A Christmas to remember part 2
I always hate it when Christmas lands in the middle of the week and the world slowly grinds to a halt. For fifty weeks of the year the office is a charnel house of stress and chaos with phones ringing nonstop and a never-ending landslide of emails which threatens to engulf us all. Then it stops… just like that it stops. It’s as if some great ethereal being has turned the tap off and we suddenly find ourselves staring at one another wondering what to do next. The sensible ones among us save a few days holiday and take the week or next ten days off and come back to work in the new year. The sensible ones...
Inactivity is a terrible thing to deal with for those of us who are used to being on the go, and it’s quite laughable how when the phone does ring, thirty hands race each other at the speed of light to take the call. Then there’s the noise, or lack of it. Normally you can’t hear yourself think, now it’s eerily quiet as we communicate with one another in unnecessary hushed whispers.
After an hour or so of twiddling my thumbs, I head for the canteen with the intention of delivering a huge caffeine shot to my flagging system. It took me hours to calm down and get to sleep las night after Jason’s malicious comments. I think it was the way they were made which really got under my skin. To say nothing of calling me behind my back to Mark first. Then there’s the question of Melody. I haven’t seen her this morning and am starting to wonder if she’s coming in at all. Perhaps she was one of the sensible ones and took the Monday and Tuesday off. It would probably be for the best if she has. The truth is despite spending half the night playing out various scenarios in my head I still don’t know what to say to her. Or whether to say anything at all for that matter.
On opening the canteen door my blood boils and I have to forcibly stop myself from marching back into the office and unleashing a tyrannical tirade the likes of which was last heard in a Berlin bunker in 1945. All morning I’ve had to listen to the rest of the office moaning about having nothing to do. Well, if that’s the case get in the canteen and clean it up you fucking pigs…
After counting to ten I decide not to go off on one and instead clean it up myself. It is Christmas after all. Twenty minutes later the place is looking altogether more civilised, and I have a newfound appreciation for our cleaning staff. All that’s left to do now is to mop the floor. I know the cleaners keep their mops and buckets, along with whatever other voodoo they use, in a long walk-in cupboard at the back of the canteen. Naturally the mops were at the far end and was in the process of liberating one from its hook when I heard the sound of voices in the canteen.
“Did you find out from Mel what happened with Jason on Saturday night?” A young female voice asks. I’m not sure, but I believe it belongs to Cindy who works in admin
“No, she won’t say. She was quite shook up though,” another voice which I know belongs to Lucy from HR replies.
I pause for a moment with my hand on the cupboard door. Should I go back into the canteen whereupon the girls will cease their conversation, or should I lurk within like some eavesdropping nosey bastard?
“Shook up?” Cindy asks.
Hmm, eavesdropping nosey bastard it is.
“Sort of. She wasn’t herself that’s for sure.”
“Oh, and I thought things were going so well.”
“So did Jason. I don’t think he saw it coming.”
“I wonder what made her change her mind?” Cindy asks.
I hold my breath and listen with bated breath for the answer. Come on Luce spill the beans.
“I wish I knew,” Lucy replies warily. “She said she didn’t want to talk about it.”
Everything goes quiet whilst one of the two retrieves a pair of freshly washed mugs from an overhead cupboard.
“I thought I saw her dancing with Joe earlier on,” Cindy continues.
“Oh my God yeah. Did you see him? He must be the world’s worst dancer.”
Cue fits of giggles.
Cheers Lucy you little cow…
“I know, it’s a shame when he’s such a good-looking guy.”
And thank you Cindy…
“You don’t think…?”
“No,” says Lucy before Cindy even finishes the question. “They don’t like each other. Never have. The only reason they were dancing together was because Mrs Slater swopped partners halfway through a song.”
“Oh, right I see.” With that the canteen door swings open and Lucy and Cindy’s voices recede into the distance.
Re-emerging from my hiding place I quickly set about mopping the floor whilst reflecting on what I’d just overheard. Lucy and Melody are good friends, and I could tell by the tone of Lucy’s voice she thought Melody and Jason were more involved than I’d first perceived. If only Melody had confided in Lucy as to why she’d had a change of heart…
On arriving back at my desk the first thing I see is a note in Mark’s handwriting informing me Jim Slater wants to see me in his office. My mind immediately returns to Saturday nights conversation with Sandra regarding the new London office and my heart starts to race. Fighting the urge to bolt headlong down the office I walk as nonchalantly as possible to the corridor and stairs at the far end. Jim’s office is on the third floor and I eagerly race up the six flights of stairs at a lung bursting rate of knots. At the top of the stairs is a small reception area with an office to the left and an office to the right belonging to Jim Slater and Harry Webb respectively. The reception desk is manned by their PA Carla who as is her custom, is peering at me over the top of her silver rimmed glasses.
