All the Time in the World

by lurking_latinist [Reviews - 0]

  • All Ages
  • None
  • Character Study, General, Introspection, Missing Scene

Author's Notes:
Originally posted March 24, 2021 on AO3.

Melanie didn’t swear. Really. She never did. So it was to the depths of heck that she was darning Mary Beth Timmons’ faithless soul.

The rational part of Mel’s mind admitted that this was perhaps a little unfair, since all Mary Beth had actually done was to coax Mel into going out with a group of their coworkers after work. “It’ll be fun,” she’d said, “do you good. You won’t be the only woman, I’ll be there.” And then—and this was where Mel wished she could stop seeing the funny side of her righteous fury—Mary Beth had spotted her boyfriend across the pub and promptly vanished away to spend the evening by his side. So Mel was perched on a barstool, nursing a mineral water, at one end of a crowd of programmers who got more and more blokey with each beer. She’d talked shop for a while with Greg, but he’d been called on to referee an argument about football and now she was just increasingly bored.

And Mel hated being bored. It didn’t fit with her self-image at all. When she was a little girl, kicking her heels in rooms where adults were talking, she’d played what she called the counting game. You estimated the number of something you could see—ceiling tiles were a favorite—then counted to see if you were right. The pub didn’t have ceiling tiles, but it did have a crowd, and she found herself estimating the number of people in the room even as she followed Greg and Martin’s conversation with one ear. (Still terminally masculine. She wondered if they were being deliberately blokey because she’d come along, then scolded herself for being paranoid.)

Thirty-four people, she guessed, and started counting idly, as much people-watching as actually confirming her guess. It was a pretty dull crowd, honestly—some young couples, some straggling groups of friends, and what appeared to be a hen party that hadn’t yet reached the riotous stage. A stag party as well, she thought for a moment, then realized the man in costume a few seats down from her wasn’t actually with anyone. What he thought he was dressed as baffled Mel, but at least it looked cheerful.

Its wearer, however, did not, and Mel snuck a longer look at the mystery man. He was definitely more interesting than what her coworkers were talking about; he’s got a story to tell, she thought. She examined him out of the corner of her eye, watching a little more openly as she observed him lost in thought. He looked, frankly, utterly miserable, with some burden of emotion creasing the broad fair face that should have been pleasant. He was huddled over his drink as if trying to fold away his tall figure. Stood up tonight, she guessed, or else drowning his sorrows. But she was almost sure—yes, like her, he was nursing a mineral water. So that theory was out, unless he was really the world’s biggest lightweight. Who sits in a pub by themselves brooding over mineral water? she thought. Well, except me, but I have an excuse.

Unwilling to be caught staring, she put it down to the rich tapestry of life— maybe that’s what he was dressed as! —and tuned back into her coworkers’ conversation. They were talking about music now and she felt less at sea. She defended Cyndi Lauper until she got tired of shouting over pub noise—the place was filling up as it got later. Definitely more than thirty-four people.

She was zoning out again and caught herself staring at the rich tapestry man. He seemed to have cheered up a bit; he was staring upwards with a faint smile. She thought she recognized the expression. He was solving a problem in his mind, and it was going well. But then he sighed, ran a hand through his blond curls (with no visible effect), and seemed to wilt again.

She felt the sudden conviction that she’d like him if they talked. Riding the impulse, she stood up, handbag under her arm and glass of water in one hand, and slipped through the crowd along the bar towards the mystery man. Normally she’d be a bit nervous of talking to strangers in bars, but, she told herself, he’s easily forty-five so he’ll either be an immediate creep or else he’ll treat me like a person. And Mary Beth’s still here somewhere, and loads of people I know, really. If anything, I bet he wants to vent.

“Is this seat taken?” she chirped, banally, as she hopped onto the barstool next to her mystery man.

“Don’t think so,” he said. Then went back to staring at nothing.

Well, she was darned if she was going to let a little awkwardness put her off. Since childhood she’d been told by more than one person that not everyone actually wanted her to fix their issues, and she tried—she really did—to tell what was a Mel-problem and what was none of her business. But she refused to believe that there was anyone she couldn’t help at all. Surely just talking would do some good.

“What’s on your mind?” she said, abruptly.

“Sorry?” he said, looking at her for the first time, eyebrows quirked. He wasn’t angry, just startled.

“Well, I hate to interrupt your brooding,” she said, “but I noticed, I think you and I are the only two people in here tonight who aren’t drinking. I’m trying to socialize. What brings you?”

“Do I need an excuse?” he said, slowly, as if it were a genuine question.

“Not for sticking to water,” she said, “in fact that’s better for your health, but if you’re not drinking and you haven’t been dragged here by your exhausting coworkers, what’s the draw?”

He spun the half-empty bottle between his hands. A few bubbles fizzed in it. “I just wanted noise,” he said, “and people around me. I... found myself nearby.”

“I’m people,” she said. “I can do noise, too, if you like. Tell me all about it.” And he seemed to take that as his cue to open up.

He’d lost someone recently, she gathered as he rambled. “Not like that,” he added as she furrowed her face into an expression of sympathy. “She... left me.” So it was a woman—of course it was, thought Mel, surreptitiously checking to make sure she could still find Mary Beth in case her new friend had ideas about the rebound. But the lady in the case hadn’t, it seemed, been a wife or girlfriend—he seemed vaguely amused by the very idea—just a friend. Although he didn’t say just, when he corrected Mel’s misapprehension; he said a friend like it meant the world to him. She’d got married and (he hesitated, seemingly gathering his thoughts) moved far away. So he wouldn’t see her any more. “And it was just too quiet in the” (again that hesitation) “the house.”

