A policeman stood at the reception desk in the office.
I stayed very still and watched him. He must be here for me. He'll be here to tell me someone's died. My sister. My gran. Who is it? I felt panic starting to rise in my chest like a snake. He has to be here for me.
'Julie! There's blood on you.'
Mhairi is staring at me. I press the back of my hand against my mouth and it comes away wet and red. Watching the policeman, I'd bitten deep into my bottom lip and the blood was seeping onto my chin.
'Come on, you,' says Mhairi, taking my elbow and steering me towards the bathroom. As we walk past the reception, I see the policeman has gone.
I rinse out my mouth and spit pink froth then I touch my burning forehead to the cold mirror. Mhairi waits with me till my panic eases.
'You're still a bit mad, aren't you?' she asks, handing me a tissue.
I pat my face dry and sigh. 'Yeah. A bit.'
'Have you and The Proclaimer picked a flat yet?'
'We're looking at one in Hyndland tomorrow.'
'That'll be expensive.'
'I know, but because he earns loads more than me he says he'll pay the council tax and the bills. It means I'll actually have more money each month than I do now. We talked about it. I could even drop to part-time and write a novel.'
'So why aren't you dead happy?' says Mhairi.
I shoved my crumpled tissue in the bin. 'Because he won't tell me what the catch is!'
Because there has to be a catch. The Proclaimer is offering me a life where I can relax and stop worrying. I can go part-time and make a serious attempt at writing. There will never be threats to cut off the electricity. There will always be food in the cupboard. There will be holidays. It's simply too good to be true. There must be a catch.
Back at my desk, I think how the knowledge that The Proclaimer is there makes me feel safe; I feel that someone is on my side.
I look across at Mhairi, and it's the same with her. I'm so glad that, when I come into this terrible office each morning, I have a friend sitting beside me. She works so furiously hard that she barely speaks to anyone and I usually need to poke her in the ribs to get her attention, but I'm just glad she's there to occasionally humour me, to be a friend and to tell me when I have blood on my chin.
Of course, I can't say this to her. My reputation is for being sour and snappy and cynical. If I suddenly put my hand on Mhairi's arm and told her plainly what a good friend she is and how much I owe her I think we'd both just get embarrassed.
So instead, I say I'm getting her a double espresso with a dash of hot milk. Her office staple.
As usual, she doesn't hear me, so I nudge her. 'Mhairi!'
She slowly turns round and frowns at me. 'What?'
I say again I'm going upstairs to get her an espresso. And a chewy flapjack.
'You're getting me what?' she laughs. 'What're you after?'
There it is again: what's the catch?
Mhairi is just pleasantly surprised I'm doing something nice but my own wariness of a kind gesture runs deeper. I'm so gnarled with cynicism and suspicion. Can I learn to let it go and just buy Mhairi her flapjacks and just accept that the Proclaimer is a good man? But I am sour and can't quickly put that right.
I'm bitter that my 20s were ruined and scarred with depression and I'm now 32 with nothing to show for three decades of life. Time, in those blackened days, inched by like a glacier, ancient and heavy. Nothing ever changed under the ice. Just years upon years of yellow pills, minimum wage jobs, white pills, therapists, pink pills and self-loathing which makes it hard to lift your eyes to the mirror.
It's only now, at the age of 32 and with faint lines starting to crease at the corner of my eyes, that I feel I'm finally coming to life. It's only now that I have a prospect of breaking away from this awful, low-paid work and being able to give time and attention to my writing. It's only now that the boxes of pills are in the bin. It's only now that I'm with a good man. Now, when I'm 32. But my 20s are forever locked under that brutal glacier and I can't help feeling bitter about that.
I was telling my dad's girlfriend about how it's hard to accept good things and to relish them and be happy. There has to be a catch. Why should I have good things?
She said, simply, 'maybe it's just your time.'
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