Copy Room – a short story by Rachel Deeming

This story was first published on Reedsy Prompts on reedsy.com and was inspired by the writing prompt “ Start your story with a character quitting their job, or getting fired.”.

Advisory: sexual advances; swearing

Stacy sat at her desk, thinking what to do. She had set herself an ultimatum: if it happened again, she would quit.

It had happened again.

To most, it might seem innocent, the occasional brushing past her when she was sandwiched between the counter and the photocopier where there was minimal room and he just had to get through, groin against buttock, his against hers. Sometimes he had to reach for something on the shelf above at the same time, leaving her to lean forward just a little but enough for her rear to protrude that little bit more.

Everyone said that the copier room was claustrophobic but Stacy thought she never felt like that when she was in there on her own. Nor with the cleaner in the early morning, when she now chose to do most of her copying. However, there were always points during the day where she had to head that way, work being what it was. She had tried not to look at him as she went down the corridor, relieved when he was on a call or talking to someone else. She tried to glance surreptitiously as she was conscious that looking his way might be construed as a come-on – “I’m heading to the copier. Want to come and sidle up to me in an enclosed space?” – rather than the wary look of the uncomfortable and threatened, which was unfortunately how she felt. Her work shouldn’t be a thing to dread but it was. Every bloody day.

The thing was, who should she tell? She had tried to tell her boss, Mr Roberts but when she had started to explain about the confines of the photocopier room before complaining about him, he had interrupted her before she could even venture the idea and had told her that they were going to move it in the new year, the whole office layout getting an overhaul so if she “could just hang in there”, giving her a patronising smile, designed to placate. She had wanted to continue, desperately wanting to offload this emotional burden regardless but her flow had been interrupted and her courage dissipated as her momentum was halted and she knew that she would be seen as someone who liked to make a fuss. Mr Roberts hated a fuss. He was not the right audience, she realised that now and was relieved that she had not taken it further as she was certain that it would not have been resolved. What would an accusation of inappropriate work behaviour be construed as? Something more than a fuss, no doubt.

Later that night, after two, three glasses of wine, she had got angry: angry at herself because she had once again said nothing; angry at him that she was being put into this position in the first place; angry because she didn’t have the courage to stop it, even though every fibre in her being recoiled and shrank whenever he approached her. The alcohol softened her view whilst paradoxically lending its support to her increased emotional state. She was a mess.

The only option she felt she had was to leave and this was something that she didn’t want to do. Jobs were hard to come by and she knew that she had good pay for her position as well as benefits and that there was not a lot else out there in the current climate. The job made her life comfortable except for him. What she really wanted was for him to leave but there was no sign of that happening. He was the firm’s golden boy – successful, popular, funny. Nobody else saw him as a creep. Even the other girls in the office flirted with him and laughed at his jokes. But he didn’t touch them.

She had once broached the subject with Janet in Accounts, the only woman who she really had any time for in the office and when she had suggested that he was rubbing up against her inappropriately, Janet had laughed and said, “You lucky thing! Cor, I wouldn’t mind a bit of that myself! It would certainly make my day a lot more interesting, you know?” and she had raised her eyebrows in a suggestive way that made Stacy shut down. Again. Stacy had wanted to tell Janet that she hated it, that she felt dirty and vulnerable, that if she could have shrunk down to her bones when he touched her, even just slightly, she would have.

At one point, she had thought that it was her. That there must be something wrong with her. Everyone liked him, admired him. Women wanted his attention, craved it even. She could see this in the coquettish way hair was twirled when papers were dropped on his desk and the way heads were thrown back to show bright pink mouths and white teeth when he cracked a joke. Why, then, did she find him so repulsive? She wasn’t even that attractive, she didn’t think – pretty average with light brown hair, slight figure, moderate dress sense. She was designed to blend, to not draw attention to herself. That’s not to say that she neglected herself at all. No, she took care to be well presented but there was a difference in being neat and clean to being someone who commanded attention.

But despite her attempts at bland normality, he would persist in coming close. She stiffened today when she had recognised his voice outside of the copying room. He was heading this way. She hadn’t looked this time to see if he was occupied as Mr Roberts had been tetchy and she knew that the papers he wanted were urgent, that a delay would increase Mr Roberts’ frustration and feeling like there was only so much stress she could take at work, head down, she had scooted towards the copier, hoping that he had been busy. He hadn’t been.

