Litnight 17th: Office Party
It was Sorday, the seventeenth of Litnight in Year Forty-Six. At the end of the last working day before the Midsummer, we were supposed to be celebrating.
Awakening that morning, I’d found myself embarked upon my monthly return to Bella’s country: emerged from Slia’s red queendom. Renewal suffused my world and, as the day progressed, I felt myself concentrating much better. With a sense of triumph, I was able to reconcile what had appeared incompatible elements of survey data. The details of a map, that had all but defeated me, fell easily into place. Several hours later, enforced socialising with colleagues had dented, somewhat, my sense of wellbeing.
Afternoon sunshine now slanted through the grubby office windows. Louder than she was tuneful, Melissa from the railway track survey section sang Summer in the City. Her musical notes fought with a tumult of chattering draftswomen. The big conference desk had been pushed against the wall, and into the corner. Bottles of wine and plates of nibbles lay scattered along its surface. Annabelle Simpkin, and a few other promotion-hungry young women, crowded about a director. Budget priced wine, and cheesy bites left a sour taste in my mouth. Two girls with purple flowers in their hair wafted a rather cloying perfume. Spilt drink, downright sticky, dampened my hands. Somebody gave voice to a sound half way between a bark and a laugh.
“What we need,” I heard Merrill Cooper say, “is to return to the principles of the early Empire.” She was one of my colleagues.
“Quite right,” Dorothy Billings agreed. “You know who was the best First Minister we ever had? Alicia Hughes, that’s who, and she was a war hero.”
“Well, it just goes to show, doesn’t it?”
Melanie Sykes, much closer to hand, said to me: “You look like someone with regrets…” She responded, I thought, to my distaste for the office party. “It’s none of my business, really, and I know it’s years ago, but maybe leaving your explorer’s life behind isn’t panning out as well as you hoped… what with the younger cartographers, fresh from graduate courses…”
“Perhaps,” I acknowledged, “right now, I’d rather be hundreds of miles up the Afon, in the Victoria’s Land wilderness.” I preferred not to think of the able young women emerging from the Imperial University.
“I think you’d find it very different from the last time you were there.”
“Tidy farms, I dare say, neat villages, even small towns, where once the forest goddesses reigned unchallenged.”
“The railway surveyors are making pre… prelim… prelimi… let’s just say early plans… I’m just the littlest bit tipsy… for an Afon Valley line… in Victoria’s Land.”
Here, at the heart of the Empire, railways had ceased to be the wonder of the age. The line from Berenice to Lundin had been opened a dozen years earlier. At the time, there had been much debate about whether overland steam engines were truly permissible. Michaelson, a wicked kingdoms quack-scientist, had declared such things to be impossible. When a close examination of Old Time documents had indicated the contrary, many women had suspected these papers of revealing blasphemous technology. Even after the Grand Convocation of Priestesses ruled every detail permissible, the more old fashioned folk had continued to harbour doubts. In spite of this, the spreading railways had bound the Empire ever more tightly together. Lines now extended as far as Wales and Scotia Minor – but, to the best of my knowledge, there was less than thirty miles of track over the sea in Victoria’s Land.
“You should know,” Melanie said, “that the Empire likes to look ahead.”
“The goddesses’ forest laid low, to make room for…” words failed me.
“Well, there’s a Deputies’ election coming up in Swellbelly. If you don’t like it, maybe you should put yourself up as a Peace Party candidate. Not that you’d win, here in Berenice.”
Of course, political parties, in the full sense of Democracy era formal alliances, had long since been abolished under pain of Imperial displeasure. In spite of that, there flourished widely recognised, carefully funded and well organised alignments. Perhaps such cabals are an inevitable concomitant to having the eaquelles elect our Deputies. The Peace Party comprised those who wished to rein in exploration and expansion, to reduce the army and navy with an eye to their eventual disbandment. A contrary view was held by the Imperial Party – with an expansionist agenda, and support for the military. Jane Garshaw, who was approaching the end of her second term as Deputy for West Berenice and Dorking, occupied a central place in the Imperial Party. While she wasn’t permitted to stand again, few people doubted that her successor would hold similar views.
