Short Story: Nine to Five, by Charlotte Wührer

Last week, we have a conversation where Anthony tells me I shouldn’t let my love life get in the way of work. “Fine,” I agree. I have been doing a pretty good job at playing the sycophant.

“But also,” he follows up, “don’t quit your night job.” He laughs like a hyena.

*

iphoneI am in the office when Lucy calls. She has me on speed dial, although she would never tell me. My phone is on silent and face down, but I feel her call in the muscles at the corner of my right eye. This is just one of the many things she does that drives me crazy. (Some other things are that she sucks strangers into her orbit, making them stop her to ask how she is, who she is, where she is going. She uses her front teeth tactically on her bottom lip, biting down when she wants something. She has nightmares with her face on my pillow, whimpering. She licks the air a fraction of a hair above my body with her tongue.)

Lucy can also make people think of her just by thinking of them first, she says. If someone has a heart attack or heartbreak that strikes like the lightest bow of wood and feather at the concave hollow of the sternum in pectus excavatum, then she feels it as a shadow would if it felt things. I believe her as much as I believe in auras and feng shui but she’s doing a variation of it now; my right eye twitches; I turn my phone over and she’s calling.

“What the hell, Lucy?” She’s not called in days and she’s caught me off guard. I’m supposed to be working on a piece on beds with inbuilt storage, but Anthony is still waiting for the go-ahead from the client. I’ve made coffee and emptied the dishwasher, and now I’m scrolling through my Twitter feed with the screen angled away from Anthony’s desk, squeezing my thighs together as hypnotically regular as iambic pentameter. No one talks about it, but I’m convinced most people do it like this when things are slow at work.

*

Lucy and I hooked up at twenty-five, so we’ve had a good run. As is evidenced by the messages, handwritten notes and voice-recordings I have been collecting. In the recordings, she’s often whispering to emphasise her gap-toothed sibilants. She still sends the occasional voice message (I picture her crouching in the corner of some set between filming, whispering into the cavern of her handbag), but the time for handwritten notes is clearly over. It’s not easy being with someone who makes feminist porn for a living, and she’s often on the road. This time it might be different because it’s possible she’s left me. Twitter says she’s in Manchester one day endorsing sex work and ethical porn, and Instagram says Reykjavik later that night, wearing a dress poured on at an event for indie filmmakers in a hotel by a thermal spa. The bits of the dress that are most important are where there is no dress. The deliberate gaps in Lucy’s dress are that silent gasp the second before a roller coaster drop into screaming and mechanical oblivion.

Really what Lucy’s dress is most like is the bit before an orgasm. I contain my jealousy under the painful ledge of my shoulder blades.

Lucy doesn’t respond. What the hell what, anyway?

“How’s your ulcer?” I ask instead. Twitter again. I also don’t ask who took the dress off or if it was good. The question of quality becomes complicated when money changes hands.

Anthony gives me the eye from across the office and I reject it by looking pointedly away. He is a small, Hawaiian shirt-wearing man. Occasionally he forgets himself, or more likely, forgets me and my colleagues, and comes to work in running shorts that expose an expanse – shortish – of muscular, bearish leg. The office is speckled with the dried menstrual blood of the dog he brings in on alternate days.

Lucy says, “It’s not actually an ulcer, it’s a sore.”

“Right.” I have my suspicions. She sometimes ate chilis raw, sitting in the kitchen when she thought I was occupied elsewhere, wearing white gloves like an academic handling books with moth wing pages. It was freaky. But then I’d be sucking marrow from the hole in some bone stewed long and soft for a beef stock, so I couldn’t really talk. Anyway, the taste melange when we kissed afterwards would be so heady that we sometimes took our clothes off before we got close enough to let our lips touch, because we knew they’d come off anyway. And for that the chili burn was almost worth it.

She hears the accusation in my voice and sounds faintly defensive. “From chewing the inside of my mouth.”

“Poor Lucy.”

“Yes, poor me. It’s agonising.” In her voice is the pout of a girl playing at being much older – a woman.

A long pause.

“It’s from my anxiety,” she explains finally in a normal voice. “I’m not asking for your sympathy, though. I’m going to stop. I’m going to start stopping when you hang up and then next time we speak you’ll remind me and I’ll tell you I did it.”

I picture her chewing chewing chewing, metallic mouth, turning it into something sexy like in minute nine of Ariadne, a film based on a myth in which she plays a seductive, ensnaring spider. It turns me on against my will. Her chewing and making it hot is part of our problem, but probably not as big a one as my tendency to lie down on the kitchen floor when she is elsewhere in her head. “Like declaring bankruptcy when you lose a tenner,” she has shouted, heaving me up out of the crumbs.

