Ivy Rhodes plucked a cream-filled chocolate out of the box on her desk. She examined it glumly then bit into it. Given the circumstances it tasted exactly as it should. Not terrible, but somewhat disappointing.
There was a quiet coughing noise from her right. She turned and saw Helen, the slightly too nosy but perfectly friendly woman in the cubicle to her left, observing her with a hopeful look in her eye.
“Would you like a chocolate?” Ivy offered.
“Oh, go on,” said Helen, shuffling her wheely desk chair across the aisle towards her. “If you insist.”
Helen happily took a chocolate and pushed it into her mouth, making that fake orgasm face that always made Ivy feel a little bit violated. Given how disappointing the chocolates actually were, she felt like she was getting more insight into Helen and her husband’s relationship than was strictly appropriate.
“How’s your birthday going?” Helen asked her, once the orgasm-inducing chocolate had been swallowed.
Ivy shrugged. She was expected to enthuse about lovely gifts and romantic gestures, so that Helen could feel satisfied that her social duty had been performed adequately, but she couldn’t quite muster anything beyond, “Pretty good.”
Honestly, it hadn’t started well. Ivy always looked forward to her birthday, and Steven always made a big fuss of her, but today he’d been so distracted by a work issue that had been plaguing him for a few days that he’d forgotten to make the traditional breakfast in bed she always looked forward to. Ivy had lain in bed all eager, waiting for the smell of bacon to waft through, before getting up and finding him shoving things into a bag and pulling on his coat.
“Morning,” she had said tentatively.
He had laid a flat kiss on her cheek before hurrying out of the door and vanishing without speaking a word to her, leaving Ivy standing there in her pyjamas feeling thoroughly forgotten.
“Doing anything nice later?” asked Helen, helping herself to a second chocolate, and smiling warmly at Ivy with a twinkle in her eye.
Fuck’s sake. Social duty performed, Helen. Take your chocolate and go!
“Steven’s planning a romantic dinner,” she said, smiling and nodding. At least that was something genuinely good. She wanted to dress up in a sexy little dress, forget she was thirty years old now, and have a wonderful evening eating, drinking, and laughing with her handsome husband.
“Nice,” said Helen, nodding in approval, before scooting away back to her desk.
Ivy turned back to her computer, ready to crack on with the riveting world of hot tub sales. Eurgh! She was thirty years old. How could she be thirty years old and STILL stuck in this stupid job she’d only applied for in the first place because she needed a short-term financial fix. All these years later… here she sat. Same chair. Same office.
She grumpily shoved another chocolate into her mouth. Of course, it would be the orange one. She made full ick face as she tried to get it chewed up fast, then chugged some coffee to wash it away.
“What a face!” came a laughing voice from above her.
Ivy glared upwards. Tom from HR, one of the more irritating men in the office, was standing over her desk, leaning on the partition like he owned it, and plucking a fairy cake out of the basket she had dumped there on arrival.
Ivy smiled up at him as politely as she could possibly muster as he leered down at her with eyebrows raised. She shifted carefully and did the top button of her cardigan up.
“Happy birthday, love,” he said, with a wink.
“Thanks, petal,” said Ivy. Honestly, what a sleaze.
Tom blinked, a little confused by the strange greeting, but the smiled amiably. “Having a nice day, are we?”
Before Ivy was forced to take the conversation further, the phone on her desk rang. Ivy made an apologetic gesture then picked up the phone and turning her chair away from Tom.
“Ivy Rhodes, sales department.”
“Ivy Rhodes!” came the voice of her boss. “Hugh here. Can you pop into my office for a quick word?”
Ivy closed her eyes for a second before reapplying her sales smile. “Absolutely, I can,” she said, forcing bright enthusiasm into her voice as she cranked out the phrase she had perfected for faking positivity in her first week. “I’ll be right there!”
Being called into the boss’ office on her birthday could only be for something nice. Hugh loved a birthday. His own, more than anything, but birthdays in general were always a high point in his otherwise dull, beige week. He was probably waiting to present her with some swanky gift, and she could endure Hugh Bright for the fun of a swanky gift. Of course, he’d probably come in for a hug after she’d opened it… but still.
Ivy stood up and headed across the room towards Hugh’s office. “Good luck,” said Helen.
“Cheers,” said Ivy, smiling a grimace at her. Hugh’s hugs were legendary. Her best friend Julia had advised reporting him and her other best friend Mya had advised punching him swiftly in the penis. Ivy had opted for a polite avoidance and had perfected the Christmas party mistletoe swerve. She’d never been good at confrontation and hated causing a fuss.
