Chapter Eight

Once again the next morning at the office dragged unbearably. With still no respite from the incredible weather conditions, the city was again silent and stifling and the streets below were relatively empty. As I looked out of the office window, I wondered why I had bothered coming into work at all. Most people appeared to have simply chosen to stay at home and relax in the sunshine or, more probably, in the shade of their homes, watching the sun scorch and burn the world around them. Time seemed to run at a much slower rate than usual and I was sure that it had something to do with the way that I stared at the clock every five minutes, willing its hands to work their way quickly around to one o'clock.

With sunrise that morning, the heat had increased further still until it was now like a heavy, suffocating blanket which lay all around, smothering everything and everybody with its exhausting, relentless and inescapable power. Every newspaper and magazine carried concocted, charlatan explanations of events and mixed them with a generous and unhealthy number of stories about old-aged pensioners dying of dehydration in their homes and of the water in lakes and reservoirs falling to new record-low levels.

When one o'clock finally arrived, I gathered up the papers and forms that I needed Samantha to sign and, before leaving, called Robert into my room. He staggered in through the office door, looking flustered and exhausted. As he stood still and tried to compose himself, he wiped his fat, round and red face with an already damp handkerchief and leant against my desk. For a moment I stared at the picture of ill health that stood in front of me and I felt genuinely sorry for the man.

'I'm going out to see Miss Hill now,' I said. 'I'm not sure when I'll be back so could you look after things here for a while?'

Robert stood up straight and nodded. I noticed that his cotton shirt was drenched with sweat and that it clung tightly to his skin.

'Will you be all right?' I asked, worried about the exhausted condition that he was in.

'I'll be fine,' he wheezed. 'I'm just having a bit of trouble with this heat. It doesn't agree with me.'

'Are you going to be okay to look after the office?'

'I said I'll be all right!' he snapped and he looked up at me with an angry expression on his flustered face.

'I shouldn't be too long,' I said, attempting to reassure him and to disguise the fact that I intended to stay with Samantha for as long as I possibly could. 'I'm not expecting any calls and I don't think that there will anything that you can't deal with. If you do need to contact me. Miss Hill's number is in her file and that's somewhere in my filing cabinet.'

Robert nodded and turned to walk out of the room. I felt sorry for him in some respects - he was much older than me and I was sure that he resented my seniority in the office. He was normally able to rise above such feelings but the extreme heat and its effects on his desperately unfit body did nothing to help ease the situation.

I shoved the paperwork into my briefcase and grabbed my jacket before following Robert out of the office. I draped the jacket over my shoulder as it was far too hot to even think about wearing it. It was, in fact, far too hot to be wearing anything.

I left the office as quickly as I could and with it I left a grumbling assistant manager complaining to the rest of the staff. Although I feigned deafness, I could hear him telling them all how he was the one that really ran the branch - I just picked up the manager's salary at the end of every month. Regardless of his comments, I was in a good mood and was determined not to rise to the childish baiting of my staff. I walked ignorantly past them all and out of the building.

Before getting into my car, I stopped to pick up a bottle of wine. I walked past a little florist's shop and thought for a moment about getting some flowers for Samantha. Next to the florist's was a sweet shop and I wondered if chocolates might be better. An irrational paranoiac fear grew in my mind as I imagined foolishly that such presents might give Samantha the wrong impression of me. Although I wanted to get much closer to her, I thought that our relationship was far too fresh and new for me to start buying sentimental gifts. Instead, I settled on the bottle of wine - a neutral gift which I could palm off as just an accompaniment to our lunch rather than a romantic gesture. The wine was chilled and the bottle cold in my hands. I wondered how cold it would be by the time I reached Samantha's.

The drive to the shop took only a little while. As I stopped the car and got out, I admired what I saw. Although it was only half-finished, the building's frontage already looked professional and very inviting with an ornate sign being painted above the whitewashed windows. I could see movement through the partially obscured glass and I could not help but feel somewhat disappointed that I would not be on my own with Sam. Perhaps that was a good thing, I thought. I didn't know if I would be able to control myself if we were left alone - she was so beautiful.

I took the wine and my briefcase out of the back of the car and, as I locked and closed the boot, the front door of the shop burst open and Samantha came running out to meet me. She looked wonderful in a long summer dress which clung lovingly to every curve of her perfect figure and the sunlight made her free, flowing hair glow with life and colour. As she approached, I felt an unexpected nervousness in my stomach, and my legs weakened. I prayed that I would be able to keep myself and my emotions in order despite the fact that I wanted desperately to pick her up in my arms, to take her somewhere quiet and romantic and make slow, passionate love to her. I tried to cool myself down by remembering that I was there on official company business.

'Hi, Steve! How are you?' Sam asked as she approached.

'I'm fine,' I replied. 'You look fantastic.'

She took my arm and led me towards the shop.

