Emma was early for work. She was always early. Thomas paid her extra for opening up and preparing the small locale for the day’s business. Emma was grateful, she needed the money and she welcomed anything that kept her away from home. She didn’t mind the work either. It was simple, methodical, like checking items off a list. Emma liked lists, she found them soothing and they kept her mind from going too many places at once, as it sometimes did.

Check that all the dishes had been washed the previous day. Check. Throw out any leftovers. Check. Sign for the day’s grocery deliveries and make sure everything was put in the right place. Check and check. Tony was delivering than morning. Emma liked him; he always arranged everything neatly on the shelves, so she didn’t have to rearrange it once he left. Resupply the bathrooms with paper towels – Alice always forgot about the paper towels. Check.

Emma glanced at the digital clock that hung on the wall – 7:51 it proclaimed in sullen grey digits. She frowned slightly. She usually finished her list at 7:50. It bothered her when she didn’t, anxiety crawling up her spine like a malevolent spider. She shook herself. It would be alright. In a few minutes, Alex would arrive and she would feel better. Alex always made her feel better. She closed her eyes and imagined him walking in the sullen London weather, the collar of his coat raised against the wind, fine droplets of water clinging to his hair and the familiar bounce in his step.

7:55. Any moment, he would walk in. His bus arrived at 7:52 and it took him about three minutes to walk to work. Alex was never late, he would be here any moment. Emma closed her eyes again and focused on her breathing. In, out; in, out. She heard the door open and loosed a relieved breath.

“Alright, Em?”

The voice was wrong, it was too high. Emma felt a coil of dread form in her stomach. She forced herself to open her eyes. It wasn’t Alex that stood in the doorway, it was Alice. Alice was never this early. Her cheeks were flushed with the cold and she was snapping shut her pink umbrella. Emma’s eyes darted to the clock – 7:57. Alex should have been here.

“Em? Hellooooo?” Alice sounded a little upset. Alice always got upset when she wasn’t given attention immediately.

“Hello, Alice.” Emma forced the words out and was grateful that they sounded normal. 7:58. Where was he? “You’re early.” She said, trying to distract herself. People were late sometimes, it happened. Maybe the traffic had been bad.

“Yeah, I thought I’d come in early and help you set up.” Alice said brightly.

“I don’t need help.” Emma regretted her words as soon as they had left her mouth. Alice looked upset again and she knew she had been rude. But it was the truth. She didn’t need her help and she didn’t want it either. She liked doing it by herself so she knew it was done right. “I’ve already finished.” She added, hoping that would pacify Alice. It did.

“Well, then we can chat, just us girls.” She sat down next to Emma. 8:00. “So, remember Stephen? He turned out to be a complete weirdo. Again. So I have officially sworn off men. Forever.” Emma smiled weakly, but Alice continued, seeming not to notice. “I will drop out of Uni and become a nun.” She proclaimed. “I mean, can you believe he has…”

Emma tuned her out and glanced at the clock again. 8:02. A man was walking towards the door. It wasn’t Alex, she could tell even from a distance. He didn’t have Alex’s graceful gait. The man walked in and came up to the counter.

“Good morning, how may we help?” asked Alice pleasantly, smiling at the man.

“Coffee, please. Black, with loads of sugar.” The man said while tapping something on his phone.

Emma started preparing the order, grateful she had something to do. Making coffee was Alice’s job. Emma worked back in the kitchen even though she hated cooking. It was where Alex worked though, so she didn’t mind as much. But now she needed something to keep her busy, to keep her from staring at the clock expectantly and keep the disappointment from consuming her.

The coffee machine whirred familiarly and Emma tapped a light tattoo as she waited for it to finish. Tap-tap-tap-tap. It let out a soft beep, signaling that the coffee was ready. Emma added sugar, placed the plastic lid on and handed the styrofoam cup to the man.

“Thank you.” The man said, grabbing the coffee and tossing a £5 note on the counter without waiting for Emma to log in his order. He left without waiting for change.

