I call these Sandwich Stories because each is just long enough to read while you eat your lunch.
A SLIVER OF IVORY
He wanted you to have this.
It was written with exaggerated clarity on a scrap of paper, as if the author was unsure of the reader’s grasp of English. The torn paper, rather than a proper card, another signal from the sender. It was signed Elaine, with a rounded, buxom capital E. On the padded envelope postmarked Omaha, a cartoon plane swooshed under the jaunty Par Avion.
Elaine. So that was her name. Anna had pictured a different, more exotic name for his wife. Natasha, maybe, or Vivienne. Yet the prospects for these in Omaha, she had to admit, were very slim. Anna pictured this Elaine, sturdy and wholesome, tearing off a page from the pad by the phone, scribbling the note and sealing it with a frown to send across to the other side of the world. To a woman she had never heard of, nor would ever meet, God willing.
Tucked into the corner of the envelope was the thing which Anna had dreaded receiving for forty years. That had to be approached carefully, in stages. She laid the envelope aside and went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Once there, she realised her folly and poured several fingers of fine malt whisky into a heavy crystal tumbler. The snow had crept up nearly to the windowsill. Here in the fenland, the banshee gale swept unimpeded straight in from Siberia. She sipped the whisky as he had taught her, and shivered at its warmth.
The day that they met had been a rare slow one at the clinic. Anna had taken the opportunity to scavenge drugs from other hospitals, and spotted him immediately on her return as she crossed the waiting room, arms full of amber bottles. He sat straight-backed in his chair, not looking at anyone, his American airman’s uniform enough of an attention grabber on its own. The other chairs were occupied by a junior naval rating who looked barely old enough to drink, further diminished by a too-large uniform, and a middle-aged civilian man doing his best to pretend that he was elsewhere. She knew that expression well. For most people, a trip to her clinic was an act of desperation.
The airman’s hat rested on one knee, the only sign of his nervousness a slight rocking motion. Although young, he had a centred quality which distanced him totally from the rating, who was a mass of twitching impatience. A bottle fell from her arms and in a single fluid movement the American was on his feet to catch it before it smashed on the tiled floor. With a grin and a shrug, he said, ‘All those years of ballet paid off, I guess.’ His grey eyes, framed by creases, suggested endless prairies under empty skies. He had the healthy, well-fed look of the recently arrived, so different from the local populace. He could not have seemed more foreign if he were wearing a turban and riding an elephant.
Please, please don’t let him be one of mine. Sure enough, twenty minutes later when she returned to the waiting room and called out ‘Donald Olsen’, he rose to his feet. She spun towards the treatment room and said stiffly, ‘Follow me.’ Damn, damn.
‘What seems to be the problem?’ she had asked, pulling on her rubber gloves and avoiding eye contact. Her job was to keep London’s genitals clean, no easy task in peacetime but a complete bastard during a war. The harder the bombs fell, the randier the population grew. Sex and death, natural partners, just like rain and cricket. Her nurse’s training had rendered her virtually unshockable, but there were still some sights that she would never get used to.
‘I’m, um,’ he said, hat poised protectively over his groin, ‘I’m kinda, well, sore. And red.’
‘Let’s have a look then, shall we?’ she said in her best, no-nonsense matron’s voice. He was just a man, with the usual equipment, and no matter what terrible place he’d put it, there was likely to be a remedy. ‘Trousers down, please.’
She studied his penis with professional detachment, and felt a very unprofessional relief at the sight of it. Now she looked up, to see his face full of concern and embarrassment, sweat darkening the hair at his temples. But she was not willing to let him off too easily. His sense of caution needed reinforcement. She kept her expression neutral as she removed her gloves. ‘Well, I believe I know the source of your problem. You can get dressed now.’
‘Yes?’ he said tightly, buckling his belt.
‘You realise that you should have been more careful.’ It was unfair to prolong his distress, but she was enjoying herself.
‘I am careful, was careful, I mean…I don’t know how this happened. I’ve never had this kind of, uh, problem before. I always use a rubber.’
