Phil and Penny were made for each other - the only problem is they are married to other people. When they meet at a Tai Chi class they quickly realise the depth of one another's loneliness and need for a sympathetic ear. Fearful of the consequences of growing too close, they go to elaborate lengths to avoid each other. But their paths begin to cross with chance-defying regularity, pulling them ever more deeply into one another's confidence. Is this evidence of a mysterious power at work, or should they simply have an affair?
Philip Markham stood on the factory receiving bay, waiting for a truck to arrive. It was going up for five and it didn't look like it was coming. He stood back under the awning as a fine drizzle drifted down. The world was soaked and grey and cold. He was in his shirt-sleeves, his back and underarms damp, but not from the rain. He was hot: sweaty-hot, and it felt good to be out in the cool, out of the office and away from the computer and its never-ending pile of e-mails.
He sweated easily these days, felt tired and old though he'd only just turned 45. He was worried there might be something wrong with him, some mysterious ailment gnawing at his insides, but then he'd felt like this for the better part of a decade now and he was still alive - so there couldn't be that much wrong with him, surely?
The factory was crumbly and filthy, a left over from the war years, a higgledy-piggledy pile of decaying red brick and flaking paint. The other buildings that had grown up round about seemed brighter by comparison, but were somehow faceless and dead. They were newer, obviously, and Phil wondered what they did, what they made, if anything - for he was just waking up to the fact that no one in England actually made anything any more. Perhaps these buildings just stored things then or they were call-centres for insurance companies or travel agents.
Beyond these other buildings, rising all around in the murky distance, the town of Middleton sprawled messily, an ugly assortment of merged suburbs, dirty brick and concrete, barbed
wire, security cameras and about a hundred thousand assorted lives. He was feeling very small today, feeling the self important weight of all those lives pressing down upon him, squeezing him, squeezing him under or out,.. somewhere.
Then, between the long abandoned chimneys of the old Atlas mill, he caught a glimpse of the moors, flat capped under a ton of greasy, iron grey cloud. A bad day for walking up there, he thought. Indeed it was a bad day for just about anything.
He checked his watch, anxious now - not that the truck wasn't going to come, but more that it would, and he'd have to stay after-hours to deal with it. He had an appointment that evening and didn't want to have to cancel it because it had taken him months to pluck up the courage to go in the first place.
He listened inside his head to see if the irritating sound was still there. He could hear an air conditioning unit whirring away on one of the modern buildings next door, and there was a gentle wind blowing, raising a sigh from the rooftops, and somewhere above all that was the rasping whistle of his tinnitus. There was no escaping it, and apparently no cure either, or so the weary old doctor had told him - that he'd just have to get used to it.
The doctor had also handed him a questionnaire to fill out, apparently in order to see if he was depressed - like one of those stupid magazine pseudo-psychology quiz things. Phil thought all that was rubbish: he wasn't depressed - but the questionnaire disagreed, and quick as a flash the doctor was writing him out a prescription for antidepressants.
"But I'm not depressed."
"Well, apparently, you are, Mr Markham."
"But doesn't everyone feel like something's missing from their lives?"
"Possibly, I can't say, but there's no need for it. Just take these pills and you'll feel like a new person. I've been on them for years."
"But it's my ear I'm struggling with, Doctor."
"Well, the tablets will make you feel less concerned about it." "What?"
Phil had checked the pills out on the Internet. Sure enough, it sounded like they'd calm his middle aged angst, fill the hole in his
soul with a kind of fluffy padding, but they might also make him impotent, something the doctor had obviously forgotten to mention. That was neither here nor there, of course, since Sally no longer required much from him in that department any more, but the pills might also stop him from sleeping - another little thing the doctor had forgotten to mention. He supposed that could have been sorted out by more pills, but of greater concern to him was the drinking. He couldn't take the pills and drink, you see? And if he didn't get his half bottle of wine with whisky chaser to finish off the day, well, he reckoned he'd really have something to be depressed about.
The breeze changed direction and blew the drizzle into his face. He didn't move, but savoured the exquisite coolness of it.
"I am not depressed," he said, then looked around, embarrassed in case anyone had overheard. But the shop-floor had gone home ages ago, and there was only Caroline in the office, her door closed, head bent over her computer. She couldn't hear him, and like all the Carolines before her, she probably couldn't see him either - not even if he'd been standing right in front of her.
Caroline's real name was Sandra and she made his heart ache deliciously. Indeed she was one of the few things in his life right now that reminded him he was actually alive. Thirtyish, blonde, and shapely, she was too young for him of course, even if he'd been stupid enough to begin an affair, which he hoped he wasn't, and always supposing she'd be interested, which he doubted. Indeed, he doubted she even knew his name, even though they'd worked under the same roof for years. That was the trouble with Carolines, he thought: they planted in your head the insane notion they were in love with you, but when it came down to it, they couldn't even remember your name.