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Somewhere in the middle there

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She hates him. She hates the fact of him. She hates that Leo can’t just trust her to do the job solo while Keith the drunken lecherous fool sobers up. Is she not competent enough to introduce the pre-film the station licences in from the Beeb? Yes, she certainly is. It’s not that much more work than it would have been keeping Keith on track. Is she not competent enough to keep on with the local colour? Yes, she certainly is. She’s stopped regularly on the street by locals, throughout the district, and complimented on her smile, her wit, her charm. She doesn’t need a co-host, and she in particular, doesn’t need him.
Nevertheless, he’s been foisted upon her, and she has no choice. Other than, of course, to leave. She’s not going to leave. It’s her newsroom. Even if it is a little stifling and stale sometimes, and the last month or two, has reeked of cheap liquor, thanks to Keith, it’s her newsroom and it should be all hers now. She doesn’t want to share. Especially not with Benedick. He’s going to be all smug and smarmy, big city and big smoke, and snark.
At 2am, the early morning of, she finds herself planning the conversations. If she can control them, she can minimise the damage. Keep it all professional. No personal at all, minimise how much everyone becomes his, again. His face, self assured and bearded, is the last thing she sees before she falls asleep, unsettled.
She’s later than she would have liked to work. The whole day, she shoots arrows and they never quite hit, he’s not bothered by her snipes at his antique show, not on the outside, doesn’t show the fluster that he used to, and maybe she needs to practice more. There’s no blush.
He’s more real than she remembers, more self assured than he used to be, and she’s more aware of him than she’d like. He’s continually perched on a desk, in his slick fabricked suits, in his musky cologne, his hair that’s unaccountably straightened hair, and his comments about middle aged women finding him attractive are definitely aimed at her, and it hurts. She’s aware that she has a shelf life on the newsdesk that he doesn’t. That Leo’s likely counting down the months until he needs to replace her. She’s very aware that she’s single, but there hasn’t been time and she hasn’t been interested in being part of the posse that hits up the town on a Friday night, Hero and Margaret and all with the lipstick and the stories, and the hook ups. She’s building a persona of a professional person and all of that doesn’t fit. But neither does the picture he’s stuck her with, cats, and grey hair and knitting, and watching antique shows.
It’s a child’s trick, telling him he has something in his teeth just before the camera hits him, and she’s not proud, but she’s happy. The good people of Wessex are hers, at least for one more night, and she isn’t sharing. It’s worth the dressing down from Pete afterwards. She remembers the dressing downs fondly and smiles at Pete throughout.
It hasn’t been a bad first day back, in some respects. He doesn’t mind being made to look foolish, it’s his go to persona, and what had protected him in London would certainly do the job back here on home turf, on terra normal, back in the bosom of the station that had grown him up. Tomorrow, he’d not fall for the same trick twice. He’d brush his teeth and check himself, ask Margaret the wardrobe mistress to check, not leave it to the fanged harpy across the couch to play with his head, and hope for the day when she actually found a strand of spinach in hers after.
He'd found an empty vodka bottle stashed down the bottom of the dressing room cupboard, legacy of Keith, but no full ones, just suspicious smelling water glasses. Keith apparently wrote his scripts, such as they’d been by hand, real #oldschool, and Ben’s laptop looks tiny, out of place on the desk. Back in the day, there’d been a desktop. Probably was somewhere in storage now, or possibly down in the security team’s arsenal of IT equipment, below the desk a collection of screens with security footage, more screens than the two of them could keep track of at once. He hopes there isn’t one in his dressing room, but resigns himself to the inevitable, as long as they’re the only ones watching.
He’s taken Claude out for a pub meal, because the emptiness of the rental’s playing with his head a bit more. Claude’s a welcome distraction, but a hot mess, every five seconds spinning back to Hero’s blonde hair, her perkiness, her smile, her other attributes, and honestly, the noise dulls out the vertigo of being back where he was three years prior and nothing having changed. It’s still Beatrice sitting over there, putting him on edge, the same kind of stories, the same local concerns, and he’s sitting over here, not knowing if he’s any different, beard notwithstanding.
“I said, was Beatrice such a, well, you know?” and Claude waves his arm in the air ineffectually.
“Such a she beast? Is that what you’re trying to say? Yes, even from the dawn of time, Beatrice has ever been thus: a vicious, man eating, piranha.”
“Shouldn’t she be some sort of dinosaur? I mean, dawn of time, you said,” Claude sniggers into his pint, toying with a peanut.
