The flat white had a crisper taste than I had expected. The spotty new barista was actually better with the machine than a lot of the regular ones.
The white dot whirred around in its circle on the computer’s start-up screen while I heard some of the parts straining into life. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Then blankness. I reached behind the screen and traced my fingers over the yellow Nirvana smiley-faced logo I’d had engraved onto the case of the computer just below the ‘hp’ lettering. It was the proudest feature of my machine – nothing like those stickers that students slap on that start peeling to leave a sticky blemish. This had been marked on professionally at a tattoo shop in Kentish Town.
I yawned and reached for my phone to kill the time before the login screen asked me for the password. I switched it on. No phone messages. I put it aside before my fingers automatically clicked on Facebook. The guys in the office had all signed up to an app that times your Facebook usage, and I’d been ashamed to clock up the second most usage time the previous week.
It’d be good to know how they’re getting on, but I could always write on WhatsApp in a bit. There was work to be done, and I couldn’t stand that Darren always ends up sending a torrent of distracting GIFs. Like the one he sent last night of Theresa May’s face superimposed onto a donkey being teased and chased around by some villagers in the tropics somewhere – sent while we were swapping messages about the football, for Christ’s sake.
These remote working days really were the pits. All the old farts with kids and everything loved them, somehow. Then you had the jammy gits like Patrick from accounts who said he just clicks to clock on at 9, goes to the pub and pops home to click and clock off at 6. No chance of that under Sharon, who would pepper us all with messages to keep us on our toes. There was serious work to be done, but first I had to flee the depression of my sandwich-sized rented bedroom – I’ve called it sandwich-sized ever since Ricky and I worked out in the office that it’s actually smaller in volume than the world’s largest sandwich.
I grabbed my paper cup in one hand. I typed my password with the other hand and pressed enter. My computer was getting seriously slow starting up, but I can’t say I minded too much – start-up time was one of the most peaceful times of the day.
I looked up.
I smiled and thought of Paul. He had a serious thing about girls with Mac Books. His biggest turn on, he said. It looked like the new Mac Book Pro too – 13 inch screen, in the classic shiny silver colour. It was a nice machine, no doubt about it.
As for the girl who was using it a couple of tables in front of me, well, she was an owner to match the computer, if there ever was one. A short brunette with round black-rimmed glasses. She was sat sideways to me and I could see the top of her blouse, with her slim arms leading out of the silky sleeves to hands typing purposefully at the keyboard. Typing at a steady, confident pace. Under the table a pair of black tights hugged her gently undulating calves while her feet were supported by a pair of short stilettos.
My heart was racing. It was unusual to see such a beautiful lady in the café – normally at this time I only saw old folks reading the paper or the occasional homeless person.
I clicked my way into my computer, bringing up my work portal.
I imagined Paul pulling off his chat-up trick of going and asking ‘have you been able to get the WiFi in here?’ I’d never seen it get him any further than a little small talk, but he still considered the trick a victory every time he performed it – turning around to smile and give the lads the thumbs up when his target was clicking through his internet settings for him.
I looked at her again. She was focused on the screen with a steely concentration expressed with a slight pout. I bent my head a little to see what she was working on. It looked like she was switching between her web browser and Excel. The guys I knew from accounts always said they were afraid to use Excel in public, reckoning it marked them out as nerds. It could be such a valuable programme though. She stretched her hand up and reached to scratch the back of her neck, and I watched the buttons on the tight fabric tracing the outline of her chest rise.
A message popped up on my screen. ‘Welcome to EGL WorkRemote Master – You Have 17 New Messages from Sharon_83’. I took a gulp of my flat white, crossed my fingers in my left hand for luck and clicked with my right to open the messages.
I wanted to thump my table in frustration, and settled for a tap, after seeing the first message. Entitled ‘a couple of questions about your new workflow template for QRS’ I scrolled down through a mammoth email littered with question marks – far longer than the workflow template it was referring too.
Seeing the garish pink signature at the end of the message, saying ‘Sharon xx’ was like a slap in the face. I pictured my boss stood with her arms folded in front of me in the café, peering over the top of my computer and reeling off a torrent of instructions, questions and complaints.
I used the opportunity of my remote working to recline in my seat, close my eyes, groan and mutter “fuck!”
I grabbed my phone and went straight to WhatsApp. There were no new messages in the lads’ group, but I could see they had mostly been online already that morning.
‘You’re gonna be very jealous of me, Paul,’ I wrote.
‘I think I’d be jealous of just about anyone right now,’ he replied. ‘I’ve just finished eating breakfast with a housemate sobbing uncontrollably next to me. She tried to explain a couple of times why her boyfriend woke us all up shouting abuse and why there’s a slice of toast sliding down the wall, but every time she just starts crying again. Feels like someone’s died in here!’
I selected some laughing face icons and clicked send, even though I didn’t find it particularly funny.
‘Go on then’ Paul wrote. ‘Make me jealous’.
‘There’s an absolute stunner with the latest Mac Book Pro in front of me’, I wrote.
‘OK, that worked a treat – we’re all jealous’, wrote Gav, joining the conversation. ‘I’m in Starbucks and there’s some guy in a soggy anorak who’s been reading the bible out load non-stop for the past hour on the next table.’
Paul sent an angry-faced icon. ‘Are you going to share the joy then?’
I looked across to the girl, who was looking intently into her computer now, with a hint of puzzlement on her brow.
