8 comments

Fiction Drama

In a coffee shop in Hong Kong, corporate executive Peter Bainbridge peered down at his mobile, face twisted with disdain, “I can’t believe this App doesn’t use 2-factor authentication,” he muttered, as he navigated the XR Coffee app to enroll in their rewards program. 

Celine Tam regarded him calmly, “it does link with the British Airways Club.”

Peter grunted in agreement, his attention still fixed on the app. Around them, customers came and went, young fashionable office workers, many of whom greeted the barista by name. At their own table, a server silently brought them espressos and an Eggs Benedict for Peter. 

Celine fought to conceal her weariness. She glanced at the time. It was 7:30am, Peter had woken her an hour ago, insisting on an impromptu business meeting.

At the crack of dawn, 5:30am that morning, Peter had slipped out of bed. His wakening was earlier than anyone else in the city of Hong Kong, or at least those not contractually obligated to do so. Restlessness had driven him to explore Causeway Bay, a prominent commercial district. He stood beneath the Canal Road flyover, an area that had been a gathering area for anti-government student protesters in 2019. Now, it was taken over by elderly fortune-tellers. Their tables sat empty, as even they, a group known for early rising, weren’t out of bed yet. On one side of the underpass, vegetable shops and butchers lined a narrow lane, on the other, high rise office blocks and luxury shops. Down the road beyond the luxury shops, and then past a 7/11 and a row of vacant storefronts, was a BIA insurance sales office.

It was this last shop that caught the attention of BIA’s Senior Director of Marketing Peter Bainbridge, age 37. He had earlier earmarked the neighborhood as a desirable spot for a branch, but looking at their neon lit corporate logo sandwiched between shuttered shops with a row of delivery trucks parked in front, he found the choice of location a complete disaster. No one ever did anything right unless he kept an eye on them.

He dialed Celine’s number. She was talented at persuading local employees into doing what he wanted.

**

Despite sensationalized Western news reports depicting Hong Kong as a police state akin to North Korea, little had changed for the average finance worker in the city. International flights whisked them away to every major city, Michelin-starred restaurants hosted their client dinners, luxury apartment blocks housed them in comfort, and Filipino maids did everyone’s laundry.

The Union Jack flags have been removed. The word "Royal" stricken from every institution in the city except for the Yacht Club. Yet, all major British financial companies still maintained their headquarters in the city. Corporations go where there is profit, and their workers follow. At least they weren’t in Saudi Arabia or Dubai they thought, especially those from Manchester, Yorkshire; for these people who might be relegated to junior positions in London, overseas postings offered a chance to advance.

After ten minutes of digging into the XR Cafe’s membership benefits, Peter turned his attention back to the table. He picked up his coffee and took a sip. Disappointment flashed on his face. “My espresso is cold. I'm sending it back.” His Leeds accent was almost undetectable, being studiously suppressed during his three years in London.

“I’ll ask for a new one,” Celine offered, anticipating this.

Peter studied his Eggs Benedict, his eyes focusing on two green slivers on the side of his plate. “Is this asparagus organic?”

“All asparagus is organic,” she replied matter-of-factly, cutting this one in the bud. 

As Peter began to eat, his gaze wandered off into the distance, the way it did when he was preoccupied with business matters, which was most of the time.

Celine observed him closely. His broad shoulders and good posture from regular exercise, combined with a strong jawline and piercing blue eyes, exuded a sense of strength and vitality. Though he may not possess Hollywood looks, there was something about his confident demeanor that made him undeniably attractive.

“We have a two-year lease on the shop in Causeway Bay,” he said, interrupting her train of thought, “So, we can’t do anything about this store's KPIs.”

Celine listened intently, ready to take notes if needed.

“But I need to make sure this doesn’t happen in Singapore. I need to fly down there next week. Make sure to get me access to the Qatar lounge at the airport.”

“Qatar doesn’t fly to Singapore.”

“Just figure it out.”

Celine asked, “Can I go with you?”

“I need to focus on work, and we are going to Taipei in January,” Peter said curtly.

Celine wished she had ordered something to eat, to distract herself.

Peter ate with great care and precision, and spent the rest of breakfast reviewing the list of BIA employees in Singapore he needed with Celine. 

There was a sound of someone taking selfies behind them. Celine tensed up, fearing Peter would confront them, demanding that they delete the photos so that his privacy wasn’t violated. Thankfully, he was preoccupied with trip planning and didn't notice.

When he was done, and they stood up to leave, Peter made his way to the front counter. “There was an eggshell in my food. I might have choked to death,” he told the cashier.

Her face frowned in concern. “Can you show me?” 

Peter stood unmoving. Celine glanced back at the table, the plate had been eaten clean.

