Beneath All Of This

Tess pressed her palms against her thighs and spread her fingers wide. It was strange, she thought, how her hands never seemed like hers. They were cold, and pale, marked with scars that she’d forgotten the origin of. Her hands should be warm and familiar. These looked alien, they looked human. Like any human’s. Anyone could have had these hands, not just her. She thought this way whenever she took the time to look at them. It was similar to how she felt when she stared into her own eyes in the bathroom mirror. At some point she stopped feeling like Tess and felt like something mechanical, something cold, a body carrying around the idea of her.

As she flattened her palms she felt the cold, formal sheen of tailored trousers beneath them. A feeling she’d never liked. It was so familiar, yet so strange. It felt like school, and politeness and being on her best behaviour at places she didn’t want to be as a child. She’d avoided that feeling like the plague, now, her whole body felt like school. A brand new trouser suit, dark grey, with a white tailored shirt, but with comfortable flat black shoes, she would never wear heels. Even those, though, made her unhappy.

She was not unaware of how silly she must seem, about to start a new job – her first proper one in years – wearing brand new, and fairly flattering, clothes, and absolutely loathing it. She hated this, she hated every single second of it. She hated that she had to get up this early, put on these clothes. She hated that her anxiety made sure she woke up two hours too early and had her sitting on her bed, ready, an hour before she had to leave. Her stomach was a pool of anxiety and anger, and she had nothing to spend it on. No one to blame.

She eyed the clock on the wall, still half an hour before she had to leave. And even then she would be early. Soo early. She’d always been too early for everything, then came a time when she was late for everything. That had scared her so desperately that she found she was arriving earlier again, and never found a happy inbetween. She scrunched up her face and pulled her arms around her stomach, letting out a half-hearted groan. Her stomach, rich with anxiety, and sore from lack of sleep, ached like she hadn’t eaten for days.

She looked back up at the clock, still too early to leave. But anything was better than staying here. She looked around her room, her eyes skipping over its books and paint brushes, and paper. Paper, everywhere. She thought about how nice it would be to just stay here and draw. But then she knew that even with all the time in the world, she would never just sit down to draw. There always had to be a certain amount of time given over to procrastination, and fear, and self-loathing. And that time had turned into years and now here she was. With nothing to show for it, and with no choice other than to work at a job she knew she would hate. Or at least that she had chosen to hate.

Stupid job, stupid people telling her she needed to get a proper job. Stupid job taking away her time. Stupid job. Stupid Tess. Maybe it was all too late for her now. Not really, she could always draw. But she felt like a drawbridge was going up. She knew a new job couldn’t shut her off from what she loved to do, but she was afraid. She was afraid that the moment she leapt off this point, and into a life she’d never have picked out for herself, she would give in, give up. And years from now she’d regret it.

Tess stood up, she breathed deeply. She felt a kind of living she hadn’t felt in years. Fear, worry, panic. Her mind and body alive with energy. Maybe there was excitement there too.  Maybe. Tess pulled a bag onto her shoulder, her body feeling like school, and being a child and being scared. She turned to the door, opened it, and carefully closed it shut behind her.


It was Wednesday, and the break room smelled of cheese, and curry. Tess imagined that to create a smell like this someone would have had to put an already fairly cheap and gross cheese sandwich into an even worse off curry. Then boiled it all up in the microwave, just long enough for it to penetrate the fabric of the cushioned seat she’d just sat in. She considered getting up, but no other seat in here was that comfortable. Plus, in here at least it was quiet. Quiet, and by herself. That’s all she wanted right now.

The past two days had been exhausting, Tess couldn’t remember most of it. There had been a lot of forms the first day. Then no one could really be bothered to train her on anything important so she’d been stuck doing a lot of record tidying and photocopying, and various other no need to think, just function menial jobs. Which she didn’t mind. It gave her chance to find her feet, work out her surroundings, scout the people, look for emergency exits in case any of them annoyed her or worse, didn’t like her. For the most part they seemed okay, not particularly interested in her. There were some she was sure purposefully ignored her, but that was okay. People pleasing had gotten boring, she was just here for the money, clichéd as that sounded.

It did hurt though, the way these women gossiped, in their protective little clique. It felt so much like school. They’d throw furtive glances around the office, thinking they were better than everyone else. They looked at Tess occasionally, then giggled about some inside joke. Yeah, just like school. Tess frowned. ‘Assholes’ she whispered to herself. She glared at the floor for a moment before looking up and around the break room. It really was a miserable place. Just a standard, beige room where people left milk to rot. But, at least, it was quiet. And she was alone.

Without warning a bustle of voices burst in through the doorway, Tess looked up to find the gaggle of gossipers. They paused for a moment when they saw Tess, then carried on talking loudly amongst themselves. Tess looked back at the ground, holding her breath, waiting for them to leave. One minute, two minutes, then they were sitting down around the small table. Tess had taught herself to think fast, and before the well of awkwardness could swell up between their table and her chair she jumped up lightly and walked out of the room.

Tess wandered down the corridor aimlessly, lunch box still in bag, with nowhere to go. But just as she’d taught herself to think fast, she’d also taught herself to be creative. She wasn’t going to just go back and sit down to lunch in the office, she’d find somewhere better. She theorised that this being the middle of London, there would be some patch of reclaimed urban greenery to sit in outside. She turned a corner with renewed energy and headed to the stairs leading from the basement offices. And there was a crying girl. Tess sighed internally, now what was she going to do? She full well knew that an ‘are you okay?’ could turn into a lot more. She could lose her lunch hour, but she would feel like the worst kind of person if she walked by, and she would feel that for a lifetime.

Tess approached the girl. She was just a few years younger than her, small, with red hair. She sniffled, embarrassed, she looked positively tiny. ‘Are you okay?’. The girl shook her head quickly. ‘Do you wanna talk about it?’. She shook her head again. Tess leaned against the wall next to her. ‘That’s okay’ she said, ‘I’ll just be here’. A moment passed, the girl raised her eyes to Tess. ‘It’s just… some blokes y’know?’. Tess nodded lightly, ‘yeah, I know’. The girl raised her head and looked across at the other side of the corridor as though it was supposed to respond. ‘I just don’t get why he has to be so mean’. Tess followed her gaze and crossed her arms, ‘boyfriend?’. ‘No, no’ the girl shook her head, ‘this guy upstairs. No feeling for anyone’. She took a deep breath and crossed her arms. She wiped her eyes again. Tess turned to her ‘you want a cup of tea?’. The girl turned ‘oh no, I’m fine, I’m fine, really’, she sniffed and wiped her eyes again. But Tess didn’t much like that kind of response, and never ever fell for it.


Tess had spent the past week dodging her co-workers and finding other places to eat her lunch. There weren’t really any grassy things nearby but she’d made do with benches overlooking concrete expanses left over from the seventies. Occasionally, if she wanted to, she’d take the extra time and walk over to the Thames. Even on murky and grimy days it lifted her a little. Still full of so much potential, the Thames had meant so much to London. Now, people just walked by it. Another bit of nature to be ignored and controlled, but not by Tess.

