Her parched mouth woke her just minutes before her alarm rang. It was morning. It was time to go to work. A tumbler was clutched in her hand hand was still resting on the arm of the sofa. She leaned forward and placed it on the coffee table next to a mug filled with cigarette butts. It was white and porcelain with a chip in the handle. She gingerly lowered her feet to the floor and undid the button on her trousers. Outside, she could hear the heavens thumping on her windows through the drawn blinds. She stood and pointed her toes to the direction of her bedroom, knocking over an empty bottle that rolled underneath the sofa. Through the muffling compression in her head she registered another alarm beeping and saw the normally locked door slightly ajar. She moved towards it and pulled it shut. Once more en route to the bedroom she picked up the scraps of magazine littering the floor and three large sheets of white paper. She carried them through to her en-suite and dumped the paper in the bathtub. Shakes canvassed her body with more violence now, and she grabbed for the glass on the side of her sink, filling it to the brim three times.
In the reflection she sees a dribble of water run down her chin. Her face is split in two by the large crack running diagonally across the mirror. She squeezes out some toothpaste and assaults her teeth between vicious coughing fits that make her retch. Surprisingly, there is no blood when she leans over to spit out the foamy mixture.
A lighter falls out of the top pocket of her shirt and clatters into the sink, making her wince. She picks it out of the white foam with two fingers, wiping it on her suit trousers.
Turning back to the tub, she kneels down beside it, resting her armpits over the rim so her arms dangle down like rope. Her fingers swim among the paper sea. The cold tiles press into her knees mercilessly in the darkness. Then a light flickers across her face, disturbing her features like the crack in the mirror. She tilts the flame towards the biggest sheet so that it licks at a corner. She repeats at the other three corners, watching them blacken and curl, as she was instructed to always do. She moves her hands through the heap like shadows until the rest of the papers catch fire. She does not feel a tear dry on her cheek when the red splashes on the sheets become ash. She steps into the tub and doesn’t notice the silver knobs squeak as she directs the steaming water to the small showerhead sitting above the taps. She crouches in the middle and holds the jet above her head and the water sprays violently over the walls and the ash begins to pool around her feet and then the fragments float towards the plug and they scream as they whirlpool down into the sewers of London.
The alarm is still tolling on her bedside table but she no longer hears it.
Joe’s Kid was her favourite daytime haunt in Zone One simply because it was one of the last independent business surviving in the corporate jungle of the Inner Zones. The family had fought for the cafe throughout the generations, and the pull of different careers had claimed many of the children, but there was always one to take the helm of the caf. It was a rare establishment in that it attracted and kept customers, posting their photos on their ‘regulars’ wall and encouraging them to get to know each other, although not always with success.
It was a small cafe that looked out onto Fashion Street with tables crammed into the front space and a bar area with stools at the back. In the middle was a tiny kitchen and high, wooden counter that the owner and her minimal staff would slave behind.
She was sitting at the back bar out of view of the street and watching customers order in quick succession out of the corner of her eye as she read the news on her phone.
‘There you go, love,’ said the owner, placing a plate of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs next to her large black coffee. Her stomach growled as the smell hit her nostrils and saliva gathered in the pockets of her cheeks in preparation.
‘Amazing - thank you,’ she said, grabbing her cutlery and shoving a forkful of eggs into her mouth, closing her eyes with delight at her first meal in twenty-four hours. The owner laughed and winked at her.
‘Nothing like eggs for a hangover,’ she said before turning at the sound of the door opening and, still laughing, greeting the customer.
Her attention was consumed by the food in front of her but the owner hollering through to the invisible chef in the kitchen nonetheless reached her ears, as was the charm of the caf.
‘Is our avocado special still on?’
There was a muffled response.
‘Whaddya mean we don’t do an avocado special?’
The pots were banged with mock anger. The owner stuck her blonde head through the small hole between the kitchen and the cafe.
’I’m sure I’ve seen some in the fridge,’ she was insisting, wiggling her arse at the customers before finally conceding. ‘Oh, well we should really get some in!’ She turned back to the customer with a cheeky grin as she pulled her hair back into a ponytail.
‘Oops!’ she squealed, ’Chef says we don’t even stock avocado, apparently, but I know we definitely do eggs on toast.’ She stuck her hands on her hips, nodding as she took the order before relaying it through the shaft. ‘Have a seat and I’ll bring your coffee over. There might be more space at the back.’
She wiped her hands on her stomach before asking the other fifteen customers loudly: ‘Everyone ok? Ok - now don’t steal anything!’ With that, she turned on her heel and burst into the tiny kitchen and just before the doors cut off the noise they heard her say: ’Did you get all that? Now I swear there’s an avocado in here somewhere-’
Cutting up her salmon, she waited for the laugh to bubble forth as it normally did when sitting in her usual spot listening to the double act. The fish quivered, speared on her fork, but the laugh didn’t come.
