Playing For Love by Jeevani Charika
Samadhi Ranaweera sat with her portfolio bag clutched too tightly on her lap. She had finished her pitch to yet another niche handbag company and now they were deliberating. Even in limited her experience, asking her to step outside while they discussed it was a bad sign. Mind you, she didn’t know what a good sign might be. People walked past her, carrying parcels and paperwork. One woman went past, pushing a trolley full of tote style handbags that looked like they were the new season ones. Sam would have dearly loved to get a closer look.
The offices were not huge, the company wasn’t a big player in the market, but they were busy. Sam looked up at the big posters of the bags they made. They would work so well with her insert bags. She could make beautiful matching inserts to go with their colourways and women would be able to use more bags with less hassle. It was so obviously a good idea. Sometimes it felt like she was the only one who could see it.
The man who had been interviewing her before came up. Sam stood up. His expression was sympathetic. Oh great. Another no. The third one this month.
Afterwards, as she sat on the Underground, with the portfolio bag leaning against her legs, she realised that they hadn’t handed back her sample. She would have to sew another one. She leaned her head back against the window of the Tube train. It always went wrong when they asked her about her manufacturing plans. None of the companies liked the fact that she didn’t have a loan or an investor, but was trying to crowdfund the money to buy the next batch of materials and hire some people to turn them into bag inserts. They all seemed to think that she was being wildly optimistic about how many random strangers would put money into her enterprise. To be perfectly honest, she was starting to think they had a point. Trying to raise money by crowdfunding had been a brilliant idea in theory - it would have put her in touch with people who would enjoy trying out a new product and were likely to shout about it on social media. Except it wasn’t working. She didn’t know why. Everything else in her business plan held up, but if this one step failed, it could scupper her business before it even started.
She sat up straight again and looked down at the bag resting against her leg. This was her dream. Shanthi Bags. If she made it work, she could make life easier for thousands of women. Millions, even. She wasn’t sure when she’d started thinking about it, but it had been noodling away at the back of her mind for long enough that when she was offered a chance to leave her soul-crushing day job, she had leapt at it. Now, Shanthi Bags was that much closer to being a reality, she wanted to succeed so badly that it was almost painful. Except no one believed she could do it. Sometimes she thought they might be right.
Luke Burneside changed into his cycling gear in the bathroom and went back to his office. It was late evening and the building was emptying out as people from the different small businesses hurried off home. His own assistant, Pete, had already left, so he had the office to himself. He checked the time. He could do a bit more work before he head out.
Instead of putting his laptop in his backpack, he pulled up his chair and opened up the accounts for that quarter. Their takings were down. Again. He paid himself a salary, but it hadn’t gone up in the seven years that he’d had the online event company. The idea was that he could top it up with his directors dividend. But it looked like that wasn’t going to be much to write home about this year. Again.
At least that meant he wasn’t going to give any more money to his business partner either. He rubbed his face. At the moment, Bradley was rarely in the office, but he still owned 40% of the company. Luke worked all hours whilst Bradley did almost nothing. He needed to discuss this with Brad, but he kept putting it off. The very idea of having an argument made his heart pick up pace. He breathed in and out carefully, making his pulse slow back down. Not today.
He made a few notes to remind himself of things he had to check and shut the laptop down. Not being able to pay himself properly was a real pain. He put his laptop in his bag. In order to get it in, he had to remove the envelope that he’d tucked into the bag that morning. It contained the details for his arrangement with the online gaming company Syren Corp. He mustn’t forget to post that. He could have put it in the post tray at work, but he liked to keep his gaming life completely separate from his work. He didn’t want anything to connect them. He slid the letter back into the bag and put a reminder on his phone to post it.
It was nearly seven o’clock when he finally headed to the stairs to leave. Noticing the lights were on in the main meeting room, he peered in through the glass door. Kim, the receptionist, was in there, tidying up. She should have left ages ago.
He knocked on the door and stepped in. “What’re you still doing here, Kim?”
Kim flipped back her corkscrew curls and gestured towards the cups and saucers she was gathering up. “Steering committee meeting overran.” She carried on gathering the cups. “Still, eh. Overtime.”
“Here, let me help.” Luke clipped his cycle helmet on to get it out of the way and started stacking the cups and coffee mugs on a tray. At the other end of the table Kim did the same.
He and Kim had started working at The Nest when it was still brand new. Luke and Brad’s fledgling company had been one of the earliest tenants in the small business incubator and Kim had been the new receptionist. They were part of the ‘old guard’ now.