Emma fought the urge to look at the time. She would check after she billed the order and put the change away. By then, maybe Alex would be here. She would look up from the cash register to see him walk in, hands in his pockets and hair tousled by the wind.

The coffee had been £3.20. She took the change out of the cash register and put it in her pocket, carefully keeping the clock out of her line of sight. Emma heard the door open and her head snapped around to see who had come in. She felt disappointment like a physical blow when she saw Nader. She looked at the clock, unable to stop herself. 8:09.

“Oh. My. God.” Alice whispered from behind Emma. “He is so much hotter with rain-dampened hair.”

Emma didn’t really understand Alice’s infatuation with Nader. He was handsome, it was true, with hair that gleamed like polished ebony and eyes so black you couldn’t distinguish the iris from the pupil. He was nice enough too, Emma liked him, but he seemed boring to her. He never said anything interesting, never understood clever jokes.

“I thought you’d sworn off men.” She whispered back to Alice, who sighed dramatically.

“That was before I remembered how delicious he is. Now, watch and learn.” She said and went to greet Nader with a smile.

Alice was pretty. She had thick hair that she dyed burgundy and warm, brown eyes. She was curvy and quite heavy, but it suited her somehow. It was part of her and it was obvious from Nader’s answering smile, that it did nothing to diminish the appeal of her body. Emma had always regarded Alice’s ability to make herself appealing to the other sex half with admiration and half with contempt.

Emma was pretty too, she knew. She had eyes the coulour of a stormy sea and a delicate face framed by long, light brown hair. She may not have had Alice’s breasts, but she liked her body, toned and almost graceful. Still, men never looked at her the way they did at Alice. It must have been more than just the way she looked, Emma concluded as she watched Alice say something conspiratorially to Nader and lightly touch his arm. He smiled at her and she smiled back and giggled.

Emma retreated to the kitchen. At least there, she wouldn’t be within constant view of the door. There was a clock in the kitchen as well, so that couldn’t be helped. 8:15. The numbers were like little pebbles dropping in her already laden stomach. Stop it, Emma! Just stop. You’re being ridiculous. She told herself. She knew it was true, but it didn’t matter.

“English Breakfast, no beans.” Announced Alice, popping her head in the kitchen.

8:17. First real order of the day. At least she had something to do. She placed the bacon in the pan and let the cooking routine distract her. The smell of bacon and eggs was mouth watering and she added an extra slice of bacon for herself. Thomas didn’t mind. He was a kind man and he knew that they always had plenty left at the end of the day that they would have to throw out. The kitchen door opened suddenly.

“Good morning, Emma!” Alex said a little breathlessly.

Emma smiled, and for the first time that day, it wasn’t forced. “Good morning!” she replied.

“So sorry I’m late.” He said, dumping the eggs on the plate she had prepared and taking it to the front. As he walked by her, Emma could smell his familiar scent. Soapy and fragrant, but unobtrusive. Not like Nader’s scent, that was sweet and strong and filled the entire room, so she felt like he was everywhere, crowding her. It was a nice, confident scent, friendly and soothing – just like Alex. Over it, she could smell rain and London and something else – faint, but undeniably there. She didn’t like it.

“Everything alright?” Emma asked when he walked back into the kitchen.

“Yeah, yeah.” He said, smiling his polite smile. “Just over-slept.”

Alex was always so polite. Always a smile on his lips, always friendly, always knew the right thing to say. It was one of the things Emma didn’t like about him. Or as close to not liking something about him as she could get. She was never sure whether their friendship was entirely due to his politeness or if he actually liked her too. Sometimes, she felt like he did and then other times, she felt like he was merely putting up with her. In fairness, that’s how she usually felt about everyone – she found it hard to imagine people genuinely liking her – but with Alex, it hurt. She had learned indifference; she had studied it and made it her constant companion. She had nurtured it when it was weak and dedicated hours and hours to it. When it came to Alex, she was not indifferent. Not at all, despite her efforts to the contrary. 

Published by Romana Pop