And today, she was certain that he prolonged his contact with her, the pressing of his lower regions against her bottom, despite her attempting to press herself up as close as she could to the machine, her shoulders arching back to allow this, her posture stiff and unresponsive, like stone, lifeless, senseless. This is what she was emitting, she thought, a repelling palpable in her physical form, compounded by her brain’s repetitive signalling of “Leave me alone! Leave ME alone!”

Was it her imagination or today had she felt his warm breath on her ear and the withdrawal of that heat, the cooler sensation as he breathed her in, testing her scent? Stacy shivered and resolved that it wasn’t her imagination. She needed to trust her instincts on this but she despaired at the thought of unemployment. “You always have a choice”, her mother said, “but it might not always be an easy one,” and this was just what Stacy felt. She could choose to quit and that would resolve this, this situation; but it would present a whole load of other problems – lack of income, uncertainty, limited life. Was it bad enough to warrant that?

But she owed it to herself to protect herself. She had said she would quit. This was unendurable to her, causing sleep loss, anxiety, weeping but was it so bad? It was only maybe once or twice a week. Maybe she just needed to get perspective? She had made rash decisions in the past and lived to regret them and she didn’t want to place herself in a potentially difficult position unnecessarily. With a deep sigh and a suppression of her natural instinct and better nature which was urging her to get out of there, Stacy resolved to think it over at lunch. She pushed herself back from her desk with both hands, bent to pick her bag from under her desk and with conviction, headed towards the exit.

***

Stacy sat on the bench with her tuna sandwich, letting the people go by on the path infront of her as she gazed and chewed. Businessmen in suits passed in a hurry whilst mothers with small children in pushchairs and pensioners with walkers ambled and plodded past her. Joggers in lurid colours with headbands dodged around everyone else. She was absorbed in her decision making and did not notice an elderly lady plonk herself next to her and take out a flask and a sandwich of her own until the older woman decided to speak.

“I like to come here and people watch,” she said.

Stacy jumped slightly at the voice and turned to look at her bench companion, faintly irritated that her thought process had been interrupted but seeing it was an old lady, she resigned herself to a conversation. She had elderly relatives herself and knew that they loved to chat to anyone who would listen and as there weren’t many who would, she had finished her mouthful and said “Yes, they can be quite interesting, can’t they?”

“Well, it’s more interesting than what’s on the telly nowadays, that’s for sure,” the lady continued, taking the lid off the flask and placing its built-in cup on the bench slat. “Hold that steady for me, love, will you, while I pour? If you don’t mind helping.”

“Not at all,” Stacy replied and placing the rest of her sandwich back in her wrapper, she gently held the plastic cup in position as the old lady tipped a light brown concoction into it from a tartan flask. Stacy could not see any discernible signs of heat from the brew but said nothing.

“If I had another cup, I’d pour one for you too but I don’t. Sorry about that, love,” the lady added. She picked up her cup and took a sip, looking at Stacy whilst doing it. Quite an attractive girl, she thought. Could be a beauty if she gave herself a little more attention in that direction. The old lady continued scrutinising Stacy as she proceeded to take out what was left of her sandwich and watched her movements – not the smoothness of the confident but the jerky motions of the troubled. She looked closely at Stacy’s face and saw the conflict there, in the hunted look around the eyes.

“Thanks but I have water anyway,” Stacy replied, taking another bite of her sandwich and resuming her stare into the distance.

The old lady broke her gaze away from her assessment of Stacy. “On your lunch break?” she asked and then, by way of introduction, “I’m Annie, by the way. I won’t offer to shake your hand seeing as you’re eating.” Annie took another sip of her tea and sat back on the bench, moving from cheek to cheek like a hen in a nesting box, getting comfortable.

“Oh, yes, I am on lunch,” Stacy replied and added, “I’m Stacy. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice place to work, is it? Near here?” Annie inquired and noticed the stiffness appear in Stacy’s posture.

Stacy wasn’t sure if she wanted to talk to a stranger on a park bench about her problem but it was such a heavy secret and she was tired of carrying it around. Perhaps it would help to talk about it and this lady seemed nice and harmless. It would help to air it, she knew, help to shake off the weight but it would also give it validity, a power that would require action.

“Yes, just over on the next street and it’s okay. Or, at least, it used to be.” Stacy paused. “Okay, that is. Now, I’m not so sure.”

Stacy halted again and Annie took another sip of her luke warm tea, just the way she liked it. Annie waited as she recognised the flood of relief of the confessional warming Stacy’s cheeks.

Stacy continued, “In fact, I think I’m going to quit.”

Annie looked at Stacy and raised a grey eyebrow, lowlighted by pale blue eye shadow.

“Oh? Why’s that, then?” Annie coaxed, again bringing her cup to her lips.

