Short Story by Radek Pazdera

Bad Day

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With his eyes half-closed, Ben stumbled into the hallway of his one bedroom flat to kill the alarm. He was a snoozer, and keeping his phone so far away was the only way to get him out of bed in the morning. He snatched it from the shoe cupboard and paused for a moment while the awful ringtone jingled on. It wasn’t his alarm. Jackson was calling.

‘Yeah?’ Ben groaned, not even trying to be polite.

‘Morning, sunshine!’ Jackson’s tone couldn’t possibly be more irritating.

‘What do you want?’ Ben heard his colleague laughing at the other end.

‘You think it’s funny? I just got home.’

‘I know, sorry about that,’ he said. The line crackled as if he had dropped the phone on the floor. ’Leave it, Sam!’ More laughter followed.

Being on data surveillance duty, the two intelligence analysts were unusually relaxed. Ben could hardly say the same about his shift last night.

‘Mate, what’s your — ‘

‘Sorry, I’m sorry. We just wanted to let you know that we caught them.’

There was a pause. ‘You’re serious?’

‘Your program tracked the traffic down to Brighton. This morning, they collected three Russians and five massive servers from a house in Kemp Town and are bringing them over for questioning.’

‘What?’ Ben ran his hand through his hair, ‘That’s incredible.’

‘We’re running more queries because the attack didn’t stop entirely. They must have more bases in the UK. Anyway, the director called an emergency briefing, and you’re invited.’

‘You mean in Cheltenham?’


’Does he realise that I only slept an hour? I’m back home in London. How am I supposed to get there?’

‘They’re coming down to pick you up.’

‘Oh,’ Ben said, but then he thought about it. ‘Like right now?’ And then his phone started beeping with another call.

‘Great.’ He put Jackson on hold to answer it.

‘Venti latte for Nora,’ the barista said, putting the giant white mug carefully on the edge of the counter.

Nora thanked him and put her textbooks and notes under her arm. Her coffee in one hand, steaming all-day breakfast butty in the other, she headed for the cosy armchair in the corner next to the entrance — her favourite spot in this Starbucks.

She carried the drink with absolute concentration on the foam, and by the time she got to the entrance, there was a man next to her seat. He took off his jacket, threw it over the green armchair, and sauntered towards the bar to order, giving Nora a cheeky wink along the way.

What a bellend, she thought and released a forceful gush of air. All she wanted to do was to take that tacky piece of faux leather and set it on fire. Right there and then.

She closed her eyes and focused on the practical side of the matter: she definitely wouldn’t be able to finish this essay on time if she was taken into custody. Besides, her head hurt as if someone rammed a lorry straight into her forehead. The last thing she needed was to squabble with someone over a bloody seat. She took another look around, but all the tables were taken. She would have to sit outside.

Nora turned her back towards the door and stuck her elbow under the handle. She pulled a few times as instructed by the little black sticker next to the metal rail, but the door wouldn’t budge. In her struggle with the door, she forgot about the textbooks under her arm, and they slipped down her side.

Brilliant, she thought, twisted in an awkward cramp, holding her study materials between her elbow and hip. The only way out of this was to let the notes fall and go all over the filthy floor.

Then the door swung open, and a man leant in from the outside. ‘Need a hand?’

‘Oh my God, yes!’ Nora blushed when she realised she was trying to open the wrong side. He took her textbook and notes carefully from her and held the door open while she walked through.

‘Thanks so much!’ she said and made a swift retreat to the flimsy, stackable seating outside. Embarrassed, she glanced through the window as the man ordered at the bar. He couldn’t be much older than her. Short brown hair, navy bomber jacket and black jeans, she liked his style.

Guess not all men are complete retards, she thought and took a sip of her latte. She opened her textbook and covered the rest of the round table with highlighted lecture handouts.

Only then Nora realised how warm and bright it was outside. The birds chirped from the bushes across the road. The lone plane tree next to the coffee shop had sprung a fresh coat of leaves. The high street bustled with late-lunchers and afternoon shoppers. It was the nicest day of the year so far — if only she didn’t have an essay to write and weren’t so badly hung over.

She chewed the sterile parody of a fry-up in a bun and went through her lecture notes, trying to forget about the throbbing pain between her temples.

It was all Jessica’s fault anyway.

Nora’s flatmate had broken up with her boyfriend again. It was the third time this year. She had no idea why Jess would give another chance to such an inconsiderate arsehole. It was a time to celebrate — that girl could smile and have a herd of guys gather around her. She could date anybody she wanted.

From the past episodes of this drama, Nora assumed that they would be back together soon. But they weren’t. Jess lived on Doritos and ice cream and had refused to leave the house for weeks. Nora couldn’t watch her friend drowning in self-pity anymore, so she came up with a proposal to distract her: get food and see a movie together. Something gory and violent where lots of men die should be particularly effective, she reckoned.

Jess loved the idea, and two hours later, the two of them were sitting on the tube to Central London, wearing layers of makeup and uncomfortably tight dresses, and Nora kept wondering how pizza and cinema became a girls night out in a club. Her gut feeling was that she would regret this, but Jess was so excited about it. How could she refuse?

