Richard was shaving when she came up behind him and wrapped her tiny arms around his waist, feeling her cold skin push against the relative warmth of his own, her goose bumped forearms on his stomach and her breasts against his back, which tensed then relaxed to the touch.
‘Don’t go,’ she said, in a way that was intended to be seductive but was mostly just sweet, her face hidden from his view.
‘The very nature of work demands that I go,’ he said, not pausing the careful movements of his razor, eyes fixed securely on his own reflection. ‘If I don’t then they stop paying me. It’s a simple, contractual thing.’
‘It’s the Western Way, my darling.’
‘But what if I die today and this is the last time you see me?’
‘Then I will speak at your funeral and tell everybody how beautiful you were in your last hours. So beautiful – and brave.’
Her head appeared from behind his shoulder. ‘I am brave,’ she said, considering the evidence, ‘and my beauty is not ever in question.’ She squeezed him gently around the waist. ‘I am used to you being behind me now,’ she said, and winked.
‘Is that sexy talk?’ said Richard. ‘Are you doing sexy talk just before I walk out of the door?’
‘Maybe I am.’
‘An erection is no use to a man on a bus.’
‘That’s not what perverts think.’
‘I am no pervert.’
‘Perversion is in the eye of the beholder,’ she said. ‘The things you say in bed I think a lot of girls would find offputting.’
‘Not me, of course.’ She winked again. ‘I positively encourage it.’
It was difficult to shave with her wrapped around him, but he managed it.
‘That’s the rumour.’ She held out the plate to him as if offering a dead animal for inspection.
‘I prefer mine with butter.’
‘Supermodels don’t have butter.’
‘I read it in an interview with one of them.’
‘I don’t know. One of the American ones.’
It had been one month since they had met and it was the most exciting time that either of them could remember, although they both had terrible memories. On the previous evening Richard had almost said ‘I love you’, but managed to stop himself just in time, completely unaware that Dana had gone through the exact same process a full week earlier, being a little quicker to fall in love as she was, as she had always been. He walked towards the door.
‘Don’t go,’ she said again, her eyes big enough to sink into.
‘If I don’t -‘
‘I’m a witch,’ she said, ‘and if you leave then I’ll place a curse on the whole company.’
He kissed her cheek. ‘Curse away,’ he said, imagining a plague of frogs infesting the gigantic printer which occupied the centre of his office, ‘in fact, I positively encourage it – but I still have to go in.’
‘A bomb threat.’
‘Sorry?’ He had not heard her clearly.
‘I’ll call in a bomb threat.’
‘Feel free.’ He smiled. ‘Before or after lunch, though. Don’t break up the break, as the wise men of accounting say.’
‘I will do an accent,’ she said, as much to herself as him. ‘Yes. I will do an accent when I call, to make it more convincing.’
‘Arab … or Irish. I’ll see how I’m feeling and just go with it. I’m good at accents.’
‘You do that.’ He kissed her again. ‘I’ll see you later.’
‘You’ll see me in a bit,’ she said. ‘Not later. Not much later at all.’
He did not mind the bus journey to work now he was happy, which had been, for the most part, his mental state since he had met her at that party, the one where the host had said ‘hummus’ so often that Richard assumed it had been for a bet. He had heard that love could be like this, so wild and all-consuming, but had not really believed it until she had barged into his life with her effortless heft of ceaseless intensity, becoming the first woman he had encountered who wasn’t simply a vaguely pleasing combination of hips, tits, lips and smells, all the better to converse with then fall asleep near, when she would let him.
His phone rang and although he hated answering it on the bus, he made an exception for her.
‘Yeah!’ He could see her smile even from a distance, even through walls. ‘I was hoping to get the postcode of your building.’
‘Y’know, for the bomb threat.’
‘Oh, that. Of course.’ He gave it to her, as deadpan as he could. ‘All good?’
‘All good and ready to go. Oh, and I decided to do an Irish accent. Old school terrorism. Nothing weird and otherworldly. Islamophobia is a big enough deal at the moment without me adding to it.’
