“Gotcha!” she murmured.
Wendy’s eyes lit up as she checked and double checked the information in front of her. She realised that this was it, she had been right all along. The question now was: What should she do about it? Or rather, how could she best turn this to her advantage?
“Do you have to go?”
“Yes! I’ve got work in the morning. And so do you.”
“Well, one of the advantages of being the boss is that no-one tells you off for being late.”
“Yes, well, one of the disadvantages of working on reception, is that everyone notices if you’re late. And some people are looking for any excuse to give me a hard time.”
Stephanie slipped nylon clad feet into black patent four-inch heels and strutted over to the mirror, her long legs restricted by a tight pencil skirt. She re-applied her lipstick and started to fuss with her long, tousled blonde mane.
“God, you’ve made such a mess of my hair. Do you know how long it will take me to wash it, dry it and style it in the morning? I’m going to have to get up even earlier, now.”
“I like it messy.” Adrian smirked. “It makes you look like you’ve just been…”
“I know what it looks like, thank you very much.” Stephanie cut him off sharply. “And I don’t want to walk home looking like that, and I certainly can’t turn up for work like this.”
She swept her hair back with both hands, pulling it all into a ponytail, and studied herself in the mirror. She wrestled a hairband off her wrist and around her hair.
“Very prim and proper.” Adrian sniped. “Just how Wendy likes it.” He leaned past Stephanie to see himself in the mirror, and ran his hands through his own longish, floppy hair.
“Well maybe I should have it tidy for work. Put it all into a bun, and leave my makeup off too. It would save me a lot of time in the morning, and it would keep Wendy off my back.” She shrugged.
“Oh, don’t worry about Wendy. I know she’s made all the other girls cut their hair and wear those long, frumpy skirts, but I can handle her. You just make sure that you keep looking gorgeous in the office. I need something to distract me from work.” He leered at her and slapped her on the bum.
“Ow!” Stephanie glared indignantly. “Yes, well I know that you and Kevin can’t keep your eyes off my legs,” she reproved him, “but it’s not like anybody else appreciates me making an effort. I just get told that my skirt’s too short, my hair’s a mess and I wear too much makeup.” She pouted.
“Oh, babe, I appreciate you. I wish all the girls had your attitude. They all look so plain with their short hair and no makeup. And with legs like yours, the shorter your skirt is, the better you look.”
Stephanie wasn’t quite sure whether to be flattered with Adrian’s attention, or exasperated at the shallowness of his attraction to her.
“”Well, anyway, I’ve got to go. I need my beauty sleep, you know.”
Stephanie slipped out of the hotel, hoping that no one had noticed her. She felt horribly guilty, as always. After the first drunken encounter at the office Christmas party, Adrian had told her all sorts of things, how special she was, how she understood him, how much she meant to him. He could be very persuasive, but she was becoming increasingly doubtful about how sincere he was.
He’d also told her how, when he left his wife, they could be together properly, without sneaking around, but he didn’t actually seem to be doing anything towards this end, and Stephanie was beginning to think that she was being strung along.
She walked back to her flat thoughtfully. Having an affair with your boss was always going to be fraught with risk, and she wondered whether she was doing the right thing, and what the repercussions might be if, and when, she tried to get herself out of it.
Wendy had been well aware of the growing office flirtation between Adrian and Stephanie for a considerable time, and disapproved of it strongly – it was extremely unprofessional in her view, and Adrian pushing Stephanie to constantly flout the dress code caused entirely avoidable friction and arguments.
She also suspected that there was more going on than just flirting, which could easily lead to serious issues – Adrian was, after all, married with two young children. And if she was right, there was every chance that Stephanie was being taken advantage of – any relationship between a young employee and their boss was going to have the potential for exploitation.
As far as she knew, though, no company rules were being broken, so Wendy simply had to hold her tongue and see how events developed. She had noticed one or two odd incidents though, which had sent her digging through accounts that she wouldn’t normally be responsible for.
