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Behind the glass

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Carol Aird was a formidable woman. Known in the hushed gossiping whispers of the staff room as ‘the blonde bloodhound’ she was a notoriously steely director. Unique in a male dominated field she took no prisoners and spared no mercy when it came to achieving market domination.

Viso was a tech company that was beginning to expand its lead in a competitive market. Technology was a booming business and the company were achieving record profits. Demand was high and Carol Aird had achieved the enviable status as the first female board of director in the entire company.

Therese had learned about ‘the blonde bloodhound’ even before interview. Her closest friend Danny worked in the marketing department of the company and had shared his own encounters with the uncompromising powerhouse.

“I learned the hard way!” He’d chuckled before necking a bottle of beer. “The one day that I was making a personal call and of course she just strolls up behind me…casually tapping my shoulder…”

“What happened?”

“She annihilated me in front of the whole office. You can imagine the roasting I got from the guys afterwards”

Therese had shrugged her shoulders and smirked. “It sounds like she’s making her mark amongst ‘the guys’”

“I’m just saying, are you sure you want to be her PA? I mean, she burns through them in months”

“I need a job and besides the pays good”

“There are easier ways to make money Therese, believe me”

“Maybe I’m not intimated by a powerful woman Danny?” Therese shot back with a playful smile. Danny held his hands up in mock protest but he had a joyful expression in his eyes.

“How about I get this powerful woman another drink?” He compromised, signalling the bar tender for two more beers.

‘How bad can she be?’ Therese convinced herself as she’d sat, nervously, anticipating her interview. Outside Carol Aird’s office were a row of chairs and Therese’s heart rate had increased as she had played a game of musical chairs with every candidate that entered the office entering the room with a grey, ashen, look of raw fear.

Therese was next and she gulped audibly as the last candidate left the room with a relieved expression.

“Miss Belivet?” A tall man called from the now opened doorway.

Therese collected her things and stood up promptly urging her heart rate to calm with every step she took.

As she came to the doorway the woman, she assumed to be Carol Aird, came into view. She was perched on a seat with her legs crossed elegantly, her fine blonde hair tied into a bun and her lips a shock of blood red. Therese noted that her pant suit was fitted to perfection, navy blue jacket and trousers with a pristine ironed white shirt and heels that matched the tones of her pursed mouth.

“Please take a seat Miss Belivet” Carol Aird addressed her with a wave of her hand.

Therese took a seat directly in front of her marvelling at the coolness, the upmost professionalism, in those crushing blue eyes. She gave nothing away in her expression and Therese wondered if this were a well-honed skill to be used in boardroom meetings. Therese had always been a dreamer, a wonderer, and her mind began to wonder now with notions of how this awe inspiring woman had become so cool.

“You have an eclectic resume” Carol noted her eyes skimming a piece of paper resting on her lap.

Therese nodded her head. “I find I am quite adaptable”

“Or is it a matter of restlessness?” Carol posed with a raised eyebrow.

Therese gulped, pausing to consider her answer. “I’ve been lucky enough to have been given some short term work in different companies which has worked in sync with my circumstances”

“Your personal circumstances?” Carol asked peering at Therese through long lashes.

“Professional circumstances. My schooling”

“Ahh yes…” Carol glanced back down at the paper. “…you’re a photographer?”

“Of sorts”

“A difficult field to gain employment in I imagine”

Therese nodded her head in agreement. “I was able to secure a funded project in the last year, which explains some of the short term employment”

“And if you were offered another funded project would I find myself without an assistant?”

Therese gulped. She felt as if she were hooked to a lie detector test and that Carol Aird would identify any discrepancies in a blink of an eye. “I’m looking for some stability Ms Aird”
Carol stared at her with unnerving precision. She drank in the sight of Therese as if marking it to memory. “Quite” She replied. “Drew would you like to go through the usual spiel of questions?” Carol asked the tall man who sat beside her. Upon hearing his name he jumped, ever so slightly, in his seat. “Formalities” Carol added speaking directly to Therese. As Drew fumbled with his papers Carol graced Therese with a casual wink and Therese felt her heartbeat resume in crashing waves.

