I live in the present these days. I type.
A million girls in dingy London offices are typing. Our nails clack on the keys. Data flows through our fingers. Waterfalls of numbers pour down the screen, disappear into files, memos, spreadsheets. Click, click, send. They come; they go. Every day is the same.
Two minutes . . . one . . . and then at exactly three thirty, Mrs.
McGinley says what she always says:
“Nadia, pour the coffee, will you? There’s a love.” “Okay, I do it.” I always say this too.
Twelve steps to the coffee percolator. Five mugs: two white with one (Mrs. McGinley and Maudie); one black with three sugars for me; one black with sucralose, no biscuit (that’s Priya, she watches her weight); one black with none for Roger. He is slim but his fitted shirts leave no room for cream. Last comes the nice cup with the saucer and teaspoon for Charles. Black with one. I leave the worker bees’ mugs on the counter for them and knock, twice, on Charles’s corner office door. He grunts, in that English way that is not rude exactly but says he is busy. I take in the cup, five steps, put it on the leather coaster on his desk. His window looks out over the little park with its iron fence and fountain and chestnut trees. From here, you can even glimpse the Thames.
Charles is the boss, but we are just a side business for him, off the books, says Roger, who knows everything. Mrs. McGinley actually runs the place. She tells us what to do, and sometimes brings in consultants with their slideshow displays and their strange English business words, like “innovate” and “motivate.” I am not so motivated, but no one notices, because I am just the temp. The short-term girl. I tell them I am from Russia. I stay quiet. I enter data, make coffee, change the water filter.
Priya and Maudie are the long-term girls. No one knows what they do. They have cubicles with moving walls that conveniently screen their activities (prying eyes, says Maudie). Roger says they work together on an experiment to find out whether all men really are shits. They started it after a complete shit broke Priya’s heart—he told her he was married, on the day his wife had their first baby.
“The day. The very day! And you know the worst thing?” Roger’s gingery eyebrows go up into his hair, waiting for me to guess.
“What is this worst thing?” He thumps down his coffee cup. “It was an IVF baby.”
“In vitro. You know—fertility treatments, test tubes, Harley Street, all that.”
“Why is that worst?”
“Not like he knocked his wife up by accident, is it?” says Roger. “And it’s not cheap. Insult to injury.” This IVF man never took Priya to nice places, only the dive bars where she and Maudie now do their men experiments after work.
“But why, they are still going to these dive bars?” I ask. “After this IVF man problem?”
“Ah,” says Roger. “They don’t want to look like pros, do they, sitting in the Hilton.”
This is life in our office. It is the perfect job—or it was, until a snake slithered into the garden.
I was just ending my coffee and rinsing out my green flowery mug when Mrs. McGinley called me over.
“Nadia, this is Iggy,” she says.
“How do you do,” says the smooth young man without moving his face. The hairs on my arms stand; they know this accent from back home. I look at him as if down a long tunnel. Everything about him is slim-fitting, as if there was a tax on space. His hair is dark and slicked back, and his skin, though pale, will tan with ease. It is not that piggy-pink English skin that blushes and freckles. It’s a dense cream that overlays the genetic memory of brown.
“He’s from the same place as you,” says Mrs. McGinley. How has she guessed this? From our accents? But the English have no clues about our accents, although they are like mosquitoes smelling blood when it comes to differences between their own. I must look shocked because she adds, as if speaking to a child, “From the agency, Nadia. Temp Angels.”
Temp Angels. I try to smile but my cheeks have gone stiff. Inside my mouth is dry, because Temp Angels are extortionists. Short-Term Solutions When You Need Them Most! is their motto. They make short-term solutions with the shadow people, in exchange for a wicked slice of the paycheck. Refugees like me, with no work permit; people just out from jail; heroin girls from the rehab programs. Mrs. McGinley is still talking. “Nadia. Nadia? Focus, please.” I look up. “Iggy will be helping with accounts for the Baltic shipping deal, so do please make him welcome and show him how to log in.”
Iggy. There’s a roaring in my ears.
“How do you do,” I say. My palms sweat. I scan the room, but there’s only the one spare desk, and it’s right next to mine. We’ll be facing the brick wall outside my window, side by side. Reluctantly, I lead him to the empty chair. I look to see that no one is listening.
Then I say quietly, in our language, When did you get here? Where are you from? His face flickers, almost a smile—and then he glances around, and the smile shuts off.
“Sorry, I don’t understand. I am Armenian.”
A lie. Unless my mind is coming loose. While I stare, he sits quietly and waits for me to instruct him. He wastes no movement or word. He just waits. I stand behind him—I think he won’t like that—then log him in and show him the accounts files. I get up for another coffee, trying to unclench my jaw. By the time I am back, those long, flexible fingers are already typing the numbers. He is very fast.
