If You Need Anything
It is 8.05am on a Monday in March. I get on the central line at Oxford Circus and successfully secure a seat. This is a technical feat, not a sign I am going to have a good day. I am going to have a good day, but because I have decided to. As the carriage fills with the herd, I stare conspicuously at my shoes as if something is on the floor in front of me. I do this to manipulate those moving down the aisle between the seats. I want to make them aware of my feet so they don’t step on them whilst reaching for the handlebars overhead. I’ve devised many tactics to avoid having to repress the urge to punch people on the London Underground. The doors close, sealing us in a thick kind of air that smells like an unpleasant, but familiar, combination of body odour and an old Hoover bag.
As the train lurches towards Stratford, regular passengers stand motionless. The poles and handlebars, held tenuously at first, are in various death-grips. I sit back and pull the Financial Times out of my bag. It’s the beginning of my third week at my first real job and I still have no prospects or friends. I took this job as a stepping-stone and already it feels like a life sentence. People ask me to do things before greeting me or caring who I am. Most of the tasks are so tedious they end their requests with apologies. The novelty of working whilst sitting down has entirely worn off and I miss being a sales assistant at H&M. There, it was very clear that I didn’t belong; that I was in transit. We all were. Marie was going to be a lawyer, Jason a neo-soul artist and I a banker.
I was very determined to continue to work in retail and wait for the right job with the right salary; I didn’t need more money. Yet somehow as my friends made more I started feeling like I didn’t have enough. Their wealth changed the dynamic of our friendship for me. At dinner when I asked how they were, they could say they were great, but they did not accept that from me. The fact that I hadn’t found a grad job meant I was always putting on a brave face, never genuinely okay or happy. They paid for our meals, my birthday presents became more extravagant, and I found myself unable to keep up. No one expected me to, but it was clear that I couldn’t and that was taxing – because whilst they became gracious, generous, and encouraging, I felt I became grateful and stingy to them.
At the same time, my parents who had always been supportive were wavering. I overheard my mum lie to a friend on the phone: No, she doesn’t work at H&M anymore. She’s with HSBC or KPMG or something… I can’t keep up with all the funny funny names! She laughed self-consciously. I felt embarrassed that I might be a cause of some shame for her.
Still, I would have let it all go if my supervisor at H&M hadn’t offered me a managerial position. Though I had been a sales assistant for three years, becoming a manager felt too permanent. Marie and I would laugh that managers took the customers seriously because this was their career. I took it in the end (because of more money) but I immediately widened my job search. Rather than “graduate finance jobs” I searched “jobs in a bank” and got an administrative assistant role in three weeks.
So now my mum can say I work in a bank (and shame the devil) but it’s not the role that I want. I have this creeping fear that I will be stuck here because unlike at H&M, no one questions my position here; there’s no assumption that this is my in-the-meantime job. My friends tell me I need to be more proactive about getting what I want out of the role; be more positive that I am in control of my capacity to move up. They recommended some great books that I read over the weekend and today I want to walk the walk. And Friday gave me hope.
Alex, from the investment team, spoke to me for longer than thirty seconds. I was assisting him with a deadline. We’re the same age but he’s already an associate. When we finished, he asked me to lunch. He warmed up a lentil soup, I pulled a ham sandwich out of my bag and we sat opposite each other in the kitchen. He has a friendly oval face, slightly sharpened by his glasses, and curly butterscotch blonde hair. Even in business casual I could see that he kept a regular fitness schedule. I would be attracted to him if he were taller. Or maybe that is me saying I am attracted to him, but he is short.
When he told me he was South African my head tilted pensively. Since learning about apartheid, I have a weird prejudice against white South Africans. I resent their crooked enjoyment of the country. I resent the ‘I am’ they confidently place before ‘South African’. Meanwhile I can’t say I’m English without bursting into laughter. I’m British. That feels appropriate. Maybe they could be South Africanish? Interrupting my thoughts, and, as if reading my mind (but probably just assuming judgement in my expression) he said officially:
I make no bones about my privilege and the enormous inequality in the country…
I warmed to him. We started a lively discussion about the economics of inequality, the irony of peoples’ aversion to paying taxes and then irony itself.
