BY MARIA PHALIME
Victoria knew they were talking about her. She could see them through the tinted glass of her office window, huddled together like rats in a corner. Occasionally one of them would glance in the direction of her office, envy written on her face. Debbie, the marketing assistant, had been brave enough to approach her earlier that morning, and Victoria had been deliberately evasive.
“Big day, hey,” Debbie had said.
“What?” Of course she knew what Debbie was referring to, but she resented the intrusion.
“Your anniversary, silly!”
“Oh, of course,” she said flatly.
“Do you know where he’s taking you this year?” Debbie said.
The now familiar ball in her stomach tightened. “No, it’s a surprise,” she said.
Debbie persisted. “Are you excited?”
Victoria smiled weakly, leaving the other woman looking baffled. After an awkward silence Debbie finally murmured something about getting on with her work and left.
Their wedding anniversaries had become something of a legend in the office. Every year Victoria’s husband Mike conjured up a lavish surprise for the day, and showered her with gifts and flowers. Last year it was a helicopter ride to the Winelands, followed by a private dinner at an exclusive restaurant in Franschhoek, served by the celebrity chef himself. The year before he’d hosted a weekend-long party in their honour at an upmarket venue in the City. No doubt he had something outrageous planned for this year too. He’d been particularly cagey when he’d left the house in the morning.
She felt anxious just thinking about the day ahead. Each anniversary was a reminder of what she’d given up for this picture-perfect life. They had met at university; he was good looking, confident and ambitious, the perfect antidote for the quirky Fine Arts major she was. She figured he’d help her grow up, teach her to formulate a plan for her life. Her delicately beautiful face and the flaming red hair which she struggled to tame were enough to grab his attention, and they had quickly become the golden couple of their social set. When they married two years after graduating everyone said how perfect she looked on his arm. For a while she had bought into the fairytale; but now it was the hand around her throat that was slowly choking the colour out of her.
Victoria shuddered and looked down at her desk, pushing thoughts of anniversaries out of her mind. She heard the distinctive finger rattle on her office door and she squared her shoulders just as her boss came into view.
“Morning, Vicky,” Pete said, leaning against the doorframe.
Victoria cringed at the abbreviated version of her name which he knew she hated. “Good morning,” she said.
“How are you doing with the sales report? I want to see it before you go and get romanced,” he said, gesturing at the large bouquet of red roses on her desk.
“I’m onto it. I’ll email it to you within the hour,” she said briskly.
“Good girl,” he said, smiling. He winked at her before tapping on the door again to signal his departure.
Victoria exhaled deeply, wishing him away with her breath.
She looked at the sales report in front of her. It was as if she’d been working on it for years; every week all she did was change the numbers – she could have done it in her sleep. Her breath caught in her throat as she struggled to contain the sudden claustrophobia that enveloped her. She got up and lunged for her handbag, almost falling over her feet as she hurried out of her office.
“I’m going out for lunch,” she said to her assistant as she walked past her desk towards the lifts.
“It’s quarter past eleven,” she heard Claire say.
“Coffee then,” she hissed without turning around.
“And the sales report?” Claire shouted, but Victoria wasn’t listening. All she wanted was to be outside, to get away from the stifling confines of her office.
She nearly ran out as the lift arrived at the ground floor and she couldn’t cross the vast foyer quickly enough. She gasped when the autumn breeze hit her face, taking bucketfuls of air into her lungs all at once.
“Where are you off to at this hour?”
Startled, Victoria turned to see her colleague Olivia walking down St George’s Mall towards her, a large cup of coffee in her hand.
“Just out for a coffee,” she said hurriedly.
“You should have asked me for one, I’d have saved you the trip,” Olivia said.
“That’s okay, I needed the break,” she said. She looked past Olivia, her mind already on her getaway.
Olivia smiled, oblivious. “Of course. You’ve probably got a long day and night ahead, don’t you?”
“Sorry, I can’t,” Victoria blurted, then she burst into tears.
“Victoria, what’s wrong?” Olivia asked, but Victoria just shook her head; the anguish was dammed up in her throat. She took the next gap and joined the throngs of office workers walking purposefully down the street; she was desperate to get away before anyone could stop her.
She noticed people looking at her strangely and she ducked into an open set of sliding doors to get away from the stares.
“Good morning, ma’am. Would you like to try our new fragrance?” someone asked in a practiced sing-song.
Victoria looked around at the gleaming counters of cosmetics, each manned by an immaculately groomed assistant. She groaned, scanning beyond the cosmetics to the clothing department, looking for a sign for the fitting rooms. At least there she would have a few minutes to herself, without anyone wanting anything from her.
“Ma’am?” the syrupy sales assistant said.
“Piss off,” Victoria said under her breath as she pushed past the assistant. Too late, she realised she’d said it out loud and she stopped, wondering whether to apologise. Just as quickly she carried on walking, flushed at her tiny act of rebellion.
Her eye caught an elaborate nail polish display on one of the beauty counters. She stopped and looked at the kaleidoscope of colours. Her eyes drifted predictably to the light pastels and skin tones which were her trademark. Then slowly she turned to the brash colours – purples, reds that screamed bloody murder, fiery shades of orange, and she felt an unexpected jolt of excitement. The vibrant colours glistened under the overhead lights, as if they were shining just for her. She reached over and took a bottle of Crimson Kiss from the display, caressing it gently in her hand. She glanced around; no one was paying any attention to her, but she saw numerous security cameras suspended from the ceiling.
Her heart rate quickened as she held the bottle tighter, her fingers throbbing around the cool glass. She knew that she could buy the nail polish if she really wanted to; heck, she could probably afford to buy the whole store. But, as she looked down at her hand clenched around the tiny bottle, she knew that the possibility of what she was grasping was far more valuable.
She slipped the nail polish into her handbag and quickly turned to walk towards the exit before she could change her mind. Her heart pounded in her chest with each step, and she pulled her handbag close to her, guarding the treasure she’d just gambled her perfect life on.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” she heard a man say behind her.
Her heart steadied as she stopped and turned around slowly, as if she’d been preparing for this very moment for years. She smiled at him, and then chuckled when she saw the confusion flash across the security guard’s face.
“Step this way please,” he instructed, pointing to the discrete door just to the left of the cosmetics department.
She could see it now – he’d find the nail polish in her bag, he’d call his supervisor who would probably let her go with a warning. After all, she was a respectable, middle-class woman with a powerful husband. And it was just nail polish, right? Maybe she should have taken something bigger, perhaps something more expensive.
“This way please,” the security guard said firmly, moving towards her.
The room fell into silence as she realized what she must do. She muted the noise from the gushing sales ladies and the browsing shoppers and locked her eyes onto the security guard.
His jaw clench as he took a step towards her.
She returned his move by slipping her right foot out of its soft leather pump. She splayed her toes as they touched the cold tiled floor.
It took a little over a second before comprehension registered on his face, and she smiled as his eyes filled with panic.
“I’m warning you, lady,” he said, and he reached for the walkie-talkie clipped onto his belt.
Keeping her eyes firmly fixed on his, she slipped the other shoe off and stood solidly on the floor, savouring the cold, hard sensation against her skin. The anxiety she’d felt earlier had now completely disappeared; in its place was elation about the freedom she was about to win for herself.
She took off effortlessly, running past the security guard before he’d had a chance to react. The countless hours she spent at the gym were paying off now, and she darted between the counters, vaguely aware of the growing commotion behind her. She heard him call desperately for help on his walkie-talkie, but there was no stopping her. Anniversaries, dinner parties, social climbing – it was all about to end. Victoria ran for her life.