Everybody knows cities are full of secrets: it's in all the tabloids. London is a city of cities, so you have to imagine it has more than its share. I don't listen to the stories about ghosts and vampires and gods and goddesses roaming he streets; if they were as prevalent as all the books say, you'd not be able to walk out your front door without having a supernatural encounter of some kind. I get up, I get the kids off to school and my husband out the door to work, and I don't think about it much.
"That London," my mum said. "You'll disappear and be taken down into the tunnels, food for vampires or worse."
"Have you ever seen a vampire? If there were packs of them, they'd be pretty hard to miss, all that black lace and leather. Even Camden Town is full of just a bunch of goth wannabees."
I could feel her disapproval over the phone. "Leigh, I worry. It's a big city. You'll be a victim of violent crime, or eaten by werewolves."
I was glad she couldn't see me roll my eyes: thank the gods, my mother has not yet embraced the videophone. "Rob can make more money in London," I explained. Again.
It's been six years now since we moved here, and I've never seen anything out of the ordinary, for London values of ordinary. Neither of the kids have been seduced by the dark side, and Shelley, who was born here, was not stolen out of her crib by any supernatural force. Jury still out on whether that's a blessing or a curse. My position is if there is a vast network of non-human menaces out there, they're not doing a very good job of spreading the evil. I just don't see the evidence.
My husband works in the city, which means he has a commute. Nobody really lives in the city. Well, nobody who works for a living, anyway. Shelley started school this year, so I've been playing at getting a part time job, which means I spend a lot of time on the Internet and in coffee shops. I'm by myself all morning, every morning.
I like this particular little coffee shop in Lewisham. It's off the high street, behind the fabric store, a sort of glorified kebab shop that also happens to do great coffee. They have tables outside, which means I can smoke and write and not feel guilty about taking up space just drinking coffee.
I'd been out taking care of some shopping and stopping by the job centre, but there was still an hour to go before I had to get home. An hour is long enough to at least get a couple of song ideas down, or outline a story, or write a brief character description.
It wasn't meant to be windy, but when does the BBC ever get the weather right? It was windy. I asked for a black coffee and sat down outside, in time to watch commuters on their lunch breaks.
Wouldn't you know it; I turned around to set my handbag down on the pavement, and a gust of wind came along and blew half a pack of fags and my container of artificial sweetener off the table before I could react. When I turned around, I couldn't see them. It was a brief gust of hard wind, but I didn't think it had the power to blow two bright little packages far enough away that I couldn't see them. I may be middle-aged, but I'm not blind. Still, these things happen, so I sat down, resigned to black coffee and happy to be enough of an addict that there's usually a spare pack in my handbag.
Now, when I say I like this little coffee shop, that doesn't mean I'm there every day and they all know my Christian name. It just means I go there when I happen to be in Lewisham in the mornings. I'm only sort of picky about these places. The coffee has to be decent. They have to have outside seating, preferably with a cover (it's London, after all), and I should be able to get my coffee for less than I'd pay at Starbucks (not hard). I like places that are run by people from other countries, the more hole-in-the-wall the appearance, the better. I get better and better at judging new places and re-evaluating old ones, but of course mistakes can be made.
The gust of wind had thrown me, so I forgot the cardinal rule of doing anything outdoors in London: never leave your fags on the table. Always stash them in your handbag or in a pocket, so when bums see you smoking they won't descend on you like pigeons and kindly ask you for a cigarette. If the pack is hidden, you can say this is your last one, or you got this one from your mate, and they'll leave you alone. If it's obvious you're holding a full pack of cigarettes, it's harder to say no.
The second odd thing was my reminder that I'd broken the visible fag rule: a fellow came up and bummed a cigarette. I didn't feel comfortable saying no, so I gave him one, and a light, too.
"Now, baby, you want my phone number, so you can call me in case you ever need a shoulder to cry on?"
"Nope; got plenty of shoulders already," I said.
"You take it anyway; you might need it one day." The bum produced a business card. Since when do bums carry business cards? I was so shocked I took it and read it.
"Well, thank you, Mr Ferguson."
"Just Ferguson," he said, flashing a broken-toothed smile. "You keep that, now." He put my lighter back on the table and wandered off. He hadn't asked me for money, nor did he approach anybody else.