“Velociraptor then. Vicious, cunning and soul destroying. Any normal person would have said, after three years, how’s tricks, how’s things, we’ve missed you around here, but no, Bea goes straight for the jugular. That’s her. Haven’t missed that at all. I wonder if Leo’d authorise a series of out on the field reports for me, minimise the time in studio.”
“That’s be quite sweet, really. We could do it together, old dog teaching the new dog tricks, sort of thing.”
Benedick considers whether it’s worth unmangling Claude’s metaphor, but decides to let the ‘old dog’ comment lay where it lies, the less he thinks about the one grey hair he’d found the week before, the better. He’s only thirty. Old has nothing to do with him.
“A price of progress thing, perhaps he’d go for that. I’ll show you round off camera. This isn’t the only pub in town, I’ll tell you that for free. This Friday, I’ll take you where the girls are. Yeah?” Ben tips his pint glass at Claude, and downs it, not waiting. “I’m off. Let sleep undo the damage Beatrice did. Velociraptor. I like it.”
He leaves Claude, struggling to get his jacket on, and only vaguely envies him the biceps. Outside is cool, and he sets a brisk pace, walking completely past the serviced apartments by accident, and onto the street where she lives. Or used to. There’s a light on in what was her flat, and he turns back just as briskly. The apartment feels more like a fortress, once he’s in it, and he double checks the lock on the door.

She feels at the end of the week that she’s up on the score. There’s been no more last minute pranks, but there’s been no more cracks about her age, and she’s feeling pretty robust. Pretty impregnable. Pretty much queen Bea, and so when Hero says she should come out on the town, she goes along with it, with the bevy of women in the bathroom primping, and high heels, and short skirts, and when Hero whistles, and says she’d kill for her legs, and Beatrice tells her she’ll remember that and cash in the favour later in the night, she doesn’t think she’s doing too badly, not an old maid, not a lonely middle aged lady living on her own, watching sad antique shows in the middle of the night, or the very early morning. Besides Margaret, who’s wearing tight black leather, of course, there’s no comparison, and besides Ursula, covered head to toe in sensible Laura Ashley pastels, there’s no comparison either. She’s somewhere in the middle there, but at least she’s there.
She’s not been in the club for years, not since Hero was barely legal, and before that. It’s just as she remembers it, sticky floor covered with cider, and shots, and beer residue, and low lighting throbbing with strobe vaguely in time with the thumping music, groups of girls in tight dresses and low cut tops dancing in circles, handbags in the middle, blokes watching in clusters, egging each other on to man up, give it a go, couples vaguely dancing with each other, no contact, and couples in the corner with no room for a piece of paper between them, vaguely, again in time with the music. It’s not what she’d prefer. There’s no space for thinking, for talking, it’s all about the physical, and evolutionary biology, or so she’s read, says that this is all about the display. Margaret hands her a shot, and she downs it, keen to stop analysing herself. She is, after all, a human animal and subject to the same evolutionary biology and should just get on with it, if she doesn’t want to end up a lonely middle aged lady, living on her own. She should stop thinking about what he said.
One round of shots later, Wessex Tonight ladies have formed the circle, and Margaret is shimming at a man in the corner, and Ursula is bopping her head to the beat and trying to perform a robot move that hasn’t been seen since Beatrice was in middle school, and Hero’s doing her look at me with the blonde hair swishing move, and Beatrice is wishing she was elsewhere, when the Wessex Tonight boys walk in. He's wearing a black collared shirt, and black pants, and for a moment he's the pirate he's pretending to be, and she's not pretending that she doesn't like it.
Craig, the young security guard is wearing a truly awful fluoro shirt and it takes Benedick some seconds to focus in the dark, and point Claude in the right direction, watch him zero in on his target, and shoulder check some unsuspecting random out of the way to innocently greet Hero with “I didn’t know you’d be here,” like he didn’t, and perhaps there’s hope for him yet. Scanning the room, Benedick acknowledges Margaret, slinky in black Margaret, draping herself around a bloke with a shaved head and a sleeve of tatts, and notes, and tries not to note Beatrice all legs, and no bra, and hips and movement, dancing mostly on her own and only vaguely with a bearded guy in a bad suit, and Benedick shoulders up against Don, who is watching it all unfold with a sour face. Ursula, shouldering everyone else’s bags shuffles up on the other side. Peter’s got a round in, and hands them out silently. Ursula sipping her shandy through a straw.
“Look at them all, just like a pack of dogs, humping up against each other,” mutters Don, and Benedick removes his shoulder.
