The Advice Column
written by: Marion Donnellier
The change happened overnight. My shower cubicle shrank, my takeaway latte tasted bitter and the corner seat on the bus felt like gravel against my back. On the radio, the old girl said a storm was coming and outside the window, I could see the snow turning my tedious commute into the experimentation of self-control. I hurried through the flurried streets and fought against the crisp morning air.
No one else seemed to notice when I arrived at work this morning. My co-worker, Felix, had mistaken my office for the local cafe, as always. He let his dreadful Cookie Frappuccino drip on my pile of story rejections. I threw my coat on a chair and made myself a nice warm cup of expired tea from the office’s “cuisine”.
I never intended to become a journalist. I acquired the advice column of the Chelsea Tribune, one summer, while I was interning for the Literally Summer Fair. My boss Muriel’s then-assistant, now head of communication saw me as some sort of aspiring guru. The job was an easy one or maybe I had the rare knack of reading between the lines of people’s familiar monologues. ‘Do not date the guy who said your mum was “foxy”’, ‘Try another job, you’ll kill someone with that tongue’, ‘Stop the doughnut flavoured yogurt, you’re diabetic’, ‘Silence the family, dodge the wife, and take a solo trip to Animal Kingdom’ – That last one didn’t make it passed Muriel. What? To me that was nice.
Every year, out of compassion or pity, Muriel dared to publish one of my short stories. ‘You’re a good writer,’ she admitted. ‘But how come your stories make me want to strangle my cat and blame the postman?’ To which I often replied that I saw myself as the modern-day Charlie Brown. It didn’t take and I held on to the advice column, if only out of respect for future me. The necessity of a financially secured future was a recurrent topic around the dinner table. I despised it almost as much as that infernal endorsement to freeze my eggs, plastered all over my morning bus ride. At my parents’ house, a celebration was on its way, to which I had no say. They called it a birthday but it really was a yearly excuse to make me feel older and incompetent. Mum said today was a big one but to me it seemed the more the years passed, the less personal the whole thing became.
I skimmed through my emails, glimpsing at Vanessa’s office door. Vanessa never left her door open. Even when she was in, her assistant kept her mail on the corner of his desk and she collected it every morning and every night. Vanessa was an ex-friend who after only a few months here, jumped the queue and got promoted to head of content, leaving me to rot with nothing but my newly acquired grudges. ‘Vanessa is a trendsetter,’ Muriel said, whatever that meant. Call me resentful but I always thought Vanessa’s work lacked individuality as if each of her stories had a voice of its own. Not wanting to become the office backstabber, I kept it to myself.
All day long I rushed through my work. As if from the moment I woke up this morning I was for no reason and no fault of my own, running late. One by one my colleagues left their desks to avoid the impending blizzard. As the floor emptied, I realized how big this whole floor was, compared to my stuffy little desk. Vanessa left too. I waited until the snow had surrounded the building, making my exit impossible.
I paraded myself through the empty cubicles. I sat on Sally’s swivel chair and ate what was left of her breakfast muffin. Sally’s beauty column had gotten more exciting since she had welcomed her baby boy and yet her drawers were still filled with the relics of her Scottish country escape. At the far corner, neatly stashed between the toilets and the copy room, is the cubicle of Tony, the intern. I was sure it would stink of forgotten sandwiches, impudent overnight bags and maybe a few beer bottles. All I found was a box of these little green pills I remembered so well. I used to steal them from my college roommate to lose the few pounds, I was convinced, were holding my literary career back. Foolish young Tony, foolish young people.
As I stared at Vanessa’s shiny new office, I remembered the day she stole my promotion and I was seized with a childish fury. Why shouldn’t it be my office? Why shouldn’t her ridiculously expensive espresso machine be mine? She’d left the door open. I shuffled through the door and was stunned at what was unveiled before me. Vanessa had covered the walls with posters of renowned paintings and stuffed all bowls and vases with flowers, as synthetic as she was. Even I know Begonias don’t bloom in January. Her desk was crammed with more hand creams than the beauty counter at Harrods. There was an air of excess that floated through the entire office but nothing, at first glance, that justified Vanessa’s unusually secretive behaviour, apart from her poor taste in about everything.
I combed through every drawer. What I found was far more exciting than anything I hoped for. I had almost missed it, hidden in between tomorrow’s budget notes and yesterday’s minutes. I flipped the pages of Miss Vanya Polakoff’s Russian passport. False identity? That’s not very ‘trendy’ Vanessa. I could finally see it. Come morning, there would be no reason to delay my promotion. The storm was pouncing, firing clusters of hail against the window. I stared at my co-worker’s cheating little face.
