Ruby’s day was going to be a busy one. She was training a group of very young clerical assistants who needed to understand data protection, confidentiality and the implications of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was the second session she had done with them, and although she found some of them a little trying due to their attitude issues, the majority of the group were interested and ready to engage in the training fully.
There were a couple of young girls whose lives were inextricably linked to their mobile phones, and whilst they managed to adhere to the rule of no mobiles on during the actual training, every time there was a break, the air was rent by the sound of them turning the sound back on their mobiles again, and squealing at the texts and photos sent by their friends. There was also a lad who sat at the back of the room; his glowering countenance testament to the fact that he found the whole thing a bore and a total waste of his time. Ruby was determined that by the end of the day she would have the three of them up and involved in some way – even if it killed her – and it probably would!
At the back of her mind was Ben. To be honest he was at the front and both sides as well. The logical, analytical part of Ruby’s personality was going over and over the information that she had gleaned from him the night before. Focus, Ruby focus!
By lunchtime the group had covered pretty much all of the material there was, so Ruby asked them to return for one o’clock, and told the two girls that she had a special task for them both in the afternoon. They appeared quite excited at the prospect and went off giggling to ravage the buffet table out in the corridor.
The solitary lad, who had now been identified as Martin, remained in a corner of the room chewing slowly on a couple of sandwiches and looking morose. According to Ruby’s file, he worked in highways, and was something of a self-taught expert on the traffic light system. Looking at him more closely, Ruby had a feeling that he might have some kind of high functioning autism. She sat down next to him, and was gratified when her opening question about the sequencing of traffic lights opened the flood gates of his knowledge. He slowed down and became more articulate as Ruby responded positively to the information that he was giving her.
“Martin, would you be able to do five minutes on traffic lights to the rest of the group this afternoon? You are so aware of what kind of systems information is in the public domain, and what is limited to our own systems, and therefore confidential. I think it might help the others to understand the distinction.”
His face brightened. “Can I use some flip chart paper and pens?”
“Yes, I’ll get you some but five minutes only or we’ll be running late and I’ll be in
trouble. You can use the little room next door if you want some privacy. There’s a table in there that you can use to lay out the flip chart paper.”
Gobbling down the last of his sandwich, Martin tore off a few sheets of paper from the chart, grabbed an assortment of pens and almost ran into the office next door. Surprised by the immediacy of her solution, Ruby turned her own phone on, and was surprised to find a text from Ben.
Lunch date with Karen cancelled due to urgent meeting with Gavin. Karen not happy. Gavin has given us his permission. Said you would talk to your boss too. Still up for a drink in pub later?
Ruby smiled, imagining Karen’s rage and her inability to take it out on anyone because it was Gavin that had interfered with her well-laid plans. She picked up her phone to text an answer. Training going well. Have overcome a few issues that might have meant a late finish. See you in the pub just after five? Ruby.
She debated whether to add a kiss in case anyone was watching over Ben’s shoulder but decided that he wasn’t the kind of person who let other people watch whilst he was texting, and that Ben might misinterpret the reason for adding it. Her students filtered back into the classroom; Martin with his brightly coloured flip charts, and the two giggling girls. Ruby took the girls to one side and asked gave them both pieces of paper with a list of terms on it.
“This is a competition between you two. It’s important that you don’t talk to each other and that you sit on opposite sides of the room. I want you to search for these terms using your mobiles, find definitions for them, tell me how long it took you to find the answers and then we’ll compare the results. Are you up for it?”
“Yay! “They squealed in unison, and the race between the two of them began.
Ruby gave Martin his five minutes and his presentation was all that she had hoped it would be. He explained the differences between the two systems, and why it was important that confidentiality was observed regarding the sequencing and placement of movement sensors. The other students appreciated his enthusiasm, and the pie charts drawn up in red, amber and green. They gave him a rousing round of applause when he finished, on time as well, and Ruby was gratified to see him sitting, with a very broad grin on his face, towards the front of the room and next to some other students.
