New Order — Ceremony

The 80s never really ended. City boys just ditched their Filofaxes for iphones, swapped the baggy suits for skinny jeans, chucked the cocaine for…well, that didn’t actually even change. The banks still call the shots, counter culture is still black and although women earn more they still don’t earn as much as men. Energy companies are tabloid villains and tech is the future. There’s even a woman who runs the country, hell-bent on inflicting her own cruel agenda on the masses.

I wasn’t too happy about this particular contract. I do not like the 1980s.

The central line vomited me onto the pavement at St. Paul’s. The air was dirty and the sun was hidden behind clouds. In a phone box near the station a homeless man urinated against the glass. A puddle pooled around his ankles. We made brief eye contact and his eyes drifted down – the trail of piss had reached my black brogues. Fucking brilliant.

Normally pissing on my shoes is enough to get you on my follow-up list, but I was a little stretched for time and if Margaret Thatcher was my Prime Minister I’d be doing my best to piss on anyone dressed in a suit at St. Paul’s, so I let this one slide. Doesn’t mean I was happy about it so I stuck my middle finger up at him instead and headed down the street. My shoes left wet footprints behind me, a dark stain on the sandstone slabs that lined the street. After the sixth step my shoes seemed dry again.

I was heading to the office of Kobalt &  Kerbisher, an up-and-coming finance firm that advised its clients where to invest their cash. It was technically closer to Bank but I figured the Bank tube station in its 80s heyday would see me start the day in a sour mood, so I opted for the walk instead. I still had to pick my way through men in suits with broadsheet newspapers tucked under their arms. They were all in a similar hurry so it quickly became like a race; I marked myself against a man in a charcoal pinstripe two-piece sporting a red curtain-pattern tie, and marched at an uncomfortable pace to stay ahead of him. By the time I reached the offices of Kobalt & Kerbisher I was almost out of breath. Really needed to lay off those disco smokes I’d picked up, but they were so damn good.


Fire — Dream Wife


Every Tuesday Alice changed her commute. She did this because she was worried that travelling the exact same journey everyday created a risk of identity fraud. She still threw away bank statements, credit card bills and payslips in the same recycling bag, but had decided that strange figures plotting her journey to work and home was the greater risk, and so every Tuesday she would change at Stockwell and hop on the Northern line. It added fifteen minutes to her journey time and even though every week she would arrive to the nine AM sales meeting out of breath and sweaty, she considered it time well spent. She had not yet considered the fact that this attempt to break routine had now become a routine, and as with all routines, after a few months she forgot why she was doing it at all.

On one of these Tuesdays a man was eating strawberries straight from the punnet in the seat next to her. He struggled to make his five-a-day recommended dietary requirement on the other six days of the week, and overcompensated by cramming a whopping ten portions of fruit into Tuesdays. His usual choice of morning-commute fruit – white grapes – was sold out in his local supermarket, and so he had panic purchased the strawberries. They were not in season, firm to chew and overly tart. As the train juddered to a halt at Oval he dropped one of the half eaten tips which bounced off his thigh and onto Alice’s. The juicy red flesh left a small thumbnail size blotch on her white jeans; the stain was not visible on his own black suit trousers.

Ordinarily this sort of event would not have riled Alice. She was clumsy and would often spend an afternoon with a blouse stained from that day’s lunch, or perhaps from even earlier in the day (she was a drink spiller, too); at a recent house party her friends had jokingly given her a glass of red wine served in a child’s plastic sippy cup, a joke they had all laughed at, but were then glad about when she accidentally kicked this across the cream carpet floor. Alice herself had shared the laughter and subsequent relief. No, on an ordinary day Alice would have let this slide – she would have accepted the apology with a ‘don’t worry about it’, or ‘these things happen’. However, today was not an ordinary day. Today was a Tuesday.

The man did not apologise, and instead delicately picked the strawberry tip off its resting place on Alice’s thigh. He was hopeful that the stain would go unnoticed until he got up and left the tube at Bank, off to spend a day committing worse deeds in his job as an assistant hedgefund portfolio manager, and he would forget about it as soon as he had thrown the empty punnet in a bin outside the station. His own designer suit was unscathed and he was every bit the stereotype of his job – he even had that grease-wax swept back hair typical of an eighties yuppie or comic book villain – so ruining the appearance of an inconsequential bit of skirt would not trouble him.

On Monday nights Alice listened to The Guilty Feminist podcast. She would do this in the kitchen, while cooking dinner for her boyfriend, through her female-voiced virtual assistant powered smart speaker. The irony was lost on her.