I slipped cigarettes and lighter into my handbag and picked up the pen again. The wind was so unpredictable I had to prop the saucer over my notebook two or three different ways until I found an angle where I could write without fear of the wind taking the book, too. And my bonus prize: my coffee was now stone cold. I put half a packet of sugar in it in hopes of making it drinkable, at least until the coffee shop fellow came round and I could get another cup.
I'm sure you know weird things come in threes, but I wasn't thinking about old sayings that morning, at least not for another few minutes. I'd barely got my pen onto the paper when someone sat down right next to me. I was so surprised I jumped and my pen nib hit the paper with force, splattering brown ink halfway across the page.
"Ooh, didn't mean to scare you, m'dear." the fellow was small--short and slight, with a foreign-looking face, the trace of an accent I couldn't place beneath layers of southeast London inflection. He had almond shaped brown eyes, deep set in a wide face, and his skin was the colour of a terra cotta flower pot. Sweeping above his left brow was an intricate tattoo composed of fine lines and arches. I tucked my handbag between my feet and secured the strap around my ankle.
"Need some bacon?"
"What?" On the long list of potential questions someone might ask a person on the street in London, 'need some bacon?' does not appear in the top ten. Probably not even the top fifty.
"Need some bacon?" He repeated the question slowly and carefully, as if I might be a bit thick.
"No, thank you," I replied, trying not to stare at the tattoo.
"Two for £5," he said amiably. He took a sealed packet of bacon out of an orange carrier bag. "See?"
"I don't need any, thank you," I said stiffly.
"Got sausage too, and a little bit of chicken, but that'll cost you."
I met his eyes. "I'm really not interested," I said.
The little man blinked twice. "Of course, I'm sorry. I mistook you for someone else." He stood up and hurried off down the street.
That's when it flashed into my head that odd things come in threes. The wind blew a brightly-coloured scarf down the street, and I went back to writing. Half an hour passed. The lunch crowd began to thin; I knew I'd need to be getting home soon. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of colour, but when I turned to look I saw nothing. I headed for the bus stop, still more than a little bit cross about all those interruptions.
As I turned the corner back on to the high street, I saw a shadow in the little alleyway that leads to the train station. It was the bacon man, talking to a woman much taller than himself. As I watched, he lit a cigarette--same brand I smoke--and passed the woman a brightly coloured silk scarf, for which she paid him. "How much for the chicken?" she asked. "And I need the sweetener, too."
"You're going to clean me out, m'lady," he said. "There'll be nothing left for tomorrow."
"Watch yourself; I might decide I'm in need of cigarettes as well," she said. "Or maybe we'll just call Ferguson right now."
I couldn't linger any longer without obviously overhearing, so I went on my way without waiting to hear what he said. The tone of voice suggested his answer was an emphatic no.
When I got onto the bus, I dug in my handbag for the business card the bum had given me. "Ferguson" was printed on the card in large, plain letters, with a mobile phone number underneath. Across the bottom was written, "If you need me, you'll know."
How weird was that? I tucked the business card into my purse so I would remember to show it to Rob later.
I was a few minutes early to pick Shelley up from school, so I took a walk around the school garden, but I couldn't get Ferguson, the business card, and the bacon man out of my head. I toyed with the idea of just calling that number, but I'm cautious by nature: if I rang him, he'd have my number, and maybe he was just a bum.
The afternoon passed into housework and Shelley's excited explanations of how school had gone. When Alex got home from his school a few hours later, I was all talked out. I settled into dinner preparations and entered the jobs I'd applied for into a spreadsheet. As technologically-inclined as I am, I prefer to search for jobs on the street: you find more interesting ones that way. The Library in Lewisham would only hire from applications submitted to the Council's web page, so I dutifully added a few Lewisham Library applications to my list and made a note of the two bookstores and the fabric shop, both of which had said they'd keep my application on file. I broke up a fight over the television and put the kids in different corners of the lounge, working on homework and an art project respectively. Shelley's latest obsession was drawing monkeys, and our refrigerator was covered with sloppy monkey pictures and little poems about monkeys.
Rob came home in a sour mood, half an hour late, that night. When he asked how the job search was going, I showed him the spreadsheet and the list of things I'd applied for that day. There didn't seem to be a good opening to tell him about Ferguson and the bacon man. Rob is a librarian for a government office in Westminster, and he hates to talk about work, but that evening he mentioned his boss was keeping secret files on borough operations throughout London and other places as