Today she was too tired to go anywhere really, and she felt grumpy that she had to give up so much time to find some space. Why didn’t the world make space for her? She never could figure that out. Finally, she asked Kate, the crying red-haired girl, where she went for lunch. Like most other people she ate at her desk or went out for a baguette which she ate on the way back. That didn’t sound much like lunch to Tess. Who didn’t necessarily need extra time for food, or for eating, but she did need some space, some time in the day, just for her.

Kate had mentioned some sort of cafeteria, or outside area upstairs, and that was what led Tess to be standing inside a colossal atrium, dumbfounded. The open space covered the area in the middle of the building, there were tables and chairs drifting out from the pretty high end cafeteria. It was filled with trees, plants but most importantly, light. It was green, and comfortable and pretty empty. Tess felt a childish sense of excitement and, abandoning the lunch box in her bag, sprung for a Panini, and coffee, and cake. Then she sat, quietly, in the corner, eyeing the space, taking in everything around her.

It felt like one great echo chamber, sounds carried, but not too loudly or harshly. It felt more like distant whale song. If whales were a bit quieter, maybe because they were shocked at finding themselves in a central London office building. Tess couldn’t understand why there weren’t more people there. Some groups came and went, but for the most part there were just a few loners like herself. She hoped that it was like this every day. Every day she could come here, she could bring her pad maybe. She felt excited for a full moment before she realised how tired she was. How tired this job made her. She couldn’t draw at night, what made her think she’d be bothered at lunchtime. Yeah, sure, it was perfect. She’d be awake, free from work, she could draw at lunchtime. But she knew that she simply wouldn’t.

She let her self-doubt drift away from her and continued to eat her Panini, glancing around the space at the other people, buried in their books and newspapers. Even with her self-doubt and the inevitable self-loathing on account of her self-doubt, her heart still tugged at the idea of drawing that person, or that plant. Or those shrubs, and maybe improvising around them? Or the colours, the suits against the dark greens. Endless choices, and as long as she didn’t actually think about taking a pen in her hand her mind could run wild with ideas of what she could do here.

As she finished her Panini she clutched for a biro from her bag and began to scribble on the serviette leftover. It was a quick sketch, it didn’t mean anything, it was automatic. If only she’d ever tried not to think about it, just to do it, she would have done a lot by now. But it was something she’d never learned to turn off. As her pen wandered so did her eyes. They settled on a man in the corner, shuffling his newspaper. He wore a dark suit, with dark hair, and a dark expression. He seemed stiff and ornate, like he could be snapped in two.

She idly began to draw him, his stiff suited legs, his angled elbows. She turned her attention back to the serviette and became consumed by the darkness of his suit, shading with a black biro could be kind of time-consuming, but it could be done. When she looked up the man had pulled down his newspaper to rearrange it. For a moment they locked eyes, she looked down quickly, ashamed. When she looked back up he was buried back in his paper. She felt she should stop, but then she didn’t want to. She continued to draw him, and shade him, and draw the space around him, before he checked his watch, folded his paper, got up, and walked away.


After a few days of monotonous record shifting and envelope stuffing Tess had had a short spell doing admin for one of the recruitment firms on the upper levels. The company Tess actually worked for was a kind of temping agency for the companies in the building. It was quite old school, she imagined their basement offices were where the typing pool once sat. And as bad as it was down there she felt kind of safe. Luckily her for her she didn’t get much of a say in where she was sent because Tess did not like the idea of working for the kind of head-hunting, white collar recruitment firm she had been sent to. As it was she didn’t mind it. The other staff were nice enough and she finally had some daylight; they were on the sixth floor. The place felt light and airy, boring and useless, but comfortable as places go. She was there three days before she was unceremoniously sent back downstairs.

Tess had been at the temp agency for just over two weeks, and she felt worse than useless. Even if she was getting paid well for not much work at all, she was bored to tears. She continued to have lunch in the atrium, but even that felt like small solace from the vast and unutterable boredom. She would go home tired every night. But then, she pondered, every time she was a little less tired. Last night she’d even gone for a coffee before catching the tube, then going home, and falling asleep. Today was going to be different though, next week was going to be different. No less than a few hours after being plonked back at her desk in the basement office, and only a few minutes after the sneering glances and insider giggling from her co-workers had begun, she was moved back upstairs to another company.

A design and print company, Tess was basically hovering over the world’s largest printers, but she loved it. The men who worked there, because nearly all her new co-workers were men, were nice and easy going. The work was easy and she got to mess around on their computers, getting a feel for the new technology, playing with the stylus’, even doing some drawing while large orders printed. She’d only been there a few hours before leaving for the weekend, but she felt pretty good about the week ahead, she’d be at the company for a few days at least. It felt like coming up for air.

One of the guys she worked with, Sam, was particularly sweet. They got on straight away and it was nice to finally be around someone she liked. He was cute and funny and had Tess’ trademark crush written all over him. But even when he walked down with her at the end of the day, even when he dropped her off at the tube, she had strong words with herself. Tess had a long and painful history of falling for guys who didn’t want her. Not mean guys, or bad guys, just guys who weren’t interested. Or at least she was pretty sure they weren’t. A couple had actually been quite interested, of course Tess didn’t know that, and they’d been a little put back when she seemed to lose interest in them. But unlike Tess they’d been able to move on, she continued to moon over them even if it wasn’t obvious. She tended to turn her crushes inwards so that in the end she couldn’t tell if she was aching because she was crazy about them or aching because she was lonely. None of this, she told herself, was going to happen again.

She wasn’t going to think about work, she wasn’t going to think about Sam. Tess walked the road back from the tube to the house she shared with a couple of friends, and a couple of strangers. As she left the bustle of the shops and entered the residential area she stopped, she thought for a second. She didn’t have to go home right now, it was getting brighter, it could even be sunny. She considered turning back, but would she go? She was tired, she wasn’t tired, she was angsty, she wanted to do something. Just anything. She turned around before she could think any longer, she marched up the high street and into a Starbucks. She sat and drew on their napkins for a while, but eventually she got bored and wandered home. But still, it had been something.


Tess had always hated Tuesday afternoons. There was always this strange, unfathomable calm about them that suggested something bad was going to happen. She wondered if everyone else felt this. Was this the reason that it appeared in the sunscreen song? Maybe there was a good reason for it, maybe after the rush of the beginning of the week everything simply calmed down. Still, though, it was an eerie calm. One day something terrible was going to happen, she was sure of it. Today, though, was different. Her short life in the graphics company was going swimmingly. She felt kind of like she did as a teenager when she was sent to a similar place on work experience. Everything was interesting. Even standing over the printers, seeing how they worked, was kind of fun.

She knew her time there wasn’t going to last forever, but at least now she was enjoying her work a little. She even doodled on the endless discarded paper, which was a nice release. And then there was Sam. She was trying her best not to like him, really trying. But he was kind of lovely, and kind of there. They had a lot in common. They were artists, she tended towards old school illustration, he moved towards modern graphic design, but they both appreciated each other’s domain. In fact, they couldn’t stop talking about any of it. Talk of art had quickly moved into movies and books, and eventually their own personal stories.  After only two days together she felt gripped by him, he buzzed through her brain. But still those red flags stood their ground.