Dinner for Two

The Cure — Pitcures Of You

The kitchen was filled with the aroma of potatoes. The pan had boiled over and frothy glutinous water ran down its sides onto the hob, where it hissed and evaporated, leaving a brown teardrop burn mark. The cubes of potato jostled for space as the orange blue flame rolled underneath, bubbles formed and burst through the surface, they were nearly ready.

Jean sighed as she entered and saw the state of the kitchen. Alex was a sloppy cook, which had been endearing at first but lately had grown tiring, and she was irked at the prospect of cleaning up his mess. In addition to the overflowing potatoes were cardboard sleeves and plastic wrapping abandoned on worktops, and a large purple smear that had dropped onto the floor and then been stepped in. Alex was standing with his back to the overflowing pan and cooking detritus, hastily chopping vegetables. The knife THUMPED against the wooden chopping board with each slice. He cooked with the delicacy of a boxing glove.

“Do you need me to do anything?”

She bartered the usual platitude knowing what his response would be. He called it backseat cooking, she called it damage control.

“No, go and sit down babe, it’s almost done.”

The tone in his voice conveyed more threat than he had intended, but it served its purpose and Jean returned to the living room.

Tonight was not a special occasion, but Alex insisted on cooking an expensive rump of lamb with mashed potatoes, roast broccoli and carrots. Jean’s portion would come dry whereas his would be lavished with redcurrant gravy that had come in a plastic sack, wrapped into a metal container that had contained the chunk of lamb. The fact it was metal meant that he had paid almost a third more than the plastic packaged meat, and almost double what it would have cost him at the local butcher, but he paid happily for the image of prestige.

After thoroughly slicing the carrots and broccoli, Alex threw them into a pan and drizzled them with olive oil, salt and pepper. These were hastily thrown into the oven. He did not check that the meat was cooking.

“Alexa, set a timer for twenty-five minutes.”

The black tube that housed their voice assistant briefly muted the audio that was playing – Robert Smith’s dulcet tones were not missed – and announced a timer was set for twenty five minutes. Alex washed his hands, went to the fridge and poured himself a glass of white wine. Yes, red wine was traditional with red meat, but it gave him heartburn and there were no snooty waiting staff here to judge his choice. He left the potatoes boiling, also without checking, and went to join Jean in the living room.

Dinner for One

Sleater Kinney — No Cities To Love

The fish was cooked to perfection. Large chunks of soft flesh fell apart on my fork, salty capers and silky smooth vermouth soaking through the fillet resting atop a seabed of tender greens. I raised the fork and admired it for a split second, wondering the lengths the chef had gone to, the miles the fish had travelled from the coast, the effort of the fishermen on this fine catch; I put it in my mouth. No need to chew it was so tender. The flavours slid over my tongue and around my teeth and lips and gums and down my throat. Exquisite.

I was having dinner alone in The Coq d’Argent, awaiting for my next target to be sent through. I didn’t usually treat myself to any downtime, let alone in such an opulent setting, but it was my birthday. My table was on the terrace and the sun had just dipped below the skyscrapers of the city, the diaspora of shapes and sizes of the buildings and the shadows they cast briefly reminded me of a cemetery. I probably think about death too much.

The skyline was visible through the leaves of honeysuckle, (or some other wall-crawling garden plant) and the shrubbery framed the glass and concrete of the city in a border of lazy contrast. The terrace contained roughly twenty small tables and was peppered with pot plants that varied from orchids to fir trees to topiary, complete with a babbling brook that ran like a moat on the outskirts atop a redbrick wall. It was jarring, like eating dinner in a garden centre, and I did not care for the half-hearted attempt to distract from the urbanity of London.

I was not the only solitary diner in this terrace and I felt a strange kinship to my companion. She was wearing a white dress with a high neckline and an oval slit across her breasts; sleeveless and plain, it looked to be made of silk or a similarly luxurious material. Her skin was a deep tan, her arms were lithe and her figure was slender but firm. A long, thin neck grew out of her dress but was halted by a sharp jawline and pointed chin. Her face was beautiful, full red lips, deep cheekbones, fluttering eyelashes, but her hair fell unnaturally over the left side of her face and obscured one of her azure blue eyes. I would later discover she brushed it this way to hide the scarring down her left cheek and mask her missing ear. She did not look old but she did not appear young, her face showed signs of worldliness only afforded to a woman of a certain age but I could not tell you what age that was. She was wearing a modicum of make-up – black mascara and black eyeliner was all she needed – and her hair flowed freely around her shoulders. Save for the strands that draped diagonally across her brow it did not look like it had been brushed. This relative lack of care for her appearance was in contrast to every other diner in this restaurant and heightened her air of worldliness. Worldliness is the wrong word, in fact. Confidence is better.

Office life

St. Vincent — New York


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.