Harry wasn't coming to the New Year's party. Sarah was bemused by this. They were a design house, New Year's was one of their main events, for the Guv'nor not to turn up, it was unheard of, it just didn't happen. The major downside was that that meant that the responsibility for all of it had fallen onto Sarah's shoulders. She could manage, delegating anything she could to the people she thought would be better at it, and sitting like a spider in her web, putting all the pieces together.
It also meant that the week after Christmas had swept by and she hadn't had a chance to brood, or look at Karl's desk, or even think about him, often. There was something to be said for being so busy you thought your brain was going to leak out of your ears.
The worst of all the little jobs she would have to do for the party was that she would have to play the gracious hostess. If she could only have trusted Mia to behave herself she could have passed the job on, only there'd been something wrong with her recently too, not ill or anything, just not her usual self. Given that that was the only other thing different, along with Harry's absence, Sarah started to have a cold, trickling terror that the two were linked in some way, but she didn't want to speculate. Amazingly, nor did anyone else at the company, which meant that everyone was worried that whatever it was was serious.
It soon reached midnight, and she was surrounded by people. Not surrounded enough that someone couldn't pull her back, "hello, how can I help?"
"Sarah, even you can't be working on New Year's." It was Karl, who was still supposed to be on holiday and generally away until she'd figured out how to deal with him.
"It's not work, it's fun." She smiled, hopefully it looked stronger than the emotion she behind it.
"You hate big crowds, or so you told me."
She hadn't lied to him. "Harry asked me too. I couldn't say no."
"One of these days it would do you good to say no." They weren't having this argument here, not in public. She was just about to tell him to go away, then there was an early champagne cork and instead of joining in with the countdown she was being kissed.
And then her phone went.
Her hand went straight for it, even though Karl tried to stop her. "I'm all he's got." She answered the phone, covering her right ear to hear better. "I'm at work." Karl could only hear her side of the conversation.
"Yes, I know it's New Year's."
"My boss asked me. It was a favour."
"Yes, I'm getting paid."
"I'll come and see you tomorrow."
"Yes, I know when visiting times are. I'll come in the afternoon."
"I know. I love you. Of course I love you." She rang off.
"There's ...", summoning courage from goodness knows where, possibly fear and tiredness from the night, she put her index finger to his lips.
"You want to have a serious talk. This is neither the time nor the place. I have a party to run. If you want to talk to me, I'm having lunch over the road after I've finished cleaning this place up tomorrow." Then she walked away, to mingle and glad-hand and fifteen hundred other things that Harry put on her to-do list.
She was already on to her second large glass of red wine by the time Karl arrived at the bistro-bar over the road. Tidying up had gone well, there was never any doubt that it would, because the cleaning staff had worked for the company for years now, and it hadn't been that debauched a party, although they were all quite bemused and trying to work out exactly to whom the leopard print bra and knickers set belonged, so there hadn't been much for her to oversee directly. She'd started work on the Schuh contract, and that damn underwear had stuck in her head that much that one of her ideas involved leopard print shoes. She'd been as glad as the cleaners when they were done and she could repair to the bistro.
The meal had been first rate as per, and Friday mornings with pasta and vino and the Guardian second edition, with nothing really urgent waiting for her at work, it was quite close to bliss.
She might have been happier if Karl hadn't come. But there he was, looking mildly uncomfortable, with his floppy fringe and his endearing nose and those deep, dark, puppy dog brown eyes. Yeah, she wouldn't have been ready for him to return, even if he had only come back after the holidays were over.
"Want one?" She raised her wine glass.
"No thanks. I'm driving." He shook his keys back at her.
She decided to try to hide in small talk. "So, how was the holiday?"
"It was alright. Went home. Saw my mother. She said I was underfed and ought to stay at home. The usual. And you?"
"It was quiet. It was nice." She really wasn't helping this whole small talk business.
They carried on talking, desperately avoiding the linked and terrible topics of what happened before Christmas and her brother. He had a desert, a chocolate tart that she helped herself to some of, and she had the rest of the bottle of wine.
It was getting close to three o'clock. She was going to have to be on her way if she was going to get to the unit in time. "I'm going. Are you back at work tomorrow?" A nice, neutral question.
"Good. I'll be glad to see you." She put her handbag on and moved towards the door. He stopped her by grabbing her wrist, which curiously felt more intimate than the things they'd done before.
"You don't have to."
"I should have said, I don't want you to."
"You can't drive. I know how much you've had to drink. You'll get pulled over or get into a crash or who knows what."
"Okay then. If you're really that determined." They got into his car.
"Where are we going?"
"St. Julie's. It's out in the sticks." She waved her hand towards what was probably West London. "See why I'd rather drive?"
"Well, if you gave me proper directions."
She did, but the rest of the half hour stretched close to an hour due to traffic journey was spent either loudly ignoring each other or in petty bickering.
That didn't change once they arrived. "I'll be back."
"I don't know. If he's having a good day, I normally stay till the end of visiting hours."
"How do you manage that with the job?" Karl knew she worked even longer hours than he did, and no one at an advertising agency worked short hours.
"Effort." She gave him a passive smile as she grabbed her handbag and went inside.
He twisted the dial on the radio, looking for something interesting to listen to. Nothing like TalkSport or 5Live, his blood was already boiling and his temper frayed; he didn't need to listen to any other idiots to make it worse.
He hadn't meant to annoy Sarah again today, or yesterday at all. It was just, he got so annoyed at what she was wasting, because she shouldn't be in the hospital at all hours and she should have a life, and yes, he was being selfish but her brother just wasn't being fair. Okay, so it wasn't her brother's fault but it was half past four on New Year's Day and he didn't have the energy to be rational.
His mother would kill him for that. It wasn't that he didn't understand brotherly love, he was the youngest of four, but he'd never expect any of them to give up so much time for him. It had been embarrassing over Christmas. He'd spent most of it thinking about Sarah, about how she wouldn't be enjoying herself, and his brothers all teased him about how spaced he was, and his mother worried by his absentmindedness. She eventually trapped him in the kitchen and demanded to know what was wrong. The demands were made with a rolling pin in hand. So he'd tried to explain. And then his mother decided that she had brought him up terribly badly because he wasn't bringing this girl home with him right now despite the fact that she was wonderful and understood the importance of family. Which he obviously didn't, if he didn't understand why Sarah was doing this.
Sarah finally came back out.
"Of course." He really had meant that answer to sound quite so brusque. "I mean, I was very," he hunted for a word, "bad to you before Christmas. I should have tried to understand."
"No. Well, yeah, you should have," Karl was hurt by that, "but it's not your fault entirely. I should have told you. It was unfair of me not to tell you. I'm all he's got in the world, and I need to try to make him happy. Or at least not unhappy. I should have told you."
"Want to give it another go?"
"I, uh, I," well of course she did, but she didn't feel like going through this emotional spin cycle every few weeks, which she suspected might happen. Karl hadn't been a patient person at work, and she hadn't seen any evidence of him being different outside of work, especially not in their relationship. "I just need you to know that this is me. I mean, this isn't going to change. He's not going to change, you're never going to be able to go in and see him and he'll probably hate you forever. My priorities go him, work and then me."
"I think I understand." They sat there like that for what Sarah felt was far too long, with Karl flexing his fingers on the steering wheel, and her just sitting there.
Finally, Karl spoke, that incredible shy smile playing on his lips. "Hello, my name is Karl; I am sometimes an idiot, as you have found out. Do you want to go out for a drink?"
"Yes. I think I'd like that."