The air was thick with beer, fried food and the odour of bodies that had worked long, hard days. The post-work crowd, seeking liquid relief from the monotony of office hours, jostled for space with those out for an early evening drink. Michael leaned against the sticky wood, a twenty between his fingers, and tried to get the attention of the barman.
‘Hello, stranger,’ the woman next to him said.
He thought she was speaking to someone else. Didn’t even acknowledge her, just paid for the drinks and pocketed his change. He’d really have to get going after this one. But then she said it again, ‘Hello, stranger’. So close to his ear that he could feel her warm breath. Now, she had his attention.
Michael turned. He wouldn’t have recognised her from a distance. She was a little fleshier around the face, and faint lines flicked out from her eyes. Her hair was a shiny, dark cap. But the full lips, the white teeth, crossed slightly at the front, the hands, tiny and full of rings - they were all Anna. He moved away from the bar and, beers in hand, turned to face her. She was wearing flat shoes and a long, shapeless jumper the colour of stewed tea. Her mouth was stained from the red wine she was drinking.
‘God, this is a surprise, Anna,’ Michael said. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Oh, you know, just… I wondered if you still came in here,’ she said.
‘Ah. Well, er, yes, I do,’ he said. ‘So, what brings you over to this neck of the woods?’
‘Just...work stuff,’ she replied, taking a long sip from her glass. ‘It’s good to see you, Michael.’
She put her hand onto his forearm. Her skin was cool and paper dry, but he flinched as if she had branded him.
‘It’s good to see you too. Anyway, I’d…I’d better get these drinks over to the lads. Nice to see you. You take care.’ Michael turned to go. He felt sweat beads popping up on his forehead.
She touched her fingers to the small of his back, stopping him in his tracks.
‘Wait…I wondered if we could get together for a coffee, maybe?’ she said.
‘I’m...I’m not sure that’s a good idea,’ he said. ‘Probably best we don’t, eh?’
She lowered her face. When she looked up, a single tear rolled down her cheek, and her tongue, pink and cat-like, darted out and caught it at the side of her mouth.
‘There was a lot left unsaid between us, Michael.’ She raised her hands, as if guessing what he would say next. ‘I know, I know – it was all a long time ago. But it would be good to just, well, have a chat. Clear the air. Catch up a bit. Please?’ She smiled up at him. ‘It would mean a lot to me,’ she said.
Michael looked at her. She reminded him of a bird – not something exotic and beautiful, just a plain, brown sparrow, with her fluttering hands and bare, pale face. She was always so serious, so intense, that when she smiled, it was like someone had turned on the sun. But now, she just looked sad pathetic. The very last thing he wanted to do was sit across a table from her, raking up a past that should never really have happened.
‘OK,’ he said, shocked to hear the agreement coming from his mouth.
‘How about Starbucks, on Lothian Road? Tomorrow, when you finish work? Shall we say about quarter to six?’
Michael nodded dumbly as Anna turned and walked away, placing her empty glass on a table as she passed. He watched as she slipped easily through the crowded bar and vanished out of the door like smoke.
Michael blew out a breath and walked over to Sean and Kevin. He handed out the beers and swigged deeply from his own bottle of Becks, only half-listening as they chatted about work and the match that was about to start. Michael put his empty bottle down and pulled on his jacket. It was time he went home.
Normally, Michael was out like a light. Jill joked that he was the only person she knew who could fall asleep mid-sentence. She said he could go from zero to snoring in less than five seconds. But not that night. He lay, staring into the dark and listening to the rain pounding against the windows. When the dark was replaced by early-morning sunlight, he got out of bed and went downstairs. He flicked on the kettle and wished he had a cigarette. He’d given them up as soon as they’d started trying for a baby. Well, sort of given them up. But he was careful not to keep any in the house. He wished he hadn’t been quite so careful.
He made a cup of tea and sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. He washed down two Paracetamol with the dregs and went back upstairs to shower and dress. He looked at Jill, lying in bed. She was making the soft purring noise she always made when she was deeply asleep. Her skin looked grey and waxy. She’d stopped throwing up a while ago, but it had really taken its toll. Normally he’d wake her as he left, say goodbye and tell her to have a good day. But she looked so wrecked that he left her. He kissed her gently on the cheek and left the house.
The rain had stopped but dampness still hung in the air. He thought about taking the car into work; despite being up since dawn he was somehow running late. But finding a parking space would gobble up any time he made. Michael walked along the street and then broke into a run as the Number 42 approached. He got on and sat down, leaning his head against the window and closing his eyes. The painkillers had done nothing for his headache, the throb behind his eye keeping time with every bump and pothole on the road.
The day dragged, punctuated by two tedious meetings and a project update with the management board. One of the things Michael loved about being a contractor was that no one really bothered to get to know him, thinking he’d soon be off elsewhere with his spread-sheets and clipboard. He didn’t have to get involved in office politics, tea clubs and collections. But today, he could have done with a bit of banter. Anything to take his mind off the sheer stupidity of agreeing to meet Anna. He itched to ring Jill, but then she’d ask what time he was leaving work, and that would mean lying to her, or at least, not quite telling her the truth. What the fuck had he been thinking?
Michael left the office at five-thirty on the dot. It was dull and drizzly. His head still ached, and he was jittery from the coffee he’d been downing all day to stay awake. His stomach felt greasy, it churned unpleasantly as he walked the two blocks towards Starbucks. He walked past the newsagent, and then turned back. He came out moments later, clutching twenty Silk Cut and a plastic lighter. He tore off the cellophane and standing in a doorway to shield himself from the rain, smoked the first cigarette quickly and efficiently. He lit a second from its still smouldering stub and continued along the road.
