My attempt to help readers find their way round this story may upset some literary people as I have broken their sacred rule of having chapter names in a fictional work, rather than just chapter numbers. If you’ve chosen to be offended by this, please try to get over it. In writing, as in life, rules are there to serve us, not hinder us. If they no longer serve us, break them, which is the point of the story … well, one of the points.
For those of you who know London and other parts of Britain, you may recognise actual streets, buildings and other places that exist, in this book. Other places that do not exist have also been included here. If this upsets you, get over it. This is a story. If you’re happily comfortable with the unexpected, you’ve got it. This is a story. The unexpected, and dealing with it, is part of the story.
In the same way, I have used actual people I have met and/or worked with and businesses that I have dealt with and/or worked in. Some of them have had their names changed and some of them have not. Some of them never existed. This is a story.
Enjoy the story.
Monday, 5th March 2012, 6.30 a.m.
The map of Arthur Bayly’s life was a narrow one and, like a child in a cot of steel, can only dream of another life. He awoke from his fitful sleep with his usual sense of foreboding and wondered, again, how it was ever possible to feel elated about the day, about life. Apparently, some people did. Quite unaware that his world was to become a little wider, a little wilder, he lay there for a few minutes, pretending that he didn’t really have to get up, endure another day and look happy and successful while feeling lost and lonely. He shrugged a little, as if to brace himself, once again, for more of all he’d ever known. His wife stirred slightly and snuggled deeper into the duvet, accentuating his lack of choices.
As he munched his nutrition-free Wharton’s bread and chemically-enhanced marmalade, he wondered what agent 007 would be having for breakfast; probably something with long names like Eggs Benedict with Spanish tomatoes and French toast, sparingly dusted with cinnamon and Sargasso sea salt and a touch of Tabasco sauce, followed by a 1966 Darjeeling tea. Like Arthur, Mr Bond would probably be breakfasting alone. The difference, Arthur told himself, was that Mr Bond had probably left, upstairs, an exotic, tanned and lissom young lady asleep, still in dreamy post-orgasmic bliss.
He read a few chapters of his latest book – a Lee Child book with that enigmatic giant, Jack Reacher, who lived beyond life’s rules and expectations and battled for lost causes – then rinsed his dishes, cleaned his teeth, packed the lunch he’d made the night before, checked that he had his keys, oyster card, cell phone, glasses and wallet, checked himself once more in the mirror, kissed his wife as she shuffled into the dining room in her favourite pink dressing gown and left the house. It never ceased to amaze him that, though he never looked at his watch during this routine, it was always exactly 7.15 a.m. as he closed the little, black iron gate. He allowed himself a small smile about that, as usual. Then it was a four and a half minute walk up the street, past the all-too-familiar grubby brick terrace houses, wait a minute for the tram which got him to the East Croydon station at 7.26 a.m.
As he hopped as jauntily as he could into the tram, he saw, yet again, the Russian spy with the suitably battered brown trilby hat, seated and facing Arthur, pretending not to notice him. He had heavy jowls and pig-eyes and had been keeping tabs on Arthur. So Arthur did what any MI5 agent would do, which was to adopt a devil-doesn’t-care-a-toss attitude by looking at the flaccid neck of the woman wobbling near him as the tram bumped along. He was determined the Russian would never detect his fear and uncover his secret.
With his mind on some distant planet, wondering what 007 would be doing today, his body’s automatic system took him off the tram, into the station to wait two minutes for the 7.34 to Victoria station.
While he was aware, in some part of his mind, that he was doing this routine with hundreds of others on the tram, thousands of others on the train and the two million others who poured into London every day, it never occurred to him that they might also be feeling that sense of quiet panic. In his thirty years of working life, he had never conversed with or smile at anyone. Never tried to, even. He was jostled a little. He had to walk around people. He had to stop and wait for people. There was no denying that others were there, in their multitudes, but a different coping part of his mind just didn’t register that they were like him – humans with two legs, two arms a head and mixed feelings about life and work. He knew they were there but his mind couldn’t acknowledge them.
On the train he noticed the Russian spy had again taken up a strategic position, facing him on his seat, pretending not to notice Arthur by reading today’s free Metro newspaper. Again, Arthur adopted the MI5 attitude by looking at the ear of the man swaying in front of him. Arthur grimaced inwardly as the fetid smell of nicotine and cheap deodorant washed over him.