I reminded Melanie of the strongest reason for my not allying myself with the Peace Party: “Don’t forget that my genny’s a cavalry colonel.”
“She fought in the armies that liberated Lundin and Essex, didn’t she?”
“Indeed she did, and is proud of her war record.”
“Of course, but the Fourth Battle of Lundin was about forty years ago.”
“Yeah, a couple of months more than forty years ago. What of it?”
“Your genny can’t still be on active service.”
“No, she’s in her seventies, now – but continues in the Imperial Reserve.”
“Really? Could she still fight?”
“Given the chance, I wouldn’t put it past her. But what enemies do we have?”
“None – which is why the Peace Party wants to wind down the army.”
“What’s that?” This was Julie Rochford, whose approach reminded me of a battleship surging relentlessly through the waves. She was a senior administrator, and had – four years earlier – worked long hours to ensure Jane Garshaw’s re-election. “Let’s have no talk of the Peace Party, unless you’re implicating them in a scandal.”
“Not exactly, Miss Rochford,” Melanie replied, “but I suggested that Daisy, here, might stand as a candidate.”
“With an eye to election as a Deputy for one of the local seats?”
“That’s what I meant.”
Julie Rochford paused to consider, before speaking: “It hadn’t occurred to me, Miss Sykes, but now that you raise the matter, Miss Diamond could be the very woman for us. Daisy did splendid work exploring the Victoria’s Land wilderness, expanding the boundaries of Empire. She’s raising four fine daughters. Her genny is an officer of the first quality, and her mother…”
“…is a photographer,” I completed her sentence.
“But what a photographer!” Miss Rochford gushed. “She took the defining images that marked the foundation of our Empire. Raising the flag on a peak in Yocker…”
“That’s the one,” I agreed, “everyone seems to remember.”
“Surely you’re not attempting to dismiss your mother’s work?”
“Of course not. I love my mother, and I love her pictures. It’s just that the liberation of Yocker was so long ago. Mum’s done a lot of good work since then.”
“I’m sure she has… but remind me.”
“For a start, there are the photographs she took at the blessing of Sally’s and my partnership… in the Temple…”
Miss Rochford forestalled my intention of adding of Every Goddess: “You could hardly expect me to know pictures from a private occasion. Be reasonable, Miss Diamond.”
“It wasn’t so very private. Their Majesties were there…”
Julie Rochford seemed offended. “Miss Diamond, it is not well to boast of Imperial connections. I’m sure that Their Majesties would never do anything of the kind.”
“They wouldn’t have to,” I replied. “They’re Empresses.”
My remark fell upon empty air. Miss Rochford, still reminiscent of a warship in full sail, had already surged three paces from the scene of our engagement. She now boomed at a hapless office junior. Melanie Sykes had drifted away to talk with someone else. Left standing on my own, I stared morosely into my glass. It seemed a shame to be indoors on this sunny day. How soon, I wondered, could I decently leave? The day’s work over, nobody could raise rational objections to my departure. In spite of that, I was surely expected to remain for some while yet. Disinclined to socialise, the staff toilet struck me as a promising refuge. I stepped to the door.
Tessa from the drawing office asked, as I turned the handle: “Surely, Daisy, you’re not going quite yet?”
“Just nipping out to the toilet,” I replied, raising my glass – perhaps to show that I hadn’t abandoned that badge of festivity.
Stepping out into the corridor, I wondered why it was of course. The oddity struck me forcibly – of someone questioning where I was going. When I went to relieve myself during the course of my working day, nobody so much as gave me a quizzical glance. Did anyone enjoy office parties? While it was right for us to honour Mata – and the other seasonal goddesses – with Midsummer celebrations, was this joyless occasion any way to do so? Might, indeed, it be blasphemy to mark the festival in such a dismal fashion?