She’d first become suspicious when she’d walked into one of the meeting rooms, presuming it to be empty, but found Stephanie and Adrian there, not actually in each other’s arms, but looking like they might have been a few seconds before. Stephanie had flushed bright red, muttered something unintelligible and hastily left. Adrian had grinned vacantly at her and sauntered out, tossing his tousled hair out of his eyes and ignoring her raised eyebrows.
Suspicions raised, she’d noticed that there had been at least three occasions over the next couple of months when both Stephanie and Adrian had phoned in sick on the same day. On each occasion, both had returned the next day, with no apparent traces of illness. Wendy had vowed to keep an even closer eye on things.
Today though, she had finally found what she needed. Adrian was away on business, and Stephanie had phoned in sick. Alarm bells had started ringing, and Wendy had stayed late in the office to do some digging. Sure enough, the hotel room where Adrian was staying had been booked for double occupancy.
Wendy felt that this all but confirmed her suspicion, but it wasn’t quite enough for a confrontation. It was possible, for instance, that Adrian’s wife had gone with him, having found someone to look after their children, and even if she was right, it could be easily brushed off as an admin error.
She knew that there was more to this, though, so she started to methodically go back through the records of hotel bookings. Sure enough, she rapidly started to uncover discrepancies. There were plenty of perfectly legitimate entries, for business meetings and conferences, but a couple of times a month there was a booking for a double room at a local hotel with no corresponding event. Wendy didn’t recognise the names of the guests, either.
This settled it. As Stephanie was responsible for making all the bookings, and Adrian, as her boss, signed everything off, they must both be aware of what was going on, and the only plausible explanation was that they were having an affair.
That in itself wasn’t a breach of company rules, but charging the hotel to the company account most definitely was. Wendy wasn’t sure if it would be fraud or theft, but she had no doubt that both of them could be sacked for it. She made sure that she had hard copies of everything, and also took a backup of the relevant digital files.
“Adrian, have you got a minute?”
Adrian glanced at his watch.
“Oh, er, yes, of course. It won’t take long, will it? It’s nearly time for lunch.” Adrian smiled, innocently.
Wendy carefully closed the door behind her.
“I wonder if you could take a look at these for me. It’s some hotel bookings that I can’t seem to track down the reason for.”
Adrian entirely failed to conceal the look of panic that swept across his face.
“Oh, er, well, er, Stephanie makes all the bookings….” He stammered.
“Yes, but you sign them off.” Wendy replied patiently. “That makes you responsible.”
Adrian shuffled through the papers.
“Ah, well, I’m sure there’s a perfectly, ah, simple, explanation for all this. Just, er, leave it with me, and I’ll, er, I’ll have a word with Stephanie, and I’m sure that, er, everything will be, er….” He tailed off, looking hopefully at Wendy.
She looked back at him, levelly. “I showed pictures of you and Stephanie to the hotel receptionist Adrian. She knew you both immediately. Don’t take me for a fool.”
This was a complete bluff on Wendy’s part. She’d done no such thing, but Adrian’s reaction told her that she was right.
“Look, this isn’t what you think it is. It was just a bit of fun, that’s all. I’ll pay the money back, I’d always meant to do that anyway.”
“I don’t think the directors will look at it that way, do you?”
Adrian’s face fell as he realised that the game was up. Wendy waited, letting him fully grasp the implications of what he’d done.
“However,” She paused, and Adrian looked up expectantly. “I don’t think that it has to come to that. I don’t think that your wife and children deserve to be put through all of the fallout, and I also think that Stephanie is young and impressionable enough that she deserves a second chance.
“I’m not all sure that you do, but I suppose that can’t be helped.” She paused again. “There will need to be some changes, though, and I expect your full support and wholehearted cooperation. Am I understood?”
“Oh, yes. Of course, I’ll do whatever I can.” Adrian sounded extremely relieved.
“Excellent. Firstly, and obviously, the relationship between you and Stephanie will be, from now on, entirely professional. That means no flirting, no touching, nothing. And the same goes for any other employees. Clear?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Next, Stephanie will be reporting to me from now on. Partly to make sure that there aren’t any more ‘discrepancies’ with hotel bookings, and partly to minimise any contact between the two of you.”
Adrian nodded, wordlessly. That was probably for the best, anyway.
