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As soon as he got off the train, Joey knew there was something different about today. He could almost taste it in the cool, crisp morning air.

For a start, the weather had gone funny. Low clouds, not exactly mist, swallowed the whole morning. Even the sun was powerless against this numbing mantle, a pale disc low in the haze. This weird light gave everything the look of a Hammer Horror movie, though sadly without panting vixens running around in naughty nighties with pointy tits.

Then there were the people themselves; haggard and gurning, every single one of them. They might have been on their way to the gulag, or an abattoir. They didn’t always look so horrid. Joey usually had a glad eye for the women, but not today. They seemed to have been styled by Soviets, perhaps, black and grey clothes swallowing up their bodies. Even the blondes were muted, bleached out in the un-light. It was a day when it seemed winter would never end, as if a magic spell had been cast over the land.

But even as he strode out of the station, Joey felt different, alight, ebullient. There was no reason for this upturn in mood; his reflection in the Bagel Hut windows looked just like the other Ordinary People. Hemmed into work apparel, tie trailing listlessly beneath his opened collar. Still stubbly despite having shaved within the past two hours. He rasped his hand over his cheek and grinned.

He put on his MP3 for the one-mile walk down the riverside. If golf was a good walk spoiled, then the riverside was a waste of good riverside pub opportunities. All the old tenements and factories and shipyard installations were long gone, but there had been little in the way of redevelopment. The place looked like it had been re-bombed by the Luftwaffe – perhaps for good measure.

Joey was chuckling at this notion when he nearly got mashed at the nasty junction underneath the bridge. His entire life flashed across the windscreen of a terribly middle class 4×4 as it swung out, bearing down on him, snorting from its grille. The music in his ears – Let’s Go Crazy by Prince – had given the whole incident a strange un-reality, leaving him cocooned and cottony and cushioned as the 4×4 bore down on him. The pudgy guy in the driver’s seat made a big Oh! shocked face.

Joey darted back onto the pavement at the last instant, suddenly nimble after years of sloth. The car barely slowed, zipping past him. Thanks to Prince’s long, wailing guitar solo he never knew if the driver had hit the horn or not.

Twenty yards later a kind of realisation pierced the fog and his legs began to shake, but this quickly subsided. He was numb. If the car had hit him, he might not have felt it; might not have cared. Might not have blinked as he became airborne, limbs loose. He clicked the MP3 off for the rest of the walk, mindful that his next potential near-death experience while crossing the road might not be so gentle.

A dollop of white stuff spattering his suit jacket was the next surprise for Joey as he turned a corner at the Topper Finance Building. Not guano, thankfully – a constant, one might say occupational, threat thanks to the wheeling, cawing shithouses that circled up above the riverside. Nor was it flying gob from passing teens leaning out of car windows, the riverside being a notorious spot for boy racers. It was soap and bubbles, floating down from the side of the building.

Above his head, two window cleaners on guyropes sponged the side of the glass facade at the very top floor. They used long poles with squeegees and sponges, lathering and rinsing the glass. Even from the ground, Joey could see that they were laughing and he laughed, too. It looked hellishly dangerous and the guyropes clanged and clacked off the windows, and they dangled like toddlers on a swing, legs too short to push off the ground. There was a cloud of foam across one whole patch of office buildings and he imagined they might take a giant razor to it.

CCTV might have caught Joey making this journey every day for years. Someone monitoring the cameras might even have gotten to know him, to expect him to appear at the same time every day. Joey might have become part of someone else’s routine, without ever connecting with them.

Someday there might be a stop-motion movie distilling his working years down into one 30-second frame, animating him from the top of the screen to the bottom. He would start in the spring, full head of hair, quite slim, a cheeky-looking lad with his shirt buttons done all the way up to the neck and a fresh suit on. Year one of work, of adult life: the year it all starts to end. There would be light and dark as the figure moved down the path; some of the buildings might change, some of them might fall and then rise again in totally different shapes.

And when Joey reached the end of the road in this movie, as close to the camera as he could get before he disappeared off-screen, what might that final image be? Would he be bent, on the verge of retirement with a lacklustre round of applause and an awkward night out to look forward to, like what happened with Old Danny the other month? Would he be fatter and balder? Or would he look like he does now: a little stricken, biting his lip before squeezing into the revolving doors at reception?

