by James Wall
So we had a bet about Morag’s age.
‘A tenner says she’s twenty-nine,’ Charlie said.
‘Over thirty I’d say. But not much. Thirty-two?’ I suggested. Got thirteen years on her then, I thought. That’s not that much. Is it?
Bill Hutching, the head of department, introduced her to the team and asked if I’d look after her, show her where things were. She sat at the desk next to me, and placed her handbag by her feet.
She said she’d just joined and was visiting the other offices, working her way down the country from Edinburgh.
‘Whereabouts in Edinburgh are you from?’ I asked.
‘Morningside,’ she said.
‘My dad’s from there.’
‘Really? Can’t tell from your accent.’
‘We moved down to Leeds when I was small. Only went back occasionally to see the grandparents, when they were still alive.’
We talked about the places we both knew, and went to get a coffee from the machine.
‘It’s an acquired taste,’ I said.
She took a sip and grimaced. ‘You’re right. I suppose it’s better after the first one.’
I shook my head. ‘Afraid not.’
Morag was petite, not overtly pretty, but attractive. Clearly a lot younger than her name suggested, she had short copper-coloured hair, green eyes and an open smile, as if everything was new to her. I liked that.
She said she felt like the Queen, meeting all these people.
I put on my high-pitched woman’s voice. ‘And what do you do?’ Sounded more like Terry Jones than the Queen. She laughed. Thankfully.
‘Very good documentary on last night,’ I said back at the desks. ‘On the Falklands War.’
I studied her face for a reaction.
‘Didn’t see it,’ she said. She had a soft Scottish accent.
There was a pause. ‘1982,’ I said.
She frowned. ‘What was 1982?’
‘The Falklands War.
‘Oh.’ She took a sip of her coffee. ‘Sorry, I’m a bit slow today.’
‘Don’t suppose you were born then.’ Was my laugh a bit forced?
‘Charmer. I was I’m afraid, but too young to remember.’ In a strong accent, she said, ‘Just a wee bairn.’ She looked at me sideways. ‘You trying to work out how old I am?’
I felt my face flush. ‘No, no not at all,’ I said shaking my head. ‘Well, yes, actually.’
She laughed. There was such warmth in that laugh, and in the hand she placed on mine. She leaned in towards me. ‘I was two then,’ she whispered.
I replayed that moment in my head that evening, sitting on the armchair, half reading The Guardian. Sophie, in her pink Princess nightie, lay asleep on Liz’s lap. The TV was on. She let out a chuckle and I instinctively shifted the paper to see the programme. Some family comedy I vaguely recognised. I looked at Liz, her eyes intent on the screen, the corners of her mouth slightly raised in a smile, and her hand gently stroking our daughter’s hair.
I had to go to Peterborough a few days later to visit a new supplier. I quite enjoy the occasional trips out for the day. Besides, Colin Higgs from the London office was also due to be there. Killing two birds with one stone apparently, he’d said on the phone. I’d worked with Colin a couple of times before, and we’d got on well. Had a bit of a laugh. He was a stocky guy, a few years younger than me. Into rugby and the gym. I’m a real beanpole next to him.
‘The new girl, Morag McCulloch, will be there too,’ he said. He said he’d spoken to her a few times. Seemed nice enough.
I tried to suppress a smile. ‘OK. Be nice to see how she’s settling in,’ I said.
We met at Platform 2 at Peterborough station. Dressed in a black skirt, a white blouse under a burgundy knee length coat and burgundy boots, she looked fragile next to Colin although he wasn’t much taller than her.
‘You’re looking very co-ordinated,’ I said to Morag. ‘Do you change your hair to match your outfits or the other way round?’
‘Ha! Ha!’ she said, and playfully punched my arm.
That means something, doesn’t it? When someone hits you like that and laughs.
In the taxi to the supplier she thanked me for looking after her during her brief time in Leeds. She was very nervous, meeting all these new people.
‘Can be nerve-wracking, can’t it?’ I said.
Andy Farrell, the manager there, met us in reception. He was jovial, and had fair curly hair and a reddish complexion. I didn’t notice immediately but he had a lazy eye. It took the length of our walk to his office before I realised he was addressing me during our conversation, and not Colin or Morag on my left.
A woman brought us tea and biscuits. He talked about the operations there and the adjacent warehouse and Data Centre.
‘I’ll take you for a tour after refreshments,’ he said. He sounded like a train guard making an announcement. ‘Let you see it for yourself.’ He took a biscuit from the plate on the table and broke it in two. ‘I think you’ll be impressed,’ he said. He was looking at Colin but I think he was directing his conversation at all of us.