“Now, as you know, I have always felt that it was important that all employees follow the office dress code, and as Stephanie will be working for me, she will be treated just like anyone else. I trust that I have your support on this?”
“I’m sorry? I didn’t quite catch that?”
“Yes, you have my support.” Adrian sighed.
“Excellent. I’d like you to tell Stephanie all of this. I shall be present, but only to observe. I believe you’re free at two o’clock?”
“All right.” Adrian sounded resigned.
“Now, since you’re entirely in support of all employees following the dress code, there’s one more thing.”
Adrian looked puzzled.
“Your hair is a mess. And it’s far too long. You need to pay a visit to Mr. Sykes, on the corner. I want it off your ears and collar, out of your face, and a nice straight side parting. Clear?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “You’ve plenty of time to go before your meeting with Stephanie.”
“But…. How am I supposed to explain that? What’s my wife going to say?”
“I expect she’ll say how nice and smart you look.” Wendy replied acidly. “If it helps, think about what she’d say if everything else came out.”
Adrian slipped back in through the side door, relieved to find the corridor empty. The door was usually kept locked, but he knew where the key was, and he couldn’t face the inevitable comments if he came in the front.
Wendy caught a glimpse of him scuttling into his office, and followed him in, not bothering to knock. Adrian turned sharply, then saw who it was and scowled. Wendy beamed.
“Very smart, Adrian. Mr. Sykes certainly knows his business.” Wendy was pleased that she’d had the foresight to brief Mr. Sykes on her way to the office that morning.
“I’m going to be sending a particularly obstinate employee to you later on.” She had told him. “His hair is an absolute disgrace, far too long and always untidy, and he’s quite old enough to know better. Please send him back to the office with the standard approved haircut. Plenty of cream on it.”
Mr. Sykes always enjoyed shearing the young men who Wendy occasionally sent his way, and had been looking forward to Adrian’s visit all morning. When the shaggy haired figure reluctantly sat down in his chair, he raised his eyebrows in disapproval.
“Well, this will never do.” he tutted. “A good tidy up, that’s what you need. Don’t worry, we’ll get you looking nice and smart for the office.”
He had taken great pleasure in shearing off Adrian’s long, floppy fringe and running his clippers tightly up the back and sides of his head. Adrian had tried to object to the final heavy application of sticky white hair cream, but Mr. Sykes had ignored him, following Wendy’s instructions and carving a sharply defined side parting into Adrian’s hair.
He could hardly bear to look in the mirror, his forehead and ears seemingly magnified by the severity of the cut, and the immaculately slicked hair giving him a momentary flashback to his first day at grammar school. He had paid the barber in a daze, vaguely feeling that this was adding insult to injury, and hurried back to work, hoping not to be spotted.
He opened his mouth to snap back to Wendy, but thought better of it and closed it again. She nodded briskly.
“Keep it like that, please. Short and neat, just as the dress code says.”
Before Adrian could reply, there was a knock on the door.
Stephanie’s tousled blonde mane appeared around the door. “You wanted to see me? Oh, I can come back if you’re busy…” Her voice tailed off as she took in the full effect of Adrian’s visit to Mr. Sykes.
“No, come in.” Adrian sighed. “We might as well get this over with.”
Stephanie was suddenly alarmed. “Get what over with? What’s going on?”
Wendy saw that she was going to have to step in. “Nothing to worry about, just a few organisational changes. Adrian will fill you in.” She looked pointedly at him.
“Yes, well. Ah. Well, it seems that there might have been some hotel bookings that can’t quite be properly accounted for.”
Stephanie tried to suppress the panic that was rising within her. She knew that she should never have got herself involved with this. Having an affair with her married boss was stupid enough, but letting him persuade her to put the hotel rooms on the company account, just so his wife wouldn’t find out…. Well, if she got fired, she supposed that it was her own fault. She shook her head, tried to refocus on what Adrian was saying.
“…and since you’ll be working for Wendy, then, ah, you’ll be following the same dress code as the rest of the office staff.” He paused, to see Stephanie’s reaction, but she just blinked at him. He continued, doggedy.