“Ivy Rhodes,” said Hugh as Ivy entered, his arms wide as though inflicting the hug on her from across the room before she’d even got into the office properly. “How the devil are you?”
“Fine, thanks,” she said, stepping into the office.
“Pop the door closed there, would you?” he said, standing up from behind his desk and coming round to the front.
Ivy pushed the door closed as Hugh perched on the edge of his desk and attempted to cross one leg over the other in a nonchalant way before wobbling and giving up on the pose.
“Take a seat,” he said.
Ivy glanced around as she sat. No gift… perhaps it was in an envelope? Envelopes were good.
“So,” said Hugh, folding his arms. “The big three-oh, eh?”
“Yes,” said Ivy, trying to sound happy about it. If she sounded even the slightest bit bothered by her age, he might tease her. She was in no mood to be teased. “That’s right!”
In truth it did bother her. It bothered her deep in her core. Not the age itself- she wasn’t upset about growing older exactly. Her grandmother had always told her that growing old was a privilege not everybody was afforded and should be treated as such. No, it wasn’t the actual age… it was what she’d done with the years prior to it. Or, more importantly, what she’d not done.
Looking back, Ivy knew that she hadn’t accomplished half of the things she’d wanted to have done by now. All she’d managed to do was get married, and whilst that was great and her husband was a lovely, sexy doctor with a bum she could squeeze all day, it wasn’t a life goal she’d worked for and achieved. It was just a thing that had happened to her. You can’t be proud of things that happen to you, only things you work to make happen.
She was pretty sure that if she went back in time and told teenage Ivy that getting married was the only thing of note that she would have to her name, she’d have had books by Maya Angelou, Andrea Dworkin and Margaret Atwood thrown at her, and been scowled at through heavy black eyeliner.
“I think what I’m about to say is going to come as good news,” said Hugh, leaning forwards on his elbows and smiling at her, cutting through her thoughts.
“It is?” asked Ivy. A promotion? Maybe that was better than a gift. It wasn’t in a career she loved but still… if it was better than her current circumstances, she’d grab it with both hands.
“Definitely,” said Hugh with a knowing look. “I think you and your husband will be quite thrilled to know… you’re being made redundant!”
Ivy blinked. Her chest went cold. Her hands felt hot. “Wh… what?”
“Marvellous, eh?” said Hugh with what Ivy felt was unnervingly close to jazz hands.
Ivy pushed the bile back down into her stomach. “Why exactly will we be thrilled, sorry?”
“Well,” said Hugh. “You’ve been married for a while now; I should think a nice little redundancy package and no pressure to get back to the office will suit you down to the ground!”
“Again…” said Ivy. “Why?”
Hugh adjusted his position awkwardly. “For when… you finally… you know…”
Ivy looked at him blankly.
“Start a family!” he said, the jazz hands creeping back in.
Okay, Mya was right. He needed a solid penis-punching.
“Start a…” she could barely get the words out. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Especially not today. Not on her birthday. “It’s my birthday…”
“I know!” said Hugh, definitely not reading the room. “Happy birthday!”
“And I’ve lost my job…”
“But gained your freedom!” enthused Hugh.
Ivy stared at him. He started to realise that this wasn’t the wonderful news he’d apparently thought it was. His face fell and he started shifting uncomfortably in his seat. He looked at her hopefully, probably waiting for signs that she was coming round to his way of thinking, hoping to feel a little bit better about himself.
Ivy said nothing. She couldn’t process her own thoughts, let alone comfort Hugh.
“Come on, Ivy…. You never wanted to be here anyway,” he said, trying to placate her. “Let’s be honest. You’re obviously not happy here. We can all tell. Now you can go and find what you want in the world!”
What she wanted in the world? A steady income, a reliable job, pleasant enough work colleagues, opportunities for promotion… of course that was what she wanted. Why wouldn’t it be? She stared at him, her mouth hanging open, words sticking in her throat before they could take form in her mouth. Probably for the best, to be fair. Every word forming in her mind was a swear word. The kind that made her mother scold her, even now.
Her eyes started to burn. Shit. Don’t cry, don’t cry!
The lingering silence seemed to be making Hugh uncomfortable. He cleared his throat several times and made some gestures that were supposed to indicate something that Ivy couldn’t decipher because she was too busy trying to stop herself from falling apart and losing whatever shred of dignity she had left.
