Andy had risen from his seat, and had intercepted the two women before they could reach their cubicles. He was a thin white man with a shaved head, thick black glasses, and a short, tidy beard. His expression was a caricature of sternness, as if he’d read about how to make it in a book.
Cindy hadn’t heard him, and was still chatting loudly to Erika.
Erika saw her coworkers in their cubicles quickly glance up at the two and then look away. She counted sixteen eyes make the little flick up to them before returning to their screens. She was painfully, hideously aware of how she looked. She was walking in fifteen minute late, chatting loudly and obnoxiously to a friend, with coffee. It wouldn’t matter to them that she wasn’t speaking and didn’t have a coffee.
‘Um, excuse me? Ladies?’ said the balding man.
Cindy seemed to only just notice Andy. ‘I’ll tell you after, Erika,’ she said, before turning to him, ‘Hi Andy! Good to see you at the drinks on Friday! So sorry we’re late! We got caught up, and you know what it’s like.’
‘You know, we do start at nine-thirty for a reason,’ he said, folding his arms. He sounded like he was speaking to small children, Erika noted. ‘You’ve missed the morning announcements, and the stand-up statements on what we’ll be working on today.’ Andy was doing his best to look down on the two of them, despite being several centimetres shorter than Erika.
Erika was still unable to meet his gaze. She was instead staring at the keyboard on the desk of a colleague that she spotted underneath his elbow. The colleague had stopped typing, eager to hear the excuses.
‘Sorry Andy,’ Cindy said with a grimace, ‘We know it’s a pain.’
‘Guys, this really isn’t the kind of thing that can continue,’ he said, shaking his head, his voice lilting. ‘I just feel that it’s becoming a regular occurrence now for me to look up from my desk to see you two sauntering into the office late – We really can’t have you wandering in at nine forty-five.’
The words had slipped out of Erika’s mouth before she could stop them. She winced.
Andy stared at her, his mouth dropping open a little. Cindy stared at her. Erika felt like every eye in the office was roasting her alive. She shrunk into her own skin.
‘What was that?’ said Andy.
Erika opened her mouth to say something, but her voice wouldn’t come. She swallowed and tried again. ‘Nothing,’ she almost whispered.
She held her breath, and swore that she could feel everyone in the office do the same.
‘You can go to your seat, Cindy,’ said Andy, ‘Erika, wait here a moment.’
Erika didn’t know whether Cindy looked at her or not. Her eyes were fixed on the ground at Andy’s feet.
After seven seconds of complete silence, Andy spoke, his voice slightly lower than it had been before. Less friendly.
‘Erika, we are not happy with how things have been progressing at the moment, and quite frankly, we’re concerned. Now, I know that things have been difficult for you lately, you had that accident just over a week ago now and I know you’re still recovering.’
Erika nodded, her gaze still on the carpet. It had been necessary for her to tell Andy about the accident in order to explain her absence from work, but she hadn’t mentioned it to the rest of the coworkers. With Andy here, talking at a normal volume in the room about it, she guessed that it came under the company’s “open communication” policy, whereby if it wasn’t specified at the time to have been a private matter, it was assumed to be public to the rest of the office.
Erika chided herself on not specifying with Andy at the time.
‘But it’s not just been these last two weeks, you know? You and Cindy have been coming in late for weeks now, and there’s always an excuse. You needed to buy your neighbour a newspaper, or you were looking for your cat, or just traffic. Now, Cindy’s late too, but do you know what the difference is?’
Erika paused a moment, unsure as to whether she was supposed to answer. ‘No,’ she said at last, still staring at the intricate forest of strands that formed the carpet in the room.
‘The difference,’ said Andy, ‘is that I know Cindy. She’s a good person. I see her outside the office. I see her at the social drinks, I see her at team building, and I see her at training. You, you’ve been working here for, what, two years now? I barely see you outside of this room.’
Erika had never before heard Andy be this blunt.
‘We had a post-work drinks sesh’ on Friday – Where were you?’
