The weather has been growing cloudier all day, as if in anticipation of the Summer Party tonight.
Half an hour before the end of the day the girls from HR and reception start getting ready in the toilets. The smell of perfume seeps in to the office, rising unstoppably, like smoke from a fire. The low level blaze of laughter combines with errant plumes of hairspray and ignites, the perfume burns too and a noxious cloud of smog trickles out from the toilets, growing stronger each time the door swings open.
I continue working as best I can but the report on my computer screen greys out eventually and I duck down to the floor, covering my mouth and feeling for the leg of the desk. Looking up to the ceiling all I can see is the swirling grey and yellow smoke of perfumed vapour, a mirror to the low hanging clouds outside.
Someone is shouting ahead of me but in the confusion I can’t tell who.
The girl next to me is also kneeling, feeling her way to the wall that runs behind our desks. She spent the lunchtime preparing for this; post-it notes line the wall at knee height, the thick back arrows drawn on them point the way out .
We follow these breadcrumbs to the photocopying machine, but there they stop. The latent heat of tanning salons, retained deep within orange and terracotta skin, has warmed the office and warped the glue of the post-it notes. A few lie scattered on the thin lino carpet, kicked and tossed and crumpled in the stampede to leave the office. They no longer pick out a path to the exit.
We join up with some other colleagues at this point. One, a temp, is chocking badly from perfume inhalation, she blames hay fever for the fit and searches her pockets for nasal spray. A man from customer services leads the way to reception and we form a crocodile line behind him, each clinging to the other, the bodies ahead our life line, and we the life line to those behind us. Reception is a relief but there we find chaos. People mill about, unsure whether to take the lifts or not. Flickers of laughter are here too, smouldering beneath each conversation like a peat bog fire, creeping flames that flare without warning. I shout ‘You fools, come on’ and push the door to the stairwell open. About half follow me.
Outside the rain falls heavily now, the low clouds that have threatened all day finally burst. We trudge along the sodden pavement, shivering and cold, and here, in this downpour, the final flickering flames of laughter are extinguished, the chocking smog of perfume damped down.
Later when the party slows and the music stops, we look back and take stock of what happened on this night. We cluster indoors, avoiding the rain that came too late, and, as we sit and contemplate, the clinging tendrils of perfume slowly leach from our clothes, until all that remains is a suggestion of fragrance in the dark air.