‘Great idea. Eighties nostalgia is big with the terrorised – you’ll kill it, I’m sure.’ He yawned.
‘Is my baby tired?’ she said, singing the words tunelessly.
‘Spectacularly. I’ll be dreaming of bed all day.’
‘Not in that way.’ He smiled, and his words smiled with him. ‘Well, maybe a little. I just wish there really was a way to make the day go faster.’
She sighed. ‘There is, you idiot. The bomb threat. Remember?’
‘Ah yes, that. Well, I look forward to it.’
‘You should,’ she said. ‘It’s going to be great.’
‘Sleep okay?’ said Chris, making absolutely no effort to hide a grin, which appeared on his round face as a huge, red half-moon.
‘I think,’ said Rosie, ‘that we can most accurately assess the amount of sleep that the subject has obtained – or not obtained, as the case may be – by a full and thorough analysis of the frequency of his yawns.’
‘I’ve picked up on six so far,’ said Chris.
‘Seven,’ corrected Rosie, ‘and that’s only while he was at his desk. I strongly suspect that he may have saved up a particularly intense burst for when he went to the toilet.’
‘Not to draw too much attention to himself,’ said Chris. ‘Cunning.’
‘Hiding the truth from from us,’ said Rosie.
‘I’m not hiding anything,’ said Richard, ‘least of all from you two.’
‘Well, there’s one thing,’ said Chris.
‘Oh yes,’ said Rosie, ‘keep that hidden, by all means.’
‘I’m not about to get my cock out in the office,’ said Richard.
Rosie laughed. She turned to Chris. ‘Remember when Olly Hammond got sacked for that?’
‘Yes. That was .. particularly weird.’
‘What happened?’ said Richard.
‘They caught him wanking at his desk on CCTV,’ said Chris, looking at the offending workstation thoughtfully, as if regarding the scene of a particularly vicious battle. ‘At seven o’clock in the morning. Imagine that.’
‘No,’ said Rosie, ‘I simply won’t,’ although her face gave evidence to the lie.
’Seven AM,’ said Chris, shaking his head, ‘who the hell wanks in the office at Seven AM?’
‘The time of the act isn’t the point at all,’ said Rosie. ‘At. All.’
‘It is to me.’
‘Wanking in the office,’ said Rosie, ‘is the story, not the time of the wank. Don’t bury the lead.’
‘That’s what she said.’
‘Makes no sense.’
‘It’s innuendo, Ro. Doesn’t have to.’
‘Still,’ said Rosie, ‘we can rest assured that Richard won’t be getting his bits out and flapping his seed around the cubicles, whatever the time.’
‘That’s right. No will, no way. I dare say his balls are going through something of a drought at the moment.’
‘I dare say.’
‘Can we change the subject?’ said Richard.
‘We can,’ said Chris, ‘of course we can, But we won’t, loverboy.’
‘What are you having for lunch?’ said Rosie, who was searching for conversation topics with the kind of desperation which only comes to the office worker in the depths of mid-morning, the day slipping beneath her as if through a thick, unpleasant soup.
‘I brought sandwiches,’ said Richard, ‘and they were all gone by nine thirty.’
‘What’s the time now?’
‘Shit. Today is really dragging.’ He tapped at the keyboard. ‘If only there was a way to make the day go faster.’ He yawned again, this time so powerfully that it almost dislocated his jaw. ‘Dana said she was going to call in a bomb threat.’
‘That would be incredibly useful today,’ said Chris, returning from the kitchen with a cup of coffee and his sixth shortbread biscuit of the day. ‘I’ve got to pick some presents for my nephew’s birthday.’
‘I don’t know – child age. Ten?’
‘Get him a gun,’ said Richard. ‘Or some Lego.’
Rosie yawned. ‘See – it’s caught on,’ she said, not unhappily. ‘Now, if Dana could get that bomb threat phoned in within the next half hour or so, I could be home and happily snoozing by midday. Bonus. You couldn’t text her, could you, encourage her to get a move on?’
