Note: While some characters are semi-inspired by real people, this story is fiction.
We always talked about it like it was the worst place in the world. And we always laughed when we did, but we were never joking. We didn’t see the irony that we were a part of that place as much as everybody else; if it were the worst place in the world, that would make us some of the world’s worst people. And of course we didn’t believe that to be true. How could we, when we worked so hard, and dressed so well, and never called in sick, except when it was raining particularly badly, or our throats were sorer than usual. We didn’t realise it at the time, but in a way we all grew up in that place – it’s where we got our first real salary, had our first client meetings, for some of us, it was the first place we ever wore a tie. They say you never get to choose your family, and that’s what makes them special. I guess they weren’t just talking about mothers and fathers and siblings, because in that office, none of us got to choose each other either. We just showed up one day, and there we were. And of course, we didn’t plan it this way, but for those years we spent more time with each other than we did with our own families. We said we hated it. Somehow, we loved it too. I guess in between all the Monday morning cursing and pledges to leave and never come back, it was somehow lost on us, how the worst place in the world could end up creating some of our best memories.
The office of Grant & Woodson stood on a corner. It was on the last corner, on the last street, on the forgotten north end of Auckland city. A concrete seven storey building, one that looked deceptively ugly and weathered on the outside, and I say deceptively because on the inside it was rather spick and new. It was the tallest building for four blocks, nothing special, of course, compared to the forty-storey skyscrapers that clustered along Queen Street and the waterfront. But it was the pride of this little bubble, on this little corner, on this little end of town.
The building was diverse; on the ground floor was the Pride of Persia restaurant where we liked to eat lunch on rainy days, on the second and third floors – the regional office of some insurance company, fourth floor was the physiotherapy clinic, fifth floor were the architects, and on the sixth and seventh floors were us.
It was apparently quite a story, Grant & Woodson, a firm started by a couple of rag-tag accountants up north in Whangarei, who over the seventies and eighties had grown their pint-sized consultancy, clients of mostly modest cafes and fish-and-chip shops, into one of the largest independent firms in the country. There was even a plaque in reception of a prestigious entrepreneurship award they’d won a few times, some years back. None of us actually knew who Mr Grant and Mr Woodson were or what they looked like, if those were in fact their real names, or if they were even real people. Not that it would have been hard to find out, just that none of us had ever thought to do so. All we knew is Mr Grant and Mr Woodson weren’t here anymore, at least not in this office. Grant & Woodson now consisted of five divisions, and sixteen partners, and none of them were named Grant, or Woodson.
There was one partner named Drewlove, though. Sam Drewlove, and I saw and heard his name often, because he was the partner I worked for. When I had been hired as a graduate two years ago, I had been to this office for three interviews, and never saw Sam Drewlove once. When I showed up for my first day of work – I was a scrappy young man then, in a brand new suit and a three-month old haircut – I was told I’d be working in Mr Drewlove’s team, and wondered why I’d never seen or heard of this man before. But it wasn’t hard to guess why once I met him.
I guess you could say, Sam Drewlove wasn’t the most exciting man. Divorced, and not ugly but not handsome, Sam Drewlove was a thin, short man, with a sad moustache and a high pitched voice. He had five plain coloured suits that he wore in the same specific order each week – brown, navy, black, light grey, dark grey – each with its own shirt and tie. The shirts were always too big, his sleeves ballooning out like a jester’s, though my guess was he liked them that way. If you had to compare his face to an animal, the obvious choice would be a mouse, or maybe a guinea pig, with small eyes that were kind of close together, and a thin longish nose that pointed slightly to the left. He was a harmless man, Sam Drewlove, but his temperament irritated you just enough that when you entered a room with him, all you thought about was how long you had left until you could leave.
Now in my third year, my relationship with Sam Drewlove had evolved somewhat. It started neutral, but he was unpredictable and his mood changed constantly. Yet they were gradual, month to month changes, rather than changes by the day. Some seasons it felt like he was trying hard, usually too hard, to be my friend, my bro, coming to my desk with a big jolly smile on his face, asking me about the weekend and my girlfriend and the latest NBA game, even though he knew nothing about what I did on weekends, or basketball, or my girlfriend. And then at the same pace the weather turned, he morphed into the passive-aggressive, overbearing school teacher, calling me into his office to scold me about being five minutes late, even though ten minutes late was early for me and I always stayed after hours anyway; or that my fees were lower than last month, even though we always billed more than every other team in the office.
I suppose, for Sam Drewlove, even though he took home nearly a million dollars a year, he spent fourteen hours a day in that office and went home to an empty house every night. So for him, we were the closest thing he had to friends. But we were also his livelihood. That meant he had to balance good-copping-bad-copping between us, though we all felt he did a miserable job of it, and it just annoyed us, more than anything.
When I walked into the office eleven minutes late on one particular morning, Sam Drewlove was in his overbearing season. It was August then, the cold mornings often leaving him more irritable than usual.
Please see me when you arrive.
The email had been sent at 8:29. As I trudged across the office, past the managers’ cubicles, at least three times the size of mine, I tried to think of a good excuse, but August didn’t like me much either; it was one of those mornings where the only thing you wanted to do was unplug your phone line and log off your email, not see anybody, and hope things got better by lunch.
I poked my head in the door.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Yes. Hi. I called you at 8:30. You weren’t at your desk.”
I wanted to say, he left his message at 8:29, which meant he probably called me at 8:28, which meant he really wouldn’t have known if I was at my desk at 8:30 or not, unless of course he had left his office and come over to the east side to look, which I highly doubted and would have gladly put money on it, I was that sure.
“Yeah I uh, had a little trouble at home this morning.”
“Nothing serious I hope,” he said. I could hear the eye roll in his voice.
“Nobody’s dying, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“We start work at 8:30 for a reason. Business starts at 8:30. I was here at 7, and I needed to talk to you, but I didn’t call you at 7. I waited until 8:30. If I call you at 8:30, you should be here. That’s the whole reason I have staff, so you’re there when I need you to do something.”
“Sorry. It was just today. I’ll be here at 8:29 tomorrow.”
He looked at me blankly, wondering if I was making a joke or not.
“Anyway,” he said, sighing, dismissive, as if I were a delinquent son he was bothering to deal with only because he had no choice. “This is the file on Fetherby. He came back with those numbers we asked for. Update everything, then get Peter to refile this with the IRD. Today. Please.”
I took the file and turned to walk out.
“And will you tell Gordon to come see me. Please.”
Chocolate hadn’t been there when I’d arrived, and still wasn’t there when I got back to my desk. I guessed he was getting a coffee, or having a cigarette, or both. He rolled around the corner five minutes later, smelling of cigarette smoke with a steaming cup in his hand.
“Boss man wants to see you.”
I leaned back in my chair and spun to face him.
“Dating advice. Grooming tips. Fuck would I know?”
He set his coffee down and peered across the top of the cubicles towards Drewlove’s office, as if scoping out an enemy target.
“Far, is that a new shirt?” he said looking back down at me.
He pulled at my collar, flicking it against my face.
“Shucks bro, that silk or something?” he laughed. “You get a pay rise or something?”
“Don’t be jealous.”
“Jealous, bro, you better be jealous, little Sam Drewlove calling me into his office, probably about to give me a pay rise right now. Shucks, why else would he need to see the Chocolate man?”
I watched Chocolate walk across the office, shoulders high like he was bracing for a ribbing. For some reason we always felt like that, getting called into that office. Even though it happened five or six times a day, and most times it was nothing – he was just handing us back a job, or asking about a client – but over time you just conditioned yourself for the worst. Though it did seem Chocolate tended to clash with Sam Drewlove more than the rest of us.
