Angela was one of only two people to go into work on the Thursday between Christmas and New Year. Christmas, as ever, had been a solitary experience and when she’d been asked if she could perhaps make it in to do the mandatory reports one morning between the two holidays she agreed, but did her best to make her answer look reluctant. Yes, she said, she should be back from a delayed Christmas dinner at her cousin’s house in Newcastle and would probably be able to make it in. She had sighed and grunted about it all afternoon, and the people with whom she sold health insurance to the great British public understood how greatly she had been inconvenienced, but there would be no Christmas dinner. There wasn’t even a cousin. There was nobody, and Angela had been hoping they would ask her to do this for months. As the bearded spectre of Christmas loomed up at her out of autumnal hues she had clutched her chest and begged the night for it. For someone. For anyone.
She arrived to the wide empty office and, from a grid of switches, turned on just the lights above her bank of desks. The stark lights clattered above her as they warmed up and the comma of a moon that punctuated the sky outside illuminated nothing, leaving the vast room almost completely black, except for the cold pool of light she settled in. She arranged her desk, and although it was cold and dark out there, Angela’s heart kindled its own flame and beat like a flaming bird in a cage of bone. She waited.
Veronica had never been late, not once in almost four decades. In fact she was never less than fifteen minutes early. It was one of many ways she managed to stand proud in a crowd, catching the attention of light and men with such casual ease. Angela couldn’t help but admire her, and she couldn’t help but be cast into her shadow. It was a darkness that Angela had come to love after years in its comfortable shade, but back when the light was anyone’s for the taking Veronica’s extreme earliness had forced Angela to arrive earlier still, or feel second best in too many ways. So began a silent competition that spanned an age, each shaving precious seconds off their shrinking lives, throwing them on the pyre of time that burned them away, each trying to prove themselves keener to the powers that be, before Veronica had become Manager of the department, when they were still equal, in one way at least. It was an ugly dance, full of waste and pride, and in truth Veronica’s eventual trophy life, with the title and the husband and the swan-like grace, had less to do with her timekeeping and more to do with the shape of her body, a competition in which Angela just couldn’t compete, and, if she was honest, was the same reason she went to the bathroom and applied a smudge of lipstick to her thin dry lips while she waited for the object of her affection to arrive. Maybe, she considered idly as she smeared herself in red grease, she had even been complicit in Veronica's win, her adoration contributing to the consensus, but as much as she resented it, old habits die hard, and so here she was, very old, very hard, and very, very early.
Veronica arrived at 8:04 a.m., and to Angela she was as beautiful as she had ever been. Her fifty-nine years had made their mark, that couldn’t be argued, but Angela saw through the lines and looseness and liver marks to the tight little thing that used to strut back and forth around these same desks all those years ago. In those heels. She remembered those heels, those slicing, spiking heels, her legs so long and lean…
Veronica joined Angela in her pool of light and her eyes ate her up. Gold rings and clumped mascara, coal on spider legs; her body draped in a sequinned black dress that hugged her hills and caressed her valleys, and a pair of pink rimmed glasses, perched on her perfect little nose. Angela recognised the dress. It was from Next.
“I like your dress,” Angela said. Veronica nodded, as if her adoration was a foregone conclusion and her sequins winked in sequence as she drifted by like a tired old peacock displaying threadbare plumage. She was overdressed, and she knew it, but she had always liked to let a glimmer of her dinner party lifestyle leak into the nine to fives. Still, Angela marvelled at the display, and as Veronica walked around her to her own desk, she noticed a whisper of the elegant grace that hadn’t completely left her, despite being on her second hip.
They said their hellos, complained about the TV over Christmas and began their work.
“How was your dinner at your cousin’s?”
“Fine. It was fine. The potatoes were dry.”
Their shared history echoed between their small talk and over time’s barren planes. All the meetings and supervisions. The birthday meals and office parties. The leaving do’s and redundancies, like crystal sculptures that only they could see.
Once all those numbers had been entered into those black and blue screens Veronica packed up her belongings and told Angela, sat alone, that she had to nip to the loo but then she’d have to be leaving because her boys were waiting for her to eat. Angela blinked and nodded then stared into the space Veronica left behind. She considered following her into the little pink bathroom and holding the door closed, holding her down and doing the things she’d dreamed of so many times, taking what she had never been given. Trembling, she blinked twice more, waited for the bathroom door to swing shut, then grabbed her bag and trotted to the front door as quickly as her short wide legs would carry her. She fell out into a wind and the pale blue street, wiping a scrag of black hair out of her small wet eyes, then took the waiting train out of the ice grey station and was home before the lights above her vacant desk had cooled. She slammed the front door shut, ran upstairs to the second bedroom and I watched through a tear in the celestial cloth as my daughter put two nails through two small, blue birds.