They ended up with two trays stacked high with used cups. Luke held the door open for Kim and followed her out.
“You go ahead,” Kim said. “I’ll lock up and put everything in the dishwasher.”
“Right oh.” He picked up one of the trays and pushed his way through the door at the top of the stairs. As he descended, one of the towers of cups wobbled, but there was nowhere to rest the tray to steady it, so he carried on, praying nothing fell over.
At the entrance to the next floor, he was faced with a door with a pull handle. He frowned and was considering putting the tray on the floor and sorting out the cup tower before opening the door, when someone pushed the door open for him. He looked up to see a woman holding the door open for him.
She was brown skinned with black hair cut into a neat bob. Long eyelashes, plump lips, impressive eyes. Very impressive eyes.
Luke’s mind went blank.
She moved into the stairwell and gave him a distracted smile. She gestured for him to go through.
He managed to say, “Thanks.”
As he stepped forward the cups wobbled.
The woman made a concerned face. “Hang on.” She hitched her big handbag onto her shoulder and reached out to quickly rearrange the cup towers.
Luke stood there like a lemon, not sure what to say. She smiled at him and his world went sepia toned for a second. He said, ‘thanks’ again, before hurrying through the door.
She said, “you’re welcome,” and let the door close, before she went back to her journey heading out.
Luke paused before at the top of the corridor to the kitchen at the end. The girl stopped at the reception desk and seemed to be signing out. She must work here then. He quickly carried on down the corridor before she noticed him standing there staring at her.
In the office kitchen, which doubled as a staff room, he started to load the cups into the dishwasher, his mind not really on the task. Why was he so useless when it came to talking to people? He had just met the most beautiful woman in the world and he’d stood there and not spoken. And worse, he realised, he’d been in his cycling gear with his helmet clipped on and carrying a tray of dirty cups. That was a terrible first impression to make.
He pulled the bottom drawer out and started putting the saucers in there. He would have to find out more about her. Maybe even work out a way to talk to her when he was wearing normal clothes. The easiest thing would be to ask Kim. who knew everyone. But that was out of the question.
He heard Kim coming into the kitchen and hastily straightened up before she made a comment about his arse.
“Don’t change position on my account.” Kim grinned at him. “How on earth are you still single?”
And that was why he couldn’t ask Kim about the mystery woman. He would never hear the end of it. He was used to her teasing now, but there were limits. He made a face at her.
Kim ignored it. “I can take over from here,” she said. “And seriously, thanks for helping.”
“Not a problem. Do you want me to stay until you lock up.”
“Nah. I’ll be fine. You go home. I’m sure you’ve got exciting evening plans.”
Luke laughed. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Scintillating plans. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He cycled home, microwaved himself some dinner and rushed around getting chores done until it was time. Then he let himself into his spare room, which contained his gaming computer and microphone set up. This was his favourite bit of the day. It was when he got to forget about everything else that was going on and become someone else entirely. He fired up the game he was currently playing, put on his headset, hit record, and became his alter ego. Blaze. Pro gamer and YouTube star.
“Alright there, folks,” he said, slipping easily into the Yorkshire accent of his YouTube persona. “How’re we doing today?”
Sam removed her work from the sewing machine and broke off the thread. It was past midnight and her eyes felt gritty and sore. She grabbed the scissors and tidied up the long bits of thread before she turned her latest creation the right side out and examined it. It was a new demo bag insert. For years, she had used a smaller bag inside her handbag to keep her purse and useful things in, so that when she swapped handbags, she never had to worry about leaving something vital in the wrong bag. Now she was making more of them so that other women could do the same.
Her small business was still in its infancy. Until she could afford to hire someone to help cut and sew the handbag inserts, she had to make all the samples herself. At least it meant that she could make each bag unique. She smoothed the soft fabric down with her hands and smiled. This one was dove grey and orange, fabrics chosen to complement the colours that were fashionable in handbags this year. There wasn’t another one like it. She liked a unique bag.
She stretched, feeling the tension in her shoulders. Enough for tonight. She would iron the bag into shape, sew on the label that said ‘Shanthi Bags’ and take photos for the website tomorrow. Running a small business involved a million tiny tasks, which always added up to more time than you’d think
Once she’d finished tidying up, she was still too wired to go straight to sleep. So she made herself a hot chocolate and curled up on the sofa. When she needed comfort, there was always her one guilty pleasure.
