Sometimes plot bunnies hop out of the strangest places.
It’s a busy time of year for everyone, and no matter that I try my best to stay isolated due to some health issues, I have more than a few errands that need running. I glanced at myself the other day – tweed fedora with fleecy ear flaps over my head and ears, mask over my mouth and nose, scarf around my neck, my regular glasses… I hardly recognized myself. I got home, peeled off all those layers, and settled down to a nice chat with a friend on Zoom. And that’s when the plot bunny came hopping along.
I don’t usually write modern stories, and I promised myself I wouldn’t set anything in the pandemic, but plot bunnies are persistent little critters, and don’t take no for an answer. And so I surrendered. What would happen, I wondered, if Lizzy and Darcy met first in a Zoom meeting? Because sometimes you don’t really see things so clearly, even when they’re right in front of you.
Here is the first part of a short story, set in modern-day Toronto. Today, actually. There’s a Zoom meeting, and it’s not going so well.
Enjoy. And whatever you’re celebrating, may it be wonderful.
Masquerade – A Short Story
CHAR: Hey Lizzy, are you going to the party?
ELIZABETH: Ugh, Char! I dunno. It will just be another long, boring Zoom meeting.
CHAR: Her Ladyship commands us. You have to come. I can’t deal with Billy alone.
ELIZABETH: I cannot believe Mrs deB actually mailed us all party hats to wear. And with instructions on how to put them together and how to wear them!
CHAR: OMG, those directions on how to wear them! LOL
ELIZABETH: “The hats must be worn at exactly this angle to promote a sense of frivolity, while not descending into intimations of inebriation.”
ELIZABETH: Is this woman for real?
CHAR: <laughing emoji>
CHAR: That’s Mrs. de Bourgh for ya! She’s all kinds of nutty, but she’s the boss. So you’ll be there?
ELIZABETH: Double ugh.
CHAR: BYOB. You can tell them it’s just coffee, but I’ll know it’s Scotch in your mug.
ELIZABETH: That’s what BFFs are for.
An hour later
Elizabeth stared at her blank computer screen. Did she really have to join this ridiculous farce of a holiday party? She spent all day, every day, staring into that electronic void, whether participating in meetings or engaged in her work. A so-called holiday party seemed like anything but fun right now.
She pushed her chair back and paced around the room. Her muscles were aching for exercise, a respite from that chair that was her prison for so many hours a day. And yet, she sighed, she was fortunate to have that prison. During these long months of lockdown and social isolation, she was fortunate to have a job, and a good one at that. In fact, her company had been busier than usual since the world screeched to a halt in March and everything moved on-line. As a company that specialized in process optimization, they were more in demand than ever, helping small businesses navigate this new world of limited physical presence and increased virtual operations.
She sat down again and flicked at her mouse. The dull grey of the screen brightened into the workspace with her current client’s files open. This was a small florist, trying to work out how to stay in business when they could not have customers in the shop. Her company’s owner had taken them on at half the regular rates and then supplemented the shortfall from her own personal fortune.
Catherine de Bourgh was a strange and most particular woman, but she was a good and fair boss.
Very well. For that, Elizabeth would put up with another Zoom meeting… er, party.
She found her silly hat and put it together as Mrs. de Bourgh had instructed in the parcel and then poured herself a large glub of Scotch in her usual coffee cup.
She caught sight of herself in the reflective glass on one of her cabinets. Hair in a no-nonsense ponytail, drab sweater that had been old when she got it from her sister years ago, ratty sweatpants and fuzzy slippers greeted her.
Very well. She shuffled into her bedroom and exchanged her clothing for something a bit brighter. She found a red sweater with a pretty collar and exchanged her sweatpants for slightly newer ones and then brushed out her hair and added a hair band to keep its shape. She even ducked into the bathroom and patted on a touch of makeup and lipstick! When had she last worn lipstick? Certainly not for months, for every trip outside involved a mask, and nobody would see her mouth at all.
There. She took in her new image. That looked a little more celebratory. A pair of sparkly earrings that her sister Jane had sent her for her birthday, and the look was as complete as it would be. Satisfied, she put her fuzzy slippers on again and shuffled back to the office to log in to her boring meeting… er, party.
