The train rattled toward the city. It had stopped at nearly every station on the Northern Line, and was now shivering to a halt at North Sydney. It was a morning peak-hour train, packed with passengers standing in most of the carriages. The majority of the passengers were reading the news – most used their phones, but some older passengers still read broadsheets whilst trying to keep their elbows tucked in to conserve precious space. One woman in the fourth carriage was writing in a little leather book. She had been lucky enough to get a seat after boarding at North Ryde, almost halfway down the line, and was now huddled between a squat, florid man in a suit and a spindly, Indian woman with glasses. She too, tried to keep her elbows in, making herself small as she wrote. In tiny, neat handwriting was the date, and a single dot point:
- Nice chat with Jocelyn yesterday afternoon
She added another:
- Listening to music on my way to the station
She closed the book and stowed it in her handbag, along with the pen. The passengers on either side of her had not glimpsed what she was writing because she had been covering her work with her hand, and they were occupied with their own affairs. If you had asked either of them what they thought of the woman between them, they would both have guessed that she was a university student keeping a personal journal. They would have been correct about the journal, but the woman had graduated from university over a year prior.
Her name was Laura Yang.
The train came to a shuddering stop at Wynyard and she stepped off onto the platform when the yellow doors jolted open. The station smelt somehow worse than the crowded, disinfected train. The scent of disinfectant was present in the station as well, but so too were the smells of smog, grime and the offensive, indiscernible, gaseous odour which seems to permeate underground stations everywhere. Laura joined the crush of people as they shuffled up the stairs into the station lobby, which was under construction. The stale, smelly air was suffocating. They crowd pressed her ribs together and condensed the contents of her stomach. She felt as if her insides had coagulated into an unwieldy little lump.
The lump let her know that today would be difficult, just like last night. A good evening would have meant three or four dot points, but she was conscious of the fact that she had written only two. Still, she reminded herself, two was better than one, or none. She’d had worse days.
The discomfort in her stomach, along with the fact that difficult days tended to be followed by difficult evenings, made hardship in the near future seem definite rather than uncertain. Laura disliked uncertainties, but she preferred the indefinite presence of hope to an inevitable and looming, but unidentifiable, threat.
Laura tapped her Opal card at the wrong angle on the first time around. The machine made an irritable noise and showed her an angry red cross on its screen. Acutely, painfully conscious of the hold-up she was causing, she took her time tapping off again, and she was allowed through the turnstile.
On a sunny day, Sydney city is a colourful place. The ocean glints like a sapphire and the metallic surfaces sparkle silver, copper and white. But today was a grey day, and every surface of the city was dull. The water was like iron and the buildings were the same colour as the streets. The rock in Laura’s stomach had made itself at home. She plugged her headphones in and turned her music on to try and shift it before she reached the office, but she ended up skipping through nearly every song on her playlist. She did find one or two songs that she could concentrate on though, and they helped to settle her slightly.
It started to rain just as she entered the high-ceilinged lobby of her building on George Street. The lobby was beautiful in a monochrome way – all steel and polished marble – but the greyish light that filtered through the large windows made it feel forbidding. Although Laura had been amongst skyscrapers in the street, she felt smaller after stepping inside the building, and her sense of dread heightened. She did her best to ignore it because, while the dread was normal, the presence of a real threat or problem was not. She knew that she had nothing to fear, as the saying went, but fear itself. The sensation of anxiety was insidious when it lacked direction – it destabilised the foundations of her thoughts, forcing open cracks in her composure and concentration.
But concentration could be the key to composure, she thought as she stood in the lift, looking at all the versions of herself that appeared in its mirrored surfaces. As she entered her office, she assured herself that once she set about her work there would be no room for fear in her mind.
Laura maintained a semblance of belief in her own assurance for about 30 minutes, until she saw Diane, her boss, approach her desk.
“Morning Laura,” said Diane casually, genially even, “do you have that report ready?”
