Every office has its cast of characters. Not all of them in every office, of course, and there are some hybrids, and some come, and some go, but there are a few you can more or less rely on. The innovator – the person who says, “I know this sounds like a silly idea,” but is convinced in their own mind it isn’t, and it usually turns out to be a very good one. The joker – and they can be a mixed blessing, but for every groan they cause, there’s a relief at a lightening of the mood. The mother or father figure, who is by no means always the oldest one in the office, and the quiet one who, received wisdom says, can take folk by surprise. Well, I’m the “reliable one”. At times I have my suspicions that can very easily tip over into a synonym for “dogsbody”, but generally speaking, folk don’t take advantage of me, and I wouldn’t let them – would I?

     Anyway, Brian, the boss, and yes, he is the “father-figure”, for once the stereotype is the one you’d expect, said, “I’ll be in late tomorrow, Zoe. I have a doctor’s appointment. Here’s the key, in case anyone wants documents from the safe.”

     I should explain here that the indefinite or definite article makes a world of difference. All of us who work for the Lilly Bell Legal Advice Centre (which always sounds a bit like a refugee from Peter Pan but is called after a quite remarkable lady who founded it and then, when she passed away, left it a fortune few were aware she had) have a key to let ourselves in. But the key, for the safe, is another matter. The safe is where the most private papers are kept, and believe me, some of them are very private! As Brian is wont to say, it’s not a question of not trusting us, but it’s best not to risk having too many keys “floating around” as he often puts it, which summons up a rather pleasing image of winged keys like cartoon angels. I was flattered that he didn’t feel the need to tell me to be sure the relevant documents were only given to those who were 100% entitled to see them. I told him that would be fine and I hoped all went well at the doctors. He seemed healthy enough, but you can never be sure. He assured me it was nothing to worry about and I had my suspicions it might be “gentleman’s issues”. 

     It doesn’t look at all like such an important key should. Come to think of it, I sometimes wonder why we have a key at all, and not a combination lock or the like. It’s certainly not a formidable one. It looks like those they put on children’s diaries and I doubt if even they are convinced it’s secret. I don’t think I ever was. Or maybe like one for the kind of padlock you get in the Pound Shop. Still, you need a knack to get the safe open, and I hoped I still had it – I hadn’t used it for ages.

     It was probably a mistake to put it in my pocket instead of my purse, but (oh, that phrase!) it seemed like a good idea at the time. My purse is a jumble of loyalty cards I use about once a year, if that, and receipts for things I can’t even remember buying. But my new winter coat, the one I’d got on flexible payments from a TV shopping channel, had really good pockets – the hectic presenter made a point of emphasising that. They’re deep, and lined, and fasten with a zip. Proper Pockets as Hectic Presenter pointed out between singing the praises of the detachable faux fur lined hood and the way it was designed to fit and flatter. Well, though I’ll never quite trust buying clothes online or on TV, it’s rapidly become my favourite coat, and Hectic Presenter was telling the truth when she said that the Belgian Burgundy (which I never quite worked out – they don’t make Burgundy in Belgium) colour looked far better when you actually got it home.

     I was in a good mood, and with me that’s not a given. Though I don’t think anyone could accuse me of being “The Misery Guts” I’m not the “Office Pollyanna” either – we don’t have one of them, thank God! My shower, that had been unaccountably sluggish, had decided to behave again without the assistance of a plumber, and that new brand of coffee I’d been advised by Rosalie (“The Practical One”) was lovely, and cheaper than my usual brand, too. I picked up some pastries from Papa Pierre’s, which is the nearest we have to a posh cake shop, even though Papa Pierre is really called Pete Patterson, is from Rotherham not Rouen and his accent slips from slightly Gallic to South Yorkshire if he’s not concentrating. But he can certainly make a decent pastry. 