Chocolate Knightley was a year ahead of me at Grant & Woodson, and he wasn’t your usual suspect of a senior accountant. A light skinned Samoan boy, he had grown up in a large, single-father household, just on the skirts of South Auckland. Not many accountants tend to come out of South Auckland, some of the high schools down there don’t even bother offering it as a subject, but he had found an affinity to numbers that led him to the subject in university and now a full-time desk here at lucky Grant & Woodson. Of course the boss always called him by his real name, Gordon, but the rest of us called him Chocolate, to quote his oft-told stories, “all the girls in Thailand” used to call him that – so we all started calling him that too. One time, his sister came to the office to meet him for lunch and we overheard her say as the elevator doors closed, “Did that guy just call you Chocolate?” It was apparent nobody outside the office called him Chocolate, only we did, and if they heard us say it, they didn’t know why. Some thought the nickname came from the daily Peanut Slabs he ate from the office vending machine; a logical guess, but not close at all. We guessed those Thailand stories were just for us, and maybe they weren’t even true. Didn’t matter, we started calling him Chocolate and he never minded, and we never stopped.
Even if I hadn’t been overjoyed to be put in Sam Drewlove’s team, I decided it wasn’t so bad when I got sat next to Chocolate Knightley on my first day. He was older, but not that much older, and senior, but not that much more senior, so he didn’t have to act like a boss, and I didn’t have to act like I took my job any more seriously than I did. As I’d quickly learn, at Grand & Woodson there was always a balance of power being played between the bosses and the people – the east side and the west side – and as staff got older and more senior, they started to move onto the side of the bosses. But for now, Chocolate was still on the side of the people.
Chocolate and I becoming good friends was a welcome blessing in my life, because he wasn’t the usual person I’d become friends with. My first friend from South Auckland, and my only friend from South Auckland, not because South Auckland was full of terrible people – it wasn’t – but simply because I never had a reason to go out there and never did. You would never know from looking at him, but I found out some weeks after meeting him that Chocolate had a drip of Chinese in him too; a Chinese great grandfather, who had fled to Samoa, back before the war. He didn’t know anything about him, not even a name, and that surprised me at first, until I realised nobody really knows anything about their great grandfathers, including myself. But he shared the one or two stories he did know, like the time he got a red packet on Chinese New Year from a supposed cousin he never saw again, and how the first Chinese restaurant in Apia was actually started by his family line, though nobody could actually prove it. But the biggest blessing of becoming friends with Chocolate was, he was my neighbour in that office, and while I hadn’t realised it when we shook hands on the first day, we were at those desks five, sometimes six, sometimes seven days a week. Overnight, he had become the person in my life I spent more time with than anybody. And I couldn’t imagine what life would have been like had we not become friends, but stayed strangers, or even become enemies.
Chocolate and I had such different upbringings it was hard to believe we grew up in the same city sometimes. He was well built and suave, I was short and ordinary looking. I grew up cushy and upper middle class, he grew up not dirt poor, but certainly not rich either. One day we were watching a video of two kids fighting outside school on his computer, and he told me of the time his high school and another high school had organised a big fight by the rugby fields one afternoon, like they often did. Someone got stabbed in the arm, and his friend got knocked out with a metal pole from an uprooted road sign. Police showed up not two hours late, but two days late, questioning a couple of kids and arresting nobody. It was supposedly a gang thing, and Chocolate recited it with such normalcy I knew he wasn’t exaggerating. I hadn’t even known that kind of thing happened in New Zealand, compared to my school days; the most traumatic thing I could remember was somebody stealing my umbrella one freezing afternoon, and having to walk home in the pouring rain.
Of course even now, with his “good job” and life together, life wasn’t a dance in the park for Chocolate. After drinking too many Lion Reds on Friday nights, his stories always came out, about his ex-fiancé, the one with whom he had a six year old son, the one he seemed to fight with over text message every hour of every day, the one he paid “more and more child support every year” and yet she “still couldn’t afford rugby socks, but could afford to drink a litre of box wine every night”. Maybe that’s the real reason I liked Chocolate. He was a father, I was still a kid. He had lots of stories, I had none. Polar opposites, which meant friendship was easy from the beginning.
“Same old bullshit,” he said quietly, as he walked behind me back to his desk.
I rolled my chair around to his cubicle, sure to grab a file off my desk first, so I could pretend I was asking him about a job if Sam Drewlove came wandering by.
“Just the way he talks to you, eh. Such a dick.”
I laughed, because when it came to Sam Drewlove stories, we were allowed to laugh at each other.
“He was like, ‘you told me you knew how to do this, and you did it all wrong. Don’t act like mister expert when you’re mister still learning.’ I should have said, ‘you’re definitely mister expert, in being a wanker.’”
“Mister still learning…”
“Yeah real funny eh.”
I tried not to laugh, but I could only hold it in a second or two, it was too much.
“C’mon, that’s a pretty good one, mister still learning. He must be on his period. Anyway, since you’re all pissed off let’s get out of here for lunch eh?”
“Yeah alright. 12?”
Rain had started drizzling by 12, so we headed to the Persian place on the ground floor. Even when it wasn’t raining, we ended up here a lot; if you could tally up all the dollars our office had spent in this place over the years, you’d probably run out of zeros on the calculator. But it was a special favourite for Chocolate and I, and some of the other boys in the office. We weren’t so particular about what we ate for lunch, unlike some people in the office, especially Angie and Korean Amy and that whole group of girls, who liked to eat Japanese one day, Chinese the next, burgers the day after, until they’d sampled five different cuisines for the week. Lunchtime was an eating ritual for them, but for us, we preferred to cut down on the commute time of walking to other corners of the city, instead spending the whole lunch hour unwinding downstairs in our Persian hideaway.
It was a huge place, probably thirty tables, taking up the whole of the ground floor. They even cleared it sometimes to hold community events and religious gatherings in the evenings and weekends, which we had caught the beginnings of a few times, usually while leaving the office late, or stumbling back into the carpark, drunk and early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. But during lunch hour it was simply Pride of Persia, our escape from timesheets and taxes and the mister expert upstairs.
The owner was a short, burly man with an impressive beard and soft brown eyes the shape and colour of Maltesers. At least we presumed he was the owner; we’d never seen anyone else behind the counter. And we knew him well, and he knew us, and we always greeted each other with big smiles like old family friends, though we didn’t actually know his name and he didn’t know ours. He just referred to us as gentlemen – “How are you doing, gentlemen!” – and we referred to him as man – “Hey, how’s it going man?” – and since him being man and us being gentlemen had always worked just fine we had never thought to call each other anything more than that.
Funnily we happened to know more about his son, from the paintings and photos he stuck on the wall by the till. We knew his son’s name, from the crayon drawings of cars and horses and what I guessed might be a windmill, the words Ashraf Hussein, Room 8 scribbled underneath or up the side, and the school portrait photos with St Thomas Primary School printed on the header. School and a name, and his classroom at school – not much, but more than we knew about the father.
That didn’t stop us from trying to know. There was one afternoon where Chocolate and I spent the entire lunch hour debating where he was from, and we concluded most likely Iran or Egypt or Turkey, or one of those Middle Eastern places. And then we figured if he had opened a Persian restaurant, most likely he was from a Persian country, though neither of us knew where Persia was or even what Persian people were supposed to look like. Of course we could have solved all those riddles very easily by simply walking ten steps to the counter and asking him, but it seemed a bit odd in my mind so I never did.
When dining at Pride of Persia I usually took the lamb kebabs, Chocolate usually took the meatballs. But that day we swayed from the usual and both ordered the Cajun shrimp salad. It was new on the menu, and I wasn’t sure why it sounded so good – there was no photo of it, it wasn’t described in any particularly delicious way. But I decided I wanted it almost instantly, and it must have been quite the Jedi mind trick as it seemed to work equally fast on Chocolate too. Then of course we both ordered the Turkish yogurt drink. The oddity about that drink was I didn’t even like it that much, but for some reason I always ordered it, and Chocolate often did too, then while drinking it I always noted how it wasn’t that enjoyable. But I always seemed to finish it, and always ordered it again the next time.
