He arched his back, closed his eyes and released a guttural moan of satisfaction. Once the trembling stopped, he smiled and opened his eyes.
“Better?” Marian asked, watching him curiously.
“Much,” Steven said, rubbing the small of his back. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“One of my exes was a chiropractor,” Marian explained, twitching a takeaway cup that was slightly askew. “I was only with him eight weeks, but I picked up a few things.”
Steven was impressed. In the past he’d never had trouble with his back. However, sleeping on a settee for three months soon changed that. Where there had once been a lightning bolt every time he reached for a coffee cup, was now just the lightest twinge. He gave his hips an experimental twist, a smile spreading across his face. “Remarkable,” he murmured.
“What you need,” Marian said, returning to her pile of dirty mugs, “is a proper bed. When are you moving out of your daughter’s place?”
He gave a little shrug. “Once everything is sorted out with the wife,” Steven explained, “then I’ll move out.”
“Sorted?” Marian asked, raising a knowing eyebrow. “And just what is your definition of ‘sorted’?”
Steven looked at her innocently. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Marian snorted. “Sure.” She picked up the tray of used cutlery and then shuffled out from behind the counter. With another all-knowing glance over her shoulder, Marian disappeared into the staff-only zone of the coffee shop. An area Steven Mangle never thought he’d come to know. He also never thought he’d come to know the discomfort of living on his daughter’s sofa. His life was now full of things he had never hoped to become acquainted with. It was all rather a steep learning curve.
Rubbing the small of his back, and marvelling at the lack of pain greeting such an action, Steven turned to face his nemesis. The coffee machine at his last job had been a placid, well-liked little machine. It had been a simple process of putting your mug under the spout and then pressing a button. Sure, the result may have tasted a little burnt, and more often than not you’d find a small mound of granules at the bottom of the cup. But that was a price Steven had been willing to pay for the briskness the machine offered. This behemoth facing him now, however, was another beast entirely. Spouts and nozzles of all shapes greeted him. Buttons galore stared at him like beady eyes. And there were more jugs and cups than Steven had thought existed. Nearly two months he’d been working at this café, and so far, he had managed to make approximately one and a half decent cups of Americano coffee. Steven considered this a minor miracle.
Steven span around, welcoming smile at the ready. The grin broadened as he saw his daughter standing at the counter, adjusting the strap around her shoulder. She was looking at him guiltily. “Hello, sweetie,” he said, throwing a dish-rag over his shoulder. He always saw it done by barmen on TV. He wasn’t in a bar, but he was sure the effect was just as impressive. “You off?”
Annie nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m just off to the station now. To pick up . . . mum.”
He didn’t even wince. Why would he? Annie had warned him weeks ago that she was coming today. Even when he first heard the news he hadn’t been affected. He would have been more distressed if he heard she wasn’t coming. It was more than a little annoying that Annie was treading so warily around the subject.
“I see,” he said, nodding. “Well, drive safely now.”
“I will,” Annie said. “You won’t be late, will you?”
“Am I ever?” Steven said with a chuckle.
His daughter smiled at this. “I’ll see you later,” she said.
Steven waved her goodbye, then watched as she strolled out of the door. He shook his head. He didn’t like to see her get into that car and drive away. He knew just how bad a driver she was. Steven would have blamed her instructor, only that role had been his. He had been sure, back in the day, that he was an excellent teacher. Of course, he had been sure about a lot of things back in the day. Shaking his head free of all thoughts of the past, he turned towards his new nemesis.
A polite cough caused him to turn back. “Rhys!” he exclaimed. “How are you? We just can’t seem to get rid of you!”
“I’m good thanks,” the young man said with a sheepish smile.
“Good to hear,” Steven said with a determined nod. “Annie was telling me you’d been having some trouble recently?”
Rhys turned a beetroot-red and began shifting awkwardly. “She – she told you that, did she?”
“Oh – well, erm . . .” Steven reeled back. Even he could sense the minefield into which he had just stepped. Now it was whether or not he could walk back out. “I mean – she talked, yes, but – but I can’t say I was listening! Ha, ha. You know what it’s like with women. They start yammering on, and something in our brains just switch off!” He let off a little laugh, before bolting away towards a safer topic. “Nervous for tonight?”
