Chloe just looked at me, her expression like a deer caught in the headlights. The scene she had just witnessed was not something a person would come across in the supposedly mundane world of an office, but there was not a lot I could do about that now.
All the energy seemed to have been drained from me and my legs decided I should sit down for a while.
As I slumped into the chair, I leaned forward and put my head in my hands, the effect of the action acting like a cocoon. It was at this precise moment that I realised just how shite my life truly was. Yes. I had been in a sexual relationship with Carilyn for getting on four years because sometimes it was better to be with a warm willing body and not just on my own all of the time. Our ‘sex only meetings’ suited us both just fine as neither of us wanted anything more. I had my work. That filled the rest of the hours in my day.
‘Did you want me for anything else?’ Chloe’s voice sounded distant, although I had thought she would have just scuttled off to her desk after the debacle she had just witnessed.
Slowly, I lifted my face from my hands, my fingers dragging downward until they were resting on the table top.
A soft sigh released itself from me and I gave Chloe a sad smile.
‘That’ll be all, Chloe.’ The young woman moved to leave. ‘As for the task I set you up with before…’ She turned back to face me. ‘Don’t bother finding out where Branwen Campbell has gone.’
My final two words were a dismissal of sorts and Chloe knew it. She left without another word, and I sat for God knows how long just staring at the closed door of my office.
It was getting on for four o’clock when I realised I hadn’t had any lunch. No wonder I felt empty and lightheaded. However, even when I’d eaten a sandwich I bought from the small cafeteria based on the ground floor of our office block, the empty feeling was still there, although my head did feel a little clearer.
As I entered my outer office, Chloe was seated in the place where Branwen should have been sitting and the realisation that Branwen was no longer there seemed to hit me all over again. After the showdown with Carilyn, I hadn’t spoken to Chloe at all. No work, no coffee, no anything. Funnily enough, I hadn’t had any phone calls either, or been interrupted about fifty times like I usually was.
Strolling up to her desk, I noted her shrink back slightly as if she was expecting me to go off on one at her. Is that what my reputation said about me? That I liked to shout at secretaries?
For this reason, I purposefully softened my voice.
‘Hey, Chloe. Any chance of a coffee?’
Her mouth dropped open and she quickly nodded. ‘Sure. Erm … I mean of course, Ms Staunton.’
I smiled at her, the feeling of my lips moving into that shape feeling foreign. ‘No rush. When you’re ready.’
Without waiting for her reply, I entered my office. I knew I had one hundred and one things to do as my day had not been as productive as it should’ve been.
Settling myself at my desk, I clicked on Outlook and watched as my inbox filled with mail. Subject headings like ‘Where are you today?’, ‘Who is the Rottweiler outside your office?’, ‘Get back to me ASAP’ seemed to be the bulk of it. What did they mean where was I? I was, as always, in my office. And who the hell did they mean when they said Rottweiler? Certainly not Chloe. She was as timid as they came.
At that thought, the office door opened and Chloe came in carrying a cup of coffee and a plate of biscuits. As she placed them on my desk, she pushed the plate over to me. ‘A little treat to go with your coffee, Ms Staunton. Branwen said you liked something sweet in the afternoon with your drink.’
‘Did she now?’ My voice was light, teasing, and I think this disturbed Chloe even more. I picked up a digestive biscuit and took a bite. ‘Any … thing …’ I chewed frantically before swallowing with deliberate exaggeration before continuing, ‘else? I mean, did Branwen tell you anything else about me that you needed to know?’ I took another bite and leaned backwards on my chair, my body language indicating I was open to what she had to say.
‘Erm … Just a few tips to make sure your day runs smoothly.’
I smiled at Chloe then lifted the plate and offered her a biscuit. Tentatively, she took one and bit into it, her expression indicating that she still wasn’t too sure what was happening.
‘Like?’ I lifted my coffee and took a mouthful.
‘To make sure you always came first.’
With this statement, I spat my coffee straight out and over my desk. What the hell?
‘I’m sorry, Ms Staunton. Let me clean it up.’