Just as the salads arrived, Chocolate pointed his eyebrows behind me.
“Here comes Jeffy.”
Just as I started to turn, I felt the two hands slap down on my shoulders.
“You two again. You two spend more time down here than you do at your desks!”
I kinked my neck up and grinned at him.
“Shucks mate, took your time,” Chocolate smiled, hands on his head. “We thought you’d ditched. Another box to clear at the docks or somethin’.”
“Nah, nothing for a while, eh. Geez, you two eating salads? Chocolate, mate, must have been the white half of you that ordered that, eh?”
Jeffery the Scotsman was always invited to our lunches, and always late, so we never waited, especially since he often never showed up at all. He rarely missed the days we ventured out for pizza or sushi, but it was rare he joined us down at the Persian. He didn’t seem to like that place much, perhaps because we ate there too often, and he only ever ordered the falafels, and I suppose a man can only eat falafels so many days in a row.
Jeffery the Scotsman worked in a team two “blocks” down from ours. His desk was only twenty or thirty steps from mine, but in our office that was far enough that you hardly saw or heard each other, except for morning and afternoon teas, and maybe once or twice a day at the photocopy machine. Despite the nickname, Jeffery the Scotsman had not a trace of Scottish in his voice, but his father did and was proud of it. His father, named Scott, of all names, had come to New Zealand as a teen and done his school years at Hamilton High School, the same school Jeffery the Scotsman ended up at twenty years later.
We’d even had the pleasure of meeting his father once, when I’d dropped him and Chocolate home one morning after a Friday night bender. As soon as he saw Chocolate and I in the front seats he invited us both in for breakfast, which was the last thing I had wanted at the time, but it turned out to be quite the Saturday morning around the Scotsman’s breakfast table. I hadn’t even known Jeffery lived with his father, but there he was in the midst of cooking up a storming English breakfast when we pulled into the driveway – eggs, sausages, black pudding, and I’d never had better hangover food in my life.
None of us were in any condition to be chatty but that was fine, Jeffery’s father was a talker, and we learned a lot about Jeffery’s father that morning. Mostly that he was an army man, and a car man, and made most of his money flipping cars and fixing cars and painting cars, and that “he’d even gone to work on a Formula 3 team, once”. Later Chocolate brought up Braveheart, as if it were the only Scottish thing he could think of in his still-drunk half-Samoan one sixteenth-Chinese brain, and Jeffery’s father scoffed, calling it the worst movie ever made because they “totally fucked up our history an’ that”, and that “even Harry Potter is a more Scottish movie than that fuckin’ trash”.
Jeffery even looked much like his father; they were both average height and skinny, and both had the light brown eyes and sharp nose and shark toothed grin, and the curly hair that didn’t look so curly when cropped short but quickly got out of control if it grew one or two inches too long. Jeffery the Scotsman wasn’t as gruff as his father – he stayed clean shaven while his father kept a beard both short and thick, and his dad was a pinch shorter and little more square in the face. But they looked every bit like father and son, and were even more similar between the ears.
We knew very well that Jeffery the Scotsman was quite the wheeler and dealer, and several times a week Jeffery disappeared from the office for half an hour or so, maybe even an hour in the late afternoons, or he’d take a two hour lunch, and he would tell his manager he was off to the dentist, or had an appointment with his therapist. But we knew he was just out there picking up a car or dropping off a bunch of cellphones he had parallel imported. If we tried that nonsense with Sam Drewlove, we’d be meeting with the HR lady every week fighting for our jobs, but Jeffery worked in Peter Mack’s team, and Peter Mack’s reputation was he really didn’t give a shit about anything. So Jeffery juggled a bunch of mini hustles on the side of being a full time accountant, and we were always amused at how dedicated he was to it all – “Can’t make lunch boys, picking up a car” – all for an extra $200 or $300 a week. But after that morning we knew – he couldn’t help it. It was in his DNA.
Jeffery ordered at the counter, with the owner whose name we didn’t know, then sat down with a Coke and ripped it open.
“Jeff,” I said, sipping yoghurt. “Where you think that guy’s from?”
He turned around briefly and looked.
“Yeah but where the hell is Persia?”
“In the Middle East somewhere.”
“What, like around Afghanistan up there?”
“I don’t know man, it’s up there somewhere near all those Aladdin countries.”
Chocolate wiped his mouth, then sipped his yogurt.
“Actually, where is Aladdin from?” he asked. “They don’t tell us in the movie, do they? Kid freaking loves that film. Just watched it with him again last week.”
“He’s from Persia, like him,” Jeffery said, nodding his head behind him.
Chocolate and I laughed, and put another forkful in our mouths.
“Wherever Persia is, they know how to make a prawn salad. Might have a new winner down here.”
“Yeah but, $16 for a prawn salad?” I said. I chewed another one off the tail and shook my head. “Good luck eating that every day on a GW salary.”
“Mate,” Jeffery laughed. “Chocolate’s old ex loves his GW salary. Probably eats prawn salad twice a day.”
“Yeah and feeds the kid Marmite sandwiches.”
We all hooted, as I stole a falafel off Jeffery’s plate. Then Chocolate did the same.
“She’s actually been okay lately. Kid told me she been making him paninis for lunch. Nice ones, too.”
“Time to get back together, then?”
I dropped my fork and laughed, long and loud. Jeffery the Scotsman did too. But Chocolate laughed the loudest.
At Grant & Woodson, there were two halves to the office floor.
First, there was the west half. That side of the building was lined with the partners’ offices, along floor-to-ceiling windows, views of Victoria Park, and fancy name plaques on each door. As the tallest building on that edge of town, the view from their windows reached over the park fields, across the market next door, and stretched all the way into the harbour. Their offices weren’t lavish like something you would see on Suits, but they were a nice size. Big leather chairs. Lots of shelving. That sort of thing.
Right beside them were the managers’ cubicles; big L desks with big computer screens. They were each walled with high dividers, I guess to make them feel like offices, without being offices. But it just meant people rarely saw or talked to each other on the west side; in busy season we could go days without seeing their faces, unless we actually walked around to visit them.
Then down the middle of the office was a walkway, that ran right through the floor. That strip acted like the railroad tracks in town, separating us into east and west. And if the west half was for the bosses, the east half was for the grunts.
That’s where we lived.
The cubicles on the east side were a quarter the size, but to be fair, they still weren’t tiny. If we had a file open on our desk, plus a glass of water, or a tea or a coffee, a plate with leftover morning tea on it, and a keyboard and mouse, even then, as long as you kept your calculator and stapler and hole punch to the side, you still had room to slouch over and rest your head on your desk. And every grunt knew you needed to do that at least a couple of times a day.
We were all crammed a little closer together on the east side too. But to be fair, we weren’t that close together. Chocolate and I were separated by a shelf, but it only stood shoulder high. I always liked to roll my chair around the shelf to talk to him, but I didn’t need to – that shelf was low enough that if I just stood up, I could see and hear him just fine.
And that was the reason, we quickly learned, why life was better on the east side. We worked like grunts, got paid like grunts, but we had each other, and we talked, and we shared M&M’s from the vending machine, and if someone warmed something up in the microwave, you could smell it drift over the tops of our cubicles. Yo, what’s that? Who’s got pizza? And on a slow day, you’d go searching and ask for a bite. That’s because even between teams, everyone knew each other on the east side. Jeffery the Scotsman was two whole blocks down, and even then you could smell his Vogels toasting every afternoon. He ate it in the oddest way too – with both Vegemite and Marmite, spread on one after the other. I thought he was just being funny the first time I saw it, but I didn’t know him then. After a month or two, it just seemed like a normal Jeffery the Scotsman type of thing to do.
Sam Drewlove’s team was made up of six. On the west side, there was Drewlove, and our two managers; Brett, a tall, jolly man, also a Scot, who’d moved to New Zealand not too many years ago. And Renee, a soft spoken Sri Lankan woman, who was impeccably neat and never stopped giggling. I liked them both just fine, I guess because they were reasonably normal west siders, compared to the rest of them.