Joey leapt up the final three steps of the staircase towards the front door of the office, accompanying each footstep with a whispered “Fuck – it – all!” as he did every day. He was a creature of superstition and habit. After thirteen years in the one office – filing reports, tabling results, scrambling data, guzzling coffee – you had to be.

“You don’t have to be chronically bored to work here, but it helps,” said a sign on Teddy the security guy’s booth.

The real bullshit began the minute he sat down at his desk in their chicken run of an office. Stacey came over with a clutch of folders, bracing them beneath her bosom the way a celebrity heiresses might carry an undersized pedigree dog. With that face, those glasses, a quite virulently offensive pink cardigan and that particular expression, he knew there was only trouble to come today. He hadn’t even got the jacket off; hadn’t even thought about clicking on the kettle.

“Stacey,” he said. “You’re going to tell me how wonderful I am, aren’t you?”

“How did you guess?” Not a trace of humour. Not a glimmer of light in those eyes.

“Oh, I have powers. I know things.”

“Actually, I’m going to have to ask you to go over the McCroskey figures again.”

McCroskey. He remembered; Friday afternoon. He’d joked that McCroskey was the tough guy mentor figure played by Robert Stack in Airplane! And no-one had laughed; horrifyingly, some of the young team hadn’t even understood the reference, thinking he was talking about a reality TV show. But he’d been in a good mood, because another awful week was done… and, as had happened before on those sort of Fridays, when his eye was off the ball, when he was mentally pouring the first glass of wine well before 5pm… Along came a fuck-up.

He swallowed. “What’s wrong with them?”

“A few little blips. Nothing to worry about. Tim Bewler’s already had a look at them. It’s nothing too serious. He just wants you to go over them and double check.” She dumped the pile of ochre folders on his desk. The impact was like a body hitting the street at the foot of a skyscraper. “Weave your magic.”

“I’ll weave you into a nice wicker chair,” he said to her pink back as it disappeared along the length of the desks.

A hand touched his shoulder. A strange surge of energy travelled through him.

“Hey there, Joey.”

“Hey there yourself, what’s happening?”

It was Her. Jill. The pair of them sort of had a Thing. Nothing had happened yet. But he really wanted it to, and he guessed she did too. It was really embarrassing and juvenile and pathetic, and yet wholly necessary. Every time he spoke to her, he blushed in shades and degrees unmatched even when he was a stuttering teenager, half a lifetime ago.

Everybody talked about their Thing. He was totally aware of this, but went with it anyway. So did she. It was a way of getting through the day. One time, he had actually carried out an audit of the emails he’d sent her on one particular day. He had stopped counting at the high fifties, somewhat ashamed.

“I see you just got Staceyed,” Jill said.

“I got Staceyed. And thanks to her, I’m looking at a Bewlering, too.”

“I thought she had a satisfied little smirk on her mouth.”

“That wasn’t a smirk. She was just trying to get some butter melted.”

“What was her problem?”

“The McCroskey accounts.”

“Hey, McCroskey. That’s the guy out of Airplane! isn’t it?”

He smiled, nodded at the pile of folders. “It was. But there’s only one McCroskey in my life, now.”

She clapped him on the shoulder again. “Never mind. Tea?”

“I think we may have to escalate it to a coffee. I’ll have to wake up and do some stuff, here.”

He watched Jill as she strolled over to the Frustration Station – a little table with a health-and-safety approved-and-stickered kettle, lots of dead biscuit and cake crumbs and dwindling rations of instant coffee and tea. She strolled so well. Sometimes she even put her hands in her pockets, and upgraded to a full-on saunter. Normally she wore trousers. Today, though, she had a skirt on and some strange diamond-pattern black tights, which shouldn’t have worked, but did. She had her little rectangular glasses on, which he quite liked. But Miss Jones… Miss Jones… you’re so… so…

His pillowy thoughtclouds were wafted away by a pair of eyebrows charging along the top of the computer monitors like two steroidal caterpillars. No, Joey thought. Don’t do it – please just keep on moving along the top of the monitors. None for me today, no thanks, nein, danke. 

