Note: An extract from a novel
‘ … So he turns up, yeah, in a brand new Maserati. I mean, can you believe it?’ Lucy swung around in her chair to see my reaction. ‘I checked afterwards, and they cost, like, a hundred grand.’
I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers against my temples. Almost as soon as I’d woken up that day, my head had begun to throb with pain that wouldn’t go away. And, to make it even worse, I’d had to put up with Lucy prattling on all morning. I reached for the packet of aspirin in my drawer.
‘Julia,’ Lucy nagged. I realised I’d missed the last thing she’d said.
‘Don’t you think that’s true?’ she asked.
‘That he’s just trying to buy my affection. God, were you even listening to me?’
I swallowed two pills dry. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I was thinking about something else.’
She arched her eyebrows. ‘Really? Anything interesting?’
‘No. I mean, it’s nothing.’
‘I bet it’s not.’ She dropped her voice to a loud whisper. ‘Are you hungover?’
‘Oh. That. No. I’ve just got a headache, that’s all.’
She laughed. ‘Yeah, right. So you weren’t out on the pull last night?’
I stared at her. ‘No,’ I said, insulted. ‘I wasn’t.’
She narrowed her eyes for a moment, sizing me up, then shook her head. ‘Whatever,’ she said. ‘So anyway, you agree with me, right? About this guy?’
I sighed. ‘Are you asking me whether I think someone would spend a hundred thousand pounds, on a car, for a date? OK. My answer is no.’
She pouted. ‘Well, I don’t know. He might have done. He’s a hedge fund manager, remember? This is like pocket money to them. He was probably thinking of getting one anyway and decided to buy it in time for yesterday evening. Honestly, you should have seen how much he was showing off with it. It’s like he really, really wanted to impress me.’
‘Well, I guess if you’re not going to see him again then it doesn’t really matter,’ I said bluntly.
‘You said he’s trying to buy your affection. So I assume you won’t be seeing him again.’
She frowned in irritation. ‘I didn’t say he definitely was. Just that he might be. And he turned out to be really generous, actually. He paid for all my cocktails in the bar. The bill was over a hundred and fifty.’ There was a new boastful tone to her voice.
‘How do you know that?’
‘He left his credit card receipt behind. So I looked at it.’
‘Ah. I see.’
I heard the door of Paul’s office click open. He came out, clutching a sheaf of papers in one hand, and looked straight at me with a broad smile.
‘Ah, Julia,’ he said. He perched on the edge of my desk. ‘How’s things? Getting on OK?’
‘Marvellous,’ he said, still beaming. ‘I’m sorry I haven’t been in the office much for your first couple of weeks – I’ve had to keep popping in and out.’
‘That’s OK,’ I said. ‘It’s been quiet.’
‘Which is good when you’re new to the place, right? And what about Lucy – I expect she’s been showing you all the ropes when I’m not here?’
I glanced over at Lucy, whose brow was furrowed as she stared at her computer, a look of deep concentration fixed on her face.
‘Yeah,’ I said, turning back to Paul. ‘She’s been great.’
‘Jolly good, jolly good.’ He flicked his blazer sleeve back with his free hand to inspect his watch. ‘Well, listen, I was thinking – are you free for lunch tomorrow? There’s a very nice Italian place in town. How does that sound?’
‘Tomorrow? I … Sure. That’d be great.’
‘Lovely. It’s just a little chat, really, to see how you’re coming along.’
‘Great stuff.’ He got up from my desk. ‘Don’t forget. And Lucy – make sure you finish that contract by this afternoon. I have to send it out before five.’
She flashed him a smile. ‘No problem.’
As soon as Paul went back into his office, Lucy leaned back in her chair. ‘Jeez,’ she said. ‘I wonder what that’s about.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Paul asking you out for lunch. No offence, but I’d be worried if I were you.’
I swallowed. ‘I don’t know what you mean. He said he just wanted to see how my work was going.’
‘I know he said that. But – well, I didn’t get that when I started here. Nor did anybody else. Paul usually just calls people into his office and says they’re doing fine. So there must be a reason he wants to talk to you.’ She picked up a pile of papers from a tray on her desk and began to sort through them.
I chewed my lip. ‘He’s been away a lot,’ I reasoned. ‘He probably just wants to know what I’m doing when he’s out of the office.’