Then on the east side, we had myself, and Chocolate, and Angie Buckle.
Angie Buckle had started in January that year as our new graduate. She was a small dainty girl, with large spectacles and a thick wavy ponytail that fell just below her nape. If you had to guess, you’d probably wager she was the type of girl who was a librarian at school, cut the crusts off her sandwiches, and played an instrument like the clarinet (I later found out she wasn’t a librarian but did love reading, didn’t cut the crusts off – just never ate them – and had never played an instrument in her life). She wasn’t a shy person once she got talking, but she did have somewhat shifty eyes and a reserved demeanour that made it hard to pick her mood on any given morning.
Our friendship started just fine, but it was a work friendship, and I could see she found it hard to blend with the dynamic Chocolate and I had built in two years without her. But slowly as the year had gone on, she edged her way into the circle, and once or twice we offered a joke to her, and then she just began asking “What’s so funny?” And we’d sometimes tell her, sometimes not, until one day she stopped asking and started demanding, and soon she was so sisterly I couldn’t spend more than two minutes at Chocolate’s desk before she rolled her chair over and joined the conversation. We figured, if she was comfortable enough to do that, she was comfortable enough to get a nickname.
We started calling her Buck.
Buck asked not to be called Buck, but she only kept that up for about a day until she gave up. By that time it had already spread through the office and when that happened, there was no going back. Even her office best friend Korean Amy had started using it, and Korean Amy knew as well as anyone how a nickname stuck in that office, although luckily she seemed to quite like her one.
Chocolate made it a tradition that when someone new started in Team Drewlove, he took them out for dinner. He had done it with me, he’d done it with our graduate the year before, who had since left, and a few weeks after Buck started, he did it with her as well. Everyone in the team had been invited, of course, but our west siders always had something to do with a son or a daughter, or a dinner to cook, or a dog to walk, or a wife or a husband to see, so Chocolate just started asking them at the last minute – that way it was easy for them to say no, and we could pretend to be disappointed, and nobody had to feel bad about any of it.
That dinner had been arranged for a Thursday. Buck told Chocolate her favourite food was pizza, or as she liked to say, “interesting pizza”. She had told Korean Amy about the whole thing the day before too, who, jealous that the gesture had never been recreated in her own team, invited herself, and suggested Non Solo Pizza on Parnell Rise. Jeffery the Scotsman had agreed to come too, but had to cancel last minute to “sort something out”, which we never doubted with him and didn’t bother to ask the details.
We’d had the bright idea to walk to Parnell that night. It wasn’t a short walk, maybe forty five minutes, but we were still in summer back then, and it was one of those gorgeous Auckland evenings, where the sun was setting but the air still warm and humid, the faint smells of ocean salt blowing over from the harbour nearby. Even though she’d only been there some weeks, Buck already had a collection of shoes under her desk – not just one or two pairs, but eleven or twelve at least (who could guess how many more she had at home) and any time she walked anywhere for lunch she would change out of her heels and into a pair of Vans or runners. How peculiar that looked – stockings, skirt, blouse and blazer, finished with a pair of skateboarding shoes down below. But we’d soon learn Buck was hardly the type of girl to care about such things. So on that night she did the same for our long walk to Parnell, changing into her black Vans, and Korean Amy, not quite as prepared with her own office shoe collection, borrowed a pair of red flats.
We walked in double file, Chocolate and I up front, Korean Amy and Buck just behind us, down the long stretch of Fanshawe Street into downtown. Auckland was an interesting city at the time, in that over perhaps a hundred blocks it only had a dozen or so tall buildings, and the rest weren’t too tall at all. Very few parts of downtown were shrouded or devoid of sunlight, and the nearby sea breeze wasn’t funneled into towers made by rows of skyscrapers. It was pleasant to walk. Buses frequented every street, but the city had no crowded subway or tram or monorail to give an illusion of busyness. People generally walked slowly, faces of every colour, and even during lunch hour, streets were never crowded to the point of having to weave in and out of anyone. In fact at that hour – it had been around 7pm – there weren’t too many faces walking about at all. The bars did all have handfuls of young Kiwis on stools outside, ties loose and sleeves rolled up, sipping on Radlers or Summer Ales – the beers of cool at the time – and every Esquires had its collection of international students, studying at tables on their lonesome with their tall cups of ice tea. But there was rarely much more happening than that. As we’d climbed up to and through the fields of Albert Park, we walked by endless groups of university students sat in circles on the grass, all with books out but nobody reading. Some lay on their backs and stared at the sky, some gossiped, some listened to a friend strumming a guitar. Familiar. That had been us, once. It looked a lot more fun than I had remembered.
It’d been close to 8pm when we arrived at the restaurant, though even by then, the sun hadn’t set so it didn’t feel late at all. Nobody ordered pizza at first. Chocolate and I shared a beer. Buck ordered a Coke. Then Korean Amy ordered mojitos for the whole table. “We have to celebrate, guys!” She was more excited about Buck’s welcome dinner than Buck was.
We learned a collection of interesting things about Buck that evening. First, that she was 26 – old for a graduate, certainly the oldest that Grant & Woodson inducted that year. It wasn’t because she was an idiot – they did a pretty good job of filtering the idiots out, mostly by way of equally idiotic tests and interviews – but because she had spent some years working as a publisher’s assistant before she went to university. We found that odd, only because an accounting degree was often just a natural segue from accounting at high school, something you fell into, usually by eighteen year olds who didn’t have the years or imagination to come up with anything better. Yet Buck had three extra years after high school, and three years of full time salary, to think about what she wanted to be, and she still chose to go to university to become an accountant. We then learned she’d only ever had one boyfriend who, of course, was “such an asshole”, and that she didn’t think Sam Drewlove was too bad at all. We also learned she deemed every pizza on the menu that night far too characterless to be “interesting”. They all seemed pretty interesting to me – Hawaiian with local mozzarella, sausage and egg with fresh chilis. But in Buck’s world, “interesting” pizza had to be something not seen before. She ended up ordering the duck pizza, topped with plum sauce and goat’s cheese, but to her that was still only mildly interesting, as “duck pizza isn’t actually that rare”, and she’d eaten it once before.
As promised, Chocolate picked up the bill that night. Even Korean Amy’s share. And as it turned out, it was Korean Amy that made that night meaningful for Buck, because over the course of the meal, her and Korean Amy bonded, and by the end of the night it was like they’d known each other since childhood. Chocolate and I hadn’t planned on it, but we fostered their friendship that night, and I was happy for Buck. Because in that office everybody needed that one friend they could call a time-out with and share a bag of Doritos, who they could vent to about Georgina and her punchable face, who they could invite out for a long lunch and that person would always say yes because they knew what it was like to be having that kind of day. Everyone who made it through those grunt years had that person. And those who didn’t, never seemed to last very long at all.
“Bro…check this one out.”
Chocolate stood up, looking down at me over the top of the shelf. Half a Peanut Slab was jammed in the corner of his mouth.
“What’s up,” he mumbled.
“Wife is a lawyer, right. QC. Earns 1.2 million a year. Just from lawyering.”
I put her tax return down, picked up the next one.
“And this…” I said, giving the papers a quick flick, “is the husband. Earns nothing. Just some fake income from one of their holding companies.”
“Now check out the bank statements.” I picked up another stack of papers.
“Xbox Live, eighteen dollars. Xbox Live, eighteen dollars. Uber Eats, forty four dollars. Xbox Live, five dollars. Dude is living the freaking dream.”
Chocolate came around to my desk, grinning.
“What car does he drive?”
“It’ll be in the trust.”
I looked at him and went “ohhh” with my mouth, but without making a sound. Like a kid who’d just figured out the password to his sister’s computer.
