A Bit on the Side
From the Selected Stories
All that seemed long ago now and yet a vividness remained: the cramped space on the floor, the hurrying footsteps heard suddenly on the stairs, dust brushed from her clothes before he attended to his own. Even when she was no longer employed there they had a couple of times made use of the office in the early morning, but she never wanted to and they didn’t anymore. Too far away to be visited at lunchtime, her flat had never come into its own in this way after the divorce. Now and again, not often, he managed a night there, and it was then that there were the tasks she had saved up for him, completed before they left together in the morning.
He thought about her, still on the bus, downstairs near the back, her slim black handbag on her lap, her Spanish shoes. What had she noticed? Why had she said, ‘All right?’ and said it twice? Not wanting to and trying not to, he had passed on a mood that had begun in him, the gnawing of disquiet he didn’t want to explain because he wasn’t able to, because he didn’t understand it. When she’d said she missed him all the time, he should have said he missed her in that same way, because he did, because he always had.
When he had settled himself in the partitioned area of office space allocated to him, when he had opened the window and arranged in different piles the papers that constituted the work he planned for the morning, the telephone rang.
‘Hey!’ the voice of the patio-layer, Bannister, rumbustiously protested. ‘What’s all this bloody hoo-ha then?’
‘IT WOULD HAVE BEEN TUESDAY,’ she said. ‘Tuesday of last week. The twenty-fourth.’
There was silence, a muffled disturbance then, a hand placed over the receiver.
‘We’ll ring you back,’ someone she hadn’t been talking to before promised. ‘Five minutes.’
The consignment of trouser suits had gone to York, another voice informed her when she telephoned again. There was ninety percent certainty about that. The Salvadore dresses had been on their way to York; the trouser suits must somehow have taken that route too.
Hours later, when the morning had passed, when there’d been further telephone calls and faxes sent and faxes received, when the missing trouser-suits had definitely been located in York, when they’d been loaded to a van and conveyed at speed to London, the crisis was recounted in the Paddington Street Gardens. So was the fury of the patio-layer Bannister, the threats of legal action, the demands that fees already charged and paid should in the circumstances be returned.
‘Could he have a case?’ Not just politely, she took an interest, imagining the anger on the telephone, the curt responses to it, for naturally no sympathy could be shown.
Listening, she opened the plastic container of the salad she had picked up on her way from the Prêt à Manger in Orchard Street. He had already unwrapped his sandwiches, releasing a faint whiff of Marmite. Edges of lettuce poked out from between slices of white bread. Not much nourishment in that, she’d thought when first she’d seen his sandwiches, but had not said. There usually was egg or tomato as well, which was better; made for him that morning in Dollis Hill.
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