know to keep fit, but once - mind you it was really cold - it just seemed to set it off. They called an ambulance for that one.’ Kerry looked at the pack of cigarettes she was clutching remembering the pain of trying to breathe, the paralysing terror of not being able to. ‘That was over two years ago ‘though. I’m allergic to Aspirin too and I can’t take the smell of gloss paint either. Anyway, I haven’t had an attack for ages and my doctor thinks I might be growing out of it.’ She stood up and patted her bag, ‘besides, I have my trusty inhaler to see me through.’
Crystal darted a glance at her as she got up and began walking across the room. How had she got the plum job working for Josh Blissett? Was he crazy? Kerry was wearing a skirt that barely covered her arse and a tee shirt with I Love New York! emblazoned across it, not forgetting an armful of dangling, jangling bracelets. Her mottled, bare legs complete with ankle-chain, made a funny little noise as she swished through the room.
He was probably shagging her. That was it. Girls like her were always being shagged by someone.
Crystal reached into the drawer of her desk and brought out a bar of chocolate, it was already open and several squares missing. She broke off another piece and popped it into her mouth. She liked sweet things.
Once Kerry had gone she waited a minute or two before getting up and making her way back to Imogen’s office. She stood on the threshold for a moment before stepping inside and prowling around the room, opening drawers, ruffling through the pages of her diary, feeling inside the pockets of Imogen’s Burberry Mac. There was a letter from her mother in Hampstead, but it was old, dated over a year ago, but naturally she read it before putting it back. She had already rifled through Imogen’s handbag the day before, the details on her driving licence now imprinted on
Crystal’s brain, including her date of birth, of course. Gemini?Now that really was a J-O-K-E. Finally she sat down in Imogen’s swivel chair – black leather, sooo soft - and twirled around in it before bringing it to a halt. She was sitting right where Imogen sat, where Imogen’s brain really got to work surrounded by all her little gizmos and gadgets like her shining new Apple Air 3 iPad. As thin as a razor. Not forgetting a beautiful fountain pen edged in what looked like gold. 24 carat of course. No doubt she used this to write personal stuff, birthday cards, thank you notes, condolence letters, things like that. There was even a real ink well filled with real ink… She must have written a lot of thank you letters when her dear old mum died.
Crystal’s eyes seemed to close down for a moment. She was thinking of her own mother, that pale ineffectual nothing of a woman who had fallen off the edge of the world.
A fading whiff of perfume made her blink. Imogen’s. She lifted her nose like a sniffing animal and caught a faint thread of it on the warm still air, then she stood up. The nauseatingly cute photo of Imogen and Greg was still lying flat on its face and she gazed at it for a long moment.
Then she set it up right again.
Josh was labouring the point, and didn’t need to. The presentation had gone really well, without a hitch. Of course, he wanted to be the star of the show and make sure everyone knew he was his talented team’s glorious leader.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a glazed expression come over Glen’s face and knew he wasn’t listening. In fact Josh could have left him and Benny out of the meeting altogether, they weren’t really interested in the technicalities, or the client, and usually couldn’t be pried out of their office if they could help it. The men in suits lived on another planet as far as they were concerned. And why not? They were gifted creatives and could deliver the ideas and the goods on time and with startling regularity. They could also make her laugh, at least on the occasions she was able to find time to visit them in the little pleasure dome they called their office.
They had even been able to make her smile when she had been at the lowest point in her life. She swallowed the lump that had suddenly and almost instantaneously gathered in her throat and stared over Josh’s shoulder at a bird circling the roof of the building opposite. The last week preparing for the presentation on top of last night when she had lain awake too long had taken its toll and what good did it do going over and over it all in her head? Her mother wouldn’t’t thank her for it. She was dead - a thought which had a way of constantly surprising her into grief.
She had to move on.
She loved her job. Loved the agency and the crowd she worked with. She had a wonderful boyfriend and a great social life. She had a great deal to be grateful for. Except right now she felt as fragile as glass.
True, being the only female Creative Director on Josh’s team was hardly a laugh a minute and not many women executives survived long at this level, at least not with him. Grieving and anything else for that matter, had to take a back seat, but like millions before her she had discovered that there is no treatment, no injection you can have, no tablet you can take that will heal your incurable grief-pain.
She felt Josh’s gaze honing in on her, as if he knew exactly where her thoughts might be and, God forbid, if they were not on the meeting. He had an uncanny knack of keeping his finger on the pulse, of being one step ahead of the game, it was just such shame he had to be such a bastard about it.