“You got the file for it?” he asked, looking around my desk.
I shook my head.
He grabbed my mouse and clicked a few times.
“What’s his name?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. Just flicked back to the front of the tax return.
“Joseph Alexander Finch…” he read out, slowly, like a parent, about to discipline their misbehaving child.
I’d seen this database hundreds of times already, I used it every day. But only for finding IRD numbers, and email addresses. Chocolate seemed know his way around it a lot better than I did.
He pointed to a section called “Related Entities”. We read them to ourselves quickly, whispering, like a speed reading contest.
The Lynda and Joseph Finch Family Trust.
LJF Properties Limited.
The Arch Finch Road Limited.
Then he clicked out, and searched in another screen for last year’s trust accounts. I realised, all the time I spent with Chocolate was spent eating, or drinking, or walking somewhere so we could spend time eating, or drinking. I’d never actually seen him ‘work’ before. I was impressed. The way his eyes flicked, how you could see his brain ticking over. Like a detective putting clues together.
Was hardly a few seconds before the accounts popped up on screen.
“Look at that, four kids,” he nodded, with approval, pointing to the beneficiary list. “Let me guess…private school?”
He went back to the tax return on my desk, flicked to the back. Then he nodded again – “Yep” – tapping his finger on the page.
“See these rich people man, they always make a donation to some school foundation. Gives them a tax break.”
“Or the other way you know…” he said, mumbling now, like he was half talking to himself. “You see the school fees in the current account, and you know it’s for private school ’cause it’s like ten million dollars or something.”
If crimes were hidden in accounting puzzles, there would be no unsolved murders. No need for police detectives. You wouldn’t even need a team. You could just hire Chocolate, and he would solve everything, probably just as a hobby, all while eating meatballs and drinking Lion Reds.
Then he hit my shoulder a few times.
“Here we go.” All the trust assets were listed in there, houses with addresses. Even cars with number plates. It almost felt wrong to be looking at it.
“Three million dollar house. Remuera. One million dollar beach house. Coromandel. Nice.”
“And look at this one. Mangawhai. Eight hundred thousand dollar beach cottage,” he laughed hopelessly. “Can’t be happy with just beach houses, these guys. Gotta have a beach cottage too.”
The cars were listed below. He pointed to them and we read them out line by line.
“Mercedes Benz. B180 silver.”
“Mercedes Benz. CLA white.”
“Mercedes Benz. GLC white.”
“Shucks man,” he said, shaking his head. “All that money and no originality.”
Then we read out the last one together, shouting in a whisper.
“JAGUAR! XJ black.”
“Mate, we need to see what his wife looks like.”
He pulled up Google and searched “Lynda Finch lawyer”. A row of headshots from law websites flicked across the screen.
“Woah,” I said, leaning back in my seat.
Chocolate nodded one final time.
“Dude really is living the dream.”
“That coming home to you every night,” I whistled. “While driving your Jag all day.”
“Nah, bro.” Chocolate shook his head. Then reached around to his desk to grab his coffee. “That dude is not alpha enough to drive the Jaguar. I bet you it’s the wife that drives the Jaguar to work, and this guy drives all those kids to private school in the Benz.”
“What! Nah. I bet she drives a different Benz to work every day to flex, and she bought him the Jaguar as a birthday present or something.”
As we were debating, Buck came walking back to her desk from Drewlove’s office.
“Hey Buck, Buck.”
She looked over at Chocolate and I, both grinning.
“Alright,” I said. “Really important question for you.”
Chocolate started laughing, and Buck smiled at us both, like she couldn’t wait.
“Let’s say…you’re a partner at GW, right, national partner even. You make a million dollars a year and you have four kids.”
“And you have a beach cottage,” Chocolate sang.
“Yeah, maybe even two beach cottages. And your husband is a stay at home. Now here’s the important part: You’ve got four cars in your garage. Two little Mercedes, a big Mercedes and a Jaguar. Which one is yours?”
“And my husband does what?”
“Then they’re all mine.”
Chocolate and I cracked into laughter, and Buck looked at us, amused. I just pointed to my screen, not wanting to explain the whole backstory.
“Anyway, morning tea?”
Chocolate looked at his watch.
“Yes! Thank you Jesus.”
If there was a most important time of day at Grant & Woodson, it was 10 a.m. At that hour the whole office had a fifteen minute morning tea break, although it was mostly the east side that took it. The west side were allowed it too, of course, but were always too busy, too in flow, to stop work and rest for a measly fifteen minutes.
For the rest of us, 10 a.m. meant we jumped from our desks like clockwork, and you could see the parade from the east side marching down the halls into the lunchroom.
Morning tea was important for two reasons. First, it was where the gossip happened. If anything noteworthy happened at Grant & Woodson, morning tea was where you heard about it first. Monday morning tea was always gossip from the weekend. Friday morning tea was always guessing what gossip would be created that night. And the morning teas in between were a free for all of complaints about bosses, about the prices in the vending machine, about Georgina pissing everyone off again like she did last week and the week before that. More importantly, it was the one time of day the grunts were alone, and could talk freely about the important things, like who was wearing a stupid shirt that day, or who got in trouble with who, or how somebody saw someone look at someone funny, and now everyone needed to debate whether they were sleeping together or not. Only a few west siders ever showed up, usually the newly promoted ones. We called them moles, because they fed us the inside scoop on the managers meetings and email threads they now got cc’d into from the higher ups. In some ways they were the stars of morning tea, and everyone loved having them at their tables. Though it was always just a few months before they too got swamped with work, and eventually stopped joining the 10am march like the rest of the west side.
The second and more important part about morning tea: We got to eat. That was one way the brass at Grand & Woodson kept us grounded. They fed us.
There was an in-house chef at the office, named Margot. Every day, she cooked the partners a gourmet lunch and served it in the boardroom. We never saw that food, but Sienna at reception always cleared the table afterwards, and told us it was “exactly the thing you’d see at a five star restaurant.” Bottles of wine, eye fillets, dessert platters. If you peeked into Chef Margot’s kitchen, which was off-limits to us grunts, you could see it looked like a five-star kitchen too, with multiple stainless steel ovens and stove tops, those tall fridges with the glass doors always packed with fresh produce, and a deep sink with that fancy looking hose for a tap. When lunchtime approached, you could smell the chickens and potatoes roasting, the fresh garlic bread being baked, the sizzle of the lamb steaks grilling on the stove tops. I suppose the partners knew how evil that was, for us to smell all that food and have nothing to eat ourselves. So at morning tea, Chef Margot’s job was to cook us a little something as well.
Of course nothing looked five-star restaurant-ish about our food – it looked more like a basket stolen from a corner bakery – but it tasted five stars and that’s all that mattered to us. Some days it was muffins, other days it was cheese and ham sandwiches, if we were really lucky, she baked chocolate tarts or cheesecakes. Whatever it was, it went down a roaring treat. For many who rushed to work and arrived late, like me, that was our only hope of a hot breakfast. The only thing to keep us going until lunch. And most importantly, for all of us, it gave us something to look forward to in the mornings. On those tough winter days where we trudged to work in the rain, a cough or a sneeze coming on, not a hope of sunshine in the sky. Something to look forward to was the most important thing in the world. I don’t think the partners even realised, but morning tea was probably the pillar to the sanity of that office, the one thing that kept the east side from imploding day after day.
This particular day was a good day, because Chef Margot had baked bacon and egg pie. For most of us, eating Chef Margot’s bacon and egg pie was a trip down nostalgia lane; usually the first time we’d eaten it since the days of bake sales at primary school. The thing about bacon and egg pie was, it always looked exactly the same, whether you baked it at home or bought it in a store, but everyone ate it differently. And that day was no different. Chef Margot’s bacon and egg pie looked exactly like my Mum’s, exactly like the bakery’s down the road, exactly like the one I’d been served on a plane once. But everyone ate it in their own way – some put it on a plate, some held it in a napkin, some just ate it from their hands. Some used a knife and fork, some used only a fork, some bit straight into it, some peeled the pastry apart with their fingers and ate it bit by bit. Some sprinkled salt, or pepper, or both. Some put a little tomato sauce on top, some put a lot, some put nothing at all. And out of all of those ways, there wasn’t a wrong way to eat bacon and egg pie. You could look at someone eating it in whichever way, maybe the complete opposite to yours, and you’d still think, “I bet that tastes pretty darn good.”