Guys like this, who you get along with really well, she told herself, always end up liking someone else. You’re his mate, his confidant. She knew it was terrible to undercut herself like this, but she knew Sam, she’d seen him before. A number of men in her life had been Sams, and whenever she met a new one she stepped back a little and found her ground. Like the way boxers adjust their stance before they throw a punch. She was ready for a fall. But still, even when she was ready, she still fell flat on her face.

She was thinking all this that Tuesday afternoon, as she stood over the printers, waiting for Sam to return from the storeroom. They’d been joking about dating. ‘I think I scare men’ she’d said. ‘That’s ridiculous, you don’t scare me’ he’d responded. ‘While maybe you’re special’ Tess had retorted with a smile. Sam had looked up and locked on her eyes for a moment, he’d smiled at her. Then the moment was over. ‘I’ll be back in a second’ he’d said cheerily, ‘gonna get another roll before this all runs out’. The minute he’d left her brain starting doing somersaults; did that mean something? Did it mean nothing? Was he just being nice? She stared down at the floor and let out a loud sigh. ‘You okay?’, Sam walked in carrying a large roll of paper. ‘Yeah’ Tess said quietly, ‘just, stuff on my mind’. ‘You think too much’ he said while re-loading the machine. ‘Or maybe just the right amount’ she’d said slowly. He dropped the printer top back down, turned to her and gave her a thoughtful grin. He began pushing buttons, to start the printer back up. And then everything had turned deathly silent.

You could accuse Tess of taking this all too seriously, and over thinking things, but she knew she was right. Protecting herself was paramount right now. Too much had passed through her head, too many thoughts went through her head on a moment by moment basis. She knew that Sam, and the inevitable emotions that would follow – and oh, would they follow quickly – would mean her certain downfall. Yes, Tess was kind of dramatic, but she had good reason. She’d meet a guy, almost certainly immediately become attached, then weeks from now when she was in a grip of her infatuation it would all come crashing down. Did the guys always know she liked them? Not always. Did she ever make a move? Not really. Was it all her own fault? No, it wasn’t.

There would be a time for working through her intimacy issues, her fear, her misunderstanding, of men. But she was just about getting out of bed in the morning, eating, functioning. This was just too much for now. Even if it could just be a cup of coffee with a guy she liked, all the emotion that came with it was just more than her brain or body could handle. So right now she’d just settle for what she’d settled for before, loneliness over fear and rejection. She was thinking all this as she walked towards the tube after work. It was lighter in the evening now. And as the crowd pulled her towards the tube entrance her mind wandered, then her eyes did. She saw the Thames in the distance. She wandered out of the crowd, and down a side street, to just sit and watch the water roll by.


Tess had made her mind up about Sam, or so she’d thought. She always took the sensible decision that immediately backtracked. She’d once read this thing that said the reason we lapsed into eating unhealthy food after a diet was because we’d denied ourselves those tasty junk foods for so long. And so we inevitably came to think of them in greater reverence, and their ability to reward just gained weight, so to speak. So when Tess took the absolute, final decision to not think about a guy, not consider him, so he grew in her mind’s eye. It was like the minute she decided her life would be free of these distracting men she realised how little she met men that she liked, then decided to give the guy in front of her another shot. She was essentially reigniting the crush every time she saw the guy. If only they would up and leave the country.

Tess knew that telling someone not think about a black cat ultimately made them think of a black cat, she’d seen Derren Brown say that and it made a lot of sense, but still she lapsed back into old habits. This is why, come Thursday afternoon, she was swinging back around to the idea of her and Sam. Things had been strangely quiet between them on Wednesday, noticeably so. But when Thursday morning arrived he walked in and began talking to her, then didn’t leave her side for the next four hours. This all made Tess think she’d been a bit too quick, maybe this was something new, a guy she liked who also liked her. It was an idea, and an idea she probably shouldn’t have had. Because Tess was right, these things ended badly for her.

She was on her way out of the door, heading for her usual spot in the atrium, when Sam walked back into the office. There had been a meeting and the other team members were hanging back in the corridor, uneasy at the idea of returning to their desks. ‘Hey, you guys have fun?’ Tess greeted him with a smile. ‘Ugh, just boring stuff’ he smiled sheepishly. ‘But there were biscuits’ said Gavin, one of the graphics company’s younger employees, as he swung past them and into the office. ‘But there were biscuits, indeed there were’, Sam smiled again. As people began to make their way into the office Tess and Sam pushed their way out into the corridor. Sam looked around himself; ‘you off to lunch?’. ‘Yeah’ Tess said, checking her bag. ‘Sneaking off to lunch?’ Sam said, smirking. Tess was a little taken aback, ‘well, I didn’t know when you were… did you wanna come?’. ‘Well, yeah, where you going’ Sam asked loudly as some more colleagues arrived and the noise in the corridor grew.

Tess paused for a second, taking advantage of the bustle around them to distract Sam from the fact that she hesitating. She looked down at the floor, and then looked up, unsure of what to say. She looked up into Sam’s face, but his eyes were elsewhere. And for too long. Tess looked over her shoulder and spotted one of the women from the temping agency. Women, she was being nice. Cow or asshole she’d like to say, but even though she wasn’t saying it aloud she didn’t want Sam to hear her sounding like a drama queen. Sam? And Sam was? She turned back to look at him. His eyes were locked on, Corrine? Corrine who had laughed when Tess had filled out one of the forms incorrectly on the first day. Who even does that?

Tess watched as Corrine walked past and smiled at Sam, he raised his eyebrows in greeting then looked down sheepishly. She’d seen that look before. ‘Well’ thought Tess to herself ‘I guess at least that makes things easier’. Sam snuck a look back at Corrine as she walked off down the corridor, then as the people and noise dispersed around them he turned back to Tess. Tess thought fast. ‘Actually, I forgot, I have to go out and pick something up. I’ll see you later okay?’. Tess backed off up the corridor, then deflated as she watched Sam. Sam who didn’t protest her leaving. Sam who said nothing but smiled back at her. Sam who turned and sauntered up the corridor, in Corrine’s direction.

When Tess went up to the atrium her usual table had been taken, which made her grumpy. But she bought a lunch; a collection of junk food to replace her packed lunch, and that made her happy. She found a more comfortable area in the corner, with more light and softer seats. She didn’t know why she hadn’t sat here before. Then she pulled off her shoes, crossed her legs and took out the pad she’s been carrying around with her. She looked across at what up until minutes ago had been her usual table, and drew the man with the newspaper. As he moved the pages around he caught her eye but immediately looked down again. This was probably the fourth time she had drawn him, she knew she should feel guilty about. But she didn’t really care, especially not today, and to be honest he didn’t seem to mind either.