“I’ve, ah, come to agree with her that, er, it’s umm, important that all of the staff stick to the rules, and ah, look as smart as possible. Hence, er.“ He gestured at his own severely cropped hair.
“Oh. Yes, I had noticed. Um. Yes, er, you look very smart.”
Stephanie was slightly lost for words. She was, however, putting events together in her head rapidly. She wasn’t stupid by any means, despite the impression that many would form by looking at her hair, heels and nails. It seemed clear that Wendy knew very well what had been going on, and that Adrian knew that she knew. For some reason, a blind eye was being turned, in exchange for Adrian conceding ground in their power struggle.
Stephanie wasn’t quite sure how she felt about being treated as a pawn in their game, but she supposed it was better than being given her notice.
“So, Wendy feels that we should strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, and, so, er, she wants to address your, er, issues with the dress code immediately. This afternoon.”
“Oh, er, yes, um. Yes, of course, I’ll be happy to tidy my hair up, and sort my makeup out.” She smiled at Wendy, eager to show her willingness.
Whilst Stephanie was, to some extent, disappointed that she would no longer be allowed to glam herself up for work, she secretly hadn’t minded that much when Wendy put her foot down previously. In fact, with her hair neatly pulled back so that it didn’t fall in her face, and her nails trimmed to a more sensible length, she had found it easier to work at the computer. And whilst Adrian had moaned about the length of her skirt and her primly buttoned blouse, at least she didn’t have to worry about showing too much off when she was bending down to refill the photocopier. Fewer wolf-whistles from the building site opposite had also been something of a relief.
“I’m pleased that you’re taking this so positively.” Wendy spoke up again. “You’re going to make a wonderful representative for the bank, just as soon as we get you looking neat and tidy.”
“Bring your bag and your coat. We won’t be back before closing time. Don’t worry, I’ve arranged cover for reception.”
Stephanie was beginning to be a little concerned. She’d expected a lecture from Wendy; hair to be kept out of her face and off her collar, minimal make up, nails short and clean, skirt below her knees. Nothing she hadn’t heard a thousand times before. She’d make some conciliatory noises, then pop to the ladies, put her hair up, wash her face and re-do her makeup, toned down enough to keep Wendy happy. She supposed that she’d have to sort her nails out by Monday, unless Wendy had some scissors and nail polish remover handy.
She hadn’t expected to be taken straight out of the front door and down the road. She didn’t quite dare to ask what Wendy had in mind, but it became clear as they stopped outside ‘Jean’s Hairstylist’.
Stephanie eyed up the window dubiously. She walked down this road every day, but had never given Jean’s a second glance before. The yellowing net curtains and faded black and white photographs couldn’t be further from her usual trendy salon, and she couldn’t imagine having her hair done in there. She turned to Wendy, wide-eyed.
“You’re not going to make me have my hair cut, are you? The dress code just says that it has to be tidy, and out of my face?”
“The dress code gives me, as office manager, considerable discretion in these matters. And I’m sure you realise that in the current situation, it’s in your best interests to cooperate?”
Stephanie swallowed, and gave a barely perceptible nod. She really wasn’t in a position to argue.
“Good girl. So, yes, you will be having your hair cut, and it will be cut short. Don’t worry, though. Jean is a very experienced hairdresser. She’ll know just what needs to be done to make you into a smart and respectable young lady. Come on.”
Wendy pushed open the door and Stephanie, reluctantly, followed.
“First thing is to get that face cleaned up. Soap and water is over there.” Wendy gestured, checking that Jean had arranged things as she had asked. “I want every scrap of that makeup gone, please.”
Stephanie realised that she really had no choice at this point, and did as she was told, lathering up the old fashioned carbolic soap and scrubbing regretfully. She contemplated her pink and shining face in the mirror, wondering if she’d now be expected to come to work like this, bare faced and with all her imperfections on view.
“Much better. Now those fingernails need cutting.” Wendy gestured again.
Sighing, Stephanie picked up the nail scissors and grudgingly snipped off her long, bright red talons. Nail polish remover followed, and with the scent of acetone heavy in the air, she held her hands out for inspection.
“Nice and short.” Wendy nodded approvingly. “Now make sure you keep them like that, please.”