That was the first time I’d had an open, honest and challenging conversation at work. I insisted on things, disagreed (vehemently), and, instead of being coerced into deference, effort was made to persuade me. The last two years I spent working at H&M, I imagined these were the kinds of conversations people with office jobs had every day. In actuality, the most frequently asked questions are: “What are you doing this weekend?” and, “How was your weekend?”
Once the hour was up, we got up at the same time.
I enjoyed that conversation, you have an interesting perspective. I’m glad we had lunch and thanks for your help with those files!
I replied with a confident smile and headed back to my desk. It felt good to be properly regarded. To know that someone here knew what I was really like. I felt like I had planted magic beans that would grow into a beanstalk I could climb and become an analyst and then an associate. Later on, he asked if I wanted anything from the shops. I said no, but he came back to me with a Snickers bar anyway. I accepted it gratefully. I was making connections.
To keep up the momentum, I search for something interesting in the paper to spark conversation. Between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn Station, I choose Coinbase going public. It seems engaging and controversial enough. In my peripheral, I notice a woman wearing a ‘Baby on board!’ badge. I angle the giant pink pages of the FT to obscure my vision of her so she becomes someone else’s responsibility. I don’t feel bad. She has no idea what could be going on in my life. We can’t all wear our millstones around our necks as cute badges. I imagine us all piling into the carriage if we did – ‘Arthritis on board!’ ‘Lupus on board!’ ‘PCOS on board!’
We are approaching Chancery Lane so I sit up and put away my newspaper. Two passengers notice and shuffle towards my seat. I use the exit to my left so the person to my right, the woman with the huge and heavy-looking Jansport, has the best chance. I like playing God where I can. Above ground, I head for M&S to pick up some snacks. I consider what would be both the healthiest and most democratic option. I go with sweet n’ salty popcorn and choose a multipack to share. At the self-checkout, I pay for my water and slip the popcorn in my bag. Whilst walking down New Fetter Lane, I devise and rehearse a casual opinion about the significance of Coinbase’s listing to discuss when a natural opening arises to make an impression. Hopefully with Alex, but I’m open to other opportunities.
As a statement, I am always one hour early. The only other person here when I arrive is the MD Eric. Although the office is open-plan, he doesn’t notice my punctuality because he is always head-down at his desk, too far away to exchange casual greetings. But today, I am going to walk up and say hello. Make myself known. As soon as I am close enough for him to sense my approach, my body rejects my decision. I become hyper-conscious of my cheap shoes and don’t know what to do with my hands all of a sudden. He looks up and I start to wave.
Morning! I always see you here really early. I thought I’d come over and say hi this time. I’m Priscilla. I started three weeks ago.
He smiles. Morning, yes, I remember. How are you finding it? You’re here before work so that’s a good sign.
A sign that I like it here or that I am hardworking, I wonder. He folds his hands and places them on top of the document he was reading, giving me his full attention. This is not the power play I expected.
Aha, it’s going well. Getting in early helps me stay on top of things and I like the quiet. How was your weekend? I ask.
I can never quite get on top of things no matter how early I get in, but I try! Um, my weekend – I took my children to the British Museum, but I think I had more fun than they did. What about you?
I had skim-read several self-help books (which orchestrated this very basic interaction) and binge-watched season seven of Brooklyn 99.
Oh. Nothing. Just some reading. Anyway, I’ll let you get back to your work.
Yes, thank you. Well, nice speaking with you. Feel free to drop me an email if you need anything I can help with.
I’m extremely satisfied by our exchange – pathetically, I’m reeling from it. I have an in with the MD. I walk away feeling positive and in control. I will take him up on his offer.
At my desk, I open Outlook. I have an email from my supervisor, Jennifer.
Page 142 (attached) is missing from the bundles you printed for Monday’s graduate trainee training session. Do you want to just print copies and add them to each bundle by 10am?
