‘Urgh. Yuck. Lip gloss in my hair.’
My best friend and colleague, Lainey, pulls globby strands of blonde hair away from her mouth. She puckers and plumps and adjusts her blouse one last time. ‘Okay, all right, I’m good.’
I lift my camera and adjust the zoom, lowering it – and my shoulders – just as quickly.
‘Now what?’ she cries.
‘I’m just waiting for the bus to pass.’ I gesture at the giant red mass beetling along Embankment on the opposite side of the Thames.
‘Really?’ She turns to shout at it, and we fall about laughing, much to the annoyance of passers-by. It’s London’s South Bank in the middle of summer, she’s lucky her background isn’t a sea of tourists. They’ve so far been gracious enough to give us a wide berth.
‘Surely you don’t want it to look like you have a TFL special protruding from your ear in your photo, do you?’ I ask.
She chortles. ‘It would make a great talking point.’
After the bus disappears and a water taxi is out of focus, I snap off a handful of shots and hope they aren’t awful. I’m so out of practice with this photography lark that I’ve got the camera set to ‘automatic’ and all my extremities crossed. I don’t have time to worry about focal length and shutter speed today. I try for a few different angles, forcing Lainey into some uncomfortable-looking poses and, when I’m satisfied I’ve got enough photos, I wave her over to look.
‘Nope, not that one.’ She swipes at the two-inch display as if it’ll make her photo disappear. ‘I look like I’ve just done a double-shift at The London Dungeon.’
‘What?’ I shriek in disbelief. ‘You do not. Don’t be awful about yourself. You look fine.’
Nobody could accuse Lainey of looking like a horror movie villain. Ever. From the moment I met her, in our first year at Sheffield Hallam University, she’s carried herself with ballerina grace and the style of a golden era Hollywood starlet. Her hair, usually held in an impeccable ballet bun, is free flowing today, with no thanks to the muggy summer breeze. It’s the kind of warmth that feels like breathing tepid water and I’m not a fan.
‘What about this one? How do I zoom?’ She jabs at the + button I point to. ‘That’s better. More professional, less crazy eyes.’
‘What did you want these for again?’ I ask.
Lainey grimaces. ‘LinkedIn.’
‘What? You’re leaving? Really?’
‘Figure it’s time to put myself out there,’ she says quietly. ‘Look for something that pays a bit better. I’d launch my own social media business, but what with the brand-new mortgage—’
‘And a wedding coming up.’
She grumbles. ‘Don’t remind me.’
When she’s not posing for an updated profile photo, Lainey normally occupies a desk on the same floor as me at Webster Fine Art Gallery on the South Bank. While I’m with the curating team, she’s smack-bang in the middle of the social media hub, updating, sharing, engaging the community, and enticing visitors through our doors with fresh and ever-changing content. She’s so amazing at what she does that I have no doubt she could sell art to the most hard-nosed critics.
‘Wait, is that why you weren’t in today?’ I look up at her, twinkling brown kohl-rimmed eyes betraying the horrible lurgy she reportedly had on the phone this morning.
‘Shhh.’ She presses a finger to her lips. ‘I got a sick note. It’s legitimate.’
‘In light of that, you need to get out of here before old Mr Webster spots you.’ I throw an arm around her neck and hug her tightly. My phone pings as I pull back, an appointment reminder. ‘I’m apparently on a tea break, and I have a meeting with Rockin’ Roland in twenty.’
‘A meeting?’ she asks. ‘About what?’
I pull a face. ‘I’m hoping it’ll be to tell me I’ve got the senior curator job.’
When the clock struck midnight on the first of January this year, I braved the chill of a London night to raise my thumbprint-smeared martini glass to the sky. Fireworks bloomed in convex perfection through it and, in that moment of inebriated clarity, I promised myself two things would happen this year. I don’t so much call them resolutions as I do revolutions, because that’s what we’re doing: revolving around the sun. Ask Julian Lennon, he’ll tell you.
The first of those revolutions was to level-up at work. After five years slaving away as an assistant then junior curator, cataloguing and keeping records, planning and budgeting, I’d landed on my feet as one of the gallery’s two curators, designing my own programmes and acquiring new art.
Sure that I was destined for bigger things and all that, when Roland announced last month that he was leaving for a stint at an Irish museum, I threw down my application quicker than a winning hand at poker and bailed out of the room with explosions in the background, billowing hair and perfect slow motion.
Well, not exactly, but you get the picture.
‘Good luck with that.’ She almost scoffs. ‘You know, I caught the three of them in the tearoom the other day. Roland, Steve and that brown-nose Charles.’