“It’s effective immediately,” said Hugh. Apparently, Ivy’s silent internal screaming was finally too much for him. “If you could just pop over to Tom in HR, he’s got some paperwork to process with you then you can run along and start your birthday celebrations early!”
She wasn’t going to cry. She was going to be dignified and calm and completely in control at all times. She held tears back, got up, and headed for the door. Before she opened it, she hesitated then turned back to Hugh, who looked a bit nervous. “Why me?”
Hugh smiled at her awkwardly. “Just lucky I guess.”
Ivy left before he could wave any more jazz hands at her.
Ivy filled a cardboard box with her things: a photo of her and Steven on their wedding day, a notepad she had filled with doodles and ideas, and a sad little cactus she’d bought because she killed all other plants. She left the cakes and the chocolates. Helen watched her.
“You okay?” she asked.
Ivy shrugged. Was she okay? She was thirty. She was unemployed. And she had to confess to her very successful and proud husband that she was thirty and unemployed. Of course she wasn’t bloody okay. What a stupid fucking question.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m okay.”
“Good,” said Helen. “You never wanted to be here anyway.”
Why did everybody keep saying that?! Like anybody had a clue what Ivy wanted!
Ivy grimaced a smile at her, then headed out of the office, keeping her head down. A couple of people poked their heads out of their cubicles to catch her eye and say goodbye, but Ivy just nodded in their direction and escaped. She couldn’t face it. Not today.
Outside she took a breath of fresh air and went to the bench where she often ate her lunch in the summer. There was bird shit on it. She didn’t care.
She sat down and put her head between her knees. Just deep, soothing breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. It would be fine. Of course it would be fine. She’d had jobs before, she could get jobs again. She’d done some shit jobs, mind…
No, it was fine. It had to be fine. Should she call Steven? No… definitely not. He’d start telling her all the things she should do immediately and she needed some time to scream into the void before she could process advice about what steps to take next.
She took a deep breath. She could call her mother?
Okay, she was clearly losing her mind.
Thirty and unemployed.
There was only one thing she wanted to do. And only two people she could possibly do it with.
She took her phone out of her bag and made a call. Three minutes later she headed for Verso.
“Dude,” said Mya as Ivy approached the table where her best friends, Mya Shaw and Julia Jones, were waiting for her with an open bottle of wine and three large glasses.
“I know,” said Ivy, sitting down heavily.
“That boss of yours is an absolute cun...”
“Mya!” snapped Julia.
“Fine,” grumbled Mya and folded her arms as Julia filled a wine glass and pushed it over to Ivy.
“What am I going to tell Steven?” Ivy wailed, then dropped her face flat on the table.
“Steven will be fine!” Julia insisted, rubbing her back gently. “He’s got a good job now!”
Ivy moaned miserably into the wooden tabletop. His income wasn’t the issue. They’d worked hard to get him to the position he was in and they both benefited from his financial success. The issue was his opinion of Ivy. And it was Ivy’s opinion of Ivy, which right now was low and crumbling lower.
She’d never been unemployed; even when she’d been at university, she’d worked in the student bar. That was where she’d met Mya, who liked to hide out in the basement smoking weed when she was supposed to be bringing up new barrels.
“I hate my life,” Ivy wailed.
She only ever got to indulge her melodramatic tendencies around her friends, Steven found that behaviour irritating and her mother went into full mother hen mode, so there was no way she wasn’t going to indulge right now.
“I know, I know,” soothed Julia. “It’s shit. But it’ll be okay. I promise.”
“And it’s not like you can’t get another one,” said Mya. “The cun… erm… douchebag will write you a good reference, won’t he?”
“So I can move from one shitty sales job to another shitty sales job,” she said glumly, sitting up. “And watch my life drift away in yet another cubicle in yet another office. Day in. Day out. No dreams beyond what I’m having for lunch. Until the day I die.”
“Have a drink,” said Mya, pushing Ivy’s wine towards her before refilling her own glass and smiling at the waitress, giving the empty bottle a little wiggle.
Ivy obediently picked up her glass and downed it. She set the glass down heavily and screwed up her face. Perhaps now she was thirty she shouldn’t do things like getting drunk in the afternoon with her friends. But fuck it, now wasn’t the time to be worrying about it.
“It’s my birthday,” she wailed. “This is the worst thing that could possibly happen on my birthday!”
“It’ll get better,” said Julia. “We’ll get you through this tiny blip.”
“Tiny blip, my arse,” grumbled Ivy.
“And it’s definitely not the worst thing to happen on your birthday,” said Mya.
“It’s not?” asked Ivy.
