by Jenny Roman
She sees him every Friday from the narrow window of her pokey office. Her desk is angled so that as she reaches for the next item in her in-tray, her eye is often caught by movement outside; the flash of a bird’s wings, the lift and sway of the leaves on the trees, a shaft of sunshine spilling out from behind a cloud. She welcomes these brief something-nothing distractions, reminders of life beyond the apparent stasis of work.
She cannot be sure when she first began to be aware of him – the individual person of him, as opposed to merely his presence once a week in the standard blue polo shirt of the grounds staff. She has waitressed in the past, and is all too aware that once dressed in corporate attire – the black skirt/white blouse of the waitress, the unflattering scrubs of the nurse, the luminous tabard of the steward – the person inside becomes miraculously invisible. She is annoyed with herself for her blindness which seems at best careless, at worst, rude.
He wonders what it must be like to work inside, to spend the majority of your day arse glued to a chair. He has always worked outside, buffeted by the wind, fried by the sun, or stung by rain, as nature’s mood dictates. Whatever goes on within the buildings on the business park is a mystery to him. If he bothers to think of it at all, it is with a mixture of awe and contempt. Those who fly their desks every day have the fat comfort of their education behind them, the badge that says to others of their type that they belong. They sit in their offices, or in meetings, and fill their days with emails, phone calls, and words, words, words. He much prefers the solidity of his own work, fingers immersed in the rich, friable soil, or wielding hedge-cutters, leaf-blowers, strimmers, and sprayers.
Wherever he’s working of a morning, he likes to pause to watch the office staff arriving. By the time they pull into the car park in their sleek vehicles, he and the other maintenance staff have usually been at work for an hour or so. The women tip tap in on uncomfortable looking heels. The men stride by wearing crisp suits, jangling their car keys, and talking in strident voices on their mobile phones. They all walk and talk double quick time, fighting their way through the day. It makes him smile. They expend so much energy, and yet here they are every morning, back where they started.
On Fridays, when he sees her, she’s always alone. She looks, not miserable exactly, but locked in on herself. She is tall, but walks as if she’s wishes otherwise, sliding as inconspicuously as possible into the side entrance of her building, and appearing briefly, moments later, as a shadow in the narrow window, shrugging off her coat, and leaning across the desk to switch on her computer.
After that, she is mainly out of sight. Occasionally if he’s working on the flower bed across the path, he’ll catch a glimpse of her pale face, staring blankly out of the window. Once he thought she was looking right at him, and he risked a smile, but she merely looked away.
The abstract thought of him – his stature, his presence – begins to seep into her mind, creeping across the pages of her work, the screen of her computer. On Fridays, she finds her hands stilled on the keyboard, the cursor flashing expectantly.
But when he smiles in at her through the window one afternoon, she is mortified, as though he has somehow caught her out. The expression in his eyes is bright and amused. She keeps her own expression neutral and makes her glance slide back to the computer screen until he passes by. His proximity, his reality, has intruded on her daydreams of him, making her feel foolish.
As if he would be interested her! He who is so, so practical, while she just sits there, incubating headaches and amassing paper cuts. How dull she must seem to him! How lifeless, how ordered, when he seems all energy and strength. She tries not to watch him as he passes by. But her eyes betray her.
He tells himself she is not his type. His past girlfriends have been lively, fun loving, preened and made up; warm in personality and flesh. This woman is aloof and self-contained, almost a shadow.
Yet, every Friday morning, he finds himself going the long way around the building, taking the path, which passes directly under her window. Sometimes he risks glancing in, but all he sees is his own reflection in the scrupulously clean window pane.
He imagines her going home in the evening to a show-home-clean and perfect house. Preparing herself a nutritious, well-balanced meal in her sparkling TV-ad kitchen. Going to…what did women like her do in the evenings? Pilates? The theatre?
He pictures taking her home to his rented two-up, two-down, with the worn carpet and the faint smell of dog (long after the dog’s demise). Eating take-out on their laps on the soggy sofa in front of the telly. Taking her to bed with the rumbled sheets and the joysticks for the old games console hanging over the footboard. The thought is so ridiculous, he feels the smile stretching across his face. Impossible.
She hasn’t had a boyfriend since Ed walked out on her. It had not been love on either side, but the absence of him was at first so debilitating she thought she might be genuinely ill. The weight dropped off her. Her wrist bones stuck out like marbles. Her hair lay lank around her pallid face.
But all that emotion has run its course, wound down like a clockwork toy. Her mind and body have become still. The only images which come, unbidden, into her head are those of a blue polo shirt clad figure, tending his borders.
