An hour and a half has passed. Several more people have arrived in the café, a large lady in creased linen squints at the lunch menu scrawled across a blackboard at the side of the bar, her companion, an elderly man with a bulbous belly and eyes to match grunts, impatient at her dithering. A few office workers also gather by the blackboard, they mutter about spreadsheets and Phoebe from accounts.
Abby finishes her last drop of lager and realises she must visit the toilet before making her escape. The tweet up group is huddled over Romana’s phone, apparently trying to contact another tweeter. As she pushes past them her rucksack nudges JoeHammer’s shoulder, he glances at her for less than a second and she experiences a pang of disappointment he doesn’t offer more interest or even a smile.
The Rogues Café toilets like the rest of the café are decorated with sketches of great rogues through the ages including highwaymen, thieves, smugglers and pirates. Abby pauses by a picture of Charlie Peace, ‘a notorious Victorian thief who carried the tools of his trade around in a violin case’ or so the inscription says at the foot of the picture. She thinks he looks like an ordinary man, aside from his rather oddly shaped skull, then remembers Sheldon from her sociology course who thought mesomorphs were most likely to commit crimes owing to their athletic body shape. She is studying the picture closely to see if Charlie might fit the mesomorph description when the door swings open and Millicent arrives, breathless and agitated.
“Oh sorry my dear; didn’t mean to startle you!” Millicent glances in the oversize oval mirror above the washbasin then pushes her way into a cubicle.
Abby hurries into the only other cubicle. Just as she sits down, she hears the door swing open again and a throaty voice calls out ‘Millicent?’
“Yes darling Romana, just having a pee!”
Romana’s voice is urgent and low. Abby hardly dare breathe in case she misses a word. “It’s that man, the one in the suit. I’ve seen him before, I think he might be following me.”
Millicent drops the toilet roll; it rolls under the partition in Abby’s direction. Abby rolls it back without so much as a murmur.
“I just know him from somewhere and I don’t think it’s in a good way.” Her words slur a little and Abby is reminded of how much wine Romana must have imbibed by now. She immediately realises whom Romana is referring to, the man who smiled at her. Her heart skips a beat.
Millicent flushes the toilet and emerges from the cubicle. “And could it be your imagination Romana? Could it?”
Abby hears Romana sigh impatiently. “No!” The taps are turned on, Abby strains to hear the next sentence as water spews forth, the pipes gurgling loudly with effort. “You know what they’re like, can’t leave me alone, I’ve had to change my number three times.”
The hand drier blasts hot air noisily drowning out words Abby is eager to hear. She flushes and hopes this won’t deter them carrying on the conversation. However, when she emerges from the cubicle, they are gone.
Well, this is turning out to be an interesting day Abby tells herself as she squirts white liquid soap into her palms. Perhaps the man is a private investigator or a stalker, but Romana said ‘they, you know what they’re like.’ Abby, previously eager to leave the café, embarrassed by being alone, now wants to find out more. Perhaps she could pick up one of the dusty tomes on the windowsill and pretend interest, she still has enough coins for her bus fare if she decides to buy another lager.
No, she really ought to get back to the flat. Idly whiling away time in a café when she should be studying King Lear is not something her grim faced father would approve of. He’d given her hard earned money to pursue her degree, an opportunity he’d never had himself, unfortunately he never let an occasion slip by to remind her of this. He could have spent the money on golfing holidays, a conservatory or a round the world trip but no, he would invest in her future, a selfless and noble act. Without a mother to defend the fripperies of youth, Abby finds herself wearily listening to his lectures whenever she calls home or during the tri-monthly expected visit. Of course, he is right, what value did a curiosity in the lives of strangers have for any future career, but then, the same perhaps could be said of King Lear? She dries her hands, bounces back down the stairs and straight out of the Rogues Café without another glance toward the tweet up group in case she is tempted to find a way to stay.
The bus stop is approximately 700 yards away from the café. As Abby weaves her way down the street through people flowing steadily in an opposing stream to her, she ponders the man, the way he smiled at her, directly and without embarrassment, she wonders who Romana might be that she attracts such interest and what connection she has with the older woman. They obviously know each other from before the meet up today. How frustrating not to know what will happen next, if anything. Abby heard Twitter mentioned several times during the group’s conversation. Her best female friend has tried it but claimed boredom with the ‘inane tweets of egotistical flotsam.’ That’s exactly how she described it, so Abby had dismissed it too, she is very aware of Jane Asham-Brown’s own ego which is no doubt what led her to Twitter herself, and also very conscious of the fact Jane has little patience with anything that isn’t deeply meaningful, poetic or literary. That’s why Abby likes her so much; Jane behaves as though she landed in 2011 from another era entirely, 1920’s perhaps. It is impossible to discuss many modern day matters with her but fun to embroil in literary argument over stale buns in the Uni canteen.