‘I was,’ she paused for a moment, thinking about the nine of them in the darkened bar. ‘Busy,’ she settled on. Her eyes had refocused again. She found herself staring at a dust mite that was crawling through the carpet. It was wriggling it’s tiny, ugly body deeper into the forest of strands, trying to hide itself. As if anyone cared if they’d see it.
‘We’re having another after work drink this Friday. Are you busy then?’
Erika thought a moment about Luis’s impassioned plea. Mentally, she apologised to him, and then shook her head.
‘Then I’d strongly advise that you come along to it,’ said Andy, still speaking lower than usual, ‘It will help you to start to repair bridges.’
Out the corner of her eye, Erika saw him turn away for a moment. She dared herself to look up into his face. He was looking across the office out of the huge windows into the city, shaking his head slowly. He turned back to face her.
‘Your work’s good, Erika, but you’re on thin ice. I’ve emailed you a list of bugs that need solutions and I want them all done by the end of the day, do you understand?’
‘Yes,’ Erika said, quietly.
‘Good,’ said Andy, ‘Remember, Friday.’ From the way he was speaking to her, she’d expected him to be frowning. Instead, his expression was now cheerful and pleasant. As if he had actually done her a favour.
Erika nodded, even though he had already turned away to walk back to his desk. She made her own way to her cubical in the corner of the room, furthest from the window. Cindy was already waiting for her there, with a huge grin on her face.’
‘“Um, actually,”’ she said, adopting a parody of Erika’s precise tone and her accent, ‘“I think you’ll find that it’s only thirteen minutes past the hour of nine AM.”’
Erika couldn’t summon the energy to laugh or even smile.
‘Don’t feel bad,’ Cindy said, ‘Andy’s going through a bit of a rough time himself at the moment – he found out that his girlfriend was cheating on him, but they decided to try and make it work. But now, it’s looking like maybe they won’t.’
She then proceeded to tell Erika all about the turbulent love-life of Andy. Erika let the words wash over her. Instead, she focused on logging into her cubical’s computer and beginning the day’s tasks. She nodded enough to Cindy to give the appearance of listening.
After a while, Cindy finished her tale and then sat down in her own cubical, directly next to Erika’s, leaving Erika free to focus. The computer played its startup noise.
Hello, Computer, how are you this morning? she thought.
I am well, Erika, but I have to install updates, she imagined it saying back.
Take your time, she thought.
Once everything was installed, Erika got down to the day’s business.
The first thing that she did was check her emails. At the top of the list was the link sent by Andy detailing the day’s work and what she was expected to do. She found her breath quickening as her mouse hovered over the email, but she didn’t open it. She would wait until all her other emails were seen to, she decided, before she face that one.
The rest of her inbox was taken up by eleven emails that had accumulated over the weekend. They were the usual assortment of team building exercises that were being suggested by upper management, newsletters relating to how far their application had come and how it was faring against others, and passive aggressive comments about the use of the break-rooms that were sent company wide.
Reading the emails was a task that never took Erika particularly long, even though she made a point of never missing so much as a single word when she did so. Erika had set up a series of tags and folders, and folders within those folders, within her company email, and after she had read a message, she would associate it with the appropriate tags, and then migrate it to the correct folder. It was a meticulous task that Erika felt compelled to perform. She hated having any emails in her inbox.
One of the messages required a response. It was from Christopher, asking if anyone had seen his glasses which he’d thought he’d left in the staff-room.
Erika thought about how best to respond to this.
Her first draft of the response read:
She stared at the email for a second, then hit the backspace twice. She needed to be more friendly, she knew.
Her next attempt read:
How are you doing? 😀 You always seem to lose you glasses in the
Erika highlighted and deleted the email, wincing slightly.
The friendliness was good, but she was being to unprofessional. This was a workspace, and her message needed to reflect that.
The third draft read:
I hope this email finds you well. I am very sorry to hear about the fact that you seem to have misplaced your
She highlighted then deleted it.
Erika’s fingers were hooking into slight talons at the keyboard now. Her eyes were staring, unwavering at the small black line at the top of the email’s box, as it winked in and out of existence. Her eyes pulled in closer and closer until she could see the tiny red, blue, and green lights that made up the images, winking in and out of existence again and again and again.