Head of Administration
I feel my ears get hot. What a silly mistake. I immediately start drafting my reply:
Of course, will do. Apologies for missing this.
I debate with myself for five minutes about whether to delete ‘Apologies for missing this’ and add an ‘I’ before ‘will do’. One of the books, Own It, says “It’s less about the mistake and more about how you respond to the error”. I want to be brief and casual, but also communicate that I hold myself to high standards. I end up sending it as it is, then impatiently print the required copies, anxious to rectify the situation. That’s four mistakes in three weeks. With each one I fear I’m fattening the once slender threat of failing my probation. But instead of spiralling – because today is going to be a good day – I think about Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and get a grip. People make mistakes. It’s fixed now. It’s not a big deal. Let it go. Don’t let this dictate the rest of your day. Jennifer’s email wasn’t cold with rage and disgust, it was just to the point. And anyway, it’s fixed. I continue this self-talk till my thoughts fall within a homeostatic range.
Jennifer is nice but I don’t like her. The way she quietly asserts authority over me – “Do you want to just…” “Do you mind just…” – rubs me the wrong way. Of course I will, but I don’t want to do any of it. Rhetorical requests are patronising. Ask me straight. The other day, she commented that I had a very “tired” phone voice; naturally, I completely debased myself on every call after that by lifting my every second or third syllable with an inflection. I need her to like me. Then it all becomes worth it. There is no outlet for my dislike except to work infinitely harder than everyone around me and make her need me back. Though, in a sick way, I do feel a bit better each time I catch her slipping out, apologetically, to nurse her smoking addiction. I’m reminded of the little power she wields in her own life.
When Jennifer gets in, merely on time, I’ve re-stocked the stationery, archived our backlog and organised her task list into an Excel spreadsheet, all before 9.30am. I act like the page 142 fiasco never happened. I stay in the present. We participate in the usual social pleasantries. I offer her some popcorn and she says, maybe later. I want to feel irritated by her nonacceptance, but it occurs to me that it is too early for popcorn. Once she’s grabbed a coffee, we move to a meeting room to prep for the training sessions today. On the way, I bump into Alex. I am genuinely relieved that I swept some mascara on my lashes. He gives me a casual nod. I note that there are three hours until lunch when I may see him again.
The last time I was alone with Jennifer was during my interview. She had made an effort then. Her light brown hair swooped and bounced and she wore a heavily shoulder-padded blazer. She was attentive and friendly. Her face seemed to glow when she smiled. I, being desperation and desire in a suit, embellished her with favourable assumptions. Now, her hair is limp and darkened by grease. My mind has dimmed her initial glow with the truth of her passive aggression. I wonder if she is likewise disappointed by the reality of me.
Jennifer briefs me. She informs me that I am the Training Coordinator with a tone that also informs me I should be proud of this. Corporate euphemisms are such a tease. Basically, I will be on hand to make sure the snacks (that I cannot eat) are overflowing, the water is refilled and provide anything else the trainees might need – all with cheerful warmth. I am also to anticipate hypothetical needs before they materialise (this is an actual bullet point in my job description).
As the graduate trainees leak into the room, a sense of shame creeps over me. They are all my age or younger. I see the faces of voices I have only heard over the phone till now. I remind myself not to speak to assistants and secretaries the way some of them have spoken to me (when I finally get to their position). Visually they are a diverse group, but following the icebreaker I learn that the least among them is a Liverpudlian who horse rides every weekend as a casual hobby. When they discuss their weaknesses, five of them say imposter syndrome and I promise to shoot myself in the head if I hear it again. I spend most of my energy stopping myself from making comparisons between where they are and where I’m not – the role itself requires two per cent of my brain power – I rummage through my memory for an appropriate adage to centre myself. I hover over The Power of Now, but the concept of being estranged from my thoughts, watching them, not judging them, gives me a headache. Not wanting to slip into emotional turmoil, I opt for escapism:
I watch Alex fuck me standing up in the mirror. I don’t understand why this brings me so much pleasure. Words like voyeurism and vanity come to mind, but these are vague descriptors. It’s the jiggle in my imaginary thighs as our bodies applaud. The posture of my back, the sweat on his. Him staring at my reflection and then back at imaginary me as if to confirm his blessings. The lens of my mind cuts to the office kitchen. He is unzipping the back of my dress by the fridge when a familiar voice brings me back to the room. It’s the woman running the Leadership & Communication session. I know her. She, Molly, smiles at me with her eyebrows when my eyes finally focus.