‘I’m in my local café if you want to come down and try your WiFi trick Paul? I’ll send you all a link with the coordinates on Google Maps.’
‘Tempted’, wrote Paul, ‘send us a preview though’.
‘Yeah, don’t be a pussy’ wrote Gav, ‘show us what we’re missing!’.
I scanned around the quiet café. The barista was thumping the tongue that holds the grounded coffee in the machine over the sink, and clearing out the soggy remains with his fingers. A couple of customers had their faces hidden behind newspapers, while an old lady by the entrance seemed to be staring at a scone.
It didn’t feel right, but I could do this.
I picked up my phone, and held it up vertically in front of my face. I pretended to need to squint to read the screen.
‘Ok’ I typed, with my heart racing.
I selected the camera, adjusted it so she was in the middle of the frame, and then pressed inside the grey circle to take a photo. I scanned around to see if anyone else had been alerted to the soft click, but there was no sign of any movement.
I attached the photo into the WhatsApp group. ‘Here you are. Little treat for you :)’ I typed.
I shook my head at the ease I had succumbed to the peer pressure from my workmates, and tried to focus on my computer. Sharon had sent another message asking if I’d seen her earlier messages and could I respond ASAP?
I started to read the epic first email. My concentration was soon shattered by a vibration on my phone.
Two new WhatsApp messages.
‘Is that it!?!’ Gav had wrote.
‘A blur in the distance? Close up, please, preferably with cleavage,’ Paul wrote.
‘Piss off, come here yourself you filthy pervs,’ I typed out, but before I could press on send, two more messages appeared.
‘Go on, I’ll buy you a pint on Friday night,’ Paul wrote.
‘Yeah I’ll get you one too. I’ve zoomed in and she is damn hot, but I need to see more…’ Gav wrote.
I sighed. The plan for Friday was to go to the Toddingham Arms, one of the trendiest bars in Shoreditch. It was £6 a pint there, and I wanted to go – not least because Mandy from HR would be there. Her with the biggest jugs in the company.
The barista had disappeared from behind the counter and was out at the front of the café, checking a phone.
The girl remained engrossed in her computer display.
‘You can pull this off. Easily,’ I thought.
I ambled over towards the counter and took my phone out, pretending to read my messages. I turned on the camera, swivelled to my left and right to check the coast was clear, then turned the phone towards the girl. I pinched at the screen to zoom in until I was satisfied the section of black lace from her bra that was poking out beneath the unbuttoned top of her blouse was showing. I pressed to take two photos and slid the phone back into the pocket of my jeans. Trembling, I turned around and walked to the toilet with the intention of checking my photo and sending it in a quiet spot.
I pushed opened the door separating the toilets from the café. It didn’t swing all the way back behind me though, and in no time I was grabbed by the back of the next and thrust up against the wall, with my feet dangling below.
I wheezed and croaked. I just about managed to turn my neck to look into the furious face of the bespectacled man with thinning grey hair who had me in the stranglehold. I was trying to say “let me down”.
When I started crying, he let go and I crumbled into a heap on the vinyl floor.
I took my head out of my hands and saw that a little of the redness had abated in his cheeks.
“You-?” I said.
“Yeah, I saw you taking that photo,” he answered. “Maybe I should introduce myself – Nigel Parker, Metropolitan Police.”
“You’re-?” I said, my lips trembling.
“Off duty at the moment, but still empowered to perform arrests when I deem necessary.”
“Arrests?” I said, pleadingly.
“You bet! You wouldn’t believe how many privacy laws you’ve just violated.”
“No, no, please! I only did it because my mates asked me too,” I said. I took the phone out of my pocket and dropped it straight away, with my fingers scrambling to pick it up again.
“I’ll delete them, I haven’t even sent them yet anyway.”
“You better!” he said, pointing a chunky index finger towards me. “And I don’t want to ever see you in here again, preying on innocent women or not, or you’ll be trouble. You understand?”
I nodded my head and went back to collect my computer and go.
The lamp flickered when I turned it on before going out.
‘Shit’ I thought, ‘the bulb’s gone again’.
I sighed and peered through my window to the dim overcast morning.
I tried to keep my eyes off the heaps of dirty clothes scattered around the bedroom floor, covering the majority of the faded red carpet.
I logged onto the work portal. Just the two messages from Sharon today.
I went straight onto Facebook.
‘Haha watch this, it’s hilarious!’ Gav had wrote. Under that was a video of a chimp on a Russian talent show impersonating its owner in various emotional states.
The sound on my computer was muted and I was afraid to turn it on as Wiktor, the Czech cook who rented the room next to mine, worked nights and didn’t take kindly to being woken. I rifled through a pile of unused receipts, train tickets and a couple of unused condoms on my desk to look for my earphones. No luck.
I checked Facebook again. One of the girls in sales had shared a post from Amanda Totter, the famous lingerie model. It was a viral post that had 89,000 likes and 22,000 shares already.
“A big THANK YOU to the man who pretended to be a policeman in order to frighten off a dirty young man with an HP laptop featuring a Nirvana sticker. This predator was taking pictures of me without me noticing at La Roma Coffee in Golders Green. I might be somewhat used to it, but every woman has a right to go about their life without having their privacy trampled on by obnoxious cowards. Anyway, I wanted to thank my hero, Dave, again, before I get the chance to do it in person when I take him out for a meal at my fav restaurant on Friday.”
I sighed. I’d been thinking about getting a new laptop anyway. Now could be the perfect time. I looked at the post again and clicked ‘like’.