Coffee and Treachery
“Sue’s lovely, isn’t she?” said Rowena, attacking what was left of her hummus and red pepper ciabatta with characteristic gusto.
“She’s an absolute life-saver,” agreed Fenella.
“A real treasure,” added Abigail. The three women watched as Sue waved and then strode purposefully out of the café, and back towards the campus. Abigail, Rowena and Fenella worked at Hull, Humber, and East Yorkshire University College, Fenella and Rowena as lecturers, and Abigail as the faculty’s shared personal assistant. Sue was the latest addition to the team, and had recently arrived from a university down south. No one could ever quite remember which one, though Abigail thought it was Thames Valley, and Astrid Dorlock from reprographics was certain it was East London. Sue was the acting faculty head, and had been delighted when her three new colleagues had invited her to lunch at their preferred haunt, the English Muse, in Hull’s Newland Avenue.
“How sweet that you all have a regular place to eat,” Sue had said, looking up from a precariously towering stack of documents. “Variety is quite overrated, is it not?” Sue was wearing a crisp, white shirt, and her hair was neatly stacked, held in place with a set of lacquered chopsticks.
“We normally go there once a week, on a Friday,” Rowena had replied, feeling vaguely defensive. She eyed the chopsticks curiously.
“Yes, well I suppose it is wise not to eat out too often,” chuckled Sue, her laugh tinkling like a little shop bell, her smile pearly. Rowena noticed the almost imperceptible dart of Sue’s eyes to her thighs. Quick, thought Rowena. But not quite quick enough.
It had been a perfectly jolly little lunch in the end, nothing too heavy of course, just filled ciabatti, and a bottle of mineral water. Sue had looked at her watch pointedly, and then said she would need to get back to work.
“It was good of you to invite her,” said Abigail later. “She might be feeling a bit out of things, having just started a new job.” Abigail eyed the menu longingly.
“It’s not time to get back to work, is it?” asked Rowena. “Only, Sue seemed to leave quite suddenly.”
“Yes, she was in a bit of a rush,” replied Fenella, arching her thin eyebrows. “Quite a busy little bee.” Her mouth tightened cruelly.
“She seems terribly efficient,” noted Rowena. She toyed with a left over crumb of ciabatta, sad it had nearly all gone.
“Incredibly so,” agreed Fenella. “Mind you, that sometimes acts as a smokescreen, doesn’t it?”
“Quite,” agreed Rowena, who lectured in psychology. “She might be overcompensating.”
“Oh, that’s a good word,” said Abigail. “Overcompensating.” Abigail thought Sue would be just the type to overcompensate.
“She’ll no doubt have everything all shipshape by five o’clock,” said Fenella, using an odd nautical voice and thinking of the sluttish state of her own desk. She was convinced she’d seen a mouse living on it last week. Students were starting to complain about not getting their work back.
“I do like her dress sense,” said Abigail.
“She’s got guts, I’ll give her that,” replied Rowena. “I hope I still dare wear skirts that tight when I’m her age. Some older women can just pull it off, can’t they?”
“She probably has one of those specialist tailors who come to the office to measure her up. I saw an advert for it once in London, for when these executives are too busy to pop down to Dorothy Perkins or what have you.” She shook her head, smiling pityingly. “Does anyone fancy sharing a pud?” she asked. “And I’m having a coffee too. I’ll need one, to perk me up for an afternoon with Super Sue.” Rowena laughed.
Abigail tittered. “Super Sue, that’s a good one,” she chuckled. She then felt horrid, remembering how she’d once termed Hugh Veil, ‘Huge Whale’ at school. The name had stuck, and Abigail had pushed her remorse firmly out of touch.
“How old do you think she is?” asked Fenella.
“I think she’s our age, isn’t she?” said Abigail, polishing the lens of her glasses on her cardigan.
“I suppose she might be,” conceded Rowena. She walked up to the counter and returned with a huge slice of coffee and walnut cake. “Coffees are on their way,” she added, sitting down. Mine’s a double shot. Got a meeting with Super Sue at three!”
“Three forks,” noted Fenella, laughing. The three women sighed with pleasure as they took their first bites of the rich, creamy icing and light sponge.
“Oh God, that’s good,” gasped Abigail, attracting the sideways glance of a middle-aged man who was tapping away at a laptop.
“Bloody hell,” moaned Rowena, her eyes closed. The man studiously returned to his work, his ears metaphorically flapping like a superannuated African elephant.
“I’ll bet Sue doesn’t eat cakes,” said Fenella, returning to the fray, fork at the ready.
“No,” agreed Rowena. “She’ll make do with cracker bread and a glass of water.”
“She barely touched her ciabatta,” pointed out Abigail, erroneously in fact, as Sue had finished it all, bar a sundried tomato and a slice of onion.
“You know, she reminds me of a teacher I once had at school,” said Fenella. “A Mrs Agincourt, sad little woman. Lived alone with cats, if memory serves me right. Went stark raving mad one summer, and Mrs Makepiece had to teach us.”
“There was woman I once worked with at Goole Technical College a bit like her,” said Abigail. “Very nice, but quite highly strung. Got arrested for shoplifting and never came back. She had a weakness for buttons and bars of Pears soap.”
The coffees arrived, milky and steaming hot, and the women paused to sip their drinks.
“I suppose we should think about making tracks,” sighed Rowena, a milky moustache above her top lip.
“I know,” giggled Fenella. “Super Sue will have us all in detention. Give us a beasting, or some such. Lines I shouldn’t wonder.”
