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Romance – Part four


Entry by Michael Frearson

I sat down in my chair and let him keep hold of my hand.
“Okay,” I said.  “I don’t have time for this.”
“Time for what?”
“I’m hungover.”  My head was throbbing.  I just wanted to go back to bed.  “Just leave me alone.  I’ll catch up with you this afternoon.”
He let go of my hand and folded his arms across his chest.  “What?”
“I’m late.  I feel like shit.  I’ve got work to do.”  I spun my chair round and switched the computer on.  “Where’s your desk?”
“I don’t think I have one.  Ethan said you had to show me round.”
“Yeah.  Well come back to me after lunch, when I’ve had time to get some coffee in me.”
“What am I going to do ’til then?”  He screwed his face up into an annoying defensive frown.  Surely he should have grown out of that by now.
“Go and chat up the receptionist.”  I stood up and grabbed the mug off my desk, then pushed past Karl and went through the door into the kitchen area.  I felt him watching me leave.
The kettle boiled violently at my side as I leant over the sink and took some deep breaths, trying to stop my head from spinning.  He’d had the sense not to follow me in.
The coffee was bitter, strong but watery at the same time.  No matter how sweet you make it, instant coffee can never taste of anything but piss.  My stomach wouldn’t settle.  I ran the cold water from the tap and then filled up a pint glass.  I drank half of it in one go, then filled it up again, and took both vessels back out into the office.
Karl was nowhere to be seen.  I sat down at my desk and began to log in.  A head poked over the cubicle wall.
“Who’s the mystery man?”
“Julie – why don’t you ask him yourself?”  I kept my eyes on the screen and opened up my Outlook.  Julie disappeared.  I looked out of my cubicle to see which way she was going, but she was already gone.
Twenty unread messages.  As I looked at the list, another one popped up.

from                                         subject
Ethan Morris                         Wednesday’s Copy

I closed my eyes and hoped it was a bad dream.

My stomach was grumbling by eleven, and come midday I was feeling completely hollow.  A walk down the road to the sandwich shop would clear my head a bit and fill my stomach too.  I switched off my computer and opened the drawer to get my handbag out.  When I straightened up again Karl was stood outside my cubicle.
I stood there and let him stare at me.  I refused to let it bother me; all I wanted was something hot and filling in my stomach to keep me upright and stop my insides from churning.
“I’m going out for lunch,” I said.
“Good,” he said.  “I was just about to invite you out with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know the area very well.  I’d really like some advice about where to get a good sandwich from.”
“Karl –”  I looked around at the other cubicles, conscious of our proximity to so many ears.    “Okay,” I said, “let’s go.”
I walked out of the office with Karl in tow, and didn’t look back until I was out on the street.  He was right behind me.
“This way,” I said, and crossed the road quickly.

We sat in The Clock Café, finally drinking a proper coffee, waiting for our sandwich meals.  He hadn’t said much, and I’d said even less – just concentrating on breathing and nursing my head.  Then the waitress came and delivered our food with a smile; she checked him out – I saw it – and then left without another word.  She didn’t give me a second glance.  When she was gone he raised his head and spoke.
“Look, I’m sorry I pissed you off this morning.  I didn’t realize you were in such a bad mood…”
“Yeah, well I’m sorry if I was a bit shitty.  I woke up feeling like death this morning, and it’s been all downhill since then.  It just wasn’t the right day to run into you.”
“No, I guess not.”  He took a bite of his sandwich.  “So what were you doing last night?”
“What do you think I was doing?” I said, frowning at him.
He winced and said, “Ordering a donner and shish mix…urrghhh.”
I let him smile at his own joke, since he’d gone to the trouble of making it.  “So you don’t remember, then?”
“Remember what?”
“We celebrated my birthday on five separate occasions, but that’s not enough for you to remember it.”  I took a big bite of my tuna sandwich – so big that I had trouble chewing.  I automatically raised my hand to my mouth.
Karl smiled and reached into his pocket.  “Of course I didn’t forget.”  I watched him pull out a small parcel and lay it on the table.  “Happy birthday,” he said, and I looked at it, sitting there on the table between us.  When I looked up again I noticed how smug he’d become.
“What is it?”
“Open it and see.”
I began to feel suspicious.  I picked up the parcel and turned it over in my hands, looking for a point of entry.  He sat back in his chair as if settling down for an evening’s entertainment.  I looked over at him as I tore the paper away.  Underneath was a small, neat box.
“I hope this isn’t cufflinks,” I said.
“No,” he said quietly, then leaned over and opened the box to me.
I looked hard at it, there on the table, and I took a breath and tried to find something to say.  Karl had begun to tap his foot on the floor.  There was only one sentence revolving in my mind, and I didn’t know where else to start.
“What the fuck is that?” I said.

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