The city spun and leant around her. Lunchtime crowds filled the pavements, elegant young women with jobs to go to and money to spend, good-looking young men with mates and mobiles. The chilled breath of air conditioning sighed out from the big shops and offices.
Stella and David fumed at the hotel manager, laughing and grumbling. Don’t you ever come back, he’d said, when they picked up their bags. It wasn’t as if they’d trashed a room or thrown a tv out the window. But the hotel only allowed two to a room and they’d been three, packed in a bed together, Beth with her back turned in stubborn sophistication while David caressed Stella’s enormous buttocks.
Beth was tired. The banter of don’t touch me, keep your hands off, I’m not doing anything, can you hear me doing anything Beth? had gone on late into the night and checkout in this cheap hotel was early. Now she felt cross with them both.
What shall we do now, asked Stella. They hadn’t come to Sydney just to sleep (or not to sleep) in a fleabitten hostel. It was sunny, there was Circular Quay to visit, the art gallery (Stella’s idea of fun, as a girl who could appreciate both slumming and the fine arts). I think we should go to the Cross again, said David, who was bad, so he felt. We should go and see a peep show. That’s too expensive, said Stella, and anyway, you’ve been peeping at us all night. I could steal someone’s card, said David, I’ve done it before.
Have you really? asked Beth. She hadn’t met many thieves before. David was also a would-be mass murderer, at least so he said, and she hadn’t met many of those either. He seemed nice enough though. Stella’s tame criminal mastermind.
Yes, said David, but sometimes I use my friends’ cards to buy things, don’t I Stella.
How? asked Beth again. Stella laughed at David’s boastfulness, proud of him.
I’m a genius. I can remember any number, give me any number, I can remember it. I learn all my friends’ pin numbers and then I memorise them, it just stays in there – he tapped his gingery forehead – for ever. Tell me your pin number and I’ll memorise it – doesn’t matter how long it is. I won’t use it though.
Sometime maybe, said Beth. She was getting sick of their company, and hungry too. She had a strong feeling suddenly that she didn’t want to be here, with them, having this conversation about stolen credit cards and angry managers. The sun and the strangers made it all worse.
I have to go, she said, there’s someone I have to see.
Who, asked Stella, stopping dead, and David like a lean mastiff at her side.
Just someone I used to know.
Can we come?
Better not. It’s, you know..
A private thing, guessed David, smirking, and Stella smiled you go girl though she didn’t want Beth to leave, it was fun baiting her innocence.
Ok well I guess I’ll see you later then, and Beth made her apologies abruptly and turned on her heel, hiding herself from their teasing following eyes in the stream of people. Sick at heart, such a good term and so true, was what she was.
She got herself a coffee and a donut and walked down towards Liverpool Street, where she’d used to work, long ago, when Sydney was her home town. She wondered if he’d still be there. He used to be kind to her. That was when she was a shy filing clerk with no one to talk to but him. Now, of course, she was much changed. Shy no longer, beautiful and desirable, he would look at her and perhaps want to take her out. He would marvel at how different she was. She wondered if he was married. She’d never asked him.
She went to the floor marked Personnel, to the receptionist sitting behind her smooth clean circular desk, typing.
Can I help you, asked the woman, middle-aged, neutral like the walls. Beth felt like an exotic butterfly.
I was wondering if I could speak to Roger. Does he still work here?
He certainly does, and she sat down to wait, and wait, in the cream plush chair in front of the desk, with people coming in from the lifts and walking past into the forbidden doors.
He came, and she stood up. It was immediately clear that he didn’t remember her. He stood there half smiling, still the same little soft beard and moustache, a sensitive man, politely nonplussed.
I’m Beth, she said, remember we used to work together, three years ago?
Beth, he said, oh yes…you used to write to me, didn’t you.
Well yes, she said, and to other people I guess…
You used to write to Eric, he said. Eric liked your letters, he said they were interesting.
She knew he was saying that he didn’t think so.
That was a while ago, she said. When I went overseas. I came back and I’ve been at uni for a year and…
You should go and see Eric, suggested Roger, coolly. Eric always liked getting those letters.
Those letters, posted when she was so lonely, posted from parks in the evening full of chattering strangers, and hostels where everyone else knew so much about life, she felt like one of the flowerpot men. No one to tell all these things to, but Roger, and Eric of course, and Mum and Dad, but she couldn’t tell them because they were flowerpot men too.
I was wondering if you wanted to have a coffee, Beth said, conscious of the receptionist typing away, her eyes looking and not looking, thinking things no doubt, with a little grim smile. It was like performing on a stage with just the two actors, and one audience member, who already knew the ending.
It’s been a long time, said Roger. I don’t have time, really, I’m quite busy. He looked at his watch. It was ten thirty. She hadn’t thought of that, in her bohemian fantasy.
Oh, ok, never mind, I’d better go then. She wanted to weep then, but that wasn’t in the play. None of this was, come to think of it.
But you could go and see Eric, he said encouragingly. Eric likes you, I’m sure he’d like that. He looked at his watch again. Eric is on the fifth floor I think, isn’t he Shirley?
Oh, yes, I think he is, said Shirley, quickly, looking back to her typing again, she wasn’t the type of audience to want to participate in the scene, but curious anyway. She felt sorry for the girl, in her tarty rags. Some kind of stalker, evidently. The corners of her lips were indented, though, she could see the funny side. Poor Roger.
Beth smiled and said that she might go to see Eric. She wouldn’t, because what if Eric had forgotten her too, and anyway, it was Roger she liked, with his kindness and mouse-like facial hair.
How was the secret lover, asked Stella, back at uni. David had gone off for a spot of armed robbery, or so he implied. Good, said Beth. And how would Stella, with her prettiness, her wantedness, ever understand? That Beth was not beautiful, not interesting – in short, not changed at all? But if she didn’t tell Stella, she would never know – she might guess of course. Let her guess. Pretty boring really, added Beth, I won’t bother next time. And she didn’t.
Rose is the author of Deeper (a dark modern fantasy based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid) and A Warm Wind.