Charlotte reached Bedford Street in the rain, unlocked the peeling door of number 42 and rustled up the staircase. She had climbed these stairs for half a century – knew how her small unit worked – the toilets were off on the right, a continuum of boxy offices to the left and a staircase opening out on to the corridor. Where this staircase led to, she had no idea, and she was unable to connect the rows of windows above and below her floor to actual rooms. The building was an enigma; vast and impenetrable, even to Charlotte, it dominated the street. How long she had worked there, dear god, how long. It had used her up, this building, these rooms, used her up and dried her out.

[private]Charlotte shook herself free of her cape and bonnet and had just picked up a handful of skirt to remove a mud stain when Isabelle Rose glided in. Isabelle Rose, girl in a dream, all peaches and cream, all frothy and pinky in white lace and curls in a chignon.

“Morning Charlotte,” she sang. “Stepped in a puddle did we?”

Her heart-shaped face squeezed into a smile but Charlotte felt no inclination to reply. “It gets worse, I’m afraid: Mr Guest wants to see you in the board room straight away.”

Charlotte let go of her skirt and pulled back a greying thread of hair. She turned her back and looked at her reflection in the mirror on the door, tidying herself.

“Wants to see me instead of you, that does make a change.”

Isabelle Rose wagged the perfect egg of her head and sat down by the window in what had once been Charlotte’s seat, but which she had given up as the newcomer suffered from claustrophobia.

“Comes to work here, where there’s no room to swing a cat, suffering from claustrophobia. Ha!” Julia had ejaculated.

That was the beginning of it, Charlotte decided – the disruption had begun with the chairs, and from then on everything else about Isabelle-Rose, from her lace to the scent of lavender and vanilla that clung to the place, even in her absence – everything was upset, unmoored, adrift. The chair that had always been Charlotte’s and the view from the window onto the street and the heavy brick offices – all this had been taken by the newcomer.

“We are being watched,” remarked Isabelle Rose, tipping a finger at the window.

Charlotte swept from the mirror and peered out at the new hoarding that had gone up overnight. It showed a green-eyed blonde, brazenly inviting in her black filigree brassière. Look into my eyes, the advertisement said, and beneath was the word Triumph in red letters.

“You’ve surely got better things to do than look at that!” she murmured.

“Mr Guest told me that King Philip IV of Spain could only digest human milk towards the end of his life. Can you imagine that, having a huge wet nurse at the dinner table?”

Charlotte, startled, could not imagine it and blushed. Why was everything so disconcerting these days? She moved away, cutting her eyes at Isabelle Rose. The young woman noted it and nodded:

“You look just like Julia.”

Like Julia? Charlotte darkened and glanced at her reflection as she pushed through the door and swayed into the next room where Mr Guest was waiting for her. He was drumming his fingers on a long polished table, a habit that left pock marks on the surface of the wood.

“Waistcoats,” he remarked, as Charlotte appeared and descended on to a chair with a puff. “That’s what I wanted to see you about, Miss Wyecliffe, waistcoats.”

Charlotte looked at him with grey, uncomprehending eyes.

“I’ve just got too many of them, you see, so I’ve decided to have a sort out. There are waistcoats that just need a stitch or a button sewn on, but others are beyond repair and these you can pack up and take to the charity shop in Earlham Street.”

“You want me to do this?”
“You and Isabelle Rose can help, of course, and the other…”
“Miss Strickland, Julia.”
“Excellent! The three of you.”

Somewhere a siren sounded and Mr Guest left his place at the table and went to look out of the window. He stood absorbed by the scene below.

“Every hour you hear them, every hour.”

Mr Guest had busy, swivelling eyes that took everything in with a single searchlight sweep. No surprise, then, that those eyes had keenly alighted on Isabelle Rose.

“Is she a model, or something?” he had inquired when she first arrived, and soon after it was Isabelle Rose who was asked to bring his afternoon tea and biscuits, not Charlotte or Julia, as it had been. To be sure, they both noticed how much longer it took for Isabelle Rose to leave his room than it had either of them.

“He has a liking for chorus girls,” Julia had hissed through pursed lips.

“She must have tea with him,” Charlotte adjoined. Julia’s lips curled and her expression was so loaded that Charlotte knew where both their thoughts were headed. She had been surprised, all the same, how much Mr Guest’s interest in Isabelle Rose had provoked a swell of darkness in each of them. This excrescence had outgrown them, existing unacknowledged in the office, underlying every remark, making the air vibrate with malice. As for Isabelle Rose, she remained infuriatingly separate, fulfilling her job description with barely disguised indifference.

“She belongs in a poem or a painting. She’s not real.”
“She’s real,” Julia retorted. “I’ve seen it all before: Isabelle Rose looks after Isabelle Rose.”
“Is there anything else you need to know, Miss Wyecliffe?”

Mr Guest had left the window and both hands were drumming on the table as he leaned towards Charlotte, gimlet-eyed.

“Yes, I just wondered…” she trailed off. I wonder, Mr Guest, why there is nakedness on the walls, in the square, while we are bagged up in our cotton skirts and crinolines, swathed and suffocated by our cloth.

