literature

Interview

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Aventinia was nervous. She showered then tried on half a dozen outfits and then – as the nerves kick-started a flood of sweat - she showered once more and sprayed herself with an atmosphere-clogging amount of antiperspirant. She redid her hair and her makeup, taking another hour to set herself before she changed again. She settled on a casual suit. It fit her perfectly, curved neatly around her ample bust, hugged tight to her slim waist, hid the crown tattoo on beneath the collarbone. The short skirt showed off her small bum and her long legs. With trembling hands, she adjusted her appearance in the mirror, looked this way and that- bending this way and that, seeing herself from every angle. She sprayed herself with a subtle amount of perfume, not enough to overpower but enough for them to sense as she neared.

She retouched her lipstick, plucked a stray eyebrow and gave herself a hardened, stern stare in the mirror.
"You can do this," she told herself. "You have got this." She shut her eyes and when she opened them she was set, ready to go to her job interview.

It wasn’t her first and it wasn’t a particularly hard one. Aventinia was 36, she'd worked for much of her adult life and had changed jobs as much as she’d changed outfits. But job interviews, regardless of the job or how much it paid, always terrified her. There was something so innately horrifying about sitting in front of a panel of men and women and having them judge her, watching and trying to smile as they perused her appearance and body language, reading from a file that detailed her entire adult working life. Aventinia was a social creature, but when it came to job interviews she would happily be a hermit.

She'd left Joseph with her mother, bribed the boy with candies and her mother with a promise of a theatre visit as soon as she could get another babysitter. It was hard being a single mom, but it was easier than being a miserable wife, she thought. Aventinia hardly knew Joseph's father; he was what you'd call a five-night stand. They had used to get coffee at the same place before work. A director of the local college theatre, he'd been a notorious flirt but already married. Separated, he'd claimed. Now, he sent a little money each month, but didn't want to be involved. The upside to their arrangement was simplicity.

It was an office job, nothing too taxing. Aventinia would sit behind a desk all day answering phones, making calls and filling out forms and other menial nonsense on the computer. She wasn’t even sure she wanted the job, she still had a part time job in a restaurant, working most weekends and some nights and she was happy to wait until something better came along. On her way to the interview she wondered why she even bothered going, why she was putting herself through the stress. She was fairly confident that even if they wanted her to fill the position, she'd decline. But she'd applied and it would be rude to turn them down. And she still clung to the hope the job would be better than she envisaged, that it wouldn’t be as tedious and soul destroying as she suspected it would be.

She pulled up outside the office block, parked the car next to a yellow Vauxhall. The woman inside of it was crying and flipped down her visor. But Aventinia didn't bother, she looked up at the imposing brick building with her eyebrows arched into a hesitant frown. It looked like a prison, only the inmates here wore shirts and suits rather than orange onepieces. It was a square, unimpressive building in a dark and dreary part of town, around the corner from a busy road that blared a constant wall of noise at the weather-stained three decade old structure next to a line of smaller buildings that had seen better days and made the office block look like paradise by comparison.

Aventinia sighed heavily, slunk out of the car and paused to straighten her skirt and study the building again, hoping it would look better in the open air. It didn’t.

"I'm Aventinia Iskender," she told the faux blonde at the front desk. "I have an interview."

The blonde the receptionist nodded towards a door at the end of a long hallway.
"Through there, take the steps up to the second floor," she said, looking down at her desk halfway through, as if she couldn’t be bothered to maintain eye contact until the end of her sentence. She had so much make-up that Aventinia wondered if there even was a face beneath there and not just some frame, and her neon pink strained over two obviously 'done' breasts, no bra as it seemed.

Aventinia studied the corridor and the stairs she could see through the glass panel in the door at the end.
"Is the lift?"
"Broken," the receptionist cut in with an uninterested voice, as if she couldn't care any less.

As she began making it up the corridor, she heard the girl blasting her chewing gum bubble but she refrained from turning around as she pushed the door open and began to slowly climb the stairs. As she neared her destination she could hear the bustle of a busy room, a dozen voices or so all clattering together to create an apprehensive noise.
At the top of the stairs she paused before pushing open the door to the second floor office. She took a moment to calm herself and then gently swung it open.