‘Fancy seeing you here,’ said a voice. She looked up as Kathy threw herself into the stool beside her. ‘I’ve been trying to call you-’
‘Left my phone at home.’
‘-since last night,’ Kathy said pointedly. She popped the salmon in her mouth and chewed slowly.
‘Oh,’ she said, filling the silence with the same necessity she filled her stomach.
‘Are you alright after yesterday?’ Kathy was leaning back against the bar facing her, propped up by one forearm and clacking her nails on her phone screen that swallowed the small space between them. She continued to eat facing the walls, not looking at her friend.
‘You sure? You look pale.’
‘Oh, can you tell?’
‘What’s that supposed to-’
‘Kath, I’m just tired.’ She paused, looking at the white plasterboard in front of her with her wrists resting on the rim of the plate. ‘So please let me eat my lunch and get another coffee in me.’
‘I’m just trying to help,’ Kathy persisted.
She picked up her mug and drained it. ‘Help would be very welcome in the form of an espresso,’ she said, presenting her friend with the empty mug and finally forcing a smile.
‘I’ll get you a double,’ Kathy grinned, springing up towards the counter, then launching herself backwards to grab her phone and take it with her. She was back less than a minute later.
‘So,’ Kathy started.
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘But you’re not quitting?’
‘Ha,’ she barked, ‘would I be here if I was?’ Nausea began to rise in her throat and so she pushed the half-eaten meal away, avoiding Kathy’s eyes. The owner approached with a double espresso and a soy latte.
‘You done?’ asked the blonde.
‘Sorry, Kid, I’m struggling today.’
‘Couldn’t tell you,’ she shrugged.
‘Excellent,’ cheered the owner. ‘That’s what I like to hear.’ She cleared the plate before turning to Kathy. ‘I can’t remember what you ordered but it’s coming.’
’Kid?!’ Kathy whispered incredulously once the owner skipped off.
’As in ‘Joe’s Kid’,’ she explained.
‘You come here too often.’
‘Taste the coffee and you’ll see why,’ she lied. But Kathy grunted in agreement when she slurped at her latte, watching the owner hike her jeans up over her narrow hipbones.
’I can see another reason. What way does ‘Kid’ swing?’
‘Shouldn’t you be taking a time out after Anna?’
‘Who has time for a time out?’ Kathy purred.
Just then, a group of four walked in. Strutting in the middle of them, wearing an excited and knowing expression, was the dark haired assistant from Bateman’s office. He and the three girls crowded around the counter waiting for a table after the Kid shot off to relay their large order to the chef. They were whispering furiously to each other but with a theatrical naivety that ensured their conversation carried through to the back bar. Their heightened state of oblivious fixation on the boy and his story caught her attention.
‘Tell us everything,’ demanded the tall, willowy girl.
‘I think it’s been going on for a while,’ whispered the boy gleefully.
‘Are you sure?’ asked the shortest girl who was nervously biting her top lip. Kathy was now listening in, too.
‘I can’t believe it,’ said the final member of the group, not bothering to hide a wide grin.
‘I can! He’s a fucking animal!’ hissed the boy.
‘In more ways than one,’ she retorted. They both crowed with laughter.
‘Who else knows?’ asked the nervous, chubby girl.
‘No one! None of his other assistants. I only know because I saw them at it last night! But it makes sense as to why he was staying late but happily sending us home. He was never that accommodating before. Should’ve known something was going on.’ The boy was obviously bitter.
‘Oh, Bateman. You’re in trouble.’
Facing the wall, her jaw fell open. Next to her, Kathy had swivelled her stool round and had her wide eyes locked on her latte.
‘How did you catch him?’ asked the tall girl, her eyes wide in excitement.
The boy gleefully launched into his tale again. ‘SM was empty and I stayed late to do some extra work after fucking up his lunch order - don’t ask - and was down in the Arena until about 11pm sending up the analysis of everyone’s trading logs I knew he’d want in the morning.’
She moved her head slightly to try and catch Kathy’s eyes but they were still fixed on the white foam.
’Anyway, he can’t have realised I was hanging about - I mean, everyone had gone home - and when I looked up to his office there they were, banging over his desk-’
‘Looked up? You mean through his floor?’ gasped the little girl.
‘What a view,’ groaned the first one.
‘Yeah - of his ass,’ grunted the boy. ‘She was mostly hidden.’
At that, Kathy’s eyes flew up to meet hers as she mouthed, utterly shocked, ’SHE?!’ Kathy shook her head carefully.
‘That’s the bit I can’t believe,’ said the droll girl. ’The ‘she’ bit.’
‘I don’t know any man whose legs look that good in a pair of stilettos.’
‘Fetish?!’ asked the excitable girl.