She shook her head slightly, bringing herself back to the scale of the screen, looking back at the empty response.
After a few more seconds Erika clicked the ‘tag’ button on Christopher’s email, tagged it as ‘Pending’, and decided that she would deal with it at the end of the day.
Her inbox was now empty, save Andy’s message. Taking a deep breath, she opened it.
Checking her tasks from Andy killed a lot of the apprehension that had been building from this morning. They were nearing a new build of the application that they had been working on for months now, and at this point in the development cycle Erika’s main duties were testing and then solving potential bugs. In reality, Erika knew, it was two separate tasks that should have been performed by two different people. But that was what she had been assigned to do, and as such that was what she would do.
She spent a content few hours sorting through the code that represented the architecture of their new application. Erika did not write the codes herself, she didn’t trust herself to even ask to be put on those kind of tasks. Instead, she looked over what other people had written and she found ways to make it neater, or to stop it causing problems with other areas of the code. She toil away for hours, making tiny minor changes here and there. Then, she would run the application, take note of how it behaved, what it did wrong or even just what it could be doing better. After making mental notes of problem areas, she would go back to the code again, tweaking and altering small sections to get it running even smoother than it had done before.
Erika was good at her job.
She didn’t even notice that lunch time had come until she saw Cindy leaning over the dividers between the cubicles.
‘Hey,’ she said, grinning, ‘I think that you’re showing off with how fast you type.’
By now, Erika’s emotions had ebbed to almost relaxed, a feeling she hadn’t experienced since she’d seen Mr Tarasovich in the lobby. She didn’t laugh, but Erika shrunk bashfully and smiled.
‘Are you gonna have lunch or are you just going to sit there?’ Cindy continued.
The smile faded slightly from Erika’s lips. If she had been honest with herself, she would have preferred to just sit there. Her stomach was still turning over from the pancakes from breakfast. But after Andy’s words, she knew that it would be better if she acted more sociable today.
Then, in a sudden burst of inspiration, she struck upon a perfect excuse.
‘No, I’ve forgotten my lunch for today,’ she said, doing her best to make it seem like this was something that had disappointed her.
Cindy looked unhappy, and opened her mouth to speak. Quickly, Erika spoke again to cut her off.
‘But I would like to eat with you tomorrow.’
Cindy shook her head and smiled. ‘Erika, you’re just a mess today, aren’t you? Arriving late, forgetting your lunch, what’s next?’
Erika reminded herself again that Cindy was joking. She nodded and smiled, but in a small private place inside her the words stung. It was like discovering a paper-cut by accidentally rubbing soap on it.
‘Well, if you’re going to be up here anyway,’ said Cindy, ‘Would you mind taking a look through some stuff I just emailed you? I had an idea for a new feature that I think’ll really pop, you know, and Andy says he loves it. But I just can’t work out how to make it work with the rest of the app. Could you maybe take a look at it and maybe get it up and running?’
Erika frowned a little. ‘Um, sure. I can take a look and see if there’s anything I can do. But I can’t guarantee I’ll know how.’
‘Sure you will!’ said Cindy, still smiling over the top of the cubicle. ‘That’s our thing! I’m the ideas girl, and you’re the coding girl! Together we can do anything!’
Erika smiled in spite of herself. ‘I’ll do my best,’ she said, shrugging a little, and finally managing to briefly catch Cindy’s eyes.
‘Great!’ said Cindy, ‘I’ll be back in an hour or so. Can’t wait to see what you’ll have cooked up!’
When Cindy had vanished across the office, Erika once more opened her email and saw what Cindy had in mind.
The idea was, for all intents and purposes, impossible. It would require an almost fundamental redesign of multiple aspects of the code and could quite possibly render other features of the application unstable or unusable.
Erika had no idea how it could even be implemented effectively.
She was about to close the email, when Cindy’s words floated around in her head once more.
You’re the coding girl!
She couldn’t say why, but it had felt good to hear those words. To hear that someone believed she had a purpose.
Erika opened the code once more.