In the evenings she can sometimes find the time to sit down and think to herself: I am Helen Applecross, I'm happy in what I do, I've got great legs and men still want to sleep with me. The fog outside the closed sash window cannot get at her bones (she isn't really old enough to be thinking about her bones, is she?) but she can sense its disarming physicality, its muscularity. She hears a siren, a couple of drunken shouts. Night sounds. She thinks that a thick fog should muffle sound, hide its location and identity like it hides the visible edges of the world. But tonight the city's noises seem focused, have a diamond clarity that cuts through the glass of darkness and the window.
She feels the autumn clambering up on her, lazy and drunk.
She stops writing, takes a handful of cotton-wool to the street-lit window and begins to remove the day's mke-up in the orange relection. Soon the fog is inside and out - the window becomes misted with her slow, polite, female breath. Female, she thinks, and it is almost as if she has spoken out loud, the word adding its own peculier vapour to hers, forming an ambiguously bordered circle on the glass like an ecliptic penumbra. She leaves her face half-cleansed, returns to the desk, flicks through a pile of paper.
As a branch manager she has to write annual appraisals for the team of shop assistants working under her. She likes to give each one a personal touch, to steer clear of jargon, but after nine years she finds herself writing pretty much the same thing for everyone. On the piece of paper with Veronica Stallwood's name and details on it she writes:
Your talent for customer service is natural. You have a superb rapport with our regular customers and an innate ability for making people feel comfortable. If you were to stay with the company in the long term I can forsee a career at management level, and would be happy to...
She lets the pen drop and a fine, uncontrolled diagonal line of ink flashes across the sentences she has just written, stopping at the nadir of Veronica's capital V. Veronica, she thinks, is a ridiculous, eighties-sounding name.
Veronica Stallwood is twenty-four and likes to fuck. She lives with a man seven or eight years older than her, and she likes to fuck him. She also fucks the eighteen year old shcool leaver who works in the food hall, stacking cans with autistic precision. She has a sports science degree and, as she often says to Helen, she's not afraid to use it. Her birch-like body is a source of pride: the kind of b ody that looks like it could never give birth to children, not because of any sterility but because of its bearing. Veronica is in charge of her physicality. Motherhood, in her opinion, takes away a woman's power over herself to some degree, makes her body a tiny bit unknowable by passing its ownership on to somebody other than herself. In her spare time Veronica coaches football to primary school kids: this, she thinks, is the only motherhood she needs. On alternate weekends she takes coke until her nose bleeds. She likes order; perhaps this is why she likes the autistic boy.
Wishing she could write this down Helen goes to the kitchen and eats a single, gigantic spoonful of fruit trifle from the fridge. She makes a coffee and feels a subtle thrill of rebellion curl itself around her heart as she decides to add a large slug of Baileys. She started drinking Baileys before it got trendy, now the girls in the shop always get her a big bottle for Christmas. For some reason she envisages a graph showing how much Baileys she has consumed between 1980 and the present day: a steady line for the first six years or so, then a gradual decline, a trough coinciding with the last two years of her marriage, and a sharp increase after her divorce. She guesses that her current intake is about thirty per cent higher than in those first years.
Without having to pretend she rates the years of her marriage as the best of her life. She is not ungrateful to her ex-husband. She grew to dislike him and soon realised that the feeling was mutual. Although she had been the first to fuck around she feels no guilt. They do not speak to each other but both are on good terms with their children, a girl and a boy, both now in their early twenties. Andrew is her favourite, though this never used to be the case. He works hard doing something she doesn't understand, something to do with printing and engraving. Cally is a musician, probably takes more drugs than she should and has an expensive London gym membership she never uses. They both live out of town and Helen knows that she has transferred some of her maternal instincts to some of the younger girls at work.
The dildo in the underwear drawer is made out of what looks like some kind of semi-transparent solidified green lava or ectoplasm. She used to get it out for a laugh when friends came round for evenings of junk food and pink chardonnay, but when she is alone in her house it becomes a malign totem, imbued with a power she can't access, glowing radioactively in its nest of knickers.
Sometimes she sleeps in the living room and wakes in the early hours, the voices of BBC News peeling away from her dreams.