Rhys shrugged. “A bit, sure,” he answered. “Not really trying to think about it, honestly.”
“I couldn’t do it,” Steven said, shaking his head. “I got nervous enough delivering a presentation to five or six of my co-workers! Standing up in front of hundreds of people – strangers?! For hours on end, and with no one to rely on if things go wrong? Nope. Not for me.”
The young man stared at him, his complexion now a sickly white. “As I said,” he murmured, “trying not to think about it.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“Actually, we’ve got a rehearsal soon,” Rhys said. “So, could I grab a latte to go?”
Steven’s smile stiffened as his eyes slid towards the coffee machine. “A latte . . . sure,” he said. “And that one is . . .?”
“I’ll just do it myself.” Without waiting to hear Steven’s stammered response, Rhys slipped behind the counter. “You know,” he said, pouring out a generous portion of milk, “You might want to learn how to use this machine if you want to keep working here.”
The older man shrugged with a small smile. “To be honest,” he said, starting to absently wipe some coffee cups, “this is only temporary until I sort things with . . .” His face suddenly reddened. “Anyway, it’s just temporary.”
Rhys nodded, waiting for the coffee to pour out. “Yeah, Annie told me you’d been having trouble with your wife.”
“She told you that?!”
“Oh, she talked,” Rhys said, looking pointedly at Steven. “But you know what it’s like with us when women start talking.”
Steven shifted awkwardly, turning his reddening face away. “Point taken,” he murmured.
With a small smirk of victory, the young barista poured the milk into the coffee and swiftly affixed the lid. “Annie told me you’d already signed the divorce papers,” he suddenly added.
Steven’s eyes widened with panic. “Ah – yes, well, about that –” He began to anxiously fiddle with the coffee cup, spinning it between his fingers so quickly it nearly shot out and shattered on the floor. “Annie seems . . . she’s just taken the whole thing rather hard,” he explained, placing the cup back to a place of safety. “She seems to think that the whole thing is her mum’s fault!”
“She did leave you,” Rhys pointed out.
“Yes,” Steven admitted awkwardly. “But, I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding.” Rhys gave him a look, a look Steven tried not to notice.
“So, if you haven’t signed the paper,” Rhys went on, “what have you done with it?”
“It’s – um – well, I actually threw it away,” Steven admitted guiltily. “I knew that, if I just tried to hide it somewhere, Annie would instantly find it and have a go at me. Again.”
The younger man paused for a moment, staring thoughtfully at his steaming coffee. “Do you really think you can win her back?”
The senior Mangle shot Rhys a broad smile. “One can always hope!”
And that seemed to be that. Raising his eyebrows, Rhys turned away from Steven, biting down the comment that sprang to his lips. Oblivious to this, Steven turned to the one task he had some skill at: cleaning the coffee machine.
“What the hell are you doing back there?!”
Both men shot up with fear as Marian materialised in front of the counter. Though at five-foot-five she shouldn’t have inspired much terror, the pair turned pale at the sight of the woman’s flushed cheeks and pinpoint glare.
“I do work here, you know,” Rhys tried to mumble.
“Today’s your day off,” Marian snapped. “That means for today you’re one of the rabble, and none of the rabble are allowed behind my counter! Now, get out!”
Rhys’ feet barely touched the floor as he bolted away from the coffee machine and away from Marian’s fury. Watching the young man flee brought a small smirk to her lips, a smile that vanished when she rounded on Steven.
“You!” she snapped, suddenly storming behind the counter, blocking his path of escape. “What have I told you about turning your phone off? Hmm?”
“But – I don’t have my phone on me!”
“I know that!” the woman snapped, slapping him with a towel. “But the damn thing’s been ringing in your locker! My relaxing herbal tea isn’t going to work if I have to drink it whilst listening to Bon bloody Jovi!”
“Ah,” Steven said, his face reddening at the sound of his hero being slighted. “Sorry about that.”
Marian gave him a studied glare, then pulled his phone out of her pinnie. She chucked it to him, barely restraining a smile at seeing him struggle to catch it. “Seemed like it might have been important,” she said.
Steven frowned and glanced down at the call-history list. The frown deepened as he saw the name listed more than half-a-dozen times. “No,” he said, tucking the phone into his back pocket. “It’s not.”