The mobile phone task had similarly pleasing results. A very narrow victory was had by the older of the two girls, but there was only half a minute between them. They read out the definitions which were then discussed by the rest of the group, and decisions made regarding which were the most applicable to the training. The afternoon ended in laughter, and gratitude that the session could be wound up early because of the amount of work that had been accomplished. Ruby stamped everyone’s training passport, and was relieved to find that not only had all the feedback forms been completed but that all of them were complimentary toward her, especially Martin’s.
She gathered up the forms and dropped them off at her office. Kathy was there, looking a little weary from another battle over resources, so she was equally pleased that the training had gone so well. Ruby put away all the training materials and went back to sit at her desk. It was a quarter to five.
“Kathy? Do you mind if I go now please? It’s just that I’m meeting someone for a drink and I need to get into town.”
“Oh?” said Kathy, looking a little brighter. “A drink eh? Anyone I know?”
“Well, he’s an old friend actually. More than a friend really. We knew each other years ago and we met up recently, and well, this is our first date and …”
“Heavens, woman! What are you still doing here? Do I know this hunk?”
“You might have met him. He’s just started working in HR. His name’s Ben.”
“Oh wow! Yes, I met him at a department meeting yesterday. Slim, dark curly hair, big brown eyes, very artistic hands. Ruby! You are blushing! He’s cute. I have a feeling Karen has her eye on him too though. She was all over him like a rash yesterday.”
“I know, he told me last night. We thought if we go public, maybe Karen would back off? Ben has spoken to Gavin – because of my role as Sally’s supporter. Gavin says that I need to check with you, and to ensure that we both observe a high level of confidentiality with regard to work. I know that there is a policy of staff not being in personal relationships but…”
“…but Margaret can’t object considering that she’s married to another member of staff. Off you go now. I can see from these feedback sheets that you’ve done really well today. These kids are a hard bunch to crack, but you seem to have got through to them. Well done.”
It was with a light heart that Ruby walked across the car park, got into her car and drove to the pub. She looked through the window before opening the heavy door and entering. Ben looked up as the door opened, and she felt warmed by the smile on his face. Her head told her that he was playing a part, but she felt that he really was pleased to see her too. He got to his feet as she approached, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to hug him and kiss him on the cheek.
He returned the embrace with a sudden warmth that made her feel like giggling.
“Diet Coke or do you want something stronger?” he asked confidently.
“Something stronger. Dry Martini and lemonade ….”
“With ice and a slice. I know.”
Ruby sat down on the banquette, next to a mildly astonished Peter, and Mark who was celebrating his escape from the post room.
“You and Ben?” said Peter. “I didn’t know …. Not that I should but …. Have you known each other long then?” he asked and looked more than a little embarrassed.
“Oh, we’ve known each other for years, but only started seeing each other a couple of weeks ago. We bumped into each other at Simon’s gym, arranged to go for a drink, but decided to keep things quiet until Ben and I had discussed it with Gavin and Kathy. Strangely enough, we have blessings from both of them!”
Ruby smiled and moved up a bit so that Ben could sit on the other side of her when he returned with her drink. He draped his arm casually around her shoulder and she leaned against him. It felt very comfortable.
Conversation between Ben, Mark, Ruby and Peter centred around the day’s training, and data protection in general. Ben asked intelligent questions and Ruby answered them with honesty and enthusiasm. Peter, now over his initial shock, and Mark feeling happy now that he was back in friendly company, joined in the discussion and the four of them must have looked very comfortable when Karen, Cheryl and Fiona pushed their way through the door. There was an awkward moment as the three of them spotted Ben’s arm around Ruby’s shoulders, and Ruby, never one to miss an opportunity, turned her head to kiss him very gently on the neck. He shivered and pulled her just a little bit closer.
Karen was about to turn around and flounce out, but Cheryl dragged her to a table by the door whilst Fiona got the drinks in. Peter and Mark both looked rather nervous, torn between supporting Ben and Ruby, and the prospect of receiving evil looks from the three witches. They made their apologies and left, waving at both parties in a rather feeble way.
