GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19

ANNA WOOD
‘When can you start?’

I WAS GOING TO A JOB INTERVIEW, I was supposed to be getting a new job, but I knew if I concentrated hard enough I’d make it here, to a sunny dusty avenue in the Pyrenees with a cold glass of wine and tiny French birds chirruping in the trees. Les moineaux. They are singing. Ils chantent.

I’m wearing a fitted skirt, just below the knee, and I’m wearing heels but the heels are lace-up so they feel secure on my feet. And a long-sleeved T-shirt, but quite a posh one (linen blend), tucked in, with what my mum might have called a ‘snazzy’ belt.

The interview – the job – is at Vogue House. Conde Nast, posh magazines. This place has class, I say to myself as I walk in: class, pizazz and gravitas. They should use that as a slogan, except they’re too classy and gravitassy to do that. It’s on Berkeley Square, on the corner. You push through the revolving doors and the air conditioning begins to suck the hot dampness from you. The foyer is marble and glass, high ceilings. The floor is a bit slippy but my heels have rubbery tips so I am fine, thanks. I’m very nearly strutting. Piece of string from the crown of my head. There’s flowers and seats and magazines.

I am friendly to the receptionist, a young man who looks like he’s doing summer-holiday work experience. I’m friendly and professional, bright and serious. There’s no one here but us two. I announce myself and wonder how many other people they’re interviewing today. There’s no signing-in book, nowhere to have a quick peek and see who else has been here. The boy picks up a phone, seems to know what he’s doing, speaks to someone upstairs, looks back to me.

“Fifth floor,” he grins. “Debra will meet you outside the lift.” Who’s Debra? He doesn’t say. Maybe I’m supposed to know. “Thanks so much,” I say. Thanks so much? How much?

Everything, everything, everything, everything

The lift arrives and it’s full-length mirrors in there so I get a chance to look at my professional, creative self. Check my makeup is intact. No food stuck in the teeth. A bit of sand is still clinging to the bottom of my legs, just a few grains soft and salty round my ankles. It’s rather attractive, kind of sexy. I look capable, I look stylish, you’d trust me to edit your celebrity interviews, check your page furniture, you could invite me down the pub, maybe share some sushi at lunchtimes. I stand and face the doors, all set for that fifth floor. I’m glad there’s no one else in the lift. I try to relax my face, get my expression Debra-ready.

It’s so hot today, I wish my tits were smaller so I didn’t have to wear a bra. Who wants nylon and wire clamped on to you in this weather? Nobody. Little tits and I could let the breeze to my nipples, but with these I need a bit of lift and containment, else they get in the way. Even on holiday.

“Hi, Annie!”

Debra seems nice.

“Thanks for coming in. We’re just down here on the left.”

She leads me past banks of desks, bookshelves filled with cardboard boxes and piles of folders. Big windows and a few pot plants, a warm breeze and sea air. Glass partitions. Then she opens a door and nods me inside. I recognise Elise, the editor, from her photo in the front of the magazine. She’s sitting there with another woman who’s looking at an A4 sheet on the table in front of her, crossing things off a list. Or maybe  doing a wordsearch, or a sudoku, like you do on holiday.

Everything, everything, everything, everything

“Hi, Annie!” says Elise. Everyone is really delighted that I’m here. “Take a seat. This is Maddy.”

 Maddy looks up and smiles too. “I’m the associate editor,” she tells me. Pretty fancy.

 Debra’s still at the door. “Would you like anything to drink?” she asks. “Tea? Coffee?”

 “I’d love a gin and tonic.” “Ice and lemon?”

“Lovely, yes. Well, actually lime if you have it, otherwise lemon is fine.” I think lime is a bit more exciting. Just a little bit, obviously I’m not actually excited by lime.

“I’ll see what we have,” says Debra. She doesn’t look hopeful about the limes.

