Like every big day in my life, I take care with my outfit. I’m lacking in just enough confidence that if I think I’ve over- or underdressed, or simply misjudged the sartorial dress code in any way shape or form, I want the ground to open up and swallow me. According to the book I’d bought – the one that had helped me get the job in the first place – the world of television was a casual one, casual, yet peopled by designer labels slyly resting against skin. I didn’t own any designer clothes. Of any capacity. Not even a pair of fancy sunglasses from last year’s supermarket sweep of duty-free. Or a pair of Calvin Klein knickers. However, what I did have, thankfully, was the ability to dodge the corporate suit bullet, so at least I could wear my designer-free clothes with some semblance of relief. I didn’t look good in a suit. Pear-shaped woman rarely look good in suits. And pear-shaped women who can’t walk in high heels and have a phobia of bootcut trousers look even less good.
Jeans were my thing. So I pulled on a trusty pair of black skinnies. Well, they had been black when I bought them. Now they were a sort of blue-y grey colour with bobbly bits on my inner thighs where they dared to rub together, but hey ho, they were the smartest jeans I owned and they were like old friends. So on they went. I’ve never met a leopard print I could resist and a pair of calfskin leopard pumps had been my favourite purchase of the last few months, so I slipped my feet into those.
I surveyed the result so far in the cracked floor-length mirror resting gingerly against the wall. I screwed up my mouth, satisfied, if not exactly happy, with what I saw – a half naked woman whose skinny jeans mercifully had a rise high enough to contain love handles and a tummy pooch, running down to smart pumps that no one else need know had been bought from an orthopaedic shop and boasted not only gel-filled foot pads, but some sort of system for camouflaging the hideous knobby bunions I’d inherited from my mother.
I always found dressing a minefield. Once, I’d got ill at university and dropped to an unheard of weight. It wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t sustainable, and it certainly wasn’t intentional, and yet for the first time in my life, I found clothing delightful and dressing a positively enjoyable experience with all the zips doing up precisely as they should, buttons pulling seams together neatly, and no lumps, bumps or bulges to be seen. The fact that my ribcage was sticking out, I had a xylophone chest and no bust was an unfortunate aside.
Sighing, I dismissed my constantly disappointing figure and turned to the important issue of tops. After much deliberation, I chose a tight fitting vest top that had a Spanx-like effect on my torso, with a cream lace blouse layered over the top. With three layers to control it – jeans, vest top, and blouse – my muffin top had a tough job ahead of it. Finally, I grabbed a jersey blazer, and rolled the sleeves up. Body hang-ups aside, I thought I had managed to hit the right note of young creative quite nicely.
Now, for my face. Make-up makes me happy. It always has, and I’m pretty confident it always will; its beauty lying in the very fact that it always fits. Size 10 or size 20, you can wear the same foundation, so halle-fucking-lujah. It didn’t take me long to figure this, so while my make-up aged ten was very much of the lavender eye shadow and orange concealer variety, by the time I was studying for GCSEs, I had it down.
And I mean down – primer, foundation, concealer, highlighter, bronzer, blusher, eyebrow pencil, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, lipgloss – voila! The perfect ‘no make-up’ make-up look. It would take a skilled eye to see it had taken me fifteen minutes to craft this work of art. I almost felt sorry for the girls that were content with a sweep of clear or brown mascara, and some lip balm; and I definitely felt bad for men who didn’t have access to the good stuff. I’d got so adept at putting on ‘my face’ that I hardly ever remembered the time I was teaching myself the sexy cat’s eye flick with black eyeliner and ended up at the doctor’s surgery with a prescription for antibiotics and eye drops. Or the time when I accidentally used black mascara in an attempt to tame my eyebrows. Or when I thought Impulse body spray was a legitimate fragrance option…
With a final look in the mirror and the realisation that I’d now hit full procrastination, I grabbed my handbag and headed out of the door. I’d already researched the best bus routes for getting to work, but decided on this, my first day, I’d take the tube. I felt that it cemented my status as a true Londoner. When I reached the underground station, I fumbled in my bag for my Oyster card and proudly swiped it across the scanners, walking straight into the gates, which refused to open. I frowned and swiped my card again. Nothing. The crush of commuters was building up behind, and I smiled nervously. I swiped my card again, and this time, sweet relief flooded through me as the gates opened and the crowd swept me towards the escalator and down into the depths of the tube, and fortunately, as I scrunched my eyes up to read the digital sign, to the right platform.
The next train was due in two minutes. Perfect. And then it was approaching, and I panicked as once again, the crowd swept me forward, and this time past the yellow line that you must stay behind at all times, and towards the furiously blurred carriages of the train which suddenly slowed down, and the doors opened. Despite being at the front of the crush, I was left baffled several seconds later when the doors closed and the train pulled away, and I was left standing on the platform. How the hell had that happened? I looked to my left and right and saw that I was surrounded by a different set of strangers; clearly other people had made the jump.