“How can you make sure this never happens again?” he demanded, his voice firm.

“It won't ever happen again,” she reassured him.

“I want to speak to the manager.”

The cashier looked from Peter to Celine, then back again. There obviously wasn't a manager in this tiny cafe.

“We’ll refund your food order,” she said, opening the cash register, and holding out the 75 hong kong dollar cost of his breakfast.

Celine took the money, put her hand on Peter's shoulder, and nudged him toward the front door. She looked backed. The apologetic look on the cashier face had changed to one of irritation. 

A leaflet on the counter caught her attention, and she took one. Outside the store, she showed it to Peter. “Look! They are serving free coffee at the store’s anniversary this Wednesday.”

“Only low-class people attend free food events,” Peter replied tersely. He pulled out his mobile and hailed an Uber to take them to the office. In the car, Peter answered a phone call. “Yes mum.. Thank you, Mum. I will Mum.. … Love you Mum.”

Celine was amused at how he spoke to this 68-year-old retiree.

As they arrived at the office and walked through the Landmark shopping mall leading to its entrance, she steered him away from the information desk. He had endlessly interrogated them last week for any sales promotions he could take advantage of.

Before they got into the office elevator, Peter looked at the time. “We’ve got two hours until our first vendor meeting, let’s go to my hotel room.”

He oddly lived in a hotel room close to the office, as he said it was more ‘efficient’ than having an apartment. Celine had long ago given up opposing Peter’s wishes. She smiled and nodded, despite her reluctance at having to make her first appearance of the day at BIA’s office afterward. Their relationship might be an open secret at the office, but Peter said they needed to keep up pretenses.

Peter was approaching the age of 40, from what he friends told her, the age men like him start to think about settling down and getting married. They had been dating for two years, and he didn’t seem to be going anyplace. She wished her choice of boyfriend was more easy going, more romantic. But the memory of her ex-boyfriend Mark came to mind, with his tendency to drone on angrily about the vagarities of American politics, something he did no matter how many times Celina said she wasn’t interested. At least Peter talked about things that were practical, useful even. He could get things done. When she needed a minor operation last year, Peter searched the city for the best doctor and helped her with every detail of her recovery. It was moments like these, that made her appreciate him, his attention to detail. Most men aren’t like that.

In the beginning, she wondered why he was like this, waking up at 5am and being so demanding about everything. On a good night, in a rare moment of vulnerability, Peter had mentioned that his father was an alcoholic, a messy one. Bills would go unpaid, family events turned into drunken arguments, goals didn’t exist. Dad never went anywhere but the pub and the local football games. Peter had vowed to not be like him.

“When we move in together, we should get a dog, a Border Collie,” Peter said, he was often buoyant after sex.

She imagined how complicated dog care would be with him. 

“Dogs are high maintenance,” she said. “How about we get dinner at L'Envol? They’ve just received a Michelin star. We could eat there every night for the price of having a dog in Hong Kong.”

“True,” he said. “We are lucky we see eye to eye on everything.”

She smiled. With enough time, she felt she could redirect the titanic with little suggestions.

They got up, readying themselves to return to the office to meet CK Poon Advertising at 11am. 

“I need to stop at the check-in desk” he said, as they took the elevator down.

“Won’t we be late for the office?”

“This will only take a second.” 

Celine thought of how happy she had been, just a minute ago.

Peter approached the young woman behind the check-in desk. “Can I speak to the manager?” his voice filled with impatience.

The woman went to the backroom and returned with the manager. Soon there were three uniformed hotel staff at the front counter, their gazes studying Peter and Celine head to toe.

“The room wasn’t clean this morning,” Peter said. ”I’m one of your best corporate clients.”

The manager, acknowledging Peter's Platinum Class after taking a glance at the hotel's computer, nodded in understanding. “We will cancel the charges for today's stay," he offered.

“Cancelling today’s charge isn’t good enough. The Shangri-La gave me points when this happened.”

“I’m afraid that’s all I can do at the moment…” the hotel manager said.

“I’m going to check out and never come back here. And, I’m telling all my friends.”

Celine could feel the eyes of the hotel staff turn towards her, questioning who these friends might be that Peter would share a story about coming to a hotel with a girlfriend at 10am. At least Peter was single and wasn't wearing a wedding ring, they might get situations like that here too.

She looked at Peter, and curiously, saw sweat streaming down from his forehead.

“Are you ok, Peter?”

“I need to sit down,” he said, and then slumped into a nearby chair.

“What’s wrong?”

“I think something is wrong with my heart. It won’t slow down.”

 Celine glanced towards the reception desk, contemplating seeking their help, but their stares made it clear they were not eager to get involved. Growing increasingly worried, she said, “Maybe you should see a doctor.” 