She had seen enough US servicemen to know he did not mean a pencil eraser. Good boy. ‘I’m afraid that won’t help in this case. Unless you wear a…rubber when you bathe.’
‘What? I don’t get it. Why—?’ He went pale, gripped his hat like the steering wheel of a car that would deliver him out of this nightmare.
‘The soap has irritated your skin. You’re probably washing too vigorously, you’re not used to British soap. Be a little less clean, and the problem will go away.’ Now she allowed herself a smile. She rummaged in the desk drawer. ‘Here, take this.’ She handed him a tiny bar of Ivory soap in a very creased and slippery grease-proof paper wrapping, a gift from one of his grateful countrymen. She had been saving it for herself, its delicate freshness so much more pleasant than the hard lye found in the shops. ‘It won’t irritate you so much.’
As she turned, he swept her into his arms with a whoop and spun her around the room. She lost her nurse’s cap and her dignity. ‘Thank you, oh thank you!’ He kissed her on both cheeks, still holding her aloft.
She squirmed out of his arms, straightened her uniform, tucked her hair back into its clips, and replaced her cap. He had felt solid and warm as a sun-baked hillside, his arms easily supporting her weight although she was almost as tall as he. ‘That’s enough, airman. Now if you’ll excuse me, I—’
‘Have a drink with me, please? I’ve been on edge for weeks because of this, now I want to celebrate! Please, one drink, to thank you for making me the happiest Yank in London.’ His smile was easy, open, not a come-on, just friendly and suddenly very appealing.
She was propositioned on a regular basis by her patients, some of the more brazen ones even suggesting that the examination room bed was a very convenient location. Soldiers were the worst, the most determined. Quite a few turned up with absolutely nothing wrong downstairs, having heard that the nurse at the clap clinic was a bit of all right. Howard had been away in Malaya more than two years now, and she had never been tempted, not once.
‘I’m married,’ she had said, more primly than she intended. ‘My husband is fighting in the Pacific. And I have a child.’ Little Theo, with his map of Daddy’s exploits, a different coloured pin to mark each posting. He wrote to her every week from Wiltshire where he had been evacuated, painstakingly penned notes which lacked his essential Theo-ness. ‘The weather is very mild for the time of year,’ and other such phrases betrayed the hand of the head teacher. She could no longer remember how he smelled, neither him nor his father. The clothes they had both left behind carried only the whiff of the cedar wardrobe.
‘One drink,’ he had said, ‘honest to God, I’m just tickled pink. Or tickled red? Come on,’ he said, spread his hands wide. They were good hands, clean fingernails. ‘One drink and then I’ll go home and not take a bath. What do you say?’
Looking back, she was not entirely sure what had persuaded her, but it was something to do with the way he had said the word ‘bath’. She could not resist saying, ‘Don’t you mean baath?’
And that was that. She already knew what would happen, as they sat a decorous distance apart and sipped their whisky, ignoring the envious glares and dark mutterings of the beer drinkers. She had never drunk whisky before, had been put off by its medicinal smell, but Donald knew one which went down like cream and tasted of Christmas cake.
He was from Nebraska. He might as well have said Ceylon, so little did it mean to her. She had told him about Theo, about how brave he had been at the station, with his little case, how she had cried for days after he had left. About Howard she said nothing. Donald’s people were wheat farmers, as would he be, when it was all over. He was the only son, the only bearer of family hopes and honour. The London posting was unexpected, just a stop-gap until he could join his squadron. He had always wanted to fly. He liked to dance, but did it badly. She offered to coach him. All very civilised and normal—and utterly belied by the glances passing between them. No one had looked at her with such hunger for a very long time. Never, in fact.
Then they were outside on the pavement, just staring at each other while passersby swirled around them. She took his hand and led him to her flat. It was hot and quick, they were barely inside the front door—although with a brief pause while he expertly applied the ‘rubber’. She clung to him, he cradled her hips easily in his hands, whispering urgently into her hair, words she had never heard before.