As the train approached Victoria station, he braced himself for the larger struggle ahead. With nineteen platforms disgorging their human payload, the herd became an avalanche of people, all going the same way, approximately. One just had to keep the feet going, the body vaguely erect, and make it through the next half hour of tedious jostling. Then, waiting for the District Line underground train, with his back to the wall, he was roughly in the sixth row back from the edge. As each tube train arrived and left, he could feel himself oozing forward. Eventually, as if by osmosis or some natural phenomenon, he found himself at the edge of the platform ready to be squeezed into the next tube.
The man had disappeared but Arthur knew he was still under surveillance, somehow.
Though the train’s machinery screeched, rattled and whooshed, and thousands of feet on concrete clattered, there was no other human sound. The odd cough, perhaps, but no talking. Just silent people in their own silent bubble. For many years Arthur had felt this silence as an eerie and malignant curse – as if the commuters had had their tongues removed, unable to give vent to their crying souls. Over the years, though, he’d become immune to his silent cry and nothing was left of those feelings now.
Clinging desperately to something in the tube train – a rail, a hanging strap but never another person, heaven forbid – he stood amid the other black suits and sombre faces, looking through people as if they weren’t there. After fourteen minutes and three stops, he found himself near the door and then out on the crowded South Kensington platform.
As he walked from the turnstiles, he noticed the man with the battered trilby hat walk off in the opposite direction, a standard KGB trick. Arthur knew the Russian would soon turn, when Arthur’s guard was down, and tail him, taking prodigious notes in Russian for his report to the Kremlin that evening. Arthur sauntered off with his devil-doesn’t-care-a-toss attitude, tripped on a dropped purse, bumped heads with the owner as they both bent to pick it up, said an embarrassed sorry several times and sauntered out to the fresh air above ground, to find that he had come out the wrong exit. This was, he quickly decided, his clever trick to lose the Russian and he knew he would now arrive at work three minutes later than usual.
As he walked the three blocks to the office, he realised that he hadn’t used his umbrella for ages. Of course he’d read about places like Australia and Africa where it didn’t rain for years but it seemed unreal somehow – just mere pictures in a book. Perhaps an artist’s fantasy, perhaps not. Perhaps his own fantasy. Perhaps not.
The herd of commuters surged around him and he wondered why he suddenly thought of sunshine and blue skies. Maybe it was last night’s news of bush fires near Melbourne. Maybe it was Joan mentioning their neighbour’s trip to New Zealand. Instead of feeling the usual dread of the day, the G-clamp of routine, pressing on his brain, as a building labelled Allied Insurance Limited glared down at him, his mind went quiet. He reached his destination and the words Allied Insurance Limited didn’t seem threatening at all. The glass doors opened for him and then he fitted himself into the lift, discretely positioning himself for minimal contact with others.
Instead of his usual thoughts of the papers and programs he needed to start work with, his mind kept jumping back to dry dirt, brown grass, a huge rock, an orange sun and an apricot moon at night. As he emerged from the lift, he felt as if he was smiling ever so slightly, something one didn’t usually indulge in. He tried to repress the smile but it just wouldn’t go.
“Good morning, Sir. How was your weekend?” the receptionist asked as he passed.
He stopped, momentarily stunned that a stranger should inquire into his weekend. “Ah, yes, er, nice thank you,” he said, fiddling with his coat button, not knowing quite what to do next.
“That’s great, Sir, you have a lovely day.”
“Ah, yes, ah, thank you young lady,” he stammered, making a quick and graceless exit.
It wasn’t until he reached his desk that he realised that she had a strangely Antipodean accent – Australian, he presumed. Forgetting his usual routine of hanging up his overcoat, turning on his computer, getting files onto his desk, he simply sat there feeling a little limp, while a wan smile crept across his face. Dashed perplexing, he thought as he realised that his hands were shaking a little.
It was as if some distant part of him knew something was about to happen but he didn’t. As if there was some cosmic timetable that told of the next train coming but none of it could he read. He looked around and nothing seemed to be happening so he got up and hung his overcoat up, just to have something to do. This simple thing he could manage but little else.
