In the end, we had a late one. The next morning, feeling a powerful hangover, I decided to immerse myself in hot drinks and Twitter action – the rest of the day would take care of itself. I walked into the office kitchenette to find Rita by the kettle. The angle of the door had concealed her. I must have gasped, as she said, “Did I scare you, Marcello?”
“Hello Rita. Sorry, didn’t realise anyone was here.”
I glanced at the kettle. It appeared to be a long way from boiling.
“You did scare me,” I said. “But not in that way. You know what I mean.”
“I said, you did scare me. But not in a scary way. Just as in you made me jump.”
“I wasn’t scared.”
Before my mouth offered further betrayal, I started making a coffee. As I fumbled with the teaspoon – an implement I’d used countless times without incident – an invisible fog filled the room. The sound of the spoon on china was jarring. I grappled with the lid of the coffee jar, nearly dropping it twice. My sudden lack of dexterity was troubling. I was about to abandon the task altogether when Rita said:
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you, Marcello.”
“Sure.” I snapped to attention.
“I’ve had some feedback from the team.”
There were teams aplenty in our dark halls. The term was frequently misapplied, however; our departments were closer to street gangs than teams. ‘Team’ was suggestive of sportsmanship and togetherness – things I had yet to witness in our company.
“Good feedback?” I said.
Rita smiled. “Constructive feedback.”
But of course, ‘negative feedback’ has been done away with. It is all just a matter of perspective now. I am about to be savaged, but it’s for the greater good. I should be grateful, really. Learning was the imperative. Learning and developing. Not crying. There’s no crying in baseball.
“I understand that when you were in the Press Office last week, you spoke to the team about the benefits fair.”
The kettle came to the boil and clicked off. Neither of us moved.
She said, “When you left, you said see you later, ladies.”
“I don’t remember specifically, but…”
“It wasn’t a question. You said it.”
Rita drew close and touched me on the arm. She had a worked-on face that was only slightly frozen. Her skeletal fingers felt like talons.
“They found it patronising, dear.”
I had disregarded the modern convention of calling groups of women ‘guys’, and this was the penalty. There was something desexualising about the word guys when appended to anyone other than actual guys. But, thanks to the seamy world of light entertainment, it is now considered crass to address groups of women as ‘ladies’.
Rita laughed, still clutching my arm.
“Oh, Marcello, don’t look so serious. This is just advice. It’s all off the record.”
Again, mention of ‘the record’ – must everything be categorised this way? I flicked the kettle back on and watched it boil. Rita gestured at her mug – a freebie from a recruitment consultancy. Beneath the company’s drab logo was the slogan ‘grow your career with us’. I poured the water into our mugs. In another universe, I poured it over her hand. Next, the milk, and a moment of quiet grace as I watched it flow. The Japanese did this kind of thing well, I thought. An image from Hokusai’s ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’ came to mind: a depiction of the mountain as some kind of solemn friend. A lone farmer ascended on horseback as the morning sun rose over the Pacific, the red sky full of birds. In the distance, fast boats carried live fish to the markets of the bay of Edo.
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
This is a serialisation of my book ‘I am Marcello’.