All through the long summer, they met in her stifling flat. With the windows open for the feeble breeze, they had to be very quiet—in itself a hardship—but even so they grew so slick with sweat that they simply slid off each other and lay giggling on the floorboards. Their saviour was the extra-large claw-footed bath where they would recline in the cool water together and smoke and drink more whisky. There they remained even when the air raid signal went off and explosions rained plaster dust down onto their heads.
They never talked about the future, although the subject was there in every glance and every caress. It hung in the air above them like the cigarette smoke.
If she ever thought about Howard, like when his infrequent letters arrived, it was fondly but abstractly, as if he were a character in a book she had begun reading and then misplaced. They had been married for nearly ten years when he was sent away, yet her memories of their time together had blurred and smudged. A vague sense of contented companionship, which Theo’s arrival seemed to diminish rather than strengthen. After the difficult and protracted birth, during which Howard had remained steadfastly in the pub, he had regarded her changed body with ill-concealed distaste. He could not be in the same room when she fed Theo, and moved into the second bedroom ‘so as not to disturb’. One night, not long before he was called up, he came home late from the pub with a gamey, unfamiliar smell on him.
Donald, or Don as he preferred, made her body his project. A cartographer by trade, he set out to map every bit of her, in such detail and with such interest that she eventually lost her self-consciousness, even about her childbirth scars. She taught him to cook. He taught her to wire a plug. He read all of Theo’s letters, asked about his progress in school. And all the while, each day drew in just a little bit more, the light a little bit softer.
She saw the looks from her neighbours. She heard the gossip about her at work. Yet all of that seemed to belong to a world that she had left behind. Or maybe a world that existed to one side, which she could observe but was totally separated from. As promised, he was a terrible dancer and impervious to her coaching, so they held each other close and moved slowly about the floor, even after the music had stopped. Nothing of the real world—neither bombs nor the gossip nor her marriage—could touch them. She felt safe with him, only with him. On her way to work, as she picked her way past the still-smouldering remnants of buildings, their contents strewn in the street or hanging from blasted trees, she imagined being in his arms and felt safe.
On an early evening in late September, they got out of bed to forage for food. Don wore only his uniform trousers, Anna wearing his shirt. He moved about the kitchen with easy familiarity.
‘Doesn’t look promising,’ he said into the nearly bare cupboard. While still in bed they had eaten the melting chocolate bar that Don had brought, licking bits off each other and leaving dark streaks on the sheets. ‘A few spuds, an onion, and a little milk.’
‘Stand aside. I can work miracles with that. You Yanks think a meal has to include an entire cow, don’t you?’
‘We do, huh?’ He slipped his hands under the shirt and tickled her belly. ‘Is that what you think?’
She squealed and brandished a spatula, backing away from him towards the front door. ‘Watch out, you, I’m armed and dangerous.’ She took another step backwards just as Don shouted, ‘Anna, no!’
She smelled him before she saw him, a rank, ammonia-like odour. He had lost weight, a lot of it. The collar of his uniform stood away from his sunburned neck. A long maroon scar wound from his left ear to his chin. In his right hand, almost casually, rested his service revolver. She could not prevent the gasp of fear and revulsion.
‘I thought,’ said Howard, and his voice was different too. An old man’s voice, coarse and strained. ‘I thought there was an…intruder.’
‘Howard, I’m—’ she did not know what she was. ‘Sorry.’
He spoke to Don as if she were not there. ‘I’m going out now, to walk around the square. When I return, you will be gone. Understand, mate?’ The last word was invested with a menace she had never heard before in his voice. He still did not look at her. Howard always had beautiful manners, never one to cause a scene.
Don had said something, but she could not hear. She could see only Theo, on the platform at the station.
Fifteen minutes later, when Howard had returned, Donald was gone. He had argued with her, eventually pleaded with her to come with him, but finally left, closing the door quietly. And she and Howard had faced each other. His pupils were dilated, like he was drugged. He stared, saying nothing, absently swinging the gun like a toy.