Abby reaches the bus stop wondering if it is worth mentioning the intrigue at the Rogues Café. Jane will no doubt admonish her for being so forward as to sit alone in a public establishment. Ridiculous!
There are three people at the bus stop; a petite lady carrying a basket full of fruit and exotic looking vegetables, her hair in a top knot and her feet in spindly heels, a teenage youth, his face half covered by a hacked through fringe and a man squeezed into a wheelchair who is completely absorbed in a Frederick Forsyth novel.
Abby perches on one of the bus shelter seats which are always too small to give any kind of comfort and contemplates joining Twitter to see if she can find Romana, Millicent, JoeHammer or the other girl who she overheard as LibertySwan. Duff, the comic book hero with ringlets could help, as technology isn’t her thing. Yes that is what she will do.
Abby looks up as she hears the bus approach, coughing out black smoke at its rear end and grimy with city filth. The man in the wheelchair is helped on by the irritable driver who sighs theatrically as he heaves him out of the chair and into the nearest seat, which has been rapidly vacated by a pregnant woman. The chair is stiff to fold and the bus driver slaps ineffectively at the handles in an effort to make it obey his will. Unexpectedly the teenage fringe steps forward, twists the handle, deftly flicks the foot rests, and hey presto the wheelchair obediently flattens. ‘Same as me Gran’s’ he mutters giving the driver a pitying smile.
It is hard not to laugh at the bus driver’s incredulity. Abby covers her mouth with her hand. The bus driver returns to his seat even more irritable, and in sulky silence scoops up change while flicking the machine to spew out tickets. Before the spindly-heeled woman can get to her seat the bus starts to move leaving her to sway awkwardly, buffeted by her basket.
Abby turns to the window on impulse and sees the suited man from the café just reach the bus stop, he is waving frantically at her, but it is too late. She sits back in her seat, agitated and confused, what did he want with her? Searching her memory she can’t think she has ever seen or met him before, he is definitely not a lecturer or student, certainly not a friend of Duff or Kieron, the boring bearded wonder. If he is following Romana, how can there be any connection with her as well? Fear makes her breathe loudly and an elderly lady in the seat behind her puts a hand on her shoulder “you all right dear?”
“Oh yes, er thank you.” Abby twists her shoulders round to smile reassurance at the lady but it is an uncertain smile.
“I thought you might be asthmatic or something, my youngest son is.” Her brow is furrowed into arrow shape lines of worry. Abby wonders whether to explain but knows it might take too much effort so tries to calm her breathing instead. Usually she only experiences such anxiety attacks before exams. She begins to think the man might work out which bus stop is next and try to get there, but why does she feel scared or nervous? His face wasn’t unfriendly as he waved his arm at her. Probably it is because Romana sounded so anxious in the toilets, the word stalker hasn’t been used but it comes to her now conjuring up the image of someone dangerous and unhinged, in pursuit, in need of something.
Five stops later, Abby clambers off the bus with unfelt muttered thanks to the driver who has driven like an idiot most of the way, adding to Abby’s unsettled feelings. She hurries along the street continually looking behind her, just in case the man appears again, even though she knows this is not likely, unless he had a car and followed the bus. Shallow breaths come again at this thought and she peers round at cars speeding along the suburban roadway beside her.
No, she must calm herself down. This is daft.
Abby rushes through terrace lined streets eager to reach her temporary home, a spacious shared flat on the sixth floor of a ten storey tower block, hopeful that Duff will be there, writing his essay, eating crisps and muttering about deadlines.
As she approaches the tower block she pulls her rucksack off her shoulders, unzips a pocket and fingers her keys, then looks over at the entranceway hearing squeals and cries, a young woman struggling with a pushchair and shouting at her three children of various heights, waves a weary hand in greeting. Poor Charlene, thinks Abby as she does every time she sees her, she knows her well by sight and occasionally they exchange moans about their respective landlords.
Running up stairs to double doors, decorated with pointless squirts of graffiti paint she debates for a second whether to take the stairway or the lift. Either way the smell of urine or bleach will not be avoided. A figure hovers by the lift and she hopes it isn’t the old man who always asks her for a kiss.
It isn’t. It is the suited man.
Copyright 2011 © Petra Kidd