“I’m sure she’s very nice underneath that rather brusque façade she puts up,” said Rowena. “She might have been terribly hurt once, and needs to project this larger than life image in order to pull herself out of bed in the morning.”
“No doubt,” agreed Fenella, suddenly feeling like a perfect cow. It really was not done to bitch, but then again it was so terribly, terribly delicious. Quite cathartic too, liberating in fact. Fenella was a lecturer in Moral Philosophy, and she was starting to feel quite uneasy. One should always live up to one’s own moral code. There was something quite cowardly about character assassination, or Rufmord as the Germans called it. The Germans did so coin these concepts nicely, did they not, with earthy expressions such as Schadenfreudeand Weltschmerz? They did seem a people very much in tune with their own contradictions, tapping into all that instinctive cruelty and turmoil. That was what made us human, was it not, those little hints of base animal instinct? She tried to make amends. “She is very good at her job,” she ventured, inadvertently throwing a conversational briquette onto the fire.
“So was Stalin,” retorted Rowena. “And that odd looking young man from North Korea, the one who looks like a toddler with an arsenal of nuclear weapons.”
“I quite like her,” lied Abigail, flushing slightly with shame. She was turning into one of those unpleasantly bitter women who developed nasty little lines around their mouths, she thought. She instinctively ran her finger across her chin. “We mustn’t be catty,” she added, her voice turning into a strangulated falsetto.
“Oh, pish posh!” cried Rowena, who was only just getting into her stride.
“I agree with Abigail, I’m afraid,” said Fenella, dabbing at her lips, as though to wipe away her guilt. Abigail was looking at the empty plate longingly.
“Come off it,” snarled Rowena, shame making her aggressive. She felt quite betrayed, reminding her of the time when the girls at school had agreed to moon the occupants of an Austin Maxi on the M1, only to find herself alone in so doing.
“I think we should all try and be a little kinder,” said Fenella primly.
“I agree,” said Abigail, suddenly feeling pure again, as though she had just been to confession and was now queuing up quite merrily to take communion.
“Suit yourselves,” mumbled Rowena, her face thunderous.
“Would you like to share another piece of cake?” asked Abigail, extending the culinary equivalent of an olive branch. “You choose, Rowena.”
“I suppose,” sighed Rowena.
“One between three won’t hurt,” agreed Fenella. It was Friday after all. She might even go for a run in Pearson Park tomorrow, she thought virtuously. She still hadn’t used those nice running shoes that she’d bought in the sales. She wouldn’t go if it rained though. There was something sickening chirpy about those early morning runners in the rain, she found, an oddly smug quality in their red faces.
“Fine,” said a somewhat mollified Rowena. “We’ll share a piece of that scrummy looking Victoria sponge.” She smiled. “I suppose we were getting a bit carried away rather.”
“Ten more minutes then it’s back to work,” said Fenella firmly, watching hungrily as the cake was plated up. “I have the most frightful backlog to get through.”
“Me too,” said Rowena quickly, keen not to be outdone. Fenella could be a tad showy about her workload, she thought. “In fact, I should probably stay there till well after dinner time.”
“Me too,” said Fenella. “Though I might work at home,” she added. There was an EastEnders omnibus on, she remembered. It was deliciously low-brow, thought Fenella, but no one need know.
Sue was striding up Newland Avenue, purposefully. She wanted to nip into that charity shop to see if that darling little tea set was still there. She hadn’t been able to buy it earlier, with those three rather dull women with her. She took out her mobile phone and called her best friend, Anabel Abercrombie, senior lecturer in Geopolitics at the University College of the South of Cornwall.
“How was lunch?” chuckled Anabel. “Was it simply dire?”
“And how!” snorted Sue. “A perfectly delicious meal ruined by three of the most tedious creatures I have ever had the misfortune to work with.”
“I can imagine,” laughed Anabel, who was currently marking a dull essay on the origins of the second Iraq war. She tried to decipher what the deuce Bobby MacHamish was on about. It was like the random musings of a chimp.
“Quite how two such bovine women were able to get jobs in a university college is simply beyond me. And that creepy little secretary! Don’t even get me started. She is the spitting image of that Carmen Barksbody in accounts, do you remember, the one whose son used to wear her clothes?”
Anabel snorted in derision. “Carmen Barksbody! Now there’s a blast from the past! It got into the local papers, didn’t it? After that horrific mix up in the Cancer Research shop changing room. Well, at least it’s not too ‘dull in Hull,’” said Anabel, who did not quite approve of Sue’s career move.
Sue bridled. “Hull’s actually a very vibrant city,” she replied, her voice dropping a couple of degrees.
“Is it?” droned Anabel, sufficient figurative plums flying out of her mouth to make jam. “I suppose I’ll just have to take your word for it,” she laughed irritatingly. “Quite gritty, though, you must find.”
“Not really,” said Sue, her tone pleasant enough to kill. “Anyway, Anabel, I’d better go. I have got simply mountains of work to do.” She hung up crossly and walked into the charity shop.
“That’s lovely, that is,” said an elderly woman in a stained raincoat. She was searching in her purse for change with long, gnarled fingers. On the counter, half wrapped in bubble wrap, was the tea set.
“Drat!” snapped Sue. It was simply too awful. The woman would not appreciate such a nice thing, she thought. She’d probably use bleach to wash it with. She walked huffily out of the shop and immediately collided with Rowena, Fenella and Abigail.
If you enjoyed this story, you can view my book Spicy Green Ginger on sale at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Spicy-Green-Ginger-Andrew-Wildman/dp/148178756X