karma by xiangpeng


									The audience laughs at carefully scripted jokes. Now and then there's a ripple of
applause. He's building me up, telling everyone what a great person I am. My stomach
flips. I've never felt so nervous. So much hangs on the next few minutes of my life.
          'Am I allowed to take my bag on with me?' I ask a short chubby bloke wearing a
'security' bib.
          He holds up a hand, mutters something into his walkie-talkie, waits for a
crackled reply, then nods.
          'Just keep it where I can see it,' he says, 'we don't want anyone getting twitchy.'

        Tonight is surreal. The people whose hands I've shaken were previously only
faces in magazines. Nearly all of them are smaller than I expected. Except that American
talk show woman, the one who used to have her own sit com. She's a whole lot taller.
And ruder. On TV, she's everyone's best friend. All I wanted was an autograph. There
was no need to say what she did.
        Another security guy taps his pen against a clipboard.
        'I need Sally Cotelli now.'
        I step forward and nod a greeting to my 'escort'. An outrageously camp
comedian who used to present a popular cookery show until all that stuff came out
about him having a wife and two kids hidden away in Glasgow.
        'Just remember to keep the bag where we can see it,' I'm told and a shove in the
small of my back propels me centre stage.
        Every single word I've rehearsed leaves me, but what does it matter? There's
        only one thing I want to say tonight.
        That's if my nerve holds.
        Not to mention my luck.
        I cross my fingers.
        Five months it's taken to turn it all around. Five short months to go from
someone whose bad luck streak rivalled North Atlantic oil slicks.
        I open my bag and glance inside.
        It's still there.
        Tonight is not the time for my karma to turn bad.

        Five months earlier, I stomped into the Manchester office of Pro-Create PR with a
face of thunder.
        'How was your weekend in Dublin?' someone asks.
       'Did you drink much Guinness?'
       'Not nearly enough.'
       My colleagues pick up on my mood and go back to discussing what they'd done
over the weekend. I switch on my computer and curse as a series of blue screens and
error messages flash up. I reach down and yank the plug out at the socket, wait ten
seconds then push it back in. Nothing changes.
       'Why?,' I howl and storm into the staffroom for coffee.
       Jackie Sullivan is at the sink, washing mugs.
       'Those girls,' she smiles at me, 'I don't know why I even bother drawing up a rota,
they've always got an excuse for why they can't do their share of cleaning.'
       'Don't we have people who are paid to do that sort of thing?' I say.
       'They're paid to vacuum the carpets and wipe desks, not pick up after us.'
       I bite my tongue.
       'Mind you, they're a bit lackadaisical with the windows,' she sighs, 'there's more
smears on here when they finish than when they start. Are you here for coffee?'
       I sit down.
       'You look a bit fed up,' Jackie says, 'how was your weekend?'
       'You really don't want to know.'

        When I was little, I slipped on some ice, broke an arm, was unconscious for two
hours and when I came round threw up for the next half day. As crap weekends go that
was nothing on the past 48 hours - a supposedly romantic break with my boyfriend Jed.
This was meant to be payback for nights alone while he plumbed fancy bathrooms into a
new apartment block.
        He promised me Paris, but due to some mix up - the mix-up being the gormless
sod forgot to book anything - we ended up in his filthy white van heading out of
Manchester towards Holyhead for the ferry to Dublin. When we got there, we drove
almost an hour in the pouring rain trying to find the bed and breakfast, which ironically
was next to the airport. A stone's throw from the end of the runway, as it happened.
        While I unpacked and tried to fit everything onto two wire coat hangers, Jed
went in search of provisions. He returned with a six-pack of Guinness and a bottle of
warm white wine. Jed's idea of a good night out in Dublin was lying on the bed in just
his pants, drinking Ireland's finest and swearing at the football.
        The next morning, I put my foot down and insisted we go in search of what my
best friend Carmel calls The Craic. He agreed and we ended up in a pub with a big
screen TV, where Jed drank Guinness and swore at the football.