“Remember your nineteenth when you snogged Brendan Walker then puked on his shoes?”
“Oh yeah,” said Ivy.
“Oh! And remember your twenty-first when you got chucked out of that club because you were attempting to perform a strip tease on the podium but couldn’t get your shoe off and fell over?”
“You’re such a knob,” Ivy said, laughing.
“I think we have, in fact, proven that it is you who is the knob,” said Mya with a knowing look.
The juxtaposition of wild and creative Mya with sensible and wise Julia was a combination that, on paper, should never work. But it did. And it always had. Aside from the true love the two women had for one another, Ivy felt that when they were together, both sides of her personality had found their soulmates.
The waitress brought over another bottle of wine and set it on the table.
“Enjoy,” she said. Ivy noted that the waitress had a slightly judgemental tone that she did not care for. But fuck it, she hadn’t lost her job.
Ivy picked up the bottle and refilled her glass. She should probably eat something. Something with fat and bread.
“You know what the worst thing is?” she asked them, immediately forgetting that she should be eating, and swilling the wine on the table as she gesticulated.
“What?” asked Mya.
“I hated that job,” she said. “Hated it. I made big with how much I appreciated the whole steady income and stuff because that’s what I had to do for Steven. But it was a crap job and I loathed every minute of it.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Mya. “It was the least Ivy job ever.”
Julia nodded in agreement and sipped her wine.
“But I’m actually devastated that I lost it!” wailed Ivy. “Why did this happen to me? I mean seriously. This wasn’t supposed to be my life! I had dreams and hopes and plans and now… now I’m gutted that I’ve lost this stupid job that I didn’t even want in the first place!”
“Oh love,” said Julia, her dark eyes dropping.
“I’m serious,” said Ivy, leaning in towards them. “I think I was actually planning on living out my working days in a beige office with a grey carpet doing a boring job… all because it just wasn’t too bad. If you’d told me on my twentieth birthday that on my thirtieth birthday, instead of being an architect, I’d be… this…” Ivy sighed and put her head in her hands. “I swear I’d have drowned myself in those godawful tequila shots you made me do, Mya.”
Julia rubbed her arm, her perfectly manicured nails shining beautifully. Julia always looked so perfect. Even Mya somehow managed to make her pink hair and piercings style look effortlessly trendy. Ivy, in her grey pencil skirt and beige cardigan, looked every bit the miserable failure she was.
She rubbed a snotty tear on her sleeve and looked at her friends sadly.
“Please, tell me, how did this happen to me?”
Ivy picked up her wine and took a deep drink, before noticing Julia and Mya were exchanging a look over the top of their pinot. She knew what they were thinking, but she really didn’t want to explore it right now.
Ivy picked up her wine again. Wine helped.
Julia rearranged her features into a broad and enthusiastic smile. “I think it’s time for her present, don’t you, Mya?”
Mya was less committed to the performance, probably wanting to delve into the root causes of Ivy’s failed career prospects, but acquiesced and pulled an envelope out of her bag. An envelope gift! Envelope gifts could be excellent.
“What is it?” she asked them, taking the envelope and opening it. She pulled out an appointment card for that afternoon at the very high end and pricey salon, Carmelle’s, where Julia always went. Ivy had never even set foot inside. Mya hadn’t either, but that was less because of price, and more because Mya favoured the funky places where her pink hair could be chopped, bleached, shaved or spiked, according to whatever whim she was feeling in the moment, whilst she listened to metal music.
“The works,” said Julia squeezing her arm. “All arranged and paid for. You’re going to feel fabulous after that!”
“And look so good that Steven might not even bother with your swanky dinner and take you straight home to bed,” said Mya with a wink.
Ivy laughed. “I want the dinner.”
“Well, after food you can get a good ravishing,” said Mya. “You’re going to look bloody gorgeous.”
Julia held up a glass. “To Ivy; thirty, unemployed, but bloody gorgeous.”
“Bloody gorgeous!” repeated Mya as Ivy laughed. They clinked glasses and drank.
“Thanks guys,” said Ivy. “This is so lush.”
Julia leaned over and kissed her cheek, before finishing the last of her wine. “Right,” she said, standing up and picking up her leather briefcase. “I’ve got to get back to the office, but Mya can stay, so I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“See you tomorrow,” said Ivy.
Julia gave them a wave and headed out, her high heels click-clacking as she went. When she was out of the restaurant, Mya grabbed Ivy’s hand excitedly with a mischievous look on her freckled face. “You’ve got two hours ‘til your appointment…” she said.
“So…?” asked Ivy.