A short story about the dangers of listening to water cooler gossip at work
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Water Cooler Gossip
Water Cooler Gossip
“You haven’t heard, have you?” asked Wendy.
She’d appeared out of nowhere, like always, a squat woman staring intently at him from between thick bangs of brown hair. The sliver of face that was visible hid its age behind an industrial application of make-up. Sean flicked off the tap on the water cooler and drew the filled plastic cup to his lips. Like always, he didn’t say anything. If he said anything, it might encourage her and while he was in no rush to get back to his desk, he was in mood to hear her gossip either.
“I mean I was shocked and I’ve heard everything,” continued Wendy. “Still, it must be worse for you. But of course you don’t know, do you?”
Despite his better judgement, Sean shook his head.
“The girl working for Malone? In accounts? Sandy Jenkins?”
Sean tried to remember, decided he couldn’t be bothered and just shrugged.
“Quiet girl. Pretty. Kept herself to herself.” Sean nodded. Yes, he did have no clue who Wendy was talking about.
“Killed herself last night.”
Sean’s indifference dropped like a stone. Suicide wasn’t your typical water cooler gossip. He met Wendy’s eyes and they sparkled.
“Overdose they say,” she said. “Others say razor blades. I couldn’t possibly say how she did it, but I know she left a note. Turned out she was in love with someone in the office, but he never noticed. It’d be kind of romantic, if it wasn’t so tragic. I can’t believe you’ve not heard this.”
Sean shook his head, shocked at the news, but morbidly relieved that he didn’t know this girl.
“Someone should have told you,” insisted Wendy, “someone should have said. The guy she was in love with, the guy in the note – it was you.”
Sean exited the toilet cubicle with the acid taste of vomit still fresh in his mouth. His tie trailed from a pocket and the top buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned. He twisted a basin tap and let cold water rush over his fingers. The numbing sensation held his thoughts until a colleague entered the room. Snapping back to reality, Sean splashed water over his face and then stared at his reflection in the mirror.
The same reflection stared back at him that evening from his own bathroom mirror, but it was now strange and unfamiliar. Sean felt like he was looking at himself through someone else’s eyes. His face, modestly handsome after countless childhood bruises and teenage acne, bore an innocent collection of features that had contrived to drive someone to suicide.
Slender arms slipped around him from behind. His girlfriend, Erin, rested her chin on his shoulder and whispered in his ear, “Come to bed.”
He didn’t react. She kissed him on the neck and then retreated away through the open door into the dark of the hallway. Sean pulled the plug from the sink and watched the water race away, before catching sight of his reflection again; stretched, twisted and distorted in the metal of the basin taps.
Sean rested his head in hands rather than face himself in the black sheen of his monitor while the computer booted up. Around him, his colleagues filed into the office, dropping into desks, engaging in weary chitchat and trying to rouse themselves for another eight hours of work. He turned and watched them through splayed fingers: the two girls talking by the water cooler; a technician trying to fix the photocopier; the clerks at a distant island of desks, busily typing away – how many of them did he know? By sight, he recognised them all, but while they all shared an office, he’d probably exchanged less than a dozen words with each of them. And this was just one office. The company owned the whole building. Sean hadn’t even been up to accounting department on the fifth floor.
Sean was about to sink his head back into his hands when he caught sight of Roland looking at him. As soon as Roland noticed that Sean had noticed, he looked away. Sean did not look away. He continued to stare at the co-worker who sat opposite him. Roland fidgeted uncomfortably under the scrutiny.
“I’m not secretly in love with you and in danger of topping myself, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Roland.
Sean quickly diverted his attention to the paperwork on his desk.
“You’ve taken this pretty hard, haven’t you?” asked Roland. Sean continued to study his paperwork diligently. “She was clearly a nut-job, Sean. I mean, who’d fall for you when there’s a love-god like Rick around?”
Roland gestured with his head and, despite himself, Sean looked around to see Rick standing by the fixed photocopier. Rick managed to affect an air of scruffiness despite a suit and tie. He was picking his nose while staring at the bottom of the girl reproducing an instruction manual in front of him. Sean raised a tired smile.
“Now there’s a man worth slitting your wrists for,” remarked Roland, nodding. His mention of suicide removed all trace of humour from Sean’s face. Roland tried a different tack. “Let it go. You didn’t even know she existed, so don’t act all aggrieved now she’s gone.”
Sean stared back at Roland. His colleague’s words made sense. He knew nothing about this girl and that wasn’t right. He stood abruptly and surveyed the office before striding away with a purpose that a bemused Roland couldn’t begin to fathom.
Sean asked around. He stopped people in the corridor. He took the lift up to the fifth floor. Everyone was very polite and tried to be helpful, but the replies all took the form of shrugged shoulders or shook heads.