        The kettle clicks off and Jackie makes coffee. We take them back to our desks. My
computer still shows a blue screen so I call the tech support guys.
        'Have you tried switching it off and on again?' they say.
        'Twice,' I lie.
        'You didn't pull the plug out of the wall did you?'
        'Right, well we'll be up to have a look shortly.'
        I take a deep breath, count to ten then twenty, eventually reaching thirty-four
before the burning feeling in the back of my throat abates.
        'We went to a second hand book fair this weekend,' Jackie says.
        Second hand book fairs are very much Jackie's thing. She's terribly well-spoken
and prone to say things like 'top hole' and 'toodle pip'.
        'You probably had more fun than I did.'
        'Rex found a load of old train timetables.'
        'You must be so happy.'
        'I got a couple of books on natural remedies.'
        'I'll know where to come then when I'm next ill.'
        She gives me one of her looks, then starts rummaging in a bag under her desk. I
wish I could stop taking out my frustration on people around me. Just lately, someone
has only to speak and I'm down their throat. I never used to be like this. Ever since I
applied for that promotion, I've been on edge. But so much is resting on it. This weekend
away was meant to take my mind off things. I thought about nothing else. The closing
date isn't for two more weeks. Two whole weeks until they put me out of my misery and
tell me whether I've got an interview.
        A decent night out with the girls would sort me out. My 26th birthday's coming
up. We almost always celebrate with dinner at my Uncle Frank's restaurant followed by
karaoke on Deansgate.
        'This might interest you,' Jackie says, pushing a little yellow book across her desk.
I already know it'll be one of her alternative therapy books. Reiki, crystals, lymphatic
drainage, chakra cleansing and ear candling. She's done it all. In theory, it should make
her fascinating. It doesn't. Mainly on account of her telling everyone about it. In far too
much detail.
        'Calm Your Karma?' I say, flicking through pages of benign sayings and pictures
of people grinning like goons.
        'Give it a go, you never know.'
        Jackie's phone rings, denying me a sarcastic riposte.
        I'm aware of someone standing behind me - Kevin from tech support, tall, skinny
and pale, wearing a code monkey t-shirt.
        'It's all yours,' I say and take Jackie's book and my coffee into the staffroom.
        Calm Your Karma sets great store by keeping a 'Karma Diary'. The idea being that
by tracking every good thing that I do, I'll see every good thing coming back. Random
acts of kindness, it insists, will bear fruit.
        I'm reminded of one of my mother's favourite phrases.
        What goes around comes around.
        I've learned to accept that, on the whole, good fortune is no friend of mine.
Maybe I did something very wrong in a previous life. What other explanation could
there be for being followed around by my very own black cloud? There are days when
I'm sure a previous incarnation of me annexed Poland or sold snake oil to gullible
Americans in exchange for their souls.
        So what have I got to lose? There could be something in this karma thing. Only
this morning I bought a copy of The Big Issue from the cute bloke outside Oxford Road
railway station. Five minutes later I won a tenner on a scratch card.
        What have I got to lose? Might as well give it a go.
Karma Diary
Wednesday 15 October

Random Acts of Kindness
Gave blood.

Bad things that happened to me
Stroppy nurse at blood donor place said they were out of juice and gave me water plus
one stale rich tea biscuit. Not even a digestive.

Good things that happened to me
Managed to balance expense claim.
         It's Thursday afternoon, five to five, the closing date for the Team Leader job was
yesterday. I've spent the last hour willing a little box to flash up on my computer, telling
me I've got mail. The instant messenger icon flashes. It's Carmel.
         'Bored - fancy a drink after work?'
         'Not sure, wait and see if I've got something to celebrate,' I type and add a smiley
face - in case she reckons I'm in miserable cow mode.
         She doesn't reply.
         I might as well go home. I'm not in the mood for a drink. But what if the mail
comes as soon as I'm out the door? What if I need to call back to confirm? They'll have
me down as knock-off-early sort and offer the interview to someone else.
         The minute hand creeps towards twelve.
         You have one new message.
         I take a deep breath and click to read.

