[November Breaks] PROLOGUE | Noah

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“This might be overstepping professional boundaries,” says Max, who knows very well that it is, “but you need to move. You can’t do nothing forever.”

“Are you a life coach now?” I want to be anywhere other than in an office. There are a thousand good reasons I’ve never worked in one and I resent having to spend time in someone else’s. I am not an office person.

“No, but as your financial advisor—” Max is very much an office person.

“You need to stop telling me to get my shit together.”

“I wasn’t.”

“You were, but I’m not doing nothing. I’m figuring things out.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said that, out loud and in my head. It’s become a mantra of sorts, somewhere between meditation and justification. The greatest of excuses.

“You mean you’re still figuring things out?” A not-so-subtle nudge. He’s good at those and part of me hates him for how well they work.

“There’s a lot of figuring out to be done. I’m not rushing it.” Procrastination. The word I’m looking for is procrastination, although perhaps that’s not right either. Maybe it’s all right to be waiting, no matter how foreign a feeling it is not to know exactly what’s going to happen and when. I’m embracing change. Another mantra. Another excuse.

“You’re walking an unusual path, NJ. Noah.”

“Am I?”

“Of course you are. You retired. You quit. You left the business. Not many people who do what you did get to make such a clean break. You know that. Some of them might try to, but it rarely works out.”

“There aren’t people who do what I did. There are people who have the same job, but they don’t do what I did.”

Max steeples his fingers and bends them back at an unnatural angle. Hypermobile joints. He takes a deep breath and his jaw tightens. Grinding his teeth. “You know what I mean.”

“And you know what I mean. We’ve had this conversation before, more than once. The difference between those people and me is that their goal is the job itself. They’re in it for progress, recognition, status. And I—”

“You had all those things.”

“But they weren’t my goals. Never have been. Work was work. No personal connections, no debts, no favours. I don’t owe anyone and no-one owes me.”

Max pushes his fingers beyond their limits, and his knuckles crack. “No-one has ever been allowed to owe you.”

The desk phone rings and Max’s left eye twitches. He presses a button and a familiar voice comes through. “Mr Hayden, I have the coffee Mr Thurston likes. Shall I bring it in?”

“Yes please, Dev.” Max rubs his eyes and leans back, shaking his head at nothing in particular. His left eye throws in one last twitch and the door opens.

Dev has this way about him, like he’s accustomed to being efficient but mostly invisible. He’s very efficient, but he deserves better than invisibility. I get the feeling no-one’s ever told him that and it would shake him too hard coming from me. He sweeps in and sets down a tray with a french press, two mugs, milk and sugar. I take my coffee strong and black, but Max prefers his as unlike coffee as he can make it. Traitor.

I’m still watching him. His hands are stretched out flat now, wrists resting on the table. He’s still watching me. It would feel confrontational if we hadn’t known each other forever. Dev doesn’t look at either of us and I don’t want to make him uncomfortable, but I’m not about to ignore him. “Thanks, Dev. That was thoughtful, about the coffee.”

“You’re welcome. It’s the one you mentioned last time,” he says, swallowing a tremor of nerves. “I ordered it in when I saw you on Mr Hayden’s calendar.” Now he looks at me and a flicker of surprise crosses his face. It suits him.

“Are you all right?” A smile tugs at my mouth and I give in to it a little. “You look like someone walked over your grave.”

“Yes. I’m fine. Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t recognise you for a moment there. I mean, I knew you were you, but you look different. In a good way. Sorry.”

“No. Thank you. You’re very kind. It makes a refreshing change from Max lecturing me about sorting my life out.” I wink at Dev like a fellow conspirator, and he doesn’t know where to put himself. He always gets nervous around me. People tend to. Sometimes it’s all right. Sometimes it’s tiring.

“You’re welcome. I’ll just—” and he leaves as quickly as he arrived. He never stays for long in a room with me, whatever I remind him of.

Max seems like he’s working up another dose of determination, shoulders set firm. “I get it. The hair, the beard, the tattoo—which is very nice, by the way—the lack of direction. I’ve seen a midlife crisis in action before. I’ve been a midlife crisis in action.”

“No, you haven’t.” I pour coffee for him and then for myself. It’s good coffee. Perfect. “You found two grey hairs and bought a motorbike you never ride. That doesn’t constitute a midlife crisis.”

“OK,” says Max, “I bow to your superior knowledge of age-based crises and navigation of your mid-forties.” There’s a downward tilt to the corners of his voice, and he’s finally giving up on steering the conversation in any direction of his choosing.

“Level with me. How are things? And be honest. None of your ‘oh, but fifteen years down the line’ business. Right now, how am I?”

Max ruins his coffee with three sugars and a cloud of milk, then takes a slow sip. “At your current rate, you could keep going for another couple of years, but then you’d have to think about cashing in some investments.”

“Seriously, Max, a couple of years? Some investments? You’re needlessly anxious, you know that?” This is so like him and exactly what I should have expected.

“You could do with being a little more anxious, or at least more focused.”

“I’ve been focused, excessively so. You know what work was like, how it made me. I need some time.” The job itself wasn’t the problem as much as the persistence of it, the clients, constantly demanding, no matter how much distance I kept between us. People start thinking they get to control you. I only ever had so much patience for that and my reserves ran dry long ago, but control has a way of becoming a driving force, regardless of who’s exerting it and in which direction. Even when you’re doing it to yourself. Especially when you’re doing it to yourself.

“You need to pay more attention to your finances.”

“That’s what I’ve got you for.” I stare at him over the top of my mug.

He visibly tenses. “Noah—”

“Fine. I promise to spend more time staring at numbers on a screen and worrying about them, so you can unclench now. All right?”

We finish the coffee, or at least I do, and I leave. The street’s crowded and people move out of my way. I try not to meet anyone’s eye because I don’t want to deal with that today. I’m kind of done dealing with it at all. I don’t want to go home yet, but there are dark clouds gathering and it looks like rain.