TERRY PRONE: Nothing they could do for the co-worker who cuts herself

NOT to be outdone by the new mother-in-law, one of them is teaching herself how to cook.

With mixed results, so far. On the positive list sits a superb chicken casserole. On the failure list sits a loaf of brown bread so flat it could serve as a frisbee — if you wanted a frisbee crossed with a kettlebell. As she opens the office window because of the heat, the sleeve of her gauzy top slides back to her forearm.

“And that’s another thing,” she tells the other two early arrivers. “I’m doing myself terrible damage. Look — burned myself on the oven rack.”

The man from IT laughs and pulls up his sleeve to show a bloodied forearm. He doesn’t quite say “I’ll see your burn and raise you a horrible graze”, but it’s evident that he’s quite proud of the damage, which happened at the weekend, when he came off his bike. The third girl stands silent, the hem of her long sleeves touching her knuckles, as the other two compare damage.

The following morning, she arrives early, as she always does, and heads for the office shower. Nobody else uses it. In fact, were you to ask most of the staff, they’d say nobody uses it, full stop. It was there when the young company moved in, and everybody thought it was great and then ignored it.

The girl with the long sleeves cycles quite a distance to work, so she takes a shower after she arrives, but she mops and cleans so assiduously, she’s pretty sure nobody has ever spotted that the shower has been used. She’s like that. Not that anybody would mind. But still.

It’s a great shower. So much pressure behind the water that it’s warmly assaultive. She stands there, arms extended, palms up, like a naked statue of Our Lady, and the water swirling around her feet turns pink.

When she uses the shower gel, the suds also have a pink tinge to them. But she stands under the roaring water for long enough to clean most of the blood from the most recent cut.

Water turned off, she reaches for the thin bathtowel and at that moment, the light goes off, plunging the windowless bathroom into a darkness so complete she stands stunned, memory sparks floating across her eyes from the previous brightness.

She will have to step out onto shining oversized grey tiles without benefit of a mat, and does so with enormous care, groping her way slowly to the door. Its handle is lower than she expected. She turns the key, opens the door into the flooding light outside and finds herself facing the young woman who’s learning to cook.

Everything clicks. It wasn’t a fuse. Her colleague turned off the light from outside the room. She stands in astonished silence and the other girl shrieks. She follows her gaze. Blood has mixed with shower water and flowed down her arm, onto the towel, onto the floor. If she could speak, she could tell her co-worker that it looks worse than it is, but speech eludes her. The other woman grabs a teatowel from a freshly-laundered pile and takes her by the wrist before she can do anything about it.

“Oh, Jesus,” the other woman says. “Oh, dear God.”

The girl pulls her arm away and throws other teatowels on the floor, stamping on them and pushing them around with her feet to dry the space where she has been standing.

“We have to talk about this,” the other woman says. She is senior, and has been in the company since it was founded. The woman mopping the floor one-footed has been with them for less than a year.

“No, we don’t,” she says and goes back into the bathroom. She closes the door and locks it before sliding down to sit on the grey tiles. After a minute, habit kicks in and she holds the cut arm above her head to slow the blood flow.

The gesture has the look of a salute to an unseen companion. Like a celebration. She pats it with the damp towels, noticing uneven redness around it. This will need care and antibiotic cream, because the infected cut is like the fourth rung of a ladder, with half-healed and healed cuts above and below, so her GP — if she had a GP — would spot the pattern.

She criss-crosses narrow plasters on it to pull it closed, mimicking what an English emergency room doctor had done with adhesive strips, months earlier, rather than use stitches. The ER doctor had worked silently, and, her patient believed, contemptuously. She had shoved a leaflet on self-harm at her when she was done. You need to get help, she had said. But not kindly.

The girl with the long sleeves had pulled the left sleeve down over the wound and taken the leaflet. It wasn’t bad, when she read it. Showed a little insight into the fact that when the blade hits the skin, presses it for a split second before the skin parts, the sense of utter control links with the pain to form focus, to exclude everything else, to create a single note of truth and safety and self. But she turfed the leaflet anyway.

Neatly dressed now, as she always is, in draggled shades of grey, her short hair finger-combed, the shower room shorn of evidence of her presence, her property under her arm, she unlocks the door. The two women stand in silence and then her colleague tries to touch her gently. She shies. Refuses to tolerate it.

The other woman babbles about duty of care and how valued an employee the long-sleeved girl is. She talks in begging blurts: Come on, help me here, meet me halfway, you know I’m only trying to help, you must know how serious this is. Eventually, she runs out of steam and stands there, baffled, her kindness beginning to shift towards impatience.

Next step will be dislike, masked but present: What kind of person does this to themselves, they must need help. No way to explain to her that the blade is the solution, not the problem, the coping mechanism, not the issue. After a long silence, the long-sleeved girl says flatly that she’s all right and is entitled to her privacy. She can see that this will buy her time. Enough time.

The two of them head to the big office upstairs, and the girl with the long sleeves sits into her unmarked, unpostered cubicle. She works quietly all morning, occasionally sliding bits of her property into a big Jiffy bag she takes with her when she heads off at lunchtime, carrying it under the wounded arm.

She sticks the Jiffy bag in the basket at the front while she unlocks the bike and wheels it out of the parking frame.

When she fails to return after lunch, her colleagues will be puzzled until her direct boss spots the clearly marked envelope and reads the crisp, cause-free resignation letter. Then they will shrug.

The girl with the long sleeves was always a bit odd, really. Kept herself to herself. Nothing they could do...



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