Gosh, he thought, it’s not as if I’ve been made redundant or there’s been a takeover or an earthquake. Just an unexpectedly incessant thought of change in the air, perpetual sunshine and then a new receptionist bids me a cherry good morning in an Australian accent. Scant significance in the events of mice and men, so why is it affecting me so much? Dashed nuisance, really. He needed to move but his palpitating body, floundering through the main office, could embarrass him. He eventually rose, braced himself and then made a concerted effort to walk brusquely past the receptionist. Thankfully, she was talking animatedly on the phone. He pushed open the double doors into the main office which contained thirty or so people at their desks behind their half-walled enclosures; looking studiously busy and/or gossiping with each other. He imagined a curtain of silence falling as he entered.
In the staff room, habit had him reaching for the tea bags but he knew he needed something stronger, something different. Fumbling around in the cupboard for coffee, a gangly young man – suit too big, collar large enough for two of his necks and tie askew – came in.
“Ah, excuse me, Sir,” he said deferentially, “but if you want coffee, you can get it directly from the machine. This button here, Sir.”
How did he know I wanted coffee? he asked himself, back in the glass cell they called his office. He smelled the coffee and surmised it would be better with milk. Turning sideways in his swivel chair he looked out at the ancient buildings that he loved, at the modern buildings he didn’t and at the swarming human ants seven floors below him. Staring through these familiar images, his mind went oddly blank while a sort of relaxation settled in. Time sat still. Like him.
Arthur spun and sprang from his chair, shocked out of his reverie. “Oh, ah, yes …”
“Oops, sorry, Arthur. I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Mary Collins, the Assistant Director, smiling apologetically. “How are you going with the Atkinson file – is the inventory list complete?”
“Oh, um, ah, yes … no, not quite,” he said, returning to the real world with a bump and wondering what to do with the clean desk. Strangely, Mary seemed quite unconcerned about it.
“That’s alright, Arthur. I know it’s a confusing case and the burglary may not be all there is to it. I’m not really here about that, anyway,” said Mary, settling in the other chair in his office.
“There’s several things I’m still working on,” he said, a little too quickly. “I’ve got most of the reports and claims but some of them don’t quite tie up …”
“Arthur, Arthur, Arthur! It’s alright, really it is,” said Mary, trying to reassure him. “You’re jumpy today. Is everything okay with you?”
“Oh, it’s just my womenopause,” he said, attempting a little humour.
“My womenopause. You know, menopause, womenopause …” he said. He sensed her mind glazing over, missing the joke. “Yes, I’m fine, just planning my day, you know, thinking ahead,” he said, trying to recover a little dignity.
“Right. Right. Good. Now, why was I here?” asked Mary, leaning back, crossing her legs and adjusting her designer glasses. “Ah, yes, yes, could you come up to Mr Lord’s office – we’d like to have a wee chat with you.”
‘Oh, shit!’ was what he nearly said, hearing wee chat and the Mr Lord in the same sentence. Mr. Sam Lord. A worm turned in his stomach. Thankfully, there was an infinitesimal space between thinking and speaking and he actually said, “Yes, no problem. What time, Mary?”
“Oh, how about ten – we’ll all need a coffee by then!” she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere, with little success.
“Yes, that’s fine, I’ll see you both then.”
As she strode out, her solid figure and business suit created a small wind, rustling the leaves of his peace lily. He slumped back into his chair and felt anything but peaceful. A royal edict and attendance with the master executioner – what could it all mean? Redundancy? There’d been enough of them in this place and he was proud that he had hung in there, though precariously. Demotion? He wasn’t sure how a fifty two-year-old should feel with all those youngsters flying up the ranks – probably worse than redundancy, he thought. Promotion? Not likely. Transfer? He knew his wife wouldn’t leave the street she was born in. A reprimand? No, Sam Lord left the petty stuff to his subordinates, like Mary. His only real conclusion was redundancy … it was the not knowing that scared him the most.
My God, an hour to fret over it! Okay, old chap, remain calm, act busy and professional, smile, breathe, think, be logical. Oh God, redundancy! How humiliating, after all the years of service. People walked past his office looking in, smiling. What did they know? Probably deciding who would get his office this afternoon; smirking that it wasn’t them.
He turned his computer on, retrieved a few random files from his filing cabinet, tried to look busy and tried not to imagine the awful things Mary and Sam had probably said about him, were saying about him right now. He felt so little, so out of control, so sad that it had all come to this, that none of his dreams had eventuated, that he had retired, been retired and, well, just faded into the woodwork – unseen, without achievement, without purpose, without acclaim or even acknowledgement. Arthur … Arthur who?
