This is the fifth part of a fiction serial, in 750 words.
I was staying late at work one night, trying to make a few grand for the bank with some stragglers. Those dealers who waited until the last moment, the time just before the operation changed over to our night shift guys who worked on the floor above. The last-minute deals were sometimes lucrative, as they would haggle less, and often drop down to as low as half a cent on the dollar commission on any subsequent profit. And it didn’t hurt that I was still logged on to my terminal at nine at night, when everyone else had left the floor.
That wouldn’t go unnoticed.
As I stood up and closed down the screen, I turned to reach for my jacket, and saw her standing right by the back wall. She was wearing a green tabard over a simple dress, and carrying one of those plastic things that hold spray bottles and cloths. Encouraged by my screen going dark, she walked forward. “Okay to clean now, please?” The accent sounded Russian, maybe Polish. I apologised for making her wait. I had never noticed any cleaners waiting before, but I was normally gone by eight.
She just smiled, and started spraying something on the nearest desk.
When I got across to the row of lifts, I turned back before pressing the button. I watched as she cleaned rythmically, her natural black hair shining in the lights left on by the terminal. Older than me, maybe thirty-five. Neither skinny, nor overweight. I pressed the button, and carried on looking. When the ding sounded to announce the lift had arrived, she turned and looked at me. I smiled, and she smiled back.
The next night I joined the guys for a quick beer after work, then went back into the building. Checking my watch, I hoped I had guessed right. I almost missed her, as she was just walking into the service corridor entrance as I got to my floor. She stopped when she saw me. “You forget something? I get it for you?” I smiled and told her that I had come looking for her, and would she give me her number, so I could call her to arrange a date. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might be married, or have someone regular, and I was embarrassed as she hesitated. “Okay, I’m Justina. You can have my number sir”. I grinned like a kid, and told her my name was Francis, and she didn’t have to call me sir.
When I got my phone out, she called out the number loudly and slowly, as if to make sure I got it right. Then when I nodded, she took the phone out of my hand and checked it to make sure I had.
I rang her at five the next afternoon, and agreed to meet her on Saturday, though my heart sank when she told me she lived in Neasden. From Beckton to Neasden is a bad enough journey by public transport, but driving there would be a nightmare in shopping traffic. So I was very pleased when she suggested meeting in Trafalgar Square outside the National Gallery, by the steps. I wouldn’t have to drive, and with her suggested time of midday, we could make it into a long date. She was already there when I arrived, and suggested we go in to look at some paintings. As we went back up the steps, she held my arm, as if she had always been my girlfriend.
By the time we had walked across the bridge to see more paintings at the Hayward Gallery, then headed back to settle down for a drink in a pub on The Strand, I already knew that she was thity-seven, divorced, and from Lithuania. Despite her heavy accent, her English was fine. She had been to university in Vilnius, where she had studied English, got a degree, and then discovered there was no work. So she got married to the former boyfriend from her small town instead. She had been in London for over eight years, renting a room in a shared house, and doing crap jobs for minimum wage. I suggested a film in Leicester Square, then a Chinese meal in Soho after, and she nodded enthusiastically.
Between the film and the restaurant, I stopped in Newport Place and kissed her. She kissed me back.
As we waited for the crispy duck pancakes to arrive, I looked across at her, and she blushed.
That’s when I fell in love with her.