Light As Air: Part Eleven

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He turns at the sound of a knock on the door. It creaks open slowly. “Sorry,” Olivia says, “I just…” She looks round in surprise. “She’s gone?”

He nods, preparing himself as best he can for the inevitable onslaught of questions.

Sure enough: “What was that all about?” she asks. It will be the first question of many, he just knows it.

Adrian refuses to comply. He’s done enough things he doesn’t want to do today. “Believe me, it’s complicated and there really isn’t time to go into it. It’s been – it’s been a long day. Do you mind if I kick you two out for a while?”

It’s blunt, but she’s unruffled by it. It’s just the way they communicate; the truth expressed fairly seems better than a million awkward excuses. “Certainly. Is there anything you want me to help out with?”

“No, thanks.” His voice sounds distant even to his own ears. He wants to sleep, to bury his head under the covers and wait until this all blows over – if it ever does. “But thank you.” Wonderful – it seems like he’s a master of tautology today.

She gives him her best attempt at a smile, but it settles into something utterly unconvincing; she still looks too worried. “I’ll just finish my sandwich, then I’ll head out.”

Something compels him to ask. “What did you end up with?”

She shrugs. “Gouda and cucumber. It’s actually not that bad.” She closes the door, heading back into the other room.

He would love to be good company, he really would, but he spends most of the next few minutes trying desperately to involve himself in a novel and pretend that none of this is happening. When Olivia and Paul come through, Paul very obviously being hustled out of the door by Olivia, he bids them goodbye as cheerfully as he can, even though he knows it sounds depressingly lacklustre.

He spends the next few hours doing the accounts and hoping desperately that Angela won’t return. Night has fallen, and darkness lurks outside the window. The ticking of a clock in the back room is all he can hear as he sits at the counter, trying to sort out the accounts and just ending up with a headache. If anything, he’s better at this kind of thing than Paul – it’s one of the reasons why they decided to go into business together – but the combination of stress and maths is definitely not one he can say that he enjoys. If he sees the word revenue again, he thinks he may well scream.

When the bell above the door rings, his shoulders slump. He looks up, much as he wants not to, and sees Angela entering the shop, walking towards him. She isn’t exactly unexpected, but somehow, his heart still sinks at the sight.

He doesn’t want to speak first, but the silence is getting to him, so he asks, “How did the business go?”

“Well.” Her eyes flit around the room; she’s obviously looking for the suitcase.

“It’s behind the counter. I didn’t want anyone trying to steal it.”

“I see. That was probably a wise decision.” It’s almost respectful. Bloody hell, he really must have fallen asleep on the accounts. She pauses, looks up. “Your friends have left.”

He wonders if she can hear the lack of noise, or if she just has some sort of rather terrifying mind-reading skill. He hopes it’s the former, but with the direction his luck seems to be heading, he wouldn’t be surprised if it were the latter. “Yes, they have. Why?”

He returns to the arduous task of accounting, but looks up at the rustle of clothing and the footsteps close by. She leans to reclaim her suitcase. She’s less than a foot away, and the action leaves them almost eye to eye. Her gaze falls to the accounts. “That should be forty two pounds,” she says after a moment.

He doesn’t ask her which is the relevant column – he knows already, he simply hadn’t got around to correcting it. Still, it’s wonderful to be treated as a fool yet again. “Did I ask for your help?” he snaps.

She straightens smoothly. “No.” She looks again to the back room door. “Where’s the room you mentioned?”

He slumps, moving forwards in his seat until his head’s nearly touching the countertop. He has the dreadful, quietly deadly beginnings of a headache; he wonders if the cool wood against his skin might help to relieve the pain. “Give me a second.” He stands reluctantly, too slowly – tiredness is making him a premature old man, every one of his joints aching. “Right. Come with me.”

There’s something creeping up on him, and it becomes more apparent with every step what it is: guilt. That frustrates him; he shouldn’t be guilty. It’s not as if talking to her abruptly is a new thing, and neither is it as if she’s been treating him any better. Even so, as he walks upstairs and listens to the soft, regular footsteps barely a moment behind his own, he thinks that snapping at her as he did might have been more than a little rash. Perhaps, though it was an odd, awkward thing, hers was a genuine offer of help. He shrugs without realising it, then becomes aware of the fact that he hasn’t actually said anything – it makes him feel even more awkward than he already did. At this rate, he’s surprised that’s even possible. It’s not as if it matters now; it feels as if it’s too late to say anything by this point, and if he tries it’ll be a show of awkwardness that will just make her look down on him further. He can’t afford to give the thought any further consideration – it’s doing nothing for his nerves – yet…

“I’m sorry,” he says into the silent corridor. “What I said earlier – I shouldn’t have, and it was unfair.”

“What did you say?” The rhythm of her steps doesn’t even stutter, the question a smooth, barely inflected one.

“I said I was sorry,” he blurts, not exactly in a hurry to repeat it.