‘Sure, I’m an old hand at this – a real terrorist mastermind. I’ll do it right this minute, just after I check the semtex in the fridge.’
‘If you could. I’ve had enough of typing, and adding, then typing again. It just occurred to me that …’
In the centre of the office, just behind their small annexe, a man who was unused to public speaking cleared his throat.
Everybody turned around, except for Chris, who had dropped his biscuit and was searching for it on the floor next to the printer.
‘I’m going need you all to stay calm,’ said Mr.Krilly, the office manager, ‘collect whatever is to hand, and follow me from the building, from where we will all assemble in the car-park at the designated for your work group. Understood?’
There was a murmur of ascent.
‘Told you they couldn’t afford the rent on this place,’ said Chris, ‘told you.’
Richard stood. ‘I don’t think this is about rent,’ he said. A strange, sickly feeling had appeared in the base of his stomach, the kind that you don’t get from two rounds of cheese and Branston Pickle sandwiches and four and a half hours of sleep. He picked up his bag. ‘We should go,’ he said.
‘Looks like Dana came through with the bomb threat,’ said Rosie, who looked delighted, her red cheeks glowing even more fervently than usual. ‘Good bloody girl. Remind me to buy her a drink the next time – well, the first time – that I see her.’
‘I will,’ said Richard, but he was not thinking about drinks.
‘Hey, zombie-tits,’ said Chris.
‘You haven’t made as much as a squeak for five minutes. What’s up?’
‘Nothing,’ said Richard. They were stood outside the building in the carpark, waiting for information. ‘It’s cold.’
‘It’s December,’ said Rosie, who had just lit her second cigarette. ‘Of course it’s fucking cold.’
‘Where are the fire engines?’ said Chris.
‘The fire engines?’
‘Why would there be fire engines?’
‘For the fire drill.’
‘I don’t think it’s a fire drill,’ said Richard.
‘If it was a bomb threat they would have told us,’ said Rosie.
‘Really. Do you remember hearing an alarm?’
‘The landlords have been cutting back for ages,’ said Chris. ‘They probably took the batteries out of the smoke alarms. They let Murray go, didn’t they?’
‘It wasn’t cutbacks – he’s in prison. Parking tickets.’
‘You can go to prison for parking tickets?’
‘Yeah, if you stab the bailiff who tries to serve you with them.’
‘Ladies and gentlemen …’ Their attention turned once again to Mr.Krilly, who had finished counting the assembled group of refugees, once, twice, and then a third time, his thin voice now even slighter than usual, as if events were conspiring to push it out of existence altogether. ’It’s only fair that I inform you as to the circumstances of our dramatic flight,’ he said, his forehead creased with the weight of the knowledge.
‘Bomb threat?’ said Rosie, grinning, looking at Richard.
‘Yes, as a matter of fact. How did you know?’
‘A … a guess.’
‘A good one,’ said Krilly, frowning.
‘Richard,’ said Chris, from behind a gloved hand. ‘Do you think?’
‘I don’t think,’ he said. He gulped, a proper cartoonish, Enid Blyton-style gulp. ‘I can’t even begin to.’
He reached into his pocket for his phone, but found only tissues and travel cards. ‘I must have left it in the office,’ he said. ‘Fuck.’
‘Use mine,’ said Rosie, edging over to join them as Mr.Krilly lumbered around and about the other employees, reassuring them as best as his essentially unreassuring frame could manage. ‘What’s her number?’
‘I have no idea. It’s there on my phone under her name. Does anybody remember numbers these days?’
‘I know my mother’s,’ said Chris, ‘but only because there’s a 666 in it. Okay, whatever. Get her on Facebook.’
‘She doesn’t have it.’
‘Doesn’t have Facebook?’
Richard realised that he may as well have revealed that she didn’t have a head. ‘Claims she doesn’t photograph well,’ he added shrugging and shivering at the same time, ‘says it’s against her religion.’
‘You said she was beautiful?’
‘She is. It’s just a thing for her.’
‘Sure. Are bomb threats a thing for her too?’
‘At this stage, I couldn’t really say,’ said Richard. ‘Which is a strange thing to admit about the woman you live with.’