“My old office.”
“Your old office?” Marian said. “What did you do? Steal the photocopier?”
“What? No! Why would you think that?”
She gave a disinterested shrug. “It’s the only reason my old job used to call me when I left.” Marian ignored Steven’s questioning glance, and instead gave her display a careful tweak. “Doesn’t your daughter have a show tonight?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” Steven said. “It’s her first paid gig,” he added, glowing with vicarious pride.
The woman nodded disinterestedly. “Well, why don’t you serve the next customer and then you can call it a day.”
“Will do, boss.”
Marian spared him a nod and then retreated back to the seclusion of the staff room. Steven became aware that he was staring after her. He gave himself a quick shake, and then glance down at his mobile. He’d thought those calls had ended already. One of these days he’d find himself answering, and then what would he do?
Steven looked up, pleasing grin prepared, and came face-to-face with his soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law, Daniel.
Daniel’s eyebrows rose a fraction as he took in Steven’s apron, short-sleeved T-shirt, and name badge that read: ‘Ask me about our special blend!’
“Hello, Daniel,” Steven said chipperly.
“You know,” Daniel said slowly, “I always thought you were lying about that marketing firm.”
Steven chuckled. “No, no,” he said, “I chucked that in.”
“And entered the high-stakes, cutthroat world of coffee making?”
He laughed again. Daniel could always make him laugh. “It’s not that,” Steven said. “Though,” he went on, “Marian can be a bit of a demon if you mess with her coffee cup display.”
Daniel glanced briefly at the famous display. “I see,” he murmured.
“So, when did you get here?” Steven asked.
“Just now,” Daniel answered. “I got the train in.”
“Really? You must have got the same train as Donna!” His brother-in-law nodded. Steven shifted awkwardly. “How – how is she?”
“She’s fine,” Daniel said with a shrug. He gave Steven another studied glance. “I would ask how you are,” he said, “but I think that answer’s pretty obvious.”
“Oh, I’m doing great!” Steven said. “Back in the old home town, spending some quality time with Annie, honestly, I should have done it years ago!”
“Well – I mean – I didn’t mean that,” Steven stammered. “Look, about me and Donna and –”
Daniel held up a hand, silencing his sister’s husband. “Steven,” he said, “Let me give you the same advice I gave Donna.”
“None,” Daniel stated. “I want nothing to do with whatever’s going on between you two. It’s none of my business, and I want it to stay that way.”
“Ah,” Steven said. “I guess that’s understandable.”
“What I also want,” Daniel continued, “is a coffee.”
“What sort?” Steven asked suspiciously.
Daniel rolled his eyes. “Just a regular old coffee.”
This made the new barista beam. “Now, that I can do!” As he started preparing the simple beverage, he continued to throw remarks over his shoulder towards his obviously uninterested brother-in-law.
“So, what brings you back to Chaffley-on-Sea?” he asked.
“Hmm?” Daniel said, looking up from his phone.
“What drags you back to our neck of the woods?” Steven asked again, jumping back as the hot water spluttered into life.
“Annie’s show,” Daniel said automatically.
Steven frowned. “Really? It’s a charity show.”
“And? I’m a very charitable person.”
“I meant that it was a private event,” Steven explained. “It’s for invited guests only.”
“Well,” Daniel said sourly, “looks like I was invited then, doesn’t it?”
The barista only had to squirm for a couple of seconds before Rhys fortunately reappeared. His eyes shifted awkwardly from left to right, keeping careful watch for Marian’s vengeful return.
“Rhys!” Steven exclaimed with relief. “I thought you were heading to rehearsals?”
“I was – I am,” the young man spluttered. “I just forgot my coffee.”
With a cheerful smile, Steven plucked up the abandoned latte and handed it over. “Rhys,” he said, holding the young man from retreating. “I’d like you to meet Annie’s uncle, Mr Daniel Fayne.” Rhys gave Daniel a nervous wave. “And, Daniel, I’d like you to meet Rhys; he’s in Annie’s band.”
“I’m overjoyed to have been a part of this,” Daniel said, his tone cold enough to cause an extinction.
“I’m guessing you’re Annie’s mum’s brother?” Rhys said, attempting a chuckle to thaw the mood.
