Back up from the café downstairs on a freezing cold February afternoon, Scott passed through reception, and stopped with a smile.
She was perched on the edge of the sofa, poised for movement. Maybe a sports background meant you were always primed for a starting pistol. “Scott, hi. I didn’t know if I’d come to the right office. There’s no sign on the door.”
Scott sat down beside her and offered one of the coffees he’d bought, but she declined. He felt as if he’d caused offence, but after that Bree seemed to relax.
“It’s a co-working arrangement,” he said. “We’re separate companies, just sharing facilities.”
“Sounds practical,” she approved and might have said more, but was cut off by the cacophony of phones which started buzzing. “Is someone meant to answer those?”
“That’s the downside. Nobody knows who’s in charge. The receptionists often take an early lunch without warning. Or a late one. Sometimes both. Marcus isn’t in right now, by the way.”
“Oh? We haven’t seen each other for a few days so I thought I’d surprise him.”
“Doesn’t Deni go to her sister’s at the weekend so that you and Marcus can have the flat to yourselves?”
Bree nodded. “Yes, and it’s great. Don’t get me wrong. But just because it works for them doesn’t mean it always works for me.” An Australian accent tends to rise at the end of a sentence, so why did Bree’s vocals subside? “I was helping my aunt to redecorate all day yesterday and Saturday.”
The phones went silent as Scott received more details. “She got flooded last month.” It had been like an alternative advent calendar with calamity behind each door as Londoners awoke to find yet another water main had burst somewhere.
“The insurance is sorting it. I’m doing up one of the upstairs rooms as a thank you for letting me stay the past five months.”
“Has it been that long?”
“Hard to believe I’ll have been here a year in April.” Time was always ticking. “When do you think Marcus’ll be back at his desk?”
“I’m not sure. He does his own thing and I do mine. Not helpful I know!”
Why apologise? Scott wasn’t responsible for Marcus, but in the past year he’d felt like the third corner of a love triangle with him. ‘Love triangle’ sounded like a throwback to the 70s. It wasn’t, but as a concept it was more interesting than all the non-dating that went on these days: where people basically stalk each other online without reaching out to talk, let alone commit. Anyway, if there was a triangle, you’d say Bree was the third component, even though Marcus hadn’t misbehaved: he and Deni had dwindled by the time Bree bounced into a party one summer’s night.
After an awkward silence, Bree said, “I’m not trying to be difficult, but … well, is it always this complicated?”
Was it consultation or stream of consciousness? People never turned to Scott for help. Marcus used him as a sounding board because he was around, not for his wisdom. Here in the office he wasn’t consulted, even if he was the best qualified person; or the only person. If he’d answered the phones just now, the caller would have surely refused his “Can I help?”; they’d rather try again, knowing somehow Scott wasn’t who they wanted.
Still, he wanted to help, if Bree would let him. (By being an honorary member of the triangle – platonically supportive, rather than sexual – he’d thought he was helping; listening while Marcus talked himself into shutting down his old life and opening up this new one.) “With Marcus? With flat-shares? With London?”
“I mean, tell me it’s not usual for a guy to keep living with his ex after they’ve split and he’s met someone new. Tell me it’s not usual that they still work together, too, and that his flat doubles as their office.”
“I don’t think it’s so unusual. You can’t always live where you want in London, when you want.”
That was Scott’s excuse, at least; his parents hadn’t exactly begged him to still be living at home at twenty-seven. Wasn’t it ironic that he’d done more to advance Marcus’ life than his own? The idea for Marcus to sublet a desk here on Tanner Street, Bermondsey, had been Scott’s.
Did Bree see the irony? She looked tense again, as if more affronted than when he’d offered her caffeine. But then she relaxed again. She nodded, as if accepting his words, and smiled, as if she appreciated them. Scott glowed, suddenly feeling full of potential.
She nodded. “I guess you’re right. I just need to be patient.”
“It’ll be much easier Deni moves out,” he added. Was he being disloyal to Deni? That didn’t matter right now.
“Nobody’s trying to force her, least of all me,” Bree said. “Look, I’d better go. I’ll try him later.”
Scott felt bereft already. He’d enjoyed being listened to. “Later today? Tomorrow?” He really didn’t know his mate’s movements.
“I’ve got to work this evening. I did tell Marcus but sometimes he forgets.”
“Do stop by again, won’t you? It’s been really nice to talk.”
“I’ll see you soon, I’m sure. Either here or at the flat. I’m part of the furniture now. Well, I will be … eventually.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “it’ll happen. Promise you it will.” It wasn’t a guarantee again, perhaps it didn’t matter right now.
Could he do more? Scott was not deluded about his usefulness. But in a city this big, you need people who aren’t scene-stealers – people who are there just to make up the numbers. So he’d been happy just to be a bystander. But he wondered if he could somehow be a little more than that? For other people, sure, but also – well, maybe – himself.
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