The rest of the interview resumed without any input from Carol Aird. She sat in her seat with her gaze firmly pointed in Therese’s direction. It was unnerving but Therese remained calm, gripping her hands together for some shred of comfort to stave her through the onslaught of questions.

“Thank you Miss Belivet. We’ll be in touch” Drew addressed her prompting her stand from her seated position.

“Miss Belivet” Carol’s voice was a sharp anchor and she extended her hand in Therese’s direction. Therese thought hard about the handshake willing herself to be firm and unwavering. She held Carol’s hand in her own feeling the strength in the older woman’s handshake. Through the nervous anticipation she felt the stirrings of something else building.

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“So you got the job?” Danny asked through the buzz of the heaving bar.

She took a long sip of her drink and nodded her head with a look of surprise. “Believe me I was stunned!”

“That bad?”

“It was probably one of the most terrifying experiences of my life!”

“I tried to tell you”

“She’s one hell of a woman isn’t she?” Therese gushed her mind tracing back memories of the raw power Carol Aird had conveyed in the merest flutter of her eyelashes.

“That’s one way to put it”

“You’ve got to respect how much she’s achieved”

“Those heels have probably walked all over the backs of men, right to the top”

“Danny! I didn’t have you pegged for a sexist pig?”

Danny shrugged his shoulders evidently feeling the effects of that forth beer. He lit two cigarettes and handed one to Therese. “I’m a realist Therese. If she wants to act like a man, then treat her like one”

Therese shook her head in disbelief. No wonder Carol Aird was so unemotional and detached. How could she show even an ounce of vulnerability in the midst of such hostility?

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“There will be a brief introduction period Therese. Lou will show you the ins and outs before she leaves her post” Carol addressed Therese from behind her desk. She was leaning on her elbows and her immaculately painted nails were highlighted by clasped hands. “Then you will be flying solo. I expect a certain amount of initiative…which shouldn’t be a problem considering you’re so adaptable” She smiled at Therese but it was a curt, unfriendly, smile and Therese blanched under the scrutiny.

“I have a meeting in New York in three weeks. I’ll expect you to make reservations at an acceptable hotel for both of us. I’d like you to memorise my calendar and make any necessary appoints, flights, transportation, restaurants…” Carol trailed off as Therese frantically wrote notes on a notepad. “You understand?”

Therese nodded her head and continued to jot down her last sentence. “Absolutely”

“Good. I like a strong, black, coffee in the mornings Therese. I arrive at 8am and I expect you to be here in time for me to be greeted with a coffee” Carol spoke into the room but had allowed her eyes to be distracted by the computer screen in front of her. She typed methodically and Therese nodded her head to the emptiness of the room and anticipating she was being dismissed she rose and walked out of the room.

“Strong, black, coffee” Therese repeated. She blinked back the surprise as she returned to her small office next to Carol’s.

“It’s not too late to change your mind” Lou quipped. Lou was a middle aged woman who had a warm, rounded, face and a smile that felt motherly and comforting. Lou was a welcome ember in the bracken of the office and Therese wondered what she would do once Lou had departed. Try as she may Therese could not imagine Carol selecting Lou during the interview process.

“Do you have any advice?”

Lou looked her right in the eye before replying “Get out now! Otherwise, never, ever make her repeat herself and when you open that door to a cloud of smoke don’t make eye contact. She likes a whiskey, on the rocks, at the end of a long day and she likes the finer things in life. Don’t make the mistake of booking with a budget in mind. Trust me the skies the limit for these people”

Therese gathered Lou’s insights, committing them to memory, as though they were some precious stone or jewel. She didn’t know why but she was compelled to please Carol even if it were an impossibility. There was something about the self-assured woman that instinctively made Therese feel subservient. Maybe it was the photographer in her? Therese had always been interested in the hidden meaning behind people. Sometimes she could capture it in a smile, a wry glance, some secret vulnerability that spilled out onto print. She knew already that she was more than intrigued by Carol Aird’s potential vulnerable side. Therese believed that everybody, even a closed safe like Carol, had some sense of vulnerability locked away. In fact, she mused, the steelier the person the stronger the emotions bubbling under the surface.