“She’s looking fine today, Joey boy.” The eyebrows settled into the workspace in front of him. Deep pile, shaggy, the sort of eyebrows a cat would take pleasure in clawing. They waggled at him and Joey wished for a forest fire, a hastily tossed cigarette or even just some kids mucking about with matches.

“What do you mean, Roy?”

“Your girlfriend.” A grinning face surged to the top of the monitors. Absurdly bearded, endlessly annoying, Roy was quite simply a dick.

“Girlfriend? You’ll have to narrow it down a bit, mate. I’ve got a few. How was your weekend anyway?”

Roy chatted about his Saturday night spent DJ-ing and his Sunday spent mountain-biking somewhere bluff, rocky and dangerous. Joey endured. Sometimes you go beyond boredom, he thought, not sure if the prick prattled on or the prat prickled on in the background. Sometimes you have to go somewhere else.

Roy got to the gory details. “My pal Tom? He went over the handlebars. Went down hard.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Those eyebrows got going again. “His bicep detached from his arm.”

“Sounds serious. Is it a permanent split or could they get back together again?”

“He’ll get an operation or something. He was in good nick for it, though. Laughing and jesting all the way to the hospital.”

“Nightmare.”

“Yeah. Pretty grim.”

“It wouldn’t be me.”

“Oh, it probably wouldn’t. But then these are the things that happen when you do Man Stuff, Joey.”

“Man Stuff?”

“Yeah. Outdoorsy things. Out in the elements. Taking them on. Becoming one with them. You wouldn’t know a whole lot about that, of course.”

“No, I don’t to a lot of Man Stuff, Roy. I’ll leave that to guys like you and Tom.”

They went on in this manner for a while, Roy pitching his little digs at Joey, Joey straight-batting them. Roy was the type of person who seemed to thrive on being irritating; the more of a reaction he got from people, the more he enjoyed himself. Joey tried to appear unconcerned, but it was especially difficult at times. Any reaction would do for Roy, anything that conferred legitimacy and guaranteed he’d made an impression. A laugh, a scowl, tears. A punch in the mouth.

They came and went, all these people. The girls Joey fancied, the guys he hated, those tragic cases in the middle whose names he couldn’t remember when he bumped into them in pubs and clubs, airports and supermarkets. There were times these transients couldn’t remember what he was called, either. They’d moved on, got other jobs, had kids and never came back.

And always, Joey stayed. People got used to him. He was furniture, like Old Danny. Latterly, they even said this to him, the passing bosses and colleagues and cleaners, even people on the phone from other firms. You’re like the furniture. In with the bricks. You’ve seen them all out. You’ll be the new Danny.

No more the young buck.

He’d gone for other jobs, of course; even gotten to the interview stage. But nothing had happened; rejection letters, phone calls, thanks but no thanks. We’ve got you on file. Stay where you are.

The job had seen the odd chance appear here and there, too. There had been an opportunity to move to a bigger office, but he’d knocked it back on account of a girlfriend. She had jumped ship in a heartbeat when a similar chance came up, of course, and that was the end of that story. Then, four years ago, he’d started filling in for his last boss, Heather, whenever she was on holiday or had a sick day. He’d gotten along with her and she had trusted him in return. And when Heather got the big job in Austin, Texas, a door had opened for Joey. He got an interview, and… they hired someone from outside. Tim Bewler. Ass-kicking type. Somewhat alpha male, and a perverse figure of lust for some of the women in the office as a result. Terrifyingly, Bewler was only about three years older than Joey.

But that’s the way it goes, he’d told himself. They have people lined up for these things right from the start. I had no chance anyway.

People suspected Joey had stopped giving a fuck well before he consciously acknowledged it himself. Younger colleagues started to go past him on the career escalator. His pay barely moved; during one dodgy spell he’d even lost his job title and dropped back a few grand. He’d muttered about leaving, tarting up his CV, and of course never did. He began behaving in a decidedly recidivist fashion, fucking around and flirting and cracking jokes. For a while he had been happy in his nice cosy corner, not waving but not drowning either; then the arseholes started circling. Stacey was the worst of all, a sneering careerist schoolyard bully minus the pigtails. How he loathed her.

