This is a work of fiction, a short story of 1175 words.
As far as Ursula was concerned, everything about character could be told from the small details. Observation was the key, it was all there, and you just had to see it. Not just look at those details, but see them. The two are very different, she knew that.
Working in the head office of the largest bank gave her lots of opportunity to constantly inspect people. Not just look at them of course, but inspect them. There were too many, far too many, and most days, she wondered why she worked there at all, putting herself through this daily onslaught of unpleasant humanity.
Just a couple of feet away, Marjorie sat at the next desk. Ursula watched her well-manicured fingers glide over the keyboard as the older woman typed something onto the screen in front of her. How could she ever consider wearing short sleeves, when her arms were so hairy? The look of the dark brown hairs made her shudder. It was like watching the arms of a monkey. Each hair seemed to magnify as she watched. Some were long and lustrous, others thick and short, like the legs of a spider. Marjorie seemed to sense her gaze. She raised her eyebrows as she turned, wondering if Ursula was trying to get her attention. Those eyebrows had been plucked until they almost ceased to exist, then what was left had been covered by a thick pencil line, leaving the woman resembling a drag act or something. How could someone pay so much attention to eyebrows, but happily ignore a mat of hair covering both arms?
Colin Collins was heading for her desk, so Ursula braced herself. Who would ever name someone Colin, if their surname was Collins? She would have changed that, if she was him. The pocket flap of his suit jacket was turned over, like the corner of a page in a book. That meant he had probably been out for a sneaky smoke break, then hurriedly returned the cigarette packet to that pocket, without bothering to close the flap properly. From six feet away, her suspicions were confirmed, as she could smell the lingering odour of tobacco around him. She was hoping he wouldn’t smile as he left the file on her desk. But she hoped in vain, as his mouth opened in a wide grin, displaying the prominent discoloured tooth right at the front. Why wouldn’t he get that fixed? Didn’t he see it, or did it just not concern him? She pretended to be studying something on the screen, and he didn’t linger.
The buzzer on the desk startled her, shaking off her thoughts. Mrs Hillier asked her to come in, to take dictation. Despite being younger than Ursula, Carol Hillier was the head of department, a high-flier, well thought of by senior management. As she entered the office, she hoped that Mrs Hillier wouldn’t be sitting with her legs up on the desk, and no shoes on. For some reason, the woman thought this casual approach was friendly and familiar, making her one of the gang. But nobody else ever sat like that, or would be allowed to. Ursula knew the real reason why she did.
It was because she could.
Of course, her worst fears were realised. As she sat down opposite her manager, she was presented with the woman’s feet plonked on the desk just inches from her face. She began to dictate the letter immediately, and Ursula scrabbled to get her notepad open, trying not to look at the unusually large big toes under the covering of the navy blue nylon tights. Halfway through the letter, she had to look, unable to stop herself. There was a run in the tights. It was on her left foot, and went from the edge of the heel all the way along the sole, until it reached the reinforced toe section. Why would a woman in such a powerful position, an otherwise smart and relatively attractive woman too, think it was acceptable to wear tights that were laddered? She was relieved when the letter was finished, and happy to get out of the office.
Lunch provided some relief. If it wasn’t raining, she would sit outside the back of the huge office block, quietly eating her sandwich, away from all the distractions provided by her colleagues. If the weather was bad, she usually retreated into the ladies’ toilets, where she could sit undisturbed in a cubicle. There was no chance that she would ever risk the staff restaurant again. Once had been enough. Watching those people eat as they were talking, seeing the spills and crumbs fall unnoticed onto their clothes, and listening to the slurping of drinks. It was unspeakable, a truly awful experience.
Back upstairs, she could see that Debbie had arrived at the desk in front of hers. She was a part-timer, working three afternoons a week. Outwardly, she was a young glamorous mum, always talking about her five year-old daughter. Popular, efficient, and well-liked. But Ursula could see what others missed. The scuffed sides of her high heeled shoes, the fact that she often wore the same skirt three days running, and the unmistakable aroma of clothes that were not clean, masked by the sort of cheap perfume bought in street markets. Ursula sat looking at the back of her neck. Did she ever change those hoop earrings? Were they ever taken out? Where they went through her ears, the skin looked crusty, and the large hoops never moved with her head, as if fused into the skin. Why would anyone tolerate that, when they could so easily be removed and cleaned? It made her wonder how Debbie lived, and she could only imagine the state of her house.
The time on the computer reassured her. Only one hour to go. Just one hour before she could flee this awful place, and return home to peace and solitude. But that also meant the daily visit from Toby, the office postman. Perhaps she could avoid that today, pop to the toilet, or find an excuse to not be at her desk when he arrived. But Mrs Hillier was walking around, and it would not be good to be seen away from the desk when she was lurking. Ursula smiled as the manager walked past. The run had migrated to the back of her leg now, and would soon be halfway up her calf. Fancy walking around the office with your tights in such a state. The woman had no pride. Toby’s voice made her jump. She tried to hand over her outgoing post without looking up at him, but she was still able to see the acne covering his neck above the shirt collar. Red and angry, with inflamed pustules that appeared to have taken on a life of their own. Surely he could buy something to sort that out?
Debbie was standing up, packing away her things into a battered shoulder bag.
Ursula sighed with relief. Time to go home.