The Safe Place Page 2

Emily closed her eyes and took a breath, letting it out slowly. Just breathe.

The bearded man picked something out of his teeth. She’d recognized him as soon as she walked in, but he seemed smaller in real life, and less handsome. One spindly leg lay draped across the other, the angles of the knee joint sticking out through his trousers, and his arms were folded across his chest in an attitude of utter indifference.

“Take your time. Whenever you’re ready,” the blond woman said, sneaking a glance at her watch.

Emily swallowed. Breathe. Come on. You can do this.

She gave a small nod. Ready.

“Okay,” said the woman. “Off you go.”

* * *

“Excuse me. Ex-cuse me, can I get past?”

Emily elbowed her way through the slow pedestrian traffic. Pushing past a couple taking selfies, she tripped over the wheels of a pram and smacked her wrist against a lamppost. She kicked the post and swore loudly, twice. The owner of the pram flinched and steered her baby away.

Emily pressed her sleeve to her eyes. Despite weeks of preparation, the audition had been a complete balls-up. All the lines she’d thought were safely committed to memory had somehow evaporated, leaving only a screaming inner monologue of fear and self-doubt: I can’t do this I don’t know the lines I can’t do this they hate me I can’t feel my legs I can’t do this. She’d coughed, stammered, and sweated her way through the whole thing and only just escaped without vomiting. Why did that keep happening? What was wrong with her?

Also, she’d been an absolute idiot to think that Carnaby Street would be a shortcut; she should have known that the lunchtime crowds would be out in full force. Stupid, stupid, stupid, can’t get anything right. She checked the time on her phone and sped up, squeezing past street performers and buskers until finally she broke free of the crush and scurried down the last few streets to the office.

Gasping for breath, she pushed through the revolving door and into the lobby. A signal light went on above the nearest elevator and she ran for it, arriving just in time to collide with a tall man emerging from between the silver doors.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, her face full of starched lapel.

“No harm done,” said the man.

He held the elevator open for her and she rushed inside, looking up at the last minute to realize she’d just crashed into the company’s managing director. “Shit,” she said as he turned and walked away, then clapped her hand over her mouth. “I mean, good afternoon, Mr. Denny!” Cringing, she jammed her finger repeatedly against the button for the fifth floor until the doors slid shut.

Checking her appearance in the mirrored walls, she realized she looked insane—her hair stuck out in clumps, her top lip glistened with sweat, and her eyes were ringed with smudged mascara. But, she supposed, running all the way from Soho to Mayfair would do that.

When the doors pinged open again, Emily scuttled across gleaming tiles with her head bent low and dived behind the reception desk. Glancing around, she rattled pens and flapped paper in a pantomime of important activity. Just arrived? No, not me, I’ve been here for hours. Fortunately, no one seemed to be paying any notice. She pulled out the collar of her shirt and blew downward, trying to dry the excess moisture underneath.

“Sweaty, flushed, out of breath. Somebody get laid on their lunch break, did they?”

She whirled around to see a lacquered head poking out, spy-like, from behind a newspaper. Urgh. David. The HR manager of Proem Partners sat on a low sofa with his legs crossed, his eyebrows raised in a matronly expression of disapproval. Busted.

Emily decided to brazen it out. “Well, why not?” she said, smiling. “It is hump day.”

David simpered. “You’re late,” he said, tapping his watch. “Again.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I lost track of time.”

“Audition, was it?”

“Um. Yes. Sorry I didn’t tell anyone; it was kind of a last-minute thing.”

“I see. Well, we can’t keep Spielberg waiting, now, can we?” He made a show of neatly folding his newspaper. Then he stood and smoothed the creases out of his expensive shirt, his eyes roaming a little south of Emily’s face. “So how did it go? Are they gonna make you a star?”

“It went great, thanks,” she lied. “Fingers crossed.”

“I’ll watch this space, then.”

“Yeah.” There was an awkward pause. Emily stacked letters and notepads into useless piles. David flashed her a creepy smile. Why was he hanging around? Didn’t he have anything better to do than stare down her top? “Right, well, I’d better crack on,” she said. “Make up for all that lost time.”

“Oh, sure, absolutely.” But David didn’t move. He tapped his fingers on the desk. “Actually, Emily?”


“Can I have a quick word? Meeting room one?” The look he gave her was both patronizing and shifty, and it made Emily’s heart thump. She knew that look. She’d seen it many times before on other similarly officious faces.

“Sure, of course,” she said, standing up too fast and sending her office chair spinning into the back wall. She followed David into the meeting room, hoping against hope that this “quick word” was not what it appeared to be.

It was exactly what it appeared to be.

Fired, she thought, when Dave had finished talking. She couldn’t say it out loud. No matter how many times it happened, it never got any less humiliating. “But…,” she stammered. No, no, no, I can’t lose this job. Her frozen thoughts suddenly began to thaw and came pouring out of her mouth. “I’m really sorry. It’ll never happen again. I’m actually a superpunctual person. I can prove it. I can do better, I promise. I just need one more chance.”

David shrugged, fake sympathy spreading over his ferrety face like oil. “You know I like you, Emily, but it’s not my decision to make. If it were, you’d have a job for life.”

“Okay, well, whose decision is it? Maybe you could talk to them for me?” Don’t beg, she told herself. Surely you’re above begging for a shitty temp job? But the words kept coming. “Maybe I could do something else, something with less responsibility. There must be other things that need doing?”

“Come now, you don’t need us. Good-looking girl like you?” David reached out as if to ruffle her hair but thankfully seemed to change his mind at the last minute. “I’m sure Hollywood is just falling over itself.”

Emily felt her cheeks burn. Proem was the only thing keeping her afloat. Bookings for temp jobs had been slow lately, and corporate videos and play readings didn’t pay much.

When the ordeal finally came to an end, David patting her shoulder like a headmaster sending her back to class, she returned to the mercifully empty reception area and the desk that was no longer hers. Behind her, the meeting-room door clicked shut and David’s busy footsteps faded away into the recesses of the building. A funereal silence settled like snow.

Well … fuck. What the hell was she going to do now? The upside of losing her job, of course, was that she would no longer have to pretend to care about filing and making new clients feel welcome. But then again, the rent was due, she was deep into her overdraft, and it wasn’t likely that she’d get another temp gig straightaway. Jamie at the temp agency had mentioned only a few days ago that they were struggling to find enough work for everyone, and getting fired wasn’t exactly going to propel her to the top of the list.

She lifted her head and glared at the computer screen. The phone rang but she ignored it. Nope, there was no other option: she’d just have to cook up a good sob story, phone Jamie, and throw herself on his mercy.

* * *

There was no reason to stay until the end of the day, but the midafternoon rush made it impossible to leave. Every time Emily went to pack up her things, someone would approach the desk and issue instructions so forcefully that she found herself unable to explain that technically she no longer worked there. Then a female client arrived for a meeting with a four-year-old in tow and dumped him at Emily’s feet like luggage, so then she really couldn’t go. The poor little boy looked so forlorn that she ended up playing hide-and-seek among the potted plants while simultaneously directing calls and signing for packages.

After a while she began to feel sad. As she watched the well-dressed human traffic flowing steadily through the foyer, she wondered what it would be like to have a job for life. Decent money, security, colleagues, Friday-night drinks. It all sounded so liberating.

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