￼‘I feel like resigning.’ Eric took a slurp of wine. He was drinking too much. Had agreed not to drink before supper, but as soon as he was out of the car and through the door he’d head for the wine rack in the kitchen complaining about the traffic and there’d be the ‘thuck’ of a pulled cork. He was always feeling sorry for himself these days.
‘You always say that,’ said Lisa, bringing the plates across to the table. She put the meals down: reheated lasagne and salad, thinking that she worked as well, in the same company even, but nowadays it was Eric who came home late and needed her to cook – anything – and listen.
Although she sat opposite him her gaze slid sideways. Through the French windows she noticed the rose bush: ‘Fragonard’; the blooms deep pink and luscious with fragrance, glowing in the setting sun, their petals exquisitely curled. But it was getting late, nearly nine; she would have to go out and look tomorrow.
‘It’s worse the last few months.’ More wine. He had taken off his tie and hung it over the back of his chair, had folded back his shirt cuffs. ‘Since Moira Miller left.’
‘That was a while ago.’ Lisa had been at Moira Miller’s leaving party, the one that was not supposed to have happened because of restrictions, except that Matthew Doyle the Head of HR had said it would be all right: they would all do social distancing. Which hadn’t happened.
She sighed. ‘OK. Tell me.’
‘Chloe’s put in a grievance. Says I’ve been bullying and harrassing her.’
‘Oh, poor Chloe!’ Everyone felt sorry for Chloe. She had struggled after her father’s death. She hadn’t been able to visit him. It had been eighteen months but she still confided in everyone how guilty she felt; no matter how much they comforted her she always seemed depressed.
‘What d’you mean, poor Chloe? What about me? I’m your husband, remember?’
‘But Eric, she’s had such… issues…’ Lisa frowned, watching Eric’s face redden with the wine. ‘She’s always off sick…’
‘Yeah, she’s off sick and I get to pick up her work. What she does do is worse than useless. I feel like I’m always cleaning up after she’s made a mess.’ He jabbed his fork into his lasagne: sauce splashed on his shirt and he cursed.
‘Not at the table, please, love.’
‘I’m sorry.’ He sighed. ‘How was your day anyway?’
’Same as, I suppose. It all helps to pay the mortgage. I don’t know how we’ll ever afford kids. Maybe you should resign? Look elsewhere?’
Eric had been cutting his lettuce into ever smaller pieces. He wasn’t fond of salad but normally would have eaten it. Now his eyes met hers across the table: desperate; dark rings beneath them. He was ageing, she thought, rapidly. ‘I don’t know if I’d get a reference,’ he said.
She gulped down on the acid that had risen to the back of her throat. Now it was her turn to stare in desperation. She didn’t want to ask the question, just went on staring. It wasn’t possible: he worked so hard. In at 7.30 in the morning. Out at 8pm. Lunch al desko.
‘It’s the investigation,’ he said. ‘Bullying. They’re hiring outside consultants, taking statements, interviewing staff.’
‘But you’re not a bully, Eric.’ She was sure of it. He had always been a kind, easy-going man. ‘I wouldn’t have married you…’ Then she thought: what if he’s different at work? Maybe he has a cruel streak but I haven’t seen it yet? Maybe I’ll have to watch myself. Then: no, that’s unfair. ‘What are you supposed to have done?’
‘Multiple occasions. Shouting – so she says – belittling her, sidelining her …’
‘She can’t have evidence, surely?’
‘She says it mostly happened when we were alone. We do share an office. If my filing cabinet still counts.’
‘If there’s no evidence?
‘Matthew Doyle said…’
‘Well he’s one to talk about bullying and harassment!’ Lisa snapped impatiently. ‘Mr Octopus hands!’
Eric glowered. ‘Has he been bothering you? I’ll kill him.’
‘No, no, just stuff I’ve heard. Actually it’s funny you should mention Chloe… You remember we both went to Moira Miller’s leaving party…’
‘I know. We were supposed to be socially distanced. So when Matthew was sick in the corridor no one wanted to clear it up.’
‘I got chatting to Moira. She said she took a job in her local library.’
‘Moira? A librarian? Never…’
‘It was half the salary, but she wanted to get away from Matthew.’
‘I thought they were going out with each other?’
‘That was ages ago. You don’t pay attention, Eric. It’s as if you went there every day to work or something. Moira wanted a complete break from him. Couldn’t stand the sight of him any more, the two-timing bastard, she told me. She’d had a few glasses of prosecco by then.’
‘Go on with you.’
‘Then she started on Chloe. Didn’t I think Chloe was talentless and vacant…’
‘She had a point there…’
‘Chloe would never help anyone out, everything was all about her, and how had someone with her lack of experience got so far up the hierarchy so quickly and was it to do with having long blonde hair and legs like-‘
‘Well of course it’s to do with that. It can’t be anything else. It’s certainly not her personality and charm. I told you how as soon as she was promoted she moved all my stuff on to a trolley and told me I was hot-desking. Agile working she called it. Then she sat in my swivel chair with her hands behind her head, sticking her chest out at me.’
‘How delicious for you, darling.’
‘I felt like stabbing her to death with the letter opener.’ Eric gave a short laugh and swished Valpolicella around in his glass. ‘Except it was buried somewhere in the damn trolley. When I objected she said that I was harassing her. Then she left me a huge pile of her work to do while she went to the Awayday with Matthew… When she came back I tackled her about it and she said I was a bully.’
‘Wait a minute.’ Lisa said. Some images were repeating themselves in her mind, the way all her photographs slipped past when she searched through her phone. The permanent frown on Moira Miller’s face since Chloe started working there. The way the frown creased into overt hatred when she thought no-one saw. All those glimpses of Chloe talking to Matthew beside the printer. There had been a rumour that he emailed her long documents to print out so that he would find her standing there. He had to be the one that replenished the paper tray, changed the ink cartridges, unblocked the paper jams. The consumables were kept in his office: an economy drive, he said. Oh, yes, and at the party, Matthew grabbing and kissing Chloe when he was supposed to be doing social distancing. Afterwards he let it be known that he was drunk. Out of his head. But hey (elbow nudge), it was a good night, wasn’t it?
‘You’re not a bully, Eric,’ Lisa said suddenly. ‘Matthew and Chloe are stitching you up, aren’t they? They want you out of the way. Chloe wants a promotion. Maybe you can cut a deal with Matthew? He gives you a good reference, you resign.’
‘It’s not easy, you know.’ Heaving a huge sigh, Eric pushed his wine glass away and went out on to the terrace. The sun had dropped and the trees at the end of the garden were just dark shapes against a greyish-violet sky.
Lisa turned off the lamps and joined him. The Fragonard roses were barely visible but for a moment she sank her nose into a cup brimful of fragrance. She had worn Fragonard perfume on their wedding day.
Now the world disappeared under darkness and dew. A wild creature shuffled in the hedge. It was worth the long commute home, to the good night.
‘There’s only us and the stars, now.’ His arm was around her and her head lay on his shoulder. Be still, my beating heart.
‘I’ll resign with you,’ she said.