Ben whispered in Ruby’s ear. “Do you think we’re convincing?”
“I’m convinced. I don’t know about Karen. How long do we have to stay here?”
Ben frowned. “I didn’t think to ask before. Do you have any plans for tonight?”
“Not really. A TV dinner, some ironing, a good book at bedtime?”
“Are you hungry?”
“Now you mention it.”
“Where shall we go? I don’t really know any decent restaurants round here now.”
“I do. What do you fancy? Indian, Chinese, Italian, burgers, kebabs?”
“I love Chinese. As you well know.” Ben grinned, remembering that this had been on his list from the night before.
“Great. I’ll just go to the loo before we go then. Separate cars though, that was bad planning wasn’t it?”
“We’ll get better at this over time.”
“Oh, will we?” Ruby grinned and planted a smacker of a kiss on his lips before crossing the pub to the toilet. Cheryl got up to follow her, and Fiona walked over to Ben.
“Hi Ben. We didn’t realise that you were seeing Ruby.”
“Hi Fiona. We were keeping it quiet until I’d had a chance to talk to Gavin about it today. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was, but he says it’s fine provided we don’t let our relationship interfere with work, and that we don’t do anything to cause any damage to the council’s reputation – which we won’t.”
“Oh, you’ve been going out with each other for a while then?” Fiona fished shamelessly.
“A little while, although we’ve known each other a long time. We met up again at my flatmate’s gym. Strange coincidence really.”
In the toilet Ruby was getting a more intense level of interrogation from Cheryl, who, unhampered by an audience, was quite merciless in her questioning. Ruby parried it all, thankful that Sally had given them both a good grounding the night before, and that she was blessed with an excellent memory.
“I’d better get back Cheryl. Ben and I are going out to dinner but I have to go and drop my car off first. No point in taking two cars really.”
“I know you aren’t going to want to hear this but ….”
“…. but what? Is something wrong?” Ruby feigned innocence as she picked up her handbag.
“Well, Karen thought that, well she thought that Ben was making a pass at her in the departmental meeting yesterday. Fiona and I thought that too.” said Cheryl, a look of spiteful glee upon her face.
“Funny that,” Ruby replied. “Kathy told me that she observed something in the meeting yesterday, except she said it looked as if Karen was climbing all over Ben, and that he was very uncomfortable about it. That’s what he said too. Besides, Gavin wouldn’t ever tolerate two members of staff in his own team being in a relationship. He was quite clear about that when he spoke to Ben this morning.”
Cheryl stepped back out of Ruby’s way as she walked out of the toilet. “Gavin knows?” she gasped.
“Oh yes.” Ruby replied. “We didn’t want to say anything until Ben had checked it out with Gavin, but he’s fine about it. See you.”
“Wouldn’t want to be you.” muttered Ben as he drained the last of his drink and handed Ruby her jacket. “Did you get the third degree too?”
“Oh yes, give me a hug you gorgeous man, Karen is about to burst into floods.”
“You are a truly wicked woman Ruby but I am beginning to enjoy this.” said Ben as he pulled her into his arms and breathed in the very faint smell of Chanel No 5 on her neck. Very different from Karen’s extremely expensive perfumes that tended to cling to everyone’s clothes and impair their sense of smell.
Having already decided that taking two cars was pointless, and that getting changed out of work clothes was equally pointless because they were both starving, Ben followed Ruby’s car back to her flat, and waited whilst she parked in her allotted space and locked up. She lived in a little purpose-built block. Hers was a one-bedroomed flat on the first floor with a small balcony overlooking the woods to the rear of the car park.
Ruby got in the car, putting her handbag in the footwell and not slamming the door too hard.
“Okay then, are we ready?” she asked.
“Oh, um yes. Can you give me directions please?”
“Of course. It isn’t far, and should be reasonably quiet at this time of night. It gets busier as the evening wears on. We often go after work – especially when we’ve had some difficult sessions.”