‘Not with the position his head was in between her legs.’
‘I thought you said they were fucking?’
‘He took a detour,’ the boy said coyly, nodding at their raised eyebrows. ‘I know, I was surprised too.’
‘Good for you, Bateman,’ murmured the calm one.
’But what about his husband?!’ squealed the little one.
‘I know - if the media finds out about this they’ll have a fucking field day-’ The boy shut his mouth quickly as the Kid backed out of the kitchen carrying Kathy’s lunch.
‘Can I take it to go?’ Kathy stopped her as she approached. ‘We should head back anyway, and then they can have our seats.’ She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the group of assistants.
‘Lemme just grab a box,’ was the reply as the Kid scooted back into the kitchen. The two women looked at each other before standing in unison to pull on their coats, leaving their unneeded coffees sitting on the bar.
‘She?!’ she hissed at Kathy again before making way for the owner who unceremoniously dumped Kathy’s boiled egg salad in a box.
‘Thanks,’ Kathy said quietly, picking up the box and hurrying through the caf as the owner boomed to the group:
‘Oi, you lot! These two are leaving so you can sit here.’ Recognition flashed across the boy’s face as she passed him but she kept her eyes on the door and ignored him with all the arrogance her position entailed as she followed Kathy out onto the street.
Kathy weaved between the Pinstripes and their brollies marching back to their jobs and collapsed in a deep-set doorway with her legs splayed out in front of her. The box of salad lay forgotten beside her hip as she leaned the back of her head against the shuttered door and closed her eyes. There was just enough room for two so she flung herself down next to Kathy and wrenched her handbag open, rooting through it between her bent knees.
‘SHE?!’ she screeched, startling a passing woman. ’She! What the hell?!’ She tore through her bag with added vigour as the words tumbled from her mouth.
’That guy was right, you know, he is in trouble. The media is going to freak out when this gets leaked. Jesus! She! I mean, I really thought he was gay - he hates women! Well, obviously not. Bloody hell! And his husband and - oh where the hell are they?!’
She upturned her bag entirely and shook the contents out onto the ground, yelping when a pack of Marlboros bounced out. She threw everything back in and ripped open the pack, seizing a cigarette between her teeth as she dug through her pockets for a lighter, especially grateful for the rash decision to buy straights that morning. At the clicking sound of the flame Kathy opened her eyes.
‘I didn’t know you smoked!’
‘Yeah, well, I didn’t know Bateman was having an affair.’ She exhaled smoke onto the street as people rushed past with strained, down-turned faces, despite the fact it was only spitting.
‘I’m going to get the bastard,’ she growled.
‘Get him?’ Kathy was still looking at the cigarette between her friend’s fingers. ‘Get him how?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, taking a long drag. ‘Maybe threaten him?’
‘And who would that help?’ She could feel Kathy’s eyes boring into her peripheral vision like a missile. ‘When you out him, who would that help? They won’t fire him.’
‘Yeah, but his husband-’
‘Is probably doing it, too!’ Kathy snapped. ‘They all do it in those circles.’
‘What are you saying, Kath?’ She turned to Kathy, cigarette hovering by her mouth, although not forgotten.
‘I’m saying it’s none of our business and we should forget it.’
‘Are you out of your bloody mind?!’
’Are you?!’ Kathy suddenly pitched herself up from the doorway and sped down the street with a palm held up that told her not to follow. She sat back watching her friend disappear down Brick Lane, forgetting to shiver in the cold.
Her cigarette burnt its way down to the filter so she pulled out another and sheltered it with her left palm as she lit it, leaning back against the shutters as she inhaled. The sky was prematurely dark because of the afternoon’s rain, although she couldn’t remember if it had been light on her autopilot journey into work that morning.
She pushed the new smoke back out of her lungs and it billowed for a moment like a smog-cloud before dissipating into the rain that was now falling thicker and faster. With it, the red mist lifted from her eyes and her previously tense shoulders slumped against the shutters causing them to rattle. Drawing hard on the cigarette as a passing man splashed himself in a puddle and cursed, she shuddered recalling the venom and excitement of her first reaction and the raging urge to wound Bateman. She deflated with creeping horror as her vision widened out from her angry scope and once more saw the people in grey clothes scrambling through the grey streets sucking in the grey air. A spasm pinned her heart to her spine like a baby bird caught in the hands of a poacher. She bowed over, resting her elbows on her knees as she took another draw.
Her handbag vibrated against her calf and she dropped a hand to dig out her phone. It was a message from Kathy, who must have noticed it clatter out of the bag in her rush to find the cigarettes.
Maybe he’s unhappy.
Maybe we all are, she thought, stubbing the cigarette out on the step beside her and flicking it onto the street for good measure. It was quickly trampled underfoot by the crowd she then joined, hunching her shoulders against the sobbing sky.