“But you mustn’t think that’s the reason for his attitude,” Steven said. “Daniel’s miserable like this all the time.”
“Around you anyway,” Daniel murmured, staring at his mobile. “You got my sister pregnant, strong-arming her into marrying you.”
Steven reeled at this announcement. There wasn’t the usual bitterness to be found in Daniel’s voice. He was simply stating a fact, one that cut sharper than any of the sarcastic remarks he’d made over the decades. “That’s – that’s not why we got married,” Steven said, glancing at an awkwardly shifting Rhys.
“Oh, my mistake,” Daniel said sourly. “It’s because you were the only boy in town with a bike, and she just found you irresistible when riding it.”
“You had a motorbike?” Rhys asked, attempting to steer himself away from the uncomfortable family moment.
Steven shook his head. “It was a BMX,” he explained. “Still have it, actually.” He turned his attention back to the indifferent Daniel. “Sure, Annie coming along played a part in us getting married, but, if anything, it just sped up what was always going to happen!” He began to turn red and felt the sweat begin to prickle behind his ears. “I loved Donna! That’s why I wanted to marry her!”
“I’m not saying you didn’t!”
“If she didn’t love me, then why did she stay with me all these years?!” Steven froze as he realised all eyes were on him. Without realising it, he had been raising his voice. He caught a glimpse of himself in the back-mirror and was shocked to see a flush-faced, wild-haired man staring back at him. He coughed awkwardly, patted down his hair, and then shot Rhys an apologetic grin. “Things will turn out all right in the end,” he murmured. “They usually do.”
“What?” Daniel asked, sniggering as he looked up. “You think you’re going to win her back?”
“It’s not a case of winning her back,” Steven argued. “I just need to remind her of what she’s throwing away!”
“How are you going to do that?” Daniel asked. “I know you’ve tried calling her. I know you’ve sent her messages on Facebook, email, you even joined Twitter to try and talk to her!”
“There’s always the charity gig tonight,” Rhys said quietly.
Daniel shot him an acidic look. “Oh, yes, and how’s that going to help?” he asked. “You going to sing a romantic hit from the eighties and hope they slow-dance their way back into love?”
The young man shrunk under Daniel’s furnace like gaze. “I was just saying . . .”
“Maybe Donna just needs to see how happy I am!” Steven said, his face glowing with sudden inspiration.
“How’s she going to do that?” Daniel asked, taking in Steven’s rumpled barista shirt and greying hair. “You know she hasn’t got much of an imagination.”
“You just watch,” Steven said with a self-important smirk. He then gave the pair a businessman-like nod, and marched out from behind the counter and towards the staff-room. The pair watched him go with pitying looks.
The staff lounge was a dusty old room which, according to the floor-plans, was originally a store-room. The furniture consisted of three collapsible lawn chairs, an upside-down crate that served as a coffee table, and a microwave with ‘Property of Ahmed’ stickered across the side. None of the current staff knew who Ahmed was. Six bruise-coloured lockers lined the far wall, only two of which had locks that worked. Marian stood at one of these and turned the key. She looked up as she heard Steven closing the door.
“Finished?” she asked, her eyebrows crooked slightly.
“You said –”
Remembrance bloomed in her eyes. “Ah,” she said. “That’s right.” Her head suddenly snapped up. “Who’s manning the counter?”
Steven felt a pang of panic seize his heart. “Rhys is there –”
Marian shook her head. “Does that idiot never go home?”
“I think he’s just lonely,” Steven said with a shrug. “He’s been having some problems recently.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “You men and your problems,” she murmured. He was about to respond when the first chords of ‘Living on a Prayer’ began to sound from his apron. He snatched the mobile up and glanced down at the caller ID, already knowing who it was going to be.
“Something tells me,” Marian said, stripping off her shirt, completely uninterested in the fact that Steven was only metres away, “that they’re not going to stop until you answer.”
Steven considered this point, and then promptly hung up. “Maybe,” he murmured.
After pulling a fresh t-shirt over her head, she gave Steven a considered look. It was one he didn’t really like. It was so unlike her customary scowl that he began to think he’d done something wrong. “You quit your old job and decided to come work in this dingy old café?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, fiddling nervously with the phone. “I wouldn’t say that I left my old job in order to come here,” he explained. “I’m only doing this so I can help pay towards my daughter’s rent.”
