Nell waits in her car outside Alex’s workplace. Past seven on a Dublin winter night and Nell’s car is one of only a few in the car park. The rain streams down the windscreen and she flicks the wipers. It makes no difference; there’s nothing to see except blurred waterlogged shapes.
She’s been here twenty minutes, and there’s no sign of her lover. Nell peers through the downpour up to the third-floor window, where a cocoon of light makes a weak attempt to push back the darkness. They never turn the bloody lights off. Alex could have left already, except Nell knows she’ll still be sitting there, hunched over her computer, absorbed by the formulas on her screen. No doubt, she’s already forgotten she asked Nell to collect her. Nell curses the flat battery on the mobile phone which means she can’t call her, and double curses the security at Alex’s workplace. When Dervla the receptionist goes home at 5:30, picking up her bag and scurrying out for a reviving drink in Maguire’s, there’s no chance of walking in. Not without a staff card, security clearance, and knowledge of the door code. No, Nell simply has to wait, willing Alex to unwind her brain for long enough to remember the time, look out of the window and see the Peugeot squatting there in the rain.
Nell sighs and squirms against the door. She tries not to think of the casserole sitting on the bench in their tiny galley kitchen – it needs an hour and a half in a slow oven to make the cheap cut edible. She tries not to think of her own computer screen, still powered on, and filled with the words that were only starting to flow when she realized the time and raced out the door. She hopes the rain doesn’t turn to a thunderstorm. Now is not a good time to remember she never replaced the broken surge protector. Nell closes her eyes and tries to recapture the mood that had the words tumbling out to fill the screen. It was hard enough to get excited about advertising copy for porridge oats; now the elusive words flicker and dance out of reach, spinning away like the raindrops down her windscreen.
The glowing clock on the dash tells her it’s now seven-thirty. Thirty minutes of wasted time, when she could be home in their flat, surrounded by cooking warmth and written words. Her fingers drum on the steering wheel as she leans forward to peer through narrowed eyes up to Alex’s office.
Goddammit! Why can’t she remember for once? Nell’s lips crunch to a thin, white line. It’s not as if her job as a research scientist is that important; it’s only numbers and Petri dishes and damn bacteria. Suddenly determined, she rummages around in the glove box. She’ll leave a note for Alex under the wiper and go down to Maguire’s for a pint. Maybe Dervla will still be there and they can natter over a couple of jars. And Alex can damn well wait for her for a change! But as her fingers close on a pen, the downpour intensifies and rain and hail lash the roof.
Nell drops the pen and closes her eyes in resignation. She’d drown before she got more than a dozen steps from the car. She’d be sitting in Maguire’s steaming in front of the fire – assuming they’d even lit one on a quiet Wednesday night. No, she’s stuck here, waiting for Alex to remember that patient old Nell is waiting outside.
Seven forty. Nell finds a crumpled parking ticket – unpaid, she notices with a guilty start, and more than two months overdue. Gripping the pen, she twists to rest the ticket on the dash and capture those magical words about porridge oats; words that will make the product leap off the supermarket shelves into shoppers’ trolleys, and make her boss send more work her way. But the words have slid out of her head, out through the ventilation and down the wet cobbled street, down to the Liffey and out to the Irish Sea.
Bitterness rises, seeping thick and black into her chest. She’s a supportive partner, always there for Alex, understanding when she disappears after dinner to read a research paper before bed. Uncomplaining when Alex’s gaze morphs to an unfocussed stare, and Nell has to repeat everything three times. Alex is undeniably brilliant, but that doesn’t excuse her selfishness. Nell’s fist crashes down on the dash, and the radio announcer stops in mid sentence. The last thing she needs; now she’ll have to dismantle the dash to fix it. Her simmering discontent boils over in a froth of white rage.
Well, feck Alex and feck the rain. She’ll go to Maguire’s even if she crawls in as sodden as a mop head. Grabbing her purse and keys, she scrambles out into the night, and the rain instantly slicks her hair to her forehead. Locking the car, she stomps off in the direction of Maguire’s.
After ten paces, she hears a shout over the rage clattering in her head, over the pounding of rain.
“Hey, Nell! Wait!”
She turns, and Alex is running toward her. Her dark curls bounce in disordered array, raindrops clinging to their wiry tumble.
Alex pants to a stop in front of her. “Sorry, sorry,” she says. “I forgot the time, and I had to let the computer finish generating the report. I only saw the car when I looked out of the window a minute ago. Why didn’t you call me?”
“Mobile’s flat,” says Nell shortly. “I’m going to Maguire’s.”
Alex’s face is open, bewildered. “Why? You’re drenched! Let’s go home . . . I’m starving.”
Nell rounds on her, and snarls, “Then I suggest you find a chipper. There’s no dinner, and I’m sick, sick, of waiting around until you deign to remember I’m here.” Her voice rises, spills over in a tirade of wounded, forgotten misery.
A woman scuttles past, huddled under an umbrella, and eyes her apprehensively. Alex darts her a sideways glance and grabs Nell’s arm, steering her back to the car. “If you want to fight with me, fine, but do it in the car, not the street.”
Nell grunts and shakes her hand off, but stalks back to the car. Wounded pride, affront, and anger simmer in the moist air.
Inside the car the words lash like tentacles. “Forty feckin’ minutes I was waiting. Inconsiderate doesn’t even begin to describe it! You don’t need a lover; you need a chauffeur, a cook, a cleaner—”