She had quite forgotten about it, until she found it in a cupboard one afternoon. A little purple lunchbox, that she had won as a joke raffle prize ages ago. It would be perfect for work. Just the right size to fit her sandwiches, with room for a small treat and a neat compartment where she could stash a frozen juice box, which would help keep her food cool until lunch.
Annika was already in, and had already started.
‘Well I told My Bill,’ she had shrieked out to a colleague, ‘that he had better get a vasectomy, because one ugly son in the family is enough!’
It was not always easy working in an open plan office.
‘Poor Bill,’ thought Joan as she opened her lunch box some hours later, ‘ I wonder if he, like us, silently prays for the day his hearing starts to fail him.’
She ate her sandwich in silence, sucked down the juice and ate the chocolate bar. Maybe she shouldn’t have packed the bar, she thought, maybe she should pack a piece of fruit tomorrow instead. She picked up a pen and wrote an A for Apple on the inside of the box to remind her.
A week later, she was pleased with the decision, even though it had only been seven days, she felt better already. One piece of fruit instead of chocolate gave her more energy in the afternoon.
Annika was talking about her gym membership, at full volume.
‘I have the most fabulous personal trainer – Ian. He is such a hunk. Of course, I would never tell My Bill, but I reckon I burn just as many calories dreaming about Ian at night as I do working out with him in the gym! He designed me a personally tailored program.’
The woman was vile. She was pretty sure Annika was lying about the trainer, just as she was pretty sure her name was probably just Ann and she has stuck the -ika on for effect.
Joan did not go to the gym. Maybe she could do something else to improve her lunches though. Maybe she could swap the juice for water, and that would make them healthier. That was it – No more juice. She wrote an N inside the lid.
Two weeks later, Annika came past her desk.
‘Have you done the figures yet for the boss? He is going to expect them done for the meeting tomorrow.’
‘Not yet,’ she replied, ‘but I have a note to finish them today.’
‘You had better be careful,’ Annika’s lips smiled until her lips were a red slit across the middle of her face, ‘or he might trade you in for a younger model! Hahaha.’
‘The figures will be done on time, Annika.’ Joan replied.
That lunchtime she wrote another N inside the lid. No more bread.
‘What is that you are writing?’ asked Mandy, ‘a secret formula?’
‘No,’ said Joan, snapping the lid shut, ‘it is just a note to myself.’
‘Well whatever you are doing,’ said Mandy, ‘keep it up, Girl, because you are looking fabulous lately!’
‘Really?’ asked Joan, a bit surprised.
‘Really!’ said Mandy, ‘How much weight have you lost?’
‘I have no idea,’ Joan replied honestly.
‘Must be at least ten pounds or more,’ said Mandy, ‘and I can tell you where it is going.’ She nodded in Annika’s direction.
Joan followed her gaze. Mandy was right, Annika had definitely put on weight. The clinging top that she wore revealed a series of fatty bands bulging around her midriff down to her waistline, which was not so much a waistline as an area where the band of her skirt cut in to denote the line under which her stomach pushed out. How had she not noticed before?
She lifted the lid of her lunchbox. ANN it read. She picked up a pen and added an I.
Ten days later they were gathered in a small group around the staff table.
‘I have organized this morning tea,’ announced Annika, ‘to welcome Stuart to the office. I am sure you will all join me in making him feel at home and giving him a hand where he needs it. If he is anything like My Bill, he will need all the help he can get, hahahah.’
The table was full of cake. Joan noticed Annika loading up a plate. She also noticed that her double chin was now quite pronounced.
‘Come on Joan,’ said Annika, ‘get some food into you or you will be even slower at finishing your work than you usually are!’
‘In a minute,’ said Joan, trying not to blush.
‘Have something for goodness sake, Joan,’ said Mandy. ‘You are beginning to look too thin these days.’
But Joan was not hungry and could hardly wait for the morning tea to end. How dare Annika speak to her in front of everyone like that? As soon as people started moving off, she went back to her desk. The lunchbox was sitting there, ready. She opened the lid and quietly wrote K inside it.
The next week, Annika was boasting about her holidays loudly, so Joan added the A. By now she had lost over twenty pounds and her clothes were beginning to hang off her. She had even heard a couple of people in the toilet discussing her weight loss and wondering if she was unwell. She sat in the cubicle as their conversation moved from her to the weekend and then came the silence as she was left alone again.
She had run out of letters now, so the next time Annika upset her, she added a little drawing of a skull next to Annika’s name in the box. By now, Annika had bought a whole new wardrobe and, Joan noted, her trousers now had elasticated waist bands. Annika had then made a remark about how useless the new intern was, and it seemed so unfair, Joan added another skull, and then another. Before she knew it Annika’s name on the lid was surrounded by a swarm of little death heads and Annika’s frame so large she could barely squeeze through the gap between their desks to pay Joan a visit. Joan had begun referring to her as ‘the hippo’, first privately, then to Mandy.
‘Joan!’ Mandy had chided, ‘that is not like you – poor Annika.’
Of course, somewhere deep down, she knew it could not continue. She had lost thirty pounds when it happened. She had come back from her lunchtime walk to find Annika at her desk. She was holding the lunchbox and she was crying.
Joan moved towards her to grab it back, but Annika held it away with one chubby arm.
‘What’s going on, Joan?’ She asked, ‘I mean what kind of freaky STICK INSECT brings a lunchbox to work with no lunch in it?’
‘Give that back to me!’ Joan knew her voice was shaking.
‘Why do you want it?’ hissed Annika, ‘There is nothing in here. No food, anyway’
Joan lunged at the box and missed.
Annika waved it at her.
‘I am taking this box, she said, to Human Resources. Let’s see what they say about this when they see it!’
Joan swung blindly at the lunchbox waving in front of her, connected and knocked it flying out of Annika’s hands. It sailed out of the open window, fell to the ground outside and shattered like glass on the concrete below.
‘I won’t forget this, Joan,’ said Annika. She waddled off towards her desk.
Joan went out to retrieve the box but it was beyond repair. She swept the shards of brittle plastic into a bin and went back to her desk in silence.
It did not take Annika long to recover, people like her, Joan thought, are always so thick skinned they never stay quiet for long.
‘Yes,’ Annika was saying, ‘all expenses paid. I am a lucky girl! I am going in next week for a fortnight and getting the full works: detox, health regime, counselling, gym program and hot stone massage. It is a luxury manor house that they have converted on these huge grounds. Very expensive, of course, but My Bill says I am worth it!’
‘Wow, lucky you,’ Mandy was saying, ‘I guess if you have to go on a diet that is the way to do it!’
‘Yes’, replied Annika, ‘And look what I found too – it was in the garage in a box of stuff from the old house, cute, don’t you think?’
She held aloft a little purple lunchbox.