When the second train arrived minutes later, I was ready. I moved forward purposefully yet still waiting patiently to one side to allow passengers to depart, but no one got off. Instead the pressure built up behind me again, and with stories flashing in my mind of unsuspecting commuters squashed like strawberry jam on the rails of the tube after slipping between the platform and the train, I stood firm, and, like a rock, allowed people to move around me to squeeze into the carriage in front of me. I shut my eyes, and heard the train move away.
Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to open my eyes. I needed to get on the tube. I needed to get to work. So when the third train arrived, despite no one descending to make room for new travellers, I pushed myself forward with the best of them, and suddenly popped, like a greasy olive, through into a gap between one man’s right shoulder, and another man’s armpit. It was a tight fit, and an unpleasant smelling one. The man whose armpit had become my temporary dwelling place, looked down with a sigh at this intrusion into his personal space, shook out his copy of The Metro in the blissfully empty space above our heads, carefully folded it over, placed it on my crown and carried on with the Sudoku.
I could feel the pressure of his ballpoint making contact with the paper, but after one aborted attempt to extricate myself which resulted in a pointedly irritated look, I resigned myself to newspaper ink in my hair and the fact that I was fairly certain he’d already put a 6 in that box.
Resigned, but not relaxed, I was constantly aware that my journey was not a simple one-liner; it required a change, and currently I couldn’t see the tube map. At each stop, more and more people had forced themselves into the train, and even if I had wanted to move, I couldn’t. The temperature was a good five degrees warmer than it had been outside and I could feel the sweat beginning to bead at my hairline.
As I felt the train slow down for the next stop, people around began to shift, and when the doors opened I felt an instantaneous release as scores of commuters departed. Sighing in relief, I glanced at the name of the stop, and shot like a bullet after them. By sheer luck, I was at my change over and I followed the mass across to another platform where another train was conveniently idling, determined not to leave until every single inch had been filled. Anxiously watching the second hand tick around my watch face and the minute hand move closer to my starting time, a fully formed drop of sweat trickled slowly from the nape of my neck before picking up speed and sliding to the waistband of my jeans.
When I finally poked my head above ground after thirty-five gruelling minutes, I clung to the nearest wall and gasped for air like a tsunami survivor. I’d never considered myself claustrophobic, but if that was tube commuting, I’d be taking the bus from now on. Despite the rising panic I’d felt earlier, thanks to my persistent habit of allocating far too much time to anything, I still actually had twenty minutes before I was due to show my face, and throwing up a prayer of gratitude to the gods of Google Maps, I followed the plotted out course from the station to the office with relatively little fuss.
The building loomed up above me, but coming from York, every building seemed to loom above you. And it was ugly – greige and square – shiny silver revolving doors did nothing to hide it. But it was my new work, and there was a beauty in that, I supposed. I pushed my way through the doors, and headed for the reception where two women sat – one with a phone wedged between her ear and shoulder, the other banging on the keyboard in front of her. I waited patiently, and smiled as widely as I could when the phone was replaced, and it was my turn.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘My name is Stella Monroe. I’m due to start work at Wakey! Wakey! today.’
‘Are they expecting you?’
‘Erm, I hope so,’ I replied, temporarily flummoxed. I really bloody hoped they were.
‘Ok. I’ll call up for you. You’ll need a security pass. Look here.’
‘Take a seat over there, please, and someone will be down to collect you.’
‘Hang on; here’s your pass. Keep this with you at all times. If you don’t have this, you don’t work here. Ok?’
‘Ok,’ I said, taking the plastic pass from her. I cringed. ‘Is there a toilet around here?’ I asked her.
She smirked. ‘Just over there.’
With my head down, I scuttled over to the toilet, and ran to mirror. I had a thick black smear of grime across my forehead. I looked from my reflection to the pass in my hand. What a fucking bitch! The disgruntled owner of greasy skin normally mattified within an inch of its life with powder, the commute had caused huge shiny patches to appear; throw in the black mark and my cross-eyed and harried expression as I searched for a hidden camera, and the security pass I had to carry with me at all times would definitely never become my prized possession.
Patching up the damage as best as I could with my emergency kit, I reappeared into the lobby five minutes later. A tall slim man was standing with his back to me around the chairs I’d been directed to. His well-fitting slim leg indigo jeans were undoubtedly designer, while the dark grey jumper atop was probably cashmere and the smart suede brogues from an exclusive boutique. His jet-black hair was cut short at the sides, and as he turned, I saw full eyebrows framing blue eyes. His mouth broke into a smile, and I realised I was staring at a familiar face.
‘Simon!’ I said.
‘Stella. You’ve arrived. Welcome to Wakey! Wakey!.’