“No. What are you apologising for?”

“Rather rashly, I declared that I didn’t need your help, and in retrospect, that might have been an unfortunate mistake.”

“Why are you waving your hands around?”

“Wha – ?” He pauses, looks down and realises that he is. He’s always talked with his hands, and it’s a habit that tends to intensify when he gets nervous. “Oh. Er. I do that.”

“I’ve noticed.” He might be wrong, but he can hear a trace of what might be amusement in her tone. It’s subtle and it’s bone dry, but if he’s not very much mistaken, it’s there. (He’s unsure whether that should annoy him or reassure him that she isn’t hurt. That said, she never is – anything he says only seems to slide off her without leaving a mark. Water, duck, back, all that, he supposes. However, that doesn’t stop it from being frequently disconcerting.) He’s just making the comfortably familiar decision of settling for annoyance when she says, “Thank you.”

“For – ?”

“The apology. It’s not like it really matters, but it’ll make carrying out my mission a lot easier if our relationship isn’t actively antagonistic.”

The hypocrisy of that strikes him then, and he’s unable to let that pass without saying, “You might want to remind yourself of that occasionally.”

“You may be right,” is her mild response.

There is one spare room. The desk’s a little dusty – no-one’s had to use it for a long time – but the bed is fine. Like the back room, it’s full of darkwood, but in a way that’s luxurious rather than oppressive; the high ceilings work to balance that, to overcome any potential sense of claustrophobia.This is an old building, but a well-designed one. A chest of drawers and a full-body mirror rest in the corner. The one window is large and tall, with long, dark purple curtains, and the bedclothes are the same colour. It’s the sort of place made for warming yourself by a fire on long winter nights. (There is actually a fireplace, but no-one’s ever got round to lighting it.) It’s not a particularly large room, but neither is it small enough to be boxy. It’s somewhere in the middle; as Goldilocks would say, just right. It’s a good room – probably better than his own, Adrian begrudgingly admits, even though he prefers his – his has more of a personality. More books, too, and that’s the important thing.

Angela looks round and then gives a nod of approval. “This is more than adequate. Thank you.”

“It’s not a problem.” That’s a lie, but neither of them have got into an argument yet and he wants to keep it that way, if possible. Besides, it seems somehow like the right thing to say.

She turns to him. “I won’t be here long.” It’s an assurance, her eyes and her tone of voice perfectly sincere. “Once this is over, you’ll have the room back.” There are many things carried in those sentences, things she isn’t saying. We won’t bother each other any more. I’ll be out of here as soon as possible. Remembering the kind of things she was saying in the pub, those things don’t surprise him.

He shifts awkwardly, not wanting to hover but uncertain whether he should go quite yet. “Do you need any help? Is there anything else I should do?”

She walks to the bed, placing the suitcase upon the covers and opening it. “I’m fine.”

“Right. Well. If there’s a problem or you need me at all, just call me.”

“That will be unlikely.”

“Believe me, I’m well aware. However, if the need does arise, I would like to be alerted before, you know, the apocalypse descends or I’m murdered in my sleep.” The curious young boy he’s done his best to bury – the one that would be awestruck, enthralled, because there are angels, angels are real, and he must know everything, all of it, right now – makes him ask, “Do you even sleep? Do you need to?”

She’s still looking through the suitcase, and she doesn’t turn at his question. However, she does answer it. “It’s not essential, but it is recommended when we’re in a human body. We don’t get tired in the same way that humans do, but there are symptoms of sleep deprivation for us as well.”

He nods and then feels like a fool. She can’t even see him. “I see.” He doesn’t, not really – she never seems to make an effort to clarify anything, and while it used to be intriguing, it’s now just frustrating. If he’s intrigued, he’s intrigued by the chance to discover more later. Now he knows that those answers will never come, intrigue has no room to grow, quashed instead by annoyance. Into the quiet of the room, he asks, “What you said, about, about seeing my soul?”

“That was true. We can see every human soul.”

He grits his teeth. “And the comment about my spine?” It comes out harsher than he intended it to.

She keeps on sorting through the case, and he has an absurd moment of wondering whether angels need to brush their teeth. She doesn’t speak, and after several seconds have passed, she still hasn’t. “Good night, Adrian,” she says eventually. It’s a very firm ending of the discussion.

He stands by the door, every muscle in his body tense and poised for a confrontation, and honestly considers starting a fight – but truthfully, he’s tired. His eyelids are growing heavy, and playing these kinds of word games is utterly exhausting. Besides, if he goes to sleep, he won’t have to deal with her for any longer – or he can at least postpone it until the morning, when he’s had some sleep and got some caffeine in him. “Good night, Angela.”

He heads to the door. The moment before he shuts it behind him, he feels a prickling at the back of his neck, and knows that her eyes are on him, watching him steadily. Then it’s shut, and the feeling’s gone. He shakes his head, stifling a yawn and heading to his room. He’s relieved at the thought of this day being over.

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