I don’t know what to wear to a Christmas night out in October. I’ve never known the answer to this stupid question. I could ask Henry, but I know from years of asking similar questions that he’ll stare blankly at me, stick out his bottom lip in concentration, furrow his brow, and reply
“Y’know, I’ve no idea. I’m sure you’ll think of something darling. You always do.” Then he’ll nod his head approvingly and turn his attention to his latest planetary journal.
So I don’t ask, I ruffle through my wardrobe and pick out an outfit very similar to the one I’m wearing, and strap it into a suit bag. That will do, I tell myself as I pull the zip closed around the bag.
I feel relieved that I’m the first to arrive. I order a drink at the bar and find a seat. I prefer to sit in windows, having something to look out on makes me feel less conspicuous.
I see them in the distance, ambling along the street as the barman puts a paper coaster and a gin and tonic on the table, along with a little bowl of something round and green. I smile at him. He’s a student from a previous year. I recognise his face.
He smiles back and says he hopes I’m well.
These small acts of recognition grip me. I’ve been known to cry following them. It started at the end of my first year of teaching, sitting on the stage at McEwan Hall during a graduation ceremony. Row after row of students filing onto the stage, shaking hands, bowing, curtsying, polite satisfaction, and for some, a desperation to get out of the spotlight. The audience whooping and cheering, and the recipient smiling back out at them. I’d feel my breath catch in my throat and the hot sting of emotion behind my eyes, trying to squeeze the tears back in and failing. The cheering, whooping and foot stamping, overflowing evidence of love and pride. For some reason I feel it more often these days, any manifestation of someone rooting for another person makes it happen, larger groups make it worse. Parades, marches, weddings, all have a similar effect. Pipe Bands are the worst.
I remembered this barman’s family, how they’d travelled from Poland. I ask how his parents are and listen as he tells me of his recent life. I smile and nod and listen. He has to get back to work he says as he excuses himself. I hold out my hand to shake his, he’s awkward, as if he’s not used to hand-shaking, and has to tuck his silver waiter’s tray under his left arm. I reach out with my left hand and place it on his right arm, rubbing it warmly.
I turn back to the window.
And still they come, all eight of them. Henry, following not leading, partially hidden behind two rotund colleagues. George is wearing a dinner suit and a bow tie. He wears it every year, the only difference being that with each passing year it meets less in the middle. This year there’s more white shirt on show than jacket. His girth going before them all, leading the way.
All five men have rosy cheeks and wide smiles, the result of two bottles of warm Prosecco served in the wrong kind of glasses before leaving the office.
“A treat to get us in the spirit” George apparently announces every year as he pops the first cork.
They burst into the hotel bar. They’re as loud as they are late, full of bonhomie. How clever they are, how amusing to have a Christmas party in October. What fun.
Henry grazes his lips against my cheek. George lunges towards me holding both his hands out as if to catch me.
“Ah Kate, how marvellous to see you my dear.”
I do a little half stand from my seat and take one of his hands in mine as he leans in to kiss me. He smells of alcohol, the remnants of his morning aftershave, and freshly applied deodorant. George has prepared for his night out.
Behind the men come three women, having made a trip to the loos to re-apply the lipstick they’d put on ten minutes earlier before leaving the office.
Mary, who has acted as receptionist, administrator, PA, and sometime-caterer for the fifteen years I’ve known her holds her clutch bag tight to her stomach. I smile at her and reach over to kiss her on her cheek. I feel her awkwardness: and want to alleviate it, but experience has taught me that it’s almost impossible. Mary smiles at me while pulling her dress down at the back.
In the act of returning the smile, I’m grabbed by George who leads me into the dining room. Henry is busy, talking to a woman I’ve never seen before, I catch sight of them as George propels me towards the open door. Henry is leaning over her right shoulder, and she’s leaning back into him, showing him something on her phone, or taking a photograph of them both? I take the scene in: Henry, bending over her, smiling indulgently. The new girl, much shorter, leaning back with her head almost on his chest: the flared skirt of her dress obscuring his legs.
A phrase comes into my head, something my mother used to say many years ago. It pops in, and I think, how strange. How appropriate.
“She’s like something you’d put on your mantelpiece.”
Every year, George makes the same speech. About what a tight team that everyone who works at the Observatory is, and how they’re known in scientific circles for being innovative and ground-breaking in their research. Stars in fact. How they would never be caught-out paying the exorbitantly high prices in hotels and restaurants at Christmas. They knew how to have a good time, but they’d be back at their desks first thing raring to go again. The sky really was the limit with them, but not when it came to over-spending their budget!
