At five-thirty on the last Friday of the month Kay leans across the sink in the company toilets, stretching closer to the mirror, trying to reapply eyeliner when she can’t see without her reading glasses. The obligatory after work pay day drinks are the highlight of Kay’s month, no matter what she says about them.
“Enforced socializing is so tiresome,” she tells her husband, Paul, “but they bloody insist.”
She picks her outfit on the Thursday night, lays in bed running through which top with which bottom, which shoes, which jacket. Imagines Alfie’s eyes appraising her. Smiles into the dark.
Kay is Alfie’s “Admin support” but thinks of herself more as his office wife. Or rather, thinks of him as her office husband. In fact, if she weren’t already married, they would be a couple. It goes unspoken, but it’s obvious. People always say “Alfie ’n Kay” when they discuss them.
“Would you take this to Alfie ’n Kay’s office?”
“What do Alfie ’n Kay think?”
“When are Alfie ’n Kay going to be finished with the Wetherby report?”
He’s her senior, but he needs her and it really doesn’t feel as if he’s the one in charge.
He’s a little bit sloppy. A bit saggy. He looks tired, unkempt. He could do with a good woman. Sometimes when she leans over his desk she imagines him inhaling her scent, trying to peek down her top, but he’s enough of a gent that she’s never caught him actually doing so.
Senior staff always arrive at the bar late and Kay is two glasses down, straining to hear that boring guy from accounts over the music, when Alfie arrives. He beelines towards her, of course. She likes that others assume Alfie is her fella, or her bit on the side. Which he sort of is. Her actual husband is better looking, but Alfie makes her laugh, makes her glow. His attention, his wanting her, it matters. They’re the same age and share memories; the telly programme with the scary nun, those sweets shaped like tools. Once, at the Christmas party, he’d told her she was lovely and those words felt like balm. Generally it all went unspoken and Kay was grateful. She would hate a scene. Better that he never confessed. But sometimes when the alcohol warmly flowed through her body she’d feel words that wanted to be said pushing at her. Reckless words.
The room is hot and full, lights are pulsing in time with the beat. Kay luxuriates in the night stretching widely ahead. Alfie half turns and says something she doesn’t catch to a young woman with cropped hair who touches his arm. There is a moment when he is standing sideways and then Kay is looking at his back. He’s animated, gesticulating, lively in an unfamiliar way.
The women at the table she has retreated to are complaining about the Office Manager. They have been complaining about her for four years. Kay yawns and shakes ice cubes in her vodka and tonic so they crash into each other. The glass empties and she makes her way to the bar for another, a double this time. It’s 9 pm and her cab is booked for 11.30. Usually these nights blur by, but thanks to the girl who looks like a pretty boy, Kay’s stuck at the dullest table as if that’s where she belongs.
Waiting outside the toilet cubicle she looks at her reflection. It’s hard to tell if the dark smears under her eyes are mascara or tiredness. Her cheeks are rosacea red, her hair frizzed. She dabs powder on, grimaces at herself, jigs from one leg to the other, watches herself sigh.
Back at the table the office women are watching the thin, young people dance ironically, making shapes with arms and hips, pouting, maintaining eye contact with each other. Alfie is at a table for two with the androgynous girl, leaning his head towards her, so close Kay imagines his breath puffing into her mouth as he speaks. He looks old and fat, she decides. Wanker. She wishes she was home in pajamas watching telly with her husband. She flings herself into a conversation about cats. She has a cat! She knows about cats! It is 9:15.
Large groups of people disappear regularly outside to smoke, Alfie amongst them, though what he’s doing hanging with the hipsters she does not know. Making a fool of himself it looks like. She crunches her way through a bag of salt and vinegar crisps, not offering to share, licks the tangy powder from her fingers. Gulps more drink. The conversation has moved onto television. Some show she’s never seen. She feigns interest, aiming an expression of pleasant engagement. She’s wearing a new top with “feature” sleeves, but nobody has commented how nice she looks.
When Alfie leaves in a scrum of the youngsters he pauses at her table to say a vague round of goodbyes. Kay turns to the woman beside her and over-enthusiastically compliments her bag. She supposes they are “kicking on” – which frankly she thinks rude. It’s another hour until her cab arrives. An hour as endless as Sunday mass.
Finally at home she sits at her dressing table. Paul is snoring in their bed; she’s exhausted but doesn’t know how she’ll sleep with him making those animal sounds. Kay swipes a cleansing cloth across her face. The darkness under her eyes does not budge.
Sara Crowley’s fiction has been widely published in places including wigleaf, PANK, 3: AM, and The Irish Times. She won a Waterstones Bursary and her novel in perpetual progress was runner-up in Faber’s Not Yet Published competition. She’s managing editor of The Forge Literary Magazine, blogs at saracrowley.com, and appreciates you taking the time to read this.