But, to the paperwork, the paperwork. There was McCroskey, pile after pile of it, a monument to slovenliness. In the modern workplace, paperwork – actual physical copies – meant something more than mundane tasks; something that had actually been printed out, red-inked, circled, highlighted and underlined, something far more deadly to office drones than an email. Hard copy; big trouble.

Joey massaged his clammy temples and forehead several times, wincing at every fresh mistake he discovered on his own work from the previous Friday. Jesus, it was the sort of stuff that he wouldn’t have done when he was 23. To be honest, it was the sort of stuff he wouldn’t even have done as an undergraduate, and he had been genuinely, dangerously stupid then.

He was just getting a lid on McCroskey and making it good, correcting everything on the computer system with nary a pause for a quick shufty of the internet (although there were one or two emails rattled off to Jill) when there was a sudden change in the air pressure. It was like everything inhaled, including the potted plants that quivered along the top of the filing cabinets. It was a waft of fate, a sensation a rabbit might experience just before the sudden clutch of an eagle’s talons.

Bewler’s door slammed open – perhaps the only door in the world which could accurately be described as doing so – and he charged out. He wasn’t especially tall, but he did have that sort of Russell Crowe presence to him, allied to a horrid stare that few people could match. Even Roy’s Man Stuff seemed to crumble on the rare occasions when he raised Bewler’s ire.

“Where’s Lachlan?” Bewler bellowed.

“Here.” Joey raised his hand.

“McCroskey account,” Bewler said, striding towards him. “What the fuck happened with that?”

“Just a mistake, Tim.”

“You need to wake yourself the fuck up,” Bewler said.

“Sure.”

“And – you know what? I’ll do it for you. Get yourself in my office at 12. After you’ve tidied up that fucking bloodbath.” These last two syllables were almost hysterical, a verbal high-wire act trembling on the brink of a squawk. Bewler jabbed a finger at the pile of printouts and invoices. “Twelve o’clock. My lair. Be there.”

“I will.”

Bewler’s retreating footsteps were staccato raps along the carpeting. People visibly relaxed as the sound grew distant; it was like the guns in the trenches.

First came Roy: “Whew. I hope you’ve brought a spare pair of drawers, Joey. I reckon you’ve just shat yourself there. Hasn’t he? Eh?” He looked around, straining for an audience.

Luckily, Stacey was there to provide one. “I didn’t think Bewler would go so mad, Joey. I want you to know that.”

“Thanks for letting me know, Stacey.”

“I’ll have a word with him. They were easy mistakes to make.”

“You’re a sweetheart.”

“We’ve all nearly made mistakes like that.”

This was a new blush for Joey; redder, more furious than the usual Jill flushes. “Well, every dog has its day, I guess. Today’s mine.”

“It’s only ten o’clock, sweetheart. It might get better.” Stacey ran a teasing finger along the edge of Joey’s desk folders as she turned and stalked away.

“Fancies you,” Roy said, steepling his eyebrows. “I’m sure of it.”

“Not if she had ten tits, Roy.”

“Whoa hoah!” Roy clapped his hands. “Joey swore, everyone! Jesus, it must be getting to him.”

“Want a cup of tea, Roy?” Joey went to the Frustration Station. “I promise not to put any Man Stuff in it.”

“You feel free to put…” Roy said, but Joey tuned him out. He felt all the eyes, all the looks, on his back. He sprinkled instant coffee into his cup, not bothering to measure out with a spoon. He could probably judge exactly how much to put in to make up a spoonfull, down to the last grain. Knew how much milk to whiten the coffee with, down the centilitre. Knew how much water went in the kettle from the kitchen tap if you were just making For One. You pick so much up as you go along, Joey thought. So many skills. As if by osmosis. Or perhaps it was raw natural talent?

He slammed down the jar of instant coffee, without meaning to. Then there was another change in the air pressure, the barometer going in a different direction.

Jill stood by his side. “You know, there are some who say office life is more stressful than digging a road,” she said.

“At least you get outdoors if you’re digging a road. See a bit of the scenery. Interact with passing women, fully respecting their individuality.”

She touched him low on the back, and his wires quivered. “Take it easy, tiger. Bewler will probably invite you for a game of golf, or something. That was all for show.”

