THE AIR WAS damp rather than chilly as Kate Mackenzie stepped off the back end of the big red double-decker bus. Which was nothing unusual for an average winter’s day here in London. If it snowed in the heart of the city you knew the rest of the country was in dire straights, or, at the least, up to its proverbial ankles in it. She smiled to herself and pulled her coat collar up round her neck. For someone who’d just spent the last three years living in Québec, she was thankful it never snowed in the Big Smoke.
Kate hated London, it was the last place on earth she wanted to be right now, but here she was, back in the rat race. Working in the acquisitions department of HarperCollins, back at the science fiction desk. Where it had all began. Even though, this time round, she had moved up a few levels. That was only because of an impressive resume. She had racked up the miles never mind the years.
She now headed for the office on this, her first day back at work. And, it seemed to her, Hammersmith and the city itself hadn’t changed. Not in the twenty or so years she had been away working her way around the world.
London, New York, Melbourne, Montreal and back again to London.
All that was missing in the mix was Paris and she’d have herself a perfume ad.
So, has nothing really changed? She wondered. Or was it that she hadn’t changed? After all, here she was, back at a job she knew well, back to a place she had thought she’d left for good. She had come full circle. Coming back to where, though?
Kate stopped dead in her tracks much to the annoyances of those in the flow, who now bumped her to show their displeasure at having to go round.
No, nothing’s changed. She thought and, glancing up, apologised to the worker bees. People, no different to her, making their way to their own beehives.
Why did I come back? She thought again. And not for the first time. Adding, What the hell am I doing?
Too many years dashing round the planet waiting for her life to begin, with the last handful spent in Canada. Three long years spent with someone whom, for the most part, she had felt affection for. Someone who had touched her with kindness and yes, she had, she thought, felt love for them. But in hindsight, maybe it had only ever been affection. One that had never grown to anything let alone bordering on love.
At least, not the love she had hoped for. Not the love she dreamed about. Not the all abiding love, the one that would light up her life. The kind of love you only found with a soulmate.
Soulmate? Who was she kidding?
Kate laughed out loud, a sour sardonic sound that brought stares from passers-by. She began walking and, head bent down, followed the throng toward a nondescript building. One slotted in amid many others that hugged a curve along the street as far as the eye could see. Dipping and weaving she dashed across the road mindful of the throng of private cars. Black handsome cabs, trucks pumping out black diesel fumes, and the ever-recognisable red London buses that clogged the street to a near standstill.
She was in no danger of a hit and run, unlike in Montreal where, without a doubt, doing this she would have been someone’s hood ornament by now. Montreal drivers and, Québécois in general, were the worst drivers on the planet. The cheap little car she’d driven in while making a living at UbiSoft, wore several dents and scrapes like badges of honour. Taxis in particular were blind to the red hexagonal Arrêt signs posted on every street corner. Drivers were content to sail across every junction in some perverse game of chicken.
It was no doubt under feet of the white fluffy stuff right about now, Kate thought. She pushed open the big heavy double doors and entered the foyer of HarperCollins.
Her first order of business on reaching her assigned office space was not coffee, like some. Nor dropping off her bag before heading for ten minutes of gossip in the Ladies. Where, no doubt, the discussion would be the weekend’s escapades. Tails about who had gotten drunk, who’d screwed who and who was flirting with who in the office. Instead, Kate slotted herself into her chair and, with a practiced ease, flicked on her computer screen. She picked up the phone and, with her thumb, dialled a number she knew off by heart: Susan’s.
Kate had ten minutes at least before anyone got around to remembering there was a newbie in the department and zoned in on her. She waited for Susan to answer the phone, the soft burr of the ring-tone comforting in her ear.
“Hello?” The voice was full of sleep but as familiar to Kate, as her own Mother’s.
“Hey there sleepyhead, did I wake you?”
“No. What time is it?” The voice asked round a large yawn.
“Nine. And you should be up and at work yourself, shouldn’t you?” Kate teased her friend.
