11 months ago
Nicola is sitting in the Café Nero near her office waiting for Alicia to turn up. Alex’s visit to Evie’s flat and his announcement that he wanted to move in had resulted in her having a restless night. Was Evie right in her condemnation of him? Is he really just using her, or could it all be just sour grapes on her part? He is, after all, an attractive man despite her sneering opinion of him. Perhaps she is jealous. Could that be it?
She spent a disturbed night with all these thoughts chasing each other around her mind. Indeed, her tossing and turning led to her almost falling out of bed when she awoke with her head almost touching the carpet. She was in a cold sweat and dragged herself back under the duvet and was most immediately asleep again.
But the nightmare continued with a surreal dream straight out of Wonderland or Alice Through the Looking Glass where Alex had become a menacing Mad Hatter trying to imprison her in a teapot. She then became a piece on a giant chess board where Evie was the White Queen using a flamingo as a club to attack him, but he had morphed into a Red Knight with a ragged, evil-looking sword. That scene had melted into a shop with empty shelves where her sister Pam was a white rabbit which became bigger and bigger and more and more menacing. That was when she finally awoke again. This time she had flung the duvet aside in disgust and went to make a mug of tea.
It had felt dark and menacing at the time, and despite the obvious allegory to her life and the people in it, like many nightmares the images had become almost laughable in the daylight, but shadows of the terror she had felt remained in her subconscious.
Nicola’s reverie is broken by Alicia who arrives breathlessly, asking if Nicola would like a refill. She would. Alicia is also a researcher with the BBC and joined about the same time. She is known to be scatty in her private life, once arriving at the office with her cat in her bag which she had forgotten to remove before setting out. It was one of the cat’s favourite places to snooze apparently. She does, however, have a remarkable talent for detail and organisation, invaluable in a researcher.
She slumps in a seat opposite Nicola. ‘Why do people have to dawdle,’ she snaps. ‘This time of day, they should have places to go, things to do, not just wander around aimlessly, getting in the way of those of us who do. The trams are a sodding pain as well, and the pavements are full of people going nowhere.’ She drums the table impatiently. ‘You know, there are times when I hate the human race.’
‘So, you are not a happy bunny then’ Nicola murmurs, smiling. ‘Is there any special reason why you wanted to meet here, rather than in the office?’
‘Walls have ears,’ she replies rather arcanely. ‘I wanted to talk to you in private, rather than in a corner of the office where people would speculate why we have formed a huddle.’
‘Yes, of course they would. People in huddles always generate suspicion. You know what it’s like. It only takes two people to start a rumour in that place. And then speculation grows, even if it has nothing to do with work.’
Nicola knows she might have a point at that. Office gossip can be destructive, especially in a rumour mill like the Beeb where there is constant talk of cutbacks and redundancies.
Alicia stops and smiles mischievously. ‘And in your case, there is speculation about your mysterious boyfriend who nobody has seen. There are one or two people who think you have got it together with that PR asshole at the book launch.’ She laughs heartily and then stares at Nicola. ‘You haven’t, have you.’
Nicola clears her throat noisily and can feel herself blushing from the throat upwards. Her face is on fire.
‘Oh yes, you have, haven’t you?’ exclaims Alicia with a triumphant smile. ‘You sly dog, you. So, they were right, you did go on a date.’ She laughs delightedly. ‘Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.’
Nicola grimaces. She seriously doubts that. ‘What was it you thought I should know?’ she asks without confirming or denying it.
Alicia leans forward confidentially. ‘Well, I was out at a smart pub at Canal Street the other day when a couple walked in holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes, the way you do when a good shag is in the offing. You know what it’s like.’ Nicola isn’t sure she does but says nothing.
‘Anyway, I took a second look, and I was sure it was you. Same build, same elegant pose, good looking’ She pauses, smiling. ‘I don’t charge for the complements.’ Nicola responds with a smile of her own.
‘Anyway, the guy was also good looking. There was something about him I recognised and then it came to me. He was the PR at the book launch, the bloke you have been having a secret liaison with, as it now turns out.’
Nicola is staring at her, frowning. ‘I haven’t been to Canal Street for a while so it can’t have been me.’
‘I realised that quite quickly,’ says Alicia breathlessly. ‘I walked past them on my way to the bar and got a good look at her and while superficially she does look a bit like you, her hair is different in both style and colour. Your hair is a darkish brown, hers was much lighter.’
‘Anyway, they were into each other in a big way, I would say, and I thought if the rumours were true and you really were going out with the bastard, you really should be told.’
‘Sorry,’ she says a little belatedly, studying Nicola’s face, and realising she might have just delivered a bombshell.
‘Thanks,’ is all Nicola can find to say. She is surprised she doesn’t feel more hurt, or even devastated. Surely, she should. Surely, she should be welling up by being told of his infidelity by an office friend. But she isn’t. The only emotion is one of growing anger. She can feel her face going red again.
‘Are you OK,’ says Alicia, studying her carefully. ‘You weren’t really into him, were you? Guys like him are OK for a night out but not much more than that.’ She looks around the room frowning and then turns back to Nicola, giving her hand a sympathetic squeeze and saying quietly: ‘The trouble with a good-looking tosser like him is that looks so often conceal the bastard underneath.
‘Give me an ugly brute every time. I don’t care if he frightens the fairies in the dark, so long as he is kind and caring; that’s all that really matters.’
Nicola smiles at that. ‘I guess you’re right,’ she says, hastily wiping away a tear that has somehow escaped. She is determined not to burst into tears and is annoyed that one has betrayed her. Deep down she admits to herself that she is not surprised. She has always realised Alex is a flirt because of the way he behaves when other women are around, almost ignoring her, treating stray women to winning smiles as well as surreptitiously and ‘accidentally’ touching whoever he fancies.
‘What are you going to do?’ asks Alicia a little anxiously.
Nicola is silent. What is she going to do? She is not sure. There may be a perfectly innocent explanation. The woman he was with may be an important client. She could be a relative. There could be a dozen perfectly reasonable explanations. To accuse him of cheating on her without listening to what he has to say would be grossly unfair, surely?
‘I’m not sure,’ she says. ‘He wants to move in with me.’
Alicia stares at her incredulously. ‘You aren’t serious. This guy is obviously a two-timing shit. You would have to be barking to willingly live with someone like that.’
Nicola is silent. In her heart she knows Alicia, and for that matter Evie, are right. She hasn’t seen her sister Pam for a few weeks but has no doubt that if she knew what was afoot, would be even more forthright. The last time she mentioned Alex, Pam had studied her impatiently. ‘For God’s sake get real Nicola. Are you really so hard-up that you have to demean yourself with that halfwit. Just tell him to piss off.’
Nicola just can imagine what Pam would say if she knew he was about to move in with her and unless he comes up with the right answers when she confronts him later about the ‘other’ woman, she knows it is something she has to do. For better or worse, she has to give it a try. If it goes sour that will be too bad. But she must find out and that is the only way.
She decides not to reveal that to Alicia, so instead she says: ‘Thanks for listening and for letting me know too. ‘You have given me a lot to think about.’
‘Let me know what happens,’ says Alicia as they head for the door.
‘I would appreciate it not becoming office gossip,’ Nicola says quietly as they had for the BBC.’
‘No problem,’ says Alicia.
Despite that it will be common knowledge by the end of the day.