'This is for you,' I said, holding out the bottle of wine. 'I thought we could celebrate.'

Sam stopped. For one terrible and irrational moment I thought that my worst fears had been realised and that she had taken offence at my gift. I knew that it was a foolish and unfounded thing to imagine but, in the heat of the moment, I was fighting to keep control of a brain, a heart and a body that did not want to be restrained. My fears were washed away in a second as Sam stood up on tiptoes and kissed me lightly on the cheek.

'You shouldn't have,' she said, looking straight at me with her gorgeous, almost hypnotic eyes. 'You're so sweet.'

I followed Samantha into the shop where, away from the relentless sunlight, it was slightly cooler and where I was able to think and to act sensibly once more. The main area of the shop was a hive of activity with workmen toiling in the heat to fix counters and shelves while others followed behind, decorating in their work mates' footsteps.

'You've done really well in here,' I commented, looking around. 'How long do you think it'll be before you can open?'

'Just a few weeks,' she replied. 'Now that you've come through with my finance I'll be able to sort out the stock and the rest of the fittings that I need.' She paused to think for a moment and looked around at her shop 'The only trouble is,' she continued, 'I don't know whether to buy more microwave ovens for the hot, winter food or extra fridges for the ice cream!'

Samantha took my hand and pulled me through a door behind the main serving area. The door opened out onto a little corridor and, from there, various storerooms and kitchens could be accessed. To our left was an empty, spare room and she reached inside to switch on the light. The dull yellow glow of one, unprotected sixty-watt bulb illuminated a little table in the middle of the room which was covered with an appetising spread of sandwiches, salads and cakes. I felt guilty of the fact that I had little appetite but I resolved to try and eat something. Two seats were sat close to each other next to the table and Sam gestured for me to go inside and to sit down.

'I hope you don't mind eating in here,' she said. 'It's far too hot to go outside.'

She disappeared for a moment to fetch two wine glasses from the kitchen

'You really shouldn't have gone to all this trouble just for me,' I said, shouting after her.

'It's no trouble,' she replied as she came back into the room. 'Besides, it gives me a chance to show you some of the types of things that I'll be doing here.'

She sat down in the chair next to me which she had angled so that whilst we were not far apart, we were able to look straight into each other's faces. My next words were spoken involuntarily - before I had even stopped to think, they were already floating through the air in Sam's direction and I was unable to stop them.

'The food's a bonus,' I said. 'It's enough for me just to see you.'

I was immediately embarrassed and looked away from Samantha and down to the floor. I slowly turned my head back to look in her direction to gauge her reaction and I felt incredible relief when I saw that she was smiling broadly. She reached out her hand, grabbed mine and squeezed it softly. I chanced upon the unopened bottle of wine sitting on the table and picked it up quickly - I needed a drink.

'Have you got a corkscrew?' I asked. Sam shook her head.

'No,' she laughed, 'that's one of the fittings that I still need to get.'

'Never mind,' I said and I jumped up from my seat. I went out into the main area of the shop and, seeing that all of the workmen were busy at the far end of the room, I took the liberty of borrowing a screwdriver which had been left lying on a nearby stool. Returning to Samantha, I forced the cork down the neck of the bottle with the tool and poured the wine out into our glasses.

'I hope you don't mind the taste of a little cork in your wine,' I joked. 'I find that it often adds to the flavour and brings out the body of a good white!'

'Now you're just talking crap!' Sam said and she laughed as she took a sip from the glass that I passed to her.

'I am,' I replied. 'You seem to have that effect on me.'

'You have quite an effect on me,' she whispered quietly and I almost choked on the sandwich that I had just bitten into. I had dared to think that Samantha found me attractive and that she enjoyed my company, but to have it confirmed in such a blunt, definite and undeniable manner was beyond my wildest dreams.

We ate for a few quiet minutes. Neither of us seemed to have very much of an appetite for our food but I made a concerted effort to avoid hurting Sam's feelings. I cleared my plate and put it down on the table.

'That was really good,' I said, wiping my mouth with a serviette. 'If that's the kind of thing that you're going to be selling here then I don't think you're going to have any problems.'

'Thanks, Steve. I'm glad you liked it.'

'What have you got left to do in here then?' I asked, gesticulating at the rest of the building around us. She shrugged her shoulders.

'Not that much,' she said, quietly and simply.

'Are you looking forward to opening up?'

'I suppose,'

'Do you want to talk about something else?' I asked. Sam nodded and smiled. I had guessed from the brevity of her answers to my questions that she was not interested in talking business and I changed the subject. 'What did you think of Mark?' I asked, reminding her of our time together the previous evening.

'He's great,' she said, suddenly springing back into life. 'He's got a brilliant sense of humour.'

'It's not that good,' I replied defensively.

Before speaking again, I remembered the energy pulse that we had experienced last night. It had been the only negative aspect of an otherwise totally enjoyable evening and so I made a deliberate attempt to steer away from the topic of the weather and the relentless heat.

