“I just visited someone.” She said.
“Boyfriend?” He asked. She looked at him sharply, surprised by his candour.
“Er, no. I don’t. I mean, I wasn’t visiting one.” She flushed, an uncontrollable physical response she had always resented. He smiled a grin that was strikingly attractive but had a subtle edge of satisfaction from having rattled her.
“There you go.” He passed her the change for her five-pound note. The inevitable grazing of their hands caused an unwelcome flutter in her stomach. He turned away slightly to use the vending machine. She considered just walking away but decided it would look foolish since she had just acquired change from him to use that same damn machine.
“Thank you. I see you work here?” She ventured.
“Yeah, I’m a nurse, just on my lunch break actually.”
“But it’s 3:30! Do you always have lunch so late?”
“Yeah most days. It’s always busy and visiting hours can be a good time to duck out.” He smiled a rather devastating smile, his eyes were green, similar to hers. This is ridiculous, she thought, I need to go.
“It’s your turn.” Said a gruff voice behind her and she felt her cheeks heat up like radiators. She stepped forward and was about to push her coin into the slot when he placed his hand on hers. She turned to him, unable to check her shocked expression.
“I thought maybe you might prefer something from the café? Can I buy you a coffee?”
The gruff voice exhaled loudly and she could feel her pulse in her ears. She had never had a drink with a man after so brief an exchange. She didn’t have time to fully reflect on the likelihood of him being a stalker or mentally unhinged as she was holding up the queue. Yes, she was disturbingly attracted to him and found his job somewhat fascinating, but what persuaded her was the fact that rejecting this stranger in front of an audience would be plain embarrassing. She looked up at him and noted he didn’t look at all self-conscious, as he held her gaze a smile tugged at his lips. He was silently goading her, expecting her to refuse.
“Oh, yes, alright. I think I’ve only got another 45 minutes on my car though.”
“OK sure.” He abruptly turned and started walking.
She was pleased to have thought of an excuse to leave before they’d even sat down and walked briskly after him with her chin up, avoiding the eyes staring after. She continued to walk confidently as she delved into her coat pocket and found one of the pound coins he had just given her.
The pastel yellow corridor was stark, wide and empty. Yet she felt as though they were walking through a narrow tunnel with its ceiling reaching down to touch her. It dawned on her that she was going to have to stay in this wretched hospital even longer than planned. She turned the coin 360 degrees, three times, and felt some relief.
“You know, the selection in the cafe isn’t much better than that vending machine to be honest. Unless you like shepherd’s pie with a skin or beef casserole that takes about an hour to chew.” His smile and easy manner helped her relax. It was just a coffee. She was safe and had no obligations. Why can’t she enjoy a conversation? And, perhaps, an opportunity. She shook the thought away like an irksome bug.
“I’m not sure why I invited you to join me here,” he continued, as they walked through the double doors and into the cafeteria. He stopped and turned to her. She had walked slightly ahead when she realised and, confused, slowly closed the gap, looking side-to-side hoping she wouldn’t invite another audience.
“Inviting you for coffee just sort of, slipped out, I honestly don’t do this a lot. This morning we lost a patient and I’m always left with that…” He looked for the words. His furrowed brow was endearing.
Carpe diem… feeling. I guess I do things I want to do and say things I want to say, without much thought. I know people were watching and maybe you felt obligated, or something. You don’t need to, we can part here and it’s not a problem.” He shrugged and looked genuinely at ease as he spoke; no fear or self-consciousness. He hadn’t been goading her he just wasn’t afraid of rejection. She was both impressed and intimidated by this realisation.
“No, there’s no harm in a coffee, is there? No pressure. I’m glad you asked.” She shrugged and forced a smile. She was too stubborn to back down now anyway.
“Great!” He flung that smile at her again like a frisbee flying straight into her stomach. They ordered and sat at the last available table near a window. He placed the tray down and set the coffee and scone in front of her. It was just like any other hospital canteen with that heavy smell of gravy and hum of chatter and clattering cutlery.
“You made a good choice, those are not made on the premises.”
She laughed and picked up her knife. When she looked up he was still looking at her and she tried to remember what she’d done with her hair. She’d washed it at least. It was tied up and the cursory blonde strands hung loose against her pale cheeks. She automatically tucked them behind her ears.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
“What ward do you work on?” She asked.
“What do you do?” He took a bite out of his sandwich.
“I’m a partner in an accountancy firm.” Faye knew it was intimidating and wondered why she didn’t soften it. She broke eye contact to look down at the scone she was buttering.
“Sounds stressful!” Jake exclaimed without even the slightest show of concern. She looked at him, unable to dim her fascination. He always looked back at her, straight in the eyes. She could see it was his natural way and not a skill he’d mastered. His hair was dark and unkempt in an appealing way. He had dimples when he smiled that added to his youthful energy.
“Said the man who saw someone pass away today.” Faye said.
“Well, sometimes that’s stressful, sometimes it’s peaceful. I suppose every job has its challenges. But at least I don’t have the degree of responsibility that you do. You know, for a business, for employees.”
Faye thought of the staff member she’d fired two days ago. His expression had changed from crestfallen to livid in seconds, like a chameleon transforms as it travels its multicolour landscape. She remembered the tears she’d shed in her office afterwards. Some things never got easier, though she always managed to hide it. In fact, to her colleagues, she couldn’t care less.
“It is stressful actually. If I wasn’t blonde I’d probably have many obvious greys.”
He nodded and continued eating.
“I couldn’t imagine dealing with life and death, day-in-day-out. It feels easier in an office to shut down emotions.” She said. He looked at her for a long moment. Then tugged at his deep magenta uniform.
“When we put these on, we become something else. Nurse Jake. Professional.” He put on a superhero narrator voice.
“Is that so? Pink suits you by the way.”
“I like to think so.” He glanced over her shoulder then leaned closer and lightly touched the back of her hand. Her pulse thudded.
“See that doctor sitting over there?” She subtly turned to look and her gaze landed on a middle-aged man with receding grey hair. A shirt and tie lay neatly pressed under his white coat and his small eyes looked serious behind his frameless glasses.
“He has the worst bedside manner I’ve ever seen. But at the Christmas party he got completely plastered and started crying on a rather big-bosomed senior nurse. He’s getting divorced apparently. He comes into work the next day, cold and serious as ever.”
“Strange.” Faye mused, though feeling slightly uncomfortable.
“This morning, I’m not ashamed to say, I shed a tear and…” He leant forward again.
I didn’t hide it.” He winked and she realised she was leaning in towards him. He was magnetic.
When they had finished eating they continued conversing easily and time did that mysterious thing where it seems to pass like a speeding train. It was refreshing to talk candidly, about their jobs and the town in which they lived. Faye wasn’t trying to impress, for once, and it seemed Jake never was.
The silent moments felt comfortable, unlike other encounters she’d had; she’d always had a way of making men feel uneasy. She was successful but also business-like and cold and not just in the workplace. No one seemed to discern the true Faye, hiding behind this flimsy cardboard cut-out of a strong and uncaring woman. She was strong, but she was also afraid. She realised she’d felt completely and utterly at ease for most of the time she’d been in Jake’s company. It was rare, and the thought made her tired.
Then it hit her, crept up on her just when she thought it had taken a short vacation. Her heart started to beat harder, her stomach squirmed, and fear surged up from the deep place it was always lurking; awaiting an opportunity to strangle. She never knew why it came, but she knew what to do. Faye rapped the wooden table three times and felt it subside. Though it would come again, that she was sure of.