It had felt like a punch in the face, but Howard remained a few feet away, staring at her, his mouth a perfect round O of horror. Pain detonated in her right eye and she fell. There was a smell of cordite, which reminded her of bonfire night. She had always loved fireworks. And another smell, very close by, of burning. She heard him scream, ‘Anna!’, then the heavy thwack of the gun on the wooden floor. ‘Anna,’ he whispered, stroking her hair. That was where the police had found him, alerted by a neighbour who had finally had enough of the commotion upstairs, kneeling over her shattered face.
A sudden gust whistled through the ill-fitting window frames. Anna took her whisky into the sitting room and settled in the wing-back chair beside the fire. The empty eye socket itched in the dry heat, so she removed the patch and gave it a good scratch. No one around to object, another luxury of the solitary life. They had tried very hard to persuade her to take the glass eye, even bullied her, but she had refused. With a cane, she could get around well enough, and her speech was only a little bit slurred. Her awkward gait and odd speech most often led people to assume that she was drunk. And, in the early days, she often was. But never on whisky.
She had not pressed charges. What was the point? The law of ‘extreme provocation’ was on Howard’s side, and there was Theo to think about. They had agreed to tell him that Mummy had an accident. When he finally came home from Wiltshire, so much bigger that it broke her heart, he was frightened of the patch at first, but soon decided that it was spiffing to have a pirate Mummy.
The move to Cambridge had given them a fresh start. Time had passed, as it always does, even if it did not heal. Their wedding picture was still on the mantle, both of them looking so anxious to please. It was how she chose to remember Howard. The bullet was still in there, somewhere, which made for hilarious scenes at airport security when she flew off to see Theo, Marlene, and the boys.
The envelope lay on her lap. She always thought that she would know when it happened, would feel some kind of vibration, a change in the barometric pressure, when he was no longer in the world. Sentimental nonsense, she know realised. The envelope before her was proof. She tipped it open and smiled, her eye misted over. The wrapping on the bar of Ivory soap was worn almost transparent, but she could still read the cursive script. The contents had crumbled yet when she pressed it to her nose, the delicate, clean fragrance was there, barely discernible but there…
…Or maybe it was only her imagination.
A SIMPLE MISTAKE
The dome of an umbrella bobbed along the top of the fence, beneath the dripping horse chestnut branches. Pink, blue, white stripes. Childhood colours, an adult’s height. It had been raining for days, maybe weeks. Lots of umbrellas bobbed along her fence, but she recognised this one.
It was him again.
Cynthia wheeled herself into the corner of the living room, where she could see the gate but where reflections from the bay window prevented anyone seeing in.
He stood at the gate under his girlish umbrella, not entering, just staring at the house, right into the window of the room in which she sat, as if he knew that she was there, trapped behind the glass. Like an insect in a display case. His eyes were obscured by spectacles with thick lenses, which only intensified her unease. A heavy, jowly face which could have been middle-aged or much younger, collar too tight around his thick neck, disastrous hair which looked like it had been styled by a blind lunatic, a rumpled raincoat straight from the Flasher-Mac Warehouse.
‘He can’t see me,’ she said aloud, ‘He can’t. See me.’
She was safe, it was ridiculous to be so fearful. It was the fault of the chair. Since the accident six months ago, her personality had begun to change. She could feel the chair slowly but definitely asserting its will over her. Up through her useless legs, its metal frame melded itself to her, its leather seat becoming one with her buttocks, her waist. Where all sensation stopped—or began, depending on one’s direction of travel. Eventually they would become one, part machine, part paralysed person: cyberlegic.
At the start, she had raged at the chair, insisted on trying crutches, leg braces, anything that would keep her upright. At eye level with other adults. ‘I’m sorry,’ Dr Azaria had said, not even trying to sound sincere. She had been a ‘challenging patient’, according to the quick peek at her physiotherapy referral letter. ‘The fracture of your spine has resulted in complete paralysis of the lower extremities. In my experience with such cases,’ he sighed, his mind already on other, more compliant patients, ‘there is no prospect of a return of function. ‘
‘Make no mistake, Dr Azaria,’ she had said, with confidence which now seemed absurd, ‘I will get out of this chair one day.’
