"Good weekend, John?" I asked as he came in to our cubicle, watching him edge between the grey-fabric covered head-height walls as though afraid they might fall over and crush him.
"Not really," he said, his voice lilting but not exactly pleasant. "My neighbour had an abortion."
"Oh...," I said, wondering what people said to statements like that. "That must have been... awkward?"
"Messy," he said, putting his rucksack down on his desk. I noticed that the straps were splitting. "She had it all over her front porch. Apparantly she'd been drinking Pennyroyal tea five times a day since Wednesday to try and improve her halitosis."
"Oh...," I said again, rather lost for words now.
"It didn't work," he said.
"It sounds rather like it did," I replied.
"No, her breath still stank like the slaughterhouse," he said. "Still, look on the bright side, now the child won't be embarrassed of his mother's miasmic mouth."
"That's a bright side?"
A little later, when I'd started work on the Compton's spreadsheet and John was tapping lethargically at the keyboard, I dug around in my desk drawer and found the little rectangle of paper that my wife had carefully written out and then insisted I bring with me. With a sense of foreboding, I laid it on his desk next to him.
"What's this?" he asked, he voice just a notch away from a whine.
"It's an invitation," I said, trying not to hestitate. "To a barbecue. At the weekend."
"Oh. No, thank-you."
I was both relieved and offended, and then puzzled how I managed to feel both emotions at the same time. "Why not? Are you busy?" I could hear that I sounded faintly aggressive and regretted it.
"No, I think I should be free," he said. "Unless the neighbour has some friends she wants to abort in the garden, I suppose." He snickered, but I couldn't bring myself to join in. "No, you don't want me there."
That was true, but now I was annoyed he'd realised. "Yes I do! You're not the only guy from work that I'm inviting, but you are the one I suggested first when my wife said we'd have the barbecue."
He gave me a look that suggested he knew I was lying, but I'm a good liar and I held his gaze unflinchingly.
"You don't want me there," he said again, "trust me. If I come, then someone will have a miscarriage or an abortion, or they'll be uncovered as a cuckold, or their daughter will turn out to be Miss May in Playboy, or the police will turn up and arrest your mother-in-law for drug dealing and money laundering. It won't be happy."
"That's ridiculous," I said, straight away. "When has any of that actually happened to you?"
"All of it happened last thanksgiving," he said. "At the end of the evening there was only me and my brother left standing." Somewhere above us, a faint drizzle had formed and was now dampening my hair and the papers on my desk.
"Well, that must just be... unlucky...." I couldn't believe it, even as I said it.
"Yeah, right. Every year, every party I go to – used to go to – everybody I ever meet. Nothing nice ever happens to people around me, it's like some kind of negative force." A small fog drifted in through the cubicle door and I stared at it, wishing that it didn't feel like it was staring right back. "Look, even if I came over to dinner someone would slip and cut themselves, someone would get food poisoning, and someone would drop a plate and break their foot."
"Personal experience again?"
"My last date. She wouldn't even reply to my texts afterwards."
The drizzle intensified into a light rain, and I stared upwards, helplessly.
"John," I said, trying to find the words.
"No," he said, interrupting me. "I'm a lachrymator, it's a clinical fact. I was hoping you wouldn't have to find out, but the medication's just not working so well any more, and although you're very tolerant, I think you might be getting into danger now. I'm seeing the clinicians again on Monday, so maybe they can up the dose and make things better again. But before then – it's best we stay apart as much as possible."
A small lightning bolt arced down from the miniature clouds above the cubicle and set the papers in the metal wastepaper bin on fire.
"Oh, right," I said. "A lachrymator. I see."