She looks away, fiddles with the ashtray, tries not meet his eyes. The car moves forward, stalls. He curses,but the car coughs into life and they move all of 40 feet before everything stops again.
She turns on the radio, hoping for upbeat, cheerful music, a tune they both recognise, something with a good chorus, but the radio has , yet again, re-tuned itself to Radio 4 and there’s some bloke talking about the stock market, falling prices, a double dip recession. there is a pause, a silence and then he asks
“How bad is it?
She looks up from her careful contemplation of her nails, startled.
“I opened your mail” His voice is tight with pent up anger
“£45,000” – her voice is gentle,low key, as if this will make any difference to the outcome.
She watches as he grips the steering wheel, his knuckles white.
The traffic moves and the car stalls again and this time he does nothing and the car sits, motionless in the slow moving traffic.
“Its not you, its me”, Alex has the decency to look embarrassed, the lie sticky in his mouth, catching on his tongue.
They sit, side by side, both looking straight ahead.
Nell refuses to make it easy for him, “exactly, how does that work then?” she asks.
This is not playing by the game, she should begin to cry quietly, so that he can comfort her, talk about what a shit he is, how he’s not good enough for her, describe his emotional crippledom.
But, her voice is chirpy, interested, she considers him carefully, as if he was an interesting but unexpected find at a car boot sale, at any minute, he thinks she will touch him, check him for flaws, marks of over-usage.
He tries again ” I’m in a bad place right now, can’t give you what you need, what you deserve….” he pauses, waiting for her to pick up the cue, make the right response, get this little scene back on the proper tracks.
Nells’ voice is bright, brittle, she smiles
“No, it is me, you don’t want me anymore and you haven’t got the guts to say it, haven’t got the balls to tell me her name, her, that girl, the one who hangs around, thinks I don’t notice her eyes on you, watching you, your every move”
The car hasn’t moved for at least a minute.
Nell straightens up, makes her decision and in one movement, the car door is open and she is gone.
Alexs’ last ever view of her is her back, ram rod straight as she walks through the stalled traffic.
David is watching Martin drive, his right hand on the gear stick, left one casually hooked around the wheel. He is trying to be subtle, hopes that the other man hasn’t noticed, felt the intensity of the gaze.
David has spent hours watching him, at meetings, in team briefings, over averagely cooked food in the budget cafes the IT dept frequent.
He knows his body, the public body intimately, the way the hairs on his neck curl when he is due a haircut, the tiny chip on his front tooth, the silver ring he always wears on his left hand, index finger.
The private body, hidden under clothes, is something he doesn’t dwell on, although the image of Martin, clad only in white boxers, showering after an inter- dept football match, haunted and filled his bed time fantasies for weeks last year.
David knows today is crunch time, a three hour drive to a satellite office, it will be the longest time they have ever spent together and he need to grab this opportunity with both hands, to actually do something, to stop being a bystander.
He’s practiced the speech, on his own in front of the mirror and then with Claire, fag hag extraordinaire and his best friend and after the last run through, she said he was ready, at the top of his game.
He clears his throat, coughs, coughs again,
“Martin” he says “Martin, I’ve got something to tell you”.
I smile, bright, upbeat smile and turn to her
“bloody traffic, hope we don’t miss your appointment, bet we can’t find a parking space,probably won’t even have time for a cuppa”
I’m babbling, trying to keep the terrible silence at bay “shall we throw caution to the wind, treat ourselves to a nice lunch afterwards, we could really push the boat out, have a couple of glasses of wine”
I try not to look at her, skin so thin, bones so sharp that I can imagine them forcing their way out, the skull becoming all too apparent.
“It’s Valentines’ Day, maybe we ought to buy some nice chocolates, be a bit naughty, what do you reckon?”
She turns, slowly, every movement considered, weighed up, I try to ignore the grimace of pain, the shrug, the empty eyes.
“It’s nearly half term, we could book a few days away, find a nice country hotel, open fires, laze about, have someone else make the beds for a change”.
Her voice is tiny, dry, diminished.
“I’m dying ” she says and my hand reaches out, finds hers, hot, dry, even her fingers feel thinner.
” I know”, I manage and for a long moment we are still, holding hands and then the car behind honks and I jump in my own skin and the car moves forward.
Bloody Steph, bloody Ange, bloody Manjeet, yeah its easy for them. They’re not here, stuck in a car with Bev and Bevs’ bloody, bloody BO. Do it when you give her a life they said, it’ll be private, discreet, not too embarrassing. You’re good at this sort of thing, good at talking to people and someone’s got to do something,customers are starting to complain. You’re the supervisor they said, you sort it out.
So, here I am, with Bev and her sniff and her BO and her terrible dandruff and I really wish it was summer, because then I could open the windows and get a big breath of fresh air, but it’s February and I can’t open the window cos she’ll think I’m a loony.
Bev is routing in her handbag, I wish to god she was looking for a handkerchief, but I’ve had two years of Bevs’ bloody sniff and I’ve never seen her use a tissue yet, so I can’t believe I’m going to get lucky today.
I want to feel sorry for Bev, her cheap nasty clothes , the three blouses she wears in rotation but never seems to wash, her hair, lank, greasy, her skin, sallow, tired.
I’ve heard the way her mother talks to her on the phone, the way that customers laugh at her, I want to feel sorry for her, but then she moves her arm and unleashes a wave of body smell so pungent that I can almost visualize it moving across the car.
I want to feel sorry for her, but I can’t.
” Bev” I say ” you stink”.