I shook my hand in front of her, initially unable to speak. She finally stopped trying to dodge past me and wipe away the liquid, especially when I caught her by the wrist and raised it upwards before releasing her.
‘I’m sorry, Ms Staunton.’
‘Will you stop bloody apologising, Chloe.’ The words came out firmly, but I softened them with a smile. ‘It is coffee not acid.’ I pulled a tissue from the box on my desk and wiped the surface clean. ‘See? All gone.’
With a nod in her direction, I threw the soiled tissue into the bin at the side of my desk. I felt Chloe move to leave and part of me thought it would be for the best if I let her go. But there was also a more inquisitive side to me that had not yet been satiated.
Looking away as I spoke, I asked ‘Was there anything in particular that Branwen wanted you to know?’ I glimpsed quickly at Chloe before stretching out to pick up a pen from my desk, one of the ones that Carilyn had previously toppled over. Placing it between my lips, I started tapping the plastic onto my teeth as I waited for her response.
Nothing forthcoming, I looked at Chloe again. Blue eyes were wide with what can only be described as shock. Hadn’t she seen a woman tap her teeth with a pen before?
I pulled the pen free of the tap tap tapping and placed it gently on my desk. Didn’t want to freak the poor girl out on her first day if that was the case, although to be honest, I didn’t really think she was looking at me. It seemed as if she was looking past me and onto my desk. I wanted to say once again that it was only coffee that had been spat over my desk, but she spoke.
‘She always said you were a gentle and kind woman, but no one believed her.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ My voice could have been perceived as harsh but Chloe just grinned.
‘Exactly that. All bark and no bite. She said you would do little things for her.’
‘Like?’ I was a little confused. I didn’t do little things for anyone. I worked and expected others to work in return.
‘You let her go home early if she needed to, bought her treats and left them on her desk, always asked how her day was, never treated her as if she was an idiot, especially when she first started working for you.’
It didn’t sound like me. At all. All I could remember doing was snapping at her or ignoring her.
‘You sent a wreath to her aunt’s funeral and donated to cancer research in her aunt’s name.’
I shrugged. To me that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
‘You also …’
I held my hand up, stopping Chloe’s next sentence. ‘If I am so bloody marvellous, why did she leave me?’
Chloe frowned. ‘Leave you? She didn’t leave you.’
I laughed, nodding as I did so. ‘Yes she did. Because if she hadn’t left me, she would still be here.’
Chloe shook her head. ‘I told you before, Branwen was redeployed. She was only your temporary secretary.’ Her eyes flicked to the side and then returned to look back at me. ‘She didn’t want to leave here.’
The string of words that I thought were going to escape from my mouth never materialised. I didn’t comment on her being a temp, or her being redeployed, all I seemed to hone in on was the ‘She didn’t want to leave’ part.
‘She … she didn’t … want to … Hey.’ I don’t know why I thought standing would be better but I suddenly found myself on my feet. ‘How do you know all of this? When I asked you about her before it was as if the name Branwen Campbell was alien to you and you had no clue where on earth she had gone.’ Chloe blinked rapidly but I kept on staring into her eyes. ‘All you seemed to know was that she was redeployed, but now it feels as if you’ve known each other all your lives. What gives?’
‘Not exactly all our lives. Branwen is a few years older than me.’
I had no clue what Chloe was going on about. Was it me or was she talking in riddles?
I pushed back, my butt sliding onto the corner of the table, my arms crossing as my head tilted to one side.
A sigh left her mouth. ‘I’m Bran’s cousin. My mother was the one who died from breast cancer.’
It was beginning to make sense, although I was still unclear why Chloe pretended she didn’t really know who Branwen was. With this in mind, I opened my mouth to ask, but never got the question out. The phone on my desk rang, and before I had a chance to stop her, Chloe had picked it up, and was burbling ‘Ms Staunton’s office, Chloe speaking. How can I help you?’
I held out my hand as if to take the phone, but Chloe turned slightly to the side.
‘As I told you before, Mr Jackson, Ms Staunton is in a meeting and cannot be disturbed.’
