Contemporary Creative Nonfiction Happy

Her face remained totally stolid as the Number 26 rattled towards her. Quite how it was possible to ignore the noise of squealing brakes and loud horns blaring, but the whole queue never flinched or reacted and stood as if made of stone, lost in their thoughts. Standing at an unprotected bus stop in a traffic-polluted, grey, cold, wind-blown street, Sylvie’s expressionless, dead-eyed face never changed. Glancing at the other individuals in the queue, she seemed little different from her fellow passengers: hunched, pinched and miserable. Morning after morning, waiting for the bus's arrival, no fellow passengers had ever acknowledged each other’s existence.  No one nodded or forced their thin, tense lips into a smile at a travel companion joining the queue. A feeling of dread seemed to accompany most on their daily journey into the City.

The only identification that this depressing litter-strewn pavement area was a bus stop was the lonely rusting pole bravely waving in the wind and hanging on to the last remnants of the paint job administered long ago by the bus company. Here, the miserable queue dutifully stood in single file, waiting for the arrival of the battered, graffiti-covered bus.  

When it finally arrived, she swung her left leg onto the platform, frantically grasping the pole handle and hauling the rest of her unwilling body to follow. She entered the already overfull bus and was hit initially by the overwhelming smell of ingrained dirt and mould pervading the floors and seats. Within minutes she was struck by the familiar reek of soft, wet farts being squeezed silently from various nether regions whilst the owners’ faces remained impassive, making it impossible to determine the culprits. She closed her mouth tightly and attempted to take only shallow intakes of sulphuric air into her slightly hairy nostrils. Some passengers furiously searched in their bags and began liberally spraying perfume to weaken the morning human vapours so offensive to their sensitivities.  Chanel No. 5 had not factored these bus rides into their laboratory experiments when developing their world-famous perfume. The heady French scent did little to change the ambience of the overwhelming, unpleasant aromas that clung ferociously to dirty windows and grimy hand poles.  

The bus trundled on, stopping to deliver the workers with their mixtures of hangovers, lack of sleep, and fear of failure and picking up new hang-dog martyrs at the various bus stops. As the bus cleared, Sylvie eventually raised her eyes and wondered about her fellow passengers.  

“Was there just one person who had fallen in love last night? Was there one passenger confident in the knowledge that their much-desired promotion was being approved? Or were we all the same? - terrified of failure and convinced we were the only individual to feel this way?”  

At each bus stop, grim faces continued to ascend or alight from the dilapidated red bus.  

As the double-decker bus lurched its way forward, none looked through the grimy windows at the cityscape. The route took them through the historically famous East End before turning into the wealth of the City. They swept into the famous City streets, some having existed for over a millennium until they finally travelled towards the modern skyscraper buildings that could have only been about 20 years old. As the bus approached St Paul’s Cathedral, without fail, a strong feeling of nausea hit her stomach. By now immune to the sulphuric smell of the inside of the bus, she tried to contend with the first panic attack of the day as she struggled to regulate her breathing and prevent emptying her stomach contents onto the bus floor. Her head began to pound, and her face began to assume the expression of the truly defeated. As the gloom descended, she prepared herself for another bleak day whilst making her way for the exit and ascending from the noxious bus. Like a lamb to the slaughter, her arrival at the office beckoned.

She began her daily mantra as she traversed the main City street and approached the Corporate Headquarters.  ‘Today, I will achieve’, she intoned, yet she knew her ‘to-do’ list (rapidly written in her head) was never to be achieved. “Why should this day be any different?” she reasoned as her head swirled.  Writing her tasks down only increased difficulties as she seemed never to put that confident line through any job, signifying completion. Every day, she longed for a rush of those ‘time management’ skills that her colleagues possessed and loved to boast about. Unfortunately, Sylvie's complete lack of interest in the courses they attended had produced a zero effect on her output. In comparison, her work associates tore efficiently ahead no matter how boring the Project they were working on.   

She tried getting in earlier and leaving later and later, firmly believing this would ensure achievement - but she was wrong. She ensured that after a cheery welcome to everyone, she turned to her desk and determinedly never raised her head all day. She was, however, known to shout out funny observations and leave the office in shrieks of uncontrollable laughter. When her colleagues left the office at the end of the working day, Sylvie always remained behind, furiously trying to catch up on tasks that constantly eluded her.

So here she was, about to face yet another terrifying day. It was 20 minutes before office hours - hopefully, no one else would be in. As the fear began to grip her, she pulled her shoulders back, re-arranged her disheartened, miserable little face, and replaced it with an entirely different public persona.  Raising her atheist eyes upwards in a last-minute desperate appeal for a Higher Being to help her, she marched into the large open-plan office, clean, sterile and devoid of emotional warmth and welcome. She was instantly filled with a deep loathing as she neared her allocated workspace.