His hands busied themselves as his mind went berserk, driving him deeper into depression by the minute. Why couldn’t they get it over now? Still forty minutes to go and on and on his thoughts stumbled, conjuring up the embarrassment of the “wee chat”, the humility of leaving in front of everyone else in the office, of explaining to Joan, his wife. He could imagine her hands running through her thick, greying hair, standing there looking stunned for a minute. And then there’d be the accusing looks he knew so well. And the studied judgement she was so good at, so practised at. Never shouting or getting agitated, she’d give her measured opinion – his blandness, his lack of ambition, his lack of anything approaching exciting or passionate, his nothingness destined for nothing but nothingness. And on and on she’d go. As usual, he’d not have the words or the power to reply which would prick her ire even more and her flow of words would quicken and rise in volume, imperceptibly. Eventually, when she’d repeated herself often enough, she’d turn and walk out, head high, and commiserate with her mother, six houses up the street.
Then he’d have to tell his son, Martin, if his wife didn’t first. Martin was always pleasant, polite and respectful with his father but Arthur knew there was disappointment, even shame, there. Martin was a partner in the law firm, Shaftsbury Burton, and could never understand his father sticking with the boring insurance job, with no hope or ambition for promotion. The unsaid disappointment of his father’s redundancy – let’s be honest, his father’s sacking – would be harder to bear than the studied wrath from his wife. At least there was something to argue against, with her, if he’d ever have the gall to do it.
Oh dear, five minutes to go! He quickly tidied his desk a little, trying to keep his trembling hands busy. With a deep breath he mentally girded his loins, stood up and purposefully strode from his office, slipping on a pen that Mary must have dropped. He lurched into the door frame. Nothing hurt except his pride. He looked left and right in acute embarrassment, composed himself as best he could and strode up the corridor towards the lift with a little more caution. Thankfully, in the lift, he had a sweet moment when no one was looking and he was safe. At the twelfth floor the doors opened and he emerged into the corridor which exuded the smell and feel of power and opulence, somehow. He walked the long walk to the receptionist’s desk. A young girl looked up and he announced himself. She put down her nail polish, asked him to take a seat and said she wouldn’t be a minute. She spoke into her intercom machine and then disappeared through double doors. She returned, seven and a half minutes later, and asked him to go in as Mr Lord was expecting him.
He stood up, adjusted tie, suit, brushed shoes on legs, sighed, breathed and marched off through the large doors that proved to be heavier than he expected. A trifle embarrassed in front of a slip of a girl, he heaved again and burst into the spacious office, looking around quickly for falling guillotines.
Monday, 5th March 2012, 10.07 a.m.
Arthur faltered, trying to reconcile the rich expanse of the room it with his glass box five floors below.
“Yes, come on in, old chap,” said Sam, easing his ample frame a little out of his upholstered leather, behind his expansive and clean desk. “By jove, we aren’t going to eat you, you know. Take a seat here, Arthur.” Sam had never used his name before – a bit disconcerting, really. Sam wore a dark, pin-stripe suit, white and blue checked shirt and white, black and red striped tie, an eye-straining combination that some fondly think of as good fashion sense.
Arthur moved uncertainly over the deep carpet, determined not to trip up, and sat in the chair indicated. His head was now below Sam’s and he felt intimidated by the big desk, big chair and big man before him. Mary sat in a similar chair to his and he felt a little comforted. Not much but a little.
“Now, would you like a coffee or a tea?” Sam asked, smiling.
“Oh, is there time? I mean, ah, yes please,” said Arthur, expecting a handshake, a few words and a ‘goodbye’.
“Which one old chap – coffee or tea?” asked Sam, chuckling.
“Oh, just a tea, thanks Sir.”
“Chinese, Japanese, Indian or good old English Breakfast tea, Arthur?”
“Oh, gosh, ah, Chinese thanks, Sir,” said Arthur.
“A man after my own taste.” said Sam, “And your usual, Mary?”
“You know me well, Sir,” she said, attempting to mix friendliness with deference.
Sam spoke into his desk: “Two Chinese and Mary’s coffee, thanks Tanya.” Then he turned back to Arthur. “So, old chap, I suppose you’re wondering why you’re here, yeah?” asked Sam, leaning forward over his mahogany desk, probably unaware that he looked more threatening than reassuring.