 

Therese sat at her desk. The clock on the wall ticked insistently. 7.30am. She blinked back the tiredness that hung at her eyes like a weight. She had been well intentioned in her efforts to get more sleep before the work day and yet the moment she clocked off her feet seemed to find a local bar as if they had a mind of their own. She was regretting it this morning and as she prepared Carol’s coffee she stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. The coffee machine groaned and spluttered as jet black spilled free into the belly of a coffee pot. She inhaled deeply willing the smell of roasted coffee beans to give her an immediate caffeine hit. Checking her watch, she knew she had precisely twenty minutes until Carol would breeze through the hallway leading to her office. She would be immaculately dressed and she would be clutching her faithful briefcase in one hand not even considering the notion of greeting Therese until she had, had her first sip of black coffee.

In the early weeks Therese would feel the sting of rejection when Carol would seem to look straight through her with those azure eyes. Now she was used to it, expected it even, and she found that she had an uncanny knack of being a sponge for Carol’s idiosyncrasies.

After a few, minor, teething pains they had settled into something of a rhythm.

“Therese…” Carol had bristled, following a meeting with a potential investor. “…when you daydream the colour of your eyes changes…”

“Excuse me?” Therese had blushed and was grateful for Carol’s averted gaze.

“You look like you’re sleepwalking into a meeting. It’s unprofessional”

“It won’t happen again”

“It had better not!”

Therese wondered if she would ever be able to stop daydreaming?

“Therese…” Carol had barked when Therese had entered her office without knocking.

“Ms Aird?”

“Don’t call me Ms Aird…How many times do I have to tell you…when my door is closed knock before you enter my office” She fixed Therese with a look of exasperation. “I cannot be distracted by your insolence”

Therese winced. “I apologise Carol it…”

“Won’t happen again?”

 

“Have you booked the hotel?” Carol asked in her usual clipped tone as she hailed a cab. Therese marvelled at her ability to command respect and attention.

“Yes”

“Two rooms?”

Therese glanced in Carol’s direction with a look of puzzlement.

Carol tutted in response. “I’m assuming we’re not going to be sharing a room?” She challenged and Therese felt her cheeks redden at the thought of it. She didn’t dare to imagine what that would be like. What would Carol look like as she prepared for bed? Therese imagined her in some type of silken negligee. She’d sit taking off her makeup with a robe on and some jazz soundtrack playing lightly in the background… “You’re daydreaming again”

“Sorry Ms…Carol. Yes, I’ve booked two rooms”

“On the same floor?”

“Yes, just in case you need me”

Carol observed her for a moment longer before she climbed into the cab and ushered directions to the driver. As Therese hurriedly buckled her seatbelt Carol was already sat poised like some majestic creature.

 

The airport was a hive of activity. People were milling to and fro saddled with bags and suitcases as they walked at top speed to their destinations. Carol didn’t hurry. Carol breezed through the airport as though she were gliding on air. She made everything look supremely easy, which was well noted by Therese as she rushed to keep pace with the older woman.

“We’re meeting Mr Grafe at 1pm sharp” Carol informed her handing over her bag to the check in department.

“I’ve made reservations at Hynes…it comes well recommended for its period décor and smoking lounge. They sell Gurkha cigars by the box” Therese had committed an obscene amount of time to researching viable venues. Mr Grafe was a millionaire whose family owned shares in Gurkha cigars and Therese had wagered that he would appreciate dining at one of the only restaurants in Manhattan which stocked boxes of his family cigars.