“Yoo hoo Sylvie”, shouted a happy voice from the beautiful head presently half hidden behind a large desktop computer screen.  

She felt an intense anger towards Helen. Why was Helen in the office twenty minutes before their official working hours? Only she, Sylvie, alone got in twenty minutes before anyone else. She needed this time to construct the tuneless humming and practice the foolish smile that would be plastered onto her over-made face. If Helen had looked up earlier, she might have caught Sylvie’s natural expression and seen her terrified countenance worn only when alone and entering that distressing office space.  

“Did you have a good evening?” asked Helen, expecting a positive answer.

Sylvie forced the false mega-watt smile that lit up her face to perhaps as far as her nostrils but left the rest of the face pale and devoid of any real emotion.  

Sylvie always replied: “Oh lovely, and you? What did you do?”.  In truth, Sylvie’s every evening and weekend was pretty dreadful. Most nights and weekends were spent in the office trying to achieve something, but her time management skills were, as usual, non-existent.

Each weekday, she sat at her desk, a prisoner of her fear of failure, terrified to complete a task, terrified to put herself forward for a different project that just might be interesting, afraid to make any new friends in the Company in case they immediately unveiled all her inadequacies. Over the years, she became increasingly convinced that everyone was achieving - except her. She knew she could never explain what was causing the log jam in her output as she didn’t know herself. She left night after night, troubled and convinced that her production was being judged to be less than anyone else. How long could it take until the ‘Boss’ called her for the dreaded chat? This was a company that didn’t mess about. You either achieved or you had to leave.


In the City, gossip rapidly gaining creditability was doing the rounds - Recession. This was all anyone could whisper about. The City workers running out to buy their sandwich lunch looked even more stressed than usual. It became common knowledge that companies were planning to lay off numerous staff. Inwardly, Sylvie was thrilled. This took the decision away from her, and she now prepared herself for the glorious day when she would finally be ‘let go’. Her lack of self-belief meant she could not look for a new job until she was on the streets, homeless and jobless. Disaster alone would finally drown out the constant, judgemental inner voice telling her she was useless.  

Turning up daily to an office populated with insecure workers, wondering, ‘Is it me? Will I be asked to go?” had robbed any semblance of pleasure even from the most confident and enthusiastic workers. Sylvie began to suffer increased fear, panic, and debilitating headaches. While contemplating a disastrous future, her time spent in bed at night consisted of her tossing and turning until she finally decided she could take no more and, taking her future life into her hands, she vowed to go and see the Boss.


Neil looked up from his desk, his face considerably more lined, older and strained than his 40+ years. Sylvie was shocked to see the man so changed as he sat behind his desk, which was covered in personnel spreadsheets, looking as if his world had collapsed. She stood hovering near the door entrance, and if he hadn’t looked up and seen her, Sylvie, feeling her courage draining away, was seriously considering turning around and just running…..anywhere.

“Sylvie! What can I do for you’. His voice sounded welcoming, and his troubled face had broken into a genial smile as he half stood, indicating a warm welcome as he pointed to a chair. She took a few steps towards the chair and stood awkwardly behind it, lightly leaning on the backrest. He walked to the door and closed it firmly, and as he returned to his desk, a much younger, calmer man appeared before her.

“I’m so glad to see you, Sylvie; please sit down”.

She sat down, her heart thumping, her armpits stinging, and her hands tingling with fear. Why the hell was he glad to see her? She looked quizzically at her Boss. She was surprised at how much Neil seemed to enjoy laying off a staff member. Even though the whole purpose of turning up in his office was to rush the redundancy process, she’d genuinely thought that Neil might have shown more compassion, no matter how false.

“I was going to call you this morning, but by chance, you’ve come. I need to sort out your position in the Company so that other pieces can be put into place quickly and efficiently,” he said, still bizarrely smiling. 

“Wow, they are desperate to get rid of me. I’m glad I came to see Neil and didn’t have to suffer the indignity of being called to his office to be sacked. “ 

“Right,” she thought, “Get a grip, take a deep breath, pitch your voice tone low so it doesn’t break or disappear. For god’s sake, don’t cry.”  

Looking at him straight into his eyes, she said bravely: “Yes, I knew I would be first to go, so that’s why I popped in to see you.” She gave him the megawatt smile - she had to - to prevent him from noticing her trembling and her trying to control the rising gorge of a full-blown panic attack.