Stephanie meekly acknowledged, eyes downcast.
“Right, into the chair with you then, Missy.” Jean started to take charge. “Wendy’s told me just how your hair is to be cut, so you just need to sit nice and still while I get rid of this scruffy mess and give you a proper ladies’ hairstyle.”
As she spoke, Jean sprayed Stephanie’s carefully styled peroxide locks with water and dragged her comb briskly through, ignoring Stephanie’s occasional squeals as she hit knotty sections. Without pausing, or asking permission, she started to snip long pieces of Stephanie’s hair away, quickly transforming her extravagant locks into a neat little head of uniform short layers. She continued combing and cutting, making sure that Stephanie’s hair sat comfortably clear of her ears and her collar, just as Wendy had requested.
A short fringe was neatly trimmed, and Jean combed in a careful side parting, smoothing Stephanie’s hair back from her face.
“There!” She announced. “Doesn’t that look better? Lovely and smart.”
“Certainly an improvement.” Wendy acknowledged. “Much tidier, and it won’t be a distraction for her now. Or for anyone else.”
Stephanie regarded herself in the mirror. With her hair cropped and tidy, neatly framing her pink, scrubbed face, she suddenly looked just like her mother.
“I think you were right, though.” Jean added, thoughtfully. “She would suit some curl in her hair.”
“I’m glad you agree. A nice tight perm is just what she needs. She’ll fit right in with the rest of the girls in the office.”
Stephanie gulped. She had suspected that Wendy would want her in the same short, tight, curly, poodle perms as most of the office girls now seemed to have, but she’d been scared to mention it, just in case. She knew that she was in no position to argue, as Wendy could simply reveal her part in the fraudulent hotel bookings, and she’d be out of a job before she knew it. It was still a wrench though.
Wendy could see the effect that the word ‘perm’ had had on Stephanie, and motioned discreetly for Jean to give them some space. She bent down and spoke softly but firmly.
“Now you mustn’t think that this is some kind of punishment, Stephanie. I’m sure you realise that I know exactly what’s been going on, and I’m determined to put a stop to it.
“There are plenty of reasons why I’m doing what I am, rather than simply reporting this upwards. You might want to think, for instance, of the potential repercussions on Adrian’s family, if I were to do that.” She paused, letting Stephanie realise that her own actions had, in part, led to this predicament.
“But there’s also your career to think of. Whilst you have certainly been foolish, I don’t think for one moment that you are solely, or even mostly to blame for this. I think that what you need is a new start, and a clean break from what’s happened before.
“I’m certain that changing the way you present yourself will empower you to do that, to draw a line in the sand and begin afresh. But it will also, to put it bluntly, dissuade Adrian from attempting to start anything up again. Whenever he sees you looking smart and professional, with your face scrubbed and your hair in a neat little perm, he’ll be reminded that his relationships with all his colleagues should be professional, no more and no less.
“I really believe that this is the best thing for you, as long as you embrace it, and take the opportunity to make a fresh start.”
Stephanie sat quietly, taking in what Wendy was telling her. She had been determined not to cry as her hair was cut off, telling herself that this was all her own stupid fault; if she hadn’t got herself involved with Adrian, she wouldn’t be in this position.
As she listened, though, she realised that not only was Wendy sincere, she was right. She had to escape from what had gone before, and this was the perfect – the only – way to do that. Wendy’s adept manoeuvring had taken her out of the toxic relationship with Adrian, with no repercussions, and the required makeover should help to ensure that a line was drawn, with no chance of a return.
A wave of relief swept over Stephanie, as she finally accepted the new beginning that Wendy was offering her, and a single tear slipped out, despite her best efforts. She blinked it away.
“Thank you.” She said, quietly.
Wendy smiled in return. “Jean, I think we’re ready for you.”
As Jean started winding the skinny plastic perm rods into what was left of Stephanie’s hair, she realised that just because she had accepted that this was necessary, it didn’t make it easy. She watched in the mirror as each rod was fastened, and she gradually started to look more and more like the little old ladies who formed the bulk of Jean’s customers. She swallowed, determined to see this through.