I’m invisible, I’m invisible, I’m invisible, I’m invisible

“We’re really impressed with your CV,” Elise tells me. She’s wearing the same sort of outfit as me, except more expensive. Her belt isn’t snazzy though. “Can you tell us a bit about why you’ve applied for the job here?”

Maddy’s pen is poised.

Everything, everything, everything, everything

“Well, I really enjoy the work I’m doing at the moment,” I say. “I love the office too, it’s a good little company and I’ve learned a lot.”

Elise is nodding, Maddy is waiting to write something.

“What I want now is to dig in deeper. I want to write more, I want to travel more, I want to meet more people and try new things.”

Elise is nodding and smiling now. Maddy still hasn’t written anything.

“And the work you do here, the character of this magazine – that’s something I’d like to be involved with. Style, fresh ideas, a real interrogation of new fashions and trends, you know?”

Now Maddy is making some notes, or doodling.

“I mean, if you’re going to work on something for eight or nine hours a day, five or six days a week, you have to care about it, don’t you?”

A rueful smile from Elise. Rueful and fond. I think she likes me.

“Is it a croque madame that’s vegetarian?” I ask. I can’t remember. It’s tricky being vegetarian in France. People keep trying to give you tuna and anchovies. I’m not peckish or anything, I’m just wondering. I had some oeufs mayonnaise for my lunch, with a glass of very cold, very pale rosé. The bouncy curves on the eggs were wonderful, the slippery mayonnaise and the boing and the flavour.

“Absolutely,” says Elise. “Can you tell us a bit more about your current role, the responsibilities you have there?”

I stretch in my chair a bit, adjust my posture, engage those core muscles. Debra pops in with my gin and tonic and I give her a smile and a wink.

Why don’t you call me, I feel like flying. Why don’t you call me, I feel like flying

“I oversee the production, keep everything running smoothly and keep the schedule front-loaded as much as possible,” I say. “Lots of nudging and encouraging. I try to run a tight but friendly ship!”

Elise smiles, perhaps imagining a tight and friendly ship.

“And recently I’m doing much the same with the online content. There are different challenges there, but I think it’s vital that we give it the same, like, forensic attention.”

Maddy is writing, and nodding.

“I work with the editor on plans and idea for the future too – the month-to-month nitty-gritty and the longer term identity of the magazine, where we’re headed over the next couple of years and more.”

Everything, everything, everything, everything

I put my shoulders back, feel the leather of the chair against my back and slippery under my skirt. My hand is rubbing the back of my neck. I look at Elise, smile at her. Then I realise my head’s tilted back as if I’m about to eat her, so I tuck my chin down a bit and try to look meek but steely.

“And do you get to do much writing at the moment?”

“Oh, I do lots of short news pieces and occasionally an interview or a longer feature. I’d like to do more, that’s one of the reasons I’m looking to move.”

“Well, you’d certainly get the opportunity to do a lot of writing here. We like the pieces you sent over very much.”

“It’d be great to have you managing some of our younger writers too,” says Maddy.

“Oh, I’d like that,” I say. I give a motherly smile, nurturing, inspiring even.

I’m invisible, I’m invisible

“This job is just a maternity cover, though, as you know,” says Maddy.

“Yes, I say. That’s fine with me, I can probably only stay for a couple of weeks.”

“We can guarantee it for a year, no longer than that I’m afraid. It really depends on when Victoria decides to come back. So that alright with you?”

“That’s alright with me.” 

Everything, everything, everything, everything

Three small-ish children are playing by the fountain, about ten yards away on the dusty avenue. Their parents are in another cafe, across the road from me and just past the fountain. Two men, my age, and two women, who are looking happy and relaxed, talking, smoking. I can’t tell who’s with who, or which children belong to which adults. They all have tanned white skin and dark hair. Maybe they’re all related, one big extended family, siblings and cousins on holiday together. Maybe I’m in the quiet, nice sort of place where chi-chi French people go on holiday. I watch the children at the fountain. Two small girls dipping their hands right into the water, and one even smaller boy with a little truck or a car, zoom-zooming it around the stone edge of the fountain. Kids are great, but I don’t think I want to have any.