“Ha! Some of us were up late last night. Do you know how hard it is to juggle so many balls all at once?” Susan replied in good cheer.
Susan ran her own business. She was a one-woman circus. She taught kids of all ages how to do trapeze, eat fire, to juggle, and more, how to have fun. She often worked weird hours and did a lot of kid’s party weekends. Kate knew she’d been doing a couple of gigs this weekend. One reason why Susan had not been able to spend the weekend with her, in London, before her first day back on the trapeze act, as Susan would have it.
“So how’s the gig going?” Susan asked, the phoned buzzed in Kate’s ear. Susan was on the move. Kate could hear her friend clattering cups and the like in the kitchen making the inevitable brew of tea. Earl Grey, hot. She wished she were there with Susan right now having a little tea and sympathy. There was nothing like it, especially when Susan dished up both.
“Well, I’ve been here five minutes and, it’s like nothing’s changed, nothing at all.” Kate looked round the room; saw the all so young faces, as she listened to the usual office noises. It was as if time had stood still and yet. Kate ducked back down least anyone notice her and fiddled with a pen as she spoke to Susan.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here.” She whispered.
“You’re there to work.” Susan said as a matter of fact. “You know, to put tea on the table have money to pay the bills, and to send me presents from exotic locales.” The voice was light and cheery. Kate smiled. Talking to Susan always lifted her spirits.
“You know what I mean.” It was old ground. A conversation that wouldn’t die, or at least, Kate wasn’t ready to let it go. She still chewed at the edges of one bad decision after another, wondering if she had made the right choices.
“Look, UbiSoft wasn’t you, doing gaming manuals and the like was never your thing no matter how exciting it all may have sounded. You’re a book person, Kate.” Susan held the light tone, skirting the real subject, that of failed relationships. A subject Kate felt she was fast becoming an expert on having waded her way through one too many. But she knew where the fault lay; with herself. There was no one else to blame; she knew that in her heart. She had expectations. Expectations that were never met probably because Kate knew, she set the bar way too high. Now, after yet another disaster that had hurt another, she thought that she was doomed to never finding someone to love. An emotion she wasn’t even sure she’d felt—yet.
“Hey—you there?” Susan’s voice brought her back.
“Sorry, I was out there—you know, the little wheels grinding away.”
“Maybe if you did a little less thinking and a little more you know, just being yourself, love would come along all on its own.” It was a litany Susan repeated, often.
You work too hard, you should play more. Ease up, don’t push yourself, and stop thinking all the time. Go get blasted.
“What if love doesn’t exist and we’re all just fooling ourselves?” This again was a familiar conversation between them. One Kate pulled out and, like other conversations that wouldn’t die, chewed on in a way only a Jack Russell could.
“Maybe its Mother Nature’s ultimate joke—love’s an illusion. The attraction is all about the sex. Bang, bang, thank-you Ma’am?”
“Come on, I know you don’t believe that, you’re a romantic at heart,” Susan countered. Adding, “which is why I’ve never understood why you don’t work in the romance section instead of science fiction.”
“Me, handle bodice rippers?” They both laughed.
“Well, okay, so you always were off-planet.” Susan added with another chuckle at her own joke.
Kate heard the inevitable slurping sounds in her ear of tea being drunk.
“Tea and sympathy,” she said and laughed into the phone.
“What? Sorry—my bad.” Susan apologised.
Kate pictured her friend’s face and the soft blush of embarrassment that would have risen to Susan’s cheeks. They were both moving into their forties. But, to Kate at least, Susan was still that awkward innocent 19 year-old she’d met way back when, at York University.
Time was no longer on their side.
Kate smiled and wondered whether they should just hook up together. Become a maudlin pair of spinsters living in a run down cottage somewhere in the countryside … surrounded by a dozen cats. Except, she was allergic to cat hair. Didn’t like the damp. Wasn’t sure all the fresh air was good for anything other than asthma, and definitely wasn’t into giving up on love. Not just yet.
“Do you like cats?” Kate asked knowing the answer, as Susan gagged on a mouthful of tea.