“Hello, I’m Claire.”
RAPL’s jaded receptionist looked up at the slim hand that was stretched out toward her, then traced her eyes up further to the beaming, nervous face to which it belonged.
The receptionist didn’t take the hand. Instead, she looked back down at her monitor and barked, “Surname?”
The receptionist tapped the name into her keyboard, her long nails clicking satisfyingly on the keys.
“Intern, are you?”
Claire nodded quickly.
The receptionist looked her up and down and raised her eyebrows.
“Go through that door on your right,” she said. “Ask for Sal.”
“Okay, thank you,” Claire squeaked before scuttling away from the desk. Her footsteps echoed around the intimidatingly large reception area which had high ceilings and scant furniture. Other than the front desk, where a less than friendly welcome waited for all who passed through the front door, there were a few plastic chairs lined up against the wall on the right, close to the door where Claire was destined to pass through.
Her gut gurgled with anticipation. She always felt sick in these situations, and the blunt encounter with the receptionist had done little to settle her nerves. Her college’s career advisor had secured her the internship, but she was given few details as to what the role would involve. She had no idea who she would report to and didn’t even fully understand what RAPL did. Her research had lead her to a single-page website which simply outlined the names of the organisation’s founders, CEO and senior personnel.
She reached the door and pulled on its handle. It wouldn’t budge. She pulled some more, a little harder this time, then glanced over her shoulder at the receptionist.
“Push,” came the call from behind the desk.
Claire flushed at her own stupidity and leaned into the door. It was far lighter than she’d anticipated and quickly gave in to her weight, causing her to stumble clumsily into the hallway beyond it.
A face glanced inquisitively at her from a distance, but didn’t bother asking her who she was or if she needed any help. Bodies passed up and down the hallway ahead of her, appearing from a door here and passing through another there. Few paid Claire any mind.
She walked timidly down the hallway, looking out for a friendly face to ask for help. The doors dotted along the walls were closed, and none featured those handy little windows through which she could have subtly peered to figure out where she should be going.
As she neared the end of the corridor, without being able to catch the eye of a single person, and too intimidated to actually use her voice, Claire thought about retracing her steps and running right out of the building altogether, back to the safety of her bed.
“You the new intern?”
The voice came from behind her and it churned up her stomach even more. Now it was too late to escape.
“Yep,” she confirmed, as she turned toward the voice.
“Right this way, my dear!”
Claire was relieved to find it was a kind looking woman who spoke. She appeared to be in in her mid-forties and had cropped copper hair which defied gravity and stuck up toward the ceiling. She flashed Claire a genuine smile, then pushed open a door and gestured for Claire to enter.
Claire smiled right back, her nerves settled a little, and scurried through the door which led to a kitchen. 30 or so mugs were precariously stacked up on a dish drainer beside the sink, and three kettles were lined up on the adjacent worktop. A fridge hummed in the corner.
The woman followed Claire into the kitchen, leaving the door open, and introduced herself.
“I’m Sal, you must be Claire?” she said as she held out her hand.
Claire shook the hand eagerly and nodded. “Yes. Thank you so much for this opportunity, I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Don’t thank me, thank the top floor, they handle internships,” Sal replied briskly. “You’ll meet them on Friday. We have five floors and you’ll spend a day on each. Different jobs on different floors, so you’ll get to try your hand at all sorts. Goodness, you are slim. Don’t your parents feed you?”
Claire was taken aback by this question but didn’t have the opportunity to reply as Sal continued on with her briefing.
“You’ll just be making the teas and coffees down here, I’m afraid. We’re the busy worker bees who do all the grunt work and its thirsty grunt work at that. We’re coming up to nine o’clock so you’ll have to be getting the first cups ready.” She pointed at a laminated printout which was sellotaped to the wall above the kettles. “Names, drink of choice and desk locations are all here. We have a cuppa at nine, eleven, one and three. Five is clocking off time. Have a poke around in the cupboards for trays and biscuits. And help yourself to all the biscuits you want, you look like you could do with it!”
Claire took in Sal’s slender frame and felt like frowning, but smiled instead.
“Got to dash, Claire, lots to do,” Sal continued as she headed to the door. “Give me a shout if you have any problems!” And with that she was gone.
Claire hoped she wouldn’t have any problems, since she didn’t know where to find Sal. She glanced at the clock which ticked and tocked on the wall above the door. 8.45am. Time to stick the kettles on.
The biscuit selection was intense. There were multiple selection packs in luxury tins as well as the cheap and cheerful supermarket packets filled with the classics – bourbons, custard creams and rich teas. After finishing the 9 o’clock cuppa rounds, she found herself killing time by sampling one each of the posh, chocolate-coated biscuits. After elevensies, she tried each in the Family Choice tin. By the time 1 p.m. came around, she’d sampled every biscuit she could get her hands on and had gone back for seconds of her favourites. She felt sick. And bored.
