After a lunch of soused herring and potato salad, Michael Faraday paid his bill at the White Swan and stepped outside for a cigarette. He’d been smoking more to make up for the drinking he’d promised his wife he’d forgo for Lent. Today was the first day since Ash Wednesday he’d abstained from his customary lunchtime pint.
He’d been perfectly happy sneaking one and telling his wife he hadn’t, but today was her birthday. As a gift to her, he’d skipped today’s beer so that when he got home in the evening he could give her a kiss on the cheek and reassure her that he had not partaken in vice. It wouldn’t be any different to the usual exchange, but today he wouldn’t be lying.
Faraday finished his cigarette and strolled back to the office. He still resented his manager for ignoring his memos about the broken vending machine, so he headed to the kitchen instead of his cubicle. Whatever work he didn’t get done by five-thirty would be his manager’s problem.
No one was in the kitchen besides Muller, the accountant. Muller was standing at the counter, looming centimeters over the burbling electric kettle with his eyes closed, letting the hot steam envelop his face.
“You alright?” Faraday said.
Muller looked up and smiled. “It’s like a sauna.”
“Right.” Faraday said. He slumped into a plastic chair and began flipping through the morning edition of the Telegraph that someone had left on the table.
The kettle clicked off. Muller straightened up and poured the boiling water into a tea mug. His glasses were fogged up from the steam. He wiped them off. He took a carton of milk from the fridge and sat down, tugging on the thin string of the teabag and stealing quick glances at Faraday.
“I’m refreshed now,” Muller said. Faraday grunted, his eyes on the Telegraph.
Muller tipped milk into his mug. He stared at it for a moment.
“The bloom of milk in hot tea. . . ” he said, “ . . . is quite a sight to see.”
There was a pause and a swishing sound as Faraday turned a page of the paper.
“Isn’t it?” Muller said.
“Yes, quite,” Faraday said, without looking up.
“D’you remember in Ulysses, when—”
“Sorry mate. Never read it,” Faraday said.
“Can’t you call me Dave?” Muller pleaded. “My name’s Dave.”
Faraday turned another page of the Telegraph. Muller took a gulp of his tea. “I’d like to give you something,” he said. He fished around in his jacket pocket and retrieved a scrap of pale yellow paper. He held it between his finger and thumb.
Muller stretched across the table and pushed the scrap of paper into Faraday’s breast pocket.
“Chrissakes!” Faraday said, finally looking up from the Telegraph.
“Sorry,” Muller whispered, retreating. The tea in his mug sloshed over and spilled onto the linoleum table.
Faraday folded the newspaper and pressed it over the spillage to absorb the tea. He sighed.
“Why don’t we go out for a smoke?” he said.
“I don’t smoke,” Muller said.
Faraday stood up. “Come on.” He walked out of the kitchen, past his cubicle, and over to the stairwell that led to the building’s roof. He held the door open for Muller. They stepped out onto grey concrete and squinted at the bright overcast sun. Faraday lit a cigarette.
“Hot, isn’t it?” Muller said.
“Yeah,” Faraday said, puffing smoke.
“Quite lovely up here, though,” said Muller, looking around at the concrete.
Faraday pulled out the scrap of paper that Muller had placed in his breast pocket. It read, in curly, childish script, Dave 7475777869 would you like to be friends?
“What’s this?” Faraday said.
“Bit weird,” Faraday said.
“Sorry,” Muller said.
“Has it ever worked?” Faraday said. “Have you made a friend doing this?”
“Erm,” Muller said.
Faraday put the paper back in his pocket. He walked over to the edge of the roof and rested his arms on the railing. Muller did too. Leaning over, they watched the lawyers trooping down Chancery Lane, sweating in their suits. The trees shushed in the wind.
“Have you ever been to Margate?” said Faraday.
Muller shook his head.
“I used to go. Every summer holiday.”
“That’s nice,” Muller said.
“We’d drive from Bromley. I’d finish all the sandwiches in the car, the ones Mum packed—egg and cress, every bloody time. I knew if I finished them Dad would buy me chips when we got to the beach. He’d nick a few then fall asleep in his camping chair, and I’d bury his feet with sand. Every year he brought a different volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with him. He was on Volume Six when he kicked it. Never found out the ending, poor bugger.”
Faraday dropped his cigarette and ground it under his foot.
“Title kind of gives it away, though,” Muller said.
“What happened to the Romans.”
“Oh,” said Faraday. “Right.”
On the way home from work, Faraday got off the bus one stop early and bought magnolias at the florist. When he got home, his wife was in the kitchen, topping and tailing green beans. He kissed her on the cheek and handed her the bouquet. She looked alarmed.
“Did someone die, Michael?” she said.
Faraday hooted. “Christ, no. They’re for you. Your birthday.”
“Oh,” his wife said. “Thank you.”
Faraday hesitated, then kissed her on the cheek again. “You’re welcome,” he said.
They ate in silence. Faraday’s lunchtime goodwill had exhausted itself, and he itched for a pint. In his head, he ran through the short list of acquaintances he knew he’d find at the pub. But he didn't feel like seeing any of them.
He finished his dinner and got up to use the landline while his wife cleared the plates. He took the scrap of paper out of his pocket and dialed 7475777869. Muller answered on the second ring.
“Oi. It’s Faraday. Busy?”
“Not at all,” Muller said.
“Let’s go for—” Faraday dropped into a whisper. “—a pint?”
They arranged to meet at a Wetherspoon’s, not far from either of their houses.
Muller was already sitting at a table when Faraday arrived.
“I haven’t ordered yet,” Muller said.
“Pint?” Faraday said.
“Actually, could you get me a ginger ale?” Muller said.
“With gin? Vodka? Rum?”
“Just a ginger ale,” Muller said.
Faraday walked to the bar. He stared at the glossy draught beer taps. He ordered two ginger ales.
Naomi Xu Elegant is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying history.