Samantha could have sworn she heard someone knocking at the window, which was unlikely given her office was on the third floor. Also, Samantha couldn't remember the last time anyone (other than her boss or the occasional colleague) had sought out her attention. That's what happens when you move to a new country, a new town, start a new job and then a global pandemic breaks out.
But there it was again; not so much a civilised knock as an insistent rat-tat-tat. Samantha leaned around the computer monitor, which had been strategically placed on the desk to prevent her gazing out the window (not that there was much to gaze at, unless you like grey rooftops and soot-stained chimneys). And there, standing on the windowsill, glaring malevolently through the glass, was an extremely large, angry-looking seagull. Its yellow, beady eyes locked on hers and it tapped at the glass again with its long, hooked, yellow beak. It cocked its head to one side. 'What's the hold-up?' Samantha imagined it asking. 'Lunch was served promptly yesterday and the day before. The service here has gone down the toilet.'
Samantha didn't know whether to laugh, or sigh with despair. Two days ago, she had tossed her sandwich crusts out her window onto the sloping roof below, which housed the now-defunct conference room. She had seen some sparrows flying around and thought it would be nice to feed them, to share her leftovers with the bedraggled wildlife of Chilton-On-Twye, the English Heritage Market Town that had somehow become her home. The crusts disappeared, so she did the same thing the following day, happily imagining the contented little birds feeding their babies with crumbs of good-quality sourdough (she had made it herself, after succumbing to the lockdown baking craze). But of course, a nasty seagull instead of a sparrow had eaten her crusts, and now here it was, demanding more.
She decided to ignore it, and anyway, she didn't have any food to donate. She had brought a homemade salad today, a fancy one with avocado and hummus. This was the cause of much consternation and wonderment amongst her colleagues, all of whom were older than her and bought pre-packed sandwiches from the Sainsburys down the road for lunch. They were allowed to share the break room again now, at staggered times, since the last lockdown was lifted. Samantha didn't miss eating alone in her office, as it meant she could avoid fielding questions about where she got her protein, or why they call it almond "milk" when it doesn't come from a cow. Vegans were something of a novelty in Chilton.
The seagull tapped a few more times, then gave up, casting a final glare in her direction before strutting down the sloping tiles and perching on the gutter edge. Samantha felt remorseful. Seagulls deserved food just as much as smaller, cuter birds, after all. She had a sneaking admiration for them, for their assertiveness, their abrasiveness, their frankly-human,-I-don't-give-a-damn attitude. And they were beautiful in their own way, with their pure white breasts and steely grey wings, their bright yellow beaks, their stern faces. Samantha often wished she could stretch her wings, catch a breeze and soar home across the sea to Dublin. But life wasn't so simple for humans.
A few seconds later, Debbie, her boss, rapped on the door, then threw it open without giving Samantha a chance to answer. The seagull had been far more polite. Everything about Debbie made Samantha nervous, from her over-plucked, angular eyebrows to her long, French-manicured nails. She wedged the door open with the tip of her pointed, patent-leather stiletto heel.
'Samantha!' she intoned in her sonorous voice, a voice befitting the CEO of one of the most prominent accountancy firms of the East Midlands. 'I've just finished going through the Moorfield Construction accounts. I want to run a few things by you, as you'll be taking over their books next month.'
'Of course, sure,' responded Samantha, trying to ignore the little voice inside her head, which all too frequently asked the awkward question: "Why the hell did you become an accountant? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?". 'When did you want to do that?'
'Well now, of course,' snapped Debbie. 'Unless you're in the middle of something pressing?' Sarcastic cow.
'No, now is fine.' Samantha rolled back her chair and followed Debbie into her (much larger) office which overlooked the High Street, offering a moderately depressing view of Costa coffee, Specsavers opticians and an Oxfam charity shop. It could be any street in any town in a 100-mile radius.
She hovered behind Debbie's desk as she scrolled through a spreadsheet, droning on about tax exemptions and end-of-quarter results. Samantha emitted intermittent "hmms" and "ahhhs", hoping it sounded like she cared.
A sudden bout of squawking erupted outside, interrupting Debbie's monologue. They both turned their heads towards the window, to the ground below, where two seagulls were squabbling over a Burger King bag left lying on the ground by one of Chilton's residents (they weren't the healthiest-looking bunch). Debbie clicked her tongue. 'Repulsive birds,' she spat. 'They should all be shot. I read online that they attacked a pensioner in the park last week. Took his ice-cream cone.'
Samantha pursed her lips, trying not to laugh at the image of marauding avian gangs terrorising the town's geriatric population. That was about as exciting as it got around these parts.