After showing us the small warehouse, Andy took us round the Data Centre. It was a locked room with a raised floor under which the cables were stored. He talked about the water detectors and the fire prevention measures as we followed on behind. Then he stopped by two black racks containing the computer systems and routers. I felt a draught and looked around but there were no windows. I caught Morag’s eye just as Andy mentioned the air vents dotted around the floor panels to keep the temperature low, and I looked down to see that we were standing on one of them. Morag and I shared a smile and stepped off it.
‘Knew I shouldn’t have worn a skirt,’ she whispered.
I laughed, and hid it under a cough when Andy turned round. I felt like a naughty schoolboy in front of a teacher.
Andy carried on and talked about security and the resilience of the systems as Morag and I dodged further vents in the floor. We weren’t really listening to Andy any longer.
Thanking him for his time as we shook hands on our way out, I wondered whether he’d noticed Morag and I at the back trying to avoid the vents. I felt a little guilty about not having paid attention, as Andy had taken the time to show us around, but it had been worth it to see her face and the warmth of her smile.
I called her “Marilyn” in the taxi on the way back to the station. Not the same billowing skirt, but it fitted. Colin joined in.
She smiled. ‘Marilyn,’ she said, as if trying the name on for size. ‘I like that. Seven Year Itch, wasn’t it?’
When we arrived back at the station, I asked her what time her train to Edinburgh was.
‘I’m not going to Edinburgh yet,’ she said. ‘Got a few more days in London.’
I felt a rush in my stomach. She’d have had a suitcase or a bag of some sort if she was going back to Edinburgh, wouldn’t she? Stupid of me. I felt unsettled that I didn’t know what she was doing. But why should I know?
I looked at the departures board. There was a train to London in a few minutes; mine was another half an hour yet. I’d hoped to have more time with her, and wondered whether my disappointment showed.
‘See you later, Marilyn,’ I called to her as she and Colin boarded the train. She dipped her knees in Marilyn Monroe style and blew me a kiss. Colin grinned at me, and they were gone.
Morag filled my head as I sat in the café with my tea and digestives. She’d looked sexy in that skirt. I imagined her on the train sitting opposite Colin, wishing it was me there instead of him. He would look after her on the journey though; I was glad of that. I checked the time regularly, thinking of when her train would get into London, of her taking the tube to the office, and later, navigating across London to her hotel. It sounded stupid, but I feared she might get lost.
The kiss she’d blown lingered in my mind as I lay in bed that night, amidst the black and blue of the bedroom. I imagined being in London with Morag. The sun was shining and we were eating ice creams by Tower Hill. We looked out at the walls and the moat that was now freshly mown grass surrounding the Tower. She nuzzled up to me, and at the same time, Liz shifted in the bed, half dozing, and placed her arm around my waist. I dipped my head and found her soft lips, imagining it was Morag. She stirred and kissed me back. There was a familiar unfamiliarity about her as our kisses grew more urgent. I could picture Morag’s smile, hear her laughter, feel the warm sun on my face.
Then, in the panting darkness, Liz and I held hands and gazed up at the ceiling. The words, ‘See you later, Marilyn’ echoed back and forth in my mind like the tide before I drifted off to sleep.
In the morning I was up first as usual. I wrapped my dressing gown around me and glanced back at the bed. The duvet was pulled up high, and only Liz’s long dishevelled hair was visible, spreading out over the pillow like a spilt drink.
Sophie ran into the room with her arms outstretched. I lifted her up but then put her on the bed next to Liz. Sophie clung on to me like a chimpanzee, and I prized her fingers off as she called out.
‘I have to go to work,’ I said, and kissed her. ‘Lie there with Mummy.’
Liz stirred and gathered Sophie in her arms.
In the bathroom, my mind was busy with Morag, thinking about last night. Was that what it would be like the first time with her? I’d engineer more trips to Scotland, and we’d spend every evening together when I was there. There’d be surreptitious texts, stolen phone calls, excuses to leave the room. My chest felt light and my stomach tingled with excitement.
When I arrived at work, I fetched the morning coffees for Charlie and I.
‘How was the Peterborough trip?’ he asked, sipping his drink.
‘Excellent,’ I said. ‘Had a good laugh. And you owe me a tenner for the bet.’ I told him about her hair colour and her coat, how we’d found ourselves on the vents, and calling her Marilyn.
‘Sounds like a good day,’ he said. He was muttering, ‘Marilyn’ as he turned to his PC, a smile on his lips.
I logged in and was disappointed to find no email from Morag. I checked my phone, as I had done several times already, but there was no text. She did have my mobile number, didn’t she?
I sent her a quick email, addressing her as Marilyn, asking how she got on in ‘that London’. I kept checking my emails but there was no reply. Had she grown tired of her nickname already? I’d not overdone it, had I? I could feel my shoulders slump further with each refresh of the mailbox that resulted in nothing from her. I checked that my status was ‘available’ for instant messaging.
Later that morning, a message from her appeared on my computer screen. My heart pounded.
