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Vinegar In The Salad
Mark Cunliffe

Nina Bale stood by the window in the office and looked out across London’s docklands. It was 1987 and it was her year. She could feel it in her bones, a tingling sensation that signified the oncoming of success. The whole of the up and coming docklands were her playground. Each office and skyscraper requiring her design flair, for she had won the contract to all the interior décor in the redevelopment plans.

She let out a sigh of contentment and a smile played at her slightly ruddy cheeks. She was a petite girl in her early 30s with irregular but still beautiful looks; Jolie-laide as the French would say. She ran a hand through her brown hair and let her mind race through all the possibilities available to her. Despite it being late in the day, she found she simply couldn’t switch off, the thoughts and designs came into her head at a rate of knots, bubbling and spilling over onto her drawing board and in turn, receiving praise from the other board, the board of directors.

She deserved this, she thought to herself. So what if she was obsessing a little? It was better than the obsessions she used to have. She closed her eyes and flared her nostrils, breathing deeply, as if to banish out the dark thoughts, the years of addiction and the rehab centres and counsellors and therapists. Those days were gone. This is a new day, a golden age. Thatcher’s Britain is finally working for her, rather than against her. And why not, she was middle class by right, yet mistakes and the past, the awful past had led her to dark places and bad habits, dole queues and despair. Now things will be different. She’s got to where she always wanted to be, using her skills for a job she had always dreamed of. Mother and Father would be proud. She swallowed hard, bile rose deep within her at the thoughts of the past, at the thought of her family.

Her phone rang out, a shrill tone bringing her back from her thoughts. She crossed the floor and answered it. A gentleman to see her; won’t give his name, sending him up, came the reply. Nothing strange in that she thought, probably some prick of an architect wanting to be enigmatic. Yet why were the hairs on her slender neck starting to rise? She absent-mindedly scratched at her cheek and placed herself on the edge of her desk, looking outward at the vista once more. The golden summer sky was now darkening. Fat spots of rain started to hit the window and blur the view. A storm had begun.

A small cough at the door caused her to spin around, and there he was. Leaning against the doorjamb with that louche natural air. He ran a hand though his floppy unkempt tawny hair and cracked a smile that made his haughty hawkish features split like a pumpkin head. "Ta da" he cawed, at the illusion of his own appearance. "Hello sis" he finished, awaiting the applause like a cheap street magician.
Nina caught her breath "Alex" she said, and rose up warily from the desk, smoothing down her sweater in the process.
"The very same, sister of mine" he said in his deep slurred over enunciated tones and moved steadily towards her. He resembled a Russian dissident, dressed in a long black coat. Yet there was also something vampiric about his appearance. Something only those who knew him and were tainted by him knew well. For Nina, vampiric was a good description, as her older brother was skilled in the art of draining the life from people who got to close to him, taking all that they had in a predatory way that resembled a kind of studied foreplay.

