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Steamed Up

Petra sagged as she chewed on a wilting cheese roll. Her face was lined. Her blonde hair hung listlessly, straight down. Her shoulders drooped and her breasts had gone into hiding.

"I think Iíve got rid of Duncan," she said.

She didnít sound very pleased about it.

"Good decision," Sue said, disentangling an alfalfa sprout from a microscopic ball of cottage cheese. "He would have cost you a fortune in batteries."

Petra looked at her, puzzled, the bags under her eyes making her look like a bloodhound.

"Or is he solar powered? Steam driven?" Sue continued remorselessly.

Petra glared halfheartedly. "Heís not a machine," she said.

"He might as well be. Heís got as much conversation as Arnold Schwarzenegger and as much personality as a radiata pine. Frankly, Iíd rather have it off with a bulldozer."

"Heís very gentle," Petra said, offended.

"So are gorillas."

"Iíve never tried," Petra said.

Emma finished her piece of cheesecake. "He did seem very technologically oriented," she said mildly.

"Obsessed is the word," Sue said. "Who else would send love faxes?"

Petra blushed. "Itís not his fault that the whole office reads what comes in on the fax machine."

"What about the electricity bill?"

Petra pulled a computer printout from her handbag and thumped it down on the table. Below the Amount Payable, in a box outlined in asterisks, were the words I LOVE YOU. There was also a RECEIVED stamp. "Iíve paid it," she said defiantly. She paused. "It was very embarrassing."

"Not as much as the e-mail," Sue said, rubbing it in.

"His thesaurus told him the e could stand for erotic."

"But you werenít even connected to the system."

"That didnít mean that they had to put it on the notice board in the foyer."

"All of which proves that youíre well rid of him," Sue said.

"This sounds like the course Iím on," Emma said, trying some diversionary tactics. "Theory and Practice of Office Politics."

"Is it for experts or beginners?" Sue asked.

"Practitioners," Emma said. "This morning was all about Love-Hate Diagrams."

Sue frowned. Petra returned contemplation of her cheese roll.

"Thereís a standard set of symbols," Emma said. "A halo, a bottle of ulcer pills, a doormat, a brown cylinder ... You use them to represent the people on the office. Then you draw the relationships: a jackboot, hands in prayer, an arrow with a dollar sign on it ... And at the end, the whole group gets together to compare diagrams."

"That must be interesting," Sue said.

Emma laughed. "You do two diagrams, one for you, one to show. But youíve got to compare them and give yourself a gutlessness score."

"Howíd you go?" Petra asked.

"I got an A for diplomacy."

Emma scoured her plate for crumbs. "This afternoon weíve got a workshop on bitchy comments, snide remarks and underhand manoeuvres." She looked at Sue. "Youíd love it," she said.

Sue pursed her lips. "I donít think that that sort of thing is necessary," she said.

"Duncan plays those sorts of games," Petra said. "Thereís a sort of fantasy workshop, where they look at circuit diagrams and imagine what they could do with them. And of course thereís Trivial Acronyms."

"Thatís the one where youíve got to guess what SFA means, and it turns out to be Scottish Football Association?" Sue asked.

Petra nodded.

"So how long is it since youíve seen him?" Emma asked.

"A week. Not since the Queensland trip."

"Was it that bad?"

Petra nodded. "We went on a train, didnít we? A traditional Australian train. Slow, creaky, lumpy seats, bang thump wallop as they shunted in the middle of the night."

"You donít have to go to Queensland for that," Emma said. "Just catch the train to Sydney."

Petra ignored her. "But Duncan was shitty because it wasnít steam. Every stop he was out in the goods yard, peering into the sheds in the hope heís find a steam engine. He got so frustrated at one place, I thought he was going to rebuild the diesel engine with his bare hands."

"She does go for the strong, silent type," Sue murmured.

"So anyway, we got there, and off we go to find some food to wake us up, and thereís this cafe ó you know, the usual little Italian place, limp pizza masquerading as laminex tables, poppa leaning on his shotgun while momma heaves flour sacks in the kitchen, the bambino doing wheelies on his 750cc ghetto blaster, and behind the counter a massive, gleaming expresso machine steaming away, the daughter pumping the handles like its going to jackpot any minute.

"The first shrp, grrk, sssssssSSSSSS and Duncan was history. Youíd think the daughter was a fully qualified angel, straight from the almighty, the look on his face."

Petra paused. "Thatís the last time I saw him."

Her face was becoming flushed, an unnatural pink. Emma glanced at Sue. The same was happening to her. She looked at the table and the walls. The whole room was turning slowly pink. She looked out the window. On the wall of the opposite building, gigantic letters were forming:

PETRA, WILL YOU MARRY ME?

Petra slumped even further in her chair, and then began to crawl under the table. Her face was grey-green, neutralising the pink.

"Oh, Christ!" she said. "Heís back."

Copyright © D.W. Walker, 1992


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