– Hi! Marilyn here.
– Hi! How are you?
– Bit tired. Late night last night.
– Oh yes? What were you up to?
There was a pause. Had someone come to her desk, interrupting her?
– Went for a few drinks with Colin. And I’m crap at drinking. Can’t take it anymore.
– At your age. And you’re Scottish!
– Ha! Ha! Don’t drink much nowadays I’m afraid.
I felt a niggle in my chest, like indigestion, as I waited for a response. She hadn’t mentioned going for a drink with Colin. I’d wondered about suggesting a drink after work when up in Edinburgh next. Needed to sort that out.
– Do you know much about Colin’s girlfriend?
My breath stopped. Why was she asking that?
– Met her a couple of times. Really nice. Very pretty. She works for the company too.
Even if she wasn’t so pretty, I would have said that.
– He said they’re not getting on well. They’re going on holiday next week but he suspects they won’t be together for much longer.
Surely she didn’t fall for that? She wasn’t that naïve, was she? The cursor blinked on the screen, mirroring my own eyelids. I couldn’t believe I was struggling to clear my vision.
– Really? I didn’t know.
The cursor flashed at me, drumming out the seconds like a pulse in my temples. It went on for what seemed like hours.
– Do you think he likes me?
I don’t believe this. Was she expecting me to be a go-between?
– I’m sure he does.
She replied with a smiley emoticon.
– I hope so.
There was a pause before she added:
– I really like him.
I didn’t reply. Just watched the blink, blink of the cursor. I’d no idea that she and Colin had something going on. I drifted back in my mind to that day but could detect nothing that suggested any of this. Must have started on the train.
And then she carried on, as if the first few messages had just been the start and now she couldn’t stop. The light around me seemed to recede like at the onset of rain.
– We ended up at my hotel.
She added an emoticon: a happy, yellow smiling face with dark glasses. Cool.
– I feel I can talk to you honestly like this. Like I talk to my girlfriends.
– So how have you left it?
– See what happens after he comes back from holiday.
Nothing is going to happen when he gets back from holiday. Apart from he’ll probably try again when he has the chance. I sat back in my chair and looked at the rows of desks in the office, half unoccupied today. Fridays, many people work from home. I’d been looking forward to telling Charlie about what had happened, and then maybe having quiet conversations with Morag.
I watched Big Barry on the row opposite, hunched over his keyboard, his fat fingers poking intermittently at the keys. He wore a brown jumper over his shirt and tie, and his grey hair was lank and flattened down on his head. I’d thought him a lot older than me until last year when he’d bought cakes for his birthday, and one of the secretaries told me his age. Only a couple of years in it. Christ.
There were a few of us about the same age, and a few others scattered about a bit younger, but not many. Then there seemed a big gap. The majority of the office didn’t look like they’d reached thirty. I caught a glimpse of Becky, another of the slim and attractive young women who exude a breathy freshness about them, with their clear skin and bright eyes and figure-hugging skirts. We normally arrive at about the same time in the morning, and I’ve often made her laugh as we take the lift up to the office on the 4th floor. I’ve always been able to make women laugh.
– Hello? You still there?
Morag’s message was timed at five minutes ago. I stared at the screen, wondering what to say next.
After a few minutes, I stood and walked to the window. The buildings looked grey and drab in this light. A phone rang and was answered by Charlie. He called to me. When I turned, he held up the receiver, his hand over the mouthpiece.
‘Who is it?’ I said.
Should I tell her about Morag? About what an idiot she’d married, to think a young woman like that would be interested in me.
But it wasn’t really about her, about Morag, and I knew that Liz wouldn’t see it like that. She wouldn’t understand; she’d get it all wrong.
Besides, I don’t think, if it had come to it, if it really had come to it, whether I could have acted, could have acquiesced. But it would have been nice to have had the chance to turn her down.
In the reflection of the window against the skyline behind, I could see Morag’s wispy, smiling face, her eyes full of life, looking straight into mine. She blew me a kiss, and I was about to lift my hand to catch it, but changed my mind. Slowly, her ephemeral image dissipated like cigarette smoke in the air. In her place, beyond the buildings, I could see the top of the Town Hall and the white of the university in the distance. I looked closer, gazing at the two clock faces on the sides of the buildings that I could see. They’d been there for so long I hadn’t really noticed that they must be on four sides, visible from all angles.
Charlie handed me the phone. I pulled up my chair and, pen in my hand, listened to Liz’s voice as I scribbled down the list of groceries she asked me to pick up on the way home.
James Wall’s writing has been published in the Best British Short Stories 2013 anthology, Tears in the Fence, Unthology 6, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, The Nottingham Review, Prole, The View from Here, Long Story, Short Journal, and in Matter Magazine. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2010, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University. This is his second story for Fictive Dream.