Kate’s story was the best thing that I had read. Not just the best thing anyone had sent to our magazine but the best thing that I had read, ever. All I could do was accept that I loved this story more than anything else. There was nothing I already had that I cared about more.
Alan and Nick sat on the opposite side of the office to me, talking so quietly that I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Alan stared at the shaving rash on Nick’s neck as he spoke, as though Nick hadn’t noticed him doing it.
‘What did you think of this?’ I said.
‘Who is it? Alan asked.
‘She’s good.’ He raised his eyebrows to show that he had been impressed.
I wanted to say something that would start up a proper conversation between us all. It wasn’t too late for us to become as close as I wanted.
Somehow, it was okay for me to be the more distant one. I was the only girl and I was at least five years younger than they were. Maybe they thought that I had the other half of my life to be living. I was only in the office two days a week.
‘I can’t think of anything to say,’ I said, rather than saying nothing at all, just to show them that I wanted to communicate.
Alan nodded, but I wanted to hear him say exactly what he was thinking.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘That’s okay,’ he said.
The story was still on the desk in front of me. I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know what else there was to do with this feeling than to just let it rumble on inside of me.
Kate was the only new writer we published who asked to meet us. All that they usually cared about was getting their story in our magazine.
‘Do you want us all to go?’ I asked Alan.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Why? Are you feeling shy?’
I liked him for understanding how I felt.
‘No,’ I said.
It was good to be going out on a trip together. We put on our coats and locked up the office, the three of us. When we walked out into the light, it felt like everyone on the street should have turned to stare. I tried my best not to look around too much. I didn’t want to make a show of how amazing it was to be walking along with Alan and Nick. I didn’t want to admit that what those strangers saw might be at all important to me.
Kate was sat in the window of the café, alone on her table. She still had her coat on and she was holding up a mug to her lips. She put it down when she saw us coming in through the door.
‘Alan?’ she said, looking back and forth between Alan and Nick.
Alan stepped forward. ‘It’s me,’ he said. He put his hand out to her and she shook it. ‘This is Nick and this is Amy,’ he said.
She smiled at me and held her lips still, spread across her teeth. She seemed to be exaggerating the wideness of her eyes, on purpose, as if to show me that she was nervous.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘Nice to meet you.’
I felt embarrassed about having planned to act confident and professional in front of her. She made me feel like I should be chucking up my deepest emotions all over the table for everyone to see.
The three of us sat down and the legs of the chairs scraped along the floor as we tucked ourselves in.
‘Thanks for meeting me,’ she said. ‘I love your magazine. You really know good writing.’
‘No problem,’ Alan said.
Kate looked down at Alan’s hands and kind of smiled to herself as though she were remembering a joke, then she looked at him straight. ‘So what did you think of the story I sent you?’
Alan and Nick both started to nod encouragingly, stalling the conversation as they thought about what to say to her. Kate’s face flushed.
It seemed like the right moment. I wanted to show her that I could see things the same way that she did. I wanted to say something honest to her instead of something polite and empty. I cleared my throat loudly, in case anyone was about to interrupt me.
‘There was something very intense for me about reading your story,’ I said. ‘I kept on feeling as though I should be looking for something wrong.’
She turned her face to me. ‘Can you elaborate?’ she said.
‘I don’t know if it’s because you’re a woman,’ I said, and I was greatly aware of how much I was smiling at her. ‘I don’t know if I somehow felt more qualified to judge what you were saying.’
‘Well it wasn’t exactly a story involving any kind of women’s issues,’ she said.
‘No.’ I tried to laugh. ‘All I’m saying is, sometimes reading the fiction of a man, or an older woman, or whatever… can be like reading something by a dead person. Do you know what I mean? I’ll just accept that they’re telling things the way they really are for them.’
Kate smiled at me expectantly.
‘But with your story,’ I said, ‘I felt like I was reading something written for me. And nothing about the way that things really are for me is that easy to accept.’
