James grinned. “You should be. This is it, isn’t it.”
She followed him down the corridor. The carpet was pale beige, the walls polished white marble hung with portraits of previous editors, their stern, inevitably heavy-browed and white moustached faces peering down at her disapprovingly.
Fuck them, she thought, and straightened her shoulders. She glanced down at her sensible Oxfords, thinking that maybe now she could allow herself to wear heels again. She loved heels; there were some beautiful sunshine-yellow vegan Jimmy Choos she’d had her eye on for months. But if you wore heels while chasing promotion there would always be whispers that that was why you got it. It would have nothing to do with the late nights, the arse licking, the meticulous paperwork, the polite smiles at jokes even Louis C.K. would find a step too far, the fact that she’d memorised the Starbucks order of every goddamn person in the goddamn office. It would all be because of an envelope of fake leather that she put on her feet.
“I’m so glad it was you who got it.” James lowered his voice confidentially. “We – I mean the water cooler crew – we were all hoping it would be you. Miriam said she would actually quit if they promoted Dennis – Dennis, for god’s sake. You know he thinks he’s being progressive if he asks me how Tom is without grimacing. And I know he makes gestures behind my back. But what can you do, hey?”
“Fire them,” she said.
James looked shocked. “Oh – wow. Would you – I mean, are you – ”
“You heard nothing from me,” she said, and allowed herself to grin at him. “But I am not going to keep this office full of dinosaurs like Paul did.”
James beamed. “I can’t wait to tell Miriam – oh no, of course I won’t tell her right away, I’ll wait until it’s all official. But you know, I had such high hopes for Paul – we all did, all the water cooler crew. He seemed so – I don’t know, woke – when he arrived.”
“Yes. Well.” They were all the same on the inside. Paul had turned out just like the others, full of condescension and platitudes. She fucking hated clichés. “Things change.”
They had reached the end of the corridor. The door was smooth, glossy walnut brown, and the little brass plaque reading Editor-in-Chief gleamed so brightly she fought an urge to reach out and stroke it. She kept her hand by her side, and allowed James to open the door.
The office was done out in walnut wood, like the door; the bookcases against the far wall were stacked with leather-bound editions of ancient back copies; the floor was covered with a thick green and red Turkish rug; and behind the desk that hulked like an elephant in the centre of the room, sat Paul.
She checked in the doorway, but James carried on into the office. “Wow,” he said, and ran his finger over the smooth desk. “This is a pretty monstrosity.”
Her eyes darted to Paul, but there was no reaction. He just sat there behind the desk, staring ahead of him with blank empty eyes. His hands rested on the arms of the chair, his head leaning back. He didn’t move when James touched the gleaming brass reading lamp, flicking it on and off.
“James,” she said.
“What?” James looked up, and she found she didn’t have the words to say, Paul is sitting right here, don’t you see him?
So instead she said, “Don’t play with my lamp.”
“Oh, sorry.” James put up his hands in mock horror. “I forgot I was standing in the presence of the big boss.” He made a wide gesture, and she flinched as his hand came within millimetres of Paul’s face. Paul didn’t blink. “I’m surprised you’re not enjoying this more! I’d be rolling about on the carpet and climbing the curtains.”
“Maybe that’s why you didn’t get the promotion.”
“Oh yes, that’s probably it. Go on, try the chair at least.”
She stared at him, but this was James, he’d stood by her since the beginning, and if this were a wind-up, then it would probably be in good spirit to play along. She hated practical jokes, but Paul looked pretty committed to his part, so she supposed it would be best to play hers.
Sighing inwardly, she went behind the desk. Paul was very effective at filling every chair he sat in, so there was no choice – and maybe that was the whole point, she realised – but to sit on his lap. She would have expected better from James. But if she knew anything, it was that people were layered. And if James wanted to start by humiliating his new boss, that was up to him.
She sat down on Paul’s lap.
She slipped a little, and tried to reach for the desk to steady herself. But instead her hands came down over Paul’s and gripped the arms of the chair. Her neat Oxfords pressed down over Paul’s black brogues, and her back stiffened against Paul’s chest. Her heart pumped wildly for a moment, then slowed as her throat grew tight and dry.
“Well?” James beamed. “What do you think?”
She tried to laugh and say Yeah, it was a good joke, very funny, you got me. But instead she smiled a tight polite smile and said, “Yes, James, it’s delightful.”
James raised an eyebrow.
She tried to lift her hands to her face. She tried to swallow the terrified saliva gathering at the corners of her mouth.
Instead she said coolly, “Don’t you think you should be running along? The devil makes work for idle hands.”
James blinked, as though she’d slapped him. “Right. Yeah. Of course.”
She tried to say James.
Instead she said, “We really need to hit the ground running this quarter. I don’t want this reshuffling to disrupt things any more than it has to. So I expect you to pull your socks up and not expect special treatment.”
“I don’t – ”
“Because you won’t get any.” She gave him a smile that was cold and brittle, like old leaves. “That’s not who we are here.”
“No, of course.” James looked so confused. “I – yeah, no. All right.”
She tried to say please.
Instead she said, “You can shut the door on your way out.”
© 2020 Alice Olivia Scarlett
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.