‘I doubt it. He knows everything that goes on around here.’ She looked up at me and smiled. It was obviously intended to be a reassuring gesture, but it came from someone who had no idea what a reassuring gesture looked like. ‘Whatever,’ she trilled. ‘I’m sure it’s fine. You’ve only been here a few weeks. They can’t sack you yet.’
‘Seriously,’ said Lucy, flicking her hair as she turned back to her screen. ‘I wouldn’t worry about it.’
‘I’m not worried,’ I said.
That evening, I stayed at my desk for a long time after Lucy and everyone else had left for the obligatory after-work drinks at the pub. I liked being in the office by myself. The building had a calm, quiet atmosphere that wasn’t there during the day. It felt especially soothing after an entire day of Lucy’s ceaseless babble.
Her desk had been left a mess, as usual. Pens, old staples and paperclips were scattered across untidy piles of paper, which covered every inch of the surface. There was no one there to hear or see me, but I still held my breath as I pulled one of her drawers open, very slowly. Four loose cereal bars; a phone charger; some makeup; a magazine. The same one she’d been reading earlier. I pushed aside everything else in the drawer to look at it.
Promises of sex and diet tips were splashed across the cover, the letters jumping out at me in lurid colours. Retrieving the magazine, I laid it down on my desk and began flicking through the thick, glossy pages. All the girls in the photographs looked beautiful: slender, radiant, flashing huge grins. I stopped at one picture of a thin brunette posing with a handsome man, her skinny arms wrapped around his tanned, bulky frame. Her head was thrown back in giggling ecstasy. She looked a bit like me.
I slipped the magazine inside my bag. It was time to go home. As soon as I stepped outside, I felt a bitter chill slapping against my skin. Raising the collar of my thin coat, I walked faster and concentrated on the warmth of my bedroom.
A few minutes away from the house, I turned my head to cross the road and caught sight of someone sitting by themselves on a bench, no more than twenty feet away. A lone middle-aged woman, shrouded in a heavy coat and scarf, at the edge of a neglected patch of park ground. She was sitting bolt upright, one hand crossed against her chest. The other held a lit cigarette in the air. My eyes were compelled towards this strange figure for several moments before I realised, with a shock, that it was my landlady.
For a second, I simply stared at her. We had been living in the same house for nearly a month, but I had never seen Clare smoke before. What was she doing here? Is this where she went when she disappeared from the house for hours at a time? I pulled my collar up as I approached the bench, shivering. In her thick coat, Clare didn’t seem to feel the cold. She didn’t seem to be feeling anything, in fact. Her face, always so careful not to give anything away, was blanker than I’d ever seen it. She just stared ahead while her cigarette burned all by itself.
‘Clare.’ She didn’t look at me as I sat down next to her. ‘Clare,’ I repeated. ‘Are you OK?’
Her face turned towards mine, and she stared at me with dead, empty eyes. I hesitated, not sure if I should rest a reassuring hand on her shoulder. No. Too awkward. I tucked my hands inside my lap, rubbing them together for warmth.
‘Hey,’ I said softly. ‘Are you OK?’
She blinked then, as if she was suddenly seeing me for the first time. Her lips pursed together before she spoke.
‘Yes,’ she said, in a voice that didn’t sound like hers. ‘I’m fine.’
‘Are you sure? How come you’re sitting out here all by yourself? Aren’t you cold?’
‘I’m fine. I told you. I just needed to get some fresh air.’
Her cigarette, still propped between her fingers, had nearly burned all the way down. She didn’t even seem to notice that it was there. I wondered if she had smoked any of it.
We sat there for a few more seconds, until I couldn’t bear the awkwardness any longer. I stood up.
‘Listen,’ I said. ‘If you’re absolutely sure you’re all right … ‘
‘Yes!’ she snapped. ‘I already said I was. You don’t need to keep asking me.’
‘I’m sorry.’ In spite of the cold, my face flushed. I bit my lip. ‘I think I’m going to go back to the house now.’
She closed her eyes. ‘Fine.’
‘OK. Well … I’ll see you later, I guess.’ I hesitated. ‘Bye, Clare.’ I waited for her to say goodbye, but she didn’t say anything. So I turned around and carried on walking home.