Offcomer

Free Offcomer by Jo Baker

Book: Offcomer by Jo Baker Read Free Book Online
Authors: Jo Baker
right. It
was
doing her good. Grainne was bound to be right once in a while. Statistical certainty, Claire thought, pronouncing the words carefully in her head. Statistical certainty, given the amount of stuff, the sheer volume of stuff that she said. Like monkeysand typewriters. Like chalk and cheese. Like dandelion and burdock. She rubbed gently at the cotton, feeling it shift and slide against the muscle beneath. She watched Jim’s face—it was Jim, wasn’t it, or was it Colm—she watched his face, his lips moving as he talked to her about Kenya, was it, or was it class sizes, or was he going on again about
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
.
    “D’you know Milton?” she asked slowly. “D’you know
L’Allegro
?”
    Because just beside her, half turned away, Paul was still sitting, his thigh against hers, his arm pressing against hers, the back of his neck a too-close blur in the corner of her eye, and she had to say something, even though the words sounded thick and ugly, and she had to smile, even though her face was numb. And she had to touch this man on the arm and look at him, and try to hear what Paul was saying, because he was talking more than she had ever heard him talk, but she couldn’t hear a word, just feel the rhythms of his words in the air, feel the thrum in his bones, and it made her want to smack her hand down on the tabletop, and shout for silence, because she couldn’t hear what he was saying, and soon he would stop. And then it would be too late.
    Knocking. On her door. She blinked awake.
    “Yes—”
    “Just reminding you. Rent day.”
    Filth in her mouth. Her head sharp, her stomach boiling. She’d kissed him. She could feel the dried saliva on her skin. She’d kissed him and asked him to stay and he’d said no. She’d only wanted someone to fall asleep with. What was his name?
    Someone laughed. She flinched. She pushed her card into the cashpoint, keyed in her number. Waited. The balance flashed up on the screen.
    Shit
.
    She stood looking at it. Behind her, someone shuffled impatiently.
Shit shit shit
. When is pay day, end of the month, how many days till then, how much did that leave her a day—the machine let out a string of angry beeps, spat out her card.
Shit
.
    She stood on the raised terrace, behind the twisted iron bars. Her cuts had not been dealt with. They oozed and trickled. The fabric of her grubby trousers stuck to them. Her jaw was locked, her headache swelling, neck and shoulders stiffening. Through the peripheral flutterings and grainy interference, she looked out across the bar.
    She had seen them arrive together, walk together across the bare gritty boards. Their faces frozen in profile, they seemed careful not to see her. Grainne had slid gracefully onto a barstool, Paul leaned up against the marble counter. Alan heaved himself up onto another stool.
    Then Gareth was leaning over to give Alan a friendly punch in the shoulder, and Alan grinned his quick, evasive grin. Paul, three-quarters profile, pulling out a pack of cigarettes, a calm, reflective smile on his mouth. The curve of Grainne’s cheek, dark glossy back of her head. Half-heard snatches of speech. Claire could not quite catch what they were saying.
    She turned, walked unnoticed through to the kitchen, sat down in the dark in the back of the store cupboard. She rested her head on her knees, closed her eyes. Her heart seemed to be beating erratically, skipping, stuttering. The dark smelt sweet with spilt aspartame-rich sauce. How the fuck, how the fuck did I get here, she thought. And what the fuck do I do now.
    The door creaked open. Claire looked up. Gareth stood in the chink of light, his face dark. She smiled vaguely at him, peering through the jostling shadows.
    “I was looking all over,” he said. “What’s the matter?”
    “I think I need some time off,” her mouth was dry; the words sounded strange to her, sticky.
    “Are you okay? What is it? Is it Alan?”
    “I want to go

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