[November Breaks] NOW | 28 | Noah

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WEDNESDAY 6TH FEBRUARY 2019

We’re about to walk through the door of Alchemy when your phone rings. You glance at the screen and your face drops. “It’s your financial advisor.”

“Our financial advisor,” I correct, and you glare at me like my time’s up.

“Go on in. I’ll be there when I’m done with this.” You slide a finger across your screen. “Hey Max. What do you have for me?”

Inside, Perry looks up from behind the espresso machine and raises a salute in my direction. “Boss. Sweet shot in the dark?”

“Always.” It’s after lunch, so the place isn’t packed, but it’s more than half full. That’s a good sign, especially at this time of year. I can hear Anna in the kitchen, singing along to the radio while she unloads the dishwasher, and I take a seat at the bar. “Sorry I didn’t let you know I was coming in.”

Perry pours a shot of espresso into a mug of filter and adds a shake of vanilla sugar. “You don’t have to let me know. You own the place.”

“I know, but I never liked the feeling people were checking up on me at work, so I don’t want to do it to you. You don’t need to be checked up on.” I lift the mug and breathe in the rich warmth of the drink. “Thanks. This smells incredible.”

“It’s a sample from the new supplier I was talking to the other day. There’s a whole bunch for you to try, if you want.”

Then you come in, shaking the phone call out of your head.

Perry winks at you. “Boss-in-law.”

You smile at him the way you smile at people, and this is my life now.

“You,” says Perry, “need a usual.”

You take a seat next to me at the bar. “But you’re so good at surprising me. If you stop doing that, I might get bored, and then who knows what could happen?”

Perry leans an elbow on the bar and rests his chin on his hand. “Well, now I’m intrigued.”

Every time we come in here. Every time, there is some version of this interaction and it never gets any less amusing. I shake my head at Perry. “Stop encouraging him.” Then, as Perry starts making whatever drink he’s going to stave off your boredom with today, I turn to you. “What did Max want?”

“He asked me to come in tomorrow, but it didn’t sound like a request. I asked him—also not really a request—to send everything over so I could read through it in my own time first, but apparently this is a meeting that can’t be an email. It’s almost like he assumes I’ll ignore everything he sends and tell him to do what he thinks is best because I don’t really care.”

“That’s exactly what you’d do.”

“I know, but still. At least if it’s all on paper or screen, I won’t have to—”

“You still have to listen to him, Brett.”

“Make me.” You nudge my knee with yours.

“You’ll get used to Max. He can be a shock to the system, but he’s very good at replacing ‘no’ with ‘this instead’. He’ll take you in the right direction if you can learn to balance his extreme caution with your total absence of it.”

Perry sets a drink in a tall glass mug in front of you. “Dirty chai latte. It’s a masala chai latte with a shot of espresso.”

You try it, and nod in appreciation. “You had me at dirty.”

“Literally the reason I serve this drink,” Perry shoots back, and goes to tend to a couple arguing in French at the other end of the bar.

You take another sip and your eyes dart around the room. You’re watching everything else and I’m watching you. Both of us are taking in details. Finally, you sigh and sit back. “I’m going to call Byron and arrange to go in and see him. It probably won’t be tomorrow, but it’ll be soon. I’ll get it all over and done with this week. And then it’ll be—”

I wait, giving you as much silence as you need.

“—it’ll be over. I’ll be free. He’ll do whatever I want. Jordan’s been feeding me info and apparently Byron’s great fear is that I’ll sue Allegra, which I definitely could do, but I’m not going to. All I have to do is let him think I might.”

“Do you want to sort it now?”

“Yeah.” You finish your dirty chai latte. “May as well.”

Neatly dodging the now-reconciling French couple on your way out of the door, you wander over to the harbour wall with your phone in your hand. Seeing you sitting right there, on the precipice of change, makes everything feel circular and unexpectedly comforting.

Two young women who were holding hands across a table when we arrived are now deep in conversation about how great the coffee is, how cosy the place is, and how they should come here more often. One points out that it’s their four-month anniversary, and the conversation stops as their cups clink together in a toast.

Alchemy still feels good. It still feels slightly out of time. Maybe I’m different here too, or the way people see me is different. They don’t get out of my way. And there’s that feeling again, of almost not being who I am.

You come back in and take your jacket off this time, like you might be staying. “So, tomorrow, as it turns out.”

“What? He wants you to come in tomorrow?”

“He does. I wasn’t expecting it, but he sounded like he was ready to hand me his still-beating heart if I asked for it. So, Byron first, tie up loose ends, then Max and… whatever he does.” You shrug, not defeated but perhaps temporarily accepting of a new kind of discomfort. “Perry, could I have another one of those dirty chai lattes, please? You can consider it my usual from now on.”

Perry makes your drink and the sense of almost-normal returns. Almost-normal me, a business owner who can actually tell people the truth about what I do. Almost-normal you, a burnt-out genius leaving a high-powered job and considering a career change. Almost-normal us, a couple sitting at the bar in a coffee shop, coats over backs of chairs, passing glances and smiles back and forth between us.

“Any plans for after this?” asks Perry, setting your mug in front of you with a flourish.

You lift it. “We are going… for a walk.”

We have no intention of going for a walk, and I know exactly what you’re doing. I recognise the split of your sentence. Of course it sounds like you paused to take a drink, but I hear it exactly the way you said it with a gun pointed at Alan Gerrit’s gut and my hand finds your thigh under the counter for an instinctive second until I remember where we are.

I still can’t get past how utterly perfect you were in that moment. During that whole experience. You had none of the anxious enthusiasm usually seen in first-timers who have to be educated into professionalism by someone with more patience than I have. You were calm, in control, as if you’d spent your whole life ending other people’s. And it wasn’t neutral necessity the way it always was for me, at least when I did it on my own. I am completely fascinated.

You turn towards me and look at me over the top of your drink. “What?”

“Nothing.”

An eyebrow raise and a press of your foot against mine and a smirk I can’t see behind your mug, but I know is there. “I thought it was never nothing.”