Mel was oddly impressed by this man who could be so broken up over a woman he hadn’t been in love with. Maybe it shouldn’t be unusual, but it was. But she also felt sorry for him. She thought he must not have many friends—he seemed terribly lonely. She’d been right that he needed to talk. “I’m sorry,” was all she said. “That sounds rough.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” he said unconvincingly. “I’m a tough old bird. You must think me terribly rude, waffling on about me. Tell me about yourself!”

Well, that was a redirection if she’d ever heard one, but it was polite to contribute to the conversation. So she said, “I’m Mel—well, Melanie, my friends call me Mel. I’m a programmer.” And then the pause she always left, for a pretty girl like you? or you must find it difficult, working with so many men, or the slightly-too-surprised how did you get interested in that?

But her new friend, unwittingly cementing that status, just said, “What do you work on?”

“Oh, it’s quite technical,” she said, dismissively, “and I hate to talk shop.”

“You don’t really, do you,” he said. And it was true, she loved talking shop, she just hated the glazed-over look that people got when she did it, the way they tended to wander off soon afterwards, and the way later on they would end up treating her like a brain on a stick instead of a person. So she’d learned to stop herself rambling.

“I try not to frighten people,” she quipped, and saw his expression change, his lips parting like she’d said some kind of secret password. “I mean, it’s not really social conversation, is it?”

“But it’s what you love, isn’t it?” he said, and she nodded. “If you’d like to talk about what you’re working on,” he went on—full of sincerity, as if he was alarmed she’d think otherwise—“please do. I’m a scientist, I’ve worked with a lot of computers,” he added. “Believe me. Some very strange ones.”

So she’d taken him at his word and told him all about her current project, her goals, her methods, and the place where she was stuck. Her project was as much mathematics as programming, and her new friend seemed reasonably confident in maths, although a little slapdash. He nodded along, growing more animated as she worked through the logical structure of her problem. She remembered that puzzle-solving expression she’d seen on his face earlier. It had blossomed now into a wide smile as he tried to map her algorithm using the rings their drinks had left on the bar, drawing in water with one finger. The result was unreadable, but he was echoing her ideas and asking intelligent questions with a contagious enthusiasm that made her more excited about her own work than ever. She was almost bouncing in her seat—not quite, it would look too childish, and she didn’t need that with her legs already dangling—when she finished running through the approaches that hadn’t yet worked.

“Look, have you tried—no, no, no, it’s your specialism, not mine,” said her new friend.

“No, tell me,” said Mel, still giddy with the thrill of finding a new person she could really talk to.

“Well, this really is just an analogy, you understand,” he said, and launched into a geometric argument (the finger-on-the-bar drawings were pressed into service again). She didn’t quite see the relevance, and said so.

“It’s difficult to put into three dimensions,” he said. “If you could see it from a fourth-dimensional perspective...”

Not if we could see it, she’d later remember. If you could see it. But in the moment she simply cried, “Of course! If you look at solutions in multiple dimensions...” and tore off along a new line of argument. She rifled through her handbag, extracting an old shopping list and a pencil, then sketched out her new solution in her smallest handwriting. It wasn’t exactly whatever he’d been trying to draw, but she certainly owed him credit for inspiring her, she thought.

“I can’t wait to try this out at work tomorrow,” she said, smiling up at him in wholehearted delight.

“Isn’t it Friday?” he said, once again as if it were a genuine question. Like he’d just been dropped out of a spaceship and was trying to blend in. Mork from Ork, she thought. Maybe it was just his manner.

“It is,” she reassured him, “but people are always in at odd hours, even on weekends, using the machines. I can’t wait until Monday, I’ll go crazy thinking about it.”

“I wish you the utmost success,” he said.

“Look,” she said awkwardly, “I’d really better get home and get some sleep if I’m going to be working tomorrow. But if you need someone to talk to, or...”

“I would love to hear how your project turns out,” he said. Not going to admit he’d been having emotions, then, or might need someone to talk to again. Well, it was too much to hope he wouldn’t have any of the failings of the average man. He gave her a brilliant smile and she melted a little.

“Look, don’t take this the wrong way or anything,” she said, “because I don’t want to pick up anyone or be picked up by anyone, but can I give you my phone number? It’s my work number,” she said, writing it on another scrap of paper from her handbag. “Call me tomorrow and be my rubber duck again?”

“Rubber duck?”

“It’s a programmer’s trick, you explain your problem to a rubber duck or any little mascot you keep on your desk, and just explaining it helps you think more clearly.”

“Ah, is that all I am to you, a squeaky bath toy?” he said, mock-hurt. “Did my frankly mind-bogglingly brilliant idea mean nothing to you?”

“You very helpfully mentioned dimensions,” she said, “which elevated you above the normal run of rubber ducks. That’s why I want you back. And you seem nice,” she added, almost without thinking.

“Nice?” he said. “Nice? Is that—oh. You really mean that as a good thing, don’t you.”

“Of course it’s a good thing,” she said. She had an absurd urge to pat his curly head, but it was almost out of her reach and she’d look ridiculous anyway. “Now you, be sure and get some sleep too.” She saw his face shift, those traces of melancholy stealing back across it. “Don’t sit and brood. Go home, put a tape in if the house is too quiet, or turn on the radio. And call me tomorrow.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said with a smile as she hurried into the crowd. She waved a quick goodbye to Mary Beth, and one vaguely in the direction of her other coworkers.

Do you know, she thought, I didn’t even get his name. And I never asked him what he was dressed as.

Oh, well. I’ve got all the time in the world.