He had been there for most of the afternoon, beneath the trees, tranquil in pursuit of elusive things hiding and thought lost, catching the distant thunder muttering gravely now and then, stilling small voices that might otherwise have disturbed such profound reverie. While, closeby, across the square, the drooling traffic seemed only to thicken the warm drone of the afternoon.
Sometimes he opened his eyes, peeping at all the colourful shifting images cluttering the pavements from boutique to coffee place, all loafing in the faded sunshine, chatting and laughing or waving to others who flittered like butterflies amid the caught-up traffic. But mostly he glimpsed places that were quiet and still, roads that were sunny and smelling of new tar where close to the earth he pressed a small podgy thumb against soft round bellies that popped and oozed black pitch, his mind drifting in a golden haze of nothing to remember, an aeroplane far away in a clear blue sky, the sun flashing on its wingtips.
There was a faint pattering above his head. He opened his eyes and looked up. The end branches lifted slightly and trembled, then were still again, a few secret spots hitting the chalk white pavement and quickly fading into its dusty surface. He closed his eyes, breathing contentedly, listening to all the murmurings, his mind drifting again to childhood memories. A few more copper and yellow leaves fell listlessly to the ground.
"Thought it was too good to last..!"
The voice was close. He could feel her gaze on him, willing him to open his eyes as she snapped shut her handbag. He kept his eyes shut, concentrating on the stirring of others around him, small shuffling sounds and murmurs of resignation, the mood changing, the square emptying, the pavements becoming grey and the rain rejected and melancholy. When he finally opened his eyes, all the coveted seats were empty, the little square abandoned and beginning to glisten, everything softening and merging into just an impression of itself.
He closed his eyes again, emptying his mind, listening to the rain swatting the leaves above accompanied by sounds from across the square, all subdued now except for one.
It grew slowly, emerging from the rest, hardly noticeable at first but expanding as it drew nearer, tapping hollowly and intrusively into his brain like the metal heels on a small clockwork doll. He lifted an eyelid, squinting in the direction of the road.
She came bobbing into focus on diminutive feet and stiletto heels, deftly defying gravity yet striding purposefully enough: a delicate vision absurdly wrapped in a tiny raincoat, one seemingly able to defy all the laws of nature held torturously together by a single breast button. Dark bouncing curls; a fine porcelain nose; a vision that could be appreciated by the whole of him as he descended to a plane much nearer earth.
But then, suddenly, he was transfixed, engines dead, mind hanging silently on a thread — he was directly in her path! If she kept to her present course she could not be avoided! Even as he struggled for control, she was upon him, an angel falling towards him, her face coming to hover just a few inches away; there was no escape — life had suspended him there for a purpose!
"Would it disturb you very much if I came and sat here? I don't mean to be a nuisance or anything but I'd really like to look as if I'm with someone… if that wouldn’t seem like too much of an imposition?
He was motionless. Her voice was soft, her breath on his cheek; time had ceased.
"I mean, I'm sure nothing nasty's about to happen here. It's just that one or two peculiar things have been happening around me lately. Well, not so much peculiar, as unhealthy — peculiar and unhealthy!" Her voice fell. "Worse than that, actually! Not that there's anything here to worry about, he’s not very big! It’s probably just my imagination anyway, a reaction to some odd things that’s been happening to me lately. Would you mind… just in case?"
Words rose to his throat but seemed to lodge behind his tonsils. She was already settling beside him as he gestured compliance. She drew in a deep breath, nodding earnestly:
"It’s just I’m pretty certain there’s someone following me… pretty sure of that." She lifted her chin and pointed a challenge in the direction of the road. "He might change his mind if he thinks I'm here to meet someone." She twisted to face him again. "Of course, that's if you don't mind, I mean, it could just be some crank person. Would you mind or would you just rather be left alone?"
He was neither roused nor even mildly surprised having just barely assimilated the spoken words and none of the emotional substance. In fact, the words had hardly made an impression on him at all: they were simply the echoes of a subliminal world of illusions and fancies, not to be taken seriously; nothing to do with the real world. He pushed himself higher on the seat, his smile neutral:
"No… please… make yourself comfortable.” He patted an imaginary gun tucked under his jacket; “I’ll pretend I’m a bodyguard or something – if it’ll help!"
He cringed inwardly: the banality of the remark verified by the unnatural sound of his voice.