       "Dear Sally … Thank you for your recent application for the post of team leader
in our Manchester office … blah blah … extremely high standard of applicants … blah,
blah … apologies for the delay in letting you know…"

         The words blur, I struggle to make sense of them when, across the office,
someone jumps up, punches the air and screams, 'Yes'.
        People gather round Melissa Ford's desk offering congratulations. How can she
be in the running for the job? She's only been here five minutes.
        Melissa pushes back her chair and stands up. She's five foot four, stick thin, and
immaculately turned out in a grey pinstripe suit, black patent leather shoes and sleek
blonde hair that looks to have been ironed into submission.
        She's swishing in my direction.
        'I'm awfully sorry,' she drawls in her Noo-York accent, extending a manicured
hand and pulling a face I imagine is meant to look sympathetic; to me it's more like
taking the piss.
        I glance back at my screen.

      "We'd be pleased to discuss this application further with you on Monday, 20
October at 11:30."
        Thank you Lord, I promise I'll never again take your name in vain when the Tivo fails to
record Eastenders or when they vote the wrong one off The X Factor. I will be a good person from
now on.
        'Oh,' I say, trying to act all cool, 'are you up for the job too? What time's your
        That stops her dead in her tracks. The smile vanishes. The handshake's
        'Oh I see. So you've had an email?'
        I nod.
        There's an uneasy silence.
        'Well then good luck,' she turns to go back to her desk.
        'You too,' I say. After all, it doesn't hurt to be charitable.
        She spins on her heels. The fake smile is back.
        'I don't need it,' she says.

        On Melissa's first day, I was on a conference call when she appeared next to my
desk. A normal person might politely step away and wait for me to finish. Not Melissa.
She hovered in my eyeline, displaying a row of bleached but uneven teeth, making clear
that she was anything but a 'fade into the background' sort of gal. She oozed aloof
confidence. No sooner did I put down the phone, than she held out a hand and
announced her name.
        'Melissa Ford.'
        Nothing more.
        No 'nice to meet you.'
        No 'good morning.'
        But she was big on eye contact and did this strange thing with her hand when I
shook hers, turning over my palm, so her clammy, damp mitt rested on top.
        'Sally Cotelli,' I said, gazing into dead fish eyes.
        A normal person might make conversation - maybe ask if I had Italian relatives.
Not Melissa Ford, she let go of my hand and drifted away to the next person.
        'Have a nice day,' I muttered to her back.
        She worked the room doling out insincere smiles.
        By lunchtime, there'd been a clandestine exchange of emails and the name
'Snaggletooth' was born. I'm ashamed to say it was my suggestion and I lobbied hard for
its eventual acceptance.
        Given what I've recently learned about karma, that was probably one day when I
truly knocked mine off balance. Shortly after, I did the same to half a cup of cold coffee
and was mopping up the mess when Jed called to cancel dinner.
        'I'm sorry doll,' he said, 'but if I don't work late, the whole project will be behind
        'How does not having washbasins put everything behind schedule?'
        'They can't do nothing 'til the wiring and the plumbing's sorted.'
        I mutter something about him loving his job more than me and he promises to
make it up to me at the weekend.
        'I'll get the Guinness in,' I say sourly before hanging up.
          After my brush with Melissa, all I want to do is go home, curl up on the sofa and
demolish an entire packet of custard creams.
          But Don Millar is still pacing up and down in his office, waving his arms around,
chatting on his mobile. Sneaking off early isn't an option while he's around. He'll be on
the interview panel, so I have to impress him. Given that he's been my boss for the past
three years, you'd think I'd already done that, but you can never tell with Don. He's a
hard one to read.
          Carmel sends me another message to say she's off to the pub.
          'Can't escape big Don still in his lair,' I reply.
          I've no sooner hit 'send' than Don walks past my desk.
          'Have a lovely weekend,' he says, 'I'm not in tomorrow, so I suppose I'll see you
on Monday.'
          He winks, which is so out of character that I find myself staring open mouthed
after him.
          The thing is, although in theory, Don ought to be hound-dog sexy, the way he
dresses rather spoils the effect. He's six-foot tall, olive skinned with deep dark brown
eyes and cheekbones that could cut glass. But he dresses in brown acrylic sweaters and
sage-green baggy cords, usually teamed with sensible but shabby loafers. Add to that a
complete lack of a sense of humour and… well, he's not the man he could be, if he'd only
put in some effort.
          I wait while he pulls on his grey raincoat and says goodnight. I count to two
hundred before switching off my machine. (It used to be one hundred, but I upped it
after the time he came back for his umbrella, almost colliding with me as he came out of
the lift. He never actually called me a part-timer or a skiver, but the look on his face
spoke volumes).
          With the coast apparently clear, I take the fire escape stairs down five floors,
swipe my card and say goodnight to Trevor the doorman. He never looks up from his
          I hope his name is Trevor.