‘Actually, no, I come here every day, you stupid irk,’ his brain cried, while his mouth said, “Well, yes Sir, I am.”
“Right, just so … er … Arthur,” said Sam, obviously keen to repeat Arthur’s name for some reason. “Now, you’ve been here some time and Mary has been keeping an eye on you …”
‘SOME TIME!’ his head screamed, ‘thirty monotonous years and no one’s ever noticed me! Not once!’
“… and now we need to review things,” he said, obviously expecting applause.
“Review, Sir?” asked Arthur.
“Okay, Mary, you tell … er … Arthur,” said Sam, waving his hand at Mary, as if passing a theatrical cue.
Tanya interrupted with a tray of cups and silence ensued while sugar, milk and stirring were administered. Sam leaned back, sipping his tea with obvious delight while Arthur held his cup and saucer gingerly on his knee, desperate not to spill any.
“Pop your cup on the desk here,” said Sam. Now Arthur’s cup was a shoulder height and more difficult to get at. Should he be rude and forget it or should he attempt to drink it? His cogitations were interrupted by Sam.
“Now, where were we? Ah, yes, Mary …”
“Oh, thank you Sam … Sir,” said Mary, uncrossing her legs, brushing her skirt and turning to look directly at Arthur. “Now, Arthur, you’ve been here a long time …”
‘I want NEW information and I want it NOW!’ screamed his brain.
“… You’re a brick, Arthur, a brick. So reliable. Others have come and gone and you’ve always been here,” said Mary, leaving a deliberate opening for him.
“Oh,” said Arthur as more words failed him.
“As you know, however, nothing stays the same. The recent credit crunch has taken its toll and so have the new financial rules. We’re being watched more closely now,” said Mary.
“Have I done something wrong?” asked Arthur.
“No Arthur, not at all. Of course not,” said Mary, smiling bravely. “It’s just that some of our connections, some people we know, are coming under greater scrutiny. Now, I’m not quite sure how to say this without alarming you.”
“Oh?” Arthur said, alarmed.
“Yes, I’ll come out and say it bluntly, Arthur,” said Mary, fiddling with her black, cropped hair. “You’re working on the Atkinson case, right?”
“Aah, yes, yes I am,” said Arthur, wondering if it was a trick question.
“And, well …” said Mary, unusually reticent to speak. “Okay, I’ll say it – there is a small security matter …”
“But I’ve kept everything quite confidential …” said Arthur, feeling an accusation sneaking up on him.
“Yes, yes, of course you have, Arthur,” said Mary, smiling. “The security situation has come from outside and … and, well, we feel it’s best … oh gosh, it’s best you’re not in your office, not actually in the building for a time.”
“Oh,” said Arthur as the ground began to dissolve beneath him.
“Would you like to work from home?” asked Mary.
“From home?” asked Arthur. “Would that make things safer?” Not sacking. Not redundancy. Not demotion. Nothing that he’d expected. He felt disoriented. His mind went out the back door and all went quiet. Eerily quiet.
“Safer? Aah, yes safer, much safer,” said Mary, looking hopeful and a little relieved.
“How would my home be safer than this building?” asked Arthur. “We have no alarms and things at home.” The sense of being tied to a pole at the cliff edge enveloped him. Secure but not.
“No you don’t, Arthur,” said Sam, leaning forward, over his desk. “But the security risk would be gone when you’re … aah, not here,” said Sam, starting to lose his air of mastery.
“So I work from home and everyone’s safe?” asked Arthur while finding it difficult to make things add up. The cliff edge started to crumble before him.
“Exactly!” said Sam, sitting back, smiling. Arthur felt none of Sam’s evident satisfaction.
“Look, Arthur, we’re not able to go into details at the moment and it’s a big decision,” said Mary, letting out a big breath. “Would you like to go home, discuss it with your wife and come back to us on it?”
“And if we feel I can’t do that?” asked Arthur, plucking up courage.
“We hope you don’t come to that conclusion,” said Sam, smiling awkwardly.
“Oh,” said Arthur, feeling the word redundancy hovering somewhere close by. “And how long would this be for – days, weeks …?”
“Look Arthur, we wish we could tell you more but we just can’t, at this time,” said Mary, looking at Sam as if for support.