‘She moved in already?’ Chris shook his head. ‘Well, you kept that one quiet.’
‘He knew we would call him a twat, that’s why,’ said Rosie. ‘One month and moving in together? Get a life.’ She shook her head, more disappointed at the news of premature cohabitation than bewildered by the bomb threat, which was only the second of two that she would encounter in her life.
‘I’m going to say it,’ said Chris, the three of them having wandered off to the corner of the car-park for a little privacy.
‘Say it, then.’
‘Okay.’ He took a deep breath, and composed himself. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Rich, but calling in a bomb-threat is … I can hardly bring myself to say it …’ He blushed. ‘Incredibly sexy. It’s amazing, Rich, seriously. I mean, who hasn’t fantasised about phoning in a bomb-threat?’
‘Absolutely,’ said Rosie, who had stopped smoking in punctuation. ‘Sexy as fuck. Amount of rules respected? Zero. Consider me thoroughly de-pantsed.’
‘I’m not sure that it is,’ said Richard.
‘Don’t be daft,’ said Chris, shaking his head. ‘Spontaneity is the new well-hung. Everybody wants some.’
‘I want some,’ said Rosie, ‘God, I want some. For example, I want Ade to beat the shit of those arsehole kids next door, but he just keeps bloody talking to them.’
‘New man,’ said Chris, shrugging, as if that did for an explanation.
Richard raised a hand. ‘I hardly think that calling in bomb threats counts at spontaneity,’ he said. ‘It’s a criminal offence, for a start.’
‘Everything’s a criminal offence if you want it to be, mate’ said Chris, his exasperation by now clear. ‘She sounds like a diamond, this one, a keeper. Cherish her mate, cherish her. Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone.’
‘Yeah,’ said Rosie, ‘if anything, we should be giving her a Duke of Edinburgh award for initiative,’ and with that they wandered back over to the main group, there the better to borrow a light and shelter from the dirty wind that had only then begun to whip up around them.
When the bomb exploded Chris was half-way through an anecdote about his mother which he was telling in a voice just loud enough to be heard by the new secretary, Lindsay, who he had decided might take pity and sleep with him if only she was aware of how much he loved his family. ‘She tries so hard …’ he was saying, his large head bobbing along with every word, when a piece of shrapnel pierced his eye, burst through his brain and exited the back of his head at a speed so great that by the time he had heard the explosion he was already dying, his feet twitching on the cold concrete, his final thoughts being of stale cigarettes and then, darkness.
There was a scream.
Before he knew what was happening Richard was running, his legs like lead but his stomach a butterfly, and Mr.Krilly, who had been a champion junior athlete streaked past him, his long strides fuelled by the same panic and fear but stronger, more adept. Richard bundled to a halt. Where was he running to, he thought? What about his friends? He turned. About thirty metres behind him he saw, or thought he saw, Rosie crouched over what appeared to be Chris, his chubby frame lying motionless, beached, the huge blackness of the flames rising above them in triumph. Bodies lay to either side of them, five, he saw at first, then, six, seven. He staggered forward, any urge to yawn now long forgotten, feeling the heat of the fire on his cheeks and then, after blinking, his eyelids too. There was a ringing in his right ear but it was the smell, more than anything, which sickened him, a combination of burnt hair, rubber and fresh, barbecued person that would have shamed a Pot Noodle.
Something stopped him moving forward then but he could not say what – a tiny, cold arm perhaps, or a shadow, a sense of dread at what would happen to him if he even thought about approaching such heat, such blinding chaos and confusion. ‘Rosie …’ he began to say, but he could not hear himself so he gave up on words and settled on retreat instead, shuffling backwards whilst shielding his eyes from the tranche of smoke which was now spilling out over the car-park, filling his lungs and making the sun, who was a reluctant enough visitor to the borough at the best of times, disappear completely from the sky.
He could not hear any sirens, although he assumed they were there.