My attention is diverted by Mary who has spilled her water glass over the table. The waiter, carrying three plates of too-cold pate and oatcakes in his hand, lays one quickly in front of me, one in front of Henry, and deftly places a linen napkin over the spillage before laying the third plate in front of a still standing George.
George takes his cue and wraps up the speech to animated applause from his loyal staff.
Henry squeezes my knee in a most unlike Henry way and dinner commences. Mary looks around her, trying to ignore the sodden napkin, and hopeful that the waiter hasn’t forgotten her crayfish salad. My left eye begins to twitch, and a tight band of pain begins to stretch across my forehead.
Henry and someone called Jeremy, who I’ve never met before are having a painstakingly dreary conversation about the merits or otherwise of travelling to Gatwick and taking the Express into London, versus flying straight to City and taking the DLR. George beams at them both across the table. He loves to see everyone getting on so well.
I realise that I’m the only spouse at the table, and turn to Henry, to ask him why, but Jeremy intercepts my gaze to introduce himself. He has a large bald patch in the middle of the top of his head giving him a monk-like appearance. His face is round and soft. Jowly. He looks insincere. He is speaking to me but his eyes are darting, looking to see what else is going on at the table. Looking for something or somebody more interesting.
My cheeks start to burn, and I can’t work out if it’s with anger at Jeremy’s rudeness or the headache. I excuse myself from the table, push my chair back, and placing a hand on Henry’s shoulder reassuringly as I pass, cross the room to get to the loo.
The dining room is large, Victorian, with a wide, low bay window festooned with copious amounts of blood-red velvet curtains. The carpet is deep and plush under my feet. as I make my way across the expanse of carpet towards the doorway.
The feeling of the cold water on my face as I try to reduce the heat in my cheeks is a relief. I look at my face in the mirror above the wash basin. My hair has started to frizz, there’s a look in my eyes I don’t recognise. I look mad, I think as I dry my face, glancing around for my handbag which I’ve forgotten to bring with me. I wonder how long I can stand here before someone will miss me.
I feel weighed down with the act of standing so I go into a cubicle and sit.
I don’t know how long I sit here before Mary comes looking for me. I wonder if Henry has sent her.
“Hello? Hello are you there Kate?” And then a quiet little knock.
The band of pain is tightening around my head, and I can’t bear to respond. Instead I open the door and reassure her “Just a headache. I won’t be a minute Mary.”
I wash my hands under the too fast running water.
“We just wondered . . . Maybe not feeling too well . . . tired . . .” Mary looks kind but worn down. I feel I should say something to her but the pain makes it difficult.
“I’ll be fine, thanks Mary.” This sounds harsh to my ears. I drop the paper towel in the bin and walk towards the door, smiling tightly, holding the door open for Mary, trying to look friendly.
I see him then in the swing of the revolving door. I recognise the slope of his shoulder as he pushes through the door: the way he holds himself as he walks down the few steps into the waiting taxi. That little skipping jump that he used to make when he reached the bottom step. Then I see his face, older now, his hair grey but otherwise the same, as he reaches out from inside the taxi to pull the door closed. I see the taxi pulling away, Mary is still standing next to me.
A flash of time, distant and painful. I was young when I saw him last.
The room swirls around me as I reach out to steady myself and feel Mary grabbing me and holding me up.
“I knew you weren’t right, I said that to Henry. That’s why I came in for you. You’re as white as a sheet.”
She leads me to a chair and I see the hotel receptionist walking towards us both, concerned glances between him and Mary. Water is brought.
I’m not sure if it’s alcohol on an empty stomach or whether it’s the shock of seeing him again. Perhaps both. I sit for a while as the room sways around me. I try to focus on the carpet, but the repeated pattern makes it hard for my eyes to keep still. I close them.
Henry is here now, along with George and this new Jeremy, all standing looking down at me, looking concerned. Mary’s still holding onto my arm. She is sisterly but never having had a sibling, I don’t recognise it as that.
George appears to be organising everyone. Fussing.
“Taxi . . . take her home Henry, that’s the man. Bit of fresh air . . . I know, I know, never mind. There’ll be other nights . . .”
