Imogen jumped off her bike, letting the gizmo fall down with a loud sad clank; and ran into Ms. Flora’s bakery, making convulsive wiggling movements with her whole body. She was not having a fit; she was trying to adjust her messenger bag.
“Morning, me duck,” Ms. Flora greeted her from behind the counter, and received a muffled moan from Imogen in response, who was now holding her wallet between her teeth, while rummaging in her bag in search of her mobile. “Slept in again?”
Imogen spat out the wallet on the pristine counter.
“Morning. And yes. But to my defence, I’m the only person in the town whose boss doesn’t sleep. At all. I think our mayor is a vampire,” Imogen repeated her usual joke.
“Let me know if you ever catch him hanging from the ceiling,” Ms. Flora gave her the usual response; and Imogen finally fished out her hysterically shilling mobile from the bag.
Her boss’s voice rushed into her ear. He had no habit of greeting her, or giving any sort of preface to his requests. The cogs in her brain shifted, with a mournful screech and a plea for caffeine; but while Ms. Flora was carefully putting the scones and buns into a box for Imogen, the latter was already required to understand what Mr. John Oakby, directly elected mayor of the town of Fleckney Woulds, wanted; and where the ‘cursed papers’ were!
Balancing the bag, the phone, the box, and the wallet, Imogen left the bakery, still jerking her shoulder to stop the bag from sliding; while humming, confirming, and giving directions to the said ‘cursed papers.’ After the trouble, in his opinion, clearly worthy of the Interpol search was solved, she stared at her bike.
“Every bloody morning…” She sighed; stuffed the wallet in the bag; fixed the bag; stuffed the phone in her pocket; picked up the bike; loaded the box in the basket; climbed the bike; and pushed the pedals. “Damn Dracula…”
Mr. John Oakby was pacing his office. Imogen squeezed in; his deadly glare brushed at her – she didn’t take offence, it was clearly aimed at the person on the other end of the line – and she started organizing coffee on the side table.
“Yes, sir, I understand, but as the mayor of this town… No, sir, I’m not a councillor, I’m the mayor. Fleckney has a directly elected mayor, and I’ve been holding the position for the last three years…. What is it? No, sir, we aren’t hippies. It’s a practice that spreads through the country more and more each day following the Local Government Act of 2000… Yes, sir, I am serious…”
Oakby looked at Imogen with the theatrical exasperation; and she readily rolled her eyes, showing she shared his sentiment completely.
Oakby pushed his hand into this hair, messing his already mussed dark curls.
“No, sir, I’m not one of ‘them from the big city.’ I was born and bred in Fleckney, and…” He was once again interrupted, and stopped in front of the window, his unseeing eyes on the brook and green hills underneath. Whatever was said made him only more irked, and he pressed his forehead to the glass.
To prevent the loud thuds of the head into the glass, which always followed next, Imogen grabbed a cup of coffee, walked up to him, and pushed it into his large, long fingered hand.
He opened his mouth to no doubt snap at the other person, but by then his favourite cheese scone was in his other hand – Imogen had moved the phone onto his shoulder, which he unconsciously pressed with his ear, frowning and listening to the droning gentleman. The maneuver required a small hop from Imogen; the man was taller than six four. Imogen gently cupped his elbow and pushed his arm up. Oakby automatically bit into the scone near his lips.
Imogen smiled and went to his desk, to rearranged the ‘cursed papers’ that he of course didn’t need and had pulled out of the wrong cabinet.
Oakby chewed, Imogen worked.
“Yes, sir, I’m aware of the election system in our country, and of your position in the parish council. And yes, our towns have been wonderful neighbours for centuries…” Oakby apparently had finished his scone, and was heating up again. Without looking Imogen stretched her hand and tapped his cup with her index finger. He took a sip, postponing the argument with whoever was on the other end of the line.
Imogen peeked. Oakby was drinking the cream flavoured syrup he considered coffee. Imogen smirked; she’d added an extra spoonful of sugar, since Mrs. Harris, the town hall clerk had warned her of the brewing storm. The sugar was working: little wrinkles ran in the corners of Oakby’s squinted eyes, and the corners of the lips curled up, making him look exactly like a giant purring cat.
“Yes, sir… Of course, sir…” Oakby’s velvet baritone now sounded almost amicable.
With her morning duties fulfilled, Imogen gave her boss a wave, and left his office.
Half an hour later Imogen was industriously typing, when the door to Oakby’s office opened, and he stuck his head out.
“Imogen, do you have a boyfriend?” he asked, his eyes still on some paper he had in his hand.
Mrs. Harris who was filing the latest agriculture report into the cabinet by the wall, gasped, and dropped her folder.
“No, Mr. Oakby, I still don’t,” Imogen answered, without pausing her typing.
He hummed noncommittally, and disappeared inside again.
Imogen blindly picked up her mug and was going to drink, when a loud hiss from Mrs. Harris made her jerk and almost spill her cuppa.
“What was this about?” Mrs. Harris pale eyes boggled behind her glasses.
Imogen sighed. This would now become a major gossip. Since nothing bigger than a broken traffic light ever happened in Fleckney Woulds, she expected the Mayor’s sudden interest in her romantic status to become the talk of the town for at least a month.
“I’m not quite sure, to be honest,” Imogen answered, and sipped her cuppa. “He does it sometimes. Asks questions out of nowhere. It’ll explain itself soon. He might need a plus one for something, or rather.” Imogen shrugged. “He just doesn’t bother with explaining.”