The impetus for his quest had faded when Sean returned to the office and took a drink from the water cooler. Once again, he didn’t see Wendy arrive.
“I said she kept herself to herself,” said Wendy. “Didn’t really talk to anyone. Well, except me.” Sean’s full attention fell upon her. She lowered her head and toyed with one of those brown bangs. “I usually go for lunch about one o’clock, if you want to know more…”
“This is where she came every lunchtime,” explained Wendy.
They were sat on a bench in a fenced city park. Both of them had plastic-packed sandwiches from the local express supermarket in hand. A jogger puffed and sweated her way around the encircling path, while students were lounging in the brittle sunshine. Sean drank in their surroundings. Wendy watched him nervously.
“She was always in at seven-thirty and left at half three,” said Wendy. “Creature of habit, I guess. Maybe when someone hasn’t got anything else in their life a routine brings them comfort.” She gazed off into space for a moment. Sean noticed the hair that usually obscured her face was now pinned back with pink plastic grips. “She left some things behind, on her desk. We’ve boxed them all up, but no one’s come in to collect them. Maybe you’d like to see before we throw it out?”
Sean sat on the floor of his living room and the cardboard box sat in turn on the coffee table. Its contents had been emptied and strewn over the table and across the carpet. There were crumpled receipts, novelty pen tops, two Mills and Boon novels, tiny potted cacti and papers and post-it notes that Sean guessed were work-related. He studied each item carefully, going from one to another, hoping these puzzle pieces would help build a picture of why the mysteriousSandydid what she did.
Erinstaggered past behind him, clad in a nightdress and squinting in the rancid light of the solitary desk lamp that illuminated the room.
“You’re not still going through that junk?”
Sean cast her a sharp glance. She disappeared from sight and then returned carrying a glass of water.
“I remember when you were obsessed with me,” saidErin, “but even then I don’t remember any fascination with my personal effects keeping you up until two in the morning.”
Sean ignored her. He picked up one of the novels again and flicked through the pages. A photograph fell out.
“Is this some kind of ego trip for you?” askedErin. “This girl wasn’t paying you a compliment. She was messed up.” Sean picked up the picture and found himself looking at a portrait of blank-faced young boy. “Or maybe killing yourself is the only way to get your attention nowadays.”
Erindeparted in a huff, leaving Sean to stare at the photograph in his hand.
Wendy stood by Sean’s desk and considered the photograph of the boy.
“I don’t know, maybe she did have a son. Maybe that’s why she left early every day, so she could pick him up from school.”
Roland watched Sean and Wendy suspiciously from behind the cover of his monitor.
“But I could be wrong,” admitted Wendy, unsettled by Roland’s scrutiny. “I should be getting back to work.”
Sean nodded thoughtfully. When she was gone, he retrieved a telephone directory from a nearby shelf.
“You’re making a habit of attracting weird women,” said Roland. “It’s not healthy.”
Sean ignored him, flicking through the directory’s flimsy pages until he found the listings for local schools. Then he picked up the phone and began dialling numbers.
The school gates were in the midst of multi-generational chaos. Cars edged along the road, trying to find space to park amidst the lines of estate cars and people carriers, all with their engines running, waiting for their charges to return. Kids were loitering on the pavement looking for their parents and parents were doing likewise looking for their kids. Those children trusted enough to make their own way home passed through the confusion oblivious, talking eagerly to one another about television, computer games and the ritual humiliation one of their number suffered in today’s maths class.
Sean stood with a teacher by the main gate. The teacher was examining the photograph that had fallen out ofSandy’s Mills and Boon novel.
“It’s been a while, but I recognise him. Kenny Garrett – tragic case. Father was an alcoholic, beat Kenny and his mother. Went too far one night. He’s still in prison as far as I know. Kenny’s mother… Well, I’ve heard tell she’s often here, waiting by the gates, even though Kenny’s gone. That said, I’ve never seen her. You know how it is. The bad stories, sometimes they feed urban myths. People seem to like being haunted, don’t they?”
Sean sat in the park whereSandyused to eat her lunches and watched the sun set slowly over the surrounding office blocks. No one shared the park with him now and the air was still and quiet. He watched a girl walking along the pavement behind the railings. From this distance he couldn’t make out her features, but he liked to think she was pretty. She probably had an infectious laugh and baked sponge cakes at the weekend. Sean wondered whether this was the intimacySandyhad experienced – a face seen from afar and then attached to the hopes of desperate imagination.
The girl slowed her pace and looked over, catching sight of Sean watching. This disturbed her and she crossed the road, hurrying away.
