Gemma’s is the first desk I notice every morning as I head across to mine, so I always know from the outset whether she is in on any given day or working from home - or doing whatever it is she does at home which means she isn’t on instant messenger and takes several hours to reply to emails. We all have our theories, by which I mean that I have my theory and that by repeating it often enough I have convinced everybody to believe me.
Something was different about Gemma when I walked through the door of the office this morning and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. She was sat bolt upright, looking straight ahead and her hair looked fuller, with more body, glam somehow. I didn’t give it any more thought and went to log on at my computer and begin the complex operation of figuring out which pieces of work I couldn’t put off any longer. Pretty soon, my IM pinged with an offer from Gemma to go for the first cuppa of the day and naturally I agreed, which had plenty to do with how much I still wanted to put off those pieces of work.
We ambled down the corridor and I noticed again that Gemma looked plain weird. She was still very upright, looking straight ahead and walking towards the kitchen as if she was on castors and being pushed by an invisible man. I’m not used to anybody I know having a bearing like that; you could almost believe that she’d spent the previous night doing a crash course at a military academy. We reached the kitchen, me shuffling along and her sedately sweeping through the double doors like a modern-day Queen Victoria, and then she came clean.
“I’m in agony.” she said. “I’ve trapped a nerve in my neck.”
“I thought there was something different about you.”
“It’s awful. I can’t move my head at all. You don’t realise how much you use your neck until you can’t.”
Phil was already in the kitchen, taking his regulation twenty minutes to make a cup of tea. None of us know how he manages to make tea making look so leisurely, it’s one of life’s insoluble mysteries. All we do know is that when we all descend on the kitchen en masse he always starts before us and finishes after us. All that time spent, and yet he’s never made a hot beverage I liked the look of. He peered over in Gemma’s direction.
”What’s up mate? You look like a robot.”
He had a point: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but since Phil mentioned it the way Gemma’s whole body swivelled when she turned round to fire him a withering stare was somehow reminiscent of an android. If laser beams had shot out of her eyes and he had crumpled smoking to the floor I wouldn’t have been particularly surprised. Phil didn’t even notice though because he doesn’t, not that kind of thing anyway.
“It’s not funny! I was in so much pain this morning. David had to drive me to work because I can’t turn my head.”
“Your hair looks different, have you done something different with it?” said Clare, stirring her peppermint tea in the corner next to the microwave. Clare always has peppermint tea and always in her own mug, which she bought at Sainsburys and scrubs obsessively every day. (“How can you drink from one of the mugs in the cupboard?” she once asked me. “They’re black. You can’t see anything on the inside. How would you know if they’re dirty?”)
“I couldn’t use my straighteners this morning, too painful, so I’ve just blow-dried it.”
“It looks nice!” said Clare, always one to focus on the positives. Meanwhile, I was deriving great amusement from walking round Gemma in circles while she had no choice but to keep staring at the notice board on the far wall.
”Stop being a bastard.” she said.
“I’m sorry, but it is quite funny.”
“No it’s not.”
We made eye contact. She looked mainly cross, but not completely. It seemed appropriate as I was mainly amused, but not completely.
“It is sort of funny I’m afraid. But if it’s any consolation, you look like your posture is incredible. You don’t look like you’ve got a trapped nerve in your neck at all.”
“Really?” said Gemma, brightening considerably.
”No. If anything, you look like your hair weighs a ton.”
Later on, no better, Gemma went to see the onsite beauty therapist who had offered to try and sort her out with a massage. I joined her, because the kitchen was en route and my tea was cold. Earlier in the week I had told Clare that my tea was colder than a necrophiliac’s girlfriend, a simile which would have been remarkably effective if I hadn’t had to explain what a necrophiliac was. “How do you know these things?” Clare had asked me incredulously, which was even more effective as I couldn’t begin to explain that.
”Stop staring at me.” said Gemma. She has a tone of voice she uses at times like this which I like to call her evil voice. It’s the tone which suggests that she expects complete obedience, tempered with a smidgeon of disbelief that she has to give the order at all.
“I can’t help it, it’s just that I’ve never seen anybody walking quite like this before.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to walk behind me, it’s just creepy.”
“Sorry Gemma.” We got to the door and I pushed it open for her. She had the sort of bearing that made you want to hold doors open, or possibly throw a cape on a puddle. Gemma and Clare had gone to the pub for lunch without me, and I imagined the lunchtime drinkers of Bracknell had probably never seen anything quite like it. They probably thought she was a visiting duchess or something. There was a moment of eye contact again, and I realised that I didn’t know Gemma quite well enough to figure out whether she had lost patience with me, and I probably never would.
“Have you ever had a trapped nerve in your neck?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, I can’t wait until you do. And when you do, I want to be there, and I’m going to rip the piss out of you about it.”
“That’s not very nice, Gemma. But do you know what really hurts? You’re insulting me like that and you can’t even bear to look at me while you’re doing it. That’s cold.”
”Get lost.” said the back of Gemma’s head, floating off into the distance, perfectly level. I didn’t need to see her face to judge her expression, but I was still relieved that I couldn’t.
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