Carol blinked rapidly and for the first time since Therese had met the formidable woman she noted a look of surprise on her usually stoic face. Momentarily it changed the composition of her honed facial expression and Therese noted the flash of softness she saw, however fleeting. “Any other nuggets of information?” She was standing now with her back to Therese and Therese was so close that she could see the nape of Carol’s neck.

“Mr Grafe’s family are Scottish. They emigrated to America in the 20’s and he has a huge passion for his heritage. Hynes stock some of the best Scottish whiskeys in America probably because the owner is from Dundee”

Carol glanced over her shoulder and graced Therese with a small smile. “Very good”

As Therese handed over her passport and a small suitcase she revelled in the glow of pleasing Carol. Very few compliments left Carol’s lips and Therese understood that ‘very good’ might be as good as it gets.

“There’s a bar through passport control…”

“I went to the liberty of booking a booth so you can make any necessary calls with some privacy”

But as they reached passport control there was a small snag.

“Why have you booked a seat in economy?” Carol raged upon inspection of Therese’s ticket.

“I assumed…”

“How on earth are you going to be available in economy?”

Therese’s eyes widened as Carol snatched the ticket from her hands and marched off to a ticket desk. Therese watched her disappear with a sense of mounting doom. No wonder Carol burned through PA’s. The experience of working for her was like an emotional rollercoaster. You couldn’t relax or take a moment to pause because you were never wholly certain of what Carol’s response would be.

“I’ve managed to upgrade your ticket. Honestly Therese, try and use common sense”

‘I was trying to thinking economically’ Therese thought bitterly.

“And don’t sulk you look like a petulant child with your bottom lip out”

Therese was stunned into silence and she followed Carol’s abating figure obligingly making a concerted effort to reorganise her facial expression. ‘Petulant child’ She couldn’t quite believe it and yet she took the roasting without biting back because she knew it was part of the job.

 

Therese had not expected Carol to sleep during the plane journey. Did she think she was supernatural? That she only slept in fragments and always away from prying eyes? Therese felt a strange sense of confliction. She didn’t want to watch Carol sleeping, as if in sleeping she was exposed, and yet she felt compelled to drink in the sight of her. Therese felt there were nothing more vulnerable than a person deeply entrenched in sleep. In sleep people returned to childhood, their expressions young and honest. When Carol slept she looked angelic. Her soft blonde hair shone like a halo and her delicately long lashes graced the softness under her eyes. She was soft in her sleep, with her hands resting on her knees’ and her breathing quiet but rhythmic.

Therese tried to occupy her time with scanning, meticulously, through her diary. She did not want any road bumps along the way. But every time she dipped into a new page she found her gaze distracted by Carol’s beauty. What was she thinking? Perhaps she had more masochistic tendencies than she’d imagined? How could she be so drawn to a woman who appeared to take pleasure in making her daily job as difficult as possible? Therese did not understand it but she was indeed drawn to Carol Aird. She found herself thinking of her when she returned home and settled in for bed. She’d lay with her head on her pillow and imagine a host of arbitrary scenarios. Most would involve Therese confronting Carol for the way she spoke to her. Some would stage Carol in a moment of weakness and Therese, ever faithful, would be there to bear witness. The occasional thought emerged that Therese felt necessary to censor. She would picture the two of them, in the office, at the end of a long day. Out of nowhere Carol would kiss her and Therese would immediately shut down the daydream but not before her body would hum to life and she’d feel that familiar beating beneath her breast.

When Carol woke she was momentarily startled. Gripped halfway between her sleep world and reality her eyes widened in searching and instinctively Therese placed a hand over hers to comfort her. It was instinctive and yet she admonished herself the moment she did it. Nevertheless, she tenderly stroked the back of Carol’s hand before withdrawing at warp speed.

If Carol bristled at the contact she did not show it and within seconds she had composed herself. She glanced at the map on the screen in front of her. They were moments away from landing and she began rattling a list of orders to Therese but Therese knew that she could not make eye contact with her. Therese wondered if the contact had stilled her nerves somehow? She pondered the thought a moment longer before her internal voice laughed and mocked her for such an audacious claim.