     Papa Pierre’s is only about five minutes walk from the Lily Bell (as it’s often known for short) and I don’t know quite why I suddenly put my hand into my pocket, into that zipped proper pocket to check that the key was still there. The thing is, I was absolutely sure it would be, and it never crossed my mind to think otherwise. I fished, I fingered, and assured myself it would be fine. It was not. I turned the pocket lining inside out, and there was no blessed little metallic tinkle of key on kerbstone. I must have forgotten it, I thought. I must have left it at home. In situations like that you start to question your memory – and let’s be frank, what I really mean is “question your sanity”. But I knew I had most definitely put the key in my pocket, in that safe, lined, zip pocket on my new winter coat in Belgian Burgundy. There was no point to rushing back home. I would not find it sitting on the hall table or on my desk, looking at me accusingly.

     Perhaps I had dropped it in Papa Pierre’s. Now in my heart I knew that was just as impossible as having left it at home. My purse had been (and still was) in my left pocket, and the key in my right. But I still stumbled back to the bakers, and the seconds seemed like weeks as Papa Pierre served the lady who couldn’t make up her mind if she wanted a Danish pastry or a slice of coffee and walnut cake. “Ah, Madame, you ‘ave eaten them already, hein?” he asked – then (because he’s a nice bloke and I don’t begrudge him his alter ego) in genuine concern, he asked, “What’s up, love?”

     “I – didn’t drop a key, did I?” I asked, knowing the answer before he shook his head and said, “Afraid not. At least, nobody’s picked one up.” I let him go through the motions of looking all over the floor, though I knew full well it was causing him work for nothing. “It was just here!” I exclaimed, starting to panic and gesturing at my pocket. “Sorry to cause you the bother – I didn’t think I had.”

     “It’s ‘orrible, losing things.” I wasn’t quite sure if the dropped “H” was Rouen or Rotherham and normally I’d have found that rather amusing, but I didn’t feel like laughing at anything.

     I’d be lying if I said I’d always looked forward to going to work. There were boring days at the Lily Bell, and frustrating ones, and ones when we wished we could have done more, and ones when we questioned the notion that working with the public was always a privilege. But I don’t think I had ever feared it. Maybe the word “fear” was going too far – at the time I thought of the victims of domestic violence and blackmail, of those in the claws of loan sharks we had (at least sometimes) helped, and of the Iraq veteran with PTSD who had been sleeping on the station platform. That was fear. But a dull, droning facsimile of it trudged beside me and within me. And I had always, even on the “bad days” had a sense of doing something worthwhile, of helping, of at least trying to help. You might say that logically losing the key didn’t effect that, but emotions aren’t logical – and when it comes down to it, it’s a pretty awful thing to appear to be so careless with private documents entrusted to your care. 

     I had, at times, vaguely resented being “The Reliable One” – it didn’t sound that thrilling or fascinating. But now I felt a deep, down-dragging despondency at the thought that I would no longer be “The Reliable One”. Was I tempted not to go into work? For a split second, maybe. But here’s the curious thing. It was still, in a sense, my refuge. Perhaps the people who needed access to the documents wouldn’t come in until Brian was back from the Health Centre. Perhaps he had a spare key. And – perhaps! – Perhaps is one of the most comforting and most taunting words in the language.

    “What’s up, Zo?” Mickey asked, less than a minute after I’d entered the building. Normally I would have, as a matter of ritual, told him not to call me “Zo”. When your name only has three letters you can get quite territorial about your two syllables. And anyway, he was supposed to be the “sporty one” (he coached the local under 10s soccer team, and was no mean golf player) and not the “intuitive one”. It spilled out, and I hadn’t meant it to. And confessions are like colds, no matter how much you try to give them away, it doesn’t stop you feeling lousy. For once, known, alongside being the “Reliable One” as “The Early One”, with my back and to trips to Papa Pierre’s, I wasn’t the first in.

     Lisa, who was “The Droll One” (there’s a nuance between that and the “Funny One”!) with hints of “The Tidy One”) didn’t exactly cut me off in mid-flow, evidently working on the better out than in principle, but more or less as soon as I did finally run out of steam, said, “Look, Zoe, no promises, right?”