‘Oh, please call me Charlie,’ we mock in unison before sniggering.
On his first day in the office eighteen months ago, he’d made sure to tell all of us to call him Charlie, as if the affable nickname would make the shitty attitude vaporise.
‘Standing about with their dicks in their hands, no doubt,’ I say. ‘You know, we were supposed to have a strategy meeting, me, Steve and Roland. As it turned out, I got an email about half an hour after they’d finished, telling me they caught up in the hallway and decided we didn’t need a full meeting but here are the Cliff Notes if you need them.’
‘If you need them,’ she mimics Steve’s nasal whine. ‘Yeah, well, conversation fell off a crag the moment I walked in the room, but it was all covert looks and nudge, nudge until I left.’
‘They make me so angry.’ I lift my chin in the direction of the gallery and we begin walking. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t get this role.’
Lainey gives my camera a nudge. ‘Why don’t you do something with your photography? You’ve always taken amazing photos.’
‘That never really took off though, did it?’ I said. ‘I mean, it was fine as a hobby in university. I didn’t have bills to pay, but you’ve got to grow up and get an adult job some time.’
‘Adults,’ she scoffs. ‘Are we boring? We are, aren’t we? Mortgage dwellers with a solid nine-to-five and a rosé habit.’
‘That’s a bit grim.’ I wince, stuffing my camera back into my bag. ‘What I’d really love is my own gallery, something small like that place near Embankment.’
‘The one that did the Kennedy exhibition? I love that place,’ she coos at the memory. ‘Let’s go back there soon.’
‘Absolutely,’ I say, pulling to a stop just by the doors of the gallery. They swish open with a wave of air conditioning. ‘Speaking of habits. Dinner tonight?’
‘Hello, yes, always. I’m going to go get us a table right now, in fact.’
‘Even better. Fingers crossed we’ll be celebrating.’
‘Good luck.’ She hugs me again and offers a small wave as she melts into the crowd by Jubilee Gardens.
Slinking back to my desk, a family photo catches in the corner of my eye. A pre-digital age selfie of my father, brother and me at Disneyland Paris. I wonder what they’re both up to right now. I’d likely know if I opened Adam’s emails, but I’ve been too preoccupied this afternoon with Lainey’s photos and waiting on data from one of our researchers, Sally. I need her document before the weekend kicks in, otherwise I’ll be spending another Saturday night writing exhibition notes with only Netflix and a bottle of wine for company, like all good social animals.
As always, I’ll answer Adam later. He never expects a response straightaway.
‘Katharine, are you ready?’
Roland, my boss, pokes his head out of his door and waves a beckoning hand. He’s the only one in our small team who’s been blessed with an office, not that it’s much to write home about. The windows look like they haven’t been cleaned since Theresa May was Home Secretary, the carpet is weak tea beige, and it smells like toilet lollies.
I cross the office knowing all eyes are following me like a stage spotlight. Guess I’m not the only one who knows I have a meeting today. It’s a little intimidating if I’m honest. The door closes behind me with a soft click.
Situations like this don’t normally faze me. Roland’s attitude is less wanky art gallery manager and more everyone’s-best-friend-Bob-Ross. I’ve spent more time in the last five years schmoozing with million-dollar corporate sponsors and doing more overtime than I care to admit, so I can talk the talk, but he’s fiddling with things on his desk like they’ll never quite line up properly. And is that sweat beading on his forehead? Gross.
It’s also not often that I apply for his job, either.
I have the nous and the experience, which certainly helps, but it’s nothing without the art. While photography gave me a place to belong as a teenager, somewhere to explore ideas and feelings, as I got older, I began to experiment with different streams. I’ve dabbled in sketching, oils and watercolours. And, even though photography remains my one true love, I’m constantly amazed by the texture and depth, the layers that are built up to create a story on a canvas.
Regardless of my efforts, I could never quite convince a gallery to show my photography. A lot of conversations ended with ‘It’s fantastic, but . . .’, or the less brutal ‘We just don’t have the room.’ So, I set my sights on curation instead. Sure, I wasn’t creating work as such, my own art fell by the wayside of busy adult life, but I was creating experiences and sharing my love of art with the world, all while being able to pay my bills at the end of each month. It was the perfect match, and one I wanted to nurture throughout my career. Long story short: being senior curator would be a dream come true.