All that day, and then for the next week, we circle one another like stiff-legged dogs. He watches me when he thinks I don’t see, but no matter how quickly I turn, his gaze has slid away.
Why did he lie? What does he hide? I need a plan.
Mrs. McGinley tries to push us together. She calls us you two and gives us tasks that used to be mine alone (Would you two change the water filter? Would you two pour the coffee? Would you two sort the mail when you get a sec?). She mistakes our wariness for desire. She sees two quiet young people, a little too educated for temping, a little too exotic to be English, a little bit (but not too much) foreign—Iggy said he is Armenian. Naturally, with the administrator’s talent, she wants to package us up. No untidy ends. She is always tucked in herself—the silky blouse over the steamship bosom, the chestnut hair lacquered into its French twist, the ugly English shoes that make the feet look like sausages. She is too nice to let herself finish the thought (Such a shame . . .) but if the foreigners would just couple up, the messy intrusion into the sex lives of the real English could be stopped in advance.
I am now one of the earliest here, and last to leave. When Maudie walks in to find me already here, she raises the eyebrow—as I said, I was not very motivated, and often a little bit late. But now I am always here before nine, like Mrs. McGinley. Unfortunately, so is Iggy. And every day we have a silent fight over who will leave the office last. Mrs. McGinley must be regretting the you two plan. She sighs louder each day while Iggy and I each find one last little job to do as the office clock ticks past five o’clock . . . five ten . . . five fifteen On Friday at four forty-seven, she calls me over with the special frown of serious business.
“Nadia, I’m trusting you to lock up, since you two are always dillydallying—some of us have homes to go to!” She presses a key into my hand without letting it go. “But don’t mention this to Charles, all right?”
“Yes, of course, Mrs. McGinley.” She loosens her fingers from the key with difficulty. I imagine now she will wash her hands. As I pocket the key, I catch a little flicker in Iggy’s eyes and risk a smile. Now he will have to leave before me. Now he cannot track me.
And indeed, come Monday, Iggy shuts down at the stroke of five like the others. At three minutes past, he walks out with them, laughing and joking. But when he says, “Good evening, Nadia,” the lights go out in his face. Why? Who is he? None of the answers are good.
Our country is soaked in blood. Did Iggy run from the fighting, or was he part of it? But doing what? And where, and who with? The paramilitaries were the worst—they attacked everyone. Croats, Muslims, Serbs who stayed, mixed families. Even so, some Serbs fought beside us; he could tell me all this. But he pretends not to understand our language. So I fear the worst. And also, I am stuck.
I will have to do some spying.
On my third night with the key, I check his pockets and his desk for clues. He leaves his work jacket hung over his chair, like a dog who pisses on a lamppost to mark territory. I wait until everyone is gone, then count to a hundred. Clear the dirty coffee cups so I’ll have an excuse—cleaning up—if anyone comes back. Then, hands sweating, I go through his desk drawers.
Chewing gum. A lottery ticket. A pack of child’s birthday candles, probably left there by another temp. Some loose change. Some pens. A notepad with several phone numbers on it, and a doodle of a mandala. I copy the phone numbers down. I move on to his jacket pockets. An old lotto ticket, some tissues. More loose change—why do men always have this? I begin to feel foolish. Then I reach the last pocket, feel around, and find it. My fingertips prickle—they know this shape, this smooth, chilly texture. It’s round on one side and flat underneath, like a mushroom.
I pull it out and stare at it. It pulses in my hand like a living thing.
It’s an old-fashioned button, made of glass; inside is a yellow flower, as if frozen in an ice that will never melt. Sanja had an old cardigan from her grandmother with these buttons; I stole it from her and wore it nearly every day of the siege.
Suddenly I’m dizzy. Blood thuds in my ears.
Sanja’s rubbing her hand through my hair to stop me pulling at it. Then she strokes the back of my neck, shhh, shhh. I can smell her bittersweet perfume. Her side’s warm against mine; her cigarette smoke twines in lazy circles as we huddle together, staring out the window. Look, Nadija. Jewels, she says, and I see. The street glitters like a winter river. The dark holes where windows were, the burned-out buildings, fade into background as the sunset catches a million fragments of broken glass and turns them to diamonds.
My hand hurts. I open my eyes and see I’m squeezing the button in my fist. My hand jerks open. My palm is ice white, with deep red dots where the back of the button bit into my skin. It pulses in my hand like a toad, a curse from the past. Why does this Iggy have this button? Focus, chick, says Sanja from somewhere far away. I take a breath. London, London, I whisper. Here, now. I wipe the button with a tissue and carefully replace it in his pocket. Rub my hands together to bring the blood back and erase the pattern. Then I scuttle out of the office, as if I were the guilty thief.
From Nadia by Christine Evans. Used with permission of the publisher, University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2023 by Christine Evans.