“The one who’s sofa you’re sleeping on,” Marian said.
“That’s right,” he said. “This is only temporary.”
“Until you ‘sort things out’ with your wife?”
“Exactly,” Steven said with a confident nod.
That’s when the look came. It crept onto Marian’s face with the inevitability of an avalanche. Steven felt the groan creep up his throat. He knew that look. He hated that look. He had seen it on the faces of Daniel and Rhys, he had seen it on the faces of his co-workers the day he quit, and he saw it every day on his daughter’s face. Steven braced himself for the question that always followed.
“I respect that,” she said with a nod.
Steven reeled back, his mouth dropping open.
“Not the waiting for things to sort out with your wife,” Marian quickly added. “I think you’re an idiot if you think that’s happening. But changing the old routine? Trying something new? Taking a risk?! How can I not respect that?”
He stood there gaping like a fish as he tried to digest the information dumped on him. “I did a similar thing,” Marian went on. This was the most he’d ever heard her speak, and it was hypnotic. “I used to work in the accounts department for a cushion factory.” A frosty glaze overtook her face. “The worst eight months of my life. So, I packed it all in, and decided to just set off.”
“Everywhere,” Marian answered. “Anywhere! I’m only here until I make enough to move onto the next place. The loft I’m renting is dirt cheap, so I should be free in the next couple of months.”
“Do you enjoy it?” Steven asked. “The – the insecurity?”
She considered this for a moment. “Everything’s uncertain,” she said finally. “If you think you’ve got your life sorted, at any point, you’ve just closed your eyes. Take your marriage, for example. I bet you thought you were on solid ground there.”
Steven winced. As if she could know, he thought to himself. She made it sound as if he should have seen it coming! But, how could he? They’d been happy. There had been no arguments, there had been no suspicions, it had just been . . . normal. He’d just been having breakfast one morning, and had made a simple remark about the weather, when suddenly Donna had announced the ending of their marriage. Steven, so shocked, had spilt his spoonful of Shreddies into his lap. Who could have seen it coming? But maybe that was it. Perhaps he was the only one who hadn’t seen it coming.
What if those pitying looks weren’t for someone who’s had their whole life turned upside down, but for someone who’s only just had their eyes opened to reality. Had Daniel always known? Had his colleagues known? Had his boss known? The day he handed in his notice, the look had been in his eyes as well. Did they really see him as Steven the Blind Fool?
He gave himself a shake. No, he decided. Annie had been just as shocked as he had. She was a smart girl, if anything was happening, she would have twigged months ago. They had been happy, and they could be happy again. He just had to wait for Donna to get through . . . whatever it was she was going through. And he had just the plan to help.
“There’s this event I’m going to,” Steven said, his voice cracking slightly.
“I know,” Marian said, giving him a smouldering look.
“Only,” he went on, loosening his top button, “I have an extra ticket and . . . well, I was . . . I was wondering –”
Marian held up a hand. “Are you going to invite me in some cliched attempt to make your wife jealous and realise what a good thing she’s throwing away?”
The man reeled. “Um . . .” he said, wondering what words would help him. “There’ll be an open bar?”
“I’m in,” she said with no hesitation.
Steven was beginning to wonder if the plan was quite as ingenious as he had first thought. He’d been here half-an-hour already and there was still no sign of Donna.
Marian, on the other hand, well there was plenty of her to sight. Usually, at work, Steven saw her simply as a five-foot-five, maroon-headed, walking bundle of frenetic energy that was usually directed towards inspiring fear into the hearts of as many people as possible. Tonight, however, by simply replacing her barista uniform with a body-hugging black dress, she was inspiring whole new feelings in the man.
She stared at the drink in her hand, her eyebrow raised critically. “You know,” she said, “considering that Lucas is a notorious tight-arse, this whisky’s not too bad.”
He stared at his own drink. The orange juice was just orange juice. He glanced again at his watch and then at the doors. The hall was well over half-full, yet Steven had placed himself in a position that gave him an unobstructed view of the door. Of course, what was obstructed, was his view of the stage and his daughter. But she sounded excellent.
“She’s late,” Marian said in an off-handed way that cut to Steven’s bones.