' That's dreadful,' she said, attempting to sound sincere.' They can be very aggressive."
' Hmm,' responded Debbie suspiciously, as if doubting Samantha's commitment to the vitriolic hatred of seagulls expected of good Chilton citizens.' Anyway. The results last quarter were decent, so Mr. Jackson was hoping that this time round...'
Samantha glazed over. The job hadn't been too bad at first. She had barely settled into the office when the pandemic banished her to her little flat to work from home. There was a strange novelty to the situation. She had never been able to afford to rent alone and she basked in the solitude. There were no housemates coming and going, hogging the shower, leaving their dishes out. She started an online pilates class and took up running and knitting. She rocked up to her laptop in pyjama bottoms and flip-flops at 9am, listened to music at her desk (which doubled as the kitchen table), sunbathed on her balcony at lunch. But then the government declared it was safe to go back to work and Debbie had summoned her back to "normality", which frankly wasn't as normal as she remembered. She thought about quitting and finding something else. But she was lucky to have a good, steady, sensible job in these strange times, she reminded herself. You can't just quit your job during a pandemic. You shouldn't complain.
The next day, on the dreary walk from the bus stop, Samantha found herself popping into the slightly smelly petshop on the corner and purchased a bag of birdseed. She wasn't sure if seagulls ate birdseed, but reasoned that they were birds after all, and they ate pretty much anything, in her experience. Maybe they'd prefer a tub of Ben and Jerry's, but her budget was limited. She stashed the bag in the bottom drawer of her desk, under a tangled coil of old USB cables left behind by Mr. Evans after he retired (he seemed to have had a habit of hoarding broken electrical equipment, like an old, tech-obsessed magpie). After lunch she tossed a handful of seeds out onto the roof, enjoying the tinkling sound they made as they bounced off the tiles. Within twenty minutes, her friend alighted, picking at the seeds with its scimitar-like bill. Samantha was pleased. Maybe it had chicks somewhere nearby, little untidy grey bundles of feathers, squalling for food. Proper birdseed had to be better for growing seagulls than soggy Burger King leftovers.
After a few days, a second bird joined the first and a little lunchtime routine developed over the next few weeks. She moved her monitor so she could watch out the corner of the window as the gulls picked through the seeds in an efficient, businesslike manner, then soared away. Samantha started to look forward to their visits. They were so bright, so alive, so real. More real than episodes of Ozark on Netflix, solitary glasses of wine on Friday, or stilted replies from strangers on Tinder, strangers who, for the most part, couldn't spell and had an extremely poor command of English grammar.
Google told her it was almost impossible to tell the difference between male and female gulls, but Samantha decided they were a couple. She named them Harold and Frieda. Google also told her that they mate for life, which made them seem far more endearing, for some reason.
She started to grow almost jealous of them: of their wings, their togetherness, the simplicity of their existence. Flying, food, sleeping, laying eggs, caring for their young for a few months, then doing it all again. No morning meetings, no council tax or water bills or delayed buses, no applying mascara in the morning, no flicking through tinder profiles. Their visits were less upsetting than the zoom calls with her parents and brothers, short chats where what little news they had was exchanged quickly, followed by awkward jokes and long silences. Samantha knew Debbie and Co would be angry if they found out about her new friends, but what could they do? Fire her for scattering birdseed out a window?
Apparently so. One Friday evening, with just ninety minutes to go until freedom, Debbie barged in.
'Samantha. We need to talk.' her voice sounded even more tense than usual.
'Oh. Right. Will I come to your office…?'
'No. We'll talk here.' She slammed the door shut.
'Is everything OK?' Samantha was suddenly nervous.
'Not really. Samantha. Have you been… feeding birds?'
'Have you been tossing food out of your office window for birds? Gary said he saw you at it a few times.' Gary was the janitor who patrolled the building three afternoons a week, dragging a Henry Hoover behind him and glaring at anyone who got in his way.
Samantha felt the blood rush to her face, her stomach drop to the floor. Why was she so nervous? She had passed probation, she had a full-time, permanent job. There was nothing in her contract forbidding her from feeding animals at work. What could Debbie actually do other than snap at her, which she did all the time anyway? Samantha wished she was better at confrontation. She wished she was more like a seagull.
'Emm. I did put some seed out. For the sparrows.'
Debbie gazed incredulously at her, as if she had just claimed to be leaving food out for the Loch Ness Monster.
'Yes. I'm into birds. I'm a member of the RSPB. It's important for biodiversity, you know? Given… habitat loss and… climate change.'
It was as if Samantha had just confessed to being into collecting human toenail clippings.
'You do realise this is a place of work? That throwing food outside could attract pests? Is, in fact, attracting pests? Pests like seagulls?'
