Ellen Orchard: Grace Notes
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
“[Grace] makes the rules; and the fact that we never understand the rules does not alter that fact.” Marilynne Robinson[i]
In every office Tom had ever worked, the walls had been beige. This was not necessarily a bad thing. It was just something to notice. That’s why, walking into his new office, the first thing Tom saw were its white walls. He felt a lump of hope.
‘What brings you here Tom?’ asked a woman in HR.
Tom had just moved back home to be closer to his mother who had recently fallen ill. He was happy to do this, since he loved his mother’s company, as he reassured her many times. What he left out was what he’d left behind — the beginnings of a romantic relationship a thousand miles away that appeared to be taking off, had it had more time. He buried this bitterness.
‘Oh, just a change of scene really,’ he replied, squinting at the lanyard round her neck and making out ‘Grace’.
Grace smiled back encouragingly. She would do a lot of that, as it turned out. Smiling, being pleasant, checking in. This wasn’t unusual for the first day on a job, but the sticking power of Grace’s inclusivity was.
In the second week, it was a re-annotated version of the company's Induction Pack, replacing the office expectations that ‘nobody actually did’ with more useful information. Grace had created an Appendix containing the ‘characters’ of the office, a comprehensive list of his peers’ quirks: that Colin gets top shelf priority in the office fridge, whose mug was whose and that nobody’s stapler works. Grace understood that in being the new guy, Tom had a social handicap and sought to give him an advantage.
The following week, Tom was out for lunch with his colleagues when he realized that he’d forgotten his wallet at home, after a stressful morning trying to help his mother out of bed.
“We're paying together,” came Grace’s voice behind his, swiftly placing her own sandwich order before Tom could mumble a “you don’t have to”, or even a “thank you”.
At the next company lunch in the office, Grace summoned Tom to the staff kitchen. Stashed in the bottom-shelf of the fridge were a selection of gluten-free sandwiches, hidden so that they would not draw attention to his difference. It was down to the subtlety of Grace’s gift-giving that Tom did not notice that her social kindness extended beyond himself. He presumed that Grace was doing these favours because she was romantically interested in him. When she offered to drive him home that evening, he thought he ought to lean in for a kiss.
‘Oh, no thank you,’ she said, pulling back with placid bewilderment. ‘I’ll see you on Monday.’
On Monday, he relayed this romantic misadventure to Colin by the water cooler, who laughed. ‘Grace is ace’, he shrugged.
Grace, as it turns out, was asexual, an aromantic asexual at that, something she was open about, according to Colin. She came to the office Halloween party last year dressed as a giant Ace of Spades.
At the end of the day, he rode the elevator with Grace. There was no palpable air of discomfort. Grace greeted him, smiling, visibly unembarrassed. The normalcy of this interaction unnerved Tom.
‘I'm not acephobic, Grace,’ he finally blurted out, a term he’d Googled that afternoon.
‘I know, Tom,’ she said, ‘See you tomorrow.’
Tomorrow brought another act of unmerited kindness: a letter from Grace apologizing for dashing off the other night, containing an incredibly honest account of her sexuality and other details of her personal life. She’d love to be friends, she said, signing off with a smiley face, her letter wrapped around a Snickers. This noble act unnerved Tom. He was not used to someone saying what they meant and the clarity baffled him. He felt that he didn’t deserve such personal explication from someone he barely knew.
Chomping on his Snickers, Tom puzzled over the motivation behind Grace’s interference, if not for any apparent personal gain. He felt he could never repay such kindness, and the unilateral nature of this exchange made him see Grace’s actions for what they were: glorified meddling. Tom had a strong desire to irk Grace, a temptation to ruffle the unruffable, just to see if he could.
Tom ran to the photocopier, putting Grace’s letter face down on its glass and typed in the number ‘50’. He scattered these loose sheets across his colleagues’ desks, lastly, at Grace’s, where, he also smeared the insides of his left-over gluten-free sandwiches on her computer screen. He grabbed one of her Sharpies and ran towards the fire escape, sounding the alarm, and grabbing the fire extinguisher as he ran down the stairs straight to the doors of Grace’s Honda Jazz.
His colleagues stood in shock, staring out the window into the car park. They watched Tom frantically scribble what looked like words on the side of Grace’s car. And then, suddenly, as if emerging from a deep sleep, Tom mumbled what could have been a ‘sorry’, before dropping both the Sharpie and the fire extinguisher. The latter gave off a measly puff of smoke.
Nobody knew what the fire extinguisher was for, least of all Tom. He had presumably been vaguely thinking of smashing it through Grace’s car window, had he the hutzpah to do so. Even at the height of his rage he thought this unlikely. It was Colin who thought afterwards to Google what was scribbled on Grace’s car, a jumbled-up version of her name - ‘C R A G E’.
It returned one search on Urban Dictionary: the ultimate rage, for no apparent reason.
Following a brief Period of Suspension for Workplace Bullying and Misuse of Company Resources, Tom waited for the verdict of an extensive Incident Report. Based on a cumulative character assessment, the incident was deemed an O.C.E (Out of Character Event). Under previous management, the company stressed, Tom would have been fired. However, under their new Second Chances Scheme, his employment contract need not be terminated. Or rather, it was up to Grace. If she felt uncomfortable with Tom returning, then he would not. She said she looked forward to seeing Tom back in the office.
Ellen Orchard grew up in Canada and has spent the past five years living in Ireland. She completed a Poetry MA at Queen’s University Belfast in 2019 and likes to write poetry criticism, short stories and long letters to friends
[i] In conversation with Andrew Cunning, ‘Reflections on the Ordinary: An Interview with Marilynne Robinson’, 4 November 2017, Iowa City, in Christianity and Literature: Special Feature on Marilynne Robinson, 2018.