         Outside, the streets are snarled up with rush hour traffic. Horns sound and
people lean out of car windows, craning to see what's causing the hold up. It's always
like this on Thursday evenings when the shops stay open late. Usually I walk home, but
it's starting to rain, so I plump for the bus.
         I've been waiting almost ten minutes, when someone taps me on the shoulder.
         'You'll be waiting a while, love.'
         I turn around to find a short bald bloke wearing a fluorescent jacket and holding
a clipboard. He speaks into a headset, waits for a reply, then nods, a gleeful smile
creeping across his thread-veined face.
         'Just as I thought, love, there's a snarl up on Princess Parkway, nothing's coming
in or out of the city centre for the next hour or two, you'd be better walking or getting a
         For a few minutes, I consider braving it out. There are people waiting at other
stops. Maybe this is one of those hidden camera wind-ups. I look around for the film
        The rain gets heavier and traffic starts moving so I give in and try to hail a taxi.
But everyone's had the same idea, full cabs sail by, people jump into the middle of the
road, desperate to flag one down.
         That's when I realise someone is watching me. A lanky guy in a green parker, a
few steps away on the street corner with a white dog. Some of the girls in the office call
him HWD – Hottie with Dog, on account of the fact that he is really quite cute - tall and
rangy, lean and taut without being overly muscular. He's got short-cropped dark hair
and deep blue eyes. He stares at me and I stare back. A taxi splashes through a puddle,
causing me to jump back. Closer to him. His mouth twists into a grin, lighting up his
whole face. Dimples form in each cheek. I find myself smiling back and then he speaks.
        'Big Issue Miss?'
        'What? Oh, right, yes, go on then.'
        Even though I bought one on Monday, I don't want to seem rude and rummage
in my bag to find change.
        'Is that enough?'
        'More than enough, you can have a kiss too if you like.'
        'I'd rather not actually; I've got a boyfriend, thank you very much.'
        'I was only kidding,' his smile dims, but doesn't go out. He gives me back two
coins. 'You have a nice evening, now, you hear?'
        And he's gone, half way up the street trying to persuade someone else to buy.
        A taxi pulls up.
        'Need a cab love?' the driver says.
        I nod and climb in.
        What goes around, comes around, I hear my mother's voice. One good deed
deserves another. All around, people are waving, trying to get home, soaked through
and looking thoroughly miserable. And here I am safe and warm and dry. Holding my
Big Issue. The traffic lights change, the jams clear. In less than five minutes, I'm dropped
outside my front door.
Karma Diary
Thursday 16 October

Random Acts of Kindness
Helped short lady reach down tin of beans from top shelf in Gupta's MiniMart.
Gave money to bloke playing flute outside Tesco Metro.
Resisted urge to tell Mad Jackie Sullivan to piss off when she said I'd put on weight.
Bought Big Issue off HWD.

