An Office Romance

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What am I doing here? This isn’t me. I’m not a — God, at least have the courage to say the word – a lesbian. Neither am I the sort of person who indulges in extra-marital affairs. At least I haven’t been until today. Christ, what a squalid little cliché — the boss about to screw his cute young secretary. Except that, in this case, it’s her secretary. About to screw her, me that is. Or whatever she’s planning to do with me. It’s not even as if Steve’s done anything to deserve this; not really. Has he? I mean, he’s not an evil, violent bastard or anything. It’s just…what, my husband doesn’t understand me? Lord help me, I’ve descended into the world of sexual cliché!

I wasn’t at all sure about Hannah when Human Resources sent her up to me. She looked a bit hippified with her flowery cheesecloth dress, like a set of curtains Laura Ashley had rejected, her explosion of frizzy ginger hair, huge bangle earrings — like she’d lost her way en route to Marrakech in 1967 or something. But what the heck, she had the diplomas and the typing speeds, and I needed a temp to cover for my PA for six months until (please God) Janice returned from maternity leave. If she didn’t work out it was no great loss. She’d come over from Ottawa in a mime act with a couple of friends for a Spring arts festival, she told me. When the friends returned she decided to stay on, to see somewhere different for a while.

I didn’t take to her at first. She could talk for Britain — okay, Canada. She seemed to think she was an expert on everything, and was always happy to give me the benefit of all her towering 22 years’ experience of the world. The first time she called me Karen I told her I’d prefer it if she used Mrs Waterlow. For the next two days, every time she buzzed me or put a call through it was, “Hi Mrs Waterlow, Ms McRobb here…” I got the point. The first time I called myself Karen when speaking to her it was through gritted teeth. But we began to gel, as people do who are thrust together on a daily basis.

She was quick and efficient, and her perpetually sunny nature made it difficult not to like her. She was good at covering for me — “I’m sorry, Mrs Waterlow’s just stepped out, can I have her call you back, say this afternoon?” — and she seemed to have this psychic ability to appear in my office with a cup of coffee every time I was about to press the intercom and ask her for one. She made an effort for me too. Within a day or so, without me having to actually say anything, the cheesecloth had been replaced by pastel T-shirts and a flowing white cotton skirt; the earrings by tiny jade studs, visible only because that hair was swept back into a stubby ponytail, held in place by a leather thong.

The first time she decided to plonk herself down at my desk when she brought my morning coffee I was mildly put out; if she noticed, she ignored it. After that a daily ten minute chat while I sipped my coffee became a regular routine. To be honest, she did most of the talking. I learnt all about her idyllic childhood in Wrightville; her terrifyingly intellectual college lecturer parents, and the little brother she adored; how she thought her heart would never mend when Brandy, her golden retriever, died in her arms; the woman who had broken her heart for real…There was the hint of a challenge in her eyes when she mentioned that. Hey, why should it bother me — I’m a modern 21st Century liberal feminist, whatever your lifestyle, that’s cool with me. Of course, I was also quite possibly the last person left in London who didn’t actually know anyone who admits to being gay.

It was a couple of weeks after that little revelation that I slammed back into my office one afternoon from a meeting. One of my colleagues had royally fucked up, and I was the one who’d just spent the last half hour being shouted at over it. Basically, Hannah said the wrong thing — at that moment anything would have been the wrong thing — and I ripped her head off and spat it out. Instantly I saw tears of shock and wounded injustice spring to her eyes. I spent the rest of the day crippled with guilt at my desk, but too pissed off with the universe to go and apologise. Just before home time I heard a timid tap on my door and there stood Hannah, looking pale and hesitant. “Look Karen, I guess we’ve both had a pretty shitty day. I’m going to the wine bar on the corner to ease myself into the weekend. I wondered if you might want to come too?”

She must have seen a shadow flicker across my face; she gave me a small, weary smile. “Look, I’m not asking you out on a date, okay? I just don’t want to be the sad sack in the corner drowning my sorrows all alone. If you’re not in the mood, I understand that.” As she turned to leave I called her name. Feeling my face güvenilir canlı bahis siteleri begin to flush, I apologised and explained that of course I hadn’t thought that, it was just — oh to hell with it, a drink would be nice. You stupid cow, I told myself. Don’t flatter yourself — why would a pretty young dyke have the slightest interest in a 35-year old, married, foul-tempered bitch?