Looking around the office while Roland finishes nesting, my eye catches on faded prints that have been passed down through generations of senior curators. If this becomes my office, they’ll be out the door and replaced with photography, or an original Romantic period painting if ever I could afford one (I say as I laugh into my empty bank account). The desk looks like it was built around the same time as the museum, during the peach tubular metal fascination of the mid-Eighties, back when Springsteen was The Boss and a DeLorean was the only way to travel.
‘Sit, sit,’ Roland urges as he throws himself into his own chair. Air wheezes from the asthmatic cushion. ‘How’s your day been? Good?’
‘Busy,’ I say, blowing my cheeks out. ‘I’ve been downstairs with the design team this morning, looking at their plans for the exhibition that opens next month. They’ve got everything under control, the displays are coming together nicely. They were working on the entrance piece today. In fact, I’m ecstatic with the way things are progressing. I’m planning on writing up the didactic panels this weekend.’
Didactic panels are those little squares next to artwork in museums, and they can be more painful to get right than a thesis after a bottle or two of cava. So much information to impart, so little space.
‘Excellent.’ Roland laces his fingers and hunches over his desk. ‘Tell me, have we talked about the fundraiser a few weeks ago?’
My mind wormholes back to that night, to the exhibition space that had been transformed into a sleek, polished concrete, dimly lit function room. Soft blue and purple lights embedded in the floor made us look properly fancy, as if our best outfits and napkin swans hadn’t already.
The finest pieces from each department had been painstakingly moved and displayed away from the trajectory of wine glasses and greasy finger foods, and team members worked the room using our best manners and extensive art knowledge to woo potential corporate sponsors. Now, though, I’m left with the frightening realisation that maybe I’d done something wrong, and that’s why I’m in here. I run through all the conversations I had and try to pinpoint anything crucial. Wait. I didn’t have a full tits-out experience no one told me about, did I? I’m mortified at the thought.
I shake my head and try to gather some moisture in my mouth. It doesn’t happen.
‘Let me be blunt: we smashed it out of the park.’ Roland reaches for a thick legal pad. ‘I had a cheeky vino with the powers that be at lunch today and they’ve greenlit our Van Gogh exhibition for next year. They say there’s enough folding stuff to see us through to the end of next year. We’re all ridiculously excited about it, especially me, because I won’t be here having to do the hard work.’ He snorts a derisive laugh.
‘That’s excellent.’ I nod, feeling myself lean closer. Is he about to tell me what I want to hear? I mean, this is all good news, isn’t it? We’ve made our money and my exhibition suggestion has just been greenlit. ‘Though I’m a tad confused as to why we didn’t just have a team meeting for this?’
‘Oh, right. Yes.’
He mashes his computer mouse into the mat so hard dust floats from the monitor. Pushing fire engine red thick-rimmed glasses back up his nose, he squints at the screen. ‘I have one email here . . . here it is. ‘We were particularly enthused by Katharine’s knowledge of classics—” they mentioned you specifically “—and are one hundred per cent sure the exhibition will be a success.”’
My insides bubble in the effervescent wonder that, for once, something might be going right. I bite my lip and try to repress a smile. ‘Ah, that’s wonderful. I’m so pleased.’
‘Don’t be so coy.’ Roland finger-guns me. ‘That’s incredible feedback. You’re a bloody star, you are. A credit to any team.’
‘That’s very kind, thank you.’
Wait? What? Any team?
Please, just bloody tell me already. I’ve chiselled away at this job for years. It’s been the Rodin on my CV; long and arduous but ultimately worth it. After all the work I’ve put in, the scratchy-eyed overtime and dinners sucking up to rich people who, despite what they think, know very little about art, and books I’ve spent late nights memorising, I was secretly confident I was a shoo-in for the position. So why the gut feeling that I was being put on the rack?
But I can’t stop here. After compliments like that, I decide I’ve got nothing to lose. I need an answer.
‘Roland, tell me about this lunch meeting,’ I probe. ‘Did they talk about plans beyond Van Gogh? What can I expect to be working on after that? Is it the women in Renaissance exhibition maybe? I adore that period, and it would be a great win for the museum.’
‘Okay.’ He wriggles uncomfortably, like he has an itchy bomb in his pants. I’d allow myself to entertain that idea if it weren’t for the fact I might laugh in his face. ‘I’m really glad you asked, because there’s been a lot of chatter about who’ll be filling my role and what the office is going to look like—’
‘And?’ I cut over the top of him, too excited to care for rigmarole or patience. Now is good. My heart is beating against my ribs like a muffled xylophone. Flight of the bumblebees, maybe.
