CHAPTER 19

The following Tuesday evening, Tom arranged to pick Siobhan up from work. He arrived at the office in plenty of time, but she was seeing a client. He waited for her at her desk.

‘Want a coffee, Tom?’ Mona, Siobhan’s manager, asked.

‘If you don’t mind. Don’t you want to get going though? It’s gone five.’

‘Nah, it’s fine. I’m going to be stuck here a while yet. Got a stack of paperwork to do, but I could do with a break.’

She locked the door, switched the sign to ‘closed’, then went out to the small kitchen out back. Tom waited for her to return, trying not to look at Siobhan’s paperwork, but finding his eyes wandering. Her diary was open and was full of appointments. There were post-it notes stuck around the edge of her computer screen reminding her to email one client and phone another, to set up a meeting and chase up a file. Her wire in-tray was full to overflowing with papers. It reminded him of the desks he used to sit behind, and he felt a strange sense of nostalgia. Christ, was he actually beginning to miss work?

He felt uncomfortable sitting in her chair, and so got up and walked across the room and looked through the window onto the damp streets of Thatcham outside. This was Siobhan’s world, and he didn’t want to intrude. It wasn’t that he didn’t have any interest, more that he was keen to respect boundaries. His life, by comparison, was completely open to her. Problem was, he decided, right now there was very little in his life worth seeing.

‘You okay?’ Mona asked. He spun around, startled. He hadn’t heard her return.

‘Fine,’ he replied. ‘Miles away, that’s all.’

*

Siobhan’s appointment finished half an hour later. Tom had wondered whether she’d want to go out for dinner then go on and see a film, but she wasn’t keen.

‘I’m knackered,’ she’d said as they walked back to the car through the rain. ‘I’d rather just spend the night at home if you don’t mind.’

They agreed to go back to her flat and spend the night there, calling into one of the large, hangar-like supermarkets on the outskirts of Drayton to pick up supplies first.

‘This is good, isn’t it,’ she said, pointing at a huge display rack full of confectionary and puddings.

‘Is it?’ He couldn’t understand what was so special about it. In fact, the more he looked at it, the less sense it made. Since when did supermarkets display this kind of unhealthy, artificial crap alongside the fruit and vegetables? They were usually at opposite ends of the store.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s good that they’re thinking of everyone.’

‘Are they?’

‘Bloody hell, keep up, Tom!’ She picked up a tub of sickly sweet honeycomb. ‘Jall was saying he can get through a couple of tubs of this stuff in a day. And he stays so thin! It’s not fair. You know me, I only have to look at this kind of stuff and I put weight on.’

Tom walked on, keen to fill their trolley with stuff they needed, not waste time looking at what they didn’t. Thankfully the store was relatively quiet. Siobhan’s late finish meant they’d missed the bulk of people who shopped on the way home from work, and the school-related traffic was long gone too. Once done, Tom loaded their shopping onto the conveyor and watched as the glassy-eyed checkout operator scanned it all through. He handed her his bank card.

‘Can’t use that,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Can’t use that at this till. There’s a sign.’ She pointed to a large sign hanging above her station, blowing slightly in the breeze from the air conditioning. Tom looked up.

‘Biometric payments only. What’s all that about? I’ve been coming here and using the same card for months. What’s the problem?’

‘It’s a trial. We’re a trial store. This is a trial till.’

‘Well no one told me.’

‘Like I said, there’s a sign,’ she repeated, pointing up.

‘This is a joke. What the hell’s a biometric payment anyway?’

‘If you want to use that card you’ll have to go to another till.’

‘But I’ve unpacked all our stuff now.’

‘You could re-pack it.’

‘Or you could just take my payment. This is ridiculous. Is there a manager here I can talk to?’

Siobhan swapped places with him, conscious there were people waiting. ‘Leave it, Tom. I’ll get it,’ she said, and she put her thumb on a finger pad where the card reader used to be. Tom continued bagging up their food. ‘Did you not get a letter from the bank?’ she asked.