Jennifer asks me (rhetorically) if I want to have lunch in the conference room in case any of the trainees come back early and I oblige. Molly stays behind to catch up with me. She runs out to grab food from Caffè Nero. While I wait, rather than scroll through Instagram, I close my eyes and meditate. I take in deep breaths of air perfumed by tiny triangles of leftover egg mayo sandwiches from Pret. Afterwards, I feel more relaxed, more accepting of life’s injustices, more confident that my persistence will prevail and still disappointed that I am not having lunch with Alex. I worry I’m missing the chance to cement our friendship. Molly returns. She opens a green soup and I pull a tuna and cucumber sandwich out of my bag. I offer her a packet of popcorn, which she eagerly accepts.
Molly knows me intimately but not well. That is to say, she’s seen me crying, naked and in my pre-twist-out twists, but I have never spent longer than fifteen minutes in her company. We are comfortable around one another. I didn’t identify her on the timetable because I never knew her last name. She is a friend of my flatmate at University College London (UCL). I liked Molly because she was always frank. The kind of person who would tell you if you had crust in your eye and whose compliments are meaningful. We fall into an immediate familiarity; it feels indulgent because I am so deprived at work.
We are critically discussing the characters in It’s a Sin when Emma, the office manager, peeks in the door.
Hey, Priscilla. Jennifer said I would find you here.
Hi Emma, what’s up? I say, though I know what’s up.
Have you got your gift for the red nose day children’s drive? Today’s the last day.
This is the third time she’s asked. I wish I had the bad taste to bring up in conversation the fact that I am broke. That I wasn’t paid in February because I started at the end of it and wouldn’t be paid until the end of March, which we had only just begun. I would add that I have borrowed money to pay for my: rent, zones one-to-six travel card and clothes (including shoes) for work. At this moment, I am one recklessly spent pound away from destitution. And squaring with the concept of my adulthood, I don’t have the shamelessness to borrow any more. So, no, I haven’t bought a gift. But, instead, I say:
Oh yes. Thank you for reminding me!
I rummage through my bag thinking of another excuse. I crank up the search so I look a little more desperate as I realise it’s not in the bag as it should be.
Oh gosh. I think I must have left it on the train. That’s so annoying. What a waste. I’m so sorry.
I’m embarrassed by this necessary performance of insincerity, particularly because I assume she knows I’m lying and thinks I’m cheap or stingy or uncooperative. She nods and leaves the room, not dignifying my fib with an audible response.
I turn and resume my conversation with Molly as casually as I can. I think she notices that I am distracted by my shame. She asks:
You didn’t leave it on the train, did you? She doesn’t give me a chance to respond before she asks her next question: Do you like it here?
It’s only been three weeks. Too soon to tell really. I say diplomatically.
And what do you actually do? She had asked earlier and I said vaguely that I worked in the investment team.
I’m an admin assistant.
Why? Didn’t you want to get into banking?
Yeah. It’s just a gateway into becoming an analyst, that’s where I’ll end up.
This is a long gateway.
I do good work for them. They like me. And this morning the MD said I could message him anytime for help, so soon I’ll start pushing to go up for their analyst roles. I applied for loads of graduate schemes when we left uni, but never got anything, so I thought I’d just get a foot in the door and work my way up, instead of staying at H&M.
The words tumble out of my mouth defensively. Molly, though sensitive to this, pulls no punches, I don’t think it works like that, Priscilla. You know, you’re not P Diddy interning at Uptown Records or Andy Cohen starting at CBS. This is a bank. One of the most anachronistic institutions ever.