Ben continued to be impressed by Ruby. She knew her left from her right for a start, and gave him plenty of notice when he had to make a turn. The restaurant was in a little parade of shops set back from the main road, and didn’t look that impressive. They managed to get a parking space just outside however, and once inside, Ben was pleased to see that it was actually twice the size.
The waiter greeted Ruby as an old friend and showed them to a table for two on the far side of the room. As she wasn’t driving, Ruby plumped for a nice Merlot and felt pleased when he agreed with her choice. Too hungry to bob around on the menu, they went for the set meal, which contained dishes that both of them liked. They nibbled on the prawn crackers provided, and waited for their chicken and sweetcorn soup to arrive. Ben poured them both a glass of wine, his limit when driving.
“To us then Ben?” Ruby smiled “Don’t look now but a party of our colleagues have just entered the room. I said don’t look!”
Unable to resist the temptation, Ben had turned his head towards the door where Cheryl, Fiona and a very pale Karen, together with a couple of chaps from IT who had been in the pub earlier, were being shown to a larger table on the other side of the room.
“Guess we’ll have to keep up the love stuff during dinner as well then. Sally will split her sides laughing when she hears about this!”
Sipping her wine and giving a slight nod to Cheryl et al. Ruby was hard put to restrain her giggles. Ben, mellowed by a couple of healthy slurps of red wine, was unable to keep the smile off his face either.
“Did you tell them we were coming here then?”
“Good lord no!” Ruby exclaimed. “I said we were going out for a meal but I didn’t say where. Cheryl knows that my team comes here a lot though. It looks as if we’ve broken Karen’s heart between us. A bad case of pink-eye there.”
“I swear that I never encouraged her.” Ben said earnestly.
Ruby’s eyes twinkled mischievously. She put her hand over Ben’s in a caring and protective manner.
“It’s okay my darling. I trust you. I know that you were just an innocent victim of her womanly wiles.”
With a barely perceptible wink, Ben raised Ruby’s hand to his lips and kissed it, never taking his eyes off hers. She felt herself blushing although she knew this was all part of the act. The tension was broken by the arrival of the soup, and more prawn crackers.
Ben had been hoping for a quiet, stress-free dinner; he already found Ruby to be a pleasant companion and was looking forward to picking her brains about some of his new colleagues. Having those colleagues sitting across the rapidly filling restaurant, watching their every move made things rather more complicated, but at the same time, the food was good, the company was better, and the wine was making everything seem more amenable by the minute. The only sour note was the feeling that Karen’s red-rimmed gimlet eyes were boring into him, trying to decide whether he and Ruby really were an item or not.
More acting required then?
When the soup was finished, an ornate plate of dim sum was served; steamed dumplings, spring rolls, crisp parcels of prawn and minced chicken, seaweed and beautifully carved vegetable decorations. Ruby cast a sneaky sideways glance at the other table where the three women appeared to be arguing with the two men over what to order.
“I think there may be a little bit of tensions brewing over there,” she whispered. “The two guys from IT that they’ve picked up are consultants; they aren’t salaried staff. I think the ladies may have been under the impression that the chaps were going to foot the bill, but consultants rarely pay for anything if they can’t claim it back. I doubt if they’d be able to put this on their expenses, so they’ll have just made it quite clear that they expect to be treated to their dinner because they’ve been so kind as to accompany Karen and her friends.”
“I see.” said Ben, picking up a spring roll and dipping it into the sweet chilli sauce. “How do you think they are going to resolve this then?”
“Hmmmm. Depends on how desperate the ladies are to keep their escorts AND keep an eye on us. My guess is, if they don’t agree to treat the lads to dinner, they will walk and find dinner elsewhere. I happen to know that one of them is gay, and the other is very much married. They both have homes to go to, and won’t be that bothered if they don’t get fed. I’m not really sure why they got roped in anyway. I suppose Cheryl thought it would look less like they were stalking us if they had blokes with them. Do you want some seaweed? “
“Yes please. Do you want to share that last crab claw?”
