Luke Tredget’s novel Kismet (Faber & Faber, £12.99) is out now.
Gradually the sky turns a brilliant yellow and it occurs to her to look at the gift once more before leaving for the factory.
This is a dangerous idea: Joe will be back from the night shift at any moment. But before she can stop herself, she is kneeling on the floorboards
and retrieving a flat velvet box from beneath the dresser.
She takes out a string of pearls and holds them up in the faint sunlight.
There is the scratch of a key in the front door and she pushes the box under the dresser and clambers into bed. She faces the wall and clamps her eyes shut, convinced a trace of her movements remain in the air.
The door opens and Joe lumbers into the room.
He seems to pause for a second before approaching; the mattress complains as he sits on it. He brings with him a sour smell of oil and sweat.
“It’s time,” he says.
“Hello,” she says, yawning, opening her eyes as slowly as she can.
Joe stares at her blankly, his green eyes tiny in his dust-blackened face, and then rubs her cheek with a calloused thumb.
Her face screws up under his touch.
“Hey!” she says, pushing his wrist away.
“Wash your hands before you start touching me up.”
She asks him the time; when he tells her she swears and jumps out of bed.
“You’re late,” she says, padding. “You want tea?”
“There’s no time, is there? You should have woken me 20 minutes ago.”
She turns on the tap and pulls her nightie over her head, letting it drop to the floor.
“I stopped at the labour exchange.”
“Nothing. Not during the day, anyway.”
Emily doesn’t respond, and begins rubbing soap into her armpits.
Then the alcove darkens and she knows Joe is behind her – he has made a habit of talking to her while she washes. He moans more about working nights, but Emily only half-listens; she worries if the velvet box is actually fully hidden beneath the dresser.
For a moment, the only sound is water crashing into the basin, then Joe clears his throat.
“I bumped into Geoff yesterday.
It was too hot to sleep, so I went for a walk. Saw him on Victoria Street.”
“Well, he said something interesting,” he says, in a tone that makes Emily look at him.
“He asked about the accident at your place.”
Emily freezes, then turns away.
She’d known this conversation might arise, but her mind had shied away from preparing for it.
“How come you didn’t tell me?” says Joe.
“Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t think…” She stares at her feet, then looks at him and her voice hardens.
“What do you care anyway?” she says, pushing past him to where her work clothes are folded.
“Just thought it odd. Some guy almost dies, and you don’t mention it. Geoff asked if he’d pulled through, and I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Emily hurries getting dressed while trying to remain calm.
The word alone causes her stomach to flutter, and the event replays in her mind for the hundredth time that week.
The scream, then the cries for help above the din of the machines.
Everyone rising from the long desks and crowding round the hurt man, shouting over one another, trying to help.
Then making way for the stretcher and touching the poor man’s shoulder as he was carried away.
It was there, in the press of the crowd, that Emily felt a hand take hers from behind.
She turned in alarm and it was him, tall and immaculate in shirt, tie and aftershave.
He carried on looking over her head towards the ambulance, not acknowledging what he was doing with his hand.
She turned back to the stretcher being loaded into the van, her heart beating wildly.
Shortly afterwards the crowd disbursed.
He returned to the office, she to her machine.
But the next time their eyes met she forced herself to return his stare, which was held long enough to dispel the possibility of any other meaning.
She can’t believe it was only a week ago.
“Well?” says Joe.
He has the knot in his brow that appears wherever he is angry or confused.
“Well what?” she says.
She has finished dressing and gets her coat from the back of the door.
“It’s just sad, that’s all. I’m sorry you didn’t have a good story to tell Geoff.”
“You think that’s why I care?” says Joe, raising his voice.
“Don’t you get it? The guy was an engineer.”
Emily shrugs, but she knows what is coming. She goes to the table and pretends to rearrange the contents of her bag so she can hide her expression when he says the inevitable.
“So you must be down an engineer, right?”
She becomes unnaturally still and then sighs, in a show of realisation.
“I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t think… It just hadn’t occurred to me.”
Joe is still frowning, and she smiles as sweetly as she can.
“But I’ll ask today. They might not have replaced him yet. Look, I’m terribly late.”
She takes her bag from the table and kisses the air next to his greasy cheek.
“I’ll ask, today,” she repeats.
Then she goes, leaving Joe standing in the centre of the bedroom. Head down, she hurries out of the building to join the tangle of workers on their way to the factories.
Luke Tredget’s novel Kismet (Faber & Faber, £12.99) is out now.
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