I am in Derek's office. This is the first time I have seen him since what Amanda has taken to calling his “indecent proposal”. I think he has been avoiding me, but in the end I'm his PR officer and he can't do it forever.
We have talked about current and future media issues in his department, and now a silence has fallen. He has not apologised for his completely inappropriate invitation, but neither has he pressed the issue. This surprises me. I was expecting that he would.
I realise there is a picture of his wife pinned to the cork-board by his desk. She looks much younger. She is outside. She is grinning at the camera, her blonde hair blowing across her face. Her arms are around two toddlers.
"Alice," he says, without looking at me, "I think that we work together well. It would be a shame if anything was to cause a problem in that relationship."
He is fiddling with some paper on his desk, shuffling and reshuffling it. I suddenly realise he is embarrassed, or doing a very good imitation of it.
"I believe there's a distinction between a professional relationship and a personal one," I say. "We do work well together."
And it's true, we do. I've noticed Derek has an instinct for PR - what is a good story, what is a bad story, what would interest the public. He's capable of handling reporters very well and needs little in the way of media training or hand-holding. He might, in another life, have made a very good reporter himself.
His adroitness at working with the media doesn't change the fact that I dislike and fear him, but as I have just said the professional and the personal can be kept separate. Some of the people I like best at work are people I would never let near a journalist. On a personal level I hate being around Derek; on a professional level he is an asset.
Sometimes it just is that way.
Today Derek is wearing a blue tie over a white shirt. I can see he's put on weight since he bought it; it's cruelly tight around the neck. There are sweat stains under his arms. I wonder why. It's not especially warm.
He leans back in the chair, stares at me.
“I don't understand you. What's it like in your world?” he says.
“Every day is Hallowe'en,” I say. He laughs.
“That's what I like about you. You're so funny,” he says. “So different and quirky.”
And for a second I see, not his life, but my own. And I recognise just how far I am from anything most people would recognise as “normal”, and it terrifies me. I'm not quirky; that's Zooey Deschanel doing her rom-com thing. I've been told I look like her, and I can sort of see it. We're both pale-skinned brunettes with long curly hair and thick fringes, except my eyes are light brown where hers are blue. But for all my long hair and pretty dresses, and my habit of saying whatever comes into my head, I'm not her, I can't fix your life through the power of cuteness, and when I say every day is Hallowe'en it's not a joke and I don't mean candy and dressing up. I mean the dark.
And I could pretend for a while, to be that cute girl, and I'm happy to do it if it makes other people happy. But I'm not cute. I'm alive and awake, with everything that entails and, Derek, you could take me back to your house with the huge TV and no books and no art, all your friends who are sleepwalking through their lives, and I'd be suicidal within days. I wish it was different. It would be so much easier if I could just...delude myself. Fall asleep again, forget my life is ending one minute at a time, and make visiting the mall the highlight of my week. Stop fighting, stop talking, stop trying to understand. Just exist. But once you start asking questions – once you wake up – you can't go back.
The truth is that, no matter how badly it hurts, you don't want to fall asleep again. Knowledge is better than ignorance, even if it's knowledge you'd rather not have.
Derek is still staring at me with his round owl eyes. He openly looks at my breasts, my legs, then back to my face. Incredibly, he says: “I've been married a long time. My wife doesn't understand me any more. We were in love once, but we've grown apart - ”
“Come on,” I say. “If you can't be good, at least try and be original.”
He blinks twice, looks hurt. Oh dear. Not cute, Alice.