Michael paused at the door, and thought, for a moment, about just continuing on down the street. Back to Jill, back to normal life. But no, he would do this. Have a coffee, be nice, move on.
He pushed open the door and walked in. The air inside was heavy and the smell of wet clothes and coffee made him feel queasy. It was busy, and he looked around, not seeing her at first. Then he spotted her, tucked in the corner, half-concealed by a man with long ginger hair, tapping away furiously on his laptop. Michael made his way over to her. She was staring out of the window, fiddling with the grey woollen gloves that she’d laid in front of her.
‘Hi,’ he said. ‘Can I get you something?’
She indicated the two cups on the table and shook her head.
‘I’ve got you one already. You still drink cappuccino, right?’
‘Er, yeah,’ he said, sitting down opposite her. He pulled off his jacket and hung it on the back of the chair.
‘Do you know what day it is?’ she said, looking straight at him.
‘What? It’s Wednesday. April the…’ he glanced at his watch, ‘23rd. Why?’
‘Yes. April 23rd. Does that even mean anything to you?’ she asked. Michael frowned as she paused and took a sip of coffee. ‘No, of course it doesn’t,’ she continued. ‘It’s his birthday. Or would have been.’
‘Whose birthday?’ Michael asked. ‘What are you on about?’
‘Our baby. He would have been five today,’ she said.
Michael looked down at the table. How had he forgotten that she could do that? Try his patience to the limit? ‘I knew this was a bad idea. What’s the point of bringing all that up now, Anna? Look, I think I should just go.’
He eased himself up from the chair, and she reached across, wrapping her fingers around his arm.
‘I’m sorry. Don’t go,’ she said.
Michael brushed her hand away and sat back down. He sighed and wiped a hand across his face.
‘I’m not sure what you were hoping to achieve here? Were you picturing some big reunion; a nice chat about old times? It was all fucked up,’ he said softly, shaking his head. ‘You know that as well as I do.’
Anna covered her face with her hands and started to cry; gulping sobs that made her shoulders shake with the effort.
‘Jesus, Anna. There’s no point getting yourself so upset. Hold on, I’ll get you some water.’
Michael got up and went to the counter. He was too tired for this. He just needed to go home and for this day to be over. When he got back to the table, clutching a glass, she was dabbing at her eyes with a cloth handkerchief.
‘Please, just sit with me for a bit,’ she said, fiddling with a sugar sachet. ‘Drink your coffee. It’s just all come back to me, seeing you, that’s all.’
Michael sat and gulped his now lukewarm coffee. Anna sniffed loudly, and smoothed out her gloves. He looked around. Ginger-laptop guy was packing his stuff away. The two women opposite were leaning over a magazine, pointing and cooing at wedding dresses. He waited for Anna to speak. She picked up the glass and took a tiny sip.
‘I go to see him sometimes, you know,’ she said, looking down into the glass.
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, we talked about this at the time. It wasn’t a he. It wasn’t a she. It wasn’t even a baby. And anyway, it could have been born anytime. You couldn’t possibly know the date. What you did… we agreed it was for the best. For fuck’s sake, Anna, you couldn’t have even been sure it was mine. Anyway, how the hell could you go and see him, surely - ’
‘Not the baby. Stuart,’ she said. ‘I go to see Stuart.’
‘Stuart? You visit Stuart?’
‘Yes, sometimes. I think he enjoys it, seeing me, chatting about old times.’
‘I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. He’s…he’s not the same now. It’s best not to get him wound up.’ Michael shook his head wearily. ‘Jesus,’ he said, ‘I had no idea you were visiting him.’
She smiled, then leaned forward and cupped her chin in her hand. ‘It must be our little secret, then,’ she said. ‘Anyway, what about you? Has life been good to you? Are you happy?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, I am.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘Good. Are you seeing anyone?’
Michael paused. ‘Yes, Anna. Jill. My girlfriend. I’ve been with her for a couple of years now. We live together.’ He looked at his watch, trying to focus on the time but the numbers seemed to be dancing around. ‘Look, Anna, I am sorry, how things worked out,’ he said. ‘I’d better get home.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Me too.’
He pulled on his still-damp jacket and waited as she pulled on her coat and gloves, then followed her to the door. He bent down to kiss her cheek. God, he was tired. He felt as if he could barely hold himself up.
‘You look after yourself, Anna,’ he said.
She nodded, and smiled up at him as they stepped out of the door. Michael shivered and pulled up his collar. It was really pissing down now.
‘Can I give you a lift?’ she said.
Michael was about to refuse, but he was so knackered. He could walk to the bus stop in the rain, and wait God knows how long for one to turn up, or he could accept her offer, get in the car and then never see her again. He didn’t actually think his legs could carry him as far as the bus stop; he must be coming down with something.
‘Yeah, that would be great. If it’s not too much out of your way,’ he said.
‘No, no. It’s no problem.’
They walked in silence along the damp street. ‘This is still me,’ she said, gesturing towards a battered old Volvo parked up next to a meter. It was the same car that she’d driven all those years ago, he remembered. It had seemed on its last legs even then. He sat down heavily on the passenger seat, an unwelcome rush of memories spilling into his brain. God, he was wrecked. He could barely keep his eyes open. He thought maybe he would close them, just for a minute. As he drifted off, he wondered if she knew where he lived.