Grin and Bear it: I
Wanda looked up from her computer as her manager marched smartly through the office towards the stairs, half looking at her, half smiling, and half raising his briefcase in a weird kind of salute as he left for the day. His head was raised proudly as always, his little white beard sticking out neatly from his chin. He looked jolly pleased with himself.
“Night,” she murmured in response, adding “smug prat” as a satisfying whispered suffix once he was out of earshot. Every night she stayed late, every night pounding away at the never-ending treadmill of work, and all he ever said was “Goodnight”. Never a thanks, never an appreciative word. Nothing. What do I care? She looked around the dark and now empty office. What do I care?
Wanda Smith worked at Fellbridge Borough Council as an administrator in the planning department. Sixty-two years old and no real idea of what she’d done with any of them – got married, had a selfish daughter, got widowed and then got stuck in this dump. That about summed it all up. When she’d started at the council as casual staff after her husband died, she’d only planned to stay for a few months and then move on to something else, something better. Yet here she was, a decade later, wading through the same thick and boring treacle every single day. An endless tunnel ahead of her of stuffing envelopes, printing files, and general paper-pushing. She was tired. So tired.
Endless – until retirement at least. Whenever that’ll be. Even then I don’t know what –
She stopped her train of thought because she knew how sad it’d make her if she carried on much further.
I don’t want to feel sad. Not again. Huffing loudly, she tried to focus on the screen in front of her. Deep down, of course, she knew it was too late. The truth: she was already sad. She had been for far, far too long. God I’m pathetic.
It was fully dark outside, now it was mid-October the nights had been drawing in faster and faster. The glare from her computer ached at her eyes against the inky night at the window. “Right, what’s the time?” she asked herself out loud. First sign of madness. She didn’t care. Insanity might be a welcome break. “Seven. Seven. I’ll go at half past.”
Fifteen minutes later and Wanda had stuffed all her envelopes for the day, as well as entering a few new planning applications on the system. That was worth a little reward, surely? Time for a quick online crossword before she packed up. But just as she squinted at 1 across, she was hit by a terrible headache, the kind that came on so suddenly, swelling up at the back of the brain and shooting forwards with tiny knives into the back of the eyes.
“Oh, bugger!” she cried, collapsing her head into her hands and resting her elbows on the desk. It was the third one that day. She pushed her fingers rigidly against her skull as the shooting pain continued, throbbing in nasty, needling pulses. “Go away, go away, go away,” she begged, massaging her head through her bobbed blonde hair, “please, please go away.”
Even with her hands over her face, Wanda had a sudden sense that something had changed in the office. Something had happened. Despite the agony, she glanced up, across the desk.
“Oh!” she cried out in horror.
Her heart pounded, her stomach twisted and every hair on her body stood on end. The empty desk opposite her wasn’t empty any more.
It was Matthew, the chap who normally sat there.
Only it wasn’t Matthew.
He was dressed like Matthew, his hair was like Matthew’s, he looked just like him – but he was pale, he was so pale – skin, hair and clothes, all of it drab and faded like he’d had all the colour drained from him. His eyes were fixed wide, unblinking, motionless, staring emptily ahead at the computer screen on the desk. And most disturbing and terrifying of all – he was smiling! A big, toothy, grey grin. Fixed and motionless, just like his eyes.
Wanda scooted backwards on her office chair, clasping a hand to her mouth. She wanted to scream. Then she blinked, just for a split second. And in that split second he vanished. The desk was empty again.
She sat still for a moment, all the hairs on her neck and arms still standing to attention. She didn’t even want to breathe. What the hell was that?!
“I’m going mad,” she muttered at long last. “I must be going mad.” It was the only thing she could think of – a hallucination triggered by her headache perhaps, some kind of insane illusion. She looked at the empty glass on her desk. I haven’t had a drink since lunch. I need water. With that, she grabbed the glass and walked hastily to the lift lobby, where the water-cooler was. She didn’t look behind her at all, afraid of what she might see.
The water shot noisily into the glass. It was unnerving, as though the sound might bring that horrid thing back again. Hurry up, hurry up, she found herself willing the machine. At two-thirds full, she gave up and immediately downed all but the dregs. Taking a moment to breathe and enjoy her mouth not feeling like a bit of old sandpaper, she felt a tiny bit better – although she still planned to get out of there and go home immediately after finishing her drink.
She raised the glass to her lips again to finish it off when –
The door behind her shut noisily. She screamed and whirled around, raising the glass above her head in readiness to throw it or whack it or something, she didn’t exactly know what. To her surprise she saw a man standing in the corridor with her.
“Woah, woah, okay,” the man said, holding up his hands in surrender.
Wanda narrowed her eyes at him, still very much on edge. He looked normal enough; he wasn’t like that thing from Matthew’s desk, at any rate. He wore a dark red jumper, dark jeans and a black overcoat. He looked young – thirty, thirty-five at a push, quite tall, quite slim and quite handsome. Not wolf-whistle handsome, but quite handsome. He had scruffy brown hair with a floppy fringe, and hazel eyes which appeared to be examining and questioning everything around him. It was odd, but Wanda’s first, instinctive thought was that he looked kind.
“Oh God, sorry!” she exclaimed, laughing with embarrassment and trying not to look like a weirdo who’d just been frightened by a grinning ghost. “You frightened me, sorry. I’m a bit jumpy.”
The man nodded slowly. “Yes, I can see that. Why?”
“Why are you jumpy?”
“Oh, I’m just a jumpy person,” she explained, shrugging like it was all really casual and ordinary. “Are you new? I’m here most nights and I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”
“Ah, well, no. I don’t actually work here.”
The sense of ease that had been growing in Wanda’s stomach now retreated. “Oh.”
“Yeah, I’m sort of just here.”
“Probably doing the same thing that’s made you jumpy. Nobody’s jumpy like the way you jumped just now. Not even the jumpiest of jumpy people are jumpy like that.”
Wanda furrowed her brow. “Sorry, I lost you after the second jumpy.”
“It doesn’t matter. You saw something, didn’t you?”
Wanda hesitated. He was a bit peculiar, but he still seemed kind. She felt that she could trust him. “A man. Well, a horrid-looking man. But he looked like a colleague. Back there in the office.”
The man’s eyes lit up. He grinned excitedly. “Show me?”