Bad things that happened to me
Mad Jackie Sullivan said I'd put on weight.
Forgot bankcard was in back pocket and sat down in jeans that appear to have shrunk in
wash – it snapped in two.
Dropped lunchtime sandwich in street and was set upon by marauding pigeons.

Good things that happened to me
Landed interview for Team Leader job.
Got taxi by complete fluke.
A good day in the office always starts with a read of my horoscope. Today, it warns
against clashing with authority. Probably just as well Don is taking the day off. This
close to the interview, the last thing I want to do is go upsetting him. My horoscope also
bangs on about polluting positivity and purity by mixing in empty fantasy. In other
words, it's complete bollocks.
        Someone looking over my shoulder causes me to instinctively flick to a blank
spreadsheet and start typing in figures.
        'What are you reading, Sally?'
        'Research … for a … big … new project thingy.'
        Pro-Create is a once hip, now fast-fading advertising agency. If there were any
chance of the company landing a new project, big or otherwise, it would be huge news.
My lie ought to convince nobody, but Jackie nods and smiles.
        'I'm making tea, do you fancy a cup? I've got home-made biscuits in my bag.'
        I nod and off she totters.
        I've been meaning to thank her for the karma book. Once you get past the
pictures and the inspirational sayings, some of it makes perfect sense. Like how you
can't simply go doing good deeds willy nilly and expect to win the pools. You have to be
unselfish in your generosity. It'll be why the scratch cards I bought this morning were all
duds, even after buying my second Big Issue of the week yesterday evening.
        'There we go, a nice tot of tea,' Jackie says, 'I couldn't find your usual mug, so I
hope you don't mind this one.'
        The cup she's picked out has a cute puppy with the slogan "I don't bite" in a
thought bubble.
        'Thanks,' I say, then feel I ought to make more of an effort, 'I love dogs.'
        'Oh me too. You know where you are with dogs, they can't tell lies. Not like
        I look up from my screen.
        'Is everything ok, Jackie?'
        She shrugs and smiles.
        'It has to be, doesn't it? You're a long time dead.'
        She goes back to her desk and starts shifting papers around, but something is
bothering her. As a rule, Jackie's relentlessly upbeat. It's about all anyone can say about
an otherwise average woman in her fifties - short dark bob and a bit on the plump side
with bulgy button-brown eyes that give her the look of an owl. But today, she's not her
usual self. Maybe she is mad after all. There's no sign of that promised biscuit.
        I go back to reading horoscopes, looking ahead to the weekend. I'm promised a
surprise meeting with an old friend.
        I can't stand surprises.
        Tomorrow is my birthday and I've insisted friends consult closely on presents.
My instructions are simple, they tell me their proposed budget and I buy something I'd
like accordingly. This year I've bagged two Mac lipsticks (Carmel and Izzy), a new
handbag (Jed) and a voucher for a manicure (Mam and Dad). It hasn't stopped Jed from
also treating me to tacky black lingerie, the sort that itches and rides up. If he must pad
out my approved gift list, I could do with some new perfume and never turn my nose
up at chocolates.
        'It's your big day coming up,' Jackie says.
        'What? Oh yeah, I suppose.'
        How did she find out about my birthday? I always keep it quiet, so as to stop
anyone making a fuss.
        'No suppose about it. I've got everything crossed for you,' she smiles and I gather
she's talking about Monday's interview, 'and I've consulted the Chi. It says you'll get
everything you deserve if you only have faith.'
        I want to mutter something about how completely unhelpful her words are, but
hold my tongue and smile. She never means any harm. And who am I to say that what
she said isn't true?
        'You've just got to keep the faith,' Jackie says, popping a square of chocolate into
her mouth.
        I nod and pick up the phone.
        'Carmel,' I say, 'meet me on the fire escape in five and bring cigarettes.'

