I tried to get to work as fast as I could without crashing my bicycle on the wet streets. It was raining hard now, which made it difficult to look far ahead. It would also make it harder for the drivers in the many cars clogging up London’s busy streets to see me, but I wanted to get out of the rain as fast as I could. I was sweating despite the cold November weather, and I hoped that my decision to get some exercise wouldn’t end up giving me a cold or get me killed in the traffic.
I finally got to work in one piece but soaking wet, and made a run for the hotel from the bike stand, sprinting through the much closer main entrance instead of going around the back to the employee entrance. I stopped right inside the sliding doors, wanting to shake off as much of the rain as I could on the large doormat, instead of dripping it all over the clean floors, then took off my jacket and tried to use the somewhat dry lining on the inside to towel off my long red hair, which was currently dripping down my back.
‘Oh, Amber, it looks like you swam here.’ Karen was behind the reception desk, trying her best to look at me with compassion in her large brown eyes, instead of the laugher that was clearly about to bubble over. ‘Did you ride your bike here in this weather? Why didn’t you take the train?’
I was now stamping my feet, trying to shake the last of the rain off.
‘It wasn’t raining when I left home; I thought it would keep dry.’ The stomping made me sound more upset that I was. This was far from the first time London had caught me out with a sudden rainstorm, especially in the autumn. I decided I was as dry as I was going to get and made it across the lobby with only minimal drips left behind me.
‘I’ll be quick – I’ve got to dry up a bit before I get changed.’
‘Don’t worry, we’re not busy at all right now. Take your time.’
Karen was a sweet and helpful person. She was the only one of my co-workers that I truly liked, and whom I considered a friend as well. She could be almost a little too sweet sometimes; I couldn’t help feeling like she was trying too hard, that it was very important for her to be liked.
I was the opposite; I didn’t care what people at work thought about me. Despite these differences, I always got on well with Karen. She was always cheerful, and seemed to honestly love her job, which for some reason made me like it better as well. Karen was a junior receptionist, and I was supposed to be her supervisor. But to be honest, she was much more on top of things than I was, always so happy to be helpful and to do half of my tasks on top of her own. It made my job a lot easier, so I was always happy when I had a shift with her.
I went down the hallway to the employees’ changing rooms and unlocked my locker. I kept my uniform in there but also a hairdryer and some make-up, as I often biked or ran to work and needed to clean up before I started.
After ten minutes, I looked presentable again. I had quickly dried my straight fringe and pulled the rest of my wet hair back into a bun – it’s easier to manage wet anyway. I put some concealer under my eyes, applied some eyeliner and some lipstick, then quickly changed into my uniform: black slacks and a buttoned-up, dark blue shirt. I made sure my name tag (‘Amber Wilkinson – receptionist supervisor’) was on straight and walked back out into the hallway.
I thought I’d grab a hot drink to warm me up and went into the break room. The hotel manager and the conference department manager were in there, as well as a guy I didn’t know who was making himself a coffee. I walked up beside him, grabbed a cup off the hanging rack and waited for him to finish with the kettle.
‘I’m sorry, am I in your way?’ He blushed a little as he said this, barely making eye contact with me. He looked to be in his early thirties, with a stylish haircut and glasses that made his blue eyes look much larger than they were.
‘Oh no, not at all. Finish what you’re doing; I can wait.’ I smiled at him, and his face seemed to turn an even darker shade of red. He went to grab the sugar but managed to spill it all over the counter in his hurry. I felt bad for him. He seemed so nervous. No one should be that stressed out over making a cup of coffee, of all things in the world.
He tried to wipe the sugar off the countertop with his hands, but he only made more of a mess. I took a dishtowel and wet it under the tap then took over the clean-up. It was done in five seconds.
‘Don’t worry, I’m awfully clumsy before my first coffee as well.’ I tried to make him feel better. ‘I’m Amber, one of the receptionists. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before?’
‘I’m Liam, from Tech Team – the software company. I’m here to update your computers – the computers in the office I mean, not in the reception.’
‘Oh, no new computer updates for us? What a shame,’ I said as I finished making my coffee. I gave the guy another smile before I walked back out to the front desk and sat down.
‘You’re crazy for riding your bike in this weather! You’re going to get sick, it’s so cold outside!’ Karen picked up right where she’d left off.