The floor was one large open space, cluttered with lines of desks, each occupied by stressed looking workers in formal clothes. She saw people who clearly hated their jobs: an overweight man with wet patches under his arms, swearing at a computer screen and slamming the mouse on the desk, a middle-aged woman who looked like she was ready to start a fight with her monitor, a woman her own age who was taking on her phone while buffing her nails, clearly in another world. She also saw people who looked content and relaxed, including a number of young men who weren't entirely unattractive. Aventinia was nervous, tense, not in the perfect mood for flirting, but she did catch the eye of one of those young men and she was sure she saw a sparkle of flirtation in his smile.

She walked the long aisle that cut through the centre of the office and led to the back. There were number of conference rooms there, as well as solitary rooms with their doors to shut out the noise from the main room and with windows looking out onto the street below. There was also a decent sized kitchen, complete with communal cooking facilities. She sneaked a quick peek, saw that it was empty, except a man who had his back to her and seemed to be busying himself with a microwave. Finally she stopped at the door marked ‘interview room’, a temporary sign on the door.

There was a chair outside the room but no one around to tell her to sit in it. She tried to peek through the large windows that looked into the room, but the blinds were drawn. Just as she was about to sit down, the door opened and a woman with short stumpy legs, huge glasses and a fake smile exited. She was followed by a man in his thirties wearing a smart shirt and tie. He was also smiling, his smile seemed more genuine, less exaggerated. The woman gave Aventinia a contemptuous look as she passed. The man stood in the doorway, said a final goodbye to the departing woman and then cringed slightly when she replied with an over-exuberant squawk.

He turned to Aventinia. "Aventinia Iskender?" he asked, his voice soft and soothing.
"That is I," Aventinia nodded. He stepped aside, showed her the doorway.
"I'm Louis Santer," he said, offering her his hand. "Please come in!"

She took the offered hand while trying to hide her earlier hesitancy then brushed past him, throwing him a smile as she did.

There were two other interviewers waiting for her in the room, neatly space behind a rectangle desk with papers in front of them. Santer closed the door and joined them. Then the oldest one, a coloured man with a professional look that attempted to be both friendly and informal, but failed horribly, seemed to take control. He introduced himself as Clark Ryan and the woman next to him, who looked like Kate Perry's overweight big sister introduced herself as Ana-Maria Waters. They commenced with asking Aventinia the typical questions and she gave them the typical responses, ones she'd rehearsed time and time again, ones she'd given plenty of times to plenty of panels like this motley threesome. Despite her experience in interviews she still struggled, feeling tense, like she was going to explode in a fit of tears at any moment. She maintained her calm though, and did her best not to look like the wreck she knew she was.

Yet, Aventinia warmed up as the interview progressed, felt a little more human when it came to a head. By the time they asked her, as they all did, if she'd anything to ask them, the one question that usually stumped her, and one she usually responded to with a polite smile and a shake of her head, the interview was over. They seemed happy with her, she didn’t know if that was because the competition, like the crazy woman with the short legs and loud smile, were useless or because her practiced manner had won them over. They seemed almost ready to offer her the job, but stopped short their eagerness when they noted the apprehension on her face.

"Why don’t you have a look around, mingle a little bit if you want," Clark Ryan offered. He checked his watch with a smile and a flick of his wrist, he had one of those expensive ones, Patek Philippe or something. "Most of the staff will be starting their lunch break by now, so you can talk to them, get it straight from the horses' mouth," he said with a grin, adding, "you can make yourself a coffee in the break room if you’d like."
"I might just do that," Aventinia nodded. If she wasn’t getting the job she didn’t really think anything would change her mind, but after the morning tension, she felt like she needed a coffee.

She shook their hands, left them with pleasant smiles and sailed out of the room. The remaining tension rushed out of her like air from a deflating balloon.