In her pokey kitchen, she stands on one leg, the other bent, foot resting against her opposite knee, eating a microwave meal for one. She tries to imagine him here in the flat with her, the bulk of him sandwiched in between the galley style units. Taking him through to the lounge where a fussy throw hides the uncomfortable sofa she never uses. Blushing at the pretention of the two upright fireside chairs where there is no fire. Watching him glance at the looming wall of books, the spilling pile of magazines she keeps meaning to catch up with, the bills and bank statements she’ll one day get round to filing. She wants to put a protective arm around the room, and hug it to her. Cannot bear the thought of an intruder’s eye making it ugly.
He finds himself weeding the border outside her window just before 9 o’clock one Friday morning. He tells himself this time he’ll say hello. Look up, give her a big smile, and say, ‘hello’. What’s so difficult? How can it not have happened before?
Each time he hears voices or footsteps, his head snaps round to check, but it’s never her. The hands on his watch crawl round to nine. He finishes the border, which is, in any case, the most over-tended of any on the business park, but stays crouched, pulling at the odd brown leaf or any other imperfection he can find. Waiting.
At ten past he realises she will not come. She’s never late. She must have the day off. Perhaps she’s had the whole week. The thought of her absence lies over him like a sodden blanket. He pushes himself unwillingly upright, takes his fork and sack of weeds, and trudges away.
It is gone 11 o’clock when she slips through the side door. Her jaw is aching, the injection wearing off now so that the pain is beginning to surface like a low level buzz in her brain. She is relieved he’s not there to witness her lopsided smile, the likelihood of drool. She tells herself she needs to look after herself more, not let things like the dentist slide until there’s an emergency. The lack of sleep, and the hangover of pain makes her fuzzy. She wishes he would come and wrap his arms around her, hold her up. Wishes, and yet is relieved when there is no sign of him.
She does all the essential work, and asks to leave early, telling herself it’s coincidence that she is walking past the maintenance van with the blue logo just around his knocking off time. Her heart drums in her chest. But he is not there.
The soles of his boots have left a tell-tale trail of soil down the perfectly tiled aisle. He clicks a clod of mud guiltily against the edge of the chiller cabinet, chucks a couple of pizzas in his basket and scoots into the next aisle.
She is standing in front of the ice-cream section, scanning the selection over and over.
‘Raspberry ripple,’ he says, over her shoulder.
She jumps, turns, flushes and grins all in the space of a second. ‘You think?’
She is holding one hand almost to her lips. He fights the desire to kiss her.
‘Definitely. What other flavour is there?’
He is talking to her. They are talking. Just like that. So easy.
She says, ‘I don’t usually buy ice-cream, but after the dentist, I thought it might be soothing.’
He half thinks of offering to take her for a drink somewhere, but standing there in his scruffy work gear, he is aware of the slightly stale smell of manual labour clinging to his skin, the ground in dirt around his nails and in the lines of his calloused hands. Instead he does a sympathetic wince.
‘Raspberry ripple. Have you right in no time.’ He winks and walks off before she has time to smell him.
She sits in one fireside chair, her feet propped up on the other, spooning raspberry ripple ice-cream slowly from the tub. The pain has dulled. She can’t be sure if it’s the ice-cream or something else. If she kept a journal – which she hasn’t done for years – she knows that life up to this moment would be punctuated by a big fat full-stop. And now she wants to turn the page.
The hedge trimmers slice through the foliage, scattering the new growth like fallen infantrymen. He cannot believe how much everything has grown in the space of a week. Spring is giving way to summer, and nature is bursting with energy. A wild rose climbing up through the branches falls victim to the blade and tumbles to the ground. He stares at the pink petals, silences the hedge trimmers, and bends to retrieve the fallen flower.
He feels the burden of stasis weighing him down. The perpetuity of his life and hers existing separately, nothing more than a smile or a hello once a week, forever. He straightens, turns, and his feet propel him towards her window, stepping under trees, across bark-chip paths, between borders.
He taps on the glass. Sees her flinch and look up; her confused smile. She stands, the office chair rolling back on its wheels, and leans across the desk to open the narrow window. But the frame has been painted shut over the years and it won’t budge. She gives him a helpless smile, gestures for him to hold on.
Embarrassment floods through her as she stands awkwardly before him. She’s panting a little, making it obvious she’s run. She holds one hand at the base of her throat to cover the creeping flush.
His eyes are huge and bright, and it occurs to her that he too is breathing a little heavily. Something inside her untwists.
He holds out the rose, its subtle pink petals uplifted towards her. When she takes it from him, their fingers brush.
She feels the page turn, and waits for the start of the next sentence.
Jenny Roman’s fiction has been published in a variety of magazines, and she has been shortlisted or placed in a host of competitions. Her short story collections The Camel in the Garden and Beyond Words are available for Kindle via Amazon. Visit her Author Page here. You can also follow Jenny on Facebook, on Twitter @slightlytquoise, or keep up with her blog at jennyroman.wordpress.com.