No. 1 I speak, you rise and turn to me.
“Sorry ! ,” she quickly pulls her umbrella up and away from his face. He, rising to his full height, looks her straight in the eyes. First in her left eye, then in her right. She’s wearing her new spectacles with their dark thin red metal frames. They make her eyes look quite small but they seem to draw people into them. He smiles. Like dawn breaking. “That’s ok. They’re dangerous those things, ” he speaks, nodding towards the umbrella. She blushes slightly and pulls the thing away to the side, folding it deftly down.
“I don’t need it. It’s stopped raining. ” He continues to look at her. Quite brazen really. She gestures to the shop window he’s been squatting in front of before she nearly knocked his eye out ; ” I love this shop. ” She doesn’t really, but it diverts his gaze. It’s a small shop. Charity shop. Its window is always absolutely crammed with the strangest array of things, some of them so tiny and apparently insignificant that she wonders how people would be bothered to collect them up and bring them here. Like that tiny pottery rabbit. So small it wouldn’t even stand up. Such a mysterious little thing to have made and bought and taken the trouble to bring here to be re-sold to someone else. The kind of thing Ella would have been utterly enchanted with as a child and begged her to buy.
“Yeah. He’s a good guy, Dennis. He does some good stuff.” He turns to look in the window also. She looks up at the name of the shop ” People’s friend “. Not very clear what the charity is in aid of from that. She hasn’t noticed before. Looking back at him as he peers in at the vast hoard of knick knacks, boxed games, oddly sized glasses, old shoes, drab dresses, crocheted baby clothes, garish soft toys, china tea set, two vases, one clear glass, one green glazed pottery, and lots and lots of books, she wonders at his interest. There doesn’t seem to be much there for him, except maybe the books. There were sometimes records in there.
” I always pop in when I come to the library.” He nods towards the big seventies composite stone and glass building opposite. She spent so much time in there when the kids were little. And before. She hasn’t been in for a few years now. It’s a bit noisy and the books didn’t seem to be as well looked after as they used to be. That last time, she’d been looking for an art book and had found a whole row in complete disarray, crammed in any old how, some pages turned back as they’d been shoved roughly in-between each other. It had really upset her. ” I come once a week to deliver some sample books to Howard. The head librarian. ” He’s staring at her again. She thinks to test her reaction this time.
She thinks she knows what she looks like. She can see a vague reflection of herself in the shop window. Her long black coat, flat black suede boots and the bright blue pashmina scarf that her friend gave her from China, rippled and dim amongst the bric-a-brac. Her hair’s looking slightly unruly today. She hasn’t been able to straighten it so it’s almost triangular shaped. The specs are quite distinctive. A nice shape. She feels demure, quiet, but not too austere. He stands out in his bright red waterproof. The kind you’d wear on a stiff hike. Khaki coloured cargo trousers, stout boots, also as if he was going walking and those black dreads, falling over his shoulders. She isn’t going to ask him why or what his job is. That’s not something she ever does. ” I used to take my kids in there all the time,” she says, in stead. He looks at her left hand, holding the folded umbrella. Is he actually looking to see if she’s married ?! What age is he ? Surely not her age. Although her age is a bit difficult to determine she likes to think, her clothes kind of give it away. ” Oh ! do you have kids ? ” He’s mocking her slightly now. She hasn’t worn a wedding ring since she lost it. She stares blankly at him. Is his eye twinkling as he says ” I’ve got a daughter. She lives with me. She’s going to move out soon though to go to college .” The relief. A safe topic. ” Really ? What’s she going to study ? ” she replies, just a tad too quickly. Again, that look. He has a way of lifting his chin. He’s quite a bit taller than her. His demeanour is proud. His gaze open and direct. ” Sports psychology. She’s very ambitious. And smart.” At a loss, she replies with her standard, clipped, polite ” That’s interesting.” Then, somewhat stupidly; ” she’s into sport then ?”. By now, he’s openly grinning. ” Yes…..” he laughs ” She is into sports. High jump mainly. But she wants to be a sports psychologist and make a lot of money. She’s got her head screwed on the right way.” By now, she thinks she’d like to escape, except not really. “How about yours ?” She searches around in her brain for some words to make some semblance of sense with ; ” I have a daughter too, she’s in sixth form. My son finished his degree last year and came back home. ” “What did he study ? ” ” English. English literature. ” His eyebrows rise and his mouth forms the O of a whistle. ” Heavy. Heavy stuff. What’s he doing now ?” ” Not a lot. Reading more. Thinking. Wondering what to do next. ” He tilts his face a little. Looks her more closely in the eye but from a different angle. She’s hardly blinked since they began their conversation, and now she’s totally locked into his gaze. ” He wants to get out of his room. Don’t let him stay in his room. It gets harder and harder to get out. I know what it’s like ,”, he says, suddenly speaking with a distinctly Jamaican lilt. It sounds soothing. Caring. Fatherly. She smiles weakly back at him, the corners of her mouth turning upwards more naturally than they’ve done for months and months. “Yes. You’re absolutely right. He should. ” He extends his hand to her. ” Benjamin Thompson.” She takes it. He folds his fingers around hers with a warm and gentle grasp. Her hand is cool and thin inside it. ” Stella Robinson ” she replies. He pauses a moment to take it in, then; ” Very pleased to meet you Stella Robinson .” Their hands, lingering, part, and, slightly dazed, Stella waves her pale, slender hand vaguely towards the library ” I may see you again sometime “. She can’t say his name. His broad, brightening smile again. ” Oh you will. I know we’ll meet again Stella Robinson”. He raises his hand. She hesitates, thinking he’s going to high five her, but doesn’t make the reciprocal move. Then suddenly he’s off, turning on his heel and striding down the road, hand held up with his back to her.
She turns back to the bus stop, glancing over at the library, then down the road again after him, searching for his red coat amongst the drab crowd.