‘I know. I did think I’d make it here before it started to rain. I promise that I’ll take the train home if it’s still raining later, okay?’
‘Good.’ Karen was smiling by now as well, both of us entertained by her motherly tone. ‘I haven’t seen you for days. We’ve been on opposite schedules. I’m happy that we’re back in sync. How have you been? Feeling any better about it all?’
It all meant my recent break-up with my boyfriend of almost two years, Sam. More precisely: his break-up with me.
‘I’m better thanks. It was rough there for a little bit, but I’m much better now.’ That was true, it had been three weeks since the break-up happened, and I had been a mess for the first week, and moody and weepy for the second. But I did feel like I was moving on now.
Karen beamed at me; she seemed so happy to hear I was doing better. She was the kind of person who wants everyone to be happy, especially those she considers friends. She was bubbly herself, always chatting away. I can be a little quieter and more introverted, so it suited me well to let Karen do all the talking. We’re the complete opposite in both personalities and looks. Where I’m tall and athletic, with long, straight red hair, Karen is short, tends to carry a little too much weight and has curly brown hair. She also has a sweet, open face, with a smile that makes you feel special and makes her look very pretty.
‘I’m sure I’ll still miss him, and it still makes me a little sad to think about it all. But I know I’m going to be fine. I’ll move on and leave it in the past.’
Karen laughed. ‘Sorry. It just sounds like you’re reading out of a self-help book. Leave it in the past.’
‘Maybe I have been looking at some self-help websites.’ I joined in with her laughter and felt my cheeks go a little pink. I did sound like the inspirational motto of the day. ‘But the sentiment is true. Those first couple of days, maybe the first week, I couldn’t imagine how to get over him. But now I’m already moving towards a good place.’
‘I’m so happy to hear that! Maybe with a bit of time you can see how much better you’re going to be without him. You’ll look back and realise that this was the best thing to happen.’
I thought Karen might be right, but I wasn’t quite ready to admit that to myself yet. To admit that the relationship wasn’t as perfect as I wanted it to be. That Sam wasn’t as perfect as I’d thought. I still had some work to do on that.
‘I do try to look at it in that way, and maybe one day I’ll actually believe it. But I think I’m finally starting to get over it all. Thanks for asking about it, Karen; it’s nice to feel that people care and aren’t tired of hearing me moan about it all yet’
‘I’m here any time you feel like you need to talk.’ Karen gave my arm a little squeeze. ‘So, maybe it’s time to start dating again? That’ll be exiting! I know you’ll have no problem finding lots of men simply dying to go out with you.’
‘Ha, I wish! But I’m not going to look for another relationship any time soon; I’m going to try to enjoy being single. I don’t want a rebound, and honestly, Karen, pale, red-headed girls like me aren’t as much in demand as you seem to think.’
‘Oh, come on, Amber, you know that you’re pretty! Don’t talk about yourself like that.’
I didn’t want to get into a discussion about the level of my attractiveness, so I accepted the compliment and moved the conversation over to the work we had to get done that day.
The hotel was getting quite busy by then – there were plenty of guests checking in and out, needing help and asking questions – and it made the hours pass quickly so I didn’t have much time to dwell on Sam. I finished my shift at 6 p.m. and headed home. The rain had stopped so I biked back, enjoying the air and the exercise but still having to dodge the crazy traffic.
As soon as I got to my flat, I unwrapped all my layers of clothes, put a Tupperware box of chicken and broccoli in the microwave and took Kitten, my pet rabbit, out of her cage, so she could run around for a bit. Kitten was a Netherland Dwarf rabbit, so small that she could lie in the palm of my hand, and had soft brown fur that I would find everywhere in my flat whenever I cleaned.
I ate quickly while watching the news. Eating alone was so different to having someone with you. On nights I had spent with Sam, one of us would cook and then we would sit down at the table and take our time, talking and catching up on our day as we ate. Alone, I would just heat up one of the meals I prep every weekend, sit on the sofa, watch something on the TV and scoff my food in minutes, barely tasting it. Even without necessarily missing Sam himself, I did really miss the company some nights. I was going to my friend Maya’s for dinner the following night, and I hoped that would make me feel less lonely.