After work we talked about Elena’s inappropriate boss. ‘She’s always adjusting her bra,’ Elena said, ‘but a new all-time today, fixing her tights beside me while I’m trying to sort the quarterlies. Skirt hiked up and she’s wiggling her backside, bloody heedless.’
Per had a haunted look. ‘I’ve seen that. Clomp, shoe on the desk. Eyes straight for Christ’s sake! Half the unit knows what you’d see, she talked about grooming her downstairs in section last week.’
‘You poor devils,’ I said, and lifted my glass. We were drinking wine that day, at Per’s insistence. ‘To your innocence. In memoriam.’
‘Hell with innocence,’ Elena said. ‘I’ll drink to shame and those that have it.’
Poor Marina. She was well in her thirties but there were some basics she still hadn’t figured out. I thought I had the answers of course: ‘You have to say something to her.’
‘Doesn’t work,’ Elena said. ‘She doesn’t get it.’
Per snorted. ‘Don’t tell me: you advised her on appropriate boundaries at work, and she thanked you with a real close hug?’
I was increasingly confident in my wisdom: ‘She shouldn’t be in the job! It’s just not on, is it? Have you spoken to Mitch?’
Mitch was Marina’s boss, and Elena didn’t hide her distaste: ‘Mitch is a bastard.’
Friday night was drinks for Elena’s birthday, and Marina came. Per and I were settled in a booth, getting steadily merrier while discussing the travesty that was the supermarket DVD shelf, when Marina sat down and yanked the conversation in a different direction. ‘Supermarkets are amazing now! Can you imagine lubricant and vibrators are just there at the checkout! You have no idea what it used to be like. I didn’t even know lubricant existed. And that is really unfortunate, it would have made certain things much much easier when I was a teenager!’
The conversation never quite made it back to DVDs. Marina did most of the talking, and she wasn’t such a great listener when Per or I took a turn. Still, I’m a bit like that myself, and she sort of won me over to be honest. Not that I had to work with her every day.
Elena cornered me as the evening wound down. ‘You got the treatment!’
‘I think I like her,’ I said, then sucked my lips. ‘I am somewhat drunken.’
‘Exactly!’ Elena hit my arm. ‘I like her too! But she’s terrible! She got me a gift, she gave it to me in the office today – you know what it was? Lingerie! Blue lacy underwear! From my boss! What is that!’
‘Is she hitting on you?’
Elena closed her eyes and dumped her head on my shoulder. ‘Worse. I think she’s trying to be my friend.’
‘This can’t continue,’ I declared.
‘It’s really nice,’ Elena laughed into my collarbone. ‘The lingerie. It’s fancy.’
As I left, Marina fell in beside me. We walked to the taxi rank and waited together. She took my arm and asked me about my department, and I did my best to answer even though I was many sheets to the wind. Then out of nowhere she said, ‘Sometimes at work, actually, I don’t feel very comfortable. Sometimes when I work late to get something done, and Mitch is there. Sometimes he comes up behind me and puts both his hands on my shoulders.’
I pulled it together enough to say ‘Really?’
‘One time I think he followed me into the toilets. I was in a cubicle but the door definitely opened. But it was late, it was probably just a cleaner that time.’ She gave me a strange little smile, then she changed the subject, and I let her, and then she was in a taxi and gone.
Her story stayed with me. A few days later I did the only useful thing I could think of, and went to Irene, my boss. ‘There’s someone in the company being harassed,’ I said after closing her office door. ‘But I don’t think she wants to complain, so… What should I do?’
I was lucky to have Irene as a manager. She’d make sure something happened. ‘She won’t go on the record?’
‘It’s her direct line manager. I guess it doesn’t feel safe.’
Irene gave me a careful look. ‘I see. Well, yes, you can’t complain for her. But, listen. Matters like this… Sometimes there might already be conversations happening. I’m happy to add my voice to those conversations to say, in general, that we have to take this kind of behaviour very seriously. That’s something I can do, following this chat.’
I felt better immediately. Irene would handle it.
‘Good on you,’ she added as I left. ‘This person probably needs a friend.’
I wasn’t a friend. In fact I was probably one of the last to hear she was leaving. ‘I think Mitch pushed her out,’ Elena said with lip curled. ‘Bloody typical.’
Per shrugged. ‘Her role was going to disappear sooner or later. Why wait for the ship to sink?’
Elena gave his arm a shove. ‘You don’t get her at all.’
I couldn’t figure it either. I was tempted to share Marina’s account and Irene’s response, but it wasn’t my story to tell. ‘End of an era,’ I said instead.
‘You better be at her farewell drinks,’ Per told me. ‘Help the numbers. She deserves that at least.’
At the bar Marina bounced from person to person, mingling happily, and for once her outfit seemed to match the tone of the room. It was a small group but she made it big enough, putting a hand to one man’s chest and laughing, raising eyebrows at another over her glass. Mitch had already gone by the time I arrived, which pleased me, but it surprised me too, like an admission of guilt.
I caught her near the bar and wished her well for her next move. ‘I don’t have a next move,’ she said with that same weird smile. ‘But it doesn’t matter, does it?’ Then she pressed by me, closer than I would have liked; but it felt like she was pushing me away. And like waking up into a hangover, I suddenly understood who Irene had meant.
Per’s arm around me jolted me back. ‘Come sign our card.’
‘I already signed the card.’ This was a lie. I didn’t feel I could.
‘No, we have our own one,’ Per said. ‘Elena chose it.’
‘It’s special for her!’ Elena said, and she grabbed my arm and pulled me to the task. Both of them watched as I held the pen and couldn’t think what to write. Eventually Per nudged me, so I scribbled my name and wrote ‘good luck’.
We gave it to Marina as she was leaving. Her face brightened as she pulled it out of the envelope. ‘Oh, thank you!’ she said, hugging Elena and Per, and then me. ‘So carefully chosen! You see?’ Marina displayed the card: enormous breasts straining a colourful Mediterranean bikini. ‘They look just like mine!’
She wasn’t going to forgive me, of course. She wouldn’t need to forgive anyone. So I laughed with the others, and I meant it, because she was right: the card was well-chosen. And that would have to be enough.
I wrote this sketch about a decade ago, and I’ve lightly edited it before publishing here. It is based on true events.