He snickered. “Do you ever imagine just telling everyone to fuck off?”

“Come on, Joey. Make a coffee for me, too. Forget about it.”

He shook some granules into her cup. “I’ve half a mind to forget about the whole lot of it.”

“What, even me?”

“Well… Let’s say everyone bar you.”

“That’s the stuff. Chin up, big guy. I’ll take you for a pint later if you’re good.” She touched his elbow as he passed her the cup.

“Opening time’s in an hour. I’m holding you to that.”

The hands on the clock were closing in on 12 when it all happened. With the Is dotted and the Ts crossed on McCroskey, Joey had time to look at his private email account. There was one in from the Lottery. He wasn’t too excited, having had a few “Exciting news!” announcements in his inbox before. Usually it worked out at a tenner, or seven quid if it was the European draw. Nothing to be sniffed at, of course, but hardly “Exciting news!”

He’d used his online account to put a couple of tickets on Euromillions when he’d been bored and frivolous on the previous Friday afternoon, right about the time he’d allowed his eyes to lose focus on the McCroskey figures. The weekend draw had been a rollover, about £17 million or so, give or take the odd hundred grand.

A hundred grand. Imagine suddenly being given a hundred grand. It wouldn’t last forever; it wasn’t retirement money. But it was enough to merit telling the work to do one. And, Joey thought, the cursor hovering over the unopened mail, I almost certainly would tell the work to do one. No notice period. No leaving do. No fanfare. Nothing. Just a straight-out-the-door, P45 in the post, indefinite leave of fucking absence. A permanent sabbatical. He might even deposit one or two fingers here and there on his way out the door.

But these emails never portended big money, of course. If you won the big one, or a biggish one, they phoned you. Surely they-

“You have won the JACKPOT! £17.42 million! Your account will be credited in due course – please await confirmation email.”

His whole body, his entire sheath of skin, tingled as if in the wake of a slap.

“You have won the JACKPOT!” The email had some graphics embedded in it, but he found it difficult to focus on them. They might be little dancing balls, their arms in the air. Bouncing up and down. Smiley faces. Or fireworks, popping champagne corks.

“You have won the JACKPOT!” The words started to dissolve. He could actually be crying, here.

“Joey?” Roy sounded almost concerned. “Joey, is everything alright, mate? You look like you’re having a moment.”

“Oh yeah. I’m having a moment.” He thrust himself away from the desk, whirring across the carpet on casters. He got to his feet, strode over to Roy and placed a massive kiss on his forehead.

“Eh! Eh, fuck!” Roy palmed off Joey’s saliva.

“Thanks, Roy. Thanks for being there. Just… being there, you know?”

“What’s the score here? Ugh!”

“The score? I’ll give you the score. You’re actually a bit of a boring fuck, Roy. I’ve got my suspicions you’re some kind of Walter Mitty motherfucker. All the patter about extreme sports, and not one injury. All that… seemingly endless droning about shagging, but you know how many women I’ve heard about you shagging in here? One – Daphne, over there!” Joey pointed over to a mousey girl on the human resources desk. She ducked down behind her monitor, as if lightning might shoot from his digit.

“That’s right – just Daphne. Out of all the beautiful women in here, just one. You’re usually to be found propping the bar up on works’ nights out, aren’t you? Boring the shit out of people with tales of your crazy life. Your supposedly dodgy mates. But no sign of all these women. Oh mighty king salami, excuse me if I don’t fall on my arse.”

“Joey!”

“Shove it, Roy. Just shove it. And shave that thing off your chin, would you? You look like a fucking fanny.”

He hadn’t even practised that line, or anything like it, in his wildest five o’clock fantasies. All around him, the faces, the open mouths. The eyes, growing bigger all the time, white veined bowling balls. God, it was intoxicating.

He swaggered along the same row of filing cabinets that Bewler had thundered past earlier. Along the top there was a cavalcade of stuffed toys, pendants, tourist tat and associated bric-a-brac garnered during foreign holidays, a monument to mediocrity which people with no personality had set up, something that had endured over the years. Even though he had contributed an Eiffel Tower once, he had always hated this display of enforced jollity and faux craziness.