Cynthia had been through all the textbook stages—shock, sadness, denial, anger—and got stuck on the last one. She had never moved on to the final stage for all those faced with life-changing disasters; the blissful, sunny nirvana of acceptance remained out of reach. A successful criminal prosecutor at the top of her profession, she had not risen to the level of partner by being good at acceptance. She was good at getting people to pay for their mistakes.
None of that mattered any more. That part of her life was finished. Her job was still there, but she had no interest in returning to court to be the subject of prurient curiosity, to be looked down on in her chair. She had loved it, and it was over. There was nothing to fill the void.
One instant. That was all it took for her life to be ruined. ‘Not ruined,’ Sandra the therapist would have said, ‘changed. You need to adjust your point of view.’ At times like that, Cynthia’s anger was a palpable force inside her, streams of molten lava in her veins. Her arms still worked perfectly well—better, in fact, from all the wheeling—plenty strong enough to beat Sandra to death with her leopard-print ballet shoes.
One instant. Step off the curb into the road at one moment in time, distracted by something just at the edge of your vision, and your life goes one way. Wait on the curb for one second longer, and it goes another way. All of those months, lying in the hospital bed, she had ransacked her memory for what she had seen that day. Something had made her move, just at the second she should have stayed. But the answer was lost somewhere in the folds of her cerebellum, not helped by the powerful anti-depressants which kept her away from the knife drawer but also dulled her thought processes.
The world was full of such moments, she realised. The moment when the woman misses the last bus and decides to walk home…the moment when the man checks into the hotel room with the faulty power socket…the moment when the little boy, bored with his toys, find’s Daddy’s gun cabinet unlocked…
Despite, or maybe because of, all the new modifications and gadgets in her house—the ramps, the ugly handrails everywhere, the new shower big enough for a chair, her bed in the downstairs study—she felt her formerly outgoing, adventurous nature draining out of her, a little every day. A slow leak that would ultimately leave her just a pathetic, deflated husk. Before the accident, she would have run the old pervert off the top of her drive with her best courtroom voice. Now here she was, cowering in the corner of her own house.
She felt catapulted into early geriatric-hood. It was wrong, every molecule of her being screamed that it was wrong. This was not how her life was meant to be. The essential Cynthia-ness was leaving, and what remained…what did remain? A carcass sat for the rest of its days in the chair, a creature that ate and drank, peed into a bag, inhaled and exhaled, kept clean by the efficient hands of Maxine, the private nurse paid for by the insurance settlement.
At least Maxine was different, not like therapist Sandra. Cynicism oozed from Maxine’s pores, clung to her like the smoke from her hand-rolled cigarettes. And she seemed to like Cynthia, who did not mind if the nurse smoked in the house. Once Maxine had bathed and dressed her and dispensed her meds, checked for pressure sores and massaged her wasted muscles, they would settle down for a chat and a smoke. Lung cancer, Cynthia figured, would at least make a change. Since the accident, she had embraced unhealthy habits with the same fervor which she had once applied to staying healthy. The blender which had previously been used for wheatgrass and bee pollen smoothies was now pressed into service for the staggeringly strong cocktails that she shared with Maxine. Thankfully, Maxine only needed to stroll a short distance to the bus stop, once her shift was over or the cocktails finished, whichever came first.
‘Did you know that Christopher Reeve was killed by a bedsore?’ Cynthia once asked Maxine. ‘Blood poisoning, from an infected bedsore.’
‘You ask me,’ Maxine had said, with a loud grunt as she heaved Cynthia into the chair, ‘that man was meant to go when he fell on his head.’ Maxine was from Jamaica and liked Cynthia’s house because it was always warm. Warmth was needed to stimulate Cynthia’s sluggish circulation, but Maxine had never adapted to the New England climate. At least two bulky sweaters swathed her uniform, even in summer. Cynthia suspected that there was another reason for the jumpers: Maxine’s uniform buttons had long ago lost the battle of the bulge.