By the time he came too, or rather, came back to himself, he was halfway between the office and home, the ringing in his ears now a soft flutter, a sweet, unearthly confessional song. He was walking on legs which, on first appearance, appeared to be controlled by another being altogether, a playful spirit who was entertained by the thought of its host colliding with bus-shelters and scrambling along pavements as if they were obstacle courses, as the suspicious eyes of the general public watched on, daring him to fall face down into the street.
As days go it had been ….
He remembered her words. ‘I’ll call in a bomb threat.’ Bomb threat, that’d been the key word. No, he thought, not even in jest, of which the possibilities were wide and commonly explored, had she spoken of actually detonating a real-life fucking bomb. Besides, how would she have made it over town in time to have planted it? Much earlier, perhaps, or in the middle of the night? No, no, no. The thoughts themselves were proof of a madness, he was sure. Dana was capable of largely motiveless jealousy, it was true, and was a bad tipper, but apart from that she was fine, dandy, normal. Shit, she’d cried at the end of Karate Kid 2. A psychopath wouldn’t …
‘Are you okay, honey?’ said a woman.
‘No. No, I’m not.’ His vision had become blurred so he sat down, heavily, on the pavement.
‘There was a bomb.’
‘I heard about that. You were in that?’
‘Oh. I’ll get someone, honey. You stay right there.’
‘I’ll stay right here.’
‘Yes,’ said the woman, and helped him fall to the pavement with as much dignity as was possible.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon by the time Richard got home, a police officer walking him up to the front door and only leaving him there, fidgeting for his keys, when he insisted that he would be okay. Memories of the afternoon were a blur, a sodden mess of sound and primary colours. ’I’ve lost my phone,’ he kept saying to the nurses, and they would nod and ask him if he could be quiet, and oh, what was the name of the Prime Minister again?
‘David Icke,’ he said, smiling, and everybody laughed. ‘I’ve lost my phone,’ he said again, and everybody stopped laughing.
‘Did he hit his head?’ said The Doctor, who it appeared did not have the time to talk directly to his patients.
’Shock,’ said all of the Nurses at the same time, ‘shock, shock, shock,’ in the kind of mad chorus that made him think that he may have hallucinated it, although he considered that they may have been rehearsing for a musical.
The lights were off.
‘Dana?’ nothing. He pushed his way into the flat. He called again, but found only the echo of his voice. He switched on the kitchen light and saw the unwashed dishes lying on the counter. Dishes? What the hell had she been doing all … and then he remembered. Bombs. Threats, for one, and then … actual fucking explosions. He shivered. No, of course not, the very thought was absolutely preposterous. ‘Dana?’ The silence screamed back at him. He washed the dishes, because it seemed like the most normal thing to do. Was that the door? He stopped, still against the sink. No, no, a car, a gust of wind, a ghost, a pigeon’s wish. Nothing. No-one.
He made his way to the bedroom and, because he had the capacity to do nothing else, fell asleep on the unmade bed.
She was all over him before he knew what was happening, eyes wide and garishly painted fingernails dancing in the lamp-light as he came too, his heart jumping in time with her thrusts against the mattress.
‘You’re home!’ she was screaming, and he tried to scream back but only found dust where terror was expected, reading her face as he might a menu of torture. She was hugging him now, her cheek pushed against his chest. ‘I missed you,’ she said. ‘I missed you so much! I got you a present.’
‘A present?’ he managed.
‘Yes, a present. You sound surprised. Do I not get you many presents?’
He gasped. ‘I…’
‘Well from now on you can expect the very best from me,’ she said, a little huffily. ‘Nobody will say that I am anything less than incredibly generous to you. An absolute inspiration.’
‘You are,’ said Richard, as some breath returned to him. He turned to look at the clock, and saw her watch him do it. Twenty five past four, it read.
‘Yes, you’re back early.’ She winked. ‘Suspiciously early, a girl might say. Did you want to see me so badly?’
‘There was a …’
’Shhhh,’ she said, and pressed an index finger softly against his lips. ‘Don’t spoil it. Let’s pretend you made a special effort to get out early to come out and see me, your favourite girl.’
‘Do you want to see your present?’ she said.