And so he flicked the toys and trinkets onto the floor, aware of the rising chatter and hubbub around him. He got to the last item, a ginger troll doll with a big nose who reminded him of his Uncle Patrick. Though he’d liked Uncle Patrick, it was always good to finish with a flourish; he tossed the creature in the air then caught it as it fell with a perfect volley, sending it high over ducking heads towards the notice board and the coatstands.

“Goal!” He sank to his knees and blessed himself.

Stacey lifted a phone and dialled zero, presumably for security. Joey sprang to his feet and darted over to her desk. “Stacey! Hello there! Put that fucking phone down. Right now.”

She smiled hesitantly and dropped the receiver. “What’s on your mind, Joey?”

“Freedom. Recklessness. Escape. Beautiful concepts that you… with your very small mind and your even smaller piggy eyes… cannot comprehend.”

“That’s very interesting, Joey.”

“Isn’t it fucking just? You know, you’re the perfect illustration of why companies like this one flourish, and why born clowns such as yourself succeed within them. You’re efficient, you smile on demand, you’re non-confrontational… and you’re a complete and utter snake with a clockwork heart. You’d stab any one of us in the back, and we all know it. And yet, no-one does or says anything about it, for fear of some imaginary social pecking order. You’re a disgrace. There is absolutely nothing nice about you. Why can’t you be honest with people? Do you even have a motive or are you a sociopath in sensible shoes?”

“That’s a very interesting theory, Joey.”

“Yes, isn’t it just? You want to hear more?” He grabbed a seat and thrust himself down into it. Stacey shrank back.

“What’s the matter, not liking me this close? Do you feel a bit intimidated? Shall I grab some folders and slam them down in front of you? Maybe I should grass you up to Bewler. A quick email marked ‘confidential’. Make up some bullshit about you ruining the McCroskey account.  Say you piled work on me late on a Friday instead of doing it yourself, and set me up to fail. Allowing you to take the credit for pulling me up today. How does that grab you? What do you reckon?”

“Whatever you say, Joey.”

“Are you maybe a bit threatened by me or something, is that it? Despite my rapidly receding career prospects and influence… is it possible that I still represent some kind of threat to you? In your pathetic middle-management job? Are you as competitive and careerist as that?”

“It’s gone past mid-day,” Stacey said, primly. “You’re late for your meeting.”

Joey slapped his forehead. “The meeting! Good lord, silly me! Where does the time go?” He got up like a gunfighter at a card table in a western. The chair ricocheted back into an empty set of desks, drawing some stifled gasps.

Through the blinds in the office, he locked eyes with Tim Bewler. Bewler looked as if he was making his way to the door, looking angry and puzzled. Perhaps on his way to see where Joey had got to.

Joey smiled gaily, then grabbed a chair and jammed it underneath the door handle. It wouldn’t slam open for a little while. “Now, where were we?” He clapped his hands. “Stacey, love… I told you to drop that phone.”

Behind him, the door handle rattled, and the frame shook beneath the force of some blows. “Awful temper, that,” Joey tutted. “He’ll do himself an injury. Or perhaps he’ll have a stroke, or a heart attack? Out of the game aged 40? We can but hope.”

“Hello, security?” Stacey said into the phone. “Er, yes. It’s Stacey…”

Joey cut her off, stabbing a finger into the cradle. “Ah, don’t you worry Stacey, I’m going. This is my resignation. In fact, this is my leaving do.”

“Sure is,” Stacey said.

Joey grabbed the edge of her desk, and grunted. His teeth were bared, and veins bulged alarmingly from his neck. His face flushed red, redder, burgundy.

“What are you doing?” Stacey cried.

“Lifting the desk! Or trying to!” He’d wanted to hurl it out a window, like the chief in Cuckoo’s Nest. Adrenaline coursing through him, he’d believed this feat would be easy; he’d be imbued with superhuman strength, and Stacey’s desk would sail through the air, an MDF Frisbee.

But the fucking thing wouldn’t move. Maybe it was bolted down, welded to the floor, a concreted façade for Stacey’s underground lair. He gave one last tug before bursting out laughing, sagging against the desk.