Don’t you think that’s a bit cynical?
She laughs at me. If I were being cynical, I would say your MD guy is being disingenuous. He’ll probably never help you with even a fraction of his influence. The value you bring as an assistant is disposable. She pauses to slurp some soup. It’s like when people say “My door is always open” I don’t think they really mean it. But in terms of whether you’re going to rise from admin assistant to analyst, that’s statistically a dead end. No matter how hard you work.
Rich coming from some woo-woo seminar coach who claims to teach communication and leadership in 45 minutes.
I know it’s bullshit, and so do they, but at least we know.
Molly left me in doubt. I returned to my desk after one of the other assistants took over ‘coordinating’ the afternoon training sessions. Jennifer wanted me to help her with something because she thought I’d be faster. I populate the spreadsheet slowly, no longer buoyed by the notion that I could have a good day simply because I decided to and unsure whether hard work necessarily pays off. I think Molly is right and feel duped by my weekend reading.
There’s a line I’m particularly bitter about in Never Eat Alone: “Greatness is anyone’s to seize, regardless of economic background, ethnicity, age or gender, so long as they provide increasing value to others.” At the time it read like a beacon of hope at the end of a depressing work week. In hindsight, I see it’s simplistic. Can an abundance mindset overcome the reality of scarcity, inequality and freak accidents? Seems naive to me. Not everyone can seize “greatness”, but everyone may. I don’t feel better about this epiphany. It makes things so arbitrary that I feel powerless. I am Ctrl+v-ing names into 350 rows on Excel as I try to reconcile my purpose with the fact that life is basically unfair. In the end, I decide I have to keep trying because I may be one of the lucky ones. I chuckle because it dawns on me that my life’s mantra has become get rich or die trying.
Someone from the finance team emails me some documents they want bound and delivered to Eric’s PA, ASAP. I explain to Jennifer that I’ll need to prioritise this. She is very obviously satisfied by my initiative and I get a little high off of her approval. Eric’s PA asks me to leave it with Eric in meeting room four. Through the door, I see he is standing over a desk covered in papers and books. As I walk in, he drops his pen; it rolls away from him and stops closer to me, but closest to him. I plan to pick it up for him, but I notice that his muscles don’t even twitch with intention to retrieve it; he expects I will. So I don’t move. He is not old so I don’t feel bad about asserting myself in this way. There is an awkward pause before he starts to walk to it. Then I realise my behaviour is unlikely to endear him to me and it’s enough for me that he’s made an attempt. I pretend I’ve just noticed the pen and my shorter, more agile body grabs it first.
Eric thanks me for the pen and for delivering the binder. He asks me how my day is going. I tell him and force an opening to deliver my Coinbase line. It goes down well and he shares some more prognostic thoughts of his own. His congeniality encourages me to challenge Molly’s hypothesis on his offer of help. She may be right, but, if she’s wrong, he might be my ticket.
Uh Eric, before I go, I was just wondering if you could help me with something?
I don’t know if Jennifer told you, but I studied Economics at UCL and I’d actually love to be an analyst here eventually. How do I go about moving into that from my current role? I know it could take a couple of years, but I just thought maybe you could mentor me on how to get started on that trajectory…
Have you applied for our graduate scheme?
Yes. The general feedback has been that I don’t have enough experience. But, here, I’m getting more insight.
Of course. Unfortunately, I can’t help with that. Maybe try the proper channels, like HR or your supervisor. But you seem intelligent, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.
His tone is frigid and formal. As soon as he says “proper” channels, I understand I’ve overstepped. I’m disappointed. I didn’t expect him to change my life this minute, but I thought he might be candid and offer some catalytic revelation. I thank him and basically run out with a sense of having been reproached. I try not to take it personally. This is either part of my testimony or a continuation of the die-trying part. I do wonder what he had in mind when he said he would help if I needed it… directions to the loo?
