by Ann-Marie Swift
a cup of bitter coffee
When I leave the house Luke is asleep, curled in a fierce ball, fists clenched tight in front of him.
It’s a cruel hard hack into work, from grim downtrodden Tottenham to wealthy riverside West London. Today is a good drive. I get to the office early – though you can never be early enough - and listen to a slew of messages on voicemail, all urgent, some desperate. Waiting for my computer to boot up, I start phoning people back. Nothing unusual so far today – forgotten passwords, computer doesn’t work, where’s my new laptop, there’s a new secretary starting in one of the project teams.
The rest of my Team start arriving, slotting into their offices across the different buildings. I initiate the edgy daily process of trying to delegate jobs out to my team and them saying, ‘Well I’ll try’ and me saying ‘Yes, but when?’ and they then take the opportunity to pass things over to me that they don’t really want to do themselves, and by 9:30 I’ve got slightly more to do than when I made the first phone call.
After the unsuccessful delegation process, I make a jug of strong coffee, which I drink over the course of the morning.
All the time the phone is ringing and the emails are coming in and it’s not until 11:30 that I realise that I’m wearing a really old pair of opaque tights which are wrinkling and bagging around my ankles. Vesey is in my office explaining everything about a new brand of router to me.
When Vesey releases me, I go through the messages that have been coming in. Tim Briscoe, head of a lot of things including shoelaces, and who doesn’t like me at all, has left a message telling me that eight new people will start this afternoon, and will all need everything right away. I call him back to ask who they are and discover that in fact none of them have been hired yet and so Tim is embarrassed and seizes the opportunity to shout at me.
Claude Westmoreland’s message is self-consciously self-deprecating, his voice rather mellifluous and ever-so-slightly affected, I think. While perfectly wonderful, he has found that Alice – our dubious secretary/trainer – is unable to answer absolutely all his questions about the system and it appears that only I, Holly, in the whole of this marvellous company, am equipped to answer his complex yet interesting questions and would I mind coming over to the building where he works to rescue both him and the rest of his group from almost certain commercial failure.
If I don’t go, Claude Westmoreland may well tell Tim Briscoe that the computer department is unresponsive & Tim Briscoe will seize yet another opportunity to shout at me. Tim is recently back from a placement in Dubai where he – according to office rumour – lost his wife to a tennis coach and this is partly the reason for his constant bad temper. I must act.
I put on my coat– brown, shabby from too many years of being my favourite and only coat - and walk over to the building where Claude Westmoreland is waiting for me to set his world to rights and sponsorship for athletes’ shoelaces will be forever in safe hands.
The Shoelaces project team resembles every other Team here; two boys in their early twenties, a little spotty around mouths and noses, proudly wearing clothes that they appear to have been chewing all night; three girls of radiant, if largely interchangeable, beauty; two slightly older deep-tanned senior men in loafers, white socks, open-necked shirts, wearing expressions of utter emptiness.
As their project progresses, the spotty boys will develop passionate crushes on the beautiful girls and the beautiful girls will want to believe that the vacuous but wealthy men are in love with them, and quite possibly one of the vacuous men will actually leave his still-beautiful wife, causing heartache and scandal, and the other will stay with his wife, causing a cheaper and different kind of heartache and scandal.
Despite the urgency of his call, Claude Westmoreland is unavailable and occupied in another office for the next fifteen minutes.
When he does eventually emerge, he surprises me by not being a vacuous man with loafers. He’s tall and nice-looking, and is wearing a perfectly ordinary jumper and jeans, and his feet are in trainers not loafers. I can’t imagine how he has been hired.
It’s not unpleasant to answer computer questions when asked by a handsome man with very hazel-coloured eyes and a nice olive-y skin and a slim but quite sexy mouth. Claude Westmoreland’s computer problems are strange, vague and slightly irritating but it is fun to try to unscramble his spreadsheets and I find myself trying to place his accent and wondering about his home life, even while he asks me computer-related questions which I answer, or think I do. But whenever I think I have answered something, instead of moving on to the next thing, he shifts the question so that it isn’t quite the one asked in the first place and eventually I feel as though he is deliberately shifting the questions until he can find one where I definitely don’t know the answer, which finally is exactly what happens. However, I am protected from the shame and humiliation of not knowing everything about spreadsheets because my phone goes and a server crash in the main building forces me to rush back.
An hour later the server is restored to life and I have gone some way to calming the panic in the main building so revert to responding to emails and phone messages.