As she ferried the steaming hot beverages around the ground floor team and received encouraging smiles and polite gratitude, she mustered up the courage to ask some questions. Getting answers was trickier than she thought.
When she asked people what their job entailed, they responded with “Oh, admin and stuff,” or “bit of everything really.” Even Sal, who Claire found in her own private office at the end of the corridor, didn’t offer much insight. Apparently, she managed the ground floor team. And the ground floor team did “whatever jobs the people upstairs didn’t want.” When pressed for details about what RAPL did, Sal did manage to share a titbit of information which Claire couldn’t believe she hadn’t been informed of earlier.
“We’re the Rare Animal Protection League. So, we focus on protecting rare species.”
“Ah! Such as?” Claire enquired, her interest piqued.
“Well,” Sal replied hesitantly, “they’re very rare, so I’m not sure you’d know what they are even if I told you.” She plastered a polite smile on her face. “Have you been eating?”
“Erm, yes. Probably a little too much, actually. Feeling a bit sick,” Claire admitted with an awkward giggle.
“Good stuff. Keep going, Claire, you’re doing a cracking job! Must get on myself, lots to do.”
Claire couldn’t understand Sal’s fixation on her weight. Not only was Sal slim herself, but so was every single person who worked on the ground floor. There was not a muffin top or a double chin in sight. In fact, despite the tantalising amounts of biscuits on display – which Claire offered round with each beverage she delivered – nobody seemed to be eating anything.
The three o’clock drink rounds were finished with by half past, and Claire wondered why on Earth they were letting a perfectly good intern sit around and do nothing for an hour and a half. She shovelled more biscuits into her mouth to pass some time, then nosied through all the cupboards in the kitchen.
She found mugs, tea bags, great big tubs of instant coffee and enough biscuits to feed the 5,000. She had a quick poke around under the sink, but there was nothing but bottles of washing up liquid, fresh cloths and sponges and a bottle of antibacterial kitchen spray. Even the fridge was bare, save for a couple of big bottles of milk.
There were no clues as to what kind of people worked on RAPL’s ground floor, and certainly no indication of the work they did to protect their rare species. She hoped desperately that she’d learn more tomorrow, when she moved up to the first floor. She pined for something to do other than pour hot water over coffee granules and tea bags.
4.30 p.m. came around and she decided to begin gathering up dirty mugs, ready for the sink. She grabbed a tray and headed out into the hallway.
She took the first door on her left and was met with the room’s workforce gathered round a man whose shirt appeared to be soaked with blood. Eight pairs of eyes turned to stare at her as she pushed through the door.
Claire couldn’t pull her gaze away from the deep, crimson patch on the man’s bright white shirt. It could have been paint, of course, and Claire tried to assure herself that that’s exactly what it was.
“Are you okay?” she asked with a croak.
The man didn’t respond. Nobody did. Silence hovered. Inside, Claire was squirming, but her feet appeared to be glued to the floor.
“What do you want?” the painted man asked eventually.
“Just came to collect the mugs.”
He gave a small nod. Claire took this as permission and scurried from desk to desk to pick up the spent mugs and place them on her tray. She stole small glances at the man wherever possible but with every eye in the room still on her, she dared not take a proper look. When she approached the desks which lay closest to the man, she was sure she could detect a faint smell of copper.
Tray heavy with mugs, she squeaked a small “thank you” and headed for the door. The ground began to shake beneath her feet.
For a moment, she thought she was imagining it. She wondered if the nerves coursing through her were causing her legs to wobble, and tried to focus on getting to the door and out of the room. But the shaking wouldn’t stop, and she realised that it was the floor – not her – that was the problem.
A great roar accompanied the shaking; it was a deep, shuddering sound which seemed to travel right through her. Her blood felt like it was fizzing from her feet up to her head and back down again as the roar piqued and then dispelled.
Then everything was quiet.
Only then did Claire realise that the mugs had toppled from her tray and were scattered on the floor. Carpet had saved them and none were broken, but dregs of cold tea and coffee were seeping into the pile. She looked at the ground floor workers once again. They stared right back without a hint of shock or surprise on their faces.
“Earthquake,” the blood-stained man stated. “Little one. Happens all the time.”
Claire nodded, then stooped to retrieve the mugs, feeling the eyes of the workers bearing into her.
Tray filled, she ignored the damp brown stains on the carpet and dashed to the kitchen. There, she plonked the tray on the worktop, causing the crockery to clatter, and looked at the clock. 4.40 p.m.
She cared not for the dirty mugs standing before her, nor those which were scattered across desks throughout the rest of the ground floor. Her heart hummed and her hands trembled. She grabbed her bag and left. Tomorrow weighed on her mind like lead.