A Creature of Habit
Colin jingled the change in his pocket as he waited for the 5.35 train home. Loose change was a simple pleasure. In his bedroom, he'd take out his clean, ironed hanky and spread it neatly on the dressing table, the corners just so. Then he'd dig two fingers into his pocket and extract his money, a single coin at a time. Separate columns by denomination made the most satisfying arrangement.
He supposed he was a creature of habit. The thought pleased him. The habit of hard work and attention to detail had earned him a cubicle next to the window - and a position reporting directly to Mr. Barlow. A warm glow grew and spread under the crisp white shirt. Yes, a tidy life.
From twelve thirty to one fifteen each day, he sat on the same bench in the small park opposite the office. There, he ate his salad sandwiches in measured bites. Talking and laughing, the city girls swung by, bare legs flashing under flirty skirts. The sun caught in their tossing hair.
It was only at lunchtime or in the dark hours before dawn that a vague longing moved through him, like the undertow that tugged at his ankles the time he took Mum paddling at Surfers.
The young women in the office regarded him with affectionate contempt. He knew he didn't enter their calculations - the spectacles, the bald spot - a man who was too fussy, too flabby, too close to fifty.
Two weeks before Christmas, he was summoned to Mr. Barlow's office. Mr. Barlow leaned casually against the filing cabinet, his beaming smile contrasting oddly with his anxious eyes. He was not alone.
"Colin, I'd like you to meet Tim McCleary and Ms. Alice Winterburn from Head Office."
Tim McCleary was a shambling young man with a solid handshake and a pleasant smile. Ms. Winterburn was short and plump, buttoned firmly into a dark suit with a modest pearl brooch on the lapel. Frowning behind her glasses, she gazed at a point beyond Colin's left ear, put out a small hand and gave his a quick pump.
"We're the last of the state branches to be audited," Mr. Barlow went on. "Tim, you work with Marcie. Colin, I want you to look after Ms. Winterburn. Get her anything she wants to see. No secrets, heh?" Mr Barlow chuckled. "The boardroom's free, use that."
Colin ushered Ms. Winterburn into the boardroom. Absently, he noted she wore sensible lace-up shoes, like a nurse. Ah well, fallen arches were a common affliction. He should know.
With a murmur of thanks, she sat neatly, extracted a laptop from her bag and laid it on the polished table. Next came a fountain pen and a leather-bound personal organiser. Colin observed with approval that she lined everything up in a straight line before she cast him a fleeting glance.
"What would you like to see?" he asked.
She pushed a piece of paper across the desk. "I have a list here," she said in a colourless voice.
Itemised in a cramped, orderly hand were all the essential documents. Colin looked at her, surprised. "You're very efficient," he said with real appreciation. "I'll get them for you at once."
Two days later, he was still impressed. The day after that, he asked her, "What next, Ms. Winterburn?"
She cleared her throat, her hands gripped together so hard the knuckles gleamed white. "I know about the p-problem reconciling the b-budgets for the three regional plants," she said and angled her laptop to show him a spreadsheet. "I g-gave it a try." She blushed.
Colin reached across her to scroll down the page. The figures marched past in an orderly procession that made beautiful sense.
Oh. Oh, this was perfect. Elegant.
Colin felt the grin bloom and grow. "Good heavens, why didn't we think of that?" he said. He sat back, brown eyes intent behind the bifocals. "Alice, this is absolutely brilliant. "You've saved the company." He did some mental calculations.
Her smile was small, but it was sweet. Magnified by the spectacles, her grey eyes shone wide and clear. For no reason he could discern, Colin recalled his first scout camp and a limpid bush stream flowing cleanly over a granite bed.
On the day of the Christmas lunch, Alice Winterburn was the last to arrive, slipping through the door unnoticed in the hubbub. The tearoom reverberated with seasonal bonhomie and off-colour jokes, fuelled by cheap champagne.
Clutching her crepe paper hat, Marcie leaned her head against Kirsten's, who was her best friend, and giggled. As one, they looked straight at Alice and then exchanged glances brimming with delighted conspiracy. A small flock of misgivings fluttered to life behind Colin's breastbone.
Young Scotty from the mailroom sat next to Alice, shoving a cracker into her lax fingers, urging her to pull it. Watching her trying to control her instinctive flinch, Colin had a revelation so powerful he blinked.
Alice Winterburn - cool, intelligent Alice - was excruciatingly, pathologically shy.
Yet here she was, working in a busy office, exposed to all these people, their jarring voices, their curious eyes, the loud laughter and incomprehensible jokes. It must be a form of refined torture.
He laid a hand on Scotty's bony shoulder "Bad back. Need a hard chair," he said firmly. Then he hauled Scotty up and plumped himself down with a triumphant thud.
"Time for Secret Santa!" rumbled Mr. Barlow. He grabbed the first of the gifts under the tree and began calling names. Marcie and Kirsten whispered, heads close. Colin suppressed the urge to take Alice's hand in his.
"Here you go, Alice!" boomed Mr. Barlow and a small lumpy package was passed down to her, hand over hand. A ripple of stifled giggles followed in its wake.
"I don't open Christmas gifts until the d-day," she said in her light voice. The tremble in it was only perceptible if you listened very carefully.
Marcie chuckled, eyes avid with anticipation and champagne. "No, you don't. I love pressies. Here, let me."
Alice went so pale, the fine-grained skin of her cheek looked like smooth white porcelain. She swallowed painfully and a strand of mousy hair drifted across one eye.
Colin sat on his hands.
Shrieking with laughter, Marcie ripped the paper and shook out a silky teddy in midnight blue. Kirsten smirked and held up a bottle of massage oil labelled "Passion".
Alice's gasp of horror jerked Colin from a vision of blue fabric slipping sweetly across the swell of a plump breast. By the time he'd collected himself, she'd whisked herself out of the room and fled from the building.
He found her sitting hunched over on his favourite bench in the park. Looking down at her bent head, he wanted to stroke the nape of her neck. Instead, he said, "Nice, isn't it? I have lunch here every day."
Alice raised her head. Her eyes were dry, but they were dark with pain. "I'm going back to Head Office," she said. "G-goodbye, Colin." She rose and walked out of his life, pigeons scattering before her.
At lunchtime on Christmas Eve, Colin was sitting on his favourite bench, staring vacantly at the path between the bright flowerbeds. Black sandals, work boots, red stilettos, shabby joggers, nurse's shoes.
Nurse's shoes? Slowly, he lifted his eyes, hardly daring to hope. Alice Winterburn stood before him, briefcase held before her like a shield.
"I h-happened to be w-walking past," she stammered.
In the silence, Colin thought he could hear the distant beauty of crystal chimes. He didn't allow himself to think, not even for a second. Reaching up, he laid his hands over hers and drew her gently down beside him.
"Oh Alice, I've missed you so much," he said. "Isn't it lucky you came by?"
Alice's delicate skin flushed prettily. "Luck had n-nothing to do with it," she said. "You're a creature of habit, Colin."
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© 2006 Denise Rossetti
Rose graphic courtesy of Corbis