There was only one person inside the kitchen. A man sitting alone, looking bored into a steaming cup of coffee. Aventinia thought it was the same man she'd seen when she walked past, the broad back hunched over the counter. He was thickly set, his biceps prominent through a slim fitting blue shirt that hugged his muscles. He looked up at her when she entered, smiled broadly. He had a gorgeous smile actually, handsome with the right amount of mischief that curled the corners of his lips and indented a slight dimple on his right cheek. His dark eyes were deep and suggestive. He was a good ten years younger than her but his stubbled chin and rough, wavy hair suggested a hardworking, hard living man.

Aventinia sat down opposite of him by the worn table, her eyes never leaving his.
"Hey," he grinned. She tried to reply but her words caught in her throat, she just smiled instead. "Coffee?" he asked after a few moments of silent staring.

"Uhm, yes," she snapped out of her trance, began to stand up again, but he bolted up before her and held out a hand.
"Allow me," he said, gesturing for her to sit as he wandered over to a coffee machine. "Sugar or milk?" he asked as she stared at his broad back, at the way the cotton fabric of his shirt seemed to stick to his muscles.
"None, please."

He looked at her over his shoulder, gave her a cheeky wink, "Sweet enough, eh?"

She nodded, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, then tried to tone it down with a smile.

He came back to the table and put the cup down in front of her. Wrapping her palms around it, Aventinia thanked him with a smile and then they returned to their stare; him with his hands clasped on the table, her beaming over the steaming cup of coffee she held close to her lips. She instinctively, almost inadvertently, began to kiss the rim of the cup, her bright red lips toying with the heated edge of ceramic as she stared into his eyes. He watched her lips, watched as she took a small sip of coffee and then set the cup to one side. They stared at each other again and she moved her eyes to his lips, licked her own heated lips and then dove in. She wasn’t usually like this, she normally didn't flirt this extensively with men she didn't know the name off, except for outside night clubs and dance venues of course. And she usually left it until the third date before sleeping with anyone, if she managed to get that far.

Putting down her cup, she opened her mouth to say something, just as the young man, who'd flirted with her in the office space, stepped inside. He gave her anther flirty smile as he walked up to the counter, she returned it warmly, then returned her gaze to the guy opposite of her.
"I'm Aventinia," she said, holding out her hand, red nails gleaning in the overhead light.
"I'm Lucas," he said and took her hand, he had a firm but not too forced grip. "You're new around?"
"Not sure," she said. "Took an interview today."

Then she stood. "I see you around – perhaps," she said.
"Perhaps," Lucas grinned back at her, goofily.

She walked out of the office with her head held high, staring straight ahead. As she left the building and made it back to her car without a falter in her smile, she knew one thing for sure; she was going to take the job if she was offered it. She wanted to know more about this Lucas.

***

When she came to fetch Joseph, she spent some time at her mother's cramped flat, emptying the old milk from her fridge and scrubbed her toilet. The house was beginning to smell; her mother wasn't cleaning up after her bird. Suddenly, the woman who'd ironed tablecloths, polished silver, bleached dinner napkins, and rotated mattresses had given up on decorum. Now, she sat in her brown leather recliner, Pierrot the parrot in his white lacquered cage a foot away from her, almost always within sight. She was losing weight and Aventinia worried she wasn't eating well. She'd been bringing cartons of cottage cheese and chicken salad, only to find them spoiled the following week.

"Are you trying to sell my house?" her mother asked. "Are you giving realtors my number? They're calling with offers."
"There's a shopping centre going in next door," Aventinia said. "This may be your chance to sell."
"It's not hard to lose the baby weight," her mother countered, eyeing her waistline, "if you try."

But Aventinia was determined not to fight back. There was heat between them, long-standing arguments that they could still feel burning. Didn't she know how hard they'd worked to give her the right opportunities? Their disagreements were so sharp, so intense that they had become afraid to engage with each other. And when they stopped fighting, they'd lose something.

Her mother didn't ask about the job interview, she'd probably already forgotten why she'd accepted to baby sit Joseph this midmorning. Now she ran her fingers over Joseph's cowlick. Aventinia emptied the trash can in the kitchen, then in the living room.