Crystal wandered through the main reception area of the agency, it seemed enormous, half the size of a football pitch. Two translucent glass doors flanked a huge semi-circular desk manned by three pretty receptionists. Naturally. The walls were dotted with strategically placed glossy photographs of the company’s most successful ad campaigns. A bank of windows behind a square of leather sofas beamed late morning sunshine on to the opposite wall and a massive painting of a silhouette of a man smoking a cigar. Apparently this formed part of Josh Blissett’s private art collection. So very too too old chap.
Crystal continued through and out the other side, taking a left down some steps into a basement corridor and on into a room that housed several hi-tech photocopiers and state-of-the-art printers. At the back a narrow window was on a level with the street and she could see the legs of passers-by as they walked past the building.
To where? To what?
There were a hell of a lot of people out there doing things that were pointless, unproductive and a complete waste of time. Most of them could probably be slotted into the So-What-Sherlock? category. She put down the papers and plans she was carrying. Surely this little job that she was about to do was in the So-What-Sherlock category?
She laid the first original down and keyed in the number, size, quality, colour, back-to-back, upside-fucking-down-and-sideways… It was doing her head in already.
Then she let it work and as she let it work she ambled towards the window before ambling back to the door and looking out into the corridor. She returned to the photocopier and watched a girl doing much the same as she was. There was a smell in here, of metal, oil, even electricity needling the air and bouncing off the skin. Crystal rubbed her arms with the palm of her hands and looked up and through the window again. Behind her the photocopying machine rumbled on and on, regurgitating paper at a steady, mind-numbing rate - five, ten, twenty, twenty-five, thirty…Crystal gazed at the machine. Hating it.
Thought of Imogen upstairs in her meeting room with the freshly squeezed orange juice and bottled water.
Looked over her shoulder. The girl had gone.
Pressed the ‘cancel’ button.
The rumbling noise wound down until it stopped altogether.
She switched off the machine and pulled down one of the side flaps. It was really quite hot in there... She looked down at the elastic bands in her hand before stuffing them into the workings, pushing them deep inside with the tip of a biro, then closed up the flap again. She counted ten before switching the machine back on.
It hummed merrily into life.
In the electronic dialogue box the word ‘calibrating’ appeared, then ‘processing’, then ‘ready’. The copying started all over again and everything seemed to be fine until, that is, there was a pause, followed by a beautiful smell of burning.
Gosh - what could be the matter?
A red light flashed on.
So did a cute little diagram showing where the trouble was.
Crystal tilted her head on one side. Oh dear. Poor Imogen’s prints were going to be ruined, which meant she would be late. Which meant she would be in trouble.
What a shame.
‘I’m so sorry, Imogen.’
‘Not your fault, Crysal.’ Imogen stared at a couple of the ruined drawings and felt her heart sink. ‘I have to get to the lunch.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘Would you mind printing new originals of the ones that are damaged then getting the copies together?’
Crystal nodded. ‘Of course.’
‘Oh - and arrange for a courier to take them over to Hegartys? I’d better have a word with Josh. If the others have left could you order me a car please? No, on second thoughts I’ll take mine.’
‘Can I make you a coffee?’
‘That’s sweet of you, but I don’t have time.’
‘Is everything okay?’ Crystal’s voice was all concern, ‘I mean, apart from me messing up.’ ‘Forget it. These things happen. I’m tired that’s all,’ she said with a jolly laugh that really wasn’t jolly at all, ‘probably working too hard…’ That was true enough, but it had been a difficult couple of months what with everything else and just - just when things seemed to be turning a corner she was having a bad day on potentially the worst of all possible days.
‘If you could…’
‘I know - be quick.’
‘Thanks. How long do you think? Half an hour?’ She was trying to suppress the panic creeping into her voice. ‘I’m supposed to present them at the lunch.’
‘Half an hour will probably do it.’
‘Good.’ Not really good enough, but she’d just have to take the flak. She shot a wary glance at Josh’s open door. This should be fun.
Crystal picked up the spoilt pages and walked back to her desk. Never mind my lunch, never mind me. Imogen hardly gave her a glance. She looked over her shoulder and saw her walking into Josh’s office and closing the door behind her. No doubt telling him the good news.
Really it was Imogen’s own fault, she should have allowed more time. Someone in her position should know things can go wrong, especially with important things – somehow they always had a way of going wrong. Brian, her old boss, had called it a ‘buffer zone’ but, come to think of it, it hadn’t helped him much either.