He agreed, his eyes reflecting panic.

After a twenty minutes tense wait at a nearby hospital, Dr Chan in the emergency department held a printout of his test results, and looked at Peter calmly. “The results of your tests have come back. You are not having a heart attack, there’s nothing wrong with your heart. It appears you are having a panic attack.”

“Why would I be having a panic attack?”

“We couldn’t find anything wrong with your heart,” Dr Chan reiterated. “There appears to be nothing wrong with your health.”

“Why haven’t you found out what’s wrong with me? I thought this was the best hospital in Hong Kong.”

Dr Chan sat quietly and didn’t reply. From her clam demeanor, the doctor seemed to used to these sorts of confrontations.

“I’d like to see another doctor,” Peter asked.

“I’m your doctor today.”

“I’m not paying for this level of service,” Peter said, a line Celine heard often, but with his voice less forceful this time.

“Hospitals don’t give refunds,” the doctor said flatly. Her gaze studied Peter like a judge studies an accused man in court. “I need the nurse to take your blood pressure again.”

A nurse quickly approached, placed the sleeve around his arm, and then showed the readings to the doctor.

“Your blood pressure is dangerously high, we need to give you a sedative.”

Without waiting for his agreement, the nurse prepared a needle and inserted it into Peter’s arm. The tension in his body slackened, his eyelids grew heavy.

The doctor nodded to the nurse, who departed to fetch a hospital bed, and then looked at Celine. Suddenly, Celine felt it surreal that Peter’s fate was being decided by the cadre of women scurrying around her.

“Has Peter been under a lot of stress lately?”

Celine wasn't used to answering questions for him. She nodded her head.

“Would you like to make an appointment for your husband to see a counselor?”

She was confused. Celine’s first thought was to disagree, to say she wasn’t his wife and Peter wouldn’t want to see a counselor.

“He may have a heart attack if he’s in this state again,” the doctor said. “Counselling and medication could help someone in his condition.”

His condition. That was a way of looking at it that Celine hadn’t thought of before.

“Yes, that sounds like a good idea.” 

Celine imagined a Peter who wasn’t angry at everyone because one man, his father, had disappointed him many, many years ago. Demanding men are just angry little boys when you really think about it, she thought. She began to think about the right things to say to Peter to ease him into this new situation when he woke up.



November 15, 2023 05:24

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

8 comments

Michał Przywara
21:52 Nov 16, 2023

The event is good - it has the potential to force some real character growth - and the story reads believably, and you feel for the poor guy given his sudden problems and shoddy past - but damn, is Peter ever irritating :) No doubt we don't see the whole picture, as Celine has stuck with him for two years now, and she even vouches for him. Though, when she does, it's because he's good at organizing - so maybe she's settling on some level too. “two green slivers on the side of his place” - plate? “they delete the photos in case so that ...

Reply

00:54 Nov 17, 2023

"free food events.." Happy you saw my one good sitcom punchline, and thanks for the notes! My instincts were to make this more a comedy and have a waiter drop a plate of spaghetti on him by the end, but I've known people like him and their partners do appreciate something about them (guard dog in their corner?). As a people pleaser the one time a year I need to send something back at a coffee shop, I usually apologize so much about complaining sometimes the staff get confused about what I want.

Reply

Show 0 replies
02:15 Nov 23, 2023

oh no, i forget to submit this one to the contest this. I think I'll come back to it from a differnt direction for a future prompt. I"m feeling there a good comedy in "bull in a coffee shop" to be found somewhere.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 2 replies
Mary Bendickson
14:37 Nov 15, 2023

Fine as a dramedy.

Reply

Mary Bendickson
15:37 Nov 16, 2023

Thanks for liking my 'Hang it on the Moon'

Reply

Show 0 replies
15:39 Nov 15, 2023

Thx! Added a bit more in that direction.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 2 replies
Amanda Lieser
23:57 Jan 07, 2024

Hi Scott! Peter is a fascinating man and yet also a recognizable trope that I think you used very well in this particular piece. The level of stress and demands that this individual faces is only demonstrated through his need to exert power throughout his world. Perhaps it’s because in so many ways, he feels that he has no power. I also thought Celine was an interesting character. It’s fascinating to me, the way that some people are willing to settle for Mediocre relationships when they feel that they could have the exotic ones, but in doing...

Reply

Show 0 replies
05:29 Nov 15, 2023

Based on a composite of different people and relationships I've seen in the corporate world, and how beyond our first impressions, perhaps each individual is their own basket of positives and negatives.

Reply

Show 0 replies
RBE | We made a writing app for you (photo) | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.