*

Anthony taps his little rattling pot of chewing gum against my plastic desk until I look at him. He mouths something and puts his hand to his face, making a phone with his thumb and little finger. Then he mimes putting it down. But it doesn’t go further than that. Last week he told me with exaggerated largess that I can have his sperm if I ever want to procreate, that exact word. That’s why he can’t say anything now. I want to tell Lucy because she has always been very good at outraging with me.

“What did you say?” she asks, outraged.

“‘Thanks but no thanks,’ and then he said, ‘It’s okay, I’m married to a man.’”

“Christ,” Lucy breathes.

I’m transmitting her the story without actually talking, but it’s hard when I don’t have her sea-glass green eyes before me. I’m giving it a shot anyway, because last week we both successfully thought about the sixteenth of March at the same time, as if something might happen to us on that day – “That’s when you’re coming back,” I told her, and she laughed but didn’t say I was right. Last week, when we both simultaneously thought of the sixteenth of March, she was still staying with our friend Patricia’s uncle. This uncle works the door of Barbarossa six nights a week, and Lucy said she helped him out a few times to pay for her stay.

“And what did you…”

“I wore a little miniature top hat with sequins that he said would work well with my ash blonde hair.” It was her job to weed out the aggressive drunks and the undercover homophobes before they got to the front of the line and then to tip off Patricia’s uncle, who went by Ms Peacock.

“Ash blonde?” I ask.

She tells me her hair started disappearing at the edges, the line of it retreating like when the tide pulls out, so she shaved it off and Patricia’s uncle gave her this wig.

I don’t know where she is this week – maybe still Reykjavik, maybe a narrowboat in Hackney – and she won’t tell me unless I ask. The lump in my throat every time we talk is more pride than the other thing.

Anthony might not be saying anything, but the rattling of his chewing gum sounds insistent. I tell Lucy I think I have to hang up and he nods like, damn right you have to hang up.

“Is that fucker still at it?” she asks, and laughs hoarsely. They’ve not met but they hate each other anyway. I hang up.

*

I’m not making it up; he really does offer to impregnate me. He says he wants to make me project manager. “Your predecessor is a hard act to follow. Do I talk about her a lot? I do, don’t I? Beautiful Paige.” He worries that being married to a man is not enough of an insurance. “It’s a bad time for men,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay. We’re all fucked either way. I’m honestly pretty worried. Look at Harvey Weinstein. How was he to know the goalposts would change? I could be saying something totally harmless one day and have it become a prisonable offence the next. How are men supposed to keep up? Should I even be looking at you right now?”

I keep my face impassive and pretend he’s not asked a question. At home, the fire spark of my kitchen thermostat leaps in urgent sporadic flames, roars loud and soft at night like waves washing up and pulling away. Metoo-metoo, I fancy it swooshes. There are so few men in my life. My best friend Jasmine instructs me to surround myself only with strong and independent women like herself, and that is what I have done.

Anthony looks at me frankly, his eyes roving from my face to my feet, but I don’t look away because when I do he gives my shoulder or some other innocuous body part a solid rap and demands I look into his eyes when he’s talking to me. If my face ever betrays me he grows quiet and half an hour later he’ll ask desperately if we’re okay. “I just want you to be happy,” he says then. “We love you, don’t we?” He turns to the others in the office. “Why did we hire her?”

“Well, just look how cute she is,” his longest-standing employee, a woman, gushes. That word. As the thermostat clicks and sparks, I dream fiercely I’m on a narrow rickety track, traveling far too fast above topiary and roosting birds in a wooden supermarket trolley with only one wheel. I’m killing it. Cutecutecutecutecute it chugs menacingly.

“That’s right. Where would we be without that little face?” It’s a rhetorical question and my colleague doesn’t answer. We have an understanding that she is in the process of undermining. Next time she is tearful I will not ask her supportively if it could be PMS.

*

I make a mental note of everything Anthony says, including he could very well imagine being my companion and us living together, but coming inside me? That’s something different, and I should know he’s not into that. But I can still have his sperm. He can definitely imagine having children with me. He starts crying, which also goes in the mental note, and then he tells me about his lover coming inside him. “The first time anyone’s ever done that for me,” he sobs. “God, I’m so exhausted. I’m finished. How do people do it, have affairs?” When he’s finished crying, he begs me not to tell the others in the office.

Lucy is having an affair with fellow porn star Lexi, and I’m considering my options. It’s not so difficult, I think of telling Anthony, but encouragement is probably the last thing he needs.

My plan is to take all my mental notes, make them into real notes and then sew them all together to make a rich tapestry or perhaps a fetching cape of things men say to women when money flows in only one direction. I might change some names. I like to think of it as putting real apples into an imaginary apple cake. Also it will be wearable, if it is a cape. I will turn up at work in it one day, and it will be like the time my friend Jasmine recorded the raw animal sounds of two people in her building having sex with their windows open on a summer’s afternoon and then played it back to them over speakers she positioned in her open window the following summer’s afternoon.