Tess was counting down the minutes until she left the graphics company. Things had been weird the past couple of days with Sam. It was like he had realised she’d worked him out and was trying to impress her with how brilliant he was before she left. She’d read about something like this before; validation. Guys who loved to chat and flirt, and you end up fancying them. But they never actually really liked you back, they were just keen on you knowing how brilliant they are, and enjoyed how happy you were to see them. Of course, they’d always take off again. In close quarters Sam didn’t really have anyone else to go, but when Corrine turned up again he disappeared for hours. Clearly he’d been knocked back a bit by something she’d said because he turned up moping and starved for affection.

But now Tess would be free of the headache. It had only been a week but the way Tess busted in and out of crushes it may as well have been months, all the thoughts and emotions it had caused. Served her right, Tess thought, she should know better than to do this kind of thing. All she had to do was wait twenty-eight minutes. She was being transferred over to another recruitment company the next week, they needed their records organised and Tess couldn’t think of anything better than being away from people and in a room full of filing cabinets. She’d happily discovered how easily she could slip on her iPod in some of these jobs. Don’t get her wrong, she had a great work ethic, but if she could find some distraction she would.

Twenty-six minutes to go. Sam knew when she was leaving, and she knew he would do something. Just something. Probably ask her if she wanted to get coffee, just for her to say yes, then for him to completely fall out with the idea. Her heart quickened as he appeared in the doorway of the mostly empty open plan office. ‘Hey’ he said ‘you’re still here?’. She really didn’t know what he meant by that. Was her still being there, good, bad, awkward? She hoped he would take it as awkward and bugger off. ‘Yeah’ she said, trying to keep her voice nonplussed. ‘Just have to wait around till five thirty, get this signed off’, she gestured with a piece of paper; the shift sheet the temp agency made her carry around. She was secretly pleased a lot of the companies in this building were old-hat, one of the recruitment companies had their employees use an app for overtime and it was always crashing.

Sam approached the desk and took the paper from her. ‘Oh, right. Do you have to have someone in particular sign it?’. ‘Marsha’ Tess replied quickly, meaning not him; her voice begging for him not to be nice about it. ‘Oh Marsha won’t be back today’ a voice from behind them said. She turned to face John, a grumpy looking middle-aged man with grey hair, and a paunch, who hadn’t talked to Tess since she started. He was looking down at his paperwork ‘I can do it if you like?’. Tess paused for a second, surprised by the gesture, also wondering if he just wanted to get rid of her. ‘Well, yeah, thanks’ Tess stood, took the paper from Sam and handed it over to John. ‘I’ll mark you down for five thirty’ he said, while signing it ‘but you can go now if you like, not much else for you to do, and you’ll beat the rush this way’. ‘Okay, well thanks’ Tess said, surprised, taking the paper back from him.

She turned to where Sam was facing her head on. He might really like her, but it was just more to think about, and she didn’t need more right now. ‘So, you off now?’ he asked. ‘Um, yeah, I guess so’, she responded, praying that something would happen, anything, to make this easier. ‘Okay, so-‘ Sam started when, as if on cue, someone bustled into the office. ‘Can anyone help me with our photocopier downstairs? I swear those people have no idea how their office works, I’m getting sick of being sent there to be honest’. Corrine; delightfully annoying, self-involved Corrine. Tess was smiling, but not because of this marvellous excuse to flee, but because she was so eager and excited to see how Sam would handle this. Would he be torn? Would he ask Tess to wait? Would he let someone else go?

Corrine wandered over to Sam, ‘now you look like a man in need of a task’. Sam smiled sheepishly, ‘well, I suppose I’ve got a minute. What can I do?’. The two of them left the office together, Sam didn’t look back. Tess thought about waiting to see if he would return before she left, but he knew she could leave early now. He could have- No, she thought. Even if he could have, he’s not. Tess put her bag on her shoulder, said goodbye to the few people left in the office and walked out. As she got in the lift she put in her earbuds and began flicking through the music on her iPod. But just as the doors closed she looked up and back down the corridor, back to the office doorway. Because a little part of her still wanted Sam to come back.


It was late Sunday afternoon, Tess hated Sunday afternoons, but most people did she would eventually learn. There was this whole threat of the work ahead, and all the stuff you had to do. It was something that began when you were a child and followed people through to adulthood. Whether it was homework, or the idea of the work to be done, Sunday afternoons were self-sabotaging events. Finally a moment of freedom to do anything, absolutely anything you wanted, or nothing at all. Finally a moment in the week just for you and everyone wasted it. Except this time Tess wasn’t going to waste it.

During the first few weeks of her new job Tess didn’t really have much energy for anything. She barely cooked, she didn’t clean, her clothes washing pile just grew. When it was eventually washed it would turn into a pile of ironing that never got done. But this weekend, so quick was she to distract herself from the confusion of thoughts racing around her brain that she did something, she did everything in fact. Her room in the house she shared was now perfect, and she was going out, to draw. She wasn’t exactly sure where she was going when she went out the door just after lunch time that Sunday, but then she thought fast. St. James’s Park. She’d been watching a documentary about VE day, the stories stuck in her head, and now St. James’s seemed the place to go.

She walked towards the tube and felt her heart quicken at the sight of a little blossom on one of the trees that sprung from the pavement. Spring was on its way and the idea of the ensuing warmth, and outside, and people, really thrilled Tess. She wasn’t sure what happened with age that made you so excited at the idea of a new season, but it was something that had happened, and now Tess sounded like a Shakespearean sonnet whenever anyone remarked on the weather. You see, Tess as a person, lingered over the outside world. She touched, and she watched, and she took it all in. But underneath she thought fast.

Thinking fast was Tess’ survival mechanism, for better or worse. She thought fast so she didn’t end up repeating mistakes, or making mistakes. As she walked towards the tube station she was unaware of exactly how much effort she was putting in. The clothes that meant she could she sit cross-legged in the park, the hoodie she’d put on because she knew she would get cold, but maybe she would get warm with the walking, so she wanted something she could cool down in without revealing too much skin. The amount of time to walk to the tube, the Oyster card in the right hand pocket of her jeans, so she could reach for it – she was right-handed – as she approached. The turnstiles which were roughly seven strides from the door. Long strides, heavy-footed, to deal with any tourists that might bump into her and put her off balance.

But Tess didn’t know there were seven strides between the door and the turnstiles. She felt the space and the movement and she understood it precisely, but she couldn’t have told you it was seven strides. Then step, step, step, small hop, elevator. Stay to the right, pull bag up over collar bone to stay closer to the right. Pull in left elbow because someone would knock it when they ran past. Turn left foot in to steady self. Ride to the bottom, long stride on to solid ground. Walk directly for entrance for platform, because this always seemed to put off people who were running in the opposite direction. They would run around her if she did this, it made one less thing to worry about.