What the fu …
‘Yes. I will tell her.’
Chloe didn’t even end the call with the usual, trite closing expected from a secretary to a client, although Jackson was a colleague who worked in the sales department one floor below mine.
She placed the phone on my desk and stepped backwards as if moving towards the door. ‘Branwen said you might need some time to yourself after the letter on Friday.’ She grinned and winked at me making my mouth drop open a little more.
‘What letter on …’
Chloe didn’t give me time to respond as she was making her way to the outer door. I was still in shock to realise how badly I had underestimated the young blond woman who was now standing in the doorway looking at me expectantly. At least I had found out who the Rottweiler was in my office.
Blue eyes flicked down to the pile of stuff crammed to the side of my desk where I had shoved them after the coffee incident, my attention flicking there too.
There, sticking out from the base of the pile was the envelope I had paused over when Carilyn had been in the room, the one with the familiar handwriting and the bright blue paper-clip on the corner. Tentatively, I stretched out and slipped my fingers around the corner of the white paper and pulled it slowly over to me, the blue inked ‘Erin’ screaming for my acknowledgment.
‘I’ll leave you to it.’ Chloe’s voice was gentle, and I nodded in her general direction whilst picking up the letter and holding it in front of me. It’d been so long since I’d seen that gentle, sloping cursive that I felt a sharp pang of nostalgia echo throughout me.
Shannon McEwen. I knew it just by the way the pen had caressed the E of my name. At least this had cleared up the mystery of why the photograph had appeared on my desk at home – the paper-clip put paid to that. It must’ve been where she had attached the photo to the outside of the envelope; the reasons why she did so unclear to me at that precise moment but knew it would become clearer once I read the letter. I had grabbed an armful of work to take home with me on Friday, and the photograph must have dislodged itself from the envelope. Not really a case for Sherlock Holmes.
Lifting the letter to my face, I inhaled as if I would be able to capture the essence of the woman I’d been in love with all of those years ago. A slight scent of perfume tickled my senses, evoking memories of soft kisses, warm bodies and tender lovemaking. Closing my eyes, I saw Shannon above me, those smoky grey eyes of hers half closed with lust, her perfectly formed mouth slightly open, her breathing hitching with each thrust of her hips.
A lump formed in my throat and it took me a couple of attempts to swallow it down. Those days were in the past. I didn’t make love anymore. I had encounters of a sexual nature – just enough contact with a living breathing person to alleviate sexual tension. Not the same as when I’d been with Shannon. Quite the opposite in fact.
It was at that precise moment that I knew I’d been kidding myself for the last ten years. Not that I was still in love with Shannon, no. That wasn’t it. It was that I wasn’t the hard-nosed, unfeeling, ‘solitary as an oyster’ character I’d tried to be. I had, as I’ve already said, tried to work all the hours I could, tried to get promoted and earn more money so I could take care of Shannon in the way I believed she deserved. What I hadn’t realised at the time was all she had really wanted was me with her, and if I hadn’t been so set on ‘getting on’ I would’ve realised that she should’ve been the only thing I needed in my life.
Flipping the envelope over, I peeled the seal open. Inside was a single sheet of lined paper, both sides full of Shannon’s neat handwriting. Leaning back, I rested my knee against the table top and balanced myself whilst reading through the note. I was surprised at what she had written after the initial salutation:
Counting the delivery of this note, I would’ve been in your office three times in less than a week. Well, not your office as such, but close enough to touch you, to talk to you, to see that smile of yours that used to be able to floor me in an instant. This is the main reason why I have written this letter and not spoken to you in person. I doubt I would’ve had the strength to tell you everything if those gorgeous green eyes of yours were looking at me.
I looked up from the page and stared at the wall. Shannon had been close enough to touch and talk to me and I hadn’t seen or sensed her. There had been a time when I would have known she was close even if I couldn’t see her.
A sigh slipped from my lips and I felt a wave of sadness wash over me. I found my place in her letter once again and continued to read. After all the build up to this moment, the bulk of the letter was not what I was expecting, although, to be honest, I wasn’t too sure what I’d thought I would find on one piece of lined A4 paper. Shannon was getting married. Moving away and getting married.
