A Stringed Instrument Ch. 13byBramblethorn©
I spent the next two days in my pyjamas, red-eyed and sullen. I didn't go outside because it was grey and cold, winter starting to creep in, and I had nothing to go outside for. I surfed the net aimlessly, talking online to friends who were unable to distract me, replaying the last month in my head over and over in the hope of finding a different ending. I stayed up late, unable to switch off and go to sleep; I stayed in bed until mid-afternoon, because there was nothing worth getting up for. I barely ate because I wasn't hungry; there was too much else gnawing away for me to notice the pangs of an empty belly. Aleks tried to cheer me up, in his blunt sort of way, but I just muttered "She dumped me for a fucking cello" until he lost patience and found something else to do.
(That's what I told everybody who cared to listen. Somewhere inside I knew it wasn't the whole truth, but I was too weary and heartsick to care; telling it that way got me sympathy, and sympathy blunted the ache a little.)
The only thing that pulled me back to some sort of routine was work. I went in on Monday morning, red-eyed and sullen, and did my job in a dispirited haze. Nobody seemed to notice; if they did, they didn't care. I made stupid mistakes and stayed late to fix them; it wasn't like I had any reason to hurry home.
It wasn't so bad when I thought about our break-up head-on. Oh, it hurt, but I'd been through break-ups before. I could tell myself: you've survived before, you will survive this time too, and eventually you'll meet somebody else. I couldn't always make myself believe it, but even so, it reminded me to do the things that needed doing. Eat three times a day, hungry or not. Get up and go to work. Do the laundry.
No, the worst part was the stuff that crept up on me unexpectedly. Seeing a poster for a new movie and thinking: Phoebe might be interested in that one, I should tell her — oh. Missing my train because of a bad announcement at the station: Maybe I'll grumble to — oh, no, that's right. A thousand little broken connections dangling at the edges of the Phoebe-shaped hole in my life. Those were the things that made it hard.
Susan invited me to catch up on Friday night at a café in town. I wasn't in the mood to see anybody, but I went anyway, and she updated me on her own crisis: Zara sounded a little better, but shut down again whenever her parents suggested she might go back to school. So Susan and Danny were considering whether to persevere, or to find another school for Zara with all the disruption that would entail.
I couldn't give Susan much advice, but I got the impression she mostly wanted somebody to talk to. We were about to pay the bill when she looked at me and frowned. "You've been awfully quiet. Everything okay?"
"Not really... I broke up with Phoebe."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."
"She dumped me for a cello."
"Dumped you for a cello? What do you mean?"
"We had an argument about... something. She did something thoughtless and I was angry with her. Then she mailed me, said she couldn't focus on her audition if we weren't going to sort things out, so she was putting things on hold for a month until after the audition. I... um, I told her off, and we haven't spoken since."
"Oh, Yvonne, I'm so sorry. And I know it must be hard to hear that. But perhaps it's better that she made that choice."
I scowled at the remains of my chocolate eclair and pushed the crumbs about with a teaspoon. "Hard to see it that way."
"I don't know what you argued about, but whatever it was... if she puts you ahead of her audition, and she fails the audition, where does that leave you? Debts like that are hard to live with."
"Huh." I was far from convinced.
Her phone chimed, and she glanced at it. "I have to go, we have an appointment with Zara's counsellor. But give me a call some time, let me know you're okay." And I promised I would.
On Wednesday, they fired me.
It happened like this: Peter called me into his office at two p.m. for what I assumed was going to be another pointless change to the website. Instead he steepled his fingers, the way he did when he had something of great import to deliver.
"Yvette, as you know —"
"Yvonne." I shouldn't have corrected him, but I was feeling less than usually diplomatic.
"Yvonne. I beg your pardon. Yvonne, as you know it's been a challenging time for our industry of late, and that obliges us to re-evaluate our business model on a continual basis. We've come to the decision that for operational reasons, it would be a better fit for our needs to contract our information technology support requirements to an external provider. I hope you understand. This isn't an easy decision to make."
He handed me a formal-looking document prepared with half a dozen little "sign here" stickers.
"Uh." It had taken me a moment to make sense of the jargon: they were replacing me with a contractor. Probably the guys who filled in for me when I went on leave. "I'd like to read it before I sign."