Before long, Sephanie was fully and tightly wound, with a strip of cotton wool around her head and Jean applying the perm solution carefully to each roller.
“There you go! Not long to go now, and you’ll have a lovely head of nice tight little curls.” There was satisfaction, rather than malice in Jean’s voice. As far as she was concerned, Stephanie was just another customer, and there was nothing she enjoyed more than turning a long scruffy mop into a neatly ordered sea of curls.
Stephanie forced a smile out. She knew that there was nothing she could do, and she might as well accept things gracefully.
“Thank you, Jean.” Wendy was rather more enthusiastic. “Nice tight curls are just what Stephanie needs. She’s going to look so smart when you’ve finished.”
Stephanie was given a cup of tea and a copy of Good Housekeeping, which she flicked through apathetically as the chemicals did their work. It was only when the perming lotion had been rinsed off, and Jean was covering the rods with neutraliser that she realised this really was the point of no return. This is what would make her curls truly permanent, a curly girl until her hair grew out long enough again. Not that she could see that happening, at least as long as she was working for Wendy.
Oddly enough, the prevailing emotion was relief. There was no going back, and the relationship with Adrian, and all the problems it had caused, were gone, and good riddance! For the first time since she had walked into Adrian’s office that afternoon, a genuine smile crossed her face.
The neutraliser was, in turn, rinsed out and Jean efficiently removed the perm rods. She again took up her comb and scissors, determinedly trimming another half-inch or so from Stephanie’s new curls.
“I’m just shaping this up a little bit, dear.” She announced. “I want to make sure that these curls pull in really nice and tight for you.”
She turned to Wendy. “Now you wanted all this brassy blonde gone, didn’t you? You’re not normally supposed to put colour on a fresh perm, but I found some semi-permanent colour that says it should be safe. It’s a nice light brown, which should match these roots, by the look of it.”
Stephanie raised her eyebrows. Back to the natural mousy brown that she hadn’t seen for years. Her roots were due for a touch-up, but it sounded like that was one more chore that she wouldn’t have to worry about.
Despite Stephanie’s acceptance of the process, the last moments were still nerve-racking. She had been turned away from the mirror as Jean applied the colour and left it to take effect, so she was left to imagine what the final outcome would be. She supposed that with her new tight curls, and her peroxide blonde replaced with her natural nondescript brown, she would look even more like her mother.
She smiled as she suddenly realised what her mother’s reaction would be when she saw her. They hadn’t been getting on very well, in fact, they hadn’t spoken since her mother had found out about her relationship with Adrian. In her view, he was just the latest in a string of inappropriate boyfriends, which she blamed on Stephanie‘s appearance.
If you want to find a decent man, who’ll treat you properly, you need to stop dressing like a floozy! Cover yourself up, wash all of that slap off, and for heaven’s sake get yourself down to the hairdressers. Your hair is a disgrace. A good cut and perm would do you the world of good.
There was a very good chance, Stephanie thought, that this could prove a turning point in her relationship with her mother too. Perhaps once she’d had some time to get used to things, she would go and visit. She suddenly realised that Jean was speaking.
“So, how do you like it? I think the curls have taken really well, and that colour is lovely and respectable. So much nicer than that awful brassy blonde.” Jean touched up a few curls with the tail of her comb and picked up an enormous can of hairspray.
“Oh yes, much better!” Wendy replied. “You look very professional now, Stephanie. Just the image that we like to see from our employees.”
Jean started spraying, liberally covering the new head of curls. She covered Stephanie’s eyes with a hand as she doused the front.
“There! Now, that’s a fresh perm, dear, so don’t wash it for three days, at least. You can touch it up with some spray and a comb, but it’s nice and tight, so it should stay tidy for you.”
Stephanie carefully put her hands up to her head. She’d never felt anything like this before. The surface was rigid with the heavy application of spray, and as she pushed, the curls gave slightly, only to spring back perfectly into place as she released them. This was going to take a bit of getting used to. But, she supposed, if that was the price of her new start, then so be it.
She swallowed. “Thank you, Jean. That’s lovely. I think it’s just what I needed.”
(with thanks to hairscribe)
Also published at https://f35hstories.wordpress.com/