“Then I’ll send Nobby down with them right away.”
“Right you are, Mr Guest.”

Charlotte forced a smile and retreated. “So, today is to be a different day from yesterday and tomorrow. Today is waistcoat day.”

The office, five metres in length and narrow, could barely accommodate the three work desks and small side table with tea-making facilities. Now, it was filling up with cardboard boxes as Nobby, a stumpy muscular cockney with a cigarette glued to the corner of his bottom lip, brought them in and ranged them along one side of the room.

“We’re going to be walled up like those women in the past when they went mad,” said Isabelle Rose, almost gaily.

“Now we can see with our own eyes what he spends his money on while our wages are kept low, year on year,” put in Julia, as the cardboard box wall grew higher. She regarded the number of waistcoats as an unpardonable excess for, as Charlotte had already noticed, Julia had only one walking dress, which she wore daily, a dull black cotton draped over the steel hoops of her crinoline cage.

“It’s madness,” she tutted. “Madness.”
“We’d better make a start then,” said Charlotte, opening a box and pulling out a waistcoat the colour of antique china with embroidered flowers on the front. “There’s so many to get through.”

The three women sat at their desks and applied the needle; Julia attacked with short, cross stitches, Isabelle Rose rethreaded hers several times over and fiddled with her hair.

It was uncomfortably hot in the room; the window had stuck and the heating, controlled by a central thermostat, could not be switched off.

The needle between Charlotte’s fingers began to slip and her attention wandered to the pattern of chrysanthemums in crimson and rainbow-hued birds on the silk panels. The birds faced each other with the bursts of flowers in between. “They have everything they need.” She caught a male scent and put the waistcoat to one side. Her skin prickled and the belt of her crinoline dug into her. She felt a trickle down the inside of her leg.

“I’ve a blister,” interrupted Isabelle Rose, scrutinising the bubble that had formed on her forefinger.
“Already?” asked Julia, not looking up.
“Why don’t you stop and make us tea? We know how good you are at tea-making,” Charlotte said quietly.

The young woman’s face shadowed and cleared in an instant, and she sashayed to the kettle, Julia and Charlotte watching beneath beetled brows. “Have you a gentleman friend tucked away somewhere, Isabelle Rose?”

Charlotte tried to imagine it, the secret lives of others.

“One sugar daddy is surely enough, if you can call that creature a man at all,” added Julia.
“What I have is surely no concern of yours.”
The kettle rumbled to the boil.
“How can you drink tea in this heat?” she asked, setting the cups down carelessly between the two women.
“I’ve heard we will have an Indian summer this year, that will be something to look forward to,” observed Charlotte.

Isabelle Rose pressed her nose against the glass.

“It’s still raining; no sign of sun at all.”

Charlotte could hear the splash of cars outside and a siren scream. Inside, her bodice stuck to her and her face had grown buttery, the needle gleamed as she pushed and pulled at her thread.

She realised at that moment that she had a wild hunger, an impossible need that could not be kept in. She realised that it would always be with her, that each time she tugged it back, it would re-emerge somewhere else – an endless, unbreakable thread running through her life. She thought about the limbless pregnant woman on the plinth in Trafalgar Square, and of the mother she had seen with a pushchair, the baby screened from the rain by a transparent plastic hood. She hiccupped and regretted her impending barrenness. She could feel all the possibilities of life leaking away, and with them the possibilities of any other life. When she considered the future at all, she saw more of the same; worse, she saw herself turning into another Julia.

“Charlotte, is there a war going on?”
“I don’t know. Is there?”
“I can see people marching, protesting down there.”

Far away, the chanting rose above the drone of traffic.

“Could you pull the blind down, Isabelle Rose, the sun is getting in my eyes,” asked Julia.
“It’s raining!”
“There is light and it’s dazzling me.”

Isabelle Rose reluctantly pulled the blind down and the room deepened into sombre space-age eeriness.

“Mr Guest will be wanting his tea soon, I expect,” said Charlotte, glancing up at the clock.
“He rings when he wants it,” said Isabelle Rose, who was still catching stray curls that had fought free of her chignon. “Guess what, I’ve heard Betty in accounts is retiring.”

Julia, who had developed a stoop with age and whose arms were fixed in permanent right angles to her body, bent over her sewing and refused to respond. Isabelle Rose continued:

“When do you think you’ll retire, Julia?”
“When I turn sixty.”

Charlotte could not imagine the office without Julia – she had always been there – she couldn’t ever recall seeing Julia outside in Bedford Street, she was always in the room, on that seat, impossible that anyone else should sit on Julia’s chair.

“Will you stay in London, do you think?”
“I will go to the country when the time comes.”
“You have a home in the country?”
“My sister lives in the country and I will stay with her. But I have no intention of retiring and I will be here for a good few years yet.”

“I don’t believe you’ll ever actually leave, Julia, you’ll be pining for the office the moment you step out of the door,” laughed Isabelle Rose, who was arching back in her chair and had given up all pretence of sewing.