“She’s always late,” he remarked, trying to sound nonchalant. The redness in his face betrayed that ruse.
“Didn’t you say this was Annie’s first gig?”
“You know,” Marian said, “if you want to make your wife jealous, her walking in to find you dancing with another woman might help?”
“You – you think?”
Marian took his hand, placed her drink down on a table, and smiled. “Only one way to find out.”
And so, stepping out from behind the pillar, Marian led Steven onto the dance-floor. Ten minutes later Steven led Marian off the dance-floor, she had one hand clasped over her eye.
“I am so sorry,” Steven said, panicked sweat dripping down his nose.
“It’s – it’s fine,” she said. “I – I brought it on myself. I’ve never seen someone so – enthusiastic with their arms whilst dancing.”
“Sorry, I just really got into the rhythm.”
“But – it was a slow dance!” Marian exclaimed. The pair looked at one another, then burst into laughter. “I should have warned you,” Steven said with a chuckle.
“It’s all right,” Marian said. “You only got my eye, it’s the woman you slapped in the neck I’m worried about.”
“She did get me back though,” Steven said, rubbing his knee with a wince.
“I’m going to find some ice,” Marian said. “Why don’t you get us a drink?” With that, and another smile, she waded through the ever-growing crowd of people. Steven couldn’t help but watch her until she disappeared.
“What a set of legs! Am I right?”
Letting the wave of revulsion wash over him, Steven turned around. With his tanned face, his bleached teeth and his swept back hair, Lucas made a sight. A sight that made Steven’s fists curl. But, unfortunately, Annie seemed to like him. Her father swallowed the bile in his throat, and shot the used car-salesman a winning smile.
“I’m sorry?” he said.
“Where’d you find her?” Lucas asked, nodding after Marian. “Where ever it is, send me the address.” He fired out his silken laugh and clapped Steven on the shoulder. “Glad to see you’ve still got it, Steve.”
“I was getting worried you were still hung-up on your old battle-axe,” Lucas went on, ears only for his own voice. “But, guys like us, we can’t be tied down, now can we?”
“How is your fiancé?” Steven asked innocently.
Lucas responded with the exact same innocence. “Molly’s fantastic,” he said. “She should be around here somewhere.” He then noticed Steven’s empty hands. “Christ! Where’s your drink? Don’t you know it’s free? Well,” he said, nudging Steven in the ribs, “tax deductible, anyway.” He then gave another guffaw.
“I was just on my way to the bar, actually,” Steven said, listing further and further away from the boil of a man.
He froze. Every particle in his body screamed at him. How could he have forgotten? It was only ten minutes ago that she was all he could think about? Off-guard, he twisted round and flashed his wife an awkward grin. “Donna!” he said. “You’re here!”
“Traffic,” she said, matching his nervous smile. That was her usual go-to excuse. He decided to let it slide.
“I’ll let you two have your moment,” Lucas said, grinning with delight. Then, with the speed of someone who doesn’t want to miss anything juicy, he sidled away. The pair pointedly watched him go before facing one another again.
Steven cleared his throat awkwardly. “How – how are you?”
“Good,” she said.
She looked it, he thought. She obviously hadn’t had time to change; she was just wearing a pair of jeans and a plain blouse under her turquoise jacket. The one he’d bought her for Christmas. It was a simple look, but one that made him feel all the usual sensations. But her hair, now that was different. She’d curled it. It wasn’t a look she’d tried before, and he wasn’t sure if he liked it.
“And, how are you?” Donna asked.
“Oh, you know,” Steven said, shrugging. “Plodding along.”
The pair stood for a moment, stewing in the silence of people who, after severing years of being united, suddenly find themselves hurled back together. Come on, Steven thought to himself. How much have you been planning to say? How long have you been waiting for this opportunity? He looked around, his eyes scanning the myriad of faces around him. Not one of them was Marian.
“What do you think?” Donna asked, finally breaking the silence.
“About Annie,” she said, nodding towards where their daughter was currently belting out something akin to Queen.
“She’s very . . . dedicated,” Steven said.
Donna thought for a moment, and then nodded in agreement. “I always was against you getting her that guitar,” she added.
“I thought you were all for it?”
His wife shrugged. “How’s her sofa?”
Steven shifted, feeling the dull ache at the base of his spine. “Not too bad,” he said. “Should be moving out soon.”