Chocolate, myself and Buck were the first ones there. Chef Margot had barely finished putting the trays out. We plated and then snagged the corner table. Jeffery the Scotsman walked in not twenty seconds later. And then just behind him, Steven Black.
Steven Black was the most handsome man in New Zealand. At least, many of the females in the office seemed to think so. Even some of the males probably did. I don’t know if he was the most handsome in New Zealand, but he was probably in the top three.
He had moved from an out-of-town firm into our tax department downstairs, a few months into the year. That meant technically, he wasn’t an east sider or a west sider, because downstairs there was no east side or west side. Down there, it was more like little subdivisions of different departments – taxation, receiverships, audit, wealth management. Still, every department had grunts; the first and second and third years, and if you were a grunt, you were considered as much an east sider as the rest of us.
Coming to think of it, the very first time I saw Steven Black was at a morning tea. It was croissant day that day. The girls at our table froze when he walked in, as if Jude Law had just entered the room.
“Who’s the new guy?” Buck asked, nudging me.
“I think…that’s the new tax guy.”
“What’s his name?”
“Go and ask.”
“Go ask him! Say hi.”
“You go say hi!”
“I can’t! You do it, you’re a boy!”
In the end, nobody went and said hi to Steven Black that day, and he sat by his handsome self at a table on the opposite end of the lunchroom.
Of course, we eventually got to know him, and he sat with us the next week, and he got a little more boisterous each time, and before long morning tea wasn’t quite the same if Steven Black didn’t show up that day.
It is hard to pinpoint why everyone thought Steven Black was so handsome, because he was handsome in many ways. He had cleanly cropped mahogany hair, always brushed neatly to the left, and bright turquoise eyes that glinted when he smiled. A few groups of freckles clustered around his nose, which was thin and sharp and perfectly straight. He wasn’t tall, wasn’t short either, though he did have broad shoulders, and the shirts he wore, always with a skinny tie, fitted his athletic frame so perfectly you could almost think they were painted on.
The more interesting thing to me about Steven Black, though, was why he even bothered showing up to work at all. He came from old money down south, and moved to Auckland just for the job. That seemed peculiar to me, and as our friendship grew – Chocolate and I spent many a lunch hour with Steven Black, either in the lunchroom, or down at Pride of Persia, and many more hours on Friday nights getting up to mischief – and the more we learned about him the less sense it made.
Steven Black’s father was a ranching man, a horse man, and the Black family had been breeding thoroughbreds for the track for more than a few generations. And over those few generations, they had bred more than a few champions, down on their little horse haven known as Wildercroft Stud.
If I had to describe the type of old riches being made at Wildercroft Stud – and it was definitely beach cottage level riches – it could best be done by the story Steven Black told us at Chocolate’s house one evening.
“We had this one stallion, beast. Pure breed. Neck like a tree trunk. Just all muscle. Everyone wanted a piece. Fastest thing you ever saw. We were charging $250,000 a pop. To give our boy a stiffy and get him to bust a load inside one of your horses. We had guys wanting to bring their mares from across the country to breed with this thing, and we were turning them away. He was already servicing four mares a day. That’s a million a day, and we couldn’t keep up.”
And it was lucky we befriended Steven Black, because even we managed to get our hands on a little of that Wildercroft Stud money. Sometimes Steven Black would send us a little tip on the races – “Boys, old man’s got a horse racing tomorrow – El Quinto. Says he’s the most solid starter he’s seen in ten years.” And just because of Steven Black, we all had betting accounts before long, and we put up $10 or $20 just for a giggle whenever that email came through. We never had the courage to put up any more than that, even though we should have, because Steven Black’s old man was quite the horse whisperer, and we won something back almost every time.
When Chocolate moved out of home at 18, he moved from South Auckland to West Auckland – in his words, “one of the nicer parts of town” – but when Steven Black moved to Auckland he also landed out west and didn’t last a minute. “Trashy,” he called it, and he’d found himself a little apartment on the North Shore barely two months later. But that was very much like Steven Black, he always had nice everything – nice shoes, nice phone, nice motorbike – much of which we knew could never have been paid for with a Grant & Woodson grunt’s salary. But he somehow retained a small town aloofness, never took himself or anyone else too serious, and we all loved him that way. Chocolate and I were better friends with him than anyone, but you could have asked anyone at Grant & Woodson what they thought of Steven Black, and I’m sure they would have told you with sincerity he was a “bloody good bloke”, or something along those lines.
Barely two months after he was hired the tax department hired another grunt, this time a girl, and her name was Amy.
Amy was also a small town girl, average height, but solidly built with thick thighs and a wide smile which I found quite beautiful. I think all the boys did, but for some reason, nobody liked to admit it. We called her Blonde Amy, partly because she was blonde, but mostly because we needed to differentiate her from the other two Amy’s in the office. On the day Blonde Amy started, suddenly all the Amys in the office got new names, whether they had wanted them or not. Blonde Amy became Blonde Amy, the Amy who sat in the team beside ours became Korean Amy, and the Amy that worked in admin just became “the other Amy”, I guess because nobody ever saw her or talked about her or even knew what her job actually was.
It was lucky Blonde Amy got sat next to Steven Black, because if Steven Black was the blokey guy who always drank protein shakes at lunchtime and Heineken on Fridays, Blonde Amy was the big sister who loved him and always kept him in check. They showed up at morning tea each day as if in each other’s orbits, and if one showed up without the other the first words out of our mouths were always “Where’s Steve? Where’s Amy?” Nothing romantic ever happened between them, at least not that anyone knew about, but they were the right two people to be neighbours in that office. I guess the best way to put it in a word is, they ‘matched’.
And that day, just like every other day, they came in one after the other. First Steven Black, then Blonde Amy.
Steven Black bobbed his head as he entered, obviously happy at the sight and smell of bacon and egg pie. Blonde Amy not so much; she screwed her nose up before turning to us and walking straight over. Steven Black stacked two pieces on a plate and walked over behind her.
“Should start baking these at home, eh,” he said, his mouth already full as he sat down. “Used to eat them all the time.”
He almost finished the first piece in two bites. I’d already finished mine, and wanted to go get a second, but I was wedged between Chocolate and Buck. I forked a chunk off Steven Black’s plate instead.
“Hey, Amy,” I said, putting the forkful in my mouth.
“Question for you.”
Everyone at the table looked at me.
“Let’s say you make a million dollars a year, and you have four kids.”
“Oh my god…” Buck groaned.
Chocolate laughed quietly, picking at the crumbs on his plate.
“And you live in a three million dollar house in Remuera.”
“Don’t forget the cottage.”
“Oh yeah, and you have a million dollar beach cottage up north somewhere.”
“Yeah, Mangawhai. And your husband doesn’t have a job, just stays home with your kids and plays Xbox while they’re at school. Okay? Now, you guys have four cars in the garage; two little Mercedes, a big Mercedes, and a Jaguar. Which car do you drive?”
She looked over at Chocolate, then at Buck, then back at me, hesitating, as if it were a trick question.
“And what do I do?”
“You’re a lawyer.”
She picked a little piece of bacon off Steven Black’s plate and nibbled on it, thinking.
“I’m gonna say, I’m driving the Jag.”
“See!” Chocolate said, holding up a high five. Blonde Amy smiled and dapped his hand lightly.
