I will not let her know I’m worried, thought Sophie. I will look her in the eyes and not evade her gaze, and I will answer her questions calmly and accurately.
She was also determined that the impassive woman behind the desk should not realise that she had barely slept the previous night. She had splashed her face with cold water (this was no time for a cucumber-scented toner!) and put concealer on the dark circles under her eyes.
I have all the necessary documents, she thought, I have checked them and double-checked them, and triple-checked them and put them ready in advance, in a neat briefcase, not a supermarket plastic bag. Nobody could tell that she had bought the briefcase in a charity shop.
She was dressed soberly but with a defiant splash of colour coming from her cornflower blue blouse. She had even put her hair up, though she knew she would have a headache that night.
Don’t fidget, she told herself. Sit still, legs crossed at the ankle, and take a couple of deep breaths. But not too deep. You don’t want to start hyperventilating, do you?
She wished she had not put that idea in her own head. So far as she knew though she had certainly got what her mother called “aereated”, she had never had a panic attack in her life. But there was a first time for everything.
She made herself concentrate on her surroundings in the office. It was one of those rooms that felt airless, even though the window was open, and it was not an especially warm day. It was probably one of those rooms that could be freezing cold and still stuffy. The absurdity of that notion nearly made her give a nervous giggle. But she managed to suppress it.
There wasn’t much in the way of decoration. This was a functional room, a room where important decisions were made, and important questions answered. It was not there to look pretty, or relaxing, or have anyone’s personality imprinted on it. There was one picture on one wall, in a narrow white frame. A floral print, of a flower that Sophie couldn’t place, though she was no botanist. It was painted (well, printed) in oddly aggressive pastels. You’d never have thought there could be anything menacing about mauve.
There was a small water cooler in the corner, and Sophie’s throat felt very dry, but she most certainly wasn’t going to ask for a glass of water. That would give the wrong impression altogether. The woman behind the desk would probably bring it her with an air of concern, and ask, “Is anything bothering you, Ms Anderson?” in tones of honeyed suspicion.
She tried to take stock of her interrogator, without making it obvious. That would not do, though just where should you put your eyes in such situations? She was not wearing a uniform, but Sophie rather suspected she would like to, and would be that rarity, a woman who looked good in uniform. On the surface, her outfit was not unlike Sophie’s own – a dark coloured trouser suit, though Sophie’s was dark blue and her interrogator’s was slate grey – and with that “splash of colour”. But her interrogator did not favour cornflower blue. Her splash of colour was a no-nonsense crimson. She struck Sophie as the kind of woman who would not leave the house without putting on her make-up, but hoped (if she wasted any of her thoughts on such trivial matters) that many people wouldn’t even realise she was wearing it – apart from that perfectly applied crimson lipstick.
Both her name-badge and a sign by her desk proclaimed that she was called Ms Samantha Chapman. Sophie was pretty sure that she would never answer to “Sam”. Perhaps even her significant other, if she had one, referred to her as “Ms Chapman”!
Do not look at your watch or even at the clock, Sophie told herself. It would not do at all for the woman to realise that she was getting edgy about how long it was taking her to sort through the documents and come to her decision. She tried to calm herself by going through her own checklist in her head, and of course it had the opposite effect.
Of course it was ridiculous. She had nothing to fear. She had done nothing wrong. If she were to walk out of this office right now, nobody would pursue her. She could go home, or anywhere she chose, entirely unhindered. But it was not that simple. There would be files forever after, tentacles twitching across cyberspace, marking her out as someone who lost her nerve during the interview. Who was afraid of what might be discovered. She would be marked out for life. No, she must stick her ground.
In her mind’s ear she heard the views of those who were all in favour of CCTV (she could see no evidence of it in the office, but was by no means sure) and ID cards – proclaiming that if you had nothing to hide, you had nothing to fear. Her own self-image as a liberal person meant that she could not, of course, agree with them, but in a sneaky corner of her mind she wondered if, perhaps, they had a point.
Now such thoughts came back to haunt her. She had nothing to hide. She had never so much as falsified a minor detail on a CV, nor incurred a parking fine, though concerning the latter she had to admit that she had “got away with it” on a couple of occasions. Oh, of course, she had plenty to hide, we all do, but nothing that need concern this woman or affect her decision and what she decided.
The little noise of papers being looked over, of pages being turned, seemed to amplify. I’m sure she’s checked that one before, thought Sophie. She could have sworn one of her hair grips shifted a little. Oh, please don’t let my hair come down, she thought. She knew that the woman checking and double-checking, and triple-checking was not the kind of person who would chuckle and say, “That’s happened to me, before now!” Her own hair was short, beautifully cut and tinted and layered. One of those “deceptively simple” hairstyles.
Somewhere in the building, she heard a toilet flush. Oh, please don’t let me need the loo, she thought, and then immediately feared that that, too, might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And was there any more obvious signal of nerves? She remembered that old advice about imagining someone on the loo if you were overawed by them, or was it imagining them with no clothes on? Or both? But anyway, she knew it wouldn’t work. She tried silently reciting multiplication tables, but had the same trouble she’d had when she was ten with the seven and eleven times, and tried silently reciting poetry, but poems she knew perfectly well blurred and mutated …..
This is the night mail, crossing the border,
but all my papers might not be in order!
I think that she will never see
someone as ill-prepared as me!
Do not go gentle into that good night,
rage, rage, because this will not turn out right!
“Ms Anderson?” Sophie felt as if she jumped, but hoped that she didn’t. That would give the wrong impression altogether. Stay calm, she thought, play it cool!
“Sorry that took a while. But we like to do things properly to avoid any embarrassment or unpleasantness later on, either for you or for us.”
“Of course,” Sophie said, trying to sound casual, but not too casual.
But, wonder of wonders, the other woman was smiling! It was not exactly a smile that lit up the room, but it was quite a nice smile.
“Everything is absolutely fine, Ms Anderson. I wish everyone came as well-prepared as you did. You can open a Special Saver account with the East Shires Building Society!”