"Oh yes, that might – thank you!" She looked doubtful; "there’ll be no need though, I’m sure..." She appeared uncomfortable for a moment then brightened again, smiling appealingly, head tilted to one side: "I mean, if you're just waiting here for somebody yourself, I'll understand. Naturally, you’d hardly want to be bothered with me if you are — are you?"
"No… I was just sitting here enjoying the peace and quiet."
"Oh…" She gazed around puzzled; "yes, it's nice… just a bit damp though! Do you really enjoy it like this?"
Her question seemed to imply that there might be something wrong with him if he did. He nodded, dragging his eyes away and back to the main road: perhaps she thought it was him who needed help! She pressed closer:
"Can I stay, then… if I'm not spoiling your communication with nature … or whatever? Can I consider myself rescued, just for the time being..?"
Jeremy stood poised on the edge, his keen sight easily spying the glittering towers of the asylum far below, shimmering in the dust of idle dreams and boring fantasies; no fair exchange for his own place of reality no matter how temptingly offered. Yet, on the other hand, there was always the possibility that he might introduce her to the real world:
"Is there something wrong with the rain?" he enquired.
She paused, appearing to regard him and the square sympathetically for a moment. Then, seeming to find no obvious merit in either of them, simply shrugged:
"I'm not keen, really. But it's alright, if that's what you really like… don't mind getting wet!"
Her eyes travelled downwards and he followed them. It was true, there were definite signs of his trousers beginning to cling to the fronts of his legs. At the same moment, a trickle of water began down his forehead and fell onto the back of his hand. He remained impassive, wiping it away, directing his gaze back to the sky, which now appeared even more mysterious in the folding light, then back down through the trees to the main road, seeming to her that he might now be giving her situation some serious thought.
"The man who's following me..." She hesitated, frowning heavily to disguise just a faint hint of satisfaction; "I think I know what he wants. In fact, I'm pretty well absolutely in no doubts about it."
Jeremy crinkled his forehead and closed his eyes, rubbing his temple lightly to hide his own expression, one of mild despair. He nodded slightly: her words had confirmed his worst fears. Easing himself into a more comfortable position he continued to gaze steadfastly in the direction she had come, the shops all brightly lit now, incandescently glowing like small theatre stages, blinking back incuriously at him through a mist of dreamlike figures all hurrying to their inevitable oblivion.
"Couldn't you just let him have it..?" he said, quietly.
She was silent and he began to wonder if she had been left speechless in the presence of such profound wisdom and logic. He glanced sideways, hopefully, but she was gazing at him as if he wasn't there, her mind somewhere else. Then he was cut off completely, her head rotating slowly to face the main road, apparently deciding her next move. Words escaped him before he could prevent them but still lacking enthusiasm and muted again by a slight constriction at the back of his throat:
"Is he still around? Can you see him?"
She swung back to him, frowning deeply, studying his face, perhaps searching for evidence of a soul: the sinews of his groin hardened and relaxed several times to compensate.
"No... I don't think so," she smiled, patiently; "he's probably keeping out of sight now. . . now that he's seen I'm with someone."
"Perhaps he decided to go home after all..?"
She appeared even more perplexed, a small crease tugging her eyebrows together as she leaned back heavily against the seat; the signal for a sprinkle of heavy rain to pepper the trees and square and slap a large wet leaf rudely onto her lap. He lifted it reverently and rolled its stork thoughtfully between his finger and thumb, doubts beginning to infect his own mind:
"Are you afraid of thunderstorms?" he asked.
She hesitated, her eyes slipping away to patrol the square again:
"Not usually. I can think of places I'd rather be though; somewhere a bit warmer would be nice!"
She stole a glance sideways at him just when all his senses were back above the chimney pots, stalking the thunder:
"I guess this isn’t the most comfortable..?" he said, dreamily.
There was only silence, an irresistibly vacuum dragging him back to earth. She was still there, smiling sweetly:
"Under a tree!"
He imagined a child denied its favourite toy and wondered if he should resent it! The thought was blown away, vaporised in a blinding flash that ripped across the sky and shook the ground, catapulting them both to their feet and racing across the square. He was tempted to believe she had orchestrated it deliberately but decided that luck must have played a part as well!
They ducked into a doorway and waited for the giant fist to strike but there was only silence and then a sudden deluge to smooth their jarred senses. It ended as abruptly as it had begun, to a mellow drizzle.