But Tess wasn’t unaware because this was all automatic. She knew what she was doing, she just didn’t realise how much work she was putting in. This was all learned, Tess had had to think fast about it all once, but then the repetition, the plan, made it that much easier. Now she had a manual to stick to, she could follow her instructions, then the rest of her brain was free to think fast on other subjects. Her job, her future, her, Sam. Think fast, avoid mistakes. Think fast avoid making the same mistakes again. It was like she was a bit of a computer software, fine tuning herself. To be fair this was how humans worked, they made a mistake, they learnt, they moved on. But for Tess, it was all conscious, a never ending sweeping tide of thoughts beating away at her head every day. Thinking fast, her greatest currency, her greatest downfall. Because thinking fast meant always learning, always moving, never stopping for anything.

When Tess reached St. James’s the sun had got stronger. She found shade under a tree and pulled out her sketch book. The part of her brain that never turned off observed the root under her bum, the slight dampness on this one particular branch of grass. The fact that if it wasn’t for this knot in the trunk she could lean against this tree perfectly. Her brain saw a happy couple, commented on the happiness of this couple, she blocked it out. It observed the family, feeding bread to the ducks, it commented on how much she wanted a family of her own, on her biological clock, it thought about those cute little clothes in Mothercare. It made her feel cold, and alone, and weary that this was all still going on. Her life was still going on and she wasn’t any further along with it. As Tess opened her sketch book, looking every part like a relaxed, creative person, her thoughts over ran her. And over ran, and ran. Ten minutes later she would become focussed on the detail in the tree across from her. Then the thoughts, maybe they were gone? Or maybe, like for everyone else, they had become background noise. The she could just draw, then she could just be Tess.


It was Tuesday afternoon, again, but Tess didn’t mind. She was in the uncomfortably cold filing cabinet room of yet another recruitment company, she was alone, and had perfect excuses to wear casual clothes – they let her wear jeans here – and play her iPod. She was playing a lot of musicals today, it was surreal listening to the Frozen soundtrack in such an empty, clinical space, but she liked to amuse herself by miming dramatically. All in all it wasn’t bad for a Tuesday afternoon. Frozen on the iPod, and the work wasn’t at all vexing. Just re-organising old records, hard copies that the company needed to keep. Tess wondered at how old some of these companies were that they still had such elaborate arrangements of hard copies, probably quite old, they probably still added ‘words per minute’ to people’s cv’s here. But Tess was a bit of a ludite so that was okay.

Tess was mid-thought and mid file grabbing when a familiar face walked in; Kate, the crying red-haired girl. Someone who Tess hadn’t seen much of as of late, but the one time she had seen her she’d been crying again. ‘Hi’ Tess said, a little surprised, and maybe a bit put out. ‘Someone said you’d be down here’ Kate looked around, her mind clearly elsewhere. She fell silent, Tess watched her. Eventually Kate made eye contact. ‘Was there something you wanted?’ Tess said slowly. ‘Oh no, not much. Just canvassing to see if anyone wants this other job, upstairs?’. Tess put down the file she’d been holding, ‘are you supposed to be doing that? Shouldn’t the temp company find someone?’. ‘Well, yeah, but no one wants to go. And if I don’t find someone I’ll end up going, so I…’ Kate trailed off and stared at the floor.

Tess considered how in the past she might have made up for Kate’s lack of leading conversation, but she wasn’t about to offer to go somewhere where nowhere else wanted to go. Kate was looking around the room again, and Tess began to get annoyed. ‘So… you wondered if I wanted to go?’ she said slowly. Kate snapped back ‘yeah, I mean, if you want to’. ‘But no one else wants to go?’ Tess responded quickly. ‘No’ shot back Kate, clearly uncomfortable about this somehow. ‘Sorry, so why would you end up going?’. Kate had become distracted again, ‘huh’. ‘I said’ Tess responded clearly ‘and why would you end up going? I mean they can’t make you go anywhere, and if you don’t want to go…?’. ‘No, no’ Kate said quickly ‘I don’t’. Tess thought about this for a moment, she was definitely annoyed.

Tess gave in ‘okay, so why does no one want this job?’. ‘Ah, well’ Kate finally relaxed ‘the guy, you’d be working for, right knob, everyone’s sick of him’. ‘Oh okay’ said Tess ‘then I guess I don’t want to go. I’m down here until tomorrow anyway, so maybe I can’t?’. ‘Oh yeah, probably’ Kate’s eyes were dancing around the room. Tess suppressed a sigh. ‘Okay, so get someone else to do it. If you don’t want’. ‘Oh no, no, I don’t mind’ Kate said. ‘Fine’ Tess responded, far too loudly ‘then go do it’. ‘You think I shouldn’t?’ Kate started back. ‘Seriously? Kate really I have no idea. If the guy’s a dick than I don’t know why you would want to go up there in the first place?’. Tess’ voice fell as she remembered something. ‘Wait, is this the guy, from upstairs, that you… maybe fancy? And he’s a dick’. Kate looked at the floor and clicked her jaw. Tess continued ‘do you want me to save you from yourself or something?’. Kate looked up, ‘sort of, not really’.

‘Not really?’. Exasperated, Tess got up and stood, her hands on her waist. ‘I just’ Kate continued ‘I thought it might be nice to have someone on side up there, find out what he’s thinking’. ‘What he’s thinking?’ Tess balked. ‘Kate, seriously. I have to stay here, and I’m going somewhere else for the next week or so, so…’. ‘Oh okay’ Kate said brightly ‘that’s okay, we’ll find someone else’. ‘Great’ Tess said, relieved. ‘Okay, I’ll see you later then’ and with that Kate was out of the door. Tess frowned and took a breath. She wanted to be nice to Kate but she was very annoying. Tess might have issues with the whole fancying men thing, but at least she wasn’t… doing whatever it was Kate was up to. Tess was properly pissed off now. Also, she didn’t have any work lined up for a while, but it seemed a great lie at the time. At the time. She groaned, put her earbuds back in, sat back on her stool, and thought of all the reasons why she hated Tuesday afternoons.


It was Friday afternoon. Tess had spent a couple of days of calm and quiet hidden among the filing cabinets at the recruitment company, before being hauled back down to the temp agency’s basement office. Hauled because this time they actually had something that needed doing. So Tess spent most of Thursday and Friday stuffing envelopes, which was kind of relaxing actually, especially since the office was completely quiet. There was no one, anywhere, and it was kind of tempting to swing on her chair and sing Bon Jovi out loud. She didn’t, but she came close a couple of times.

She was lolling in the last few hours of the day when a bustle of people arrived. Kate, Corrine, and the rest. There were sounds of crying but this time it wasn’t Kate, it was Alice; a very tall, pale girl who always looked at Tess like she smelled of something really bad, like microwaved fish. They all gathered around a desk as Alice garbled about ‘that arsehole upstairs’. Tess knew that name; she pulled out her ear plugs but remained quiet as the group talked on.
There was Corrine, Alice, Kate, Sam, and Geri, and for the first time they weren’t bitching, they were angry, and kind of sounded like they had cause to be. Whatever had happened with this guy upstairs he had upset Kate again, then Alice had gone up to cover the next couple of days. Whatever happened next happened pretty quickly because now Alice had been kicked out of the office to. Tess knew she should feel bad for them but this all made Tess feel pretty great.