“We’re all stuck here,” sighed Charlotte, and drank from her teacup for comfort.
“I can assure you, when I turn sixty I will leave. Nothing will hold me back.”
“But Julia…” puzzled Charlotte.

Suddenly, a bell tinkled and the three women fell silent. Isabelle Rose stretched again and yawned like a kitten, then got up, emptied the contents of the teapot into a pot plant and prepared a tray with two cups, a sugar bowl and milk jug. When the tea was made, she launched herself through the door.

“See you later,” she smiled archly.
“Could you tell your sugar daddy that we are quite behind and need you back here at his earliest convenience,” asked Julia, contemptuously.
“He is not my sugar daddy!” Eyes ablaze.
“Whatever he is…”
“It’s true, Isabelle Rose, you can clearly see we need your help here…”

The door closed without reply.

The sun had almost set by the time the final hour of the day arrived. Livid red buses, self-contained bubbles of people, were barrelling along the Strand, oblongs of light spilled from the windows and from the shop fronts into black puddles on the tarmac roads. In the sky, streaks of crimson were being pushed down by the encroaching night. In the room, there were now two walls of cardboard boxes, heaps of folded waistcoats on the desks, over which Julia presided in the shadows like a seller in a Souk. She jerked her head at Charlotte.

“I’m going to check up on her. She’s been gone hours.”

Charlotte put down her work, a satin striped waistcoat. She felt she had been neatly sewing a button on to the bars of a cage. She waited, imagining Julia’s dark crooked shape lurching into Mr Guest’s room confronting the delectable whiteness of Isabelle Rose.

One hour left before home time. How could she kill this time? Spend it wantonly, wastefully, as she had her youth, her life, in this building where nothing happened?

Charlotte got up and went to the empty chair by the window, pulled up the blind and looked out. In the twilight, the vampire woman on the hoarding opposite threatened in her black brassiere. Triumph? Of what? Of youth and beauty over age and experience? All her memories were bricked up in this building. Sometimes, she felt dozy at this hour. One day, she thought she’d fall asleep there and never wake up. Languishing, she could hear footsteps and the rustle of a long satiny skirt, then scuffling, panting, a sob. Was the skirt sobbing, while the brassiere outside confirmed itself? A storm erupted in Charlotte’s head. What was happening outside the door? What was happening outside everywhere? She didn’t know. She didn’t understand. Everything kept changing; everything was fluxating. Her anxiety mounted – the world had split into a thousand fragments, and she stood in it, like a tiny figure in a snowstorm dome, the world falling about her, in splinters, and she didn’t understand any of it. All was alien: each splinter was alien to the other: inside, each floor alien to the one below, and then what was going on out there, well, she couldn’t tell. Where did she belong? She didn’t fit. Not into any of it.

The skirts came through the door like an explosion: first Julia, her eyes rolling, then Isabelle Rose, a small resolved, dissolving ghost.

“I said, Mr Guest, I said, enough is enough, she has been gone too long, she has left the room when there is work to be done, we are overrun, burdened by your waistcoats. She came out, meek as a lamb. She is back with us. Thought you were better, didn’t you? But let me tell you, you’re not, you’re part of the furniture.”

“I will never be part of the furniture!” scorned Isabelle Rose.
“Sit down, Isabelle Rose,” said Charlotte.
“I will get some water,” the young woman replied and backed out of the room, quietly shutting the door.
“The nerve!” croaked Julia. “I will be after her again if she’s not here in five minutes.”

The two women waited but the door did not open again. The air darkened and deepened, darkness was breaking through the window, into the room. Charlotte looked across and saw inside, outside, simultaneously.

Julia’s sharp face, outlined against the sinking day, was fixed in a frozen scream. Crouching on the window ledge was Isabelle Rose; shelless, in her stays and draws with chignon undone, like a featherless bird about to take off.

“Where is your crinoline, where is it?” screeched Julia, a gargoyle come to life. But Isabelle Rose was one of the pale damp people who belonged out there.

Charlotte sprang up, flinging her needle and waistcoat away, she waded through the cloth of her skirt and the boxes and attempted to wrench open the sash. Julia moved to the hand bell and rang out for Nobby. No reply. Charlotte rapped on the glass, thinking what a meagre divide, what a firm but paltry sum of elements kept one from the other.

“Isabelle Rose!” she cried. “We didn’t mean what we said, it’s too late for us, but…”

Shut eye. The young woman leapt from the ledge and out of life. She did it without a sound, Julia squawked for her and fell motionless.

Charlotte forced her way down the narrow stairs, out through the peeling door and into the street.

Grief, bundled up inside so long, unravelled; a wail streamed out of her, low and feral, it travelled down towards the Strand. Her skirts billowed as she knelt and took the white alabaster hand, feeling, with a start, the blister on the dead finger. As if through fog, she glimpsed flashes of coats, bags and legs marching past. Looking up, she saw the mean brassiere looming triumphant, the final view that Isabelle Rose was ever to see.[/private]

Deborah Nash is a journalist, writer and performer. She has written for The Wire, The Art Newspaper, The Oldie, The Independent and The Artists and Illustrators’ magazine, and published several children’s books.