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As Lorna wiped the condensation from the taxi window the moisture seeped through the tissue and chilled her fingertips. Outside, all humanity hurried to unknown destinations, muffled in scarves, long coats and hats, their breath hanging in the air before them. As she contemplated them the taxi blew arid air at her feet and face, disseminating the smell of stale cigarette smoke throughout the cab. She loosened her scarf and watched herself out of the window in the familiar strangers, seeing herself as she had been 12 months ago. Not for the first time today she wondered why she was here.
Earlier in the day Ruth had called out of the blue, her voice warm and familiar. She had started by asking the compulsory question. “How are you Lorna, I haven’t seen you in ages!”
Lorna had easily responded with the required lie. “Oh I’m fine, thanks, how are you?”
“I’m so glad to here you say that” the reply had come. “I was just quickly calling to see if you fancied meeting up for lunch – it’s been so long.”
Lorna’s dutiful response had left her defenceless. Her cottonwool brain failed to offer any solutions, and so she had found herself agreeing to lunch. Lunch in a café just round the corner from the place she used to work. But it would be nice to catch up with Ruth, she supposed now as she chewed a nail. Even if sharing news would mostly be a listening exercise.
The taxi turned a corner, and there it was. The building in which so much of her had been invested, its windows catching the cold sun. She had worked for the Godom Corporation for 5 years before she had become ill. It had consumed her. She had been promoted three times whilst she was there. Her goal had been to lead her team into producing the most compelling adverts possible for the customers, whilst driving the profession into new and exciting areas. She had been the only woman at her level, and she had just been on the brink of another promotion before her body had conspired against her.
“Scuse me love.” The voice of the taxi driver pulled her from her thoughts. She turned to look at him with a question on her face. “I’ve got some bad news for you.” The taxi had pulled over and the driver had turned in his seat to face her. He grimaced and ran a large hand over his bald head. “I’ve just heard on the radio that the road outside the café you want to go to is closed to traffic. This is the closest I can get you.”
Lorna’s toes curled in her shoes. She was late, she was tired, and she was outside her former work place. For a moment she considered asking him to take her back again. Instead she sighed. “Not to worry,” she smiled ruefully “it’s not far from here, I’ll walk.”
A few minutes later, money exchanged, she stepped out of the taxi and onto the pavement outside the Godom building. Instantly the wind whipped round her, pulling her coat and pushing her forward a step. She braced herself and looked up at the building which had once contained so much of her. It loomed over her, dominating the street as it had her life for so long.
Lorna turned from the building and looked down the street in the direction of the café. An army of business people moved towards her, their heads down, tucked into their collars as they tried to keep warm, their strides long and purposeful. Lorna pulled her coat tighter around her and started walking towards the café through the crowd. The cigarette smoke of the taxi had been replaced by the sulphur smell of the city. All around her people moved around each other in a complicated dance to which she had forgotten the steps. The road and the people no longer felt familiar. Car horns jarred next to her. A man jostled her as she stepped sideways to avoid a woman on a mobile phone. Voices echoed around her, not appearing to be addressed to anyone in particular. A motorbike revved its engine next to her and moved away into the traffic. A man released a tirade of abuse into his mobile phone as he marched towards her without checking his stride. A harsh female voice called out from behind her “excuse me please” and, just feet from her destination, Lorna found herself being shoved into the doorway of the shop next to her.
She stopped in the doorway for a moment, and paused to take a breath, concentrating on the slow movement of the cold air through her nose and into her lungs, warming itself as it went. She unfurled her clenched hands, feeling the tension move through her knuckles. She pushed the warmed air through her lips and watched it cloud into the atmosphere. For a moment she paused and stared unseeingly into the window next to her as she tried to compose herself. She had done this rout nearly everyday of her life for five years – it was only a few yards – what the hell was wrong with her today? Slowly her eyes focused, and she looked at her reflection in the glass. What a mess she had turned into. Her hair was dishevelled, her scarf out of place, and in her tiredness she had rubbed her mascara round her eyes. With a sigh her gaze moved again to the reflections of the people as they passed behind her and she contemplated re-entering the chaos.