‘Management went through each interview: yours, Steve’s, and the other applicants. They looked at responses, qualifications, roles within the team, work that needed to be done, and matched it all up against the criteria matrix, etcetera and so forth.’
He swallows. Hard. And he isn’t making eye contact, instead looking anywhere but at me.
I roll a hand in the hope that the breeze I create will hurry him along. I know I ticked all the boxes on all their checklists; I’d studied the job ad profusely, made notes and carried index cards around the entire week before my interview. Hell, Lainey was even roped into no less than six mock interviews. Nobody could tell me I didn’t meet the qualification criteria – I hold a Masters in Curating and Collections, something Roland likes to throw out to the investors like it’s a dangling carrot. If that isn’t enough, then poke me with a fork because I am done.
‘They’ve decided to run with Steve.’
He says this with such finality that it’s like dropping a brick from a height. For a moment, I can hear nothing but my own blood racing through my ears.
‘Steve?’ I ask, knowing how incredulous I sound. Not even sorry; I can’t help it.
Roland fumbles, for what I don’t know. ‘W-w-well, y-yes. He’s got the experience of his stint at MoMA, and he does consistently great work.’
‘He was at MoMA for ten whole days,’ I deadpan before mumbling, ‘And that was including the jetlag.’
As I say this, I can see Roland’s frame shrink back. He knows this is bad, and not at all the answer I was expecting. I also suspect he knows this makes no sense either, other than the preferential treatment of friends, but no more words come. My mouth gawps like a sunbathing goldfish.
‘All right then.’ I nod and purse my lips.
What else am I supposed to say? I can’t argue, because it would only make me look bad. Assertiveness is often dismissed as aggressiveness in women, and it’s no different here in the art world than it is in any other corporate office. Roland’s leg starts bouncing, and a sinking feeling sets in. This is about to get worse. I’m acutely aware that there is now complete silence in the office behind me; no radio, no chatter, nothing.
Until laughter erupts outside. I glance sideways to see Steve hovering over the desk of one of the other male curators, a sly look trained my way. He knows that I know, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. Right now, I want to grab him by his scrawny designer shirt clad shoulders and shake the smug out of him. But I can’t. Instead, I bite the inside of my cheek so hard I can taste the iron tang of blood.
I am furious in a way I don’t think I have ever been before in my life. I wasn’t even this angry when I was nineteen and my brother borrowed my clapped-out Ford Escort and deposited it into a brick wall.
The next few minutes don’t register, not really. Breath coming in short spurts, I get up from the seat as calmly as I think I can, and yank the door open so hard I’m surprised the hinges are still intact. Walking into the open-plan area from Roland’s office, I reach for the first empty box I can find and drag it over to my cubicle.
Family photos and postcard artworks are tacked on the walls of my desk partition, a designer ceramic pot that found a new life as a pen holder is slumped in the corner, and a folder of plans that has been dropped on my keyboard during the time it took for Roland to drop his bombshell leaves my computer trilling its disapproval. A tiny brass plaque with my name engraved sits above my monitor as if to taunt me.
I tear everything down and toss it into the ratty box. There’s no rhyme or reason, and I’m far from gentle with any of it. When I’m done, I reach into my messenger bag and feel around for my next target. From the corner of my eye, I can see the room at a standstill. Roland is pleading with me to come back into his office and talk, but he’s an underwater mumble in a raging torrent of anger.
What am I even doing? Who the hell knows? All I can tell you is that I am not putting up with this anymore. I am not being overlooked in favour of jobs for mates, not anymore. I am not smiling and nodding while I watch the incompetent leap-frog over me. Again. I am not working nights and weekends and overtime just to be kept in a holding pattern. I have had enough. Time to draw a line in the sand.
And I draw it in Taylor Swift-red lipstick. Before I can talk myself out of it, I grab a sheet of paper from my in-tray and scrawl ‘I QUIT’ across it in big bold letters, the lipstick crumbling and mashing as I go. Grinning at Roland, who I can’t quite hear over the siren call of blood in my ears, I hold my sign aloft like I’m about to announce a wrestling match.
The office erupts into a cacophony of noise. Roland shouting for me to stop breaks through the hoots and hollers. I push past him, head held high until I pause below the glowing Exit sign and clock my sight on Steve. One hand on the emergency exit door, I raise the other up in line with my face and indulge in one last act of pettiness, showing him my middle finger. The drum of my chest is replaced by the clacking of heels as I flee down the stairwell, and, somewhere behind me, I’m sure I can hear the faint clatter of clapping.
If you’ve made it this far and want to keep reading …