"While you're at it," her mother said, "would you change the newspaper in Pierrot's cage? And top off his water?"

As Aventinia approached the birdcage, Pierrot let out a piercing cry, his black beak open. She held her hands up. "Cut it!", she said.
"Put your hand down," her mother said. "You're frightening him."

Pierrot continued to scream. It was a pleading, horrifying sound, like an alarm. He cocked his head and danced across his bar, shrieking. Joseph began to cry.

"Never mind," Aventinia's mother sighed. "I'll do it." She thrusted Joseph in Aventinia's arms and marched toward the cage. When she opened the door, Pierrot scampered onto her finger and she brought him to her shoulder. He fell silent and her mother pulled the newsprint from the bottom of his cage with bare hands. Dried birdshit fell to the carpet - she didn't seem to notice.
"Let me help you," Aventinia offered. "Sit down, I can do this."
"Sit down," Pierrot said. "Sit down. Sit down."

Her mother ignored her and went to the kitchen, stuffing the soiled papers into the trash can.

"You should wash your hands," Aventinia said.
"Don't tell me what to do," she replied.
"Sit down," Pierrot said. "Sit down."
"I'm sorry," Aventinia said. "I don't know about birds."
"You'll learn," her mother said. "Soon."

In her mother's eyes, atonement was more than walking the line, more than surfacing from the typical angst-ridden throes of adolescence and early scholastic failures. Atonement included the adoption of a bird Aventinia couldn't trust around her son. A bird she'd hated for over a decade.

***

As expected, they offered her the job, Louis Santer calling her as Aventinia was picking up Joseph from playschool two days later. She told him she'd love to take the job. She was asked to start at the beginning of next week, however she'd have started straight away if it meant another run-in with Lucas. She felt relaxed after that, happy with the way things had gone. She red both 'The little train' and 'Parcel' to Joseph that night and after he'd fallen asleep, she opened a bottle of wine, settled into the sofa and daydreamed about her new future, having it including Lucas.

****

Aventinia was a bit nervous about starting the work, not as nervous as she had been at the interview, but a apprehension borne out of a giddy excitement - a tinging, trembling feeling running through her blood and prickling goose pimples on her flesh. She'd spent almost the entire weekend thinking about him. She'd tried, in vain, to find him online, hoping what little she knew about him, like where he worked, what he looked like, would be enough to find a social media profile. She failed to find anything however.

Came Monday, she put on her best suit, spent time on her makeup and hair, practiced her most flirtatious smile in the mirror then set off for the office. She arrived just as a number of others were appearing. As she slowly climbed out of her car, she watched them up as they clustered together, laughing and joking, as they entered the building. There were only a few of them and Lucas wasn’t with them. More people were inside the building, loitering around reception, having coffee in the longue. Aventinia studied each of them in, one man was already watching her behind as her eyes passed over him and he took her interest to mean that she liked him. He gave her a dirty smile and a wink, she tried to ignore him.

The elevator was working again and as she shifted inside, she exchanged brief hello's with a few of the other workers on their way to the same floor. As the doors opened, everyone scattered to their separate desks, their own segments of the office. Some of them wandered away to the kitchen, Aventinia followed that group, walking slowly down the aisle, glancing around, trying to take everything and everyone in. She couldn’t see Lucas anywhere and when she bustled through to the busy kitchen to pour herself a cup of coffee and listen in on the early morning small talk, she couldn’t find him there either.

She was dejected, her excitement and giddiness faded as a petite, Asian girl in her early thirties with her hairsprayed hard, came up to her and held out her hand.
"I'm Claire," she said. "You must be Aventinia."
"That's correct."
"I've been assigned to show you around."

As Claire showed her around, having her saying hello to a number of faces and pointing out the ladies' room and the printer room and the balcony where the smokers went, Aventinia searched for Lucas, shooting sly glances around the office, hoping she'd bump into him. But she couldn’t see him anywhere.