She swore not to drink and made Jess promise that they would come home early, but she embraced the idea in the end. Her uni schedule combined with her part-time table-serving job meant that she hadn’t been on a proper date in ages. Maybe she would meet someone too? Nora would never admit it, but she was a little jealous of the attention that her flatmate got from men.

The traffic on the High Street was annoying, but not something that a bit of music couldn’t resolve. Nora found her studying playlist on her phone and reached into the front pocket of her hoodie for her earbuds.

The coffee shop door squeaked at the same time. The guy in the navy jacket walked past her with a paper cup in his hand and sat down at the other free table. Nora stiffened and pretended to be deeply engrossed in her textbook while putting her peripheral vision hard at work. She lowered her head and removed her hand from her pocket empty. Her pupils darted towards him and quickly back again — she wanted to leave her options open.

To say that the party last night at the was a disaster would be an understatement. It was an endless stream of cat calls and hey-girls from the sleaziest of men. And the most tragic of all were the pickup lines.

‘Is your name Summer? It has to be because you’re hot!’

‘Hi, I’m a fashion photographer. Would you like to be in my next photo shoot?’

‘Did it hurt? When you fell out of heaven, angel?’

The horror. While Nora wondered whether these weirdos were of the same species, Jess loved every bit of it. She barely left the dance floor, drinking fancy cocktails she didn’t have to pay for with men who ate bleach for breakfast, bathed in hair gel and had a spray tan done twice weekly. The hypnotic beat went on and on, and Nora finally had to get a drink too.

Like a furious mother, she collected her drunk friend from the arms of a salivating middle-aged banker at the end of the night, who almost got her in a cab with him. Jess threw up at the bus stop and slept like a baby through the two-hour ride home while Nora sank into a depression about her uni, dating prospects and life in general. She would rather blow her brain out than settle for any of these trolls that had probably never read a book in their lives.

Nora opened her notepad on a blank page headlined with the topic of her essay and put down a few points under it. She flicked through the handouts, back and forth until she couldn’t take it any longer. She leant back and accidentally looked at him, hoping for a smile or at least and awkward look away.

He had his ankle crossed over his knee, a paper cup in one hand and phone in the other, typing away. She could have gaped at him for hours, he never would have noticed. Maybe if she strategically dropped her highlighter…

Stop it! she thought. Why was she letting this distract her? He clearly didn’t care. She made herself focus back on her essay.

Just about when she got used to the traffic coming past, another irritating noise appeared.

Chop, chop, chop, chop, chop. The steady whirring drew nearer. Then a black helicopter flew past, somewhat close to the ground. The noise ceased for a moment as it zoomed away only to turn around and come back. The chopper stopped and hovered in the air just above the High Street. Each thump of the rotor blades cutting through the air made her head throb even more.

‘Go away!’ she said and leant forward with her elbows propped on the table and her palms over her ears. How was she supposed to get anything done?

‘Sorry about that,’ the guy next to her said, ‘they’re just coming to pick me up.’

Nora rolled her eyes so forcefully that they almost slipped out of their sockets. Not another stupid pickup line.

‘Oh, are they?’ she said with her head tilted to one side. ‘You called your private helicopter so you can take me home because I’m a stray angel from heaven — oh my god.’ Her last three words transitioned into an angry groan.

His brows arched high over his wide eyes, but Nora just carried on. At once, her frustrations with uni, work, Jess, men and everything came loose.

‘Seriously, what’s wrong with you? Are you guys all retarded?’

He opened his mouth and raised his index finger in the air, but Nora was faster.

‘If you’re about to ask: I’m not a termite, my legs aren’t made of Nutella and no my dad isn’t a baker even though I’ve got a great set of buns.’

He put his hand down, pressed his lips together and nodded.

‘You can do better than that, mate.’

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to — ‘

‘Please spare me.’ She raised her palms in the air and turned back to her coursework, her heart pounding in her chest. Even the ruckus that came from the helicopter seemed too quiet now.

She fished her earbuds out of her hoodie’s front pocket and put them on, pushing the volume up as far as it would go. Keeping her eyes on her notes, she pretended to read while she calmed herself down.

The thumping grew louder still. Nora could barely hear the music, and the vibrations made her stomach bounce — the same feeling she experienced when she walked past the speakers in the club last night. Then a gust of wind lifted her handouts in the air, and she only just managed to pin them back down to the table with her hands.

Nora gasped when she looked up. The chopper hovered just above the rooftops and kept descending few inches at a time. It had ‘Metropolitan Police’ written on each side of the cabin in bright yellow print.

Judging from their faces, the drivers passing under the helicopter were as surprised as Nora. A few more cars drove past before the chopper got too low, and they wouldn’t risk it anymore, leaving a comfortable gap for it to land.

People all around the High Street stopped and watched the spectacle unfold, gripping their hats and fluttering carrier bags tightly to protect them from the wind. Nora had to lie on the table to hold all her stuff in place with both her forearms. The handouts rustled, trying to wiggle their way from under her and flit away.

A woman wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones pushed the sliding door open and stepped out. To Nora’s surprise, the guy next to her got up and walked over to the chopper. His navy bomber jacket flailed behind him as he climbed inside the aircraft. He took a headset from his colleague, put it on and slid the door shut.

They took off, soaring slowly in the air before the helicopter tipped forward and started ahead. Nora watched it until it became a silent grain of black pepper in the spring blue sky.


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