“Right, yes, aah, I should go and talk about this to my wife, then?” suggested Arthur as his mind went in and out of focus. He knew he should do something here like stand up, shake hands and walk out but his body wasn’t well connected to his thinking and wouldn’t budge.
“Yes, that’s an excellent idea, Arthur,” said Sam, looking relieved. “Go and talk about it with your wife.”
“Right, yes, I can do that,” said Arthur, feeling as if he’d failed somehow.
“Great!” said Sam, standing and extending his hand. “Nice to chat, what!”
Arthur’s body finally responded and got him shakily to his feet. His hand disappeared into Sam’s corpulent fist and was thoroughly shaken and stirred – like his brain, really. “Right, Sir, of course,” said Arthur, following Mary briskly out of the office and back down to his own desk. He expected Mary to go somewhere else but she plumped herself down on his slightly tatty vinyl swivel chair, while he seated himself behind his desk, feeling less secure by the minute. He looked around and wondered if the Russian spy was not in his imagination but real after all.
“Look, Arthur, I know there’s a lot to absorb,” said Mary. “Why don’t we just find all the parts of this Atkinson file you’re working on and you take the rest of the day off. Go home. There’s no need to tackle anything else after we’ve seen to the Atkinson file.”
Arthur showed her where all the Atkinson papers and computer files were. Mary shook his hand awkwardly and disappeared up the corridor.
Thirty years in the same, safe job and, suddenly, it’s all over. Or was it? His worst fear were realised but, then, were they? And what was this security thing? So many unanswered questions. So many walls and all made of sand. Nothing solid to lean on.
He sat. Even his brain was silent, for a change. ‘Right, I said I’d just go,’ said his brain, weakly, after an interminable silence. ‘Perhaps I’d better just do it. Just go.’ No bodily response. Several people looked in as they passed. Oddly, Arthur didn’t care what they thought, for the first time in his life. However, he did have to pick himself up, tidy his office, remember all his things and take them and himself from the building in a proper and dignified way. Not too much to ask, one would have thought. So he sat for another minute and planned all he was going to do – turn off computer, put files away, put pens and calculator away, stand up, put coat on, ensure he had everything with him and then just go, which he did, as quietly as he’d entered.
Then, he was outside his office, on the street, at eleven thirty in the morning and he had never been here at that time before. He turned towards the underground station and started for home, as he had on at least eight thousand other occasions. He was about to enter the grimy, brick station but looked down the concrete steps and found he couldn’t move.
What am I doing? his brain asked his mind. I have the rest of the day off and nothing to do. He decided on a whim – a slightly frightening whim – to just wander a little, to just go where he hadn’t been before. As he was thinking these thoughts, he discovered his feet had already taken him beyond where he’d ever been before. It was little different from the small part of London he’d previously frequented (or scurried past) and he started to enjoy the pointless amble, the not-going-somewhere-for-the-point-of-it that he’d always done. He was reminded that other people frequented coffee bars and decided, on the spot, to do that … if, indeed, one can frequent a café just once.
The particular aroma drew him in and, as he sat at the tiny table, with a coffee and pastry before him, in the comfort of this strange café, his worst fears and his lack of safety suddenly washed over him. He dropped his head in his hands and felt like crying. It took all the force of his will to stop the tears. He now wished he had been made redundant as there would, at least, have been some certainty, some safety.
He surveyed the passing parade of humanity. He’d never actually looked at people before and had just assumed that, unlike him, they were all happy and coping with their lives. However, from behind his watery eyes, he fancied he saw the same fear, uncertainty and lostness he felt. Despite the tears, a wry smile persisted. Have I got it so wrong all this time? Am I not the only one who feels lost and alone? Do others feel like me? he wondered.
The pastry was adequate but the coffee was actually delicious – the first he had ever had. With a smile, he remembered that he’d made, and not drunk, his first coffee this morning and it was probably still sitting somewhere in his office, a testament to unfinished business … or, he thought giddily, a testament to starting new business, maybe. About to finish his food and drink, he heard a chair scraping. A lanky blonde chap was sitting there, looking at him nervously.
“I … I’m sorry,” the chap said, standing up again, looking embarrassed. “I just … I just wanted, aah, I saw you before and something about you just … I don’t know, you know, kept me thinking …”
Arthur was stunned by this unexpected development.