“And so the prodigal son rises up from the bowels of the earth to claim his throne,” she says with a theatrical tongue in cheek as I stand panting from my foolish exertions before her.
Carla is very much in the mould of maiden aunt, or at least that’s what you would think if you went on appearances. My mother often used to say you should never judge a book by its cover, and Carla Graham was living proof of this. As well as possessing a razor-sharp wit Carla is also master of the facial expression, which when put together are a deadly combination. She also has a certain twinkle in her eye which belies her age and I often think in her younger days Carla would have been a lot of fun.
“And a good morning to you Carla,” I reply having caught my breath.
Carla fixes me with a knowing stare, leans back in her chair whilst twirling a pen between the fore finger and thumb of her right hand and quite unashamedly looks me up and down.
“You’ve got a shirt button undone,” she says pointing the pen at my chest.
I quickly do up the offending item and thank Carla for pointing it out. One of Jim Slaters many quirks is he doesn’t like his staff to be slovenly when it comes to the way they dress.
“Mr Slater says you’ve to go straight in. Oh, and just to let you know,” Carla whispers after me. “Melody’s already in there.”
That I wasn’t expecting, and I momentarily pause to compose myself. Now my mind really is in overdrive.
On walking into Jim’s office the first thing I see is Melody looking every bit as stunning as she did on Saturday night. Before I have time to say anything Jim stands up from behind his desk and booms out his customary “Joe, my boy.”
I really wish he wouldn’t call me his boy as I know how it irks my colleagues. Especially those who have worked here for years only to see me rise above them. More than anything I don’t like it being said in front of Melody as despite everything that’s gone on before I consider us equals.
“Morning folks,” I say sitting down opposite Melody whose eyes are searching mine for a sign. The question in my mind is a sign for what?
“Right guys,” Jim begins. “I’m not going to beat about the bush. The London office, we need to get boots on the ground quicker than anticipated.”
“How quick?” Melody asks with a sideward glance to me.
“January the second, as soon as we come back in the new year.”
“But I thought the offices weren’t due to be finished until the end of February?”
“You’re right Joe. Which is one of the reasons why Harry and I want a skeleton staff on site In January. Hopefully it will focus the contractors mind and he’ll stop dragging his feet.”
“Yeah, but is there somewhere we can physically use, or will we be working out of a site cabin?” Out of the corner of my eye I see the look of horror on Melody’s face at the mere mention of the words site cabin.
“What will be the admin office is more or less finished. We’ve made arrangements with the contractor to use that in the interim.”
“What about phones and IT?” Melody asks.
“Jason and his team are installing it today.”
I see Melody visibly blanche at the mention of Jason’s name. She fires a quick glance in my direction before turning back to Jim. “How many of us will there be?”
“Just us three for the first week, then I’m on a fortnights holiday which is why we want you two there. We need our best people on this, and that’s you.”
I look across at Melody and wonder if the same trillion thoughts that are running through my mind are running through hers.
“I was going to suggest we take a ride down to give it the once over today,” Jim says which makes good sense to me. Not so Melody however, who looks far from happy at the prospect.
“I’d rather not Mr Slater, I’m still working on the Jackson account and would like to have it finished before the break. Would it be ok if just you and Joe went?”
“Hmm, I’d have rather it been the three of us, but there again I also know how finicky Seb Jackson can be. Joe and I will go and report back in the morning.
There’s an almost tangible look of relief which crosses Melody’s face which I’m sure doesn’t go unnoticed. For my part I’m wondering what the reason for her reluctance to visit the new office is. Then I remember Jason and his team were on site. She doesn’t want to see Jason, surely things didn’t end that badly between them?
“Ok then, we’ll leave it at that for today. Joe and I will have a ride through and we’ll have a catch up in the morning.”
Both Melody and I get up to leave, only Jim stops me and asks me to stay behind. Once Melody has gone he asks me what’s going on.
“I’m not sure what you mean?”
“With Melody. Don’t tell me you didn’t see the look on her face when I suggested we had a drive through to the new offices. What was that all about?”
I sigh and choose my words very carefully. I’ve never lied to Jim and I’m not about to start now. “From what I gather Jason had aspirations and Melody didn’t.”
“What? Oh, I see…”
“I believe she gave him the knock back on Saturday night. He didn’t take it very well apparently.”
Jim rolls his eyes before fixating them on me. “Well, he’ll have to get over it Joe. Melody is a key figure in this company. If he can’t we’ll be looking for a new IT partner It’s as simple as that.”
I nod my head in agreement and wonder if I should reveal my side of the story. I know for a fact if I tell Jim what was said between myself and Jason last night it will have dire consequences. Telling tales isn’t my style though, it never was and never will be, so instead I say nothing.
“Keep an eye out for her Joe, and if you think there’s anything untoward let me know.”
