Caryn hadn’t wanted to wear that dress this morning. It was fresh from the dryer and felt stiff and starchy next to her skin. She hoked around in the back of the cupboard for something else more suitable and, more importantly, comfortable, but could not find anything. So, she had settled on the blue. It’ll stretch as I walk, she thought. And I can take if off and hang it in the toilet during lunch for some air. It was a dress she had bought when her courtship began with Jonathon. That hadn’t lasted long, and it was a horrid reminder of the way in which he had ended things.
Her house was always quiet in the mornings, which she liked, but for some reason, this morning it bothered her. It was like a loud tinnitus of nothing. Emptiness. It reminded her how alone she felt and how solitary and painful the last five nights of insomnia had been. It happened sometimes. She would sleep normally for weeks and then one night, out of the blue, her head would hit the pillow and her entire body would feel as if she had been injected with fizz and she knew: it would be an entire night of restlessness.
Robert was never in before her. Caryn knew that he had a wife and children and his morning hours were precious to him. She imagined his wife prepared his breakfast. Made him tea. Very strong. And eggs and soldiers. Perhaps, Caryn thought, she made this for all the family but had been making it for Robert since they got married. It was, like most things for Robert, a ritual he would be uncompromising about. If he doesn’t have his soldiers dipped into a gooey egg, the day doesn’t run well.
I suppose, you could say Caryn and Robert liked each other. If you worked alongside them, they appeared to. They spoke and exchanged pleasantries and sometimes Caryn would make an extra cup of tea and bring it to Robert on a break. Very strong. She knew how he liked it. But that appeared to be the extent of it. She didn’t know much about him. He rarely talked about his family. He rarely talked about anything in fact, other than having to work longer hours, or the ‘influx of new staff’.
Caryn didn’t even know the names of his children and felt like it would be rude to ask at this stage. She had met his wife once at a work function. She was tall. Long and slim with tiny bird-like ankles and appeared to be the kind of woman that men like. It had occurred to her that Jonathon probably ended up with a woman just like Robert’s wife.
“That’s a nice dress Caryn. It’s new is it?”
Caryn was so taken aback to receive a personal comment from Robert that she wasn’t sure how to respond and so just continued to walk past him. They were both working late and had been in the office now for almost 10 hours. It seemed odd that only now, on this day, at this time, Robert would say something so personal, so out of character.
He had seemed in a bad mood when he came in this morning. Rushed and agitated and had quipped at the receptionist Polly.
Polly was the youngest staff member. She had only worked there for a year or so. Caryn liked Polly. She was friendly and bounced. She bounced in a heel which Caryn was never able to do. Sometimes they walked to work together. Polly would see Caryn walking and run out to join her. They lived in the same neighborhood.
Polly lived with her boyfriend. Every Monday, Polly would tell Caryn about the dinners he took her to on Friday evenings. How they had oysters and a white wine that Caryn could never remember the name of. Polly liked to repeat it. Flourish the name with a French accent. Polly’s laugh was infectious and alluded to a lightness and freedom Caryn had never known. In those twilight hours of insomnia Caryn would hear Polly’s laugh like an echo, and a pain would grow in her chest. She wasn’t aware this was jealousy. In the main, Polly entertained Caryn and she enjoyed having someone in the office she could converse with, someone she could look at, who knew some trivial part of her life. A tenuous line of understanding.
Polly had mentioned Robert’s rudeness at breaktime, so Caryn had decided not to make him tea that afternoon, but rather stay out of his way and get her work finished as quickly as possible.
“Is it new, Caryn?”
Again? Her internals took a beat. She looked at the floor trying to avoid his eye contact. She realised she was feeling a bit uncomfortable.
The silence went on a moment too long, and she could feel Robert’s expectant stare.
“Oh, no, it’s old actually. It’s not one of my favourites… or perhaps that appropriate for work I suppose…” She trailed off.
“Well I like it very much.”
He seemed relaxed and at ease, as if what he had just uttered was totally normal. As if it wasn’t completely out of character and unusual. As if he hadn’t just broken the boundaried repartee that had existed between them for the last eight years.
“Thanks Robert, that’s very kind of you.”
She saw a gap. “Robert, are you okay?” Silence. “You seemed agitated this morning?’
“Did I?” his tone seemed to change. “No! I’m absolutely fine. Absolutely fine.” Silence. “Was I rude to you Caryn?”
She realized she had taken his cue wrong, that it wasn’t in fact an invitation to a more intimate conversation.
“No, no, god. Sorry. Not at all. I just... I’m glad you’re… fine”
He looked back down at his work, signaling the conversation had ended. That was that.
She smiled faintly. She went to walk on, but realized there was a part of her, inside, that slowly raged. Why was it his choice to end the conversation? Why should it be him who defined how this interaction went and flowed?
“I’m not sleeping.” It came out of her like a cough, like a reflexive tick.
“I said I’m not sleeping. I can’t. It happens sometimes. The insomnia might last for weeks. I go to bed as normal, around 9pm. That’s when I go to bed most nights, Robert. I live alone. So, there isn’t really a reason for me to ever stay up late. I go to bed and as soon as I turn the lights off and lay down to sleep, I get the most almighty injection of electricity through me. I can lie there prone for 3 hours. 4 hours. All night. As soon as it starts, it sets off a chain reaction. I can go without sleep for two weeks at a time. It makes me feel a little insane. I often wonder if you see my eyes twitch, because you see, I feel them twitch… but, on those days, one of the really bad ones, in which I haven’t slept for 4 or 5 days in a row, my eye twitches so much I feel like it might pop out of the socket, and yet, I’ll hand you your tea and you won’t notice. You don’t even ask if I’m okay. Sometimes you don’t even look up as I place the cup down in front of you.”
She stopped talking. She stared straight at him. They were both suspended in air. In silent, empty air.
“Well I suppose that really is that, Robert.”
She walked back down the hall and into the bathroom. It felt like her head was drifting up off her shoulders into the floor above her. Up, up and away from her body. She blinked incessantly as she walked. Her lashes trying to bat normalcy back into her body like a wet sheet on a line in the wind. She walked into the middle of the bathroom. She took her heels off and stood flat-footed on the cold tiles. She was surprised how steady her breath was. She picked up her shoes, walked slowly into the cubicle by the window, unzipped her dress, hung it on the back of the door and sat on the toilet seat.
Valene Kane is an actress originally from the North of Ireland now living in London. She has been acting professionally since 2009. This is Valene's first piece of submitted work and her first short story.