‘I get loads of letters from the bank. Most of them are crap and I bin them. Just marketing junk.’

‘Don’t you think it’d be a good idea to read them from time to time?’

‘I don’t know,’ he grumbled, picking up their bags. ‘They’re only ever trying to sell me something or get me to invest money I haven’t got with them.’

‘Or they might be telling you about the new payment system they’re trialling.’

‘I haven’t heard anything about it.’

She put the last bag in the trolley and started back towards the car. ‘Well you should have. It’s been all over the TV. They’re trialling it here first because we’ve got a relatively high proportion of visitors. Honestly, Tom, that was embarrassing.’

‘What have aliens got to do with it?’

‘Jesus, you really haven’t been paying attention. It’s based on their tech. I mean, we’ve had this kind of stuff for years, but they’ve helped the banks take it to another level. It makes payment processing more efficient, cuts down the risk of fraud.’

‘So what are you saying? That your thumb is now linked to your current account?’

‘Something like that. Yours would be too if you’d read the letter like everyone else.’

*

Tom cooked their meal in the small kitchen of Siobhan’s one-bedroom flat. It was a decent enough place – she had half the ground floor of a large, Victorian house which had been converted into four apartments. The rent was reasonable, and the surrounding area was pleasant enough. Siobhan kept the place pristine and had been there long enough to make her mark, tastefully decorating the limited space and making it her own. But Tom had been wondering for a while now if it was time for them to reconsider their living arrangements.

‘Are you coping with the rent on this place?’ he asked clumsily as they ate in front of the TV.

‘Of course I am,’ she said, surprised by his question. ‘Why do you ask? I’ve been here almost three years.’

‘I was just thinking, it’s a lot to be paying out each month.’

‘Are you offering to pay my rent for me?’

‘No, I was just wondering if it was time to get rid of the flat, that’s all. We’ve been together more than six months and…’

‘I like my space,’ she said quickly. The speed of her answer took him by surprise. Hurt him.

‘Oh, okay. It’s just that you spend a lot of time at mine, and I was thinking about all that cash you’re paying out each month.’

‘Tom, are you trying to help me save money or are you asking me to move in with you?’

‘Both,’ he said, sounding unsure. ‘Actually, I’m asking you to move in with me. Or at least think about it.’

Siobhan put down her knife and fork. She looked across at him and smiled. ‘That’s really sweet.’

‘Sweet? Is it?’

‘Yes.’

‘So what do you think?’

‘I’m not sure.’

Tom’s heart sank. Frantic thoughts rushed through his mind. Have I read too much into this relationship? Does she mean more to me than I mean to her? Thank God I didn’t ask her to marry me…

‘Why?’

‘Two reasons,’ she explained, ‘one is a practical reason, both are equally valid. First, I’m halfway through a twelve month tenancy. I signed an extension just after we started seeing each other, remember?’

‘I remember,’ he said. He’d forgotten.

‘Second,’ she began, pausing to choose her words carefully, ‘I want this to be something we’re both completely sure about.’

‘I’m sure.’

‘Are you?’

‘Yes,’ he answered, beginning to doubt himself. ‘I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I wasn’t.’

‘It’s just that you’ve not been yourself these last few weeks. I think you’ve got a lot going on in that head of yours, and until you sort it all out, I don’t think you’ll be able to know what it is you really want.’

‘I already know that. I want you.’

‘I’m not talking about sex.’

‘Neither am I.’

‘I’m talking about commitment and long term plans. I feel like you’re on the rebound from your past, and I don’t want to make any decisions about what I’m going to do with my life until I’m completely sure you want me to be a part of yours.’

‘But…’

‘Tommy, sweetheart, I’m not saying no. I already know that I want to be with you for the rest of my life. I just want you to be sure that this is the life you want before we both take that leap.’

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