I read through it carefully, small print and large. The gist was simple enough: I, Yvonne Ponting, tender my resignation, effective immediately, and agree not to disclose any confidential information about RJC's business, etc etc. In return I would receive all outstanding salary and an additional eight weeks as a bonus, all payable immediately.
It didn't make sense. Outsourcing my job, maybe, but in the middle of an important contract? And why offer me eight weeks when my contract only required two?
I shuffled through the pages again, stalling while I tried to figure it out. This wasn't about saving money. No, this was about getting rid of me. Either Peter had a family member looking for an IT support job, or...
In Victoria it's illegal to fire somebody for their sexual orientation. So nobody ever gets fired for their orientation; they get fired for "performance issues" or "operational reasons" or some other excuse. Or they get persuaded to resign of their own accord. You can still fight it, but it's a slow and expensive process with no guarantee of success.
So that was the deal: either we fire you with two weeks' pay in lieu, or you take the money and agree not to contest it. And don't forget you'll need a reference from us if you want to apply for work elsewhere.
I accepted defeat and signed the papers. I had no stomach for a fight. Perhaps I should have made a stand on principle, but even if I'd won, what was the prize? Going back to work for Peter and for my ex's father. Screw that. So I signed.
Peter sent Janelle to help me pack up my desk. I assumed she'd been sent by Peter to make sure I didn't sabotage anything on the way out, but I didn't mind. If the contractors did screw anything up, I would be glad of a witness to confirm that I hadn't even touched my computer since our meeting.
I reminded her that my admin passwords should be changed as soon as possible, and wrote down some instructions on how to do that. And then, less than an hour after I'd walked into Peter's office, I was on the train home with nothing more than a few postcards and books that I'd brought in myself. No farewell party for me, not so much as a card.
On the train I wondered: was it Peter or RJ? I thought it unlikely that Peter would have fired me on his own initiative, not when RJ would be back in a couple of weeks. But I decided I didn't really want to know; I just wanted to get home, curl up, and forget the whole thing.
At least I had two months' salary to cover me while I looked for a new job. I decided I was going to approach this like an adult: four hours a day searching job sites and sending off applications. I should be able to manage at least four solid applications a day. Four hours on all the other stuff I'd been neglecting over the last few weeks. I had a pile of laundry waiting to be done, the bathroom tiles needed scrubbing, and there were three pizza boxes in the dining room from nights when I'd been working late and couldn't be bothered cooking. If I couldn't get the important parts of my life in order, at least I'd get on top of the little things.
But before that, when I got home, I'd switch on the computer and allow myself an hour working off my aggressions killing a few orcs...
One week later there were five pizza boxes in the dining room. The tiles still needed scrubbing, and I'd only done one load of laundry. But I had killed several thousand orcs, spiders, giants and assorted bandits, and I had a level seventy-three paladin to show for it.
I'd started well enough. The day after I lost my job I got out of bed on time, just as if I was going to work. I'd archived all Phoebe's old emails to reduce the temptation to re-read them, and I'd applied for three jobs. But it had been a depressing experience — two of them offered less than I'd been earning at RJC, the third was almost certainty out of my league — and the thought of having to rely on Peter's say-so made me so queasy that I'd ended up listing Susan as a referee instead.
I'd spent a lot of my life telling myself that I didn't care what the rest of the world thought of me, except for a trusted few. It came as a shock to realise how much I cared about the opinion of people I didn't respect, and about being fired from a job I no longer enjoyed. An awful lot of my ego is wrapped up in the idea that I'm good at what I do for a living — no genius, but conscientious and diligent — and losing my job stripped me of that.
Susan's words to me at the café had planted a seed of doubt, and now it began to grow. It was easy enough to say that if Phoebe really had loved me, she should have put our relationship above everything else... but if she'd offered to support me for the rest of my life, living off her father's money, would I have accepted? I doubt it; for all that I loved her, I would have felt imprisoned by that arrangement.
And if she'd placed me ahead of her dreams... could I ever have lived up to that sacrifice? Or would we have been gradually devoured by disappointment and resentment, wondering every day whether it had really been worth it?
