Excerpt: The First Time They Met

April 17th

Jack wandered through to the crew room. Roger was on the sofa with Selina, poring over the rota, Hots, in an armchair with his feet on the coffee table and a tea towel over his face, appeared to be asleep. Lyssa sat at the table, writing.
‘Anyone else want a coffee?’ he said.
Selina and Roger indicated half-full mugs. Hots didn’t reply, but Lyssa glanced over her shoulder, said, ‘Yes, if you’re making one. Milk, no sugar, thanks.’ She went back to her writing.
It was only instant; Jack had put up with it for a couple of months then, a few days ago, he’d found a plunger in a cupboard. He’d widened his search, thinking that even three-month-old ground coffee would be better than the dusty-tasting sludge that came in one-kilo tins. But he’d come up empty, and that afternoon he’d ordered an espresso machine online, with a couple of kilos of beans.
The tin was empty; he should have had the machine couriered over.
‘I’ve got some more in my locker.’ Lyssa got up from the table. ‘Emergency supply. Put that tin in the recycling bin.’ She hurried out.
As soon as the door had shut behind her, Roger got to his feet.
‘Watch this,’ he said with a sly grin.
He stepped across to the work surface, unplugged the toaster and kettle, and swapped them round. Then, as Lyssa’s footsteps became audible in the corridor again, he trotted back to the armchair, sat down and opened a newspaper, but not far enough that he couldn’t still catch Jack’s eye.
Lyssa walked back in, a bag of coffee in one hand, a pack of biscuits in the other. She put both down on the work surface, reached for the kettle.
‘Oh.’
She stared at the toaster, as if it were some alien being, squatting, ready to leap at her. She started to glance back over her shoulder, and then seemed to change her mind. Robert was grinning widely. Trying to catch Jack’s eye, giving him an odd sense of déjà vu.
It was like school, the way when someone was being humiliated, everyone else looked at each other and shared the joke in silent amusement. He’d done it himself, for a while, until he’d realised that he didn’t really like the people he was exchanging glances with, and even more that he didn’t like what they were doing. He remembered his one-time friend, Rob, wilting under a barrage of abuse, the other boys laughing. At least, they’d laughed until he stepped up, put a hand on Rob’s shoulder, and the two of them walked away together. There’d been a bit of name-calling, but he’d given them the finger, and they’d shut up. Under his hand, Rob had been shaking. That was the first time he’d realised how much that cruelty hurt, how frightened someone could be.
He got up, walked over. ‘Sorry. I spilled something, earlier. I must have put everything back wrong after I wiped up.’
‘N—no, it’s all right.’ She rubbed her palms on her thighs.
He unplugged the heavy steel toaster, picked it up. ‘Here, shove the kettle back. Before I drop this.’ She did so, and he could see her relax. He didn’t bother looking at Roger. ‘Where did you get your coffee?’
The rest of her tension dissolved in a discussion of the relative merits of several coffee suppliers, as she made brimming mugs for them both.
‘I think you know as much about how to pick good coffee as how to pick good wine,’ he said after he’d taken a mouthful.
She flushed a little, unable to meet his eyes. ‘Not really, I just tell them to give me something that tastes like it’s been stirred with a burnt stick, and might possibly dissolve the spoon.’
‘Alternatively, you could probably tell them you’re a doctor, and they’d give you much the same.’ He sat at the table with her. ‘What are you writing?’
‘Nothing,’ she said, at the same time Hots from under the tea towel said loudly, ‘Poetry.’
She twisted round in her chair to glare at the pilot, but as the tea towel remained draped over his face, it didn’t have any effect.
‘She’s a published poet,’ Hots added, ‘didn’t she tell you?’
‘Why would I?’ Lyssa said crossly.
Hots lifted one corner of the tea towel. ‘Over there,’ he nodded at the bookshelves in the far corner of the room. ‘There’s a copy of her book. It’s the third copy—the other two just vanished. Very strange, but I think the thief knows that if this one disappears, we’ll just buy another one.’
Lyssa sighed and picked up her coffee, drank it without looking at any of them.
Jack wandered over to the bookshelf, sorted through the piles of three-year-old celebrity magazines, medical journals, out-of-date textbooks, copies of Dan Brown and Wilbur Smith, and found a small, hardback volume, titled heavy air, and with a picture of the London skyline on its cover.
‘May I borrow it?’ he said.
Lyssa didn’t reply.
Hots said, ‘Of course,’ dropped the corner of the tea towel, and went back to sleep.

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