She began to shift from foot to foot as he edged closer, his long limbs taking an exquisite time to reach her. "Its…its good to see you" she said with a smile, "How did…how did you find me?"
"Friends, the grapevine" he explained, looking at her as a hawk might eye up its prey. Finally and unexpectedly he laughed, a booming laugh and flew open his arms to envelop his little sister in a big bear hug of a welcome. She breathed him in deeply, his deep musky smell that reminded her of so many times. Times both good and bad. He looked down at her; he towered over her small height. "Well?" he said "Surprise!"
"Yes it is rather" she said her eyes shifting up to see his face, its perpetual smirk that played out on his acid dripping lips and the wonderful raised eyebrows that suggested superiority. She could not loom too long and found her gaze settling at the top of his chest. "Where have you been?" she asked hesitantly "I mean" she said, closing her eyes as a child might to chide herself at getting an easy question at school wrong, "What have you been up too?"
"This and that," he answered hurriedly before taking her in once more with his predatory gaze. "Prison" he finally answered.
"Ah" she said "I’m…I’m sorry"
"S’alright" he said, spinning round to view the office. "I had it coming… I… guess" he drawled. "You’ve done well for yourself," he said and before she could say thank you he asked; "Mother and Father," he said their names as if they held a nasty taste in his mouth, "do you keep in touch?"
"No, um no, not really…well they wouldn’t have much to do with me after the rehab…and well, you know"
He ran a finger across the desk, "No, no I don’t suppose they would, would they?" he asked rhetorically again spitting the ‘they’ as if acidic. "You clean?"
"Two years now, almost" she said heavily, hopefully. "You?"
Alex waved his hand as if to say sometimes, sometimes not.
"Still, it was never really an issue for you was it? I mean you saw it as a business, supply and demand" Nina stated finding a new boldness, holding her gaze at her errant brother.
Alex sucked in air through his teeth and with a majestic flap of his long coat tails sat down on the desk opposite. "You’d know more about business these days sister of mine, joining the yuppie set" he spat the last word before hurriedly adding "I’m proud of you"
"Thank you" she replied, a little unsure. "Um, Alex, was there anything?" Truth be told she didn’t need this blast from the past, family or not, it was scaring her, upsetting her perfect vision. Outside the rain splattered more, the sun slipping, almost groaning heavily down behind the skyline signalling the end of an exhaustive day. Down on the hot streets below, flying ants scurried and made themselves an itchy nuisance as the thunder rumbled.
"Ah" he drawled before flouncing up from the desk, his tails flapping down like the wings of a bat before taking shape of The Count himself. "Money" he answered.
Nina laughed in shock. "Alex, I’m not exactly loaded, this is only the start of a contract, I’ve a long way yet to prove myself and get…"
"Shush," Alex soothed seductively through his pursed lips causing Nina to pull herself up short. He was close to her again now, she could feel his breath on her, see the fabric in his cheesecloth shirt underneath his dark coat, see the stubble forming on his neck. "Just a little" he explained "for old times sake?"
Nina gulped "Alex, you could work, I’m getting contacts now, it was hard for me too, getting started again, but..." she coughed briefly as she felt his gaze studying her deeply. "With your skills, you could easily get a job in animation or graphic design" She said hurriedly, feeling uncomfortable. "Alex!" she said with force, meeting his gaze. "Alex, it’s not too late" she pleaded.

They stood like that, little more than inches apart staring at each other as if in a battle of wills; the saved and the damned. The air bristled both inside the office and out, as the first flash of lighting struck. Finally Alex stopped his inspection and his features broke out in a broad wry grin once more. Nina couldn’t help but return the smile but less confidently so. With a resigned air she placed her hand into her pocket and producing her purse, peeled off five twenty pound notes, bunching them in her hand she offered them to Alex. He placed his hand over hers to take the gift, and firmly clasped her hand in his. "Do you remember…how we used to play?" he asked, his voice low and the words drawling even more than usual, "Before…Father…beat… it out of us" he said, his breath on the nape of her neck. Nina closed her eyes to shut out the memories, a tear starting to form in the corner of each. "Alex" she breathed out as if to ask him to stop. She did not need those memories. It was her time now, please let it be her time now. "Father never liked…competition" the words dripped out of him. "Please" she called for it to stop once more.
Alex Bale backed away from his sister slowly and with a little bow of his head in thanks, made for the door.
Nina fought back tears. "It is good to see you" she said with force, "Please, please take care"
"I’ll endeavour to do my best," he said with his usual caustic air, before adding "for you" with true and remarkable intention.
Nina took a deep breath "Please" she beseeched "keep in touch and think about the job"
He smiled "Red braces and striped shirts?" he said with an eyebrow archly raised. He made to turn once more, before stopping as if he remembered something. He plunged his hand deep into his voluminous coat pocket and pulled something out that Nina couldn’t quite see. "By way of thanks" he said and threw the item across to her, where it landed on her desk. She looked down to see what it was.
A small packet of cocaine.
Hurriedly she looked up to see her brother, but he had gone.

It rained even harder now. The noise of its heavy fall against the windows completely taking over the room. Life wasn’t perfect for Nina Bale, but she had to try. Almost unthinking and without taking her eyes from the door, where he last stood, she picked up the packet and threw it in the metal bin at her feet. She had to try. Nevertheless, she knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, especially with her brother around. Her dear, sweet, tortured Alex. He couldn’t help it, and neither could she. She had always liked a little vinegar in her salad.

© Mark Cunliffe July 2007

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