Zak bounced towards the milling throng of fidgety platform-dwellers, all of whom looked up in unison and threw him simultaneous work-weary glares. The nerve of his sparkling energy, in this weather, at this time of day; it was not really on.
And yet, how could Zak possibly feel miserable in the wake of such an escape? When he thought about what could have happened – where he could have ended up right now. By comparison, he considered himself a very fortunate man.
For the third Friday afternoon in a row, he had found himself cornered by Tanya, the new office receptionist. Call her what you like – and Zak frequently did so, using a range of unpleasant descriptors – she was certainly persistent. In an effort to avoid her, Zak had arrived at work an hour earlier than usual and had stayed in his office with the door closed all day. It was therefore quite a blow when, contrary to the intel he’d obtained from one of the other assistants, she was still in the building at close of business, ready to spring out from behind a concrete column in the foyer as he attempted to leave.
As excuses went, his was not terribly imaginative. No (he said to her, in a voice weighed down with deep disappointment), he’d be at the office all night finishing a report that was due by Monday.
I know, I know (he went on). The unfairness of it all. The Man, etc. Take it up with HR? They wouldn’t care. Legal action? Not worth the bother. But yes, very, very frustrating, and of course puts all notions of a Fun Friday night out the bloody window.
Eventually, he had managed to reverse back over the threshold of his own office, but for the rest of the working day he suffered an intermittent neck cramp, brought on by the intensity of his solemn nodding. He also wasted forty-five minutes waiting in his office for Tanya to definitely, absolutely, one-hundred-percent leave, which meant he would go on to miss the last of the direct buses to his house and the first fifteen minutes of his favourite television show.
Still. These were acceptable losses. The important thing was that for another week, he was safe.
It was under the buoyant influence of this freedom that he stepped – almost skipped – towards the bus platform, with nothing but love for the world in his pink, giddy heart.
Until he saw her. Just a few metres away. Already looking at him.
No. No, no, no, no, no. No. No? No!
She waved, then gave him a huge, horse-like grin and wobbled over on unsteady high heels.
‘You escaped after all, then?’ she asked, a little breathless.
Zak managed a shrug and a half-smile.
‘On your way home now?’ she ventured again.
He dug his hands deep into his coat pockets, suddenly feeling the chill in the air. She spoke again before he’d thought of some non-committal response.
‘You don’t catch the 66 too, do you?’ she said. ‘Well, this is priceless!’
As much as he disliked her, Zak could not help but be impressed with the way she ploughed through the dead air with such undammed positivity.
‘This is the first time I’ve caught the bus back home, myself. Nice to know I’ll have a bus buddy going the same way!’
Zak nodded sadly. He might as well accept his fate.
Unless… There was another bus in fifteen minutes. He could wait around for that, couldn’t he? It was only another fifteen minutes. Surely that was still an acceptable loss? It would mean missing his TV show entirely. And he’d get home too late to cook anything more than a quick, simple dinner.
But that was okay! Save the steak for tomorrow night. No big deal.
‘I’m actually on my way to the hospital,’ Zak lied. ‘Realised I left a few files there that I’m going to need for Monday’s report.’
‘Oh, you poor thing,’ said Tanya, with a look of fresh devastation. She pointed to the next platform. ‘You’d better hurry, then! That’s your bus, isn’t it?’
Zak shook his head.
‘No. No, I don’t think so.’
‘Course it is. The 97. It says Billingham Hospital on the front, see?’
Zak stared at her bulging eyes. Hating her. Hating himself.
‘Oh yes,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘So it is.’
What was the alternative? He said he was going to the fucking hospital, and there – RIGHT FUCKING THERE – was the fucking bus to the fucking hospital.
‘Well, have a good one,’ he said, and dragged his feet from her wretched farewell smile.
Was this really happening? Was he now knowingly taking a bus that would travel in the opposite direction of his house? Was this fine? Another acceptable loss?
Sure, he told himself. No big deal. Nothing else for it, really.
Zak’s neck cramp twinged as he settled himself into a seat on the bus. The discovery that Tanya would be catching the 66 from now on was certainly interesting. She must live in the same area.
He contemplated the idea for a moment, then came to a decision. He’d have to move house. Obviously. Nothing else for it.