Back at my desk, I pause to take a deep breath. The office is emptying of those less desperate to please, so it’s no longer anti-social to put my headphones in and blast ‘Formation’ by Beyonce. I look up and see Alex (finally) walking by. Craving fellowship, I call out to him,
Hey, how’s your Monday going?
All good. He says, with a common smile. He does not ask me back. I offer him some popcorn as he begins to leave, he shakes his head,
I think I’m going to pass, he says.
I want to punch him. Who raised him? After I accepted his stupid unsolicited Snickers bar. I don’t even like Snickers. I’m completely taken aback by his brutal off-handedness, like our conversation was some inconsequential one night stand. I still have work to do so I try to calm myself down by interrogating my feelings and the situation. Maybe he was just stressed? And what’s wrong with inconsequential conversations (or one night stands)? I think I hate that he feels free to be authentic and deny my gesture of goodwill without caring what I think of him. I hate that he can say he gave me a Snickers bar. I hate the confidence with which he decided that a Snickers bar – a treat packed with a popular allergen – was a good choice for someone he knows nothing about, so good that he placed it on my desk like some misguided mind reader. Most of all I feel silly for overestimating our interaction. I’m back at square one.
For once Jennifer is a welcome distraction. I think she’s coming over to tell me half-heartedly that I can finish this task tomorrow. Preemptively, I let her know I’ll be done in half an hour. She shakes her head,
Could you follow me to one of the meeting rooms?
I follow her unsuspectingly. When we’re sat opposite each other, I know something’s wrong.
I got an email from Eric that you were speaking to him about becoming an analyst.
In future, come to me with that sort of thing. Eric has a lot on his plate and it’s kind of unprofessional to be planning your escape when you’ve only just started in this role. Are you unhappy?
Um, I’m sorry it came across that way. No, I’m not unhappy. I want to be here for a long time and I was just considering what my trajectory might look like.
I think this is a nice save, but she’s not buying it.
That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. Just ensure you go through the proper channels.
Ambitious sounds dirty in her mouth, like she thinks I’m a social climber.
Okay. Sorry again – for the misunderstanding.
I think it would be noble for her to let me go home immediately and cry.
It’s no problem, she says, once you’ve finished with the sheet you can go home. Thank you for your work today.
I cry on the platform at 6.15pm. I have enough tears to go until it’s off-peak times and seats are readily available. I’m not in the mood to hustle. I’m sure people can see me, but they pretend not to and I appreciate it. I get a seat on the train towards West Ruislip at 7.02pm. The humiliation has not worn off. I plan to avoid Eric for all of eternity. The idea of returning to work tomorrow makes me weak. I want there to be something between ‘get rich’ and ‘die trying’, but I accept that most days will be ‘die trying’, maybe not as much as today, but it seems healthy to anticipate some variation of failure, mild debasement and censure. Unless I make it of course. I pull up Mansfield Park on iBooks because Jane Austen’s novels always pan out right.
I hear someone coming into the carriage through the gangway. It’s a beggar. His gloves, fingerless and threadbare, are just about visible under his oversized coat, which is a forgiving black colour. Between his hands is a polystyrene cup that looks like the rim has been chewed. He moves as if his feet are numb. As he approaches I see his face is blotchy and his nose is swollen and red. He begins to speak in a rehearsed drawl,
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Sorry to disturb you. My name is Brian. I am a homeless person. I don’t do drugs. I would greatly appreciate if you could spare some change, so I can get something to eat or someplace to sleep tonight.
I return to the pages of Mansfield Park as the other passengers drop coins in his cup and he mutters his thanks. I hear him repeat his speech on the other side of the carriage. I should feel sorry for him or be grateful that that isn’t my life but I’m too tired to care.
Amanda Kingsley is a Ghanaian/Liberian British writer, trainee lawyer and associate editor at AFREADA. She is co-host of a book podcast called Stacked (which you can find wherever you get your podcasts) and her short story ‘Accessory’ was shortlisted for the Bad Form x Bad Love short story competition.
*Image by Johen Redman on Unsplash