'Why didn't you go to university?' I enquired, remembering our friends' constant conversations last night. 'You had the qualifications, you could have done anything.'

She thought for a moment before replying.

'I know. I suppose I'd just had enough of learning by the time that it came to make the decision. I needed to start earning some money.'

Sam's reasoning sounded vaguely familiar as it had been for much the same reason that I had gone straight into working for the company rather than continuing my education. It had been a move that my parents had not entirely approved of and it was good to have found someone else who agreed with my opinions and who thought along the same lines as I did.

'Do you regret it?' I asked.

Samantha shook her head.

'I'm happy with the way things have turned out,' she said, draining the last drops of wine from the glass which she had emptied in record time. 'And things are getting better every day.'

As she spoke, Sam looked up into my face and I felt my heart melt. I knew then that the girl who sat next to me could really prove to be as special and important as I had dared think she might be at the time of our first meeting. Although I had then dismissed my initial feelings as juvenile and trite, they seemed to have more and more truth and substance with each extra moment that I spent in her company.

When I next looked at my watch, it was almost three o'clock I panicked and at once my mind was filled with thoughts of disaster and catastrophe at the office which I had left under the control of a deputy manager who seemed to be permanently on the point of collapse I knew full well that if anything happened in my absence, the blame would rest squarely at my feet

'I'm sorry, I've got to go,' I said as I stood up to leave. 'I didn't see the time.'

Sam looked at her own watch and seemed as surprised as me to find that we had been talking for almost an hour and a half.

'Do you really have to?' she asked and I nodded sadly.

'I'm afraid so I wish I could stop.'

I tucked my shirt into my trousers and rolled down my sleeves. I moved towards the door of the little room but stopped when I was close to Sam. I turned to look into her face and then, with equal amounts of inevitability and spontaneity, I leant down and kissed her lightly on the lips. She put her arms around me and I held her tightly before we kissed again. Long and passionate, our second kiss seemed to last for a blissful eternity and I found it difficult to tear myself away.

'I wish I could stay here with you,' I whispered into her ear. 'I don't want to let you go.'

'I never want you to let me go,' she said quietly 'Can you come back tonight?'

My heart sank as I remembered that tonight was the night that I had arranged to go across town and visit my parents. I would normally have telephoned them and cancelled using some weak and concocted excuse but today, as my father was ill, I felt duty-bound to go. I silently cursed myself for not having visited last Friday when my business dinner date had been cancelled.

'I can't. I wish I could but my dad's ill and I've promised that I'll go over and see him.' I said. Samantha seemed to understand. 'Can we go out tomorrow?'

It was Sam's turn to bring bad news and she shook her head dejectedly.

'I've got an appointment with my insurers tomorrow night. It's too late to cancel now.'

'The day after then?' I asked, hopefully. Samantha nodded and smiled.

I painfully tore myself away from her. Despite the incredible heat all around and inside the building, my body felt cold where I had just held her and I longed to pull her close to me again. I walked towards the door of the shop, holding her hand tightly. She suddenly stopped walking and I turned back to see what was wrong.

'I haven't signed anything!' she shouted, laughing. 'You've forgotten what you came for!'

'Can you see what you're doing to me?' I asked jokingly as I took the forms and papers from out of my case. Sam signed where I indicated and I threw the documents back into the bag. 'I'm losing all control. You're turning me into a nervous wreck!'

'I'm sorry,' she laughed with mock apology in her voice.

'Don't be,' I whispered 'I'm loving every second of it!'

Before leaving I held her tightly once more and we kissed again in full view of the assembled workmen. We received a sarcastic round of applause from the labourers and I left the shop feeling embarrassed but caring little. I promised that I would call Sam the next day and then climbed into the car. I drove back towards the office and watched her in the rear view mirror until I turned a corner and she disappeared from view.

I had not needed to panic - Robert had survived the afternoon without incident and, more importantly, so had the office. I apologised to him for being away for so long and made up some lame, implausible excuse about being detained and having to explain the forms to Miss Hill. I could tell that he didn't believe me but I didn't care.

Although less than two official working hours remained in the day, time still managed to run at a snail's pace. I had often joked with friends about how time managed to slow down in the week and then double its speed at weekends or when I was enjoying myself. I decided that must have been the reason why the hour and a half I had spent with Samantha had felt like less than ten minutes.

Once again, with a complete disregard for company regulations, I was deserted and left alone in the office at five o'clock sharp and I felt (out of guilt rather than company loyalty) that I should stop for a while and try to catch up on some of the paperwork that I had avoided doing that afternoon. By the time I was reasonably up to date, it was close to half past six. I decided to leave, to go home and change and then make my way to my parents' house as arranged.

Throughout the whole of the rest of the afternoon, I was unable to get Samantha out of my mind for even the briefest of moments.

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