Let them eat cake
Olivia’s favourite thing about her job is the catalogue of cakes you get to choose from each year. The week before your birthday, Jenny from HR delivers the catalogue to your desk in the morning to be returned in the afternoon, your choice marked with a fluoro green Post-it. This is the one day of the year when Olivia can express her true self.
This year, the year of her 33rd birthday, will she have a chocolate mud cake with ganache and raspberry coulis (spontaneous and decadent), a sponge with fruit and cream (old-fashioned and uncomplicated) or a New York-style cheesecake (unconcerned with her weight)? Perhaps she will choose passionfruit and coconut cake, which suggests she is healthy and somewhat tropical, or a coffee espresso cake: sophisticated and energetic.
Perhaps this will be the year she orders a revenge cake: the carrot cake with walnuts. Her boss, Geoff, hates walnuts and pretends he has a nut allergy, even though she knows that he just doesn’t like the bitter edge. If Geoff truly has a nut allergy, where is his EpiPen? Certainly not in his cubicle, which is directly visible from hers so he can see the screen of her computer. She has to use her phone to check her social media.
The morning of the day she gets to choose, Olivia catches the train from Central Station to Chatswood without cringing at the scratches on the grungy windows or the smell of old Maccas in the train carriage. She smiles at the Chinese man playing the violin in the tiled tunnel and pulls her cardigan close. Today, rather than having a Nescafé at her desk, she stops and buys a flat white from the new cafe beside her building, where the baristas have styled facial hair and blocky ink tattoos. Scrolling on her phone as she waits for her coffee, she feels a tap on her shoulder.
“Buying coffee now, are we?”
Siobhan has a tray of four in one hand. She and three others take turns every day of the week. They are always looking for a fifth, but Olivia doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone else’s morning caffeination.
“It’s the day I choose my cake,” Olivia says, as an explanation.
“Ooooh, what will you get?”
Olivia shrugs. She doesn’t want anyone else’s opinion to colour her own, she will block her ears if Siobhan starts talking up the hazelnut cream or the black forest.
“Did you get the email? About the budget meeting at 9.30?”
Olivia shakes her head. She avoids checking work emails on the train.
“I think they’re making cuts. Fingers crossed we’re all keeping our jobs, eh?”
Olivia hears her name called and grabs her paper cup of coffee, her name in black letters on the white plastic lid. She follows Siobhan into the building and up the lift to the seventh floor, neither of them speaking as they are now surrounded by others and it is odd to continue a private conversation in a lift full of strangers.
Olivia takes a sip of coffee. As they rise, she has a sense that she is dropping. It is like when you park your car and the car parked beside you begins to move, and you cannot tell whether it is them or you. There is a whiff of Sharpie as she sips her flat white and she wonders why anyone would use such a strong-smelling pen to write on a coffee lid. It is obscene.
There is no catalogue of cakes waiting on her desk but that isn’t a surprise: sometimes Jenny doesn’t get in until nine and perhaps she will not be able to drop it off before the budget meeting. Jenny has multiple children – three? – at schools across Sydney and frequently comes in looking harried and complaining about one or another of them. Sometimes Olivia’s Burmese cats are annoying as well, flinging kitty litter on the floor or waking her at two or three in the morning, meowing loudly. But you make the choices you make. Cats or children. Chocolate mud with ganache and coulis, or carrot with cream cheese frosting.
Geoff comes in at five minutes past nine, nods at her tersely, starts up his desktop and swears beneath his breath. She is leaning towards the carrot cake really; she’s seen the size of the slices that he takes. The PAs and EAs are all – just a sliver – I couldn’t possibly eat that much – and then Geoff takes the wedge the width of a palm. Once she saw him take a slice of cheesecake with one of only four chocolate-covered strawberries and it wasn’t even his birthday!
At 9.30 their entire section begins to migrate towards the conference room. Olivia waits until Geoff leaves and takes the lid off her coffee, tonguing the foam that remains inside. She runs her finger along the edges of the cup, licks the finger and places the cup in the bin beneath her desk. She crams her feet back into her shoes and makes her way to the meeting. There are a few seats at the edge of the room and she takes one, balancing her notebook on her knee, pen poised as if to take notes.
The CEO stands in front of an empty whiteboard. We’re tightening belts, he says, cutting inessentials. Cab charges, travel expenses, client gifts and per diems. “This year our Christmas party will be in-office,” he says. “Birthday cakes limited to one a month. This month – October birthdays – can choose a cake together at the end of the meeting. Better for our budget and our waistlines.”
Cakes are dropping away in Olivia’s mind, falling and falling like an elevator car with a snapped cable. Peering over the ledge, she sees them smashed at the bottom of the shaft.
The meeting is over. People return to their desks, to their emails and spreadsheets and data points. Jenny and two others remain, with the catalogue of cakes that was meant to be hers and hers alone.
“Olivia, you’re October, any preference?” Jenny asks, gesturing to the shiny pages, the ornate photographs.
“Whatever you think,” Olivia says as she turns to leave the room. “I’m easy.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Let them eat cake".
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