After a few moments the temp agency’s put upon managers, Pam and Eric, came in to fuss around the group. Tess had no idea where they had been, and was kind of pleased she’d nix’d that Bon Jovi idea. It appeared that the agency had hit a bit of a dead end, it seemed that they’d sent every new temp upstairs and all of them abandoned the job or were kicked out. The girls who’d been here longer no longer wanted to work for the guy in question, basically he was done. Or he should have been, but the company was kind of a big deal and the temp agency couldn’t be seen to be refusing them service.

Tess leaned on her desk, and tried not to smile. This was actually a lot of fun, watching all the scary people implode. It was like the denouement of a horror film. If this was a horror film Tess was pretty sure that Corrine would get killed first, maybe even she could kill her? Tess pondered this when her name wafted into the air. ‘Tess?’, Pam had turned to face her, the rest of the group stared. ‘Um, yes. Something I can do?’. Pam walked over, slightly flustered. ‘We have this client upstairs, now if you were to stay-‘. Pam was cut off by a patronising ‘ha’ from behind her. Tess and Pam glared at the group as Corrine turned her head to whisper to Alice. Pam frowned and turned back.

‘If you were to stay, which I’m going to be honest with you, most people don’t. It might end up as a permanent thing’. Tess mumbled in agreement ‘hm’, but wasn’t really listening. What she was mainly thinking was: would working for a tyrant be better that being shunted around, occasionally bumping into these arseholes?; arseholes who were currently smirking at her. ‘Yeah that sounds great’ Tess said loudly, surprising herself and everyone else in the room. Pam was both pleased and very shocked, even Corrine looked surprise. Sure she might end up hating herself for embarking on whatever doom there was on floor thirty-one, but Tess imagined anything was better than this. At least if this guy hated these people, maybe he wasn’t so bad.

After work Tess met with her friend, Sarah. One of only a few friends, but special, that’s why Tess kept her. ‘His name’s Tobias Sinclair’ she told Sarah. ‘Is he a Bond Villain?’ Sarah asked. ‘I don’t think so, but I like to think he was the sort of man who could get people killed. I like to think he might fall madly in love with, and kill all my enemies’. As Tess drank from a quickly decreasing Long Island Ice Tea Sarah raised an eyebrow, ‘you have to stop holding grudges against people’. Tess grimaced, ‘they’re not grudges. They are well-educated opinions based on the fact that people have been shitty to me’. Sarah looked at the table for a moment, ‘it’s making you cynical about people’.

Tess wondered for a second, ‘having grudges doesn’t make you cynical, meeting the people who create the grudges you have against them, makes you cynical’. Sarah let out a little sigh, Tess rolled her eyes. ‘I’m not that bad’ Tess said. Sarah looked at her. ‘I’ve just had a lot of bad luck’ she retorted. At that Tess felt her voice break, and she decided to change the subject. She thought about it on the way back home though, she had become cynical. Second guessing everyone and everything made you that way, and there really wasn’t any way back now.


It was Monday morning, Tess felt like she should be more nervous, but she wasn’t. She wondered if she’d just been too nervous about too many things in her life and she’d blown a fuse somewhere. Maybe it was in the same part of her brain that led to her giving less of a shit about other people’s problems. She still liked people, she was still nice, but man! When they made the same mistakes over and over, and treated her in the same way, it got tiring. Eventually she tried less hard to get people to like her, and she started to become less nervous about how they might treat her.

Whatever awaited her on the 42nd floor at the bastion of Callahoun & McCormick Advertising, which she found kind of impossible to pronounce, it wasn’t scaring her in the slightest. And whatever kind of tosspot this guy was he couldn’t be as bad as all the gossipy, bitchy girls she’d come across in her time. Although, when guys didn’t like her, well, they were bigger and more horrible. Girls could upset her, but guys could scare her. She nudged this thought into the back of her mind as jumped off the tube train and onto the platform.

She put one foot in front of the other, ‘three and a half long strides, stay solid, hold your ground, let the crowd move past you’. Besides, she thought, as she stepped onto the escalator, a ton of girls had already jumped ship from Mr. Sinclair’s office. If she did hate him, if she did bolt, surely no one would be surprised, and certainly no one would stop her. That quashed her building anxiety as she stepped out of the tube station and began walking down the street.

She’d tried to imagine what sort of guy this Tobias Sinclair was. It was definitely the sort of name you’d find in a novel or something, but then, she supposed, someone had to have that name. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, it just made him seem posh and self-entitled even before she’d had a chance to meet him. She was thinking about this too much, she knew, but it was great distraction technique. She would have to meet him within minutes, and she was a little nervous. It was like meeting a fictional character, he seemed kind of otherworldly.

What do you do what you meet someone you know to be an arsehole? You go in with preconceived notions, you judge them, you’re a bitch to them. And if she wanted something regular, some kind of work that she could get to grips with and get in the habit of she would have to find some way of liking this man, or at least some way of putting up with him. She was in the lift, she still couldn’t work out what kind of game face to put on. Maybe she shouldn’t think about it, but then not thinking about things wasn’t exactly her style.

As she got off on floor 42 she felt a flurry of panic well up inside her stomach. The office was modern, and minimalist, and there were glass walls and people in black suits, and ‘oh god’ she felt sick. Tess gritted her jaw and walked through the open plan office with what she thought looked like confidence. She wasn’t sure it was working, people were looking at her. Tess followed the office around to a desk which sat outside a large glass-fronted office, two men were talking inside. A middle-aged woman, already looking torn down by the problems of the day, jumped up to meet her.

‘Oh hi. So lovely to meet you. I’m Sandra.’ The woman stuck out her hand as Tess took in the relief on this woman’s face. Tess panicked, and her thoughts kicked off ‘oh my god! This man is horrible, what the fuck have I done?’. Tess gritted her jaw again and shook the woman’s hand. ‘Right so let’s get you set up’, Sandra ushered Tess around to sit at the desk. As she sat a man in his 60s exited the office, he stopped for a moment, then turned to look at Tess. ‘Don’t let him piss you off.’ Tess really didn’t know what to do with this. The man, sensing her uncertainty, walked up to the desk and placed a hand on it carefully. ‘If he’ he began, kindly, motioning to the glass ‘gives you any trouble, you just come see me’. The man winked at her, nodded to Sandra, and walked away.

As he left Sandra began to bombard Tess with papers and information and as her brain tried to keep up with what was clearly Sandra’s desperate attempt to get out of there she turned to look through the glass. And there he was, maybe forty, tallish, slim, dark hair, dark eyes, a sort of unfortunate sneering look that he’d obviously been born with. His hairline was receding a little, made worse by the way he combed it back. His eyes were thick with thought as he read from the computer screen. So, that was him, Tobias Sinclair, the man with the newspaper.