The screen brightened again as she logged into the party and the familiar grid of faces appeared. There was Char with her mug of… coffee? And Mrs. deB, and her protégé Billy. What did Billy do anyway? Elizabeth had never really been certain. There was Anant and there was Malika, and Ben, the new intern. Everyone wore a silly hat, all perched at exactly the right angle. Maximum frivolity: achieved.
There came the usual sporadic chit-chat as people waited in turn to speak, and some serious tut-tutting from Mrs. deB as the conversation verged towards shop talk. And then something strange happened.
A new tile appeared on the screen, with the name Liam D.
“Hey guys, we have a party-crasher!” Anant joked. “Who’s Liam? Did he bring beer?”
The black tile resolved into a dark-haired man with thick tortoise-shell glasses and a heavy beard. Ugh. A hipster. All he needed was the man-bun. Elizabeth forced herself not to roll her eyes.
“Friends,” Mrs. deB interrupted the questions. “I have an announcement. In light of our current success and the predictions for continued instability in the business sector over the next year or two, I have decided to investigate expanding our company’s reach. To that end, I have taken on a new executive officer to guide our visioning efforts. Please welcome Liam D’arcy to the team.”
Oh great. A hipster executive with a chi-chi name. He would be a bundle of fun. With everybody working from home, he wouldn’t even be introducing good coffee or organic keto treats to the office kitchen. Elizabeth forced a smile onto her face.
The new guy just stared out of the screen. Could he speak?
“Liam has an MBA and a doctorate in process management,” boss-lady spoke into the silence. “He has several years experience in a sister company in Ottawa,” she named an organization which Elizabeth knew well, “and we are fortunate to have convinced him to move back to Toronto.”
Did Dr. Hipster know how to speak? Were personality classes not part of his extensive education or professional achievements?
“He is also,” Mrs. deB went on, “my nephew. I expect you all to welcome him heartily and give him whatever assistance and support he needs as he learns the ins and outs of our organization.”
Fabulous. Nepotism at its finest. Hopefully he would not cause too much disruption in the company. For all of her boss’ idiosyncrasies, Mrs. deB ran a tight organization and there was a lot of camaraderie amongst the employees. They were as much a group of friends as co-workers, and Elizabeth almost hurt when she realized how long it had been since she had seen these people in person.
“Greetings.” The hipster could talk. His voice was wooden and totally without warmth. “I shall set up meetings with each of you over the next weeks so we can introduce ourselves one-on-one.” Friendly fellow, wasn’t he? “And I have one thing to add to the introduction. I might be Mrs de Bourgh’s nephew, but rest assured, I’m the best in the business.”
Elizabeth took a deep drink from her coffee mug.
The little square of light brightened around Billy’s tile, indicating that he was speaking. “Am I to presume then, Dr. D’arcy, that you will be giving extra guidance to our analyst Elizabeth, since she is the one most intimately involved with the product development and delivery that our clients have come to expect from Mrs. de Bourgh’s great company?”
Elizabeth bit back a retort. What boots had this sycophant licked to become Mrs deB’s protégé? He did nothing but kowtow and brown-nose. And now he was suggesting that she could not do her job without a big brother holding her hand.
Her frustration disappeared in a moment though, fading into nothing against the fury Dr. Hipster aroused by his response.
“If Elizabeth is unable to perform these tasks, that is for her manager to assess. I am here to deal with much higher-level issues; I do not have time to guide junior staff as they learn their tasks.”
It took everything she had not to hurl her mug at the computer screen. Only the thought of that wasted Scotch stopped her. Junior staff? Learn their tasks? She was the company’s expert and leader of her team, and she no more needed this stuffed shirt’s guidance than a bird needed a parachute.
She reached for her phone to text Char, but a private message appeared on the computer screen.
Hold it in, Lizzy. Call me later and we’ll rip him to shreds in private.
She took another glug from her coffee mug and shot arrows of hatred from her eyes at that annoying man’s tile on the screen.
From Masquerade by Riana Everly (c) 2020
You can read the rest of this short story on Riana’s website. Just follow the links the full PDF.