“No way.” Steven Black shook his head. “Girls wouldn’t even like driving a Jag, you ever driven a Jag before? It’s clunky. If she’s a lawyer type, she’s driving the Merc. Mercs are easy to drive, like you’re playing Playstation. That’s also probably why she’d have three of them. You know? It’s like when you look in a girl’s closet, and she’s got five pairs of the same shoe, just different colours. So they probably buy their cars the same way too. Think about it…if you could buy three sports cars, are you going to buy three of the same car? That’s a chick move, bro.”
“That’s what I’m saying!” I held out my fist, and Steven bumped it.
“Good point,” said Buck, impressed.
Even Chocolate was silent, obviously rethinking his answer. I punched him lightly in the rib. He flinched and pushed me, laughing.
“Who we talking about, anyway?” Amy asked.
“How do you know the models of all their cars?”
“It’s in the trust,” Chocolate and I both said, in unison.
Blonde Amy looked at us for a split second, then nodded, looking upwards, obviously having the lightbulb moment I’d had twenty minutes earlier. We didn’t have too many perks as Grand & Woodson accountants, but I suppose, eating bacon and egg pie, while fantasising about being one of your rich clients was one of them.
I was still pulling apart the Finch family’s life when work ended that day. You learned a lot doing taxes for rich people – but only the trivial stuff ever seemed interesting – like how it cost $3,000 to service a Jaguar, or how it was normal for the Finches to spend $900 at a restaurant on a Thursday afternoon. Five o’clock rolled around, and slowly the office emptied; Buck left first, as always, Chocolate not long after, then the managers left one by one. By seven, Sam Drewlove had packed up his briefcase too and bid me goodbye.
As a third year, leaving the office wasn’t so simple for me. It was our “big year”; the year we sat our long and painful string of professional exams. The year haunted every budding accountant, and if anyone was looking particularly worn or sleepless or edging on insane, there was no need to explain, you would just say, “he’s a third year”, and everyone understood. Every month that year we had a workshop to prepare for, presentations to create, not to mention a collection of eight folders the size of phone books we needed to read and memorise before the final exam in October. Studying for exams at university was a drag, but studying for these exams was an abomination.
While the rest of the office went home, the third years stayed in the office and studied, sometimes buried in those pages of tax law until 8, 9, maybe even midnight if a big workshop was looming.
Nonetheless we did it. And none of us could really figure out why. At any time we could have thrown those folders in the paper bin and said, “Fuck it!” and gone to work in a bank somewhere. But our pride wouldn’t let us. Chocolate had passed those exams. Even Sam Drewlove had passed them. I was going to pass them too.
Steven Black was also a third year, as was Korean Amy. The three of us congregated in the kitchen often while studying late, ordered pizza, laughed at our collective misery. Like I said, you needed your special group of people if you wanted to survive that place.
That night, though, things were a little easier, as a side mission preoccupied us for most of the night. We spent it at Chocolate’s desk, sipping on Cokes stolen from the lunchroom fridge, preparing a surprise for him for the following morning. We always left late, but it was later than usual that night. Even some of the restaurants on the block were closing up by the time we left to make the long walks to our cars.
The one good thing about those late nights was, you always missed the traffic on the way home. Usually it was well past 8 o’clock by the time I hit the motorway, and it was free sailing all the way. If it was quiet enough sometimes I’d put the pedal down to 130, 140, drop the window down a bit, feel the adrenaline surge through my fingertips as the air went woof woof woof through my ears. During those moments, I could feel my pupils dilate, the electricity sizzle in my nerves, the engine so powerfully loud that my whole body vibrated with anticipation. The thing I loved most was when there was just one other car in sight, and I’d weave around it at speed, like in a video game, that immense feeling of cool shivering through me. At any moment I knew, I was just one split second, one pothole, one stone on the windshield away from losing everything. Of course that terrified me. But it also made me feel alive.
As I arrived home that night I dropped my bags at the doorstep and collapsed on the couch. I stared around my apartment. The one I’d been so excited to move into, after signing that contract. We’d celebrated here, my girlfriend, some friends. I’d hung my expensive shirts proudly in the closet. I went and bought an ironing board. Life had seemed so exciting then. I looked over at my desk, the French language books stacked against the wall. I hadn’t opened them since the week I moved in. The yoga mat that sat rolled up underneath. The set of dumbells I’d bought on special, that one weekend where I swore things would start to be different. All just decorations now. I kicked my pants off. Unbuttoned my shirt and peeled it off. Lay there in my socks and underwear, sipping on the water bottle on the table beside me. And that’s exactly where I still was, when morning arrived.
My morning walk to work had gotten longer over the last year. As I started arriving to the office later and later – 8:15 on my first day, 8:25 the next day, 8:30 for a few months, then 8:45, now sometimes as late as 9 o’clock – I was always parking further and further away.
If you arrived in the city before 8, you could usually find a parking spot barely five minutes walk from the office. But if you got there at 8:15 you’d be parking up on the hill behind Victoria Park, at least a fifteen minute walk away. By 8:30 all those spots were gone, and that’s when you knew you were really going to be late.
And so on this morning, I basked in the serene calm I felt, because I, for no reason at all, had arrived earlier than I had in more than a year. It was eleven minutes past eight when I parked my car, and I grinned at the luxury of having 19 full minutes to walk to work and still arrive on time.
When the morning was windless and dry, which it was that day, it was even a pleasant-ish walk to the office – through a couple of residential side streets and then down the large hill towards Victoria Park, across the grassy fields, until you got to the corner where our beloved Grant & Woodson stood. The walk was always best just after summer, perhaps in late March or early April, when the sun still rose but the air was crisp, the air cooled your face like a second shower, and each breath was like a wisp of menthol.
As I started the walk that day, I had a tingle of nostalgia, remembering the one time I was so early I had actually stopped into one of these cafes for breakfast. I laughed at the memory; the mornings as a graduate where, since I wasn’t rushing, I’d had the luxury of putting my earphones in and listening to music, strolling musingly, sending off “good morning” texts to friends along the way.
And then as I passed the bookshop I remembered, it was always around this time, roughly 8:20, that I would see that girl with the freckles and the auburn hair, walking in the opposite direction. I recognised her every morning, almost like clockwork we would walk past each other at that time; right outside the bookshop, maybe a little sooner, or a little later.
And then one day she said hi to me.
Not with actual words of course, that would have been strange, but instead she looked up, and pointed her eyes at me, lifted her eyebrows and then did that smile where it’s not really a smile at all, it’s just stretching your lips into a straight line, so your face changes, and somehow, we just know that person is saying hello without actually saying anything at all.
And so I, out of instinct, did exactly the same thing back to her. And then we walked past each other, and the next day we did it again, and the day after that, and suddenly it was like a tradition, that when this girl with the freckles and the auburn hair walked past me outside the bookshop, or near the bookshop, I would straighten my lips into the smile that wasn’t really a smile, and bounce my eyebrows, and she would do the same, and then we would just carry on walking.
I wondered sometimes, how it was possible that we walked past each other at the same spot at the same time every morning, but I only had to think until I was halfway across the park before I realised it was kind of obvious – she probably worked somewhere at the top of the hill, maybe in a Ponsonby gift store, and she was walking to get to work on time just like I was walking to get to work on time. It must have just so happened that getting to work on time for her put her at the bookshop, or near the bookshop, at around twenty minutes past eight. And me as well.
One morning, I decided not to say hi to her. I’m not sure where the idea arose but it was as if suddenly I thought it was a bit odd to say hi to her, in this odd way, every single morning. And so that day, as I neared the bookshop, I saw her in the distance, and I pretended I was messaging a friend on my phone, and I put a very focused look on my face. As we walked past each other I saw her look up at me, only barely, from the corner of my eye, but I didn’t look up, I just kept typing a pretend message on my phone until we had gone past each other and some minutes had passed. And at that moment I instantly regretted it, and wished I could take it all back, that I could go back in time and give her the straight-lipped smile we gave each other every morning. I hoped she knew it wasn’t personal, it was just an odd idea I’d had that morning, just a moment of stupidity, that had nothing to do with her at all. Then I thought, surely such a small thing wouldn’t upset her day too much, but I hadn’t the faintest idea it would upset my day either, yet it had done so much more than I could have suspected.