Then – her heart lurched – no, it wasn’t – she was being ridiculous. For a moment Lorna had thought she’d seen the reflection of Jacalyn, the colleague who had taken over her job until she was well enough to return. That had been some months ago now, and Lorna knew she was reaching the point where she had to make a decision about whether she would ever return to her job. In her heart she knew the answer, but she didn’t feel able to admit that part of her had gone. Not just yet. She turned away from the doorway of the shop, and out into the stream of people again.
“Lorna, darling, is that you?” Lorna froze. The voice was familiar. She turned slowly to face it, knowing that escape was impossible now and trying to force her smile in to her eyes.
“Jacalyn. Hi, how are you?”
“How am I?” A brief glance took in Lorna in from head to toe. Lorna could feel her comfortable clothes and overgrown hair burning into her as she was scanned by Jacalyn’s cold eyes. “I should be asking how you are! But there’s no need to ask, you look as fabulous as ever.” The smile was benign, the eyes were less so. “Tell me, what have you been up to?”
Lorna hated that question – what answer could she give? Sleeping? Watching TV? Sleeping? “Oh, you know, nothing exciting. What about you? How are things at the office?” Why had she asked that? She didn’t want to know. The only answer that would cheer her up was to hear that everything had fallen apart, that she was indispensable, that they were counting the days ‘til she came back.
“Well you know you trained your team so well nobody’s really noticed the transition.” Jacalyn smiled at her broadly. “In fact our account has grown since you’ve been away. I’ve initiated a few changes, of course. Some things weren’t being done terribly efficiently, but I’m sure you’ll approve if you come back.” Lorna heard the ‘if’ and dug her gloved fingers hard into her palm in the absence of a cheek to slap. “In fact we threw a party last night. Just a small thing, you know. The people upstairs wanted to thank me for success of our last campaign. You know,” she said with a smile and raised eyebrows. “the ‘drink milk’ campaign…?”
Lorna knew. She had been on the brink of finishing the project when she had fallen ill. It was an important project – the make or break sort. She and her team had come up with an innovative new concept to encourage children to drink milk. She had seen the advert on the TV. It was still her concept.
“Anyway” Jacalyn was still talking. “I didn’t invite you. Knew you wouldn’t be able to make it if you’re too ill to work.” She glanced at her watch. “Listen, I’d love to stay and chat to you, but I’ve got somewhere important to be.” She moved her manicured hand into her Chloe handbag and pulled out a chic mobile phone. “Listen, you must keep in touch!” She said with an airy wave of the same hand. This time her smile did reach her eyes. “It’s always nice to hear from an ex-colleague.”
As Jacalyn walked away Lorna turned and fought her way through the army of people who stood between her and her destination. Jostled, numb and exhausted she pushed open the heavy café door and, as the wind caught her long coat from behind, she stumbled into the warmth of the café. Her gaze swept the room as she took in her surroundings. Over the other side of the room she saw Ruth wave a hand at her, and acknowledged her smile with relief. She moved across the room, taking care not to lose her balance as she weaved through the tables and chairs, and collapsed into the chair opposite Ruth.
“Hello hun!” Ruth’s smile filled her face. “How are you?”
How was she? She was cold, aching, lonely and tired. She felt useless and boring. She was out of fashion, demoralised, buffeted. She was angry, resigned and felt like she no longer knew who she was. Her head ached, her brain was a waste of space and she was no use to anyone. She was judged, pitied and ridiculed. She was a wreck of the woman she once was – the woman she still wanted to be.
She looked at Ruth, an honest answer hovering momentarily on her lips, and saw in her face the look of compassion frozen slightly as Ruth sensed the risk of honesty. She knew the script. “Oh I’m fine, thanks.” her voice wavered slightly, but the smile stayed fixed. “How are you?”