Sean’s phone rang and he glanced at the screen. It told him it was ‘The Missus’. He rejected the call and sat back on the bench once more, enjoying the sunset.
The silence between Roland and Sean had lasted for most of the morning, but finally Roland cracked.
“Someone has a life like that… it’s not surprising if… If you’re still carrying guilt about this, it wasn’t your fault. That’s what I’m trying to say.”
“You should do like they said, take some time off. Get your head straight.” Roland noticed Wendy approaching. “Before you do something stupid.”
“Sean, can I talk to you?” asked Wendy.
Sean nodded and Wendy cast a dark glance at Roland.
“In private,” she added.
The meeting room wasn’t in use, so Sean and Wendy made use of it, Wendy closing the door behind them and tilting shut the blinds on the interior window. The hubbub of the office outside was still audible, but muted and strangely distant.
Sean took a seat. Wendy opted to remain standing. She took a deep breath before speaking.
“I heard you found out about Kenny.”
Sean hung his head. Wendy hurried over to him, crouching down and putting an arm around his shoulders.
“She did mention him once,” said Wendy, “I remembered after I spoke to you. She… I didn’t realise at the time. She was talking about his father. She was talking about how she wished everything had been different. She so dearly wanted Kenny to be happy. I think… I think that’s why she… fell in love with you.”
Sean turned to her with tears in his eyes.
“She saw you,” continued Wendy, “she watched how you treated people, how you held yourself and she couldn’t help but think, that’s the kind of Dad Kenny should have had.”
Sean broke down. He tried to hold himself in check, but the thought of whatSandyhad been through, of what she’d wanted for her son and what she hoped of him was too much. He wasn’t the person she’d thought he was, but he hadn’t even had the chance to talk to her, to tell her that maybe there was some other way.
Wendy hugged him and smoothed down his hair as he sobbed. She brushed his cheek with her hand, smearing the salt tears against his skin. He was glad she was there. She was the only person who understood. He felt her warmth, heard the words she whispered in his ear.
“As we’ve got closer, I can see why she thought that. Sandy and I, we’re not that different. We both look at you and see… We deserve to be loved. Sandy, you… me.”
Sean looked around at her. Wendy smiled sympathetically, her eyes studying his nose, his lips, before meeting his gaze. She lent forward to kiss him.
Sean almost fell off his chair as he jerked away. What was she doing? He didn’t want this. Wendy stared at him in confusion. Sean scrambled to his feet and staggered to the exit, not daring to take his eyes off her until the door was open and he could escape back into the safety of the office.
Erinarrived home with a briefcase under her arm and an amused grin on her face. She set the briefcase down on the kitchen worktop and looked around for Sean.
“Roland called,” she said in a raised voice. “He said living, breathing work colleagues are throwing themselves at you now. I suppose it’s an improvement, but I will admit to feeling a little jealous.”
She knew he was home, but no reply came.Erinwandered through to the bedroom, but Sean wasn’t there either.
When she returned to the living room, she heard the dripping tap. It lead her to the bathroom. Sean was there, standing in front of mirror, his back to her. AsErinmoved toward him, she saw he was shivering. His hands gripped the basin edge tightly. He was staring at a reflection that drew a gasp of shock fromErinwhen she saw it. He’d taken her make-up and applied it with manic purpose to obliterate the Sean she knew. Lipstick zigzagged across his face. The shadows from his nose and brow were offset by foundation and red and purple blotches covered one eye and discoloured his chin.
“Sean, what have you done?”
He couldn’t break the morbid gaze returned by his disfigured reflection.Erinpulled at his shoulders, but they wouldn’t move. She grabbed his head between her hands and, though he resisted at first, finally forced him to look at her. She did not let herself get distracted by what he’d done to his face, she fixed upon his eyes.
“Sean, listen to me. Forget that girl. She’s not real. Just like the Sean she loved wasn’t real. He was a twisted ideal inside her head. That’s not you. I know you. I know how you can be irritating and frustrating. I know you can be caring and considerate. She didn’t know any of that, but I do and that’s what I love.” She smeared the make-up across his cheeks with her thumbs. “Not this mask she loved from afar.”
The fractured face in front of her softened a little. She kissed him and held him and they stayed like that for a while.
An envelope waited on Sean’s desk. His name was typed on the front, but there were no other identifying marks. When Sean arrived at his desk he stared at it, not daring to open it, not daring even to sit down before it.
“It’s a love letter,” said Roland.
Sean looked up at him, unsure of whether his friend was joking or not.
“I thought it was about time I declared my undying love for you.”
Sean still wasn’t sure whether he was joking.