Her cousin, Nirosha, had already gone to bed, so Sam plugged her earbuds into her phone and pulled up YouTube.
Blaze was a gamer who posted his game plays on YouTube. Her first memory of hearing him was when she was lying curled up on the sofa next to her brothers while they watched a walkthrough of a game. After their mother died, their father’s grief had pervaded the house, making them tiptoe around it. Sam and her two brothers, left to themselves, stuck together. The boys played video games and Sam, twelve at the time and not as keen a gamer as her brothers, tended to just watch. More and more, she watched Blaze’s game plays, lulled by his friendly voice and feeling of being part of a group which took no effort to participate in.
Things were different now, of course. Their father had remarried and the boys had gone off to their jobs. But Sam had carried on watching Blaze’s videos whenever she felt down. As Blaze himself never came on screen, she could only imagine what he looked like. There were a few blurry photos of him, taken by people at conventions, which told her that he was tallish, slim and had long blonde hair, a beard and a Zorro-style mask. She had a lot of fun imagining what he might actually look like. It was silly, she knew, but you took comfort where you found it.
She sat back and closed her eyes. The video of the game was less important than the sound of his voice. That voice had lulled her to sleep on many a night, especially in the weeks after her redundancy. She was half asleep by the time the game play ended. Then Blaze’s voice came on, slightly louder than before and missing the raw edge it had when he was playing. “And don’t forget, if you want to be in with a chance to play alongside me, in the never-seen-before game SyrenQuest. Just hit the button below and enter the draw.”
Ha! For a second, she was tempted, but she wasn’t really into games and was pretty bad at most of the shooter games that her brothers had. She was more of a puzzle solver. She only watched Blaze’s channel because she loved Blaze, not for the games. Her childhood would have had a little less light in it without him.
Sam yawned and sat up. Now she was relaxed enough to go to bed. She looked at her phone, intending to turn YouTube off. The cash prize for the competition flashed up on the screen. She felt a pang of sadness. That amount of money would more than cover her first batch of Shanthi bags and then some.
“I know you’re thinking ‘it’ll never be me’, but it might be,” Blaze said. “Not only do you get to come and play with me or one of my pro-gamer friends, you get a ticket to the final, which has a convention attached to it and… you get a Syren 3 Headset. And if you win - you get to take home all that lovely prize money. It won’t cost you anything to join in. You’ve literally nothing to lose.”
She ended up watching the whole segment. She loved him. Imagine being able to meet him? To actually see him up close in real life. What would she even say? If by some miracle she ended up playing alongside him, there was no way she’d be able to concentrate with him within touching distance. There was no way she would be able to play well enough to win all that prize money.
“So go ahead and click the link,” he said. “I’d love to meet you.”
A thrill ran through her. It was like he was talking directly to her. She couldn't help herself. She hit the link, gave them her email address, and agreed to whatever the T&Cs were. It was a futile thing to do. The chances of her being chosen in the lottery to play were miniscule. The chances of being paired to play alongside Blaze were even smaller. But it had been a shit day and just entering cheered her up. Now at least she could go to bed smiling.
Three weeks later
Sam hurried through the rain slicked street, her phone pressed to her ear. It was still a bit damp, but she was walking so fast that she was hot enough to open her coat. “I’m nearly there. Has it started yet?”
In her ear, Niro said, “They’re just doing the intro about the new headset. State-of-the art. Lets you see the faces of other players … blah, blah, blah.”
The computer game company was announcing the winners of their Syren Quest competition. Sam had intended to watch it at home with Niro, but she’d had to go and pick up her brochures from the printers, so she was planning to watch it online in her office instead.
The facade of The Nest building was visible ahead. She tried to walk a little faster, which wasn’t easy to do in heels. The Nest was a new business incubator, which had offices at a subsidised rate. Sam ran up the steps, keeping her bag clutched to her chest. The atrium was a double height space that contained a large cafeteria. It was light and airy and one of Sam’s favourite places. The tables in the main atrium were full of people who had come in for a drink and a sit down. At the far end, where the floor above made a lower ceiling was a more cosy seating area with a sofa and a TV screen.
Sam’s office was on the second floor, where the tiniest of the offices were. She could head for the lift. The smell of coffee wafted past. She hesitated. “I’m in the building,” she said into the phone. “I need caffeine. I didn’t have time to grab any before I left.”
Niro said. “Well hurry up. They’re explaining about the game now and going through the professional gamers they’ve brought in.”