I was still thinking about all this a week into June, when Susan phoned me.
"Hi, Yvonne speaking." I had my mouth full; she'd caught me eating stir-fry in bed.
"Hello Yvonne, it's Susan."
"Oh, hi! I'm sorry I haven't called, I've been kinda distracted."
"Indeed. Yvonne, did you apply for a job somewhere else? I got a phone call from somebody who said you'd put me down as a reference."
"Oh, shit, yeah. I meant to tell you, sorry."
"Don't tell me you've given up on RJC? I know you don't get along with Peter, but it's not forever. Did they tell you I'm coming back next week?"
"I hadn't heard, but... no, they decided to replace me with a contractor."
"What? No! Why would they do that?"
"Peter said 'operational reasons'." It was true as far as it went, and I didn't feel like talking about my speculations.
"Well! I shouldn't say it about a colleague, but that's pretty shabby. Are you going to be all right?"
"I guess. I've got a bit saved, should tide me over until I find something. Hey, how's Zara doing?"
"Quite well, I think? We decided to change schools. I think it's for the best, we've found a place that looks good, but I hate the feeling of running away. It shouldn't be poor Zara that gets driven out of her school and away from her friends."
"Oh, I know what you mean. But sometimes you have to cut your losses... hey, I have another call coming in, catch you another time?"
"Love to. Keep your chin up, I'm sure something better will come along soon enough."
It turned out to be my brother, inviting himself over for an evening of popcorn and television. He'd bought some of the classics of our childhood on DVD and thought I could do with the company. He wasn't wrong; I managed to get through three hours of cartoons without once thinking painful thoughts about Phoebe.
After the cartoons we talked, and he asked just enough questions to let me to get things off my chest. I still missed Phoebe, but it had been nearly a month since the last time we talked — fought — and I figured that ship had sailed, alas. He reminded me not to go leaping into a rebound relationship (guilty as charged; I had already been starting to wonder what my chances might be with Aleks' friend Renee) and told me he'd keep an ear out for job opportunities.
As he headed for the door I asked, "Do me a favour? I want you to ring me up every night and ask me how many applications I've sent in that day. If it's not at least four, tell me off."
"It's a deal. And by the way, little sister? Remember to have some fun."
"I will. Just as soon as I remember how!"
A few days later, on a whim, I booked myself in for a morning at the hairdresser's. Not the cheap place at the local shops where I get my ends trimmed every few months. No, the place in town where my goth friends go when they want something special.
A tiny lady in black PVC and rainbow dreads asked "So, what can I do for you?"
"I'm not sure. I want something interesting that doesn't look like I've just butchered my hair because I'm getting over a breakup. Maybe not too garish, though." I hadn't had any interview offers yet, but I had hopes on a couple of the ones I'd applied for.
She looked me over and pursed her lip (studded, of course). "Let's see... yeah, I think I can do something."
I sat back with my eyes closed while she did her thing with scissors and clippers and comb, then foil and a variety of noxious-smelling chemicals. I recognised one as ammonia, but couldn't place the others. There was a lot of waiting in between; she brought me tea and we chatted. I ended up telling her a little about my breakup and my job troubles, and she made sympathetic noises before telling me some of her own experiences of being fired from once place and another.
After that the foils came off and it was time for her to wash out the chemicals. It felt great, the hot water and her fingers rubbing the shampoo into my scalp, although it got a little weird when I realised it was the first sensual physical contact I'd had since Phoebe. I was just starting to mellow out and enjoy it again when she turned off the tap and began to dry me off.
I thought that was it, but there was still more: another treatment, and another cup of tea, and then at last a rinse. My stomach and bladder were both starting to grumble by the time she declared the job finished and held up a mirror to let me look at the result. "You said not too garish. Will this do?"
It fit the bill. She'd undercut the sides and back and dyed most of it a deep navy blue, with two thick white stripes running down the middle where she'd left it long. It was quite unlike anything I would have selected for myself, but... it was a change, and I was in the mood for a change. Give it a few days, and I could see myself getting used to it.
A week later I got a rather unexpected offer.
