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I catch a reflection of the new me in the shop window. What will Harry think?
I grin as, wrapping my fur-lined coat against the morning chill, I keep walking to Charing Cross station. Some people think we are lovers. This makes me giggle. He is 24 years older than me. Old enough to be my father in fact.
I think strangers are looking. Do they recognise me, even with my new haircut? It used to be brown, a short bob. And now it’s blond. A pixie cut. A statement. I’m hoping it will give me some enthusiasm for the new job. And I don’t want to be seen here in my home town, where I grew up on its edge.
This one is ‘a bit complicated’ according to Harry.
He never says much, about feelings stuff. When in a good mood he arrives at my apartment whistling, not a tune that I recognise. Then he asks after my sister Georgie; he knows what she means to me. Come to think of it he is quite predictable that way.
Sometimes Harry shows up looking exhausted. Maybe he’s been out all night on a job. I imagine him prowling like an alley cat, slinking in the shadows. This makes me laugh too. He’s too fat to be doing that. And old.
Or maybe his young daughter has kept him awake. He let slip about her once. I’d been asking him about the plaited bracelet on his wrist. She made it for him, a good luck charm.
I don’t even know her name. And I’ve been working for him for two years now. Do they look similar?
I’m a bit early for our hook up. A guy called Gomez is meeting me. Not his real name, surely! Mine is Anastasia for today. Not something I chose; for starters, it doesn’t match my new look.
Weariness is kicking in after the few hours’ sleep I managed with the delayed flight. Snow again. This job better be easier than the last one. I can’t stay awake for another two days again. I’ve earned my money this week. And I’m getting sick of this day/night existence.
I haven’t slept in my own bed since last Tuesday. If I close my eyes I can see the ruby red roses sitting in my grandmother’s old vase on my bedside table. Though of course, they’d all be dead by now. She left the vase to me, I think because I always wanted to look at it when I was a kid. It’s bone china with a delicate floral pattern.
It’s a wonder the vase survived her household, and now mine with my late night visitors, the champagne, strange people in my bed.
Thinking of my apartment makes me sad. I would rather be there than here right now, listening to the bells of Notre Dame, stroking Blanche with long movements as she sits on my lap on the balcony. Feeling her purring beneath my hands. I hope my neighbour Madame Belioz has fed her during my absence. I forgot to tell her when I’d be back.
I put that thought at the back of my mind for now.
It’s getting close to nine. I’m meeting Gomez in ten minutes. I take a short cut via the next tube station, Queen’s Park. It’s starting to rain. People are descending the station steps, pushing. The smell of mothballs mingled with expensive perfume, cigarettes.
All of a sudden my feet aren’t connected to the ground anymore; a throng of commuters press against me. I feel nauseous and register hunger. The air is stuffy. I taste the metallic taste of panic.
I overhear the middle-aged couple next to me:
A package has been found near the turnstiles. They think it’s a bomb.
I look up at the digital clock above the electronic timetable. Gomez will be waiting at Northumberland Avenue.
Why did I take this shortcut? Harry will kill me if I’m late.
I don’t know what happens next. All I remember later from that moment is that everything went black.
Then I am running in a meadow with Georgie, barefoot, laughing. She is about six. Which makes me about nine. There is a huge blue sky above us. I smell the sweet smell of wet grass.
I wake from a groggy sleep to an unfamiliar hand on my wrist.
Are you ok? His breath smells of coffee.
I begin to make out his silhouette in the dark.
I hear sirens.
The power’s out. I can lead you from here if you like.
I’m not sure if I should trust this stranger. But his skin is soft, his voice gentle. He sounds sincere.
Were you on your way to work?
Umm sort’ve. I mean, yes.
The whole line has been shut down, they are evacuating people. I’m Jonathan. Here let me help you.
He gets me up on my feet. I feel dirty, gritty. He leads me up the stairs, holding me up with a big strong arm.
I blink away the weak morning light when we reach street level, grabbing hold of the handrail to steady myself. Sorry, I haven’t eaten this morning. I was in a rush.
Come, let’s go to a cafe I know down a lane from here. It’s usually quiet.
I catch a glimpse of myself in the oblong mirror that runs down one side of the cafe. I try to fix my hair. It’s warm inside.
Here, let me take your coat.
As he hangs it on the coat stand, a pair of handcuffs fall out, dropping to the concrete floor with a small thud. He looks at them, then me. A quizzical look, then puts them back inside the coat’s deep pocket.
How far is Northumberland Ave from here? I need to meet someone.
It’s just 2 blocks away. I thought you were catching the tube to work.
I was just passing through – taking a short cut.
You going to be ok? Let me escort you.
Because of his steely blue eyes, his open face – there is something trusting about him – I let him take me.
The day has warmed a little, or maybe it’s because I have now eaten. But I still feel weary. I don’t want to be doing this anymore. I want to go home with this man and let him look after me. Not that he has offered.
When we reach the street it is still crowded with pedestrians. He offers his arm. I take it.
I lean into his cashmere trenchcoat. It smells of cassia bark, cinnamon.
As we get closer to my meeting point with Gomez, I see a familiar face. It’s Harry. He is talking to someone I don’t know. Gomez? They are laughing. Not a nice laugh. I haven’t seen Harry like this before. He looks evil from this angle.
Panic rises up through my body, like heat. The metallic taste is in my mouth again. I turn to Jonathan.
Looks like he didn’t wait for me. Can I walk with you to your work?
We disappear into the morning crowd together.