Helen is in the skirt and blazer that as a manager she is entitled to wear. The other girls have to wear the standard dress suits with British racing green trim, subtle enough and well-tailored, but a uniform nonetheless, a nail in the coffin of individuality. She is above them, in sheer tights, her hair tied back because that's how it looks best, not because of health and safety regulations. Old school friends come in and can't help telling her how good she looks for her age. One elderly man, a connoisseur of pocket handkerchiefs and women in knee-length skirts had once remarked 'If only I were twenty years younger...' and she had finished the sentence a little later in the company of a couple of co-workers, not without some satisfaction.
And she is in her skirt and blazer, above the eighteen year old school leaver, the one who is fucking, or being fucked by, Veronica. She is in the food department on her lunch break; he is on the floor with a split packet of wild rice, reaching under the shelves with a dustpan and brush. When she came into work this morning she had no idea that she might want to sleep with the boy.
'Hey, what you doing down there?' She is sitting on his kick-stool, her legs together at an angle.
'Rice. Somebody dropped it. It doesn't matter.'
'You ought to transfer to mens' clothes. It's less messy. There's a positin coming up, you know.' She resists the urge to say 'I could put in a good word for you.' He still hasn't turned his face up to her. From above his shoulders look broad, almost powerful. His polo shirt is the same green as the trim on the girls uniforms. He is one of them.
'I like food.' She sees him as an adult male for the first time as he says this. It's those three words and all the pointless unmeant meanings they contain. 'There's a Yank who comes in asking for capsicums and zucchinis and rutabagas and it's only me that knows what he's going on about. And I wouldn't know the first thing about clothes.'
He's looking at her now. He has moved, is sitting cross-legged and looking at her. At her face. She moves her legs and he keeps looking at her face, then makes as if he wants to go back to sweeping up the rice.
Helen doesn't stop him. She doesn't lean forward and whisper something vaguely suggestive to him, or part her legs an inch, or nudge him with a coquettish foot, although she thinks unthinkingly of all of these things. But something stops him from returning to his dustpan: a feeling, perhaps, that a conversation with one of his superiors should not be cut off so abruptly, although he evidently wants it to be. She says: 'You're friends with Veronica, aren't you?'
'Yeah, she speaks to me. She went to school with my sister. She's pretty cool.' The conversation is over. Helen gets up and adjusts her hemline.
'Don't forget what I said about clothes. It's an easier job. You know where I am if you do change your mind.' As she walks away from him, down the World Foods aisle, she imagines herself in his mind at that moment, looking at the backs of her legs as they get smaller, wondering what she had spoken to him for and if she wanted to sleep with him. She refuses to turn around just in case he isn't looking at her at all.
There is a glass of Baileys in her hand as she gets ready for bed. On the desk are sheets of paper, one for each employee in her charge, in a pile with corners lined up diplomatically. The information they contain is like a collection of thematically linked short stories: terse, literate, subtle and unintentionally autobiographical. On the top of the pile is Veronica Stallwood's report. With blue ballpoint Helen has shaped the futures of a bunch of young women, animals of a different species: harsh, promiscuous primates. She has power over them, but only a vestigial power, or a power that is useless because she is to old or scared to use it. What she has written on each of the sheets of paper - in her handwriting that slopes like a line of poplars bent by a prevailing wind - is basically the same. Variations on an ancient theme. Go forth and multiply.
The voices in the street have become louder, bawdier, and have separated into male and female strands, seeking, or so it seems to Helen, to outdo each other in terms of harshness and violence. She hears a voice that could easily be Veronica's and goes to the old single-paned window, opens it to hear better. Below her a fat girl is puking wholeheartedly into the gutter while another who could be her twin encourages her with a pat on the back. Their two male companions have gone on ahead and are arguing about where to go next. It is nearly three o'clock on a Thursday morning. The year is 2009. The act of shutting the window takes on an importance that Helen doesn't really understand. It is almost as if she is trapping the gift of her femininity, keeping it from being sucked into the night and wasted. In three minutes the town hall clock will remind her how late it is although she knows full well how late it is anyway and is purposefully stalling in the thick, dull moments that are her own before she switches off the light and hands the night over to the keen, procreating army of idiots on the street, and the things that live in her cupboards and drawers, and in the pregnant pieces of paper on the desk.