“You? You? Why on earth did you think you would be going?” He looked confused and shocked. “You are the most positive person we have working here. You need to stay here and keep everyone laughing. You are such a joyful person. We are so fortunate to have you.”

She nearly passed out. “You’re joking”, she stuttered.

'You can forget about any other project you were working on. Other people can do those. You have to keep everyone happy and productive. These lay-offs will upset people dreadfully - and despite everything, we still have customers that need to be looked after.'

She stared open-eyed at him, trying to see how quickly she could manage the skill of lip-reading. What the hell was Neil talking about? It was all just babble to her.

He explained: “We’re pulling in a team of Change and Work Specialists, and they have requested that you be assigned to them. Josephine has asked you to join her as soon as possible and get to know the rest of the Team.”


Approximately thirty minutes later, she left the Boss’s office under strict instructions to keep their conversation under wraps. She left bemused, still not 100% certain what had just happened. The new job, as described to her, was a dream come true. Instead of shifting mind-numbing emails and documents around, she was being paid an increased salary to do a job that was so fantastic she couldn’t believe she had never heard of a Change Specialist before. She’d had a brief phone call with Josephine, and they would have lunch tomorrow.  

The Boss said as she stood to leave his office.

“This is going to test everyone, Sylvie. So many people in that office feel inadequate at their jobs.’ He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s the culture of the workplace.”  

“Josephine says many just fell into jobs that they are ill-suited to, but the salary and conditions persuaded them to keep turning up for work. Poor blighters. The Company wants Josephine’s Team to identify the real skills of these people and get them reassigned rather than get rid of them. Some are fantastic at their jobs and need to understand that.”

She fell through his office door, thinking: “He’s made a terrible mistake. All the girls in the team are bursting with confidence. All their projects are completed in a timely and efficient manner. Fancy anyone thinking, the smile, the tuneless humming, and the loud, insincere laugh made her an asset to the Company.

She returned to her desk and sat down calmly with her hands in her lap. Her inner face peculiarly felt different. 

Her work colleagues were sitting in a circle, looking distressed. It was clear that no work was being attempted. As she joined her team, the whole atmosphere of the miserable group changed as they welcomed her warmly:  

“Oh, look at you, Sylvie; no matter how bad the news is, you are always happy and smiling. Thank god we work with you.”


At the end of the cycle of redundancies and reassignments, Sylvie had discovered a whole new inner person. She found she was the unconventional type of person that her Company had always thought highly of, but she had failed to accept and appreciate.

Going through extensive ‘Change and Work Specialist” courses, many staff were reassigned, and some were ‘let go’.  The Company survived and continued to thrive. Sylvie now understood that many people sat in ill-suited jobs, and just like Sylvie, they hid it well. It took Josephine and her Change and Work Specialists team to identify Sylvie’s fundamental role within the Company, which could never be the person endlessly shifting sheets of paper around. Sylvie’s sense of failure had emanated from years of trying to force herself into a job she could never do and never wanted to do.  She was the outlier who supported the essential paper-shifting workhorses, allowing them to keep the Company viable, whilst she helped provide the necessary positive attitude, made the job fun, and essentially supported their particular skills, thereby allowing their successes to continue to be recognised and applauded.  

Sylvie still works for the Company and now has the reputation of the ‘Ideas Woman’. Her appreciation of the Company’s progressive attitude towards its staff is well known, and it is one of the happiest places to work.  

Sylvie moved flats and no longer catches the morning bus and instead walks to work through St James Park, humming tunelessly, because she enjoys humming tunelessly.

October 14, 2023 01:46

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Michał Przywara
20:46 Oct 17, 2023

I suspect this is a scenario that's brutally familiar to a lot of people. In particular, I like (and on some level hate :) the inner monologue, filled with fear and insecurity and a certainty that everyone else is better, not realizing that pretty much everyone has the same narrative running through their minds. "as he returned to his desk, a much younger, calmer man appeared before her" That's a neat way of phrasing it, and it also ties in nicely to her earlier musings about her real face being seen instead of her work face. In this sto...


Show 0 replies
13:51 Oct 17, 2023

Interesting story Stevie and I actually totally understand where Sylvie is coming from. Maybe a lot of people feel like that without us realising. This line made me lol: Within minutes she was struck by the familiar reek of soft, wet farts being squeezed silently from various nether regions whilst the owners’ faces remained impassive, making it impossible to determine the culprits. Very good!


Stevie Burges
14:41 Oct 17, 2023

Thank you so much. Such happy vivid memories!!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
19:41 Oct 16, 2023

Well done, Stevie. Good to know you are always so positive and happily humming


Show 0 replies
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.