One drink would have been nice. Unfortunately, after the week I’d had, I was still demolishing the place’s stock of Shiraz well after Hannah had switched to Perrier. And of course, when you get pissed you get stupid. That can be the only reason I was crass enough to ask her, rather too loudly, what being gay was about. “I don’t mean what do you do, I mean obviously I can work that out, kind of. But when all the other girls are wetting their knickers over George Michael, sorry, I s’pose Justin Timberlake or someone these days, what is it that makes you realise that you’d rather be getting it on with Kylie Minogue or whoever?”

Her freckled cheeks beginning to blush, she laughed “Hey, George is pretty cool! Anyway, I could ask you the question in reverse — why George, why not Kylie?” I shrugged — just natural I suppose. Still smiling, she stared into the depths of her drink. “Yeah, well, your natural’s just different to my natural. In my case it wasn’t Kylie — it was Jennifer Pearson. Head cheerleader for the Chargers — the school hockey team. Oh it was just as much worship form afar as if it had been Kylie, I never so much as spoke to her; but that was when I knew. Then there was another girl — also a Jennifer actually — and, well, we didn’t find much time for talking. Girls smell nicer than boys, and they don’t have anything to prove. They don’t grab so much, their skin’s softer, their lips taste sweeter…”

The following Monday in the office, cringing with embarrassment, I apologised to Hannah as she walked through the door for my having behaved like a complete arsehole. She laughed it off. “Hey, at least you avoided all the really dumb questions people usually ask.” Something changed between us after that — I’m not sure what. We went to the wine bar most Fridays after work, just for a couple, but it was more than that. Now when we chatted over coffee it was me who did most of the talking. About how Steve and I had met on our first day at uni, how we were going to have 15 babies and a manor house in the Cotswolds…The babies never came — nor did the manor house, come to that — but it didn’t bother me. I’m sure there was real fiery passion between us at one time, I just can’t remember quite when it sputtered and went out. At times I’m not really sure what binds us together any more — habit I suppose, and lacking the imagination to consider the alternative. We watch TV together because that’s what couples do; go on holiday together, do the shopping on Saturday morning; make love once or twice a week, mechanically and distractedly, we know the moves off by heart now…

Hannah was a good listener. It’s a novel experience just sitting talking to someone; I mean about things other than workflow targets, year-end data and so on. Steve and I never seem to talk; when we do the conversation usually ends after about 30 seconds with “Look, do you want me to turn the football down so you can tell me about your meeting?” I told Hannah things about myself, about what’s in my head, that I’ve never told anybody else, not even Steve — God, especially not Steve! Those ten minutes started to become the highlight of my day — isn’t that sad? Sometimes I’d be watching a news item on TV at home and think “I must tell Hannah about that.” Or I’d hear some unintentionally humorous comment in a meeting and think “I wish Hannah had been here to hear that.” At weekends I even began to write myself little one- or two-word notes, so I wouldn’t forget to mention this or that to her. We found we shared the same surreal sense of humour. We discovered an unexpected mutual pleasure in classic jazz: agreed we’d have to organise a girls’ night out to Ronnie Scott’s sometime.

One day I went in to her room to ask her something and found her silently crying, huge tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. It was so un-Hannah like. I asked her what was up and she shook her head, refusing to tell me, angry at herself for letting me find her like that. As I made her a coffee for once I asked her if it was boy (fuck!), sorry, girl trouble. Wiping a cheek with the back of her hand, she sniffled. “No, not really.” She sighed. “There is a woman but, well, she’s not available.” I clucked sympathetically — Jesus, am I thick or what?