Leah and I have been together for almost five years and I think it was about time we made honest women out of each other. I would invite you to the ceremony, but I don’t think you would want to travel down to Salisbury for the wedding on New Year’s Eve.
I really hope you are not working all the hours that you did when we were together, and, as a result of it, shutting yourself off from the world. The very first thing I noticed about you, Erin, was your love of life. You were so much fun, so free, so wonderfully unhampered by the stresses of the working world that I fell in love with that side of you. I’m going to attach a picture of us from that time as I am definite you won’t have any pictures. Maybe by looking at this you might remember how wonderful being in love could be. I haven’t got an envelope big enough so I will use a paper clip …
Just by her saying the paper clip bit, I felt better. Fucked up? You bet. Here was Shannon telling me about her marriage, insinuating I would be too busy or couldn’t be arsed to attend my first love’s wedding, reminding me of a time when life was less complicated, and all I was concerned about was the stationery. I would have left me if I had the chance.
I went back to the letter, but this time I tried to focus on what really mattered and not distract myself with petty asides.
But, as we both know, everything changed. Maybe it was all for the best, maybe we were too young to spend the rest of our lives together, maybe the bigger picture for us was other people who could bring out the best in us after all.
Don’t be blind to the world around you. You have so many people who long to be nearer the real you and not this workaholic figure you’ve pretended to be for so long. You don’t have to look far if my eyes haven’t been playing tricks on me. The young lady I have seen you talking to on occasion seems more than interested in you, and I recognise your body language as returning the attraction. I think her name is Branwen. She looks like a keeper, Erin. Don’t let her, like us, slip through your fingers …
Shit. Shit and shit. Too late.
I did like Branwen. I liked her a lot. I liked the way she smiled, the way she spoke, the way her hips would sway as she walked away from me to go back to her desk. I liked the way her eyes twinkled when she laughed, the way she tilted her head to the side as she was working something out or really listening to what I had to say. I liked the crooked smile she gave me when things eventually made sense, or when I thought she had been thinking of something else whilst I had been talking and that smile came out to tell me I was right.
What was I thinking? I didn’t like anything that Branwen had done or even who she was. No. I loved it. Loved all of it. And without knowing, I had fallen in love with a woman who I fully believed I’d barely spoken to. Fallen for her smile, her voice, her gentleness and charitableness. Fallen for the wonderful package that was Branwen Campbell.
Slam. My chair shot forward, my knee slipping down from where it had been resting against the table. My head was full of things I needed to sort out and none of them were work orientated.
Pressing with more force than was necessary on the intercom, I, once again, didn’t give Chloe a chance to say hello. ‘Tell me where I can find her.’
I smiled at the machine, a knowing, cunning smile. ‘I think it is obvious don’t you, Chloe. I expect the place where she is to be in a mail as …’
New message. Sender: Benson_C@gmail.com. Subject – about time.
As I read the content of the email, I started to laugh. Branwen was situated one floor below me and working for Alan Jackson – the same Alan Jackson who had called me not even thirty minutes previously. So that was probably the reason why Chloe didn’t want me to speak to him and had only tagged his message she was supposed to tell me as an afterthought to this mail ‘Branwen is a star. Can’t understand why you didn’t keep her.’
Neither could I, but I was going to start making amends for that now.
Before I had a chance to talk myself out of what I was going to do, I was outside my office.
‘Hold all my calls.’ Chloe’s eyes widened, followed by her smile. ‘As if you hadn’t been doing that all afternoon.’
Chloe’s grin became huge and I could actually see some family resemblance between her and Branwen. ‘Certainly, Ms Staunton.’
I was barely three steps away from her desk when I stopped and turned back to her. ‘Just one thing. If your cousin likes me too, why did she leave?’ Chloe opened her mouth to answer but I cut her off. ‘I know. You say she was redeployed. But why now? Why today?’
Chloe just smiled at me in that ‘I know, but you have to find out for yourself’ kind of smile.
And that was exactly what I was going to do.