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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

A Day at the Office
by Rebecca Billings

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He was sipping his first beer of the day when he recognised her. She had left the office across the street, a startling glass and chrome construction, and started to walk towards him. Central London had that midsummer carnival atmosphere when all the bars and cafés push chairs and tables onto the pavements and everybody tries to pretend that sitting inches away from belching exhausts and swearing cabbies is just like being in an Italian piazza. Sweat glistened on upper lips and women who would normally wear severe black suits shimmered in a haze of chiffon and spaghetti straps. His breath caught in his throat and he choked, spraying lager into the polluted air. A man in a pinstripe suit glared at him. She sauntered across the road, squeezing between bumpers and kebab wrappers. The hair was still blonde, but instead of acquiring its colour from days on the beach or in her father's decrepit, crab scented rowing boat, he suspected the help of an expensive hairdresser. She was wearing a simple grey shift dress, and glanced at him as she passed. He had suddenly been scared that she should have recognised him, and then disappointed when she hadn't, although it was hardly surprising. It had been 10 years ago, and for eight of them city life had transformed his looks, his dress and, more importantly, his expectations.

He watched her edge her way past an American couple, staring at maps and blocking the pavement. They looked as if they had won the trip to London as a prize in a contest to find the biggest bum in Wyoming, which had obviously ended in a dead heat. A lucky heather seller approached her, but she expertly sashayed away into the gaping mouth of the underground. The heather seller was unperturbed, and turned towards a young man in a suit.

"Buy some lucky heather sir?"

"If it's so bloody lucky, how come you've got a tray of the stuff and you've still got a crap job?!" A few years ago he would have laughed, but now he looked at the woman, greasy and cow-like, and wondered whether she had expected life to turn out like this. He remembered the times that he and Kate had talked about their future.

They had spent their Saturdays rowing out to a secluded bay on the estuary, with a bag of cheese and pickle sandwiches and the cheapest cider from the village shop, a toxic brew of chemicals which reminded them of a number of substances, most of them unpleasant, none of them, unfortunately, remotely resembling apples. Their skins had been scorched the colour of toffee (she would, he knew, not let that happen now, no woman did, not without copious lotions and potions, but it had never bothered them then), and they had discussed how she would be a lawyer, and he would be a musician, and they would live together in a city, maybe London or Edinburgh, in an artistically decorated flat, with their new friends. Then, when they had reached the tiny strip of sand which few people knew about, they wouldn't talk about anything at all.

Well he certainly hadn't become a musician, he thought some weeks later, as he approached the familiar office for yet another day. It was an imposing building, more traditional than the one where Kate worked, a solid Victorian edifice with a wide doorway and marble lobby. He was becoming rather used to looking towards her office, seeing her enter and leave. He even knew her Winter clothes (red suit, grey dress with black jacket, black trouser suit) and her lunches (take away sushi, upmarket sandwiches, and on her longer absences, presumably a business lunch) but he was more interested in her changing moods. There was the Monday morning frown; he remembered that from when they had studied for their A levels and they had spent too much of their weekend at the cove. And then there was the Friday night smile that he saw when she left with a gaggle of people and entered the minimalist cocktail bar next door, named 'A Clockwork Orange'. He could see that it was full of huge blown up stills from the film and had strange green and blue lighting. The smile, though, was little changed from the way she used to look a decade ago when she had entered The Wreckers, a pub by the harbour. They had ordered pints of cider from Trudie the barmaid, a pot bellied vision in nylon with a liberal attitude to the laws regarding underage drinking. He had also recognised, with a queasy stomach, the look she had worn on that one occasion when she left a little later in the evening, sometime in September, dressed in black taffeta. He hated to admit it, but it had been the expression she had worn the first few times they went out in the boat, still flushed with the novelty of newly lost virginity. He had tried hard to stop himself from imagining who that look had been for. She had often glanced at him as she passed the building, glancing along the pavement, and sometimes through the windows, but never with any hint of recognition.

And so it was that he sat in his usual place on February 14th, seven months after he had first seen her, determined that this would be the day when he would say something. He remembered Valentine's Day ten years ago. The sea had been far too rough for them to venture out in the boat, but they had walked on the cliffs, arms curled around each other like petals around a bud, in the unforgiving wind. They had sheltered behind a wall, and he had carefully taken the present from his pocket, as gently as an egg from a nest.

"Happy Valentine's Day," he had said and she had ripped the rose coloured paper from the box, laughing as it flew away on the breeze. She opened it and saw the silver and amethyst ring, "I suppose I should go down on one knee..." and then he had seen the smile frozen on her face. She had been wonderful of course, although he tried not too hear her words.

"Really sudden... both got years at university... so lovely... when we've finished our degrees..." and he had turned away, looking at the shiny pink paper dancing on the wind towards the edge of the cliff. It had been a welcome excuse to run after it, preventing litter, and by the time he had retrieved it and walked back towards her his tears had dried. And they had both finished their degrees (only just, in his case), but they had been in separate cities, with separate people. She had been right. They had both been far too young.

It was approaching the end of the day and he was looking towards her building, becoming impatient. The street was filling up with the usual throng of people, hurrying into the warmth of the tube to escape the drizzle. A man in a white van sounded his horn impatiently. The vehicle was filthy, and somebody had written in the dirt with a finger: "as cleaned by Stevie Wonder". He idly thumbed through a discarded copy of The Times which somebody had left close to where he was seated, but he was unable to concentrate and the letters danced on the page. A senior manager was hovering in the impressive doorway, unwilling to submit to the thickening rain, and looked at him accusingly as he was reading, then scurried out with a disapproving look. Suddenly he saw her, and vaguely tried to remember the words he had rehearsed. She walked purposefully towards his building and the tube entrance, and he began to speak. But at the last moment the only words that came out were the ones he used several times an hour.

"Can you spare any change please?" he had always known that that would be all he could manage. She smiled, reached into her pocket and found a pound coin which she tossed onto the damp copy of The Times, still with no recognition. He smiled philosophically. The beard, he supposed, didn't help, nor did the deep scar which ran down the right hand side of his face, a souvenir from somebody called psycho Dave whose sleeping space he had inadvertently stolen one night. But he had seen the ring which she still wore on a finger of her right hand. Opening his wallet, a very faded and battered item for something which had held so little, he took out a tiny folded square of shiny pink wrapping paper, put the pound coin beside it, and watched her disappear underground.

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