The next morning, I found myself nervous as I approached the bookshop. I wondered if this time she might retaliate, maybe this time she would pretend she was messaging a fake friend on her phone and make a special effort not to say hi to me. Of course I would understand that completely, but how awkward it would then be the day after that! Would we both have to continue typing fake messages every day, avoiding our morning hello until perhaps a long weekend, where the lapse of time would be long enough that we could forget about it all and go back to how it was before? But to my delight, she looked straight at me and did her smile, and I did mine, and everything was back to normal.
Then as months ticked on I started coming to work later and later, and I started seeing her not at the bookshop, but a bit further up the rise, outside the large brick house with two balconies, and then outside the hospice, and then eventually I arrived too late to see her at all. I didn’t even remember the last time I’d seen her, and I’m certain she didn’t either. Neither of us had known the last time would be the last time, it just was.
But now here I was again, walking down the hill, and it was 8:17 and I was almost at the bookshop. And sure enough, moments later she appeared in the distance. I recognised her walk, the way she leaned forward slightly walking uphill, heavy on each foot, and I recognised her red satchel, which always hung at her left side. As we approached each other she saw me, and I felt like she didn’t recognise me right away but she smiled, and it was a real smile this time. And as we passed each other, I heard her voice for the first time.
“Long time no see!” she said with a little laugh.
And I mirrored her little laugh and chuckled, “Yeah, right?”
And we continued past each other just like we’d done so many times before.
That tipped off an unusually rosy morning for me. I had slept well on my couch, in my socks and underwear, had woken with the sun on my face, exchanged hellos with the auburn haired girl for the first time in over a year, and walked out of those elevator doors seven minutes early. I hadn’t felt that on top of the morning in…I couldn’t remember.
“What in the?” Sienna laughed as I walked in.
“Bit early for you, isn’t it?”
“Turning over a new leaf.”
I sauntered up to our famous reception desk. That desk was a common topic of conversation in our office. Nobody could guess what obscene amount of money it had cost; the size of a small car, crafted from faux marble, shaped like the hull of a yacht, along the front, Grant & Woodson, carved in huge letters that glowed in our trademark blue and purple.
Sitting on the other side was Sienna, at a desk three times as long as mine, in front of the biggest computer screen in the entire office. She didn’t need it of course, but it looked impressive. Clients never saw the east side, but they saw that desk every single visit, and I suppose Sienna’s ridiculous large screen was the firm’s way of keeping up appearances.
We all loved Sienna. Chocolate thought she was quite the beauty, though my first impression was she had a more girl-next-door type charm, plain-faced, but with pretty eyes and long straight brunette hair that never changed much from day to day. Barely out of high school, but confident, and laid back, we appreciated that she knew a lot of our business but minded her own, most of the time. Sometimes a girl would pop into reception to drop something off, or meet one of the boys for lunch, and we’d call Sienna up and ask “Was she cute? How’d she look?” But she would just laugh innocently, or mockingly, and say she didn’t quite see, and we knew what that meant and didn’t bother asking a second time.
Sienna and I became rather close as friends, or at least close by office standards, mostly because after morning teas, toilet breaks, lunches, going to the mail room, the way back to my desk was always past reception, and of course it was always more fun to stop and talk to her rather than go back to work. We never had anything important to talk about; just what she was having for lunch, or whether she tried Margot’s tarts that morning, or if she watched X Factor the night before. And while she didn’t spread gossip a lot, if there were something juicy about a west sider, she’d often let me in on it. “One of Alex’s clients just stormed out,” or “Paul’s wife came in this morning, looking pissed.” She was an east sider at heart.
I hung my arms over the high edge of the desk.
“I’m expecting mail.”
“It’s on your desk already.”
“What! It’s a surprise for Chocolate.”
She looked up at me, baring her teeth nervously.
“It’s cool. Is he here yet?”
“Just got in.”
I walked briskly to my desk. As I’d suspected, he’d been too busy at his own desk to notice the package on mine.
It was Chocolate’s birthday that day. The surprise we had been preparing for him the night before was an office tradition. Steven Black and I took it upon ourselves to use our study time sabotaging his desk, and Korean Amy invited herself to help. We raided the printers for all the coloured paper, and then wrapped everything on his desk like a birthday present. His stapler, hole punch, folders, mouse, keyboard, every pen, every paperclip, even his chair. He was still laughing, hands on hips, staring at it all bewildered when I came around the corner.
“You guys are fucking mental.”
I grabbed the package off my desk, peeled the address label off the top. It was heavier than I expected.
“One final present.”
He took it from me, his eyebrows raised. Mouth ajar, just slightly. He found it heavier than expected as well.
“Open it up. First one is mine, though.”
He looked for his scissors, and Buck and I almost rolled on the floor at the sight of him searching his desk amongst the chaos, before he found them and unwrapped them. Then he cut the box open. I smiled as I watched him lift the top flaps.
“No shit!” He dug his hands inside.
It was 200 Peanut Slabs, sitting loose, like coins in a treasure chest. “Thanks, man.”
“First one’s mine!”
He threw one at me.
“Second one’s mine,” Buck wailed.
He threw one at her.
Then he picked one up himself. And we unwrapped them, and took a bite, and smiled at each other. Sometimes, it wasn’t so bad, coming to work early. Not on a day like this.
Word had gotten around quickly about Chocolate’s treasure chest of chocolate bars. By the end of that day, Chocolate had eaten seven Peanut Slabs. I’d had two. Buck had had two. Half the east side had had at least one. It was a good day at Grant & Woodson.
We had planned to all go out for dinner that night, but the Auckland rain set in during the late afternoon. We never got snow during our winters, but it rained often and when it did, it bucketed. Auckland city rainstorms were loud, and hit the pavement with vicious slaps you could hear all the way up on the top floor. One look out the window and you didn’t even think about it. You were staying in.
The third years were all staying after work to study anyway, so I suggested we order a few extra pizzas and they could all join our dinner in the lunchroom. Chocolate thought it was a fine idea. Korean Amy ordered our usual study group menu – a Hawaiian, a triple cheese and a vege supreme – multiplied by three, and Chocolate, Buck, myself, Steven Black, Blonde Amy and the Scotsman all met in the lunchroom for a birthday feast. Even Sienna joined us for an hour and a slice. We didn’t have a cake, so we got a few Peanut Slabs, smashed them up and Chocolate stood a lit cigarette in the middle. Then after he made his wish, we all picked at it for dessert like a box of chocolates.
When the pizza boxes had been emptied, stacked to the side covered in grease stains, and the Peanut slabs had long been finished, Sienna said her boyfriend was downstairs and got up to leave. Buck saw that as a good opportunity to make her exit too. The rest of us sat there, sipping on Cokes from the vending machine, the third years just procrastinating, the rest somehow waiting for the rain to die down. I was half a mind away, down off a sugar high, now possibly in a food coma, my thoughts wandering into the odd corners it found itself going sometimes. I watched Sienna and Buck flick their coats on and leave, and wondered about what they might talk about in the elevator. I wondered if the girl with the auburn hair had walked home past the bookshop yet. I wondered if Sam Drewlove was still at his desk, and whether he heard us in here, and felt left out. I looked at Jeffery the Scotsman and Chocolate and Steven Black arguing about which beer was the best, and why they always seemed to talk about this, every single time.
I didn’t know it at that moment, but as I sat there that day, I had already met all of the most important people of my life. These were their faces. One of them would become my best friend. One of them would become my wife. One of them would become the most famous person in the country, for a day. And one of them, with just a few words, would change my life forever.
End of Part 1. Click here to go to Part 2.