Mrs. Harris eyed the door suspiciously.
“It was a tad too personal, wasn’t it?” She then looked at Imogen and greedily studied her face, clearly hoping to see Imogen flustered, or hopeful.
Imogen snorted a short laugh.
“I don’t think he knows that. I also don’t think he’d be able to tell how old I am, and whether I have two heads.” Imogen threw the door an affectionate look. “He’s asked me about my boyfriend about ten times by now. He just needs it for work somehow – but then he doesn’t, and he forgets.”
Mrs. Harris gave her a doubtful look. “He remembers the county’s stats for the last ten years; and when he was at school, he won that poetry reciting competition.”
The town legend about Mr. John Oakby, then of seven years old, reciting Odyssey for fifteen minutes straight had been passed between generations, and told to all pupils in every school of Fleckney Woulds. Imogen who was ten years his younger had heard the anecdote from three of her teachers, the passage by the dead blind Greek getting longer and longer with each recollection.
“He won it because he wanted the dictionaries they were giving out as prizes,” Imogen reminded Mrs. Harris. “He never does anything unless he wants some practical result out of it – these days of strictly official town nature. So, I assume my non-existent boyfriend is an official matter as well.”
Mrs. Harris shook her head, picked up her folder, and continued her work.
And then she asked, without turning, in a nonchalant voice, which Imogen quite hated, but – being an unmarried twenty six year old, living with a cat – heard from her fellow townsfolk ever so often, “By the way, Imogen dear, why do you not have a boyfriend?”
“Because I’m married to my work. And my work, meaning Mr. Oakby, is married to his work. It’s a ménage à trois, you see,” Imogen answered; and Mrs. Harris blushed, clucked, and hurriedly went back to her files. Imogen, pleased with the result of her inappropriate hinting, went back to her typing.
Later that day, Imogen was biking towards the Mayor House, when her mobile rang. Thankfully, this time she was free of her messenger bag, which she’d forgotten in her office, which was exactly the reason why she was biking back to work, in the dark, while all respectable folk of Fleckney Woulds were sitting down to dinner.
She had only two hillocks and one curve to cover before she was back in the House, where the Town Hall and Mayor Residence had been located for the last hundred and forty seven years; but the phone rang and rang; and it was impossible to ignore it.
Contrary to the logical approach of stopping, climbing off the bike, and getting the mobile out of her pocket, she pushed her hand into her coat without slowing down. She was hungry; the day had been long; and for certain reasons that Imogen preferred to disregard even alone with her thoughts, she didn’t quite enjoy going to the Mayor House after hours.
The building had been one of the oldest mills of the county, later converted into a library, a town hall, and housing for the mayor of Fleckney – meaning while Imogen were to cowardly mince through corridors to go pick up her bag, Mr. Oakby would be upstairs – in his jammies. He wouldn’t be sleeping, the man seemed perpetually awake and busy; but still, he might be in jammies. An image of John Oakby out of formal clothes, with his wide shoulders, surprisingly athletic for a pencil-pusher torso, long legs, and all the rest of his glorious, mouthwatering, large, and warm self, which Imogen under no circumstances had even noticed, thank you very much – let’s say, Imogen would sleep much better if she maintained that carefully built distance between her work and her libidinous fantasies.
She pulled at the mobile; the bike veered; and here she was, in a ditch, both her knees in burning pain, and her phone sadly glowing in the greenish swamp water. To make matters hundred times worse, before the mobile died with a last forlorn glimmer, she’d noticed the number.
Imogen made the best choice in the worst situation: she left the bike behind, and ran. One hillock, another, sharp curve – and she tumbled into the parlour of the Mayor House. All her habdabs forgotten, she rushed through the corridors, quite certain that even if she were to encounter her boss in his pants, she wouldn’t care. She quickly unlocked her office, grabbed the phone, and drummed her fingers on the keys.
“It took you a while, Mops.” Her sister’s tone was mocking. “And now you’re ringing from your work phone. Were you knobbing your delish boss on the desk?”
“What’s wrong, Rosie?” Imogen asked, still out of her breath after the energetic jog.
“Well, I’m not going to get home tonight, and I was wondering if you’d look after the sprogs.”
“Rosie…” Imogen groaned and dropped her head on the desk. She now could distinguish the noise of a party at the background. And then she recognized the voices of couple of the blokes from the factory Rosie worked at, all now sounding quite lairy. “Rosie, you need to go home…”
“Blimey, Mops, don’t be so nasty. You have nothing to do… It’s not like you have a fellow waiting for you to warm up your slippers…” Obnoxious laughter rolled at the background on the other end of the line, and Rosie sniggered. “Yeah, and you need to pick up some food on the way, the fridge’s empty…”
Imogen opened her mouth to finally firmly tell her sister to take care of her family herself, but Rosie had already hung up.
Imogen sat at her desk for a few seconds, trying to take her breathing under control; and then she straightened up and turned on the table lamp. Her favourite work trousers were torn on both knees; and she could see blood and dirt, and the naked skin. There was water in one of her shoes; and her coat was soaked on the left side.
And then she remembered who lived upstairs, and how she would absolutely die of shame if he saw her in this state; and she quickly turned off the light and jumped to her feet. The knees hurt; and her eyes started to sting, from how sad, wet, miserable, and truly pathetic she was…
…and the chandelier lit up, and she met the eyes of the last person she’d like to see at the moment.