Tess had been sitting at that desk for a small eternity when someone passing shoved a pre-packaged salad under her nose. Sandra had left her with lots of notes and information, and systems to be learnt. Ultimately Tess had learnt her job was going to be keeping Mr Sinclair’s seemingly very busy professional life in order. Which sounded kind of boring, but at least keeping one person in order was nice and straightforward. Not like being ushered around the building on all sorts of errands she didn’t understand. Still though, as straightforward as it all seemed, Tess was tired and her head hurt. She had spent the last forty minutes staring at a piece of scheduling software, trying to work out how to enter the instructions for a meeting left on a scribbled post-it. She was relieved when the salad bloke crept into her vision.

She took the salad off him and sort of frowned at it, unsure of what to do next. The bloke was a scruffy twenty-something who, she imagined, had a mountain bike tethered outside the building. She could smell him, he smelt musty and twenty-somethingish. Like Lynx mixed with sweat. ‘It’s his’ the sweaty twentysomething gestured toward the office where Tobias Sinclair had his head in some papers. ‘Oh’ Tess responded. She looked toward the glass, but by the time she turned back, twentysomething had disappeared. Tess looked down at the plastic package in her hands, ‘okay’ she said to herself ‘now what?’.

She stared at it for what seemed like a very long time. Twentysomething had also left a bottle of mineral water and some plastic cutlery. She looked over it all and thought about 80s power lunches, and kale, and suddenly she wanted a chocolate brownie. Her stomach rumbled, she thought about lunch, she looked at her watch. Suddenly it was gone one, and she hadn’t done anything that morning, but at least she was getting paid for it. She sighed and stood up sharply. Reluctantly she picked up the useless excuse for a lunch. No one really ever liked eating kale. Then Tess took a deep breath and walked around her desk. She stopped in front of the glass wall and tapped the door lightly, which felt kind of ridiculous. He could see her coming. Still, it felt like the polite thing to do.

A ’come in’ rang out as she pushed her way in, which she’d planned on doing anyway. Was she supposed to wait? She’d have to figure that out later. She looked up into the very sharp, tired looking eyes of Tobias Sinclair. He kind of looked like an angry cat that was too sleepy to be its usual angry self. She carefully placed the salad, water and cutlery down on his desk then stepped back. She was aware of how clinical and proprietorial she must have looked, like she was preparing him for surgery. ‘The… um salad guy dropped this off’, she said standing stiffly. Tobias surveyed the objects and tapped at the side of the salad as though trying to discern its contents. ‘I’m Tess, by the way’. She felt awkward, but then that was hardly her fault. Tobias looked up at her, then his eyes followed her body all the way down to the floor. It was a tad unnerving. ‘I know’ he said, looking back down at his papers. A moment passed. He was really shit with people, that much was obvious.

As Tess contemplated what she should say next he looked back up at her. ‘I’m Tobias’ he said, ‘or Mr Sinclair. Whichever you prefer’. He gestured about, his eyes widening and his voice deepening as his body worked its way up to the conversation. What did Tess prefer? She didn’t realise she’d have to decide. She thought ahead, thinking she might avoid calling him anything. While she was pondering this Tobias’ eyes had come to rest again on the salad. She could see he hated it, but he seemed the kind of man who would eat it anyway.

Feeling her own stomach rumble, and out of niceties, she turned as if to leave. ‘Do you need me for anything right now? Or is it okay if I…’ she gestured toward the door, Tobias’ brow knotted. Tess felt the air hang heavy and empty. ‘Um. Go to lunch?’ she said lightly. ‘Yes, of course’ Tobias looked back down at his papers and began to shift them about. ‘Whenever you want to go is fine, unless I have something in particular I need you for. But I’ll let you know in advance’. ‘Great’ Tess responded, still unsure of herself. She edged toward the door and slipped out as Tobias became distracted by the paperwork.

Tess took herself to the atrium, with its modest attempt at housing an array of tropical plants it felt like a natural paradise compared to the minimalist clinician’s office that was Callahoun & McCormick. As she sat down she felt her body breathe a sigh of relief. Relief from tension she didn’t even know she was carrying. She opened her eyes for what felt like the first time in months. A normal job with particular hours, in a particular place, with particular people. This was all she wanted; a schedule. Now she could work on the other stuff. Yeah, there was the most likely chance that Tobias Sinclair would become the man she had been warned about. By next Wednesday she could find herself having an anxiety attack, crying in the stairwell. But right now she was okay, right now she felt safe. And right now, compared to everything else she’d had to deal with so far in her life, Tobias Sinclair didn’t seem so bad.


It was Wednesday and so far there had been no moments of panic, no fear, a little frustration about not exactly knowing what she was doing, but Tess felt more or less okay. She felt comfortable even. Monday has passed without any real problem. Tobias had sat in his office for hours on end. She’d popped her head in to let him know she was leaving, but he barely acknowledged her. When she arrived the next morning she didn’t bother to announce herself, and then he’d disappeared into meetings for the rest of the day. That was one thing she’d been able to work out at least, his meeting schedule. Which was just as well, because despite the particular neatness of his hair, his clothes, even his office, Tobias Sinclair had a disordered mind. He seemed perpetually distracted, but with the little she knew about her job Tess could at least keep him punctual.

To be honest, though, Tess wasn’t really sure what her job was. She couldn’t imagine it was just organising his meetings. There must be something else, anything else, or she was going to get bored, and soon. Wednesday wasn’t much better than Tuesday. There were muttered greetings from him as he acknowledged her on the way out to a lunch meeting, but there were no requests, no further information. Finally, at 3pm, after Tobias Sinclair had returned with barely a glance in her direction, Tess’ patience failed her.

She looked down into the drawers of the desk she sat at. It hadn’t seemed like a good idea before, who knew how many other personal assistants this guy had had. There would be papers, and grossness, maybe even some vengeful fish left in there. That’s what people did right? Leave fish to rot? But then, she considered, she probably would have smelt it by now. She opened the first drawer and found a cacophony of papers and stationery, in the bottom drawer a random assortment of computer cleaning equipment, a cash box with some cash, an out of date credit card, and enough poly-pockets to make a sixth former green with envy.

Tess looked up at Tobias’ office, he had his head down in his papers. She glanced over the open office, everyone else was busy. She quietly and carefully bent down on her knees in front of the desk, and began to pull out papers, keeping everything neatly piled under her desk. But as time went on and papers accumulated she surrounded herself with carefully organised piles; time sheets for past PAs, invoices, scribbled notes, promotional material, Callahoun & McCormick stationery. She sorted, she shredded – she emptied the shredder – she cleaned her computer and desk. She emailed Sandra with a whole bunch of questions. Tess finally felt useful. She felt in control.

Years ago Tess would have been stressed, she would have circumnavigated Tobias Sinclair, sitting patiently, afraid to touch anything. But these days she felt compelled to move forward, not worry so much. If he was going to get mad because she’s shredded PA number eighteen’s time sheet then she would have to deal with that. Oh yeah, there had been eighteen, Tess estimated she was something like number twenty-six in the last eighteen months. She felt like she had a proper challenge on her hands now; she could out last her predecessors, and how. She looked around the desk, sighing with contentment as Tobias Sinclair watched her through the glass. She didn’t notice. She also didn’t notice him jump as she whipped around her desk and into his office, tapping lightly to announce her entrance.