In among the mass of communication – mostly panicky, some actively angry as if I have personally engineered the brief collapse in computer functionality - is a message from Claude Westmoreland. In charming and relaxed tones, he tells me how tremendously helpful I’ve been, and could I possibly pop over again tomorrow as there are one or two things he still needs clarification on. I have seven meetings with suppliers the following day so call Claude Westmoreland back – getting voicemail of course – and leave a message that no, I won’t be able to do that.
At 7pm I ignore the ringing phone, get into the car, put on some T. Rex, loud, and try to get myself mentally organised for an evening of domestic harmony with Luke.
Next morning, I find myself – fearful of receiving another shouting from Tim Briscoe - heading back over to the building where Claude Westmoreland works. It’s a cold, icy day: I had a hard drive across London this morning, my favourite run-throughs iced over forcing me to stay on the slow and busy on main roads. The wind is raw and bitter, making my eyes water and almost certainly my mascara will run. I am not uncomfortable in my clothes; the skirt and jacket are relatively fashionable, and my flat boots are comfortable, though the smooth leather soles mean I have to concentrate on not slipping on the ice.
When I get to his office, I find that Claude Westmoreland doesn’t really have a problem. He has questions and then more questions, and I end up building him a suite of frighteningly complex spreadsheets which I am not sure that he will ever use. I start to fret about all the other things I’m not doing especially as lunchtime comes and I see the afternoon stretching ahead with no prospect of food until dinner with Luke.
‘I really must go,’ I tell him, though I’ve enjoyed the slightly pointless challenge of the spreadsheets and he is nice company. ‘There’s so much I need to get done’.
Immediately he is grace, gratitude and concern. ‘I’m so sorry; I’ve taken up all your day. You should make sure to get some lunch – where will you eat? You should go to The Dove, it’s not far, they do a good pie there. You should go there. I’ll come with you.’
The way he says this leaves me feeling uncertain. I don’t know whether he’s proposing to come for lunch with me or if he’s thinking of just dropping me at the door, and the last thing I want to do is sit alone in a pub in the middle of the afternoon eating a pie, when I’ve got heaps and heaps of work to do.
So I tell him – untruthfully - that I can get something in the building I work in, not to worry, and he says that he’s just got a couple more questions and will walk down with me and out he comes in the raw wind, coatless and charming, doesn’t ask anything more about spreadsheets and instead makes small talk all the way to the building I work in. It turns out that he listens to the same music as me – all the stuff that Luke hates so much – and we spend a few cheerful minutes discussing our feelings about the Human League and I am utterly amazed when he mentions Cabaret Voltaire and then of course I am so enthused to be talking to someone about Cabaret Voltaire that I forget I am walking on sheet ice and suddenly I slip hard.
Immediately Claude’s arm is there, I grab hold and just about manage not to fall and feel really foolish and as I am righting myself, somehow I am looking directly into his hazel eyes and he’s half-smiling and looking directly into mine, and that’s when it happens.
In a flash I feel we are poised on the edge of a magical, life-changing kiss. I expect him to kiss me right away. I pull myself away from his hazel eyes. I thank him, hotly embarrassed, and keep my eyes firmly on the icy ground.
Since I met Luke again and we found that we loved each other more than we had before the terrible things happened, and I had – we had – decided to spend the rest of our lives together, I thought I would never feel this terrible love-desire-infatuation feeling for anyone ever again.
It’s just because of the way I slipped and where Claude’s arm was, I tell myself. it is a simple question of the physical correlation of our bodies in space. It was the first time our eyes had met so directly, at that angle and I mistook the angle of a glance for something else. It was the cold outside air playing tricks with me.
I can’t turn my mind to anything else. The combination of hunger, too much coffee and now this overwhelming desire for Claude Westmoreland, leave me incapable of attending to my work. I find myself thinking that I don’t want to fall out of love now, now that I’m happy with Luke. I don’t want to leave Luke and start all over again. I don’t want to hurt him and for us to have terrible rows and to feel sick all the time. I don’t want to fall in love with someone I hardly know.
And then I remember that all it was, was a look, a movement, a moment not even of chivalry, just a person being humanly concerned, and that this is extremely unlikely to lead to me leaving Luke even for half an hour. I try – and fail - to put the whole small event out of my mind. I leave work at 6pm, which is early, and drive home slowly, listening to Cabaret Voltaire, thinking of Claude Westmoreland’s hazel eyes. When I get home, I am almost immediately overwhelmed by a devastating migraine.
After two days I return to work safe in the knowledge that I will never again answer Claude Westmoreland’s phone calls and that even if I did, everything would be okay because now I am over it. I get into the office, take my jacket off and sit down. The phone rings and it is Claude Westmoreland.
