‘I flopped back onto my pillows. I wanted to begin loathing the new day in comfort.’― Chuck Barris
Susanna awoke to the ambient sound of a jackhammer, and the distant shouts of workmen as they pottered about whatever construction project that they were supposed to be working on. Apart from the persistent dehydration from her three-day bender, she felt remarkably well. She had taken it easy Monday night, just a few drinks to take the edge off. She was going to do better. Susanna hated the diffidence that lingered from a blinder, that terrifying paranoia that she had possibly offended everyone in the office and just couldn’t remember it. Every glance in her direction she considered suspicious, every awkward mannerism she noticed when talking with a colleague was a potential indicator that she wasn’t being taken seriously. It was as though everyone had got together and had a meeting without her, concluding that Susanna Cromwell was a complete lost cause and that perhaps it would be best if they kept their distance from her. She wasn’t going to feel like that anymore. From now on, she was going to be in control, and sober, starting from today. Susanna got up and drew the curtains. She had to shield her eyes from the harsh morning sun, and slowly let her eyes adjust to the jarring light. She soaked in the view. The city was a beautiful place, when viewing it through objective eyes, she reflected. The collection of skyscrapers on the horizon took on a majestic quality; backlit with the low light of early morning sun flares. She supposed that everything looked beautiful bathed in the morning light. It was extraordinary how distance and lighting conditions could polarise her view of the city. St Mary Axe was the most beautiful of all, the sun glitter bursting through blue stained glass, reaching out to her from beyond. From here, it was unarguably a marvel of contemporary architecture, but when she was there, it was the shrine that drained her soul. Susanna headed for the bathroom and began her morning routine, for once, without a devastating hangover. The clear head was doing wonders for her mood. She knew that she had been here before, ambitious and full of positive energy, determined to be the best version of herself that she could be. If you didn’t start your sobriety with positivity, then you were doomed for failure. The annoying thing was, every day she went without a drink would not necessarily make her feel better about herself. Initially, sure, but then her brain would start to repair itself, and slowly, indiscretion after indiscretion would seep out from her subconscious, the fog would lift, and her mind would shine a light on the prism of fuckups that marred her illustrious alcoholic career. This collection of memories was so dense that remembering something unsavoury would always lead to remembering something worse, a fractal palace of embarrassing episodes burgeoning in her mind until it was too much to bear. It was at this stage of the sobriety campaign that positivity faltered, and often turning back to the drink was a mercy that was too hard to pass up. The drink would welcome her back, it had infinite patience. It held the power to dull the harsh realities of any grotesque acts committed in the name of partying, and shatter that bastard prism into tiny pieces, making it increasingly difficult to examine with every additional stint with a pickled mind. As she glossed over these damning concepts, her thoughts turned to what she would wear. She picked out a particularly complimentary black skirt and matched it with a low cut, silk white blouse. She would wear heels today and do her hair in a marcel wave, she had been looking for an excuse to use that ridiculously expensive hair iron for ages. She was walking into that office a new woman. She called a cab and managed down some toast whilst she waited for the horn blare from the street. She commended herself on eating breakfast. This was wholesome, this was normal. On hearing the double beep, she dropped her toast in the sink and made her way out of her apartment, locking the door. Check it. She tried the handle. Check it again. She tried the handle. Check it again. Fuck this. And you know the drill, one more time. She checked it for the fifth time. ‘Ms Cromwell. You’re looking particularly fresh today.’ It was her landlady, Ms Penrose. Susanna had never pursued a conversation long enough to find out what her first name was, and she didn’t care to. Ms Penrose was the kind of passive aggressive bitch that always made Susanna feel as if she had done something wrong. Whilst her hallway banter may have sounded like a compliment to the naïve eavesdropper, it insinuated that usually she didn’t look fresh and that potentially there was a pattern of bad behaviour. Whether there was or there wasn’t, that was her prerogative and it was none of her god damn fucking business. ‘Ms Penrose. I haven’t forgotten about rent, all ready to go. Bit of a mix up at the bank actually, they’re terribly embarrassed. I’ll light a fire under them and get it transferred this afternoon,’ Susanna offered. She wondered how pathetic her excuse sounded. ‘A mix up? Really? Well then, not much you can do about that, is there? Just remember to have them transfer five thousand pounds, as we are still waiting on the mix up from last time, do you recall?’ How could she have forgotten about last months rent? She really had been out of sorts lately. She had no idea how she was supposed to come up with that kind of money today. ‘Yes, yes of course. All over it, see you later!’ Susana briskly covered ground to the lift, managing to slip into an open car and escape to relative safety. She pressed the button for ground floor, but then she pressed level five, four, level three, level two and level one. She hoped the cabbie would wait around. The lift opened at level five, she stepped out and then stepped back in, and repeated this ritual on every floor. Finally, she arrived at the ground floor, exiting her complex and out into the black cab as the cabbie driver shook his head in disbelief. ‘I’ve got other fares you know! I started the meter five minutes ago; you’re paying for that.’ ‘Yes, yes that’s fine. I’m off to The Gherkin, please. Sorry about that.’ ‘It’s fine is it?’ he asked rhetorically, grumbling something under his breath. At least he didn’t leave without her, she was already running late. She slid across the backseat, the worn leather giving her legs a chill. She checked e-mails on her phone, doing her best to look busy so that the cabbie driver wouldn’t instigate a conversation. The usual workflow requests had flooded her inbox. Trust deed reviews, probate analysis, wills and testaments. Just the regular swathe of scintillating tasks that were always on offer at Wolff and Associates. She sifted through them, stumbling across an email from Rachael. Hi all, I have been lucky enough to secure a secondment within the senior legal team, and will be relocating to our South Bank office. Come and join me for a drink at The Alchemist, from 1pm today. See you there! Rach Susanna noticed that the e-mail she was reading wasn’t in her personal inbox, but rather it was in the general enquiries inbox that she and a few others had access to. She checked to whom it was directed. Almost every single person on the floor had been personally CC’d in. Everyone except her. Her stomach wrenched. She wasn’t sure what was worse, the fact that her best friend was leaving her or that she had specifically not invited her to her going away drinks. It was too much. A tear streamed down her face, and instantly realising the disastrous potential of this she shoved her hand into her handbag in search of a tissue to limit the damage to her makeup. So much for thinking positively. Perhaps Rachael just forgot to add her in, maybe it was a mistake. She tilted her head in a futile attempt to hold back the tears. Her phone beeped, an e-mail alert.
Just noticed that you got bumped off my e-mail, tech issue or something I think? Anyway, hope to see you today at The Alchemist from one, e-mail attached!
Rach The flow of tears subsided, and she dabbed at her eyes with a used, manky piece of tissue covered in mascara and managed to pull herself together. Susanna knew that Rachael was not particularly smart. She likely left her off the initial e-mail on purpose, realised that she had copied in the group inbox that she had access to, and then scrambled to save face and pretend like it was her intention all along. A second hand invitation was far from validation of their friendship, but Susanna was too fragile to entertain the alternatives. Denial was a bitch, but as was often the case for Susanna, it was far more palatable than to dine on the truth. Susanna decided that she would go. She would go, and be civilised, and not drink, and be suave and witty and funny and show everyone that there was a more sophisticated, multifaceted personality that they were yet to be introduced to. No, you won’t. You’ll get plastered and make a complete arse out of yourself, just like you did last Friday night. It could go either way. ‘Miss. Miss. Miss! We’re here!’ the grumpy bastard of a cab driver shouted, pulling her back to the present moment. ‘Sorry. Thank you. How much is it?’ ‘Twenty-five quid.’ Jesus, that was an expensive way just to centre herself for the day. She reached into her purse and grabbed a twenty and a fiver, handing them over, and slammed the door of the cab. Before he could leave, she opened the door, looked at him, and slammed it again. He stared at her incredulously, and holding his stare, she did it again, and two more times. She wasn’t sure why he didn’t just drive off, perhaps he thought she was coming back to retrieve something or give him a tip. He sped off after this last door slam, adequately confused and disturbed. The wind tugged at Susanna’s perfectly placed hair, and she tried to hold it in place with her hands. It was a wild summer day – warm, forceful gusts of wind whipping at her outfit and whisking up dust directly into her eyes, forcing her to squint. She watched as a lone, heart shaped metallic balloon drifted past her. There was something oddly alluring about it, like some portentous invitation to ditch work and follow this mysterious balloon wherever it would take her. She’d probably be better off if she did. After several moments admiring the balloon flap about on the wind currents, she slowly made progress against the wind towards 30 St Mary Axe, carefully stepping over the occasional section of tactile paving installed to assist the blind. We do not step on those. Or manhole covers. Or telephone gateway chambers. Or any section of the pavement that is painted. Simply walking down the street had become absolutely exhausting for her lately. She took the lift up to level twenty, with the exaggerated skulk of an employee that actually cared that they were running twenty minutes late to work. ‘Morning Suze!’ Rachael offered as Susanna approached her desk. She was casually sitting on Alfred’s desk, apparently in quite the jovial mood, exchanging what looked to be flirtatious banter with him. ‘Morning Rach. Moving on to South Bank? When were you going to tell us?’ Susanna levelled her voice as best she could, trying to remove emotion and act cool. It didn’t come out that way. ‘Sorry Suze! It all happened so quickly, I only just found out last night.’ That was not how these things happened, they both knew. ‘You going to make it down for my send off?’ ‘Of course I am Rach.’ Susanna started to feel their interaction turn awkward, and to make matters worse Rachael had turned her attention back to Alfred as they low talked and began sniggering. ‘Rach?’ ‘Yeh awesome, see you down there,’ Rachael said dismissively. Susanna stopped herself from saying anything else. Clearly, Rachael didn’t give a shit, and if she pursued any further dialogue she was at risk of getting upset and making a scene. Susanna decided that she would focus on her work for once. That would get her through to what she now knew would be an excruciatingly painful farewell party. The morning drifted past with its usual insignificance, and she found herself following the mass exodus of staff members to depart the Gherkin for Rachael’s farewell. Rachael didn’t even wait around for her. Susanna hung back, dawdling behind her colleagues as they split off into their preferred conversation circles, pretending to be on a phone call so as to not look like a loner. ‘Sorry, can you speak up? You need it by when? There’s no way that I can meet that deadline, unless you’re willing to pay the premium to have it prioritised. You will? Fine, send it through and I’ll take a-’ Her phone started ringing; it was Ms Penrose. Snowballs chance in hell of answering that. Two of the smart arses from deceased estates directly in front of her looked back, figured out what had happened and started laughing hysterically. Yeh, laugh it up, dickheads. They arrived at The Alchemist and shuffled through to the cordoned off area designated for Rachael’s farewell. The bar was epic. For Susanna, walking into a place like The Alchemist was like being caught in a rip. It took all of her strength to fight the powerful drag towards the cathedral of variegated liquor bottles; her instinct to gravitate directly to that glamorous lectern. Everyone would be having a drink, the alcohol would be on the house, and it would flow. Her colleagues would be able to enjoy it, revel in it. They would tell funny stories in their slightly elevated state that were always witty but never in poor taste. They would toast to themselves in moderation, and have a carefully controlled instalment of merrymaking – never more – and commend each other when they saw each other next on how they so enjoyed that exact portion of fun that they allowed themselves to have on that momentous occasion. She pushed passed a few of her colleagues, noticing that they made no effort to accommodate her or even acknowledge her presence. She made it to the back of the venue where she located Rachael on a table with Alfred, Charles Gooding the CEO and their Senior Legal Counsel Tamara Harrington. Rachael locked eyes with her with a wide-eyed look that said not now Sue. Fair enough. Rachael had been given the golden handshake and this was the welcome-to-the-club induction. Susanna wouldn’t get in the middle of that, it would likely be the nail in the coffin for their tenuous friendship. Susanna scanned the rest of the room, trying to locate someone, anyone, that would be willing to chat with her while she waited to congratulate Rachael properly. Once that is done, you leave. Iain Baker noticed her and waved, shuffling past a few people in order to make his way over to her. Careful what you wish for. Iain honestly wasn’t that bad, Susanna admitted. He was clearly a good guy, a harmless guy. He was just agonizingly vapid. He was the sort of person that made you seriously re-evaluate your social status if you got stuck talking to him. It was the best that she could do at this thing, and she told herself that she should count herself lucky that she wasn’t being completely ostracised, even if it meant listening to Iain’s insipid stories that went absolutely nowhere. ‘Susanna. How are you? Nice day for it eh?’ She had a feeling that he would have said that if it was raining sheet metal out there. ‘Yeh. Nice day. How are you Iain?’ She would regret this. ‘Yeh, all in all not bad. Apart from the issues I’ve been having with my plumbing recently,’ Oh god. ‘Well issue is an understatement. We had a plumber out to our place to fix the shitter and the problem seems to have gone from bad to worse. You see, initially the toilet wasn’t flushing properly, but when the lad replaced the sewerage pipe, he has gone with a two-inch pipe rather than the industry standard three-inch pipe. Now it seems some brown discharge is coming up through the shower drains and we are in quite a row with the agency that sent the apprentice plumber along to sort us-’ Leave it to Iain to give new meaning to the phrase shoot the shit. She was damned. There was no way that she was going to get through this thing without a drink. It was as if the universe was listening – not to Iain’s shit story but to her internal realisation – as at that moment a waiter came through with a tray of champagne and Iain pinched two glasses from it, handing one to her. ‘Oh no, I’m not-’ ‘Oh, go on, Sue. You always enjoyed a drink didn’t you?’ She was no match for that kind of cunning persuasion. Her iron will collapsed like a house of cards, and she grabbed the champagne flute in one fluid motion the second Iain gave her permission to have a drink. Her body was now in control, her frontal lobe had completely checked out, pardoned of any decision making going forward. She took a sip, Veuve? Bolle? It was cracking stuff whatever it was. She drained the rest of the champagne flute, searching for the waiter that had just floated by. ‘That a girl. Now as I was saying…’ She fazed him out. She was on a mission now, she had a nice little buzz and just needed to back it up with a few more drinks before she could plateau and pump the brakes. ◆◆◆ Susanna was staring straight ahead, trying to make sense of the dirty brickwork that was drifting in and out of focus. She slowly acclimatised her mind to the present moment. Separating practical thoughts of what to do next from the wash of drunken fragments that she had on loop in her stupor was a very gradual process. She was aware that from the ambient sounds that were now trickling into her consciousness, she had made her way to a train station. She looked around, trying to get a gauge on her surroundings. According to the signs, she was sitting on the platform at Aldgate station, swaying, stone drunk and trying to convince herself that her behaviour over the course of the afternoon and into the early evening might be considered acceptable in some circles. She didn’t know how she got to where she was sitting now. Yelling. She could remember yelling, and crying. Who was crying? She was. Rachael was also. Not in a good way, either. Not in a I’m-going-to-miss-you-bestest-buddy kind of way. It was in a tragic, you-have-embarrassed-me-for-the-last-time-and-I-never-want-to-see-you-again kind of way. Those exact words kept surfacing in the forefront of her mind. I never want to see you again. She tried to suppress the torturous thoughts; it was killing her buzz. She needed one more drink and some sleep and everything would be fine tomorrow. She fumbled around in the bottom of her handbag until she pulled out a packet of half crushed smokes and retrieved a miniature pink lighter. She sparked up a wonky cigarette and inhaled deeply, letting the smoke fill her lungs and then waft out through her teeth as she gradually exhaled. It had been a while in between smokes, and it was glorious. She pulled out her compact mirror in order to survey the damage. Priceless. In addition to the usual horror she felt at seeing her drunken reflection – which was complete with panda eyes and smears of red lipstick – she was showing the initial signs of a nasty black eye. She flipped through her damaged recollection, blurs of raucous imagery, a smashed glass here, a dirty look there. She couldn’t place it. Well, that was pretty much it then. A wave of calm came over her. If she had got into a fight, she simply would not be going back to that job. She had finally reached rock bottom. Even a purportedly do-gooder-bastard firm like Wolff and Associates would draw the line at assault. After all, they couldn’t exactly be harbouring criminals at a law firm. There was something that a drunk had said to her once, and it kept fanning through her mind like a parroted taunt that was of no use to her now: ‘Alcohol, is like the ocean. You treat the ocean with respect. Never turn your back on the ocean.’ Susanna got up and staggered forward, puffing intermittently on her cigarette which was now all but orange burning filter. It singed her fingers and her lips, and she flicked it onto the tracks compulsively without a second thought. She looked for the exit, she would need to pick up a flask for the way home. Susanna remembered that there was an Off Sales somewhere near Aldgate station, she would sniff it out. She arrived at a large grey barrier. Assuming that it was so late they had locked her into the station, she shimmied around the barrier edge closest to the tracks, walked a few steps, and arrived at a heavyset red door at the end of the platform. She turned the stiff handle, collapsing forward onto the door, and she fell through.