There’s a light in Bel’s office. Lix finds she can’t just walk past, so she stands, hands in pockets, leaning against the door frame, waiting. Bel will either acknowledge or dismiss her sooner or later.
“Freddie’s having an operation,” Bel says, without looking up. “It’s touch and go, apparently. They told me to go home.”
It speaks volumes about Bel that she’d come here instead, Lix thinks. There’s a certain undeniable kinship amongst people who spend more time in the office than their flats. It might be what binds them all together in this strange little family of theirs. She walks in and perches on a chair.
“He’s my best friend, Lix,” Bel says, “I don’t know...” She doesn’t finish.
“I know,” Lix tells her.
Bel fumbles for a cigarette with shaking fingers. Lix takes pity on her and lights it for her. “Thank you. What are you doing here at this time?”
“Hiding from Randall,” Lix says, since this feels like an hour for honesty, not artifice. “He can be quietly tenacious. I think that’s why I left him in the first place.” She hadn’t meant to say quite that much. Perhaps sometimes the need for a confessional takes you by surprise.
“You and Randall?” Bel is shocked out of her melancholy, looking at Lix in astonishment.
“Yes, well,” Lix waves a hand, “it was all a very long time ago.”
It seems so distant now, half a world away and so many years. He was older than her in a way that seemed to matter so much at the time but now seems like nothing at all. Experience, not time, is what gives you those lines in your face, in your soul.
“Were you in love?”
“What a question!” Lix stubs out the end of her cigarette and immediately reaches for another. “I don’t know. It was all a bit of a disaster, really.”
“Love generally is,” Bel says with a huff of breath that is half laugh, half sigh.
Had she been in love? Lix doesn’t know. She hasn’t thought of that time much, of Randall or Sofia. Hasn’t wanted to remember, let alone put labels on long-buried feelings. Not until he came back and she had no choice but to remember. Lix wishes she could put all her feelings and memories and regrets back into their little box but of course, like Pandora, she can’t.
She realises she’d thought of Sofia as Schrödinger’s daughter, alive and not alive, happy and not happy, as long as Lix didn’t know, didn’t ask, as long as she didn’t open that particular box all things were true.
Pandora got it wrong, hope is not opening the damned box at all.
And now there is Freddie, of course, hanging in the balance between life and death.
Lix looks over at Bel; always so fresh-faced and blithely innocent it hurt to look at her, bubbling over with enthusiasm, thinking she can save the world simply by reporting it. It couldn’t last, of course and now she is chewing her nails, tear tracks ruining her make-up.
Lix can sympathise because she knows the worst part. The worst part is the guilt you feel over not feeling guilty, because the job always comes first. Knowing that if you had to do it all over again, you probably wouldn’t change a thing.
“Let’s have a drink.” A stiff drink is the answer to so many things, Lix finds. “I know where Hector keeps his supply,” she says with a wink, and Bel gives her the ghost of a smile. Sometimes going through the motions keeps you going. She thinks she’s starting to understand Randall’s obsession with the drawing pins. There’s a certain comfort in routines.
When she gets back with the Scotch, Bel has dried her eyes. She pours two large measures and Bel knocks hers back straight away.
“So,” Lix says, leaning back in her chair and lighting another cigarette, “do you really want to hear the story of my many and varied affairs, or would you rather talk about Freddie?”
“Have there really been that many?” Bel asks, ignoring the second part of the question.
“Darling, we couldn’t possibly get through them all in one night. You’d have to come back tomorrow. And the next night.”
“Like Scheherazade,” Bel says.
Bel probably thinks she’s daring, all her affairs with married men. Lix has never had the heart to tell her just how boringly conventional it all is. She wonders if she will shock her with some of her exploits, then decides it will probably do Bel good to be a little bit shocked. So she tells her about the Japanese ambassador, the charming young shop girl, the senior politician and his wife. She decides not to mention Freddie, not today.
She thinks of Bel saying that Freddie is her best friend, sounding lost. Maybe for all her exploits, that’s the one thing she’s never had. But seeing how badly it has shaken Bel, losing him, nearly losing him, Lix can’t think of it as anything to envy.
The telephone rings, startling them both. It can only be about Freddie, and from the way the colour drains from Bel’s face she’s thinking the same. Don’t answer it, Lix wants to say, don’t open the box. She doesn’t realise she’s reached out to put her hand over the receiver until Bel says,
“The worst part is not knowing.”
Lix snatches her hand away. Of course. They’re journalists. They will always open the box, no matter how many of the evils of the world it lets out.
Bel picks up the phone. Lix feels sick, unable to look at Bel’s face, knowing she will read the answer there and dreading it.
“Thank you,” Bel is saying, cradling the receiver, “thank you so much.” She replaces it carefully, almost reluctantly, as if the cords of the telephone are a lifeline, Freddie’s lifeline, her link to him while they are apart.
“Well?” Lix says, although she knows already, can read everything in Bel’s face.
“It went well. He’s stable.”
Lix gets to her feet, feeling that her work here is done. She’s got them both through this long night. “Get some sleep,” Lix advises her. “We’ve still got a show to produce.”
“Yes,” Bel says, a little colour returning to her cheeks. “Of course. And Lix --”
“Don’t mention it. And I do mean that literally, careless gossip about the Japanese ambassador could still cause a diplomatic incident.”
Bel smiles, watery but genuine.