By spring the situation is that I have lunch with Claude Westmoreland pretty much every day. We don’t always eat.
Sometimes he wants me to go to the shops with him, to help him choose something; a pair of shoes; a belt; a book; a CD. I like this, it makes me feel kind of wife-y, as though we have a long, established, relationship. ‘Thanks for your help’ he’ll say afterwards ‘I owe you lunch’
So then, we might go out to a pub where we are likely to bump into some of the people he works with. Claude becomes very involved in his conversations with his colleagues or whoever we happen to bump into and takes less notice of me - in fact sometimes he takes almost no notice of me at all.
What with the walking over to Claude’s office and the waiting for him to be ready and then the walking back to my office, lunch can take as long as a couple of hours. I never used to take a lunch break at all and even then I was only just on top of my work, so I have to make that work up somewhere, somehow and I think that Luke will be suspicious if I start to get home late every day – but what could he be suspicious of? What is there for him to suspect? I try to work harder, faster, smarter, get in earlier in the mornings but I am always tired, and weary of thinking always and only of Clause Westmoreland and some evenings on the way home, down one of the side streets, I pull the car into the side of the road and turn the music up as loud as it will go and lay my head on the steering wheel and cry for a while.
Which doesn’t help. I arrive home late, and Luke tells me I am working too hard.
Claude phones me a lot in the summer. He phones me in the mornings while I am in the car to see when I will be in the office. He phones me at the office, in the afternoons to discuss Excel. He phones me at home when he knows that Luke will be out (because I don’t talk about Luke, but I do somehow mention when he won’t be there) to talk about nothing in particular and ask me what music I am listening to.
I am sent to Paris, where the only time I can work on the servers is when everyone has gone home. Late at night, while I am alone in the empty office, Claude Westmoreland phones and we talk while I wait for the servers to upgrade, until the early hours of the morning and the first glimmers of grey light are showing across the roofs of the sixteenth arrondissement.
The magic is, we haven’t kissed. We haven’t done anything. I am faithful. I have not betrayed Luke.
Though I have found a thousand reasons to bicker with Luke. Though Luke tries harder and harder to make me love him, with treats and surprises. Although I spend every waking minute either with Claude Westmoreland, talking on the phone to Claude Westmoreland, thinking about Claude Westmoreland or dreaming of the moment when something finally will happen with Claude Westmoreland.
I want him to make the move. I believe, sometimes, in my naïve and lying heart that we will have one kiss, or maybe even sleep together once, and then somehow I will be over Claude Westmoreland and will return to Luke from whom I have never been away and everything will be fine.
I want Claude to declare his love for me and then I can refuse him.
I want Claude to declare love for me and I will accept. In these scenarios Luke has gone painlessly away and I am waking up in the beautiful house of Claude, next to Claude in the white and beautiful bed, which I have never seen but am sure exists, sleeping in the arms of Claude, smelling the daily smell of Claude, Claude’s loving and treasured partner for ever. I will live, forever, in Westmoreland, a fabulous country where the sheets are always white, conversation flows endlessly, and love is all around.
It’s August, a hot summer morning. I’m driving into work when Claude phones me. ‘I’ll come over and meet you for lunch’ he says. ‘I need to do something over there’.
I’m so pleased that he will come to my office. Until now, I have always walked over to the building where he works. He has never come over to where I work. He will sit in my office and wait for me and we will be laughing and joking and the people I work with will be surprised and impressed at how much I am liked by handsome men in the company.
At 11:30 he calls me on the mobile and says that things are running a bit later than he’d planned but what about 12:30? I agree and try to find something useful to do with the unexpected time.
By 2pm I am exhausted with the stress of not having lunch with Claude Westmoreland. He phones, again ‘I’m on my way’ he says, ‘why don’t you just meet me outside Reception?’
Disappointed that now he won’t see my cool taste office décor or meet my Team, I hurry down to reception, hurrying like I always do as if I think he might go away and change his mind.
And so, arriving just before I am expected, I see him at the corner of the road; standing just as he stood when I slipped and gazed into his eyes and haven’t been able to sleep properly since. The girl has her back to me; she’s standing where I stood that icy slippery day, her beautiful long red hair cascading down the back of her cream blouse. She’s not stumbling or falling, the ice is long gone now, and she doesn’t look the type to stumble and fall.
Claude Westmoreland takes her hand, just for a second – but a second more than he has ever taken mine. He leans down and kisses her briefly, his lips barely brush hers, but they brush hers more than they have ever brushed mine. I fix my smile and walk towards him.
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