“No, seriously,” continued Roland, “I have pills in my drawer ready to overdose the minute you spurn me.” He pulled out the pills in question to show as proof. “Okay, so they’re actually M and Ms, but I’ve heard stories how if you take too many…”
Sean was smiling now and he’d summoned the courage to pick up the letter. He was tearing it open when he realised that his colleague’s chatter had stopped abruptly.
“Christ,” hissed Roland, “I think I’ve just seen… I’m seeing a freaking ghost.”
Sean followed Roland’s stare. All he could see were office regulars and Rick talking awkwardly to a woman by the water cooler. He turned back to Roland questioningly.
“That’s her,” insisted Roland, “talking with Rick – that’s Sandy Jenkins.”
The words took a few moments to sink in. Sean looked back, slowly, fearfully and saw the ghost departing the office. Roland poured himself a handful of M and Ms and knocked them back with a plastic cup of water.
Sean stuffed the letter into his pocket and ran from the office. He arrived into the corridor looking around wildly. He saw the woman walking away toward the lift and sprinted after her.
The lift doors were almost closed when Sean threw himself bodily between them, startling the supposed Sandy Jenkins standing inside. She stared at him in askance as the doors parted to allow him entry and then closed again, sealing them together inside. It was then he began to stare at her. Discomfited by his attention, she tried to look elsewhere, but the reflective interior of the lift thwarted her attempts to hide from his eyes.
Sean, breathing heavily, couldn’t believe that this was her. How could it be? She was dead. Roland must have got it wrong. He tried to find the words to dispel this phantom, but she got there first, confronting the awkwardness head on and offering up a sunny smile along with a hand to shake.
“Hi, I’m Sandy Jenkins. What’s your name?”
Sean stood in bemusement next to her desk on the fifth floor while Sandy Jenkins chattered away.
“… And they said Wendy had called in sick and they didn’t know when she’d be back, so seeing as I’d temped here before the agency called me up and frankly I’m glad of the chance to foist the kids on my mother in law.”
Sean scanned her desk. The few personal effects gathered there didn’t match the image he’d conjured up from Wendy’s box, an image most effectively banished by the photograph ofSandynext to her husband and two children.
“She spoils them rotten of course,” saidSandy. “I suppose she’s entitled. I intend to spoil my grand-children, if I have any, but I’m sure I can pin at least three of their fillings on her Werther’s Originals.”
Sean wasn’t listening, because he’d already gone. He was over at the desk of the office administrator, crumpled letter now in hand, trying to persuade her to give him an address.
Sean pulled his car up outside a set of grimy flats. He climbed out and checked the address on the post-it note the office administrator had written out for him.
Inside the building, he counted the numbers on the apartment doors until he found the one written on the post-it. Stopping outside, he pulled the letter out once more. He still hadn’t finished opening it. He stood there, trying to think of what to do next. Sean knew he was here for answers, but didn’t know if he wanted them.
Sean knocked on the door and waited.
The spy-hole darkened and then cleared abruptly. Even then, the door didn’t open straightaway. Sean knew she was there, but would she talk to him?
Sounds of chains being unfastened and locks being unbolted preceded the door opening very slowly. Sean could see a musty interior through the burgeoning crack. Plastic supermarket bags lined the floor, filled with unknown objects. Silver takeaway trays were stacked on a sideboard. Sean could smell the dust on the air, but he got the impression that the mess inside was due to apathy, rather than laziness. As the door opened further, it revealed more of a hallway that bore a sense of abandonment. No one lived here, even if there was someone to hide behind that opening door. Then Sean saw the photographs. They covered the walls. All of them featured a young boy – Kenny – but in not one of them was he smiling. In some he was joined by his mother, but her face was either scratched out with a pin or obscured by marker pen. In those where a man stood by Kenny, the man’s face was replaced by the photocopies of the photo on Sean’s office security badge.
The door was almost completely open and Wendy had no room left to hide. She was cowering back against the wall, ready to flinch at the suggestion of violence, but when none came she dared to relax. And when she noticed the letter in Sean’s hand, she instead embraced a blindly hopeful smile.
Fingertips hammered out arrhythmic percussion on keyboards. The coffee machine was filled, emptied and re-filled. The printer whined as it spewed out more paper into the paperless office. Rain pattered against the windows as late-arriving workers trudged into the office, shrugging off wet coats and complaining about the traffic.
Sean stood by the water cooler. He sipped from the plastic cup he’d just filled. He looked around at the people working, talking, skiving and it looked like a day just the same as any other.
Rick walked up and Sean stepped aside to let his colleague fill up his own plastic up.
“Have you heard?” asked Rick. “They say Wendy Garrett went and killed herself last night. A second suicide in this office. Would you believe it?”
Sean gulped back his water.
“There’s a lot of it going round,” he replied, throwing his cup into the bin and heading back to his desk.