‘Does that mean you think I should have died when that car hit me?’ Cynthia had asked. That was her own view, reinforced with every passing day.
‘You too angry to die, Cyn,’ Maxine had said with a contented sigh, as she settled into the moss-green velvet armchair with the claw feet by the radiator. She examined her cocktail. ‘Looks like my glass must have a hole in it.’
The stalker never appeared when Maxine was there. Nor did he appear when any of her other infrequent guests paid their visits. But there he was again, just standing outside the gate, raindrops suspended from the points of his ridiculous umbrella.
It was the umbrella that did it. She refused to be intimidated by a stalker with an umbrella like that.
All the months of heartbreak, while her life and her legs withered, the parade of indignities lengthened, the monotonous platitudes from well-wishers threatened to bury her alive, the nights of deepest, blackest despair…all of this propelled her to the front door. Driven by a pure white flame of anger, she smacked the button to open it, wheeled herself down the ramp and along the path where she stopped, panting. Only the wooden gate separated them, shedding flakes of brown paint like dead skin.
He did not move away. Suddenly she realised that, in her haste to confront him, she did not know what to say. The only sound was the rain clattering softly on the leaves overhead.
‘Good afternoon, Cynthia,’ he said with a pleasant smile which revealed a mouthful of uneven, nicotine-stained teeth. One of the upper canines was capped with gold. Even up close it was no easier to see his eyes through the glasses. ‘How are you today?’ His voice was confident, the voice of someone used to getting their way, unexpected from a man who looked like a community psychiatric case.
So outraged was she that no words would come, she just shifted jerkily in the chair. It took a moment to register that he knew her name, but then she realised that any competent stalker would manage that.
‘Careful,’ he said, ‘the brake’s off.’
Sure enough, the chair began to roll backward. In an instant, he was through the gate, his hand on the chair to stop its descent, his umbrella shading her from the rain.
‘Get away from me!’ she bellowed, in her most sonorous, menacing courtroom voice, which had shrivelled some of the top lawyers in the land.
He smiled again. ‘You must teach me how to do that sometime. But first, we have some things to talk about. Shall we go inside?’
She was just about to blast him right off his feet with a fire hose of invective, had opened her mouth to do just that, and then stopped, jaws akimbo.
The crowd of people on the curb, everyone impatient for the lights to change so they could return to their warm offices and houses. Elbows, shoulders jostling. Easy enough for someone to lose their balance.
It was him, on the day of the accident.
Just behind in the crowd, over her left shoulder. He had been there.
‘Now then,’ he said kindly, and extended a hand to close her mouth, yellowish nails on his long fingers, ‘I’ve been waiting quite a while. Let’s go inside and get everything in order.’
And before she could protest or do anything to attract attention, he had spun her chair around and wheeled her into the house.
To be so helpless made her even angrier, but frightened too. It was bad enough being a woman, but worse to be a woman who could not even kick him in the crotch. She was utterly in his power. Once in the living room he removed his ugly raincoat and settled himself in Maxine’s armchair, relaxed but business-like. He extracted a small spiral notebook and pen from his pocket.
‘Let’s see now,’ he said, flicking the pages of the notebook, ‘you are Cynthia Hattersley, correct?’
‘I saw you. That day, you were there,’ she croaked. ‘I saw you.’
‘Yes, you did,’ he sighed, ‘but things didn’t go to plan, did they?’ He scribbled something on the pad, muttered, ‘Modern medicine makes my job so much harder. Only a few years ago, a bang like yours would have done the job, no question.’
‘Plan, what plan? Done what job?’ Her mouth was too dry to speak. She swallowed. It did not help. ‘Who—who are you?’ she whispered.
He smelled…wrong. Not like stale sweat or another body odour. This was the smell of things shut away from the light for years, of things buried deep in the ground, forever. Her guts contracted with a desperate desire to be anywhere he was not. On another continent. Or another planet. Bile stung her throat. The phone was out of reach, the house screened from the street by the trees.