Hi!’, her informality was obvious, awkward even, but he wasn’t giving her much to work with. He looked up at her, faintly surprised at the sight of her as she stood in front of his desk, swaying slightly. Tess did always look slightly like a toddler who was asking you out to play. ‘Um, I wasn’t really told what I would have to do in the job. And I’ve got on top of the whole…’ she motioned to the desk outside ‘…organising system, and the meeting schedule and everything. So, I was wondering is there something in particular you’d like me to do, or need me to do?’. She raised her eyebrows expectantly. Tobias thought for a second, or at least Tess thought it was thinking. She also thought that he had a talent for making moments awkward, and wondered if this was his way of getting rid of people.

He leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head, it was a strangely out of the ordinary power move. She stood her ground. When Tess was bored she was a slave to her mind, if he wanted to get rid of her he best give her something to do. ‘Do you know of a stationary chain? An old one, called…’ Tobias leaned forward and picked up a piece of paper from his desk ‘Burnham’s?’. Tess nodded lightly, ‘yep, what are there like ten left, I thought they were going into administration’. Tobias swung forward out of his power pose, ‘well, there’s a still a chance for them. They have a stay of execution so to speak’. ‘Are they a client?’ Tess asked tentatively. Tobias gave her a puzzled, slightly patronising frown. ‘It’s just’ she followed ‘they are a very small chain, and they are stationers. I thought Callahoun and Mc-‘. ‘You thought what?’ Tobias snapped back.

Tess glared at him for a moment ‘I thought’ she said tersely ‘that Callahoun and McCormick dealt with larger and shall we say more affluent establishments’. ‘Well’ Tobias put his tongue in his cheek and narrowed his eyes at her ‘maybe we’re not the capitalists you imagine we are’. Tess narrowed her eyes at him. He looked down, talking quickly and sharply ‘I want their financial information for the past three years, I also want any statistical information available on their share of the market and how popular they currently are with their customer base’. Tess stared blankly for a moment, Tobias looked her in the eye ‘you think you can do that?’. Tess nodded lightly, her eyebrow crooked in surprise and confusion. ‘By Friday morning if you would, I have a lunch meeting with them’. Tess nodded again, spun on her heel and walked out of the office. She sat down gently at her desk. Tess didn’t like being tested, she especially didn’t like being tested by people who thought so little of her. As she pondered how this was most likely out of her remit, and wondered why Tobias didn’t already have this information, she opened a new email and began to write.


Tess dumped the foot high pile of documents on Tobias Sinclair’s desk with an almighty and satisfying bump. In the aftermath of their Wednesday afternoon discussion she’d discovered a few things. One, yes PA’s obtained documents, but they were usually given contacts and departments to call on. Importantly though, it was the role of the financial team to collate this information and actually send it to the people dealing with these accounts. Two, the account had already been accepted, Tobias didn’t need any of this information. Three, he already had a rundown of Burnham’s history, because unsurprisingly they’d already told him everything. Tobias Sinclair was trying to irk her, scare her off, she wasn’t impressed.

So when thick documents began showing up on her desk she happily piled them all up, and as the pile grew so did her sense of accomplishment. However, she still didn’t have much to do. To satisfy her own sense of curiosity she googled Burnham’s and created her own little statistical analysis. Well, it was a graph basically. Burnham’s lost money here because WHSmith started selling more chocolate, Burnham’s lost money there because they didn’t go after the back to school market. Instead choosing to branch out into art supplies. It was all kind of interesting and with not much else to do except the occasion call to Tobias about a meeting he was just about to be late for Tess passed Thursday quite happily. But now it was Friday.

They both stared at the pile on the desk. ‘This is what you wanted, right?’ Tess asked seriously. ‘Um, yes’ Tobias said slowly, taking in the huge pile. This was his moment to say something cutting; he didn’t need it, he didn’t want it, the meeting was in two hours, he didn’t have the time to look through it. Instead he just nodded lightly, looked up at Tess and said ‘thank you’. Tess acknowledged him with a small smile and walked out of the office. She sat down quietly at her desk, frowning. She turned to look back into the office where Tobias was staring intensely at the pile of paperwork. He looked up and caught her eye, they both looked away. ‘Well’ thought Tess to herself, ‘that all fell a bit flat’. She was looking forward to a greater sense of self-righteousness but now they seemingly both just felt a bit stupid.

Tess felt Tobias looking at her in the corner of her vision; she suddenly felt quite nervous. She pulled herself up to the desk and began typing an email. An email to no one in particular, it began ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’. She deleted it quickly before she accidentally sent it to Tobias. Like that time she was texting Sarah about a mutual friend and accidentally sent it to the mutual friend. Idiot. Tess sat for a moment, contemplating the computer screen. She looked down at her desk, her Burnham graph was coming along nicely. It was simple, but mathematically correct, and she enjoyed the obviousness of it. It also helped her understand the point of what they were doing at Callahoun & McCormick. She had always been a little bit interested in advertising and marketing, well, the art of it anyway. But seeing these sorts of numbers up close made it a bit more interesting, and she liked interesting. It made her job that much more bearable.

Tess was drawing a clean, more precise version of her Burnham graph when Tobias emerged from the office. He looked sheepish. She wasn’t really sure if it was to do with her or something else. Still, it made her feel bad for him, just a little. He approached the desk, the first time since she’d started on the Monday. Tess sat up stiffly in her seat. Tobias gestured, some papers in his hand ‘so I’m going out for lunch’. She nodded lightly as he looked around, trying to gather his thoughts. ‘I have some papers in my desk’ he gestured toward his office ‘and I notice you like… tidying. So if you wanted something to do this afternoon, that would be helpful’. This sort of felt like an olive branch. A really weird olive branch, but still the thought was there. Tobias paused, looking around, not sure what to do next. ‘Oh’ Tess responded ‘yeah, that’s great. I needed something to do. Anything I should keep in particular, or-‘. ‘No, no, no. You use your own judgement’, Tobias responded quickly.

Tobias seemed distracted, and exhausted. Tess wondered if he was ill, or upset, or something. There was definitely something not quite right. ‘Well, I’ll…’ Tobias motioned back to the office, looking into Tess’ eyes for the first time in the moments since they’d been talking. ‘Okay’ Tess said ‘I’ll take care of that while you’re out’. Tobias nodded and backed into the office. He was an odd man Tess decided. But she sort of liked him. Weird, she could do. Weird, she understood. Later on, while Tobias was out, Tess contemplated how one man, who had all the impression of accuracy and precision could have such a filthy desk. While she looked around for cleaning supplies in the break room she got to talking to a fellow PA named Alice. Tobias, she said, made people uncomfortable. Tobias purposefully drove everyone away. That included the cleaners and Tess’ predecessors. Tess probably wouldn’t last long, Alice told her. Tess considered this like she’d considered everyone’s opinions on Tobias Sinclair. But she decided to stick with her own impressions. To her, Tobias Sinclair was a quiet man who liked his own space. If she gave him that maybe she could stick around for a while and earn a little bit of the security she desperately craved these days.