Laura closed her eyes for a moment. She felt her ribs tighten around her heart. She felt her temperature rise. The weight in her stomach became sharply painful. She felt sick, as if an earthquake was ravaging her digestive system – there was a hot, urgent feeling in her bowel. Of course she had forgotten about the report entirely. Of course she had missed a deadline. It was just like her to be so caught up in her own emotions that she neglected her work and the people around her. She was a fuck up, a disappointment. She was surely about to lose her job. Fear and frustration acted on her like a fever, muddying her thoughts with emotion and physical pain.
But if she was to have a chance at maintaining her job, or even her dignity, it was crucial that Diane detect no hint of the terrible things happening in Laura’s mind and body. Her breathing was shallow and rapid, so she tried to keep it even as she forced herself to speak.
“I’m – sorry, Diane, I just completely forgot about it. There’s no excuse – I’ll get it to you by the end of the day.”
Diane stared at her. She looked curious and concerned. Her expression made Laura feel panicky – Diane knew that something was wrong with her; the game was up; Laura had lost her respect.
But Diane simply nodded and returned to her office. As soon as the door shut behind her, Laura rushed to the bathroom to relieve herself.
It smelt awful in the cubicle. It always did when she was stressed, but she sat on the toilet for a few minutes after she was finished. She needed a moment or two. She shed a few tears. She sat with her elbows on her knees, her forehead in her hands. It was 10.45am. She had until 5.00pm to write a marketing report – anywhere between 1000 and 15,000 words. She could work overtime, but that would cause her to miss dinner. Her mother would be annoyed and demand to know why she was late, and Laura couldn’t bear to disappoint her also. Laura’s mother didn’t respect her a lot, but if she knew about Laura’s mistake at work, Laura would slip from Mediocre to A Disappointment in her eyes in an instant. She would have to work overtime tomorrow, but at least she could warn her mother and make an excuse in advance.
That was that, then. Laura had five hours and 30 minutes. She needed to leave the bathroom. She still felt shaky and fatigued. The report seemed insurmountable, and she wanted to give up and go home to bed. But there was nothing else to be done. She left the cubicle, washed her hands and returned to her desk.
Laura wrote her heading at the top of the page. She was very aware of her stomach pain, which had not subsided, and found it difficult to concentrate on anything else. She couldn’t think of anything worth writing down, so she opened a few files that she thought would be useful, stared at the data they contained, and painstakingly transcribed the results of previous market research into her introduction. She knew that she’d have to seriously restructure her work before submitting it to Diane.
Laura’s panic had subsided; now she just felt sad and worried about everything she still needed to accomplish. She worked slowly but persistently. She felt unproductive. She skipped lunch. By 4.45pm she had a draft ready. She wished she could take some time for herself before she began to edit it, but she was afraid that Diane would leave the office at the end of the day. So she scrolled back to the beginning of the document and went over it again, making changes here and there, moving text around. Laura emailed the document to Diane with five minutes to spare, grabbed her things, and popped into the office to apologise again and let her know that the document was ready for her.
Diane gave the same indecipherable nod and Laura hurried towards the elevator. Once she had reached it, she frantically pressed the button to shut the door. As soon as the doors were closed she slid down the wall into a crouch. She felt the soothing coldness of the granite floor. She wanted to be home already, to collapse onto her bed in the silence of her room, but she took advantage of the seconds of solitude – of safety – offered by the emptiness of the lift.
Someone was about to enter. She leapt to her feet moments before the doors slid open and a broad, middle-aged man entered. Laura stared straight ahead as if nothing had happened. She was always pretending to be normal, professional. Professionalism meant showing the people around you your capabilities, your strengths, and nothing else. Today she had displayed weakness.
It was still raining when she rushed out onto the street. She only raised her umbrella after stepping into the downpour. The water got into her socks. The walk to Wynyard seemed longer than it was. In the morning she had been focused on everyone around her, but now she concentrated only on the passage of her feet over the damp concrete.
Laura was glad to get a seat on the train. Today had been difficult, but she had been lucky twice: seats on the morning and afternoon peak-hour trains. Once the train had crossed the iron bridge over the iron-grey ocean, she retrieved the leather journal from her handbag and opened it to where she had left off. She made a bullet point next to the margin. She would think of something.