"Are there many people off sick today?" Aventinia tried as she was finally shown her place, second next to where Claire was sitting, between them an empty space holding nothing but an empty can of Jolt Cola.
"I don’t think so," Claire answered calmly. "Why?"
"Just wondering," Aventinia shrugged, looked at the steaming coffee cup in her hand, tried to play casual. "It doesn’t seem that full, that’s all."
"This is about as full as it gets here, "Claire said. She looked away, seemed to think something over. "I think everyone’s here," she said with a nod. "Might be missing one or two though."

"But this place here?"
"It's Skylar's place. The girl you'll be replacing. She went on maternity leave last week."

Skylar, huh. Aventinia nodded. They were missing at least one more, and he was the most important one. How Claire couldn’t see that, how she hadn’t noticed that the office was short of its most prized possession, amazed Aventinia. Then she forced the thoughts to the back of her mind. She'd better get into this, and she'd better find daycare for Joseph. Playschool and mother fetching him up would only last a week or so.

***

The next day Aventinia rose with the same eager anticipation as the last. She drove to work with a smile on her face, a smile that remained constant as she parked the car, passed the longue with the reception and worked her way to the office - a smile that faded when she realized that her man had failed to show yet again. She suffered the same result the next day and the next, until she was forced to endure an entire week without him. She was frustrated by the weekend, annoyed at him and vexed at herself. She'd taken the job because of him and as he hadn’t had the decency to show, she'd been forced to endure it without him.

She had a good feeling Lucas would be there the next week though. She dreamt about jumping on him, taking him in the kitchen, maybe moving to a storeroom so they could have more privacy, so they didn’t need to rush. He could take his time with her and she could let him. She was excited and horny at the thought of it, but when she got to work, that excitement dribbled away. She searched for him everywhere, failed to find him again. She sat at her desk, ready to start another miserable workday, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It seemed pointless.

And it was not only Lucas that was missing that day, Claire had failed to show up a well. But she stepped inside, as Aventinia returned to her desk with her cup of coffee, her hair unusually unruly and her make-up seemingly applied in a haste.
"Kids," she excused herself in an exhale. "Were impossible to hand over to daycare today. All ten of them!"
"Ten?" Aventinia gaped. "You have ten kids?"
"No, they're two. But they feel like ten some days."
"I know the feeling," Aventinia said, suddenly she felt like she could relate. "I have one, but it's more than enough sometimes. And I haven't even found daycare for him."

"Let me help you," Claire offered. "I think there might be one or two open position at the place where Zoë and Carly go. And then perhaps we can help each other with drop-offs and pick-ups."
"That sounds like great," Aventinia said, then she decided to take the bull by its horns. "I was wondering if you could tell me something else."
"Sure," Claire said as she began damage-controlling her hairdo.

"I’m looking for someone, a man."
"Aren’t we all?" Claire smiled. "Didn't I mention I'm a divorcee since last spring."
Aventinia frowned. "A particular man..." she explained.
"You’re not alone."
"He's name is Lucas."
"There's no Lucas here."

"Muscly, handsome, tall..."
"Ah, just the perfect man then, your Lucas," she cut in with a wide grin. "Right well..."
"He was here when I had my interview," she said.

Claire shook her head, staring into Aventinia's eyes apprehensively.
"He was wearing a tight blue shirt," Aventinia tried. "He was in the kitchen..." she offered.

Her colleague frowned momentarily and Aventinia tried her best to maintain her smile.
"Well," Claire said eventually, looking away from Aventinia.
"Well?" Aventinia replied, her smile now genuine.

"Lucas," Claire nodded and looked up again, a glimmer of recognition in her eyes. "Handsome Tall. Strong. Cheeky smile, nice eyes?"
"Yes," Aventinia nodded, exaggeratedly. "That’s him. Is he sick, is he on holiday?"

Claire shook her head, the glimmer still in her eyes. "He doesn’t work here."

Aventinia felt her heart sink, felt the smile drip from her face. "What? But I saw him..."
"He’s the handyman," she said. "Came to fix the printer or microwave or..." she shrugged apathetically. "Whatever. He’s freelance. We hire him when we need him. Now, about daycare..."
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