There were stories we told each other. We spoke of beginnings, of middles and muddles and of the endings that came before we knew each other. They were tentative at first, half-told tales that petered out into hesitant looks and small nervous smiles. It takes time to know someone, at least to a point where that knowledge takes on significance.
We both knew that it was turning into something longer and deeper than any casual friendship. There was something there between us that grew stronger as our knowledge of each other grew deeper.
Carol was ten years older than me. At that age, it was a significant amount of time, a third of her life and half of mine. She had been working at Hulbert Holdings ever since she left school. She had married at twenty–three to Steve, an electrician.
‘I don’t know him at all,’ she said. It was the Friday before Christmas. We were in a pub with the rest of the office. She was wearing a Santa hat that had slipped down over her curly red hair. I’d had a thing about shoulder length red curly hair ever since Claire – my first kiss on a junior school day trip to some stately home or other.
It was that red hair that I’d noticed first as I was shown around the office during my job interview. It was the way Carol had smiled and said ‘hello’ when I walked past her desk that decided me on the job. Not that I had much choice about it, at the time. Jobs were hard to find back then. My parents had called me a fool for dropping out of university, but the more I stayed there the stranger, more alien it seemed and the more unreal my course felt. It was though I was being taught about a world that existed somehow parallel to the one I’d always known. The longer I stayed there I wondered if I would ever be able to connect the two worlds.
Carol, as Mr Phelps said on my first morning, took me under her wing. There was a bit of good-natured banter about just what that actually entailed from a couple of others in the office, especially Barry the self-styled office joker. But there have been funnier fungal infections than Barry’s lame jokes.
We did get on though, Carol and I. I liked to see her laugh and she thought my jokes and comments were infinitely funnier than Barry’s failed witticisms.
‘I like a laugh,’ she said once, her warm hand resting on my thigh for just a second or two too long. ‘But it has been a long time since anyone made me laugh as much as you.’ There was a look in her eyes then that I – still rather young and naïve – couldn’t quite decode. But I thought I knew what it meant, even though she was older than me… and married.
It all changed though one day, after I’d been at Hulbert’s for five years. She phoned in sick, leaving me alone at my desk next to hers. My phone rang later that morning. Carol pleaded with me to meet at a café a few streets away from the office at lunchtime. One we used because no-one else in the office knew it.
She was waiting there for me, wearing sunglasses. I sat and asked her how she was feeling.
‘I’ve left him,’ she said, taking off the dark glasses and showing me what his fist had done to her eye. It was then, at that moment, that an ending became one more beginning.