A NEW MAN • by Aislinn Batstone

The room glowed amber with candlelight and all Nadine wanted was to sit and look at photos of Jack she’d collaged on the mirror. Who could be insensitive enough to call in the middle of a visualisation? Alastair, of course.

He wanted to get the old school friends together for dinner. “We’re thinking of that place on Gordon Street, the Red Dragon.”

“Does it have to be Chinese?” There’d be fortune cookies.

“I’ve made a reservation. What’s the problem?”

“Oh, nothing.” She pressed ‘end’ and went to pour the tea.

Her favourite picture of Jack was from the staff bonding day when they did the obstacle course and he took his shirt off to cool down. Oh, Jack. She knew they were meant to be together. One day he’d tell her those deep thoughts he hid from the world.

Later, she prepared for the evening. Alastair was a stockbroker, Evie and Zac both doctors. Nadine’s call centre role was far more suitable for personal development. As a result, she was further along in her spiritual journey, which sometimes made conversation awkward.

Running a brush through her long blonde hair, she peered into a gap in the mirror collage. Her skin glowed, unwrinkled. Some of her friends really should meditate.

On the train, commuter newspapers littered the seats. She glanced at one. No, it would contain too many possible signs. The train rattled past playing fields, ramshackle iron fences, crumbling terrace houses. Nadine looked at the newspaper again, temptation growing. She picked it up and opened it at the horoscopes.

“Aquarius: with Neptune in your sign, confusion reigns. Heed your inner voice, by Monday all will be clear.”

She released the breath she’d been holding. Jack had been away last week and she’d been too nervous to ask anyone why. She’d teetered from sign to sign, hoping he wasn’t sick, or worse, with a woman. The horoscope suggested that by Monday she would know where he’d been, and her inner voice sang that she and Jack were meant for each other.

At the Red Dragon she mentioned to Evie that she’d had a confusing week but had learned it was because Neptune was in her sign.

Evie said, “Do you really believe all that bullshit?”

“It’s in the stars, Evie. I thought you were a scientist.”

“I think you’re confusing astrology with astronomy.”

Nadine couldn’t see what difference a couple of letters made, but changed the subject anyway. Evie and Zac’s careers were complicated and they loved to talk about themselves. She half-listened to Evie’s description of her current job and congratulated herself on smoothing over her friend’s feelings. Anger was such a destructive emotion; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt it.

“Still working at the call centre, Nadine?” Evie asked.

Nadine ignored her. With the last dishes cleared from the table, the waiter approached with a bowl of fortune cookies. Nadine held her breath. Another sign at this delicate stage would be too confusing, no matter how tempting. She spoke firmly to the waiter. “Not for me, thanks.”

Alastair, offered the bowl next, grabbed a handful and threw one down in front of her. “Oh, go on.”

Hot blood rose like lava to her head and pounded in a red haze behind her eyes. The cookie was in front of her. Whatever its message, it belonged to her. She sat very still.

Around the table people cracked open their cookies and extracted the messages. Nadine opened hers and pulled out the slip of white paper. A New Man will bring Great Joy. She closed her eyes. Not good.

Alastair snatched it out of her hand. “New Man? Same as me. Never knew I was that way inclined.” Laughing, he said, “What’s up? Not in the market for a new bloke?”

“No, as a matter of fact,” she snapped. He had pushed her beyond measure.

***

The white slip of paper from the fortune cookie could not be discarded. Mocking her, it joined a mess of inauspicious clippings on her desk. She wished she’d brought home the lucky newspaper from the train.

At last Monday came. Brushing her hair, she watched herself in the spaces on the mirror. She looked pale and tired, but perhaps that was for the best. She didn’t want a new man. She only wanted Jack.

At the office by eight in the morning, she swiped herself through the exterior doors and took the lift to level four. One or two others were already in their cubicles. She turned on her computer and went to make tea before her phone started.

As she finished her second call, a familiar deep voice carried across the room. She peeped over the side of the cubicle. Workers perched on each other’s desks like parrots, gossiping about the weekend.

Jack stood at the end of the row, tall and tanned, his thick brown hair curling slightly. He walked along the row, greeting people as he passed. She dropped into her seat.

“Hey Nadine. Have a good week?”

“Okay, thanks.” She smiled nervously. “And you?”

“Perfect. Went down the coast with some mates.” He ran a hand through his already perfectly dishevelled hair. “It’s good to get away from this place sometimes.”

She murmured. “Mmm, with your responsibilities…”

Jack looked at her appreciatively. “That’s exactly right.”

“So you had a good holiday then?” She knew so little of his private life. Every small detail was treasured.

“Look at me.” He gestured at the tan, his broad shoulders, wide grin, flashing white teeth, as though she hadn’t noticed them all already. “Babe, I’m a new man.” He walked off.

Alone in her cubicle, Nadine whispered, “A New Man.”

She opened her hand and stared at the fortune cookie note she’d clutched since leaving home. She smoothed it onto the desk with her forefingers. It was still legible, and later she would use the office laminator to preserve it forever.

“He will bring Great Joy,” she breathed, and touched it to her cheek.


Aislinn Batstone is a Sydney writer whose stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies in Australia, the USA and the UK.


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Every Day Fiction