Then, one day, I had another bad meeting. Stomping through Hannah’s office to mine I managed to avoid güvenilir illegal bahis siteleri taking it out on her by the simple expedient of completely ignoring her. Then I slumped into the visitor’s chair, on the wrong side of my desk, buried my face in my hands and burst into tears. I didn’t even know Hannah was there until I felt her cool fingers gently prying one of my hands away, pressing a cup of water into it. As I started to calm down she squatted beside me, balancing by resting her hand on my back, cooing in a soothing voice how it was okay, and those assholes in Strategy weren’t worth getting upset over. As I smiled through the last of my tears she stood. Then I felt her hands press against the bare nape of my neck. Instantly I tensed.

Hannah sensed my unease and withdrew her hands. Walking round to face me, she said softly, “Sorry Karen, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I was just going to give you a back rub. They’re great for easing stress, and that’s something you need right now. I’m sorry, I should have asked you first. Let me do this for you, I’m good at it. Unless you don’t trust me of course.” She laughed as she said it but, seeing some sceptical expression on my face, hers fell. She said, in a very small, slightly bruised, voice, “Karen? Don’t you trust me?”

I could see in her eyes how very much my answer mattered to her. Did I see her as the friend she thought she was, wanting to help me and stop me hurting; or just as some horny little dyke chancing her arm when opportunity knocked? I tried to smile reassuringly and nodded, flicking my head to give her permission to move behind me. Visibly relaxing, she returned my smile and resumed her position. To be honest I did feel uncomfortable with it — nothing to do with her sexuality, I’ve just never really been that tactile. But she was right, she was good at it. As the knots in my neck began to untie, and her strong, gentle hands slipped to my shoulders, I could feel the tension flowing out of me, to be replaced by a glowing, rejuvenating warmth.

After that Hannah gave me a chair massage maybe a couple of times a week. There were rarely words, I just slipped into the almost trance-like state her skilful manipulations induced in me. One time her fragrance, a heady, musky aroma, filled my nostrils. I said how much I liked it, and the next day I found a bottle of Tova Nights on my desk. She refused to let me pay for it; but her beaming smile lit up the office the whole day when, a couple of mornings later, she found a Charlie Mingus triple CD propped against her keyboard. Then, for my birthday, she left me a bottle of Shiraz and a photo torn from a pop magazine, with a biro dedication, ‘Lots of love to Karen on her big day, from George xxx’. Saucy cow! One day, I glanced up as she worked at my back and saw her serene, almost sensual smile. I asked her why she so enjoyed doing this — after all, it must be tiring. Her eyes still closed, she replied quietly “I enjoy doing things I’m good at. And I like giving pleasure to people I like.” She was silent for a minute or so, then, almost whispering, added, “No, that’s only half true Karen. I like making you happy. You’re a very lovely, very…desirable woman. If circumstances were different, if you were different…but they’re not and you’re not, and I respect that. So I’m just happy to be your friend, for as long as you’ll let me, and I enjoy doing nice things for friends.”

So there it was, out there. She did — well, have a crush on me, I supposed. And of course I liked her — a lot. I must admit, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable the next time she massaged me, but we got over it. Her little confession didn’t impact on our friendship, which I think relieved her, and we just carried on as normal. Until yesterday.

And now here I am, perched on the edge of this rather lumpy second-hand sofa, waiting while she “goes to freshen up”. At least she didn’t say “slip into something more comfortable” — one hoary old cliché we’ve managed to side-step. I’ve slipped my shoes off — well, I suppose you have to start somewhere! I should go, I really should. She’ll be hurt if I do, and that’s a shame, I really do like her, but I’m a married middle-aged woman for God’s sake, not some silly teenage slapper. I hope she’ll stay on as my PA; I’d really miss her. Okay, that’s it, I’m going to stand up and leave now.

The massage yesterday, Friday, started out just as normal. It had been a very long week, my head was lolling a bit, I think I was actually drowsing, I barely realised that I had moaned softly with the sheer feline pleasure of Hannah’s touch. At first I was only vaguely aware that her fingers had slipped under the collar of my blouse, across my collar bones, actually güvenilir bahis şirketleri under the shoulder straps of my bra. Her long, supple fingers dug into the flesh of my shoulders and my upper chest, easing away the aches of the day. The shoulder straps rode up over her hands. I could barely breathe. Oh God, that felt so great! If, at that moment, she had slipped her hands downwards, under the material of my bra cups, around my breasts, onto my nipples…but she didn’t. She just carried on massaging my shoulders, and my shoulder blades, then withdrew her hands. I sighed in, I wasn’t sure, relief or disappointment. She bent her mouth to my ear and whispered, “Sorry Karen, it just felt like you needed that bit extra tonight.” Then she touched her lips to the nape of my neck and left.

