Hot Desk Extract: Egg Tart
As part of the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Arty Owens worked on a collection of non-fiction short stories called ‘Nothing is wrong, we just need to have a little chat’. The series finds humour in chronic illness, mental health and being a non-binary goblin. The everyday mundane is a rich endless source of internal pandemonium. The following excerpt is the beginning of a story about the peculiarities of office culture around food.
I can almost feel the familiar rumbling. The pending doom heralded by the screeching coffee machine. Around me, the messengers of cursed ill-tidings with faces glued to laptops, their coffee cups catching the tears wept over looming deadlines.
I’m about to flush my career down the toilet.
“I take all sorts of meds,” I tell my colleague Sarah. “I’m a real sicko.”
She laughs. Thank god. Although I suspect she thinks I am exaggerating. Not that it matters. She is back on her phone leaving me to the scrutiny of Margaret. She hasn’t noticed the discomfort. The souring.
“Oh, girls.” Margaret pushes the untouched third of the egg tart towards me. “You both are so funny.”
A beat. The moment passes and the conversation moves on to more pressing matters. Sponsors, bios and programs. The glamorous life of a copywriter in the intricate and stagnant machine of higher education.
The latte, hot chocolate and soy chai have turned to dry foam stains on the glass. As usual, Margaret consumes the conversation, her unwavering eye contact framed with bright purple glasses. With an ease beyond my comprehension, Sarah matches Margaret’s intensity with her own ability to pretend to listen and text at the same time.
The time for us to return to the office approaches. Only there is one slice of business that remains untouched.
The egg tart.
Glazed, golden pastry you can feel the crunch in your mouth just by looking at it. Sarah liked it, and she doesn’t like anything. Margaret had been so eager to treat us to the best egg tart in the city. A surprise treat for her hard working employees.
The last piece is mine.
The yellow centre, bright and as painful to look at as the sun. It sings sweet temptation. Icarus and the egg tart.
Margaret finishes her sparkling water and glances at the tart she was so gracious to treat us with.
Yes, it looks tasty. No, I’m not ungrateful. Hell yeah, I love treats. I do not entertain the idea of dieting. However, I just can’t.
“Sarah, do you want my bit?”
“No.” She continues to text. “I’m good.”
“You have to try it,” says Margaret.
I pat my tummy. “I’m so full.”
“It’s the best in the city.” Margaret insists. “Just have a taste”.
My stomach clenches, sharp like a tack in a toe, in anticipation of what could be. Should I eat such a wonder? Risk melting whatever dignity I perceive to have at this job? I’ve already caused a stir in the office today when I brought in a brightly coloured lunch box. Oh and the week before when I named my pot plant Micheal Cera. Ah, how they gathered to behold the fern as if it was the newest attraction at the zoo.
It’s 3pm. There is a possibility that I’ll only get the fatigue before 5pm. I’d spend my last two hours at work glassy-eyed, reading the same sentence over and over. Well, It’s not like I’ll be too upset not getting anything done. But the fatigue weighs on the limbs. Keeping your head upright is a burden. As is keeping your eyelids from glueing shut. Endless crust in the corner of your eye. Drool leaks onto your palm as you try to answer an email and try to make it passable English. The only language I know. Words liquify in my mouth, merging. A sentence loses its tail and vowels slobber out as mumbles.
Then there is the travel home in the hot tin can tram full of suffering workers and poor students. A tinderbox for emotional breakdowns and existential crises.
What would truly be the nail in the coffin: the rambunctious egg tart fart I’d surely rip in an hour or so. The kind that’s painful to hold. You hear it inside you first, like twisting two balloons together. The kind that finds escape through every crack. A laugh, a sneeze, a bending of the knees.
Surely, as my friend with impeccable gut-brain health would insist, you can just say no? Absolutely you can. There are infinite ways to refuse such tantalising poison. And, there are infinite minute consequences that stockpile. Why, there are only so many times you can refuse Susan’s birthday cake at the office party before she may take it as a personal slight. Perhaps, just like the layers of cream and sponge on Susan’s cake, within she may have lashings of tart ableism. Flavours hit in unsuspecting moments. Subtle hints may stir in a conversation. You may be left with a bitter taste in your mouth. You may find out later that before you spilled your guts and said ‘I have a chronic illness’, Susan was going to promote you.
Silent, deadly gradual asphyxiation of my work life. On the other hand, our office doesn’t have windows.
[Image ID: Text reading ‘egg tart’ on a yellow background. The text is made out of an illustration of a person screaming.]
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