It happened like this: on Thursday morning while I was in the middle of yet another application — muttering rude words about would-be employers who were too vague for me to know what they wanted — my phone rang. The number looked familiar but I couldn't quite place it.
"Hello, Yvonne Ponting here."
"Hello Yvonne, it's Janelle from RJ Churchill."
"Janelle? Hi, what's up?"
"I'm calling for RJ. He'd like to know if you're able to come into the office some time for a chat."
"Huh? Any idea what it's about?"
"He didn't say."
"Well, um, I guess I can make it... tomorrow? About eleven?" I wanted to say 'today' — now I was going to spend all night wondering what on earth it could be — but I didn't want to give the impression I was at his beck and call.
It felt odd returning to the offices of R. J. Churchill Real Estate as a visitor, having to wait at reception until RJ was ready to see me. Janelle showed me in and shut the door behind me, leaving the two of us alone.
He looked tired. Not rumpled-suit and bags-under-the-eyes tired; just weary. He was toying with his fountain pen, rolling it between his fingers, and he didn't look at me when he first spoke.
"Yvonne. How are you this morning?"
"Very well, thanks. And you?"
"Oh, getting by."
I still didn't know what all this was about. "RJ, I never got a chance to say to you before, I'm sorry about Helen."
"Yes." He flipped the pen to his other hand. "Thank you. It's not easy." Another pause, and then he looked up at me for the first time and raised his eyebrows, but whatever he thought about my hair, he didn't say it. "Yvonne, I've had a great deal on my mind lately, and it's been suggested to me — rather forcefully, by somebody whose opinion I value — that it may have distracted me from running this business the way I ought to be running it. You've done good work here."
"Um, thank you."
"And I've been reminded that my daughter is a grown woman. She has told me more than once that she's old enough to fight her own battles. If you've hurt her — well, whatever has passed between the two of you, that's a private matter. As is your personal life."
I gave a tiny nod, just enough to say I was listening.
"If you wanted to return to your position here, we could accommodate that."
"Um, thank you. Let me think..."
It wasn't quite an apology. Not explicitly. But it was as close as I was likely to get, and there was a lot to be said for a steady income...
"Two things. I don't work too well with Peter as a supervisor, we just have different... styles." Does 'arsehole' count as a style?
"I think we could find some way to work around that."
"And... do you want me back? I do appreciate the offer, but I don't want to come back somewhere I'm not welcome."
He gave me a thin smile. "Let's just say that we've noticed the difference in the last three weeks, since you've been gone."
"Well." I was inclined to accept, but I hadn't quite forgiven him for firing me yet... "I have some commitments just now, but I could start back in two weeks' time, if that works for you? July ninth?" I didn't really have anything booked in the meantime, but I felt like letting him stew a little.
"It'll have to do. Janelle will send you the paperwork."
We shook on it, and I was on my way out of his office when something occurred to me and I turned. "So what do I tell people about why I left?"
"There was a misunderstanding. Peter acted on what he believed to be my wishes, and when I returned and discovered that a mistake had been made, we corrected that mistake by mutual agreement."
"Works for me."
Perhaps I should have angled for a pay rise, but that might have been pushing my luck. And besides, there'd been no mention of me repaying the two months' wages they'd already given me. Well enough.
On the way home I texted my brother with the good news, and then got to thinking about what had happened. My guess had been correct; Peter had fired me at RJ's bidding, and presumably because Phoebe had told him something about our breakup.
I wondered what had happened there. She must have been pretty upset to tell him, or for him to figure it out. And after that...
I supposed I owed somebody an email.
Thank you very much for... well, you know. It was a generous thing to do, and you didn't have to, but I appreciate it a lot.
I won't bug you further after this, but I thought I should at least say thank you. Wishing you well for your audition (I think it's Monday?) and for everything else. Best always - Yvonne.
I read it over two or three times, made sure the wording said what I meant to say, then took a deep breath and hit send.
Then I called a few other friends to tell them I was back in the land of the gainfully-employed, and made up my mind to enjoy the weekend — which I did. If I happened to go back and check my email a little more often than usual, well, what of it? And in any case, there was nothing there but the usual spam and notifications. Not on Friday night, not on Saturday morning, not on Saturday afternoon, and not even on Sunday.