“Oh hell, I’m sorry,” he said, looking around wildly. He stepped back, bumped the next table and spilled the two coffees there. He then bumped Arthur’s remaining coffee. The men at the next table started chuckling, amid his myriad apologies.
“Sir, please sit down,” said Arthur, concerned more disasters were to follow.
The chap looked around as chuckling spread through the café.
“You really do know how to make a scene don’t you, Greg Cousins!” said a waitress as she appeared at the table. “I didn’t recognise the clothes but I sure know your tricks. Blondes might have more fun but they sure make a mess doing it! Get your arse on the seat and I’ll get you all new coffees.” She patted his bottom and he sat. She took orders, winked, and marched off giggling along with the rest of her customers.
“A friend of yours?” asked Arthur.
“Uh, oh, yeah, I guess so,” he said, turning to watch her departing. “She cleans up after me a bit, I guess.”
“Maybe she likes you more than you realise.”
“Uh, you think?”
“I’m not sure. Looks like it though,” Arthur said, following his eyes. “So, aah, why did you come over here?” Arthur wondered who was speaking and realised it was himself. He’d never conversed with strangers before.
“Oh hell, you’re gonna’ think I’m weird ...”
“You maybe clumsy but let me decide about weird after you explain.” Maybe the morning’s disorientation had upset his balance, his psyche, but he felt strangely comfortable chatting with this chap.
“Okay, I’ll tell you,” he said, taking a big breath. “I saw you across the café about twenty minutes ago. I don’t know ... I just wanted to come over and say hello. Dunno’. Just wanted to do that for no other reason ... boy, that sounds stupid or weird or something, doesn’t it.”
“It’s certainly unusual but it seems to be quite brave,” Arthur said, smiling. “Maybe we all see people we feel a connection with but few of us venture out of our shell and take the plunge.” This other person speaking through his mouth seemed like a calm one. It was just so odd, feeling comfortable with a new person.
“Sounds better when you put it that way,” he said, exhaling heavily. “Now, I’m Greg, Greg Cousins, and I’m Britain’s last sacked person and the cops seem to be after me. Can I ask who you are?”
“Of course you can,” he said, with a small laugh. “I’m Arthur, Arthur Bayly, and I’m Britain’s second to last sort-of sacked person and the authorities – not sure which ones – seem to be after me!”
“You’ve just been sacked?” he asked, looking shocked.
“Well, not quite sacked,” Arthur said, looking away, feeling close to tears. He turned back, shaking his head a little. “Just stood down, indefinitely, I think. There’s some security concern, it seems.” He had never confided anything to anyone before and now he was. He chuckled to himself.
“I suppose you’ve been there a long time, wherever it is …”
“Allied Insurance Limited.”
“And they can’t afford to sack you?”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “I am British, you know. And you’re not. You’re Australian. You’re expendable.”
“I’m a New Zealander but that’s okay.”
“Oh, dear, I’m sorry,” said Arthur, embarrassed.
“No problem, mate. It’s just an error, not a sin,” said Greg, smiling broadly. “I’m expendable?”
“You’re a foreigner and expendable,” he said, looking him in the eye for the first time. “We tend to look after our own.”
“And who do you … did you work for, Greg?”
“Empire Aid Bank.”
“EAB?” Arthur asked as his eyes nearly flew out of their sockets. “Oh gosh!”
“Oh gosh what? You know something, Arthur?” Greg asked, looking awkward.
“Long story, young man, but there’s a connection with a case I’ve just been working on. You have any dealings with the Egyptians?”
“Nearly did,” said Greg, laughing. “Seems like my contacting them could have started World War III. Well, seems to be the reason I’m here, smashing Suzie’s café about and not over there teaching Africans about finance.” The waitress turned up with their two coffees and seemed to be very familiar with Greg.
“Is it safe to approach now, sir?” asked a young man, suddenly appearing at our table.
“It’ll be safe if you stop that stupid sir thing,” said Greg, slapping the young man’s arm and bumping Arthur’s coffee again. Then Arthur looked around to see three policemen at their table. He was shocked to think they’d crept upon him, unawares, and also because he was already in enough trouble with authorities. They started asking Greg pointed questions and Arthur waited a moment and quietly slipped out, wondering how 007 would have handled it. Arthur was sure Mr Bond would not have been shaking as much as he was at that moment.