That all seemed so natural, so — okay, like something from a soft core porn movie filmed in soft focus when I just say it like that. But this, this just seems so cold and calculating by comparison.

When I got home I walked straight into a row. Why hadn’t I washed the polo shirt Steve “needed” for his golfing weekend? It had been sitting by the machine all week. Yeah, well, if in the past three years he’d ever bothered to learn so much as how to switch the fucking machine on…boiling tears of fury at the corners of my eyes, I hurled the shirt into the drum, swore its way through its cycle, spun and tumble-dried it, cursed it as I ironed it. All the while Jack sodding Nicklaus there scrunched down in front of the TV pretending he didn’t realise my impression of the Wicked Witch of the West had anything to do with him. Then I stomped up to bed and had the most erotic dream of my life.

After a frosty mutual farewell, before he and his mates drove off to Lytham, I lay in bed half the morning, trying to get that dream out of my head. I knew what I wanted to do. She’d mentioned that her girlfriend — “my flatmate that is, I don’t have a girlfriend” — was away for the weekend, and she was going to repaint the place from top to bottom. So she’d be there, and alone. God, what a stupid idea. But as if in a dream I pulled on a boob-emphasising cut-off T shirt at least ten years too young for me, and a short denim skirt I haven’t worn for two years — I’ve got great legs, I don’t show them off often enough. Dabbed my Tova Nights behind my ears. Then I left my home.

I must have walked up and down that street half a dozen times, dressed up like some lost hooker, before I finally angered myself into pressing the buzzer, before courage deserted me. I pressed a second time, and was turning to go when the door swung open and there stood Hannah. Dressed in a blue serge coverall made for a much bigger man, and a huge pair of workboots, the red tide of her hair held back by a rolled scarf, tiny white flecks of paint smeared across one cheek. She was flustered at seeing me there. I should go. It was a bad idea, I didn’t even know what I was doing there, and I was interrupting her work. She grabbed my arm. “No, please don’t go, it’s great to see you, really. Wow, you look fabulous.” Taking my hand, her fingers intertwining with mine, she lead me through a gloomy hallway smelling vaguely of cat food and up two flights of stairs, her eyes checking my face every few seconds to see if this was okay. The flat smelled strongly of paint. She sat me on the sofa and offered me a white wine. She didn’t ask what I was doing here — I think she knew better than I did. We sipped our wine, she perching on a battered arm chair opposite me, as we chatted about nothing much. Charlie Mingus was playing on the stereo.

An uneasy lull developed in the conversation. Smiling nervously, her eyes locked on mine, Hannah knelt in front of me; leaned in, her hands resting on my bare knees, and gently gave me a sisterly peck on the cheek. She leaned back, searching my eyes again. “I do love you — you know that, don’t you?” I nodded, swallowing nervously. And I — liked her, very much. She leant in to me again, her eyes closing, and pressed her lips to mine. I felt her tongue skim lightly along my lips, with no attempt to penetrate them. Then she said it: “Look, why don’t you wait here for a moment, while I go and freshen up a bit?”

Okay, I’m really going now. Wait, the bathroom door’s opened, and she’s standing here before me — she’s pulled on a thigh length silk bed jacket, loosely belted. Nothing else. Christ, the sight of her. The short stocky legs, the muscled calves and thighs of an athlete; the mink-coloured pubic bush at the join of her thighs, highlighted by the very white bikini pant line compared to the light tan around it; the lowlands of her swelling breasts peeking between the lapels of the jacket. As she steps towards me I know exactly why I’m here. Because I want to be, and to stay as long as she’ll let me; because I have fallen completely and utterly in love with this sweet, funny, caring girl. As her arms snake around my neck, as our lips part and our tongues meet, I know I have just embarked on probably the most significant relationship of my life.

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