“You’ve finished, have you?” Anthony asks when I’ve put my phone down, his voice dripping with something. Twitter is still open on my browser.

“Correct,” I say.

“Well, aren’t I lucky?” He sounds bitter. But the sperm! He remembers and sidles off. We’re alone in the office. The client gives the go-ahead, so I’m breezing through the tail end of the morning now. Beds with inbuilt storage really are the best. I finish the piece, using words like sun-kissed, sleek and blemish-free. The pictures always eclipse any text I write. Anthony is in his cubby with the dog sitting on his knees, jammed between his torso and the plastic, definitively not Scandinavian desk. To reach his keyboard he has to embrace the dog, which sporadically cranes up to lick his three-day beard. She is probably bleeding on his leg. It is possible that her tongue grazes his lips.

The thought of this makes me gag.

*

pizzaA story about disgust and hypocrisy: I once went on a date with someone who shuddered when I licked pizza cheese grease from my fingers. For our next date, we went to an exhibition in a palace. It was about kissing. A woman wearing white covered every inch of a white, palatial room with dull red-brown lipstick kisses. In an interview afterwards, she said she got through three lipsticks in eight hours and that her lips grew very sore. But that’s by-the-by: on the other side of the east wing of the palace, a fourteen-minute film of dogs licking their owners mouths and noses and tongues in slow motion played on loop. Dog slobber flew through the air in gelatinous goblets. Not a single owner was not smiling. The woman I was with simpered and kissed me with her mouth closed. She said the film reminded her of her own dog.

Aside from dogs and humans kissing, I am disgusted by very little. The only other thing I can think of is having my nose engulfed completely by a mouth. I generally like being entrusted with everything that escapes the body when someone unlocks it.

But there is kissing, and then there is being kissed by an animal.

*

“You’re a hot-blooded sexual person, just like me,” Anthony says at lunch time. He’s forgotten about the phone call. My endive salad tastes more bitter than usual, the dog can have it, I think, and what a manipulative bitch she is. Her soft head suddenly appears on my soft leg. Anthony’s bottom lip wobbles vulnerably when he talks about sex. He’s developed a nasty eye twitch since the affair began. “I’m a red-blooded man, and men need it more than women.” Listening to these admissions is mainly what I get paid for. It is worth more even than the furniture pieces my descriptions inadvertently sell.

“If you leave me now, you take away the biggest part of me,” Anthony sings changing track, his eyes gleaming. The dog looks unbearably kind on purpose. Is this what I have been doing to Lucy?

*

The night before she left, we have dinner and wine. The evening coasts towards midnight. There is a dip in mood after the steak but we ride it out, and when I’ve finished likening my job to swimming absentmindedly in the sea for a hours before noticing, too late, the drag of the tide, she stands and pulls me up with her. She says, “Hello, you. Hello. Hello, hello, hello! Hi. Hello.” Her face is so close her smile becomes the room.

“Hello, hello, hello,” I say back.

She closes her eyes and says, “You know, I feel like a potato disintegrating in a soup of desire,” and that’s when I know she’s really drunk. Then she starts dancing with me, and the people in the apartments opposite flock slowly to their windows and watch us from across the dark courtyard, lit up.

“It’s abuse,” she whispers later, lying in bed next to me pressing her third eye. Them-us-them-us-them-us, the radiator glugs drily. “They think they can do what they like with us. And we love making them feel comfortable.” She really is very drunk.

The next day when the alarm rings for work, she is gone. I know that Lexi is not the reason she is gone because we have an agreement. I go to work anyway, feeling I owe Anthony a lot and myself nothing. I start pouring whisky into tumblers when I come home to the cold apartment after work, and I generally take shallower breaths. When Lucy calls we talk for hours and some of the stories we tell are without speaking. “When are you coming back?” I ask after a week, furious with myself. I want to quit my job and start owing myself something, but I need her for that.

She tells me evasively that I can find her on the internet, which I already knew. But I watch her again as a spider anyway, and I watch her eat out a girl called Candy. Out of desperation, I watch her Instagram feed for new stories. I think about reaching out to Lexi. Waiting for her, I go to work and refuse both offers of sperm and invitations to come cherry picking with my girlfriend in Anthony’s garden.

***

Charlotte Wührer is a Berlin-based writer and translator from England. Her creative writing appears in online and print publications, including SAND Journal, Ellipsis Zine and Daddy Magazine. She has been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize, the Cambridge Short Story Prize and Mslexia Novella Award. In 2020, she received a grant from the Kone Foundation to work at Saari Residence in Finland.


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