“That’s good,” Donna said. Steven gave her a sidelong look. He knew when she wasn’t listening to him, and this was one of those times. Something was on her mind. He hoped it was something to do with him.
He cleared his throat, took a small step closer to her and tried to surreptitiously check his breath. “Donna,” he said, slowly building himself up. “Is there any chance –?”
“Do you remember Alice and John?” she suddenly asked, unaware that he had even been talking.
“Do I – what? Who?” he said, reeling. “Alice and –?”
“John. Alice and John,” Donna said. “We knew them years ago. I used to work with her at old Rayleigh’s office. Remember?”
Steven cast his mind back several decades. “Oh, oh yes,” he said quietly. He frowned. “Weren’t they the pair that couldn’t keep their hands off one another?” he added. “Damned rude, if you ask me.”
She studied him for a moment. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “I guess so.”
He turned back to her, taking a breath to prepare himself for what was coming. “Donna –”
Bon Jovi rang out from his pockets, cutting him off. He uttered a silent curse, then snatched the mobile up. He glanced again, already knowing who it would be. “I’ll let you get that,” Donna said.
Before he could hold her back, she was already drifting through the crowds. This time the curse was not silent. He looked again at the caller ID and, feeling the overwhelming urge to share what was on his mind, he pressed answer.
“Steven! Finally, darling! Where have you been?” This was not the voice he had been expecting.
“Frankie?” he exclaimed.
“That’s right, Stevie, boy,” she giggled.
“But – what about old –”
“Bert’s out, I’m afraid,” she said, with absolutely no hint of regret in her voice. “They finally chucked him out.”
“His wandering hands finally got found out?”
“Oh, no, he retired with full honours,” Frankie explained. He could hear the jangling of her earrings as she shook her head. “But, the important thing, is that you’re speaking to his replacement.”
“Really?” Steven said, a smile stretching across his face in spite of his anger. “Congratulations!”
“Save it,” she said dismissively. “I’ve had all the champagne and claps on the back I can handle this week.” Her voice suddenly took on a steely edge. This was her in business mode, and when she was like that, Frankie took no prisoners. “Remember how I used to tell you all my plans for if I ever got this job? Consider them in motion. Remember the list of names we discussed? Consider them fired! Which means . . .”
A cold weight dropped into Steven’s stomach. “What?” he said, his throat drying up.
“I need a partner,” she said, her voice sounding exasperated. “You were the best in the business, honestly, if you hadn’t upped and quit, they would have given you this job!”
“Listen, Frankie –”
“Look I know you’re going through a little . . .” She was going to use the word; Steven could hear it on the tip of her tongue. “You’re going through some stuff,” she said, swerving just in time. “But that’ll pass, and so will this opportunity! I’ve been trying to get hold of you all day because that’s as long as this offer is on the table! Get your pasty arse back home and take the job!”
“I’m not sure –”
“Aren’t you listening to me?” she barked, he could hear anger in her voice now. Had he ever sounded like that? He couldn’t remember now. “This is a golden opportunity for you to start over! More money, Stevie! Heaps! Come on, think about your future!”
He had to admit, it would be nice. No more sleeping on Annie’s lumpy sofa. No more wrangling with a coffee machine that he was sure held a vendetta against him. And, more importantly, no more feelings of insecurity about what might be down the line. Who knows, he thought, Donna might actually come back if she saw what was waiting for them back home.
Then the waves parted – or, at least, the crowd on the dance floor did. And there was Marian, strutting towards him. She’d found some ice and had wrapped it in a pink napkin that was now held against her face. There was a virulent pink welt on the side of her nose that promised, tomorrow, to become a nasty bruise.
“Frankie,” Steven said, watching the woman stride towards him, a drink in her spare hand. “I am thinking about my future.” With that, and ignoring Frankie’s furious promises, Steven hung up his phone.
“You finally answered?” Marian said, nodding to the mobile.
“Yeah,” Steven said, offering her a goofy grin.
“What’s the joke?” she asked.
“I – I have an important question to ask you,” he said.
For a moment she looked taken aback. But, after a pause, she rallied and the smile crept back onto her lips. “Fire away,” she said, her voice quiet but expectant.
“What day do the binmen usually come?”