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by Elanor Davies

Clara glided between the rows of books, placing those she no longer needed distractedly on shelves, taking others from their places. She faltered as she passed the window, her attention caught by movement on the street below.

She watched, almost involuntarily, as they dashed across the street together, hand-in-hand, to shelter from the rain beneath the canopy of a shop. The girl turned, still clinging tightly to his hand as he splashed into a puddle. Clara heard her laugh and watched the girl swing his arm affectionately. He stepped on to the pavement, laughing unconcernedly, and pulled her into his arms. They embraced openly as the rain soaked them. Neither one seemed to care that people would notice them, that his wife might discover his betrayal.

Clara analysed her gaunt reflection in the window pane, guiltily aware of her jealousy. The cold light emphasised the lines on her face. How could she ever have thought that any man could or would notice her when young, beautiful women, brimming with such vitality, moved in the same universe.

She turned unhappily to the hard, unyielding ranks of books and her eyes fell on Moby Dick. She recognised in her own uneasiness Captain Ahab’s need to divide the world and its inhabitants into categories of good and bad. It was as comforting a notion as the simplicity of light and dark. But now her thoughts lingered on the troubled expanse of grey that stretched, cold and limitless, to the spectral edges of her morality.

As she watched them move towards the door of the shop, she thought of how easily any woman could be consumed by the warmth of his smile and the captivating sparkle in his eyes. For one moment she had nurtured a fervent longing for those dark eyes, his strong arms, that full mouth.

She recoiled inwardly with shame as her memory lingered, painfully, on the day she had found them together. He had planned a lunch with one of their clients and had invited Clara to attend with him. She had, misguidedly, thought that perhaps he had chosen her to accompany him out of genuine interest in her, perhaps even desire. Her cheeks felt hot as she recalled her foolish excitement as she had dressed that morning, with extra effort and attention. She had walked into his office overflowing with expectation, to find his much younger, slender and effortlessly beautiful assistant perched on the edge of his desk, her frame taught, her face turned eagerly towards him. He reclined comfortably in his leather chair, so close to her that his hands brushed her knees. His face, turned to hers, was filled with adoration. They had been so absorbed in each other that they did not notice Clara standing by the door, an accidental and unwilling witness to the unbridled infatuation that crackled between the two of them. Their reckless delight in one another had betrayed no sense of humility or shame.

She chastised herself for her bitter resentment. Would she, given half the chance, be the girl he kissed in the rain? Would she have retained the self-composure to consider his wife? Moving slowly between the rows of books, Clara recalled the first time she had met his wife. Brusque to the point of rudeness, her face unsmiling, it had seemed her only interest was to demand the whereabouts of her husband. Then, on the final occasion that his wife had visited, she had seemed somehow diminished, a mere shadow of her former self. In that brief moment of naked vulnerability, Clara had recognised the excruciating self-doubt and insecurity that plagued her own life.

He is the white whale, she told herself disconsolately as she trailed a finger along the spine of the book. But I am no Captain Ahab. That role belongs to his wife.

Elanor Davies is a long-suffering chartered accountant. She writes all sorts of fiction for no other reason than to provide a distraction from the merciless void of endless desk-prison and number-crunching.