Ruby nodded as Ben bit off half of the claw meat and put the other half in her mouth. She chewed it slowly, then licked her lips in a lascivious manner that made him laugh. She put the last of the seaweed onto his plate, licking the last few pieces from the spoon, knowing without even having to look that Karen was about to burst into tears again, or rush over and throttle one of them – probably her.
Mercifully, the waiter came to clear the plates away, and give them hot towels to clean their sticky fingers. By the time the table was cleared, the IT guys had left and the three witches were looking most unhappy at having to foot the bill for their dinners. Ben was surprised that they hadn’t left as well, but supposed that this would make their spying tactics look really obvious.
By the time Ruby and Ben had finished their main course the waiter had just unceremoniously plonked a bowl of prawn crackers on the table that the triad were sharing. He did not appear to be impressed by the fact that two of their party had disappeared, nor that they had been quite rude and ungracious when ordering their food. The restaurant was full, he’d had to turn a party of five away because there was no room and now, he had an under-occupied table with three women who had only ordered prawn crackers with soup.
Ruby refused dessert and Ben followed suit in a gentlemanly fashion. They had agreed that Ben would pay the bill as it would look more convincing, and Ruby would settle up later in the car. The waiter brought Ruby’s jacket and shook their hands warmly as they left, giving a polite wave and smile to their three colleagues whose faces reflected the flavour of their soup – hot and sour.
Walking out of the restaurant hand in hand seemed the natural thing to do, releasing her hand as they neared the car, Ben unlocked the doors and walked round to the driver’s side after opening the passenger door for her.
Ruby delved in her purse to pay for her share of the meal once inside. Ben put out a hand to stop her. “It’s okay. You can pay next time.” he said grinning.
“Are you sure? We did say we’d settle up after.”
“Honestly. It was a great meal and I’ve enjoyed your company. The floor show was pretty amusing as well.”
Ruby laughed and shook her head. “I don’t know the three of them that well, Cheryl’s been on a couple of my courses, and I was in the office with them last week but I can’t believe that they’d go to those lengths to check up on us. Are you going to be okay in the office tomorrow, Ben?”
He pulled a face. “I’ll be fine. They can be as bitchy as they like. Gavin was quite emphatic that he discouraged fraternisation between members of his team, and he’s asked me to keep an eye on the three of them, and get an IT check organised for their computers – and on Mandy’s especially. Now that Mark is working with Peter and me, it could be very amusing – and productive. Gavin also told me that he’s involved in a special project regarding an ex-member of staff who was involved in a scandal last year. I don’t think he was talking about Donal.”
“They’ll never catch Donal. He’s far too clever for them. The police spent months searching through Europe looking for him. There was even some suggestion of a team going to New Zealand when it was discovered that Donal was interested in ‘Lord of the Rings’. Sally and I know roughly which direction he went in and it wasn’t in search of the sun. Quite the opposite.”
“Does Sally know where he is?”
“No. He sent her another letter which was routed through several different places in case anyone was checking her post. Wherever he is, Donal and his wife are happy and settled. His skills are in demand and he’s making a mint – which is why he’s managed to repay the money he borrowed. Sally’s just happy that he’s safe and he’s got over it all.”
Ben had remembered the way back to Ruby’s flat without any mistakes, and this time it was her turn to be impressed. There was one of those moments where she wondered if she should ask him up for coffee, but just as she was about to say something, he looked at his watch and remarked on the time.
“Gosh, I’d better get in,” Ruby said. “I’ve no ironed clothes for tomorrow and the washing up from this morning to do yet. Thanks Ben, I had a lovely evening.” She reached over and gave him a swift peck on the cheek before grabbing her handbag and almost jumping out of the car.
Ben watched her go into the entrance hall of the flats, turn and wave. He turned the engine on again, trying to rally his thoughts. A text appeared on his phone. It was from Ruby.
Thank you for a lovely evening. Text me when you get home so that I know you are safe? Ruby x
A kiss. Oh dear. Was this going to complicate matters now? To make matters worse there was a card from Melissa waiting for him when he got home. She wished him luck in his new job but said that she missed him terribly.
Life was complicated at times.