About to enter the nearest toilet, I changed my mind – climbing the stairs, instead, in search of one where there’d be less risk of disturbance. As I approached my intended refuge, a dull thud sounded. My impression was that the source was nearby, although I reasoned that the conference room was the most likely location. Had someone dropped a heavy object? Miss Rochford, I reflected, might be pleased that it wasn’t a clanger, real or metaphorical. Opening the toilet door, I was surprised to see a young woman leaning on the hand towel fixture. Straightening, she started to tease her hair. Perhaps an assistant from accounts, she wasn’t a cartographer, I felt quite certain. Her face was vaguely familiar, but I didn’t know her name.
“Escaping from the party?” I asked bluntly.
“Why ever would someone want to do that?”
“You’re enjoying it, then?”
“I didn’t say that, Miss… err…”
“Diamond, Daisy Diamond. And you?”
“Lindy Carpenter… from the printing section.”
“My oldest daughter’s called Lindy. She’ll be ten in a few days.”
“You’re one of the cartographers, aren’t you?”
“A cartographer,” I agreed, “and a surveyor, when I can get out to do a bit of field work.”
“This is the kind of day when it’d be nice to be in a field, rather than a stuffy old office.”
“I can’t disagree with that.”
“Do you think you could persuade the bosses to move the party out into Lifenbud Square?”
Lifenbud Square wasn’t exactly a field, but it was the nearest thing within an easy walking distance. A patch of neatly cropped grass set about with benches and flower beds, it faced the main entrance of Cartography House, the Imperial Survey headquarters. On most working days, at that time of year, I took my lunch in the square – as did many others. My preferred bench was in the south eastern corner. It placed my back to the office and allowed a view of the Temple of Every Goddess, towering above squat office blocks. That vantage point also gave me a fleeting glimpse of trains rumbling into and out of the station.
“I could try,” I said, doubting my powers of persuasion.
“Maybe give it a go after you’ve used the toilet, then.”
“Truth to tell, I don’t really want a piss. I haven’t drunk much. It makes my head ache in this weather.”
Lindy asked: “So you’re just escaping from the conference room?”
“Like you, I imagine. Your hair doesn’t look as though it needs much attention.”
“One of the girls said something nasty.”
“You don’t look like you’ve been crying.”
“I never said she’d made me cry. I just wanted to kick something.”
“Maybe,” I surmised, “that was the loud thump I heard, just before entering the toilet.”
“It did make rather a loud noise,” she agreed, “louder than I expected. That was maybe why I didn’t hear you come in, and wasn’t pretending to be about legitimate staff toilet business.”
“Such as tidying your hair?”
“It didn’t look convincing?”
“The transition didn’t look convincing. I mean from leaning on the towel fixture to titivating your hair. It looked like a performance for my benefit.”
“It was! Good job you were no one important.”
“I wish more people around here thought that.”
“Ouch! I’m sorry if that came out wrong. What I meant…”
“I think I know what you meant. And I really do wish that more people around here thought I wasn’t important.”
“You weren’t being sarcastic, then?”
“Not at all. Too many people at the Imperial Survey know that I’m on friendly terms with Princess Victoria.”
Miss Carpenter sounded duly impressed. “Are you really?”
“Yeah. I got to know her when I was on the Task Imperial training.”
“To become an explorer?”
“That’s the one.”
She sounded even more impressed. “So you’re an explorer?”
“Was an explorer. I gave it up more than ten years ago – to settle down, raise some daughters, you know…”
“Don’t you regret…?”
“Our daughters are lovely.”
“I’m sure they are, Miss Diamond, but…”
“Call me Daisy, please. You were about to say…?”
“It must be a bit sad to be stuck in the office, after an adventurous life. You said yourself that you preferred to get out and do a bit of surveying.”
“So I did. Looking back on it, my life as an explorer can seem like a golden age. But the reality was often… Well, I wrote a book about a day in the wilderness.”
“Not Daisy’s Day?”
“That’s it. You’ve read the book?”
“My mum read it. That was one of the things that set her against me taking up the explorer’s life.”
“I’m sorry about that. Truly. Nobody knows what effect their words may have.”
“You’re OK. My mum was probably right. In any case, like as not, I wouldn’t have been accepted on to a Task Imperial course.”
“Who knows?” I hesitated to expand on this.
After waiting a moment, Miss Carpenter showed her perception: “You were going to say something more.”