Keep an eye out for her? I can’t stop keeping an eye out for her.
Jim tells me he has a couple of calls to make and he’ll catch me in the main office which is my cue to leave. After exchanging a few words with Carla I make my way down stairs with the intention of going back to my own end of the office. Only I don’t and instead make a bee line for Melody’s desk.
I can see her watching me every step of the way out of the corner of her eye. She’s not the only one and I see more than one furtive glance aimed in my direction. Even though we are based in the same office we never come close to one another’s workstations. Or if we do it’s only because a work situation dictates we do.
Stopping short of Melody’s desk, I grab a free chair and wheel it through one hundred and eighty degrees placing it next to her at an angle so when I’m sat in it my back is to the majority of the room. Never in the history of Slater and Webb has this happened before and I’m suddenly aware it’s gone very quiet. I turn back to the room and about thirty pairs of eyes try and look busy as if they weren’t for a second taking any notice of me.
Sitting down I see Melody looking at me with a quizzically raised eyebrow.
“So it’s going to be you and me then,” I say as casually as I can.
“It looks that way,” she answers with her guard up. Whether it’s for my benefit or those who are sat in the immediate vicinity I’m not sure.
“Is there anything you want me to look out for today,” I ask keeping things on a level.
“You could check the facilities for me. There’s no way I’m sharing a bathroom with a bunch of builders.”
I smile at the thought and say I will. “What about on the IT side, you know I’m not very savvy when it comes to that.”
At the mere mention of the word IT Melody visibly shudders.
“It’s just the basics Joe. A working telephone, WIFI, oh and a printer. We need a printer.”
“Ok is there anything else?”
“Not that I can think of. I’ll message you if there is.”
In my peripheral vision I’m aware of somebody hovering close by. It’s Nazeem, one of Melody’s team.”
“Yes Naz, can I help you.”
“Err, I just wanted to ask Melody something.”
“Will it wait five minutes?” I ask knowing fine well whatever it is will.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Ok, give us a bit of space then.” I give him the thumbs up to emphasise the point and he backs away, no doubt wondering why Melody didn’t jump across me and ask him what he wanted, which is what would have normally happened. Not this time though.
“Look, Melody I just want to apologise for Saturday night. I didn’t know Sandra was going to do the switch.”
Melody goes to say something and clams up and an awkward silence ensues.
“I also wanted to apologise for my dancing. My sister says I dance like a club footed Giraffe.”
It must have been the way I said it as in the blink of an eye Melody’s serious expression is replaced with a mile wide smile.
“She’s not wrong, she really isn’t,” she says chuckling away to herself.
“Yeah well, once again I’m sorry,” I say getting up to leave. The serious expression is back again and I can see she’s conflicted.
In a deliberate, slow voice I ask her if there’s something else. She half nods and inclines her head, motioning for me to sit back down. When I do she leans over to prevent the office earwigs from hearing and for one breathless second the hair on our heads intermingles generating a bolt of pure electricity which resonates throughout every fibre of my body. Judging by the pink hue of Melody’s cheeks it wasn’t just me.
“When you get down to site,” she says glancing around to make sure nobody is listening. “If Jason’s there, be careful.”
My first thought was to ask why, only after last night’s terse conversation with Jason I know why and instead I say OK, “I’ll be careful.”
Something really bad must have happened, or conversely been said, for Melody to feel the need to warn me. There’s so much I want to ask, but now is not the time, especially as I can clearly hear the sound of Jim Slaters feet coming down the stairs. So instead, I say I’ll call you later and stand up to leave, this time Melody catches hold of my arm.
“About Saturday night. Don’t be sorry…I’m not.”
She looks away before I can reply. Even so I make a point of saying neither am I.
It’s quite telling the first thing Jim does once he’s got his Bentley pointed in the right direction is call Jason Roper on his hands free. As soon as Jason answers Jim puts his left arm out indicating he doesn’t want me to speak.
“How’s it going Jason?”
“Fine Mr Slater.” Jason answers in his usual confident and professional manner. “There were a few issues with the main contractor when we arrived, but we’ve worked them out now.”
“Good, that’s what I like to hear. Joe and I are on our way across, so we’ll probably see you in an hour or so.”
Jason doesn’t answer straight away and when he does it’s to tell Jim he won’t be there as he has a meeting elsewhere at one.
“That’s unfortunate,” Jim says with an expression which says he doesn’t believe a word. “There’s something I would like to have discussed.”
“Gary’s on site. I’m sure he’ll be able to help.” Gary Stabler being Jason’s right hand man.
“I’d rather deal with you on this one Jase if you don’t mind,” Jim persists.
“I’m sorry Jim. If I could get out of my meeting I would, but the Council are involved, and you know what they’re like.”
Jim nods his head, even though the man he’s talking to is twenty miles away on the end of a telephone. “No matter, it’ll keep.”
