She had suffered from impostor syndrome from day one in that job. It was the way her interviewer had looked at her – she recognised the repressed leer, the frequent glances down to her cleavage and resultant guilty and uncomfortable eye contact. Even on the way out of that small glass room she had felt the eyes travel down her body to look at her bum, and she had turned with a smile and offered a firm handshake in return. A few days later she received an email from her recruiter, Nancy, with an offer. A few days after that she’d called her Nancy to discuss some contractual clauses and had found her brusque and cold, formal and unfriendly, and did not speak to her again.
Alice held onto the handrail of the escalator on her way up. When she reached the top she took a small bottle of hand-sanitiser out of her bag and squeezed a small blob onto her palm, replaced the bottle and rubbed her hands together. They made a squelching sound and smelt of alcohol. She got nervous on each pitch but this time her stomach was tight as she mentally recited the opening lines to her presentation; this was the largest group yet and, since Will was attending, it also included the most senior figure she’d ever had to present to. Introductions – year-to-date results – successes – learnings. She repeated the headings to herself. That memory of Will interviewing her kept popping into her mind.
Her first day had gone similarly to her last phone call with Nancy. She had worn a turtle neck jumper and smart trousers, applied light make-up and scraped her hair back into a bun. Plain Jane. The front desk had greeted her warmly and asked her to take a seat on the brown leather sofa normally reserved for clients. There was a small porcelain bowl of mints on the glass counter and Alice had knocked it with her bag when she turned to take a seat, sending the white minty pebbles all over the receptionist’s desk. She spent the first five minutes glancing upwards and smiling apologetically, the next five worrying about her breath but too embarrassed to take a mint, and the last five growing impatient. She eventually spotted Will descending the escalators behind the counter and prepared to get up.
Alice couldn’t shake those memories as she walked across the tiled floor to the conference room. Her heeled shoes clicked loudly on the ceramic and the security guard on break in the kitchen area turned to find the source of the noise. The office was open plan, everything was white and modern, and the escalators opened into a central foyer with a kitchen area at each end like poles of a compass. Her end, North, had a breakfast bar with several high-legged metal chairs and a Nespresso coffee machine; the Southern end had shorter tables and microwaves. Each kitchen overlooked floor to ceiling glass walls that overlooked the atrium, though here on the first floor there wasn’t a great deal to see, and in addition to the high or low-legged seats were leather armchairs and a small chesterfield sofa in both kitchens. Breakout workspaces is how they were referred to; unused and expensive is how Alice thought of them.
The sofas gathering dust in each kitchen were the same as that brown leather one she had waited patiently on several years earlier and provoked another flashback. After fifteen minutes sat on it, Will had approached reception and she had swallowed her nerves and doubts and scrunched her face into a broad, beaming smile, and started to stand to greet him – when he walked right up to the desk and asked where Alice Bowman was. The receptionist pointed at her with a frown. She wouldn’t forget the look of surprise and disappointment on Will’s face when he saw her – no skirt, no red lipstick and no cleavage on show – and that had set the tone for the next eighteen months of work. She was underqualified for her role, something her colleagues pounced on, and she had spent months learning the basic skills she should have had from day one. She needed help with every little task, whether it was creating a pivot table in Excel or uploading contracts to the legal approval tool, and her colleagues either helped her with condescending indifference or took over her tasks for themselves out of frustration. When it came to her first client meeting she had panicked and reverted to her interview attire of figure-hugging skirt and lavish make-up, and flirted her way through a lacklustre powerpoint deck replete with incorrect statistics and non-guideline branding and, although she renewed the client subscription, her male colleagues thereafter looked at her with familiar hunger in their eyes; worse, the small group of women she was close to befriending, pulled up the drawbridge and froze the moat around their castle clique.
Today was a Thursday. Alice hated Thursdays more than any other day as on Thursdays her most loathed meeting of the week took place, the weekly conference call with the New York team. This meant she would be working until at least eight PM and would be unable to eat dinner until gone nine due to the ban on food at desks, but this was not why she hated the call. No, she hated it because the members of the New York team were even less forgiving than her unwelcoming British co-workers. Every Wednesday night she’d get that familiar sense of unease just thinking about their brash questions, the pixelated stares from the seventy-two inch television in conference room two-ten-A, that same unease she’d had before P.E. lessons when on her period as a teenager.
She was less than three metres away from the door to the same conference room, panicking about the biggest presentation of her fledgling career, when she saw the sticker out of the corner of her eye. So small she almost walked past it, on the glass wall of the flexi-room adjacent to her destination, a small round white sticker. She cocked her head for a closer look but didn’t stop walking immediately.
A thick black circle ran along the inside border – adorned on its outer ridge were several small black semi-circles. Inside this was a red balloon.