Then Jill appeared at the back of the office. She’d gone out early to collect a sandwich and had missed the whole thing. She caught the atmosphere as she strolled – strolled, by god! – back through the office. And frowned when she saw Joey holding court in the middle of the room.

He caught her by the elbow. In all this time, it was the first time he’d reached out and touched her.

“I need to have a word with you,” he said.

“What’s going on? Have you had a word with Bewler yet?”

“Oh yeah, all sorted. No worries at all.”

“Where are we going?”

“Through here. I need to ask your advice on something.” He led her round the corner to the walk-in stationery cupboard. He placed a hand on the small of her back, right in that hollow before her backside blossomed. Her blouse was smooth and sheer under his fingertips. He felt her gasp. “Just through here. In here, Jill.”

“What’s going on? Is everything alright?”

“Perfect,” he said, flicking the light on. It was surprisingly clean in the stationery base. Roy had often referred to this place as the company bordello. Maybe he was right, the sly old dog.

He closed the door over behind them.

“What’s the story? You look… I dunno. Weird.” She giggled.

He allowed his hand to trail along to her hip as she turned around. Her blouse rode up a little and he put a hand through the gap. Soft, soft skin. He would admire those hips every morning when he woke up. He would be the sun rising over the mountains.

That was fine. What he did next perhaps less so: he leaned in and kissed her, awkwardly, a peck full on the lips, with slightly more sensuality than the sort of kiss he might present to an auntie. She blinked, twice. Then she kissed him back, the same contact, the same duration. There was maybe a second or two of this game of “statues”, where they both stared at each other and things were exposed at last, but not expressed.

And who knew what sort of sensual fog might have swallowed them up next? They might have gotten completely lost. There might have been time for him to kiss her swan’s neck, to flick the stud glinting in her ear with his tongue. To tell her, “I’m going to do that to every bit of you. Every single inch of you,” and for her to gasp in response, “Mad. You’ve gone mad,” and then soft mouths and tongues and sighing.

But what actually happened was, Roy opened the door.

“Joey!”

“Roy. Come on in, mate. Make some notes, why don’t you? Take minutes. Make a video for YouTube.”

“Joey, come on out, man. I need to talk to you.”

“I’ve got a rubbery one on the go just now, Roy. Give us a few minutes. In fact, take the afternoon off, or something. I can pay you whatever you lose in wages. Easily.”

“No, you don’t understand. That’s what I mean. The Lottery thing… It was a joke. I’m really, really sorry.”

He wilted, just like that. “You fucking what?”

“It was a joke. A joke email. You get it through a text messaging service, it’s a wind-up… I thought you needed cheering up.” He bit his lip. “You’d had a swine of a morning… I hope you understand, man. I hope you understand.”

********************

Bewler was surprisingly alright about it. Curt, but not unpleasant. “Gardening leave” was mentioned, which was rather gracious, but Joey cleared his desk anyway. He filled up a box while Teddy the security guard looked on, embarrassed.

There wasn’t much to show for 13 years; a dictionary, some books from uni that were out of date, old paperwork. No photos or trinkets or paintings or posters, nothing worth keeping. That made him sad.

Jill wasn’t there to say goodbye, having taken the afternoon off with a headache. But Stacey was.

“You’d been working hard,” she said.

He laughed. “No I hadn’t.”

“You were under pressure. McCroskey was a big account.”

“It wasn’t really, Stacey. It’s okay. You don’t have to try.”

“Look after yourself. We’ll see you soon.”

“You won’t.” He lifted the box, the loose contents rattling inside.

“Joey… mate…” Roy’s face was white, a sharp contrast to the bristly beard.

“Don’t mention it, Roy. And thank you,” he said. “Thank you. Sometimes a little push is all you need. That one little step.”

No-one helped him open the door; he braced it with his buttocks, balancing the box underneath his chin. I guess I did let the door hit me on the arse on the way out, he thought.

And outside, if there was someone out there watching his progress along the road on a bank of CCTV monitors, they might well have wondered why he was earlier than usual, or why he had a box with him, or why he had a big smile on his face. But they would not have known it was goodbye.

(c) Copyright Pat Black 2015

Did you like this ? Do you fancy reading more of the same? You can do so right here, on Amazon – it’s in my short story collection, Suckerpunch

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