Woken at 3am again, not by the lizard, but by a ping on my bedside table. Thinking it might be Scarlett, my boss, who has been sending me lots of messages since our Bellini evening, I sat up and reached for my phone.
The message was from Wild Ma. It was a photograph, of a single shoe, on a deserted city pavement. The shoe looked glamorous but terribly sad. Black suede, very high heel. Was it a kind of Christmas card? There were no accompanying words. I enlarged the photo, looking for clues as to which city in the world it might have been taken. Wild Ma is nomadic, as well as enigmatic.
Scratching at the work-related red weals on my neck and arms, I listened for the lizard, but all was quiet. I thought of getting up to start the surgery on my novel, but it was too cold. The loneliness of the shoe reminded me of the loss of my earring, and I put my fingers to my earlobes. I’d been wearing the earrings on the evening of the office party. Silver, dangly, my very best earrings; and as it happens, a present from Wild Ma. Scarlett, my team boss, had noticed one was missing, in the Bellini bar, and we’d spent a while crawling around on the floor looking for it. Then I’d realised it had probably come off with the Christmas carrot jumper, which Scarlett had help me remove the minute we were out of the building, and had stuffed in the nearest bin. I wanted to go straight back to the bin and recover the earring, but Scarlett had assured me the bin wouldn’t be emptied until daylight, and we might as well have another drink.
That whole evening is a psychedelic blur. Looking back, I realise that the revolting mulled wine must have been very alcoholic, because I was drunk straightaway. I remember Scarlett grabbing me, and rushing me out of the terrible party, and turning back and noticing Rhett looking after us. I remember seeing his head shake, and his finger go to his lips, but then the door swung shut and we were in the yellow corridors, running amazingly fast. There was an ambulance outside, waiting for Salome from Strategy, who had collapsed at the party with a tinsel allergy. Then I was unlocking my bike, and Scarlett was helping me get the jumper off, and then she was having a wee in an alley, and then I was sitting opposite her in the refined yet lively little bar.
“I’ve got so many questions!” I’d cried, taking a gulp of Bellini.
“Fire away,” she’d smiled, licking the raspberry puree from her lips.
It felt like the denouement, like we were finally revealed, having maintained our disguises in the triangular office for three long weeks. Now we were best friends, and everything was going to be cleared up, like the end of a detective novel. Not just the promised story of Heather, but why the building had been refurbished with white plywood, why the lift had shrunk, and what was causing the red itchy weals. I started with Dr Rebecca Ferguson, my immediate line manager, whom I’d never met, because she never came to work.
“Oh, Becks. Yes, she can’t cope with the conditions. Her skin got really bad. But to be honest she’s such a wuss, we’re better off without her.”
Then she told me about the terrible rivalry between Rhett and Ashley, and how they had once come to blows.
“About work?” I asked.
“On the surface. But – well, it was my fault, really. I’d been favouring Rhett, and Ashley couldn’t bear it.”
Heather, it turned out, had been caught in flagrante delicto, with a fellow security officer, in the pool room. “The pool room?” I asked.
“Not swimming pool! That would be just too Joan Collins! No, you know, that game with sticks and balls. Anyway, it was quite unusual, what they were up to. The baize was ruined. Now it’s the Chief of Operations’s office. He’s quite new, so he won’t have any idea…”
Of course I forgot to go back to the bin, until the next morning. The jumper was still in it, but no sign of the earring. Maybe it was the hangover, but the loss of the earring felt quite devastating. Back in the triangular office, it felt weird being New Best Friends with Scarlett. She had sent me a few texts in the night, which were mainly incomprehensible, with lots of LOLs and ROFLs. In the office, she kept smirking at me, which made me uneasy. I kept seeing Rhett with his finger to his lips, and remembered that discretion is the better part of valour. I told Scarlett everything about myself, from my novel, and the building work, and Stepanov, to my insalubrious backpacking escapades with Morag.
A few days later, still feeling uneasy, I cycled to work, and locked up my bike in the usual place. It was a bright, glittery day, and there was something shining on the pavement, by my left foot. I knelt down and squinted at it. Yes, the earring. My beautiful earring had been lying there, all by itself, all this time. No roadsweeper had swept it up, no passerby had swooped on it. Gasping with happiness I popped it in my pocket. All was well. The earring was a sign.