She moved closer, keeping her eyes on mine. I felt hot all over. It seemed so frustrating that I couldn’t even picture my own face when she could see everything that it was doing. My hands were starting to itch.
Kate nodded slowly. ‘That makes some sense to me,’ she said.
I looked over at Alan and he was staring at Kate.
Just being able to say those things to her, right then, I knew that I needed to be near this person. I deserved to have her in my life. I deserved her in a way that I didn’t really deserve all the other things I wanted. It didn’t matter that I had humiliated myself because acting so awkward and strange was like letting her know that I needed her, just like she had let us know that she needed us.
Kate left and the three of us went back out onto the street. I felt as though I finally understood how the things that I wanted were all possible; how extraordinary things have no other way to exist in the world than in ordinary forms. If you wanted someone to understand something about you, then you just had to tell them what it was.
I walked in between Alan and Nick, one of them on either side.
‘What did you think of her?’ Alan asked.
I was grateful that he had asked my opinion first, as though how I felt was really as important as it seemed.
‘I liked her,’ I said.
Alan nodded. ‘Yes.’
I was away for the rest of the week. The next time I came in, Alan turned up in the afternoon with Kate. They both smelled of bacon. She crept over to Nick, wrapped her arms around his neck from behind and slid her hands down over his chest. I had never seen either Alan or Nick touched by a girl like that.
‘How’s it going, Nick?’ she asked.
‘Fine thanks,’ he said, looking over at me.
Kate kept on glancing at me as though we hadn’t met before; as though she were waiting for us to be introduced. She looked back to Alan and then Nick.
‘You remember Amy don’t you?’ Nick said.
‘Yeah, hi.’ She smiled.
I didn’t like how I could feel my own sense of awareness increasing, waiting to respond to anything that she did.
She sat down in the chair by the window, hooked her feet behind the front legs and leant back, closing her eyes. She looked quite petulant in repose. It seemed that she couldn’t be bothered with us, now that she was in our space. I kept on thinking that she reminded me of myself in a way. I understood the feeling of just wanting to be around other people, without wanting to talk to them. I wished that I could tell her that, but I felt like she had claimed all rights to any kind of self-expression.
Everything was still for a while and then Kate leant down and pulled her bag up onto her lap. She unzipped it and it drooped back over the edge of her leg, pouring her belongings out all over the floor. Alan and Nick got up to help her.
She smiled a lot as they knelt around her ankles and I tried to work out whether or not she was embarrassed. Alan and Nick were saying small things to her and then she was saying things back; gentle noises, like a pleasant humming all around them. It hurt me, how they were all so capable of making small-talk, acting normal together, when everything I ever said seemed so rehearsed.
Alan looked over at me. ‘Amy, why don’t you come over here?’ he said. ‘You’ve been working for too long.’
I got up slowly from my desk. Kate watched Alan’s face as I walked over to them and sat down.
‘Busy?’ Kate asked me.
‘Not really,’ I said.
‘We’re not distracting you are we?’ She propped her bag up again at her chair leg.
‘No, don’t worry about it. What are we talking about?’ I asked.
‘I can’t remember,’ Kate said.
‘Well what shall we talk about?’ I smiled at her but my mouth felt odd.
Kate laughed, as though I had said something entirely different. My leg was touching Nick’s under the table. I pressed it closer. He jerked slightly.
‘Sorry Amy,’ he said. He moved his leg away from me.
Kate watched me. Even though she made me hate myself, it didn’t stop me from wanting to be close to her. I had to keep on trying the only way that I knew how.
‘Why are you acting so differently to the way you were when we first met you?’ I said.
‘Hmmm?’ She widened her eyes.
‘Why are you acting so confident now?’
‘Well I didn’t know you before, did I?’ She spoke slowly.
‘You still don’t know me,’ I said.
She frowned. ‘That’s right,’ she said.