The Empty Chair – A short story by Stephanie Marland | Books | Entertainment

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Stephanie Marland

My coffee has gone tepid but still I stay.

I’m people watching, and this is the perfect place; the station coffee shop in rush hour.

I’m alone at this table for two, yet surrounded by people occupying the tables around me.

There’s safety in numbers they say. Maybe that’s true. I’ve become a fan of numbers.

The people here fit loosely into three camps, the suited men reading newspapers or tapping on their phones; a group of girls ready for a hen weekend; smart women in work dresses sipping lattes as they type on laptops.

I used to be like those women – grabbing a quick coffee before work, getting an early start on my emails.

No longer.

Across the table, the chair opposite me is empty.

There are signs of recent occupation – the half-drunk cup of coffee, the crumbs sprinkled across the table, a scrunched-up napkin.

A note left behind: Just say you’re sorry.

It sounds so easy.

But it isn’t.

“Is anyone sitting here?”

A man is gesturing to the chair opposite me.

He looks a typical worker bee: briefcase, pinstripe suit.

His hair’s thinning and his belly is rather portly, something the lemon muffin he’s holding won’t help.

I’d rather keep the chair free, but I force a smile.

“Please, go ahead.”

He sits.

Puts his muffin on the table and sees the note.

I watch him as he reads it.

See his cheeks colouring.

He has made a mistake, he’s feeling guilty.

Did he promise his doctor he’d eat healthily?

The thumb and forefinger of his right hand grip the wedding band on his left, and he twists it clockwise.

I nod to myself and realise it’s his wife or husband that he’s thinking about.

What did he do, I wonder? Say a harsh word? Break a promise?

I take a sip of my cold coffee.

He eats his muffin in five bites and wipes his fingers on his trousers.

Less than a minute later, he looks at the note one last time then leaves.

His cheeks are still red.

He’s sorry.

As I watch him scuttle away, I feel a little sad for him.

We all need to say sorry for something, don’t we?

No one goes through life without mistakes.

Spotting the vacancy, a woman in a smart grey trouser suit, her dark hair neatly swept up, hurries to my table.

She points at the empty chair.

“Is this free?”

I nod and she sits down.

Pulls a tablet from her blue handbag and starts tapping away on it.

Takes a sip of her coffee then sees the note.

Frown marks appear between her brows, her lips purse tight.

She’s thinking about something she’s done.

A meeting she’s missed?

She stares at the note a moment longer then slides it across the table towards me and returns her attention to her tablet.

Whatever she did, she isn’t sorry.

I reach out and read the words again – Just say you’re sorry.

There’s a court order banning you from speaking to me, I suppose, that’s why you wrote it.

You knew I’d come here this morning.

You knew I’d sit at this table.

You stayed just long enough for me to see you here.

The letters in each word are big and loopy

ou always did write with a flourish – your signature on a letter, the handwritten instructions about my tasks, even the notes in your secret journal documenting the company money you embezzled; all nine hundred and sixty-eight thousand pounds of it.

I glance towards the newsstand, the headlines of the papers scream out to me:

WHISTLEBLOWER BREAKS PUBLIC SILENCE.

WOMAN X SPEAKS TO PRESS FOR FIRST TIME. 

STOLEN CASH STILL MISSING.

They’ll never find that money.

You’ll never find it either.

A good personal assistant knows everything about their boss, and I mean everything.

I was the best assistant you ever had.

You used to tell me that all the time, remember?

Especially when you wanted to have sex.

YWe were a good team, weren’t we? Right up until I said no. So you fired me.

I needed that job, but you didn’t care.

The company didn’t care either, you both cast me aside with nothing; neither of you were sorry.

And so I needed to make you.

It wasn’t hard. I knew about your offshore accounts.

I knew where you kept your passcode – LOLLIPOPS – and the digital key.

I knew your schedule; after all, I’d planned it for you.

It was easy. Fun even.

You took the company’s money.

I took it from you then blew the whistle on you.

I am not sorry.

From my handbag I take the keys from my rented apartment and my old battered phone.

I take the SIM card from the phone and crack it in half.

I drop the pieces into my cold coffee.

The woman in the seat opposite looks at me, but only for a moment.

Taking out my new phone, I check the balance of my new account in my new name: just over nine hundred thousand pounds.

More than enough for a new life, a new adventure.

I’m still not sorry.

I pick up the note and read it for the last time: Just say you’re sorry.

Turning it over, I read the rest: I’ll be back in one hour.

Let’s talk. We can do this together.

I shake my head.

I wasted 10 years of my life working for you, loving you.

For that I am sorry.

The hour will be up in six minutes.

The next train to Edinburgh leaves platform two in three.

We all make mistakes, the key thing is learning from them.

Getting up, I turn and walk towards the train on platform two.

When you return, all that’ll be waiting for you is my empty chair.

Stephanie Marland’s novel My Little Eye (Trapeze, £7.99) is the first of a new Starke and Bell crime series.



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