‘Come on, Cynthia, you know who I am. Think about it.’ He nodded encouragingly, like he was trying to help her to pass an exam.
Only a few hours ago, her only concern had been whether Maxine would remember to bring more rum. ‘You were there to…to kill me? You’re a…a hit man?’ Her voice rose with incredulity, at the idea that the scraggy specimen could be a professional killer. Her mind began to itemise all the criminals living out their days in jail because of her. It was not impossible.
‘I am not a hit man, Cynthia.’ His voice was different. It had a new, resonant quality. Gone was the joviality, the nicotine-stained grin. ‘I am THE hit man.’
He removed his glasses. Where his eyes should have been, there was only emptiness: two voids of unending, obsidian blackness. They pulled her like two magnets, the chair inching slowly towards him. ‘Time to go, Cynthia.’
She could not move, could not look away. The room went cold and dark around her, the central heating no match for the frigid gusts coming off him. It was spring outside the window, but deepest winter in her living room.
She would have screamed but she had no voice. She would have fainted but was not the fainting type. A crazy thought flashed into her mind: ‘It’s a good thing that I’m sitting down’.
He replaced his glasses, and the room returned to its normal temperature. ‘Sorry to rush you, luv, but I’m on a schedule. We’ll just take care of the formalities and be off.’
‘Off?’ So many times, since the accident, she had longed for death, but now that he was sitting in her armchair she desperately wanted to live. She wanted to watch the sun move across the panes of her bedroom window. She wanted to get drunk with Maxine while they watched her soaps. She wanted to go back to work. Suddenly, she wanted so many things.
‘Yes, dear. You were due to go when you stepped off that pavement. That meddling Dr Azaria is causing me no end of grief, you wouldn’t believe the paperwork. Let’s see here,’ he consulted his notebook, ‘you are Cynthia Eleanor Hattersley—’
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘Not me.’
‘I know it’s a shock, dear, but rules are rules.’ He tapped the notebook with the pen. Impatient now. On a schedule.
‘No, I mean, yes, it is a shock. But no, that’s not me. I’m Cynthia Anne Hattersley.‘ She extracted her driver’s license from the purse by her feet. ‘Look.’
He studied the license, his face growing more and more pale until it was almost white. A deep, expressive sigh. ‘Shit. I hate it when this happens.’
‘What do you mean?’ Her voice had returned to full strength. ‘When what happens?’ She leaned forward, nose wrinkled against his smell. ‘Do you mean that you, the all-powerful, have screwed up? And not for the first time? Has it not occurred to you that it might be time to find a different line of work? Like dog-catcher? Oh, wait, you would probably catch the wrong ones.’ She began to laugh, loud honking guffaws which cleared her lungs for what felt like the first time in months.
‘No need to get nasty. Everyone makes mistakes,’ he said, with a defensive whine , beyond white now and beginning to look opaque, his voice growing weaker. ‘Mind if I smoke?’
‘Of course I smoke,’ he said, pulled a crumpled butt from his pocket and lit up. ‘You won’t tell anyone about this, will you?’
Her lawyer’s brain began to work for the first time in ages. How many more were there like her, victims of the most colossal administrative blunder in the known universe? This could be the biggest class-action suit in history. ‘You have to leave now. But if I were you, I’d get a good lawyer.’
Almost totally transparent by this point, he said, ‘Very well, but I will see you again in, oh, about—’
‘Get out!’ she screamed, with all the power in her crumpled body. ‘Get out!’
And he was gone.
The armchair was empty. Her heartbeat gradually slowed. She was tired from the unaccustomed exertion. The rain had stopped. The chair was dry where his mac had lain. The only reminder of him was the lingering smell of cheap tobacco. Maxine would soon take care of that.
Elation and relief battled for control of her face. She tilted her head back in the despised chair, smiling while tears flooded her eyes. She would return to work. Yes, and she would get Maxine to take her shopping. They would go to the new Caribbean restaurant that had just opened. Now, anything was possible.
Her left big toe began to tingle.