The light went off. Someone was here and walking through the office floor. Vanessa? The footsteps got heavier as they approached the office. Had I locked the door behind me? I hid under the desk.
A large and bumpy shape appeared behind the perspex walls. Unless she had finally turned into a panting ogre, this wasn’t Vanessa. Whoever it was, knocked on the door. ‘Vanya? Vanya?’ the voice growled. When the knocking escalated to banging, I crawled to the balcony, letting the wind slap my face. Jumping to the next balcony would have required a serious death wish, that I did not yet possess. I went back to my first position and scanned the office. It was as if Vanessa had made it impossible for me to escape. I spotted a thin split in the right wall. Could this be a door? The banging stopped and then silence. Was he looking to bash the door open? I darted for the wall. Never had I wished for something more than for that door to open. I squeezed through the hole and landed in the adjoining room, a sort of “dump room” but regrettably, no exit.
I shuffled around what I thought were piles of random old paperwork, but Vanessa had more up her sleeves. Unlucky for her, I, too, read Russian, thanks to my so-called pointless language major. I recognized the first text instantly as Vanessa’s latest submission but this one was dated 1969. Oh Vanessa, Vanessa. Did you put your name on these old pieces? Too long had I felt like an old jilted lover. This was gold.
In the other room, the door was forced, vases crushed and drawers trashed. I hid in an empty cardboard box covered with Vanessa’s endless deception. Given I was still holding on to the little crimson passport, I knew it wouldn’t be long until the room was discovered. He entered the room and walked around the tiny space. He stroked the top of the highest piles and shoved the papers on the floor. I felt him getting closer, the cheap cologne and the warm stench of his perspiration. Vanessa, you have the worse taste in men. I made myself as small as possible and hugged my legs with my arms.
This was one of those rare moments in life where a phone call would be just as annoying as it would be critical. The ringtone went off and my palms started to sweat, my whole body started to sweat. Was it my phone? I didn’t move a muscle and covered my mouth with my hand. He picked up and mumbled: ‘Wha? It’s not ‘ere I tell you. I don’t ave all nigh. Vanya, it chuffin’ freezing out eh? Relax would ye? It’ll be reight.’
Even after he left the room, I remained in the fetal position, holding on to Vanya’s passport. What was I desperately trying to gain by taking this? I rolled on my back and looked up at the mountains of cases that must have taken Vanessa nights to smuggle in. This room reminded me of Tony’s little pills and Sally’s loaded drawers. With time, the stories I submitted had become duller and even the last reader’s request I received, wanting advice on a career change, had left me speechless. I stared at the blank word page before resorting to using an old column I wrote about bad break-ups. I was no better than Vanessa, Tony or Sally. At least Vanessa (or Vanya) made her deception cooler. Did I even want to be head of content? If there was anything I hated more than pretension, it was paperwork.
I crept back into Vanessa’s office and placed the passport on her desk, exactly where I had found it. She could have it back. There would never be an espresso machine glorious enough to make that office feel like home. I passed frantically through the whole floor. No one. The elevator was broken and so I ran down the eighth flight of stairs. Still no one, not even a footprint in the snow outside. Where had he gone?
I dragged my feet back to my little cubicle and looked at my wooden cabinet. The accumulation of old files and paperwork almost covered my old typewriter but not quite. I threw the old columns away and reorganized my rejected stories in a neat pile, placing the earliest on top.
The wind had lifted and soon the rain would turn the snow into puddles. The celebration must have started by now and surely they would already be chanting that I was, once again, late to the party. How long before she gets hitched, fat or rich? And then, I heard it, the click of an elevator running. He must have gotten stuck in the elevator. I rushed to the balcony and observed as the dark and bumpy figure made his way out through the snow. I waved and smiled. He didn’t see. I didn’t care.
Making myself my last cup of tea for the day, I promised myself that tomorrow’s first task would be to buy myself and the whole office some decent tea and by that I meant, fresh, tasty and in bulk. Settled in my chair, the warmth of expired breakfast tea ran through my body. If you had told me, that one day, I would check the expiry date on the back of tea boxes. Because this is also what it is to turn thirty. Refusing to attend a party we never intended to go to in the first place and making way for dreams that still and will resist the test of time. No more ‘You’ll see when you’ve grown up’ because, however degrading it had been to get here, we have finally arrived. I heard the words slipping out of my mouth, giving me permission to live.
I stretched my legs in front of me. After all, why not? Why shouldn’t I get a swanky Samovar for my desk? We’ll call it even, dear Vanessa.
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