“Kids are great,” I say. “But I don’t think I want to have any.”

“They’re little terrors,” laughs Maddy. “I love mine, but they are little terrors.”

Elise doesn’t say anything about children. I don’t know if she has any. She’s very slim, but she looks quite tired.

“Little terrors,” I say. “Ha!”

I take a suck of my icy gin and tonic, in its tall glass with a long straw. Just a few feet away from me sits a sturdy leathery old man in a soft navy cap, his little dog beside him, slurping a cold pastis on his way home. I like to see old locals on holiday. Authentic, grumpy, cool, something like that. He’s actually got the baguette he just bought on the table, wrapped in a bit of greaseproof paper. I bet he’ll eat it with salty butter and some good jam. Or gooey cheese. I mean, fucking hell, eh? Life’s about priorities.

“Ooh, you were at special projects at Natmags for a while – did you work with Sallie there?” Elise is just perusing my CV now, making conversation. I imagine they’ve already decided whether or not I’ll get the job.

“Oh yes, we were on production together. That was one of my first magazine roles. She was great to work with.”

 “She’s certainly indispensable here.”

Elise is smiling and Maddy is writing something again. I wonder what Sallie will say when they ask about me. We always got on. We used to play darts at the pub together at lunchtimes. Once I went with her to the walk-in doctors when she had a strange, sudden rash up her thigh. I’m not sure she ever found out what it was.

Right across from me there’s a broad doorway, wooden, with cast iron hinges and a cast iron handle. It has a stone stoop and on that stoop there’s a ginger cat, stretched out on its back. His tail is in the shade but he’s mostly in the sunshine, his white and ginger furry belly up in the air, ready for a tickle. Except you know most cats actually don’t like it when you stroke them on their belly. It’s a bit much. Another cat, a black cat and much smaller, is a couple of feet away. They must know each other, these cats. The black cat is almost still a kitten, and skinny. Wants feeding. I hope they’ll come over, say hello, rub against my leg, give me a nose bump. I don’t suppose they like pastry, or coffee, but I can offer them strokes and scruffles behind the ear.

I’m invisible, I’m invisible, I’m invisible, I’m invisible

“We’re interviewing a few more candidates, today and tomorrow,” Elise tells me. “And then we’ll be in touch as soon as we can.”

“Great,” I say. “Great.”

Why don’t you call me, I feel like flying in two Why don’t you call me, I feel like flying in two

“You should hear from us before the end of the week, with any luck.”

“Great,” I say. I’m pleased that’s all over, and that it went so well. I think it went well. I lean right back, take a slow deep breath, relaxing in the sunshine. The ice has almost melted in my drink, pink and blue light is somehow caught in the glass. The birds are darting between the trees, they’ve got their own thing going on. I feel the clamminess in my armpits and between my legs, wiggle my toes in the heat. I am fleshy and warm and ever so happy.

“Good to meet you,” Elise says, rising from her seat. Maddy doesn’t get up, but she gives me a lovely big smile. The sun is shining through the office window onto her pale blonde hair. You can see that her shoulders would burn in five minutes in this weather. I bet she uses factor 50.

Everything, everything, everything, everything

“The pleasure’s all mine,” I say, and decide I’ll order another drink. The sun will soon begin to soften into evening, the colours in the wide avenue will get richer, the shadows will get longer. I’ll have maybe one more drink after this one, watch the people walk by, watch those sparrows – les moineaux, my lips purse twice with the word – in the trees, and think about where I might have dinner tonight.

  • For links to the other 2018/19 longlisted and shortlisted stories, click here.

  • To learn more about the Galley Beggar Press subscription scheme, and how you can receive special limited editions as well as support our current generation of brave, award-winning writers, Click here.