         Carmel heads up Finance, so she's always good for letting you slip through an
expense claim where you lose the receipt. Something I do with alarming regularity. I'm
half Irish, she's full on. Red hair, freckles and a voice like the Reverend Ian Paisley in a
         'She's a feckin' eejit, what's she on about, keep the faith?' she says, taking a long
drag on her Silk Cut Ultra, 'she wants to talk to my mammy about faith.'
         'She means well.'
         Carmel grunts. If we weren't the best of friends, I'd come right out and accuse
her of drawing a cartoon of Jackie on the back of the toilet door in the ladies. Instead I
change the subject.
         'Is Dave coming tonight?'
         Carmel doesn't answer right away, but when she does, it's a shake of the head.
         'Oh not again,' I sigh.
         'Fraid so, I think I'm giving him the push.'
         Carmel changes her boyfriends more often than most people change their
underwear. And when she isn't going out with boys, she's going out with girls. She's the
most sexually active woman I know. Quite possibly, she's the most sexually active
woman in the North West of England. And to look at her, you'd not think it, with her
pale complexion, the sweet innocent 'just up from the country' smile. But give her a bit
of tutty and she comes alive. Carmel is the classic frump turned very dangerous vamp
when she leaves behind the cardigans and twin sets.
         'So you're on the prowl again?' I say.
       'Lock up your sons.'
       'And daughters,' I add and she laughs like a randy sailor on shore leave.

         When I get back to my desk, there's an envelope bearing my name. I tear it open.
It's a good luck card from Jackie.
         'Thanks,' I say, 'this means a lot.'
         'Anytime,' Jackie replies, 'and have a good time tonight.'
         'Tonight at your birthday party.'
         'Oh right, yeah,' I say. How did she get to hear about it?
         'It's on my calendar,' she says, as if reading my mind, 'I write everyone's birthday
         She reaches into her bag, pulls out another card and a tiny parcel.
         'Don't go peeping until tomorrow,' she says.
         'It's not a party as such, just a meal at my Uncle Frank's restaurant,' I explain.
         'I'll probably get a takeaway tonight. Rex is away at one of his exhibitions.'
         She's fishing for an invite.
         'He's been gone for two days now. I don't know what to do with myself.'
         Oh please, make her stop. I know I'll give in.
         'Sweet and sour chicken with egg fried rice. Mind you there's always too much
for one person, so I end up throwing most of it away. It's such a shame when there are
all those kiddies starving in Africa. I was telling the vicar the same the other weekend at
the Bring and Buy for Namibia.'
         'Would you like to come along tonight?' I say.
         'What? Goodness. I hope you didn't think I was hinting…'
         'No, of course not.'
         'That's jolly decent of you. Of course I'd love to come, Sal, absolutely love to.
What time?'
         'The table's booked for eight. It's La Figa. We went there for the Christmas meal.'
         She goes back to her work, all smiles. I hear her telling someone on the phone
that she's going out to dinner with a few of the girls from work.
         How could I have left her out? How could I be such a cow? She's a nice enough
sort, a bit wacky, but honestly, there's not a bad bone in her body. Her husband, Rex
spends half his life locked in their attic playing with model trains, forever vanishing to
fairs and exhibitions to trade boy toys. He came to the company Christmas meal and
hardly spoke to a soul. It was like sharing a table with an ironing board. If there is
anything in this karma thing – and I'm sure there is - inviting Jackie can only boost mine.

        Later on, as I'm switching off my machine for the day, I hear Jackie talking on the
phone, probably telling someone else about the big night out. I beam at her, but the look
she returns is shot through with anger. Instinct causes me to over-compensate and up
my smile a few notches. She turns away. I make out a few words. 'You promised… you
bastard…how dare you…'
        I pull on my coat and sneak past her desk, not looking back until reaching the lift.
Jackie's put down the phone. She's sitting at her desk, staring into space.
        'Goodnight all,' I say to nobody in particular. She looks up. At first, I don't think
she's heard me so add, 'See you later.'
       Her scowl fades, replaced by her usual smile as she stands and pulls on her coat.
       'Hold the lift,' she calls, then turns to a group of girls gathered by the photocopier
looking at a copy of Heat, 'We're on a girls' night out,' she announces.
       Not one of them looks up.

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