Everyone knew it couldn’t have been an immaculate conception, but Annabella was a woman unaccustomed to being contradicted, and my colleagues seemed well-practiced in accepting the word of their supervisor. I said nothing; I hadn’t been with Carter Jonas & Wilde long enough to qualify for an opinion, or even to warrant inclusion in a conversation, thus far. This didn’t bother me; I’d already decided they were a bunch of nutcases.
From my tiny cubicle in the centre of the office, the only one without benefit of either window or air conditioning grille, as befitted a newcomer of my lowly standing, I watched my colleagues flocking to congratulate the expectant mother, glowing in her newly beatified state.
Annabella, whose real name was Ann but who’d apparently aspired to the concept of four-syllable forenames quite early in life, basked in the attention. Not that she hadn’t been the centre of attention before this divine intervention in her maidenhood; Annabella was, to put it mildly, a prima donna of gargantuan proportions. So much so that it was a wonder they hadn’t laid a star on the pavement outside the offices of Carter, Jonas & Wilde to record the miracle of her attendance each day at the shrine.
Annabella swore the girls to secrecy regarding the origin of her impregnation. This was convenient, because a wider scrutiny might have been more exacting than theirs. Her acolytes began showering her with baby gifts, knitted bootees, cuddly rabbits and the like. I wasn’t asked to contribute and I didn’t offer, but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t really part of the ‘in crowd’. I wasn’t sure what it took to be accepted there, but I didn’t much care either. The pay was average, the work was boring but it was a job, and I needed a job. Even with these nutcases.
The pregnancy progressed and Annabella’s figure burgeoned. She was often late for work with morning sickness, and took afternoons off for ante-natal clinics. There were several extended lunch hours too as she went on shopping forays for baby clothes with her best female friend Mariella, who had been Mary until she succumbed to Annabella’s preference for four syllable forenames. It was amazing the influence that this woman could wield over comparatively well-balanced, reasoning women. What was even more amazing was that you could get so many nutcases all together in one room.
Nobody ever met Annabella’s family. There was, she said, no current boyfriend. There’d been boyfriends, too many to count apparently, but she’d always kept herself ‘tidy’. If anyone held the view that her alleged profligate turnover in boyfriends might have been due to her housewifely attention to her virtue, they certainly didn’t express it. Such was the devotion that Annabella inspired in her ‘girls’.
One evening Annabella and I had been working late. I said ‘good night’ as I left, but elicited only a muffled grunt. I was so far off Annabella’s radar as to be practically non-existent. I called in the rest-room on my way out of the building, and because cellphones were banned throughout the inner sanctum of Carter Jonas & Wilde, I checked my text messages whilst in the privacy of a cubicle.
Whilst doing so, I heard the door open and could hear rustling and heavy breathing as though someone were getting changed. I closed down my phone and stepped out into the washroom, where I found Annabella, struggling to untie the laces on an enormous inflated cushion that was strapped to her stomach.
“Here, let me help,” I said sweetly, pulling at one of the strings. Dear God, I thought the woman was going to expire on the spot as the cushion came away in my hand to reveal a perfectly flat stomach. Neither of us said a word, and then she rushed out of the restroom.
Annabella rang in sick next day and we didn’t see her for a week. I didn’t mention my discovery to the other girls, mostly because none of them ever bothered to speak to me anyway. When she eventually returned to work she was subdued and appeared to be no longer pregnant. The girls chunnered amongst themselves and decided not to make any further reference to her apparent loss. They brought in chocolates, baskets of fruit and made cows’ eyes at her, occasionally grasping her hand and shaking their heads in tearful emotion. I worked on in silence, taking it all in, and when Annabella once caught my gaze she flushed brick red and looked away.
A few days after her return, I was moved from my airless cubicle to a lovely spot right under the air conditioning grille, next to a big window overlooking the park. Annabella started wishing me ‘good morning’, and one by one the others started to pass the time of day with me. Eventually, heaven forbid, I was invited to the weekly lunch outing.
By the time I got pregnant a year later my name had already been changed from Babs to Barbarella, and with this ‘four-syllabalisation’ my transformation into one of Annabella’s girls was complete. When I was eight months pregnant, I took maternity leave, intending to return to work as soon as I could get a place for my daughter at a local nursery. Annabella and her ‘girls’ were constantly on the phone begging me to take the baby in to see them, so eventually I did.
They crowded around, cooing excitedly, and I caught the look on Annabella’s face when she held my daughter in her arms. I’d always assumed that her little masquerade had been some kind of a weird attention-seeking device, and that my unexpected appearance that evening had only hastened the dramatic finale she’d been planning.
But as I tugged my daughter from her arms, and saw the hunger in her eyes, I suddenly realised what her real intentions had been. And I decided there and then that I wouldn’t be returning to Carter Jonas & Wilde.
This week’s speakeasy had to begin with the words ‘everyone knew’ andbear some relevance to the photo below.