“You’re just new to the scene, right?” says Ben. “Divorced or something, yeah?”
“Or something,” says Don. “Look at her go, though. I mean, that’s a little rich, right?”
Benedick looks where Don’s pointing. There’s a blonde girl dancing, short skirts, tight top, like every other female in the club. She seems to be having a good time with the bloke she’s dancing with, true, but no more than any other female in the club. He comes to the conclusion that he doesn’t know Don very well, and probably doesn’t care to.
“Look,” and he points in the other direction, where there’s a cluster of twenty somethings dancing around a pile of handbags, like a ritual sacrifice. “Try your luck over there. That could be you.”
“Fat chance,” Don mutters into his glass.
Benedick shrugs. If Don won’t, he will.
The music’s loud, and the girls are willing, and he has a good time with hands mostly in the right places, dancing to surely the same music he was dancing to three years ago, Wessex knowing what it likes and sticking to it. Has a good time until Claude bounces into him.
“I need a hand,” Claude says. Benedick shrugs, but the girl lets go, and dances in the direction of her friends, shaking her assets to remind him what he’s missing.
“I need a drink,” says Benedick, and steers him in the direction of the bar.
Pints in, they edge their way back to the periphery of the dance floor, now solidly packed with all humanity’s leftovers.
“Spill,” says Ben.
“I don’t know what to do. Ben, I don’t. I’ve never felt like this before. She’s an absolute angel.”
Benedick looks, and can’t see her anywhere. Can’t see any of them, bar Ursula, waiting patiently at a table with everyone’s belongings. Don and Pete are long gone.
“She’s in the loo. All of them are. I don’t understand that.”
Benedick shrugs. “There’s nothing you need me to tell you here. If you’re in, you’re in. Take her back to yours, and for heaven’s sake, wear a condom. Don’t knock up the weather girl. I mean, the daughter of the boss. Not a good look.”
Claude takes a full step back. “I’m not going to sleep with her. I mean, that’s not on. We haven’t been out on a date yet. That’s just not right.”
Benedick lets his eyes roll. “I can tell you, a girl like that, dancing with you like that, she’s not waiting for you to ask for your hand in marriage. Hero bloody wants you to shag her. Shag her. It’s pretty much that simple.”
Claude puts his hand on Ben’s arm. “You just don’t understand. It’s different with me and Hero. It’s special. I can feel it. She deserves more than that.”
“…Deserves more than what?” Hero demands, appearing at Claude’s side, looking at Ben expectantly, like a puppy waiting for a treat. Beatrice behind her, like an ever supportive winggirl should be, and Margaret nowhere to be seen. Benedick tries not to meet her eyes, and fails. They’re smudged black with mascara, and the look she’s giving him is decidedly untrusting. He gives that up as a bad job, and looks back at Hero, waiting patiently, with a smile.
“This drink,” says Ben, holding out the glass of bubbly Claude had required he buy, and Hero takes it joyfully, looking up at Claude with appreciation.
Beatrice looks at him. “There’s not one for me, is there.” It’s not really a question.
Benedick holds out his half drunk pint. “In a war zone like this, can you really afford to be fussy?”
Beatrice eyes it off. “That’s bound to be full of your spit. Who knows where your mouth’s been tonight?”
Benedick wipes at his face, and damn it, she’s got him again. He hadn’t even kissed anyone, there’s no chance any lipstick’s made its way to his cheek. “Fine. I’ll drink it.” And he does, watching her throughout. “There. I’m sure, if you’re good, someone else will buy you a drink. Unless you’re up for a bit of the old cardiovascular, I’m off for the night.”
She looks at him, carefully, head to toe, he can feel each excruciating inch, and he doesn’t like it all. She turns the same gaze on the dance floor, and he can feel her assessing the bubble of personal space she’d be allotted and finding it wanting, he knows she’s going to say no. He’s not even sure why he asked.
“I thank you, but no. That’s more vertical shagging at this point, and I’m not sure you’re that far in my good books, if at all.” She’s icy. She’s a downright frigid bitch, and he’s not sure why he cares.
He sets the pint glass down carefully.
“Claude, Hero, a pleasure. Beatrice. I’d say it was a pleasure, but it wasn’t.” Takes his jacket from the patient Ursula and tries to smile but fails.
It would have been poetic if the crowd had parted before him to let him leave with a flourish, but he’s forced to wedge his way between punters and lasses in short skirts, and apologise for treading on toes, and when he looks back, he can see Beatrice’s mocking face.