A Sudden Meeting

Story no. 17. It still counts as Wednesday’s, because it’s Wednesday in. . . part of. . . the U.S.! 

Mummy had picked a really spectacular day for all this, Beatrice thought, leaning her aching head on the steering wheel. Her eyes burned and her throat ached. After she had driven away from the house she had pulled into the car park of a petrol station and wept for a full hour. Her head pounded with dehydration and misery.

Of course Mummy had picked today, though. She couldn’t stand to see Beatrice happy, and she couldn’t recall when she’d been happier than signing a four-book deal for Captain Howard and his mystery-sniffing dog, Isaac. There was probably a kinder way to think of it, but her heart hurt too much to figure out what it might be. Mummy just wanted to help. She just wanted to make sure Beatrice didn’t forget that she wasn’t terribly attractive and that she’d already lost most of her good years to find a good man, and that if she wanted to snag one in what time she had left she’d better remember that no self-respecting man wanted to be involved with a woman who didn’t wear makeup and who spent all her time making up batty stories about some big-hatted idiot wandering on and off of boats.

Beatrice had a meeting with her agent to go over the details of the new contract in two hours. Isaac Billings was a kindly, enthusiastic fellow, but he wasn’t the sort of person who would know what to do with crying. `

She closed her eyes for another few moments, breathing deeply, then opened them and pulled her car back onto the motorway. Mr. Billings’ office was in Bloomsbury, near the University College of London. He was always complaining about having to dodge witless students in his car. If she was quite quick, Beatrice found she could usually park in one of the visitor spaces and be done with her paperwork before anyone noticed.

Traffic was light – as light as it ever got on the A1, anyway – and she pulled her Volkswagen into a narrow spot a mere thirty-minutes after she’d left the petrol station. She still felt ill as she pulled her jacket and bag from the back seat. It didn’t button right. Mummy would say she was getting fat. Or that she shouldn’t wear such bulky sweaters.

Beatrice pressed her hands onto the top of her car and pressed her face into her hands. The tears rose again. She was too tired. That was all. She could deal with Mummy on a regular day. Anxiety and anticipation about the new books had kept her awake most of last night. Tomorrow, or next week, when she’d gotten installed back in the little house she rented in Northumbria for a pittance, gotten back on her proper sleep schedule, delved back into the Napoleonic adventures of Captain Howard, all of this would hardly bother her. Hardly more than usual.

But for now she desperately needed to wash her face, or Mr. Billings would want to know if she were sick with influenza or hayfever or whatever foolish thing elderly British men thought red eyes and swollen cheeks resulted from.

Blindly she moved through the campus. Water filtered everything into a subterranean alter-reality. Were all the classroom buildings locked? One of the glass doors opened under her hand. No, apparently not. A pair of elderly wooden doors looked very promising, one across from the other halfway down the central hallway. Beatrice squinted at the icons affixed at head-height: the one on the right had a skirt.

The sink closest to the window had a tall, curved faucet. She could fit her entire head beneath it, and she let the water run on her face for a moment. The white enamel box on the wall yielded up a handful of paper towels to sponge it off with.

A toilet flushed behind and she jumped. She kept her head averted from the mirror, her eyes half-closed. The stall door banged open.

“Oh. My God. Shit.” The voice was exasperated and deep and – male?

“I’m sorry?” she said, determinedly staring at the molding.

“Is this the women’s toilet?”

“What?” She looked up, blinking. The person standing behind her had to be at least a foot taller than she was, she thought in awe. Black stubble covered his jaw and head. Rectangular glasses with silver frames sat on his crooked nose. “Was that not – erm – what you were hoping for?”

“No!” Some sort of accent – Eastern European? Central Asian – wound around his words. “How do you tell which is which? I have done this – oh. My God – ten times.

“Well, sometimes it says ‘ladies’ or ‘gents,’” Beatrice said meekly. “Barring that, the little icon with a skirt on it is generally understood to be female.”

Skirt? What skirt? Neither of the little people is wearing a skirt!” He rubbed an impatient hand over his shorn head.

“It is a bit diagrammatic, generally. The one with the inverted triangle. Are you – um – accustomed to other symbols?”
He pushed the soap dispenser button and stared in bemusement at the foam in his hand. “No. I’m not used to having divided toilets at all.”

“Where’s that?” Beatrice said, before she could stop herself. “I mean, where don’t they use divided toilets?”

To her surprise, the man took off his glasses, hooked them on his collar, and began to wash his face. He was quite good-looking, she thought unhappily. “Vailga,” he said.

“In Eisdann?” she said. “That’s so – so far!”

He patted a paper towel over his face. “It is very far. I’m surprised you know where it is. Most English people don’t.” He snorted, but his eyes seemed to catch on her face. “Are you crying?”

“No – well – not really – I mean, I’ve just stopped,” Beatrice said.

The man slid his glasses back onto his nose. His eyes were very dark and slightly tilted up at the corners. “Are you all right?”

She sighed and slumped. “Not just at the moment, but I will be.”

He finished washing his hands, but his eyes remained on her. “You look not so very good.”

“I left Mum’s without eating lunch,” she said. “That’s probably it.”

“There’s a shop just over there – “ he pointed with his chin, a gesture that made her laugh “ – that sells sandwiches.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she said, patting her face dry as well. “We seem to have killed at least a tree-worth of paper,” she added, looking in the waste basket.

“I am a student of literature,” he said dryly. “My entire life is made of dead trees. Let me show you where it is.”

The man cracked the door of the restroom and eyeballed the hallway before emerging in a fluid rush. Beatrice followed, amused. They left the building and crossed a grassy quadrangle. “It’s a student shop,” he said, pointing ahead. “Inside the mathematics faculty. Luckily students don’t use it.”

“Except you?” Beatrice said.

“I am not precisely a student,” he said.

“Oh, are you an adjunct?”

“That is my job, though sadly not my title. Here we are.” He pushed open another glass door and held it while she walked through.

“How’s that? I mean, how did that happen?”

They looked at each other for a very long minute. Beatrice suddenly wished she could take his hand and squeeze it. “That is . . . complicated.”

The shop was almost out of sandwiches, seeing as how it was half-two. Beatrice got a bun and a coffee. Her new companion got a roast beef, a carton of milk, and a coffee. They stood and talked in the hallway while they sipped and munched. Crumbs marched down her front (as they always did.) At least she hadn’t gotten anything with mayonnaise.

The clock at the end of the hallway caught her eye. “I’m so sorry, I’ve got a meeting. Thank you very much – “

“It is not an imposition,” he said. They looked at each other again.

“Maybe I’ll see you,” she said, before turning and walk-running to the stairs.


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