And then I’m in the taxi with Henry and we’re both staring out of opposite windows. I turn to look at him and he turns his head towards me. He smiles and takes my hand over the expanse of the taxi’s back seat. He holds onto my hand as the taxi travels down the Mound, over Princes Street, and through the New Town, down to our street in Trinity.
“Did you organise the taxi?” I ask Henry as he folds the requested receipt into his wallet.
“George did . . . thought you looked a bit ropey.” He smiles absentmindedly as he holds the taxi door open, offering his other hand to help me out.
Henry deals with the babysitter as I climb the stairs, listening to him ask how the boys have been, and reassuring her that I’ll be fine.
I lie on my back in bed in the dark, Henry is beside me now, his back turned to me as he makes little in and out breathing sounds. Not quite snoring, but nearly. I pretend to be asleep but feel wide awake.
I try to push the thought of him out of my mind, but it keeps sliding back in. Making me look at it. Making me feel it. It stands now right in the middle of my mind as I replay the scene in the foyer of the hotel. I see him again, it was him, I know that. I allow myself to think back to that time. I allow myself to remember what it had all felt like when I had a father.
I sleep longer in the morning, Henry has dealt with the boys. By the time I leave the house to make the walk to the bus stop, the sun has made a fire of the sky. A strange red sky: pink and orange and vermilion, casting flames and light on the horizon to the north of the river. Boiling and biblical. The beauty of these sunrises and sunsets mesmerise me.
As the bus trundles up through Edinburgh’s New Town, I enjoy the rare treat of a window seat, my satchel between my feet. The man next to me seems unaware of the mystical beauty of the sky inferno to his right as he taps into his phone, humphing and tutting as he does so. I’m familiar with these noises and the hemmed in feeling that accompanies them. Coats and brollies and scarves taking up more of the available space as the year progresses. I spend much time on this bus, watching my fellow passengers rarely lifting their heads long enough to look at what’s going on around them: reading, texting, listening to music with eyes closed, heads down, unaware.
I use this time for thinking. Every day, a precious half hour on the way to work and half an hour back. If I’m lucky there’s a delay. I enjoy the fact that nothing is required of me on these journeys.
I think more about last night, about the glimpse of him as he got into his taxi, about the shock it gave me, like a jolt of electricity coursing through me, stunning me.
My mobile phone makes its familiar pinging sound, urging me back to the present. It’s Henry.
“Will have to work late tonight. Forgot to mention it. Hope OK?”
I reply. Telling him not to worry, I’m fine and on my way to work.
Most days follow the same pattern: Walk to bus; travel to work; get off bus; walk to office; spend long hours sorting out everyone else’s work-related issues and smoothing over potential problems; try to remember what my own job entails and fit some of that in; finish work; walk to bus; travel home; Make dinner; eat dinner; make sure the boys have done their homework; sort clothes out for next day; go to bed; think.
When my work day is done, I shut down my computer and switch off the lights, closing my office door behind me. Today has been a workday no different to any other. And for that I am glad.
His arrival had been anticipated for several months. The supposition and intrigue grew with each passing week. A new boss who everyone had an opinion on before his arrival. A new boss so far removed from me that I didn’t even listen to the gossip, or bother forming an opinion on it. I was too busy. Too caught up in the little daily dramas of my own life, lost school uniforms, whose turn it is to make dinner, whose turn it is to do the weekly shop, my family, my research, my teaching. My job contained no management responsibilities that would tie me into a structure where he would be my line manager, nothing that would impact on me or cause me to worry. I was too lowly an academic for that. Too new.
Colleagues, nearer the top of the food chain performed Google searches and spoke to professors they’d met once at some conference or other, in a part of the world that took three flights to get to, to get the gen on this man who would now have such influence of their lives.
The news wasn’t good they informed anyone who would listen, he liked change, he would want to do new things that would make work uncertain. He would ask questions that would be difficult to answer without incriminating yourself. Their academic freedom might be impinged.
Then he arrived, and the jostling started in earnest. The announcement came from the Principal of the University herself, a diktat from on high welcoming him and presenting him to us. She told us he would “be what the department needed.” Some took that as a welcome statement, others read it as the warning it was meant to be. We weren’t invited to comment.
Colleagues requested meetings with him, vying for his attention. Praise. Getting in before anybody else to tell him how wonderful they were, and how central to the running of the department. How well respected their research was.
I stayed away. There was no need for me to talk to him, impress him, ask anything of him. I was there, doing my job, well I was told. I figured it was best to keep my head down.