Sarah saw Pri in the reflection in the window. She didn’t want to talk to anyone — this was her break. Time to herself. Time to relax after furiously catching up with emails, and before getting stuck into whatever primary disaster was going on today.
She continued to stare. Pri waited behind her.
Finally Sarah turned. “Hi, Pri.”
Pri did not have coffee. Why was she here?
“I’ve got something to tell you.”
Oh God, thought Sarah. You’re not quitting? Recruitment is a right arse, and finding someone in a hurry will destroy my entire month. Pri was good at her job.
“It’s about Bernie.”
“Bernie?” What the hell did Pri know about Bernie? Sarah kept her work life distant from home life, and didn’t bother with Christmas parties that included partners. In fact, didn’t tend to bother with Christmas parties at all. A few drinks now and again with the girls was fine, but an organised thing, planned months in advance? No, she didn’t fancy that. Truth be told she had her friends, she had her marriage, she had her grown-up kids, and she had work. No reason to mix any of those four lives — they worked just fine as they were. Only once had they even touched at the edges, when Pri came round to deliver some files when Sarah was ill. She’d spoken to Bernie briefly, then, before Sarah — hearing them — had dragged herself from her sickbed to put a stop to an uncontrolled breach between worlds.
“Yeah. Bernie.” Pri seemed unsure how to begin. She pulled out one of the chairs and sat down.
Pri shifted nervously in her seat, before talking: “Perhaps I should get coffee?” She stood up again. “You want another?”
“No,” Sarah replied, really wanting to return to the rain pouring down the windows. Sarah found it comforting seeing the rain pummelling the glass. They had a lovely conservatory at home. The rain was so loud on the roof when there was a storm — it felt magical. In fact she had a fifth life — the one she lived in when she was alone.
Pri returned with a cup of black coffee, and sat down.
Sarah took a sip of hers. It didn’t taste as good in company.
“I saw Bernie the other day. In London.”
Sarah narrowed her eyes. She knew allowing her worlds to meet had been a mistake. “So?”
“Yeah. A woman.”
Bernie knew loads of women. He knew loads of men, too. He went for drinks occasionally. That was nice — Sarah got the house to herself and could binge on a box set, or watch the birds on the bird feeder in the garden. Or drink wine without anyone asking if she was going to finish the bottle. Or curl up, put the fire on way too hot and read a book on the sofa. Happy evenings. That fifth life was perhaps her favourite.
“He was kissing her.”
“I took a photo. Look.”
Pri swiped her phone and put it on the table.
Sarah stared at the screen.
It was Bernie. Kissing. In a photo. On Pri’s phone.
Pri spoke to everyone. Accounts always spread gossip. The whole company would know by now. The whole company would be feeling sorry for her. Her cheeks burned. A rage grew inside her.
“I saw him. With this girl. I followed him.”
“Why? Why couldn’t you leave alone?”
“You’ve got a right to know.”
Sarah pushed the phone back towards Pri. “You’re wrong.”
“Didn’t you want to know?”
Sarah looked into Pri’s eyes, her face screwed up with hatred. She shook her head, keeping her thoughts safely locked inside. Don’t you understand? she wanted to ask. Of course I knew. Somewhere, deep down. I knew what was going on, but it didn’t matter. We lived our lives, going about them in parallel, coping, being together when it mattered. But now, she thought, staring at the image on the phone, now… She took a deep breath. What you’ve done…, she continued in her mind as she took another comforting sip. What you’ve done — is make sure everyone knows. Now I can’t carry on. Now I can’t pretend. You’ve ruined everything. Sarah turned to the window.
“Surely you wanted to know?” Pri looked afraid.
She would not reply, not give her the satisfaction, instead continuing the conversation internally. No. Why? What good does it do? What business is it of yours? She kept her mouth fastened on the lip of the cup.
Pri said nothing.
“Right.” Sarah put her coffee down and stood up. “Break is over. Feel free to get back to work. I want your daily report on time for a change.”
She walked past Pri and back to her desk. As she sat down, a pain grew inside her. One of her lives was ending. She would leave this company, she knew. Would that be enough? Could she forget again, this time?
Robert Kibble lives west of London, and writes where he lives, unless he finds himself in a bar with a notepad, in which case that’ll do too.