For once I was in work before Jess, I couldn't sleep and decided to bury my mind under the rubble of my career. Upon entering the office, Jess feigned shock.
"My god," she said, "it must have been bad. You're here, working, and stuff."
"Yes, Jessica, working 'and stuff' - the stuff being browsing the Internet for a new job."
"I see, one of those nights."
"There is a reason people tend not to drink with colleagues, especially those they don't know well."
"Really, and that is?"
I hit the 'next' button, on my job search.
"They do things, terrible things."
The night before entailed a drink after work with a couple of new friends from finance. Although in their mid-thirties, Owen and Andrew had been dubbed 'young firebrands' by the decrepit directors on the third floor. I attributed this to the fact that neither were married and they occasionally swore. Despite such a reckless display of humanity, I quite liked them. I started joining them for lunch, and under their tutelage upgraded from bacon rolls at the local greasy spoon, to chorizo and rocket ciabattas from Marks. They mocked my mispronunciation of both chorizo and ciabatta before welcoming me in, I assured myself that it was merely an initiation - the canteen being the crucible in which we burned.
After a week of casual dining they invited me out. They were part of a cabal of company drinkers that met every Thursday for jäger-bombs and dancing. It was rumoured that the senior team occasionally joined them, and that they collectively indulged in sexual misconduct, nightclubs, and early morning kebabs. I had long tried to shake off the image of the HR professional as the charmless drone, and so welcomed the prospect of mild debauchery.
We met in a little bar in Soho, as I entered my colleagues were not entirely displeased to see me. I gave a cheery wave, in turn receiving a solitary nod. It was progress of a kind. Andrew and Owen were at the bar, I joined them - prematurely viewing myself as a regular fixture. Owen had lined up several shots of a dark liqueur, I guessed sambuca - it was difficult to tell.
Sally from Marketing came over. She was tall, blonde, and utterly out of reach.
"Well, hello cowboys. Chris, nice to see you here." She motioned to the shots, "good choice."
"Yes," I said, "I really like these ones."
At Andrew's behest we downed the drinks, I wretched then laughed, pretending to have feigned nausea. Saliva flooded my cheeks, I motioned to the bartender for a water. Sally ordered four tequilas. Predictably, they arrived before my drink. Shortly afterwards, I found myself immersed in a discussion about summer festivals. It was the usual affair, comparing dull anecdotes prefaced with, "I was so out of it". Personally, I had not been to what would be considered a decent festival since my sole visit to Glastonbury in the 90s. I had, of course, collected every memory from that lost weekend and shoehorned it into my very own compendium of madness. Then whenever I was required to contribute to any general celebration of music and culture, I trotted out my tired old shtick.
Shortly after, I was left with Sally.
"You're actually alright," she said.
"Really? You're not so bad yourself."
The answer was a reflex, the standard response.
I said, "actually I don't know how I should take that. What did you think of me before?"
She pushed her hair back, I sipped my red cocktail.
"Oh, you know, HR..."
"No, you don't see. What's with all the happy-clappy stuff? Remember that company awards thing. What was that about?"
"Recognising what? That you're all insincere knobs?"
She started nodding to the bland euro-house throbbing in the background - nodding at Andrew and Owen, she said:
"Let's join them on the dance floor."
The term was generous, they had merely chosen a darkened corner of the bar in which to writhe. We headed over, drinks aloft, cheering as we joined the crush, as per human ritual since time immemorial. I could imagine our forebears in taverns of old, on the prowl, punching the air to the frantic plucking of the lute. Feeling adventurous, emboldened by the company, I took to the carpet with gusto. Like some clunky male addition to Sister Sledge, I was lost in music.
Sally joined in, and my higher brain functions shut down. A business guru once said it was advisable to 'err on the side of action' - with this in mind, I snaked my arms arounds her hips. Sally's smile fell away when I refused to let go. She was caught in my oily tractor-beam - using more force than necessary, I pulled her in.
"Oh god," Jess said, "and then what happened?"
"Someone grabbed me, I think it was Owen. I definitely remember someone saying 'leave her' - Sally looked scared, I remember that too. There was some shouting, then I woke up on my sofa, fully clothed."
For a moment Jess said nothing. She walked over and crouched down next to me.
"Ok, let me help you," she said, "which site are you on, Total Jobs?"