'I'm sorry, I didn't realise.'
'You didn't notice the enormous birds, flapping and squawking and… defecating all over the roof?'
It was hard to deny, in fairness.
'I'm sorry. I really am. I won't do it again. It was silly. It just… cheered me up a bit during all this covid stuff.' Samantha felt tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. She was suddenly sweating. This was stupid. Harold wouldn't cry. Frieda wouldn't sweat. They'd poop on the floor, steal the nearest object resembling food, then fly off.
'Covid stuff? We're all going through "stuff", Samantha. I have two children to look after and a mortgage to pay but I still come in here and behave appropriately.'
Debbie lived in a lovely, four bedroomed Victorian house, drove an Audi, was married to a surgeon and her parents both lived around the corner from her. Her two daughters went to the local private school and excelled at hockey and piano. Samantha found it hard to dredge up sympathy for her predicament.
'I'm very sorry. It won't happen again. I promise.'
'It better not. You know, Samantha, your references were good, your university results were excellent and I thought it would be good to get some… Young blood into the firm. But I was worried you wouldn't be a good fit here. Perhaps I was right.'
She banged the door again as she exited, leaving Samantha sitting motionless, trying to swallow her tears.
The weekend was much like any other. Samantha ran in the mornings, Skyped her family, chatted to her friend Beth back in Dublin, filling her in on the seagull situation. She started a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle (Van Gogh's Sunflowers) with a gin and tonic, alone, on Saturday night. This is it, she realised, as she searched for the corner pieces. You have reached Peak Sad. Her thoughts wandered to Monday. Harold and Frieda would show up expecting their lunch, and she'd have to ignore them, to keep her eyes glued to her damn spreadsheets, to be a Proper Accountant. Eventually she put all the pieces back in the box and went to bed. She didn't sleep very well.
She woke to the sound of rain on the window, spilling down from the grey sky. Samamtha wanted to stay in bed, preferably forever. Her bus was late and she arrived to work at five past nine, with her coat and shoes soaked right through. Debbie cast a freezing glare on her bedraggled figure as they passed on the stairs. Samantha didn't even bother summoning up a 'good morning'. Not that Debbie did either. At one o'clock, her friends alighted outside, strolling around, pecking at the tiles. Samantha could almost feel her heart breaking as she moved her monitor back into its original place, blocking her view. 'Sorry guys,' she whispered. 'I'll get into trouble.'
The next day, as she was responding to a snarky email from the head of Osborne Motors, she heard the tapping. Harold/Frieda (she couldn't tell them apart) was asking for food again. Tap-tap-tap. A pause. Tap-tap-tap.
She stared at her screen. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.
An email popped up from Debbie. 'Samantha. I want to remind you of our Workplace Policy re clothing. We require office attire at all times. Your shoes, which I noted yesterday, were not in line with our guidelines. Please see attached documentation re suitable footwear. Regards.'
Samantha had worn her trainers because it was raining. She had exchanged them for her regulation black ballet flats as soon as she reached her office.
She pulled out her phone and whatsapped Beth.
'I'm quitting. Can't take this place anymore.'
The reply was swift. 'Good plan! Sound crap. Leave!'
Exactly four weeks later, at 4:50pm on a Friday afternoon, Samantha cleared out her office. She had two job offers already, one from an overseas aid charity in London and one from Queen's University in Belfast. Boring office jobs, but miles better than this. She was still waiting to hear back from the job she had applied for in Dublin, working in payroll in a children's hospital. She would have to forfeit the deposit on her apartment because she hadn't given enough notice. She'd have to sell all her furniture by the end of next week. She'd have to cancel all her accounts with the council, the water company, the electricity provider, call her GP, the bank, the post office and tell them she was moving. It was going to be a week of administrative hell. She didn't care. Her flight and PCR test were booked. Her covid PCR test . She was going home, even if it was just for a few weeks. Then… then we'll see, she told herself. It'll be ok.
She unplugged her phone charger from the wall, and decided to steal her favourite pen (a nice blue felt-tip one). Harold and Frieda would approve. Debbie had left early without saying goodbye, so she felt she deserved some sort of parting gift. As she checked the drawers, ensuring she hadn't forgotten anything, she saw the edge of the bag of birdseed peeking out from under Mr. Evan's cable collection. She pulled it out and stared at it for a moment. Then she opened the window and emptied the whole bag out, seeds avalanching down the tiles, pattering into the gutter. The gulls would be well-fed that weekend at least.
'Bye Harold, bye Frieda,' she said to the chilly air. They'd be fine. They were seagulls after all. And it was five o'clock. She was free.