“Well, there’s this man…a fellow worker. He keeps…It sounds so silly to say out loud.” Stacy hesitated but Annie’s calm interest propelled her to speak. “He keeps rubbing up against me in the copying room and I don’t like it,” she blurted. “He gives me the creeps.”

Annie nodded with understanding and then, shook her head indicating the shame of it.

“I don’t know what to do. I like my job but he won’t stop and I don’t, I can’t confront him about it. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t just my imagination.” Stacy’s words came out like an acrobatic roll, fast with momentum. Once they were out, she sighed and once more gazed at the park scene in front of her.

Annie again drank and then looked earnestly at Stacy until, conscious of eyes on her, Stacy turned to look at her. Stacy was surprised at the hardness in the woman’s eyes as she said, “It’s not your imagination.”

Stacy kept looking at Annie as she finished her drink in a gulp, shook out the cup and started screwing it back onto the flask.

“No, it’s never your imagination.” She put the flask in her bag to the side of the bench and settling back, put her hands in her lap and began to speak.

“I’m going to tell you a story, Stacy, is it?”

Stacy nodded and turned herself towards her new companion as she started to speak.

“I used to work in an office. I was a secretary. I’m not sure that they have those anymore really, or not like I was, typing and that, taking dictation.”

Stacy wanted to comment but felt like it was inappropriate so just looked interestedly at Annie as she went on.

“Anyway, there was this worker who used to do the same to me. Brushing against me and that. Mostyn, his name was.” Annie paused as if remembering him. “He always used to appear in the kitchenette when I was making a drink and it was a small space, not really room enough to swing a cat. Pokey. It was alright if you were in there with someone that you liked but it felt different whenever he was around. Intimate and suffocating, like there was an expectation that something could and should happen if the circumstances were right. For him, it might have felt like anticipation. For me, it was dread. Every time.”

“You know exactly what I mean, don’t you, love?” Annie looked at Stacy’s pinched face and knew that she had hit the nail on the head.

Stacy recognised those feelings described and nodded.

She went on: “I was no shrinking violet, mind. I didn’t ignore it or play dead. Sometimes, I would push past him but it just seemed to encourage him in some ways. He liked the resistance.” Annie’s brows knitted together. “One day, he went too far. I had spilt some lunch on my blouse, a tomato pip which had landed squarely on my chest. I hadn’t noticed it at all because if I had, I’d have made sure I’d washed it off straightaway. But he did, noticed it when I was just about to walk out of the kitchen and he was walking in.”

Annie paused again and Stacy held her breath, willing Annie to continue.

“He reached out and started to brush it off, using the back of his hand to remove the pip off my chest but all the time, we both knew he was using it as an excuse. I can remember that he was looking me right in the eyes as he did it, daring me to challenge him.”

Annie’s eyes narrowed in anger. “I wasn’t going to stand for that though. It made me so angry that he thought that he could do that to me.” Her voice lowered, almost to a growl. “Do you know what I did?” Annie turned to look at Stacy, her hands previously loose in her lap curling into a pair of claws. “I grabbed that bastard by his balls before he could react and I gripped them with all of my might.” Annie’s hands twisted and grappled in the air and wide-eyed, Stacy watched the motion with mixed emotions; a heady mix of horror at the thought of it and a frisson of satisfaction at imagining having the audacity to do it.

Annie was lost in the memory of it now. “I said to him, I said, ‘Is this what you want? Is it?’ and my jaw was clenched so tightly, my teeth ached that night. I can tell you that I felt bloody powerful in those moments. I have never seen that expression since on a man’s face – shock, fear, confusion! It was bloody marvellous! I held on like a stubborn lobster until pain was written all over his face and he was sinking to the floor with it. I left him there and walked past him.”

Stacy was rapt, Annie could see that.

“Wow,” Stacy said in awe. “I wish I had your nerve. I could never do that.”

Annie smiled, a little wistfully. “Oh, it worked for a bit. He left me alone…for a bit. But men like him, they’re a prideful bunch. And the depths of his humiliation only served to make him spiteful. And mean.” Annie stopped and then added, “And vengeful.” Annie hung her head, her storytelling seeming to have tired her. Or perhaps it was the memory of someone else’s brutality which could still after the years leech her energy. She turned to look at Stacy with feeling but she said no more, other than, “You should quit. Get out of there and away from him. While you can.”

Stacy felt nervous tension in her gut, the same sensation that she had had every morning since he had touched her and looking at the old woman next to her, nodded with understanding. Her decision was made. There would be no returning to the office that afternoon.

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