I was about to pack up for the day when the boss walked into our department. It was half past five, so the office was nearly empty. “Ah, both of you,” he said, gesturing to Paul and me. “Glad you’re still here.”
I pulled a chair towards him, and Paul trotted over, straightening his after-hours tie. “You must’ve heard we lost the bid for that big project,” the boss said, glancing from Paul to me and back to Paul.
“Yes,” I replied, “I’m sorry.”
“We were up against strong competition,” said Paul. “We’d done our best.”
“Well, the truth is we weren’t,” the boss told us. “I’ve just got off the phone with the project head, and the only reason we missed out is the deadline. Our submission was late.”
“Only by an hour,” Paul countered. “It was a Friday, the staff would have been gone by five, it shouldn’t matter if it arrived at six or seven.”
“Our submission was late,” repeated the boss. From his lowered head, Paul’s pupils glided between the boss’s ankle and my knee.
“The costings and terms and conditions were finalised way before Charlotte left a couple of weeks ago,” I said referencing my work with a former colleague who has since been replaced by Paul.
The boss turned to look at our co-worker, his eyes asking.
“Trouble is,” said Paul, “I went through the tender document, and discovered massive technical gaps Charlotte had overlooked, which I’ve had to plug.”
“And it never came back to you for another round of checking?” the boss’s question startled me, as I was feeling perplexed at Paul’s assertions.
I shook my head. “But the final copy in our internal drive appears exactly the same as the one I reviewed,” I said.
“The changes were in the engineering details,” Paul interjected. “You could not have picked them up.”
By the time I got out, it was dark and cold and wet. Strings of bulbs down the road gleamed like pools of petrol through the rain. I turned the corner at the first avenue and entered a busy bistro. It was warm inside, but the air was full of kitchen fumes. Clusters of umbrellas stood behind the door, and the cash register was ringing like a waterfall.
I spied an empty chair at the end of the communal bench facing the front window, and made my way towards it. Alongside me there were four workmen from the car manufacturing firm across the street. Four women were seated at a regular table behind them, and they had on the same uniform.
“I’d be careful sitting so close to them if I were you,” chimed the oldest of the female company.
I smiled, and said nothing, wiping with the back of my hand the rain from my dress. The waiting staff edged past them to take my order.
“He is notorious for casting a spell on every woman staff in the plant I know,” she said, reaching out to touch the man on my left. “And I know them all.”
The three women around her laughed out loud. One was a tall and leggy blonde; the other two were middle-aged and squat. There were glasses of beer beside their eaten dishes. And they sat slouched in the chairs, their arms crossed.
“Only because his hair is never out of place,” the man at the far end shouted. “Look at it!” The voice was sonorous from a babyish-face on a hefty body.
“And his hands are never dirty,” another added. “He would not get them in grease for anything.”
“Oh, cut it out,” Immaculate groaned, and turned his back to me, out of obvious embarrassment.
I concentrated on the traffic passing before us. A southern wind blew the rain on to the footpath, pressing the world’s wet mouth against the pane. Thunder filled the air.
“There goes George,” the last of the men spoke, and they watched a silvery, suited gentleman climb into a chauffeured car, lit by a lick of lightning.
“He’s been a total wreck since Joan died,” the first woman said. “Poor guy, it must be so hard for him to go on running the place.”
“It’s been more than two years, hasn’t it?” Leggy said. “He could always remarry. Joan was one of us, after all.”
“Joan,” Immaculate exclaimed, in a high stagey way, his eye-sockets filled with colours of the evening lights.
“I didn’t realise Joan was from the production floor,” said one of the middle-aged women. “Was she not in the office?”
“What do people know about Joan,” said Immaculate. “She was working with us until the line manager promoted her to quality assurance.”
“Did you know her? — personally.” Leggy asked. “She wasn’t there when many of us started.”
“Did I know her?” Immaculate said. “Did I know her? I loved her. I love her. She was the finest creature I ever knew. I’ve never known anybody else like her, anybody more beautiful, more gentle, more pure. She was heaven on earth.”
“Why didn’t you marry her, then?” the first woman said.
“I would’ve, but George began noticing her at the time. At first, she ignored him because we were going out…” he stopped and looked at the floor on which the furniture stood.
“And?” somebody pressed.
“And so I backed away, who was I next to George? I wouldn’t hurt her future.”
Billowing smoke descended in our corner like silence. The pathos of thought seemed to have weakened hearts towards his ancient despair. Then, the giant with the baby-face at the far-end said, “And that’s all a lie, you know it is. You never went out with Joan, you know you never did.”
“Of course I did!” Immaculate cried. “How can you say that?”
Interrupting, the shop-assistant turned up, bearing my dinner, set down the cutlery and napkin quickly, and stole away, as if the air was on fire.
Jerking his head to look round the scurrying figure, Baby-face said, ” I can say it because it’s true, because you know it’s true. I was the only person here who really knew Joan. We used to have coffee in the mornings before our shifts. She confided in me and said I was the only one who understood her. And she said…”
“Said what,” Immaculate pressured, “you big mountain of fat.”
“She said I was the loveliest,” Baby-face reminisced, the timbre of pride and pain reverberating in his deep, low voice.
“Joan never spoke like that about a man,” Immaculate retorted triumphantly.
“Oh yes, she did, she said those exact words. You are a dirty, little liar.”
“Leave me alone with my memories of the truth, fat boy.” The stool beside me bellowed with contempt when Immaculate rose to go.
As I pulled my stool ever closer against the wall, affording him more room, I chanced to see Baby-face on his feet. He had lost his anger, and in that instant I saw his nice features. His teeth were perfectly white and his eyes were soft, if sad. “Good evening,” he said to me before leaving. His manner was lovely, indeed.