     “Right” I agreed, automatically, not having any clue what I was agreeing to! “But I have that coat – or at any rate, last year’s version of it, the one that doesn’t have the detachable hood but was more expensive!” I knew it had looked vaguely familiar! “And though it’s not nearly as important as the key, I thought I’d lost my trolley token. It’s a bit ironic – they have a good idea, and then don’t get round to telling you about it. There’s a little flap at the top of the pocket that closes automatically with a metallic clasp when you put something in it – and it’s easy to put something into it without realising when you don’t know it’s there. At least have a look – or a touch, I suppose I should say!”

     She took my hand and, like a tutor teaching a blind person the rudiments of Braille, directed my fingers to the little flap inside the pocket. The metallic clasp opened – and within, there was the key. Well, I didn’t throw my arms around Lisa, and I didn’t burst into tears, but wouldn’t have minded or been embarrassed about either, and Mickey, whom I knew to be far more of a feminist than many men who made an issue of it, couldn’t help looking vaguely relieved that he was spared such female emotional gut-spilling, though his expression told us he would have felt just the same and was mightily relieved that it seemed the whole thing was ending happily,

     I didn’t tell Brian – then, and in a touching tacit conspiracy of silence, Lisa and Mickey didn’t breathe a word about the whole business – and the day proceeded in an entirely normal and undramatic manner. As it turned out, the folk who might have needed access to the contents of the safe weren’t in early. 

     But something was niggling and I knew exactly what, and I didn’t feel right, and when the two of us were alone in the office, and had been making small talk, then stopped, because we didn’t need to, I ‘fessed up to Brian. Isn’t it weird how I’m not the only one who makes a show of hating that expression, but uses it about my own admissions about commissions and omissions? Brian has always been a good listener. I mean really a good listener, not just someone who’s perfected the art of the “yes, I’m listening” expression whilst secretly in a mixture between mind-drift and thinking, oh, for God’s sake, get it over with. “I appreciate your honestly, Zoe,” he said, when I’d finished and he realised I’d finished, “Because I’d never have been any the wiser. And I’m pretty sure I’d have felt much the same way you did, and don’t want to belittle those feelings in any way. So now it’s time for me to do a bit of ‘fessing up, too. I was being – what’s the phrase? – a bit economical with the truth when I said there was nothing to worry about about my trip to the doctors. I was more or less sure there wasn’t but – well, I’d noticed that a mole on my shoulder – the kind you can just see in a mirror, but once you’ve seen it you can’t help seeing it! – had got bigger and was looking a bit angry. I ignored it or tried to – trust me, I’m not one of those people who immediately goes to get things checked out the minute there’s something that “they” make sure we know could be iffy. I was sent for a biopsy, and was on the point of not going there, either!” Well, as someone who habitually puts letters about smear tests and mammograms in the bin, I was the last person to lecture him! “Anyway, it was fine,” he said, “Just a dermatological problem, and soon cleared up. I was going in for the test results – they’d sent them through to my GP. I told myself it almost certainly wasn’t cancer, and if it was, it’d been caught early, and the recovery rates are amazing nowadays, and all that. But until I saw Dr Janosz beaming, I couldn’t be sure.”

     “Oh, Brian, I’m so glad!” I said, meaning every word of it.

     “Trust me, so am I! And I’m most certainly not going to launch into one of those lectures about perspectives and priorities and all that. But we’d have worked it out with the key. Let’s be honest,” he laughed, “You only need to look at it, and it’s not a double bluff, to know that it’s hardly one they’d use at Fort Knox! And the truth is, I did once have a spare and have my suspicions that to this day it’s still churning round in a launderette somewhere, if it hasn’t wrecked one of their machines. By the way – I don’t mind you telling anyone else about the mole and the tests but …. I’d prefer it if you didn’t, at least not for a while.”

     I nodded, understanding. And made all those good resolutions about priorities and perspectives despite what Brian had said, which were, of course, broken with great rapidity the minute the tap started dripping and the newsagent didn’t order my magazine.

     We finally have got round to having the teenage diary style padlock key replace with a combination lock. I know the combination. I’m still “The Reliable One”. 

     But not, not now, the “Smug Reliable One.”

     Oh, and sad person that I am, I have sent an email to Betta-Bargains Shopping Channel to say that I was very happy with my purchase from Costa Coats, but that it might be an idea to at least let the customers know about the secret pocket!

December 04, 2019 08:43

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