"Hey Serena, you ok?"
"Mmhmm I'm fine," she nodded, her eyes darting about wildly as her leg bobbed up and down frantically.
Alfie narrowed his eyes and she knew he didn't believe her but she didn't care. How was she supposed to explain to him that while the two of them had been discussing the different uses for soda crystals around the house that all of a sudden her anxiety hit her out of nowhere like a freight train full of her worst fears. One minute she was making a mental note to try Alfie's trick of pouring the crystals down the sink to get rid of blockages and then all of a sudden she couldn't breathe. Her hands started to shake. Then her entire body began to shake until her teeth were chatting were with nerves. Then came the hot sweats; beads of condensation dripping down her back and gathering on her top lip. And then was the ringing in her ears; a high pitch beep that made her feel like she wasn't quite real and she was living in a dream.
"Right, see you're saying you're fine, yeah," Alfie appeared in front of her desk, his glasses perched upon the end of his nose while his shrewd eyes watched her. "But your face and the way you're holdin' yourself says otherwise. So are you gonna tell me?"
And that was it. She burst into tears. Not just tears but heart wrenching, body wracking sobs while Alfie could do nothing but watch on in shock and horror as she gasped horrifically for breath.
"Whoa, whoa," he was at her side in an instant, wrapping his arms around her body and rubbing her back in soothing, gentle circles. "Hey don't cry, it's alright. I've gotcha."
The happy chatty ray of sunshine that lit up his office on a daily basis suddenly resembled someone Alfie didn't know, and if he was honest the rapid change was rather alarming.
"I can't breathe," she sobbed against his chest, clawing desperately at his shirt as though she was drowning and he was the only thing keeping her afloat. She was certain that this was it, the end of her life as she felt the oxygen draining out of her with every breath she struggled to take.
Minutes passed, or maybe it was only really seconds she didn't know, but almost as soon as it had begun did it start to ebb away, leaving her drained emotionally and physically. She slumped against Alfie as her eyes grew heavy and all she wanted to do was fall asleep against the comfortable safety of his body, where his familiar smell of pipe tobacco and rum soothed her.
"I used to get them really bad when I came back from France," Alfie murmured against her hair. "Still do occasionally."
Serena couldn't speak. Not just because she was too tired but also because she was slightly awed by the fact that Alfie was sharing a piece of himself with her that she knew he often kept secret from everyone.
"I'd be mindin' my own business, just walkin' somewhere or doin' summit and all of a sudden I was right there in the trenches again. My entire body would be shakin' and I'd hide in an alleyway and cover my ears, cowerin' and cryin' like a cat what was cornered. Sometimes I wouldn't even remember when it ended, I would just find myself walkin' back home, happy as Larry, and then other times I would sit for what felt like hours wonderin' how I was ever gonna have the energy to move again," he continued, his voice hoarse with emotion. "So you might think you're on your own or that there ain't anyone who understands what you're goin' through but I do."
"How is me crying and panicking over ridiculous things like not having the right change for the bus home, or worrying about whether or not I remembered to put the letter in the envelope I posted for Mr Harris anything like what you went through? You fought in a bloody war and yet the worst thing to ever have happened in my life was that the cat we had for thirteen years died peacefully in her sleep two years ago? I mean, my life is practically perfect, Alfie. I have parents and siblings who love me, I have wonderful friends, I like my job, I have lots of hobbies. So what exactly have I got to be miserable and worried about?" Serena looked up, and Alfie could see the self loathing in her eyes. "Nothing. That's what. Not a goddamn fucking thing, yet here I am crying on the shoulder of a man who is not only my boss, but has also seen more horrible things in his life then I can ever even imagine."
"I'm gonna stop you right there, Serena," Alfie held his hand up. "Life ain't a competition about who's seen, been through or done worse. Your journey is your own and there ain't a soul on this earth that can tell you it ain't alright to feel the way you do. You know, I don't pretend to understand how the human mind works- I mean I barely fuckin' understand how mine works most of the time let alone anyone else's- but the truth is that there was a time, right, when people thought the earth was flat. There was a time when people thought that epilepsy was a sign of demon possession but now we know it's an actual medical condition, don't we? So what I'm basically tryin' to say is that I firmly believe that melancholia or whatever else you wanna call it isn't necessarily what we think. It don't just appear because of what you may or may not have been through in life. I mean my old mum right, she died of a heart attack but she was the fittest person I've ever known; never drank, never smoke, always ate her fruit and veg and that yet her ticker still gave out on her. While my old man on the other hand is a fat fuck what's always drunk and got a cigarette hangin' out of his mouth and from what the last private eye I hired to find him said, he's livin' the life of fuckin' Riley without a care in the world that he broke my mother's heart and left her to raise her kids all by herself."
"That's not the same, Alfie," Serena sighed.
"Course it is."
"Alfie, it's not."
"Who am I?"
"You what?" Serena frowned.
"I said, who am I?" Alfie repeated, brushing her hair back from her face in a manner that seemed so natural to both of them.
"Erm well... you're..."
"Serena, sweetheart, it ain't a trick question," Alfie rolled his eyes.
"In that case I'd be correct if I said you were Alfie Solomons then?" she eyed him warily.
"Correct," he grinned. "And havin' worked for me now for two years, I'm sure you will agree that I am not only absolutely hilarious but I am also extremely wise and I never lie."
Serena couldn't help herself, she snorted loudly and even Alfie couldn't stop a smile breaking out upon his own face.
"What you tryin' to insinuate with that little noise?" he pretended to scowl at her. "Hmm? You calling old Alfie a liar?"
"You said it," she smiled.
"See that," he pointed to her with a smirk. "That right there is my favourite look on you, you know. Cos when you smile you brighten up not only this office but the whole fuckin' bakery. No scrap that, you brighten up the whole fuckin' world."
"Shut up," Serena chuckled, her cheeks turning red.
"It's true," Alfie took her hand. "You brighten up everyone's day but sometimes even the brightest of lights eventually burn out and need to recuperate. Which is why I'm gonna send you home for the rest of the week- close your mouth before you dare try and argue with me, yeah. You're gonna go home and spend the rest of the week goin' to the hairdressers and gettin' your nails done and… who the fuck am I kiddin'? Your idea of havin' fun and bein' relaxed is goin' to the library or sittin' in the park watchin' ducks on the pond, aint it?"
"You know me too well, Alfie."
"Yes I do," Alfie answered confidently. "So, go and spend a few days doin' whatever it is that makes you happy and when you come back on Monday, I can go back to bein' that cantankerous old bastard what shouts at you when I'm pissed off with Ollie and then comes back to you later with an apple turnover from the bakery downstairs to apologise."
"You know you could just apologise," Serena suggested with a playful twinkle in her eyes. "I mean, I enjoy the apple turnovers but I would enjoy an apology from the famous Alfie Solomons even more."
"You're just pushin' your luck now," Alfie grinned. "Now fuck off and go home will you? Well, what you waitin' for?"
"My hand," she murmured. "You need to let go of my hand."
Alfie looked down but he didn't let go of her hand like she expected. Instead he lifted it and pressed it to his lips, tickling her wrist with his beard.
"I'll have hold of your hand forever, you know that yeah?"
And he meant it.