Once he’s terminated the call Jim turns to me and fixes me with a paternal stare.
“So, are you going to tell me what’s really going on or do I have to drag it out of you?”
I hesitate and before I know it a seemingly well-informed Jim Slater is filling in the gaps.
“On Saturday night I saw you dancing with Sandra when she pulled the old switcheroo. Which I’ve seen before by the way. She pulled it on me twenty-five years ago when I was dancing with her best friend so I knew exactly what she was doing.”
I look across at Jim’s expectant face and know I’m cornered and have no choice other than to tell all. A heavy sigh escapes my lips.
“Yeah, you did. The only problem is Jason took the huff. I think he saw Saturday night as some sort of date and wasn’t best pleased.”
“It was their second.”
“Second, how do you know?”
Jim looks at me as if I’m daft. “Have you not met my wife?”
Sandra? I should have known…
“Great, I really did piss in his cornflakes.”
“That’s one way of looking at it. The other is despite all appearances to the contrary you and Melody really do have feelings for one another.”
I shuffle uncomfortably in my seat. Jim always could see right through me.
“Am I right?”
“I’m not sure. I think so.”
“You either have or you haven’t.”
“Alright, alright. Jesus you’re worse than my bloody sister. Yes, I have feelings for Melody.”
“What’s the problem then?”
“At the moment Jason Roper.”
“Listen son, and I mean this with all my heart, if I were you and all that stood between me and a woman like Melody Carpenter was Jason Roper there wouldn’t be a problem.”
“It’s easier said than done though isn’t it Jim?”
“The best things in life are never easy Joe. You have to work for them… or in some cases fight for them.”
Jim isn’t telling me anything I don’t know and won’t do. Especially after Melody’s parting comment of “don’t be sorry Joe, I’m not.”
“So what are you going to do?”
This time it’s my turn to look at Jim as if he’s the daft one. “Fight like fuck, what do you think?”
Jim might not be my father, but his expression is one of pure paternal pride when he utters the immortal words “that’s my boy.”
It’s nine pm and I’m half-heartedly pushing a microwave fish pie around my plate and wondering what percentage of it once swam in the sea. It’s been a long day and I’m both emotionally and physically exhausted and I know I should stop delaying the inevitable and go to bed. Only I can’t and once again I find myself agonising over the day’s events. I’ve got to stop doing this I tell myself with Jim’s voice ringing in my ears. Pick up the phone and ring her you bloody idiot.
I’m in the process of reaching for it when it makes a solitary ding indicating the receipt of a message. It’s from Melody and simply and simply asks how did it go? I start typing a reply when I think sod it and call her instead.
She answers with a warm and cosy sounding “Hi.”
“Hi, I’m not disturbing you am I?”
“No, not at all.”
“Well in answer to your question the new offices aren’t as ready as Jim seemed to think.”
“You do surprise me,” she answers with a sarcastic scoff.
“Hmm, not really. I can see why he wants somebody there though.”
“Is it actually fit for purpose, or will we be working in the middle of a building site?”
“A bit of both to be honest. The admin office is half finished, as for the rest…”
“You said half finished.”
I can’t help an unelicited snort of contempt. “Yeah, it’s not pretty, but it’ll do?”
“And the facilities?”
“There’s a ladies and gent’s toilet and a small galley kitchen. Like I said it’s not pretty, but it’ll do.”
“Good,” there’s a slight pause before she continues in a very forthright tone “I’m looking forward to it.”
Do you know what Melody…? So am I.”
Then comes the question I’ve been expecting all along. “Was Jason there?”
“No, he’d had to go to a meeting somewhere else.”
There’s a long uninhibited sigh of relief. “I’m glad about that. I’ve been worrying all afternoon.”
There’s a hesitation and I start to think ‘ve overstepped the mark and asked one question to many.
“On Saturday night, at the party, he asked me if I’d like to go back to his place and I said no.”
I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. It was pretty much as I thought. “I’m guessing that didn’t go down very well.”
“No, it didn’t, and he became really nasty about it. Not then, but later on. He sent me some horrible messages on Sunday morning.”
Straight away my blood is back to boiling point. “He did?”
“Yes, apparently I’m a two-faced, two-timing bitch, amongst other things.”
“But you weren’t two timing him. As far as I know you weren’t even going out with him.”
“I know, we were sort of heading that way though before…” she doesn’t finish the sentence and lets the words hang in the air.
“Before what?” I hope and pray Melody will say something which will move our relationship into a new direction. Instead, she tells me its late and she’ll see me at work tomorrow. It wasn’t what I wanted and for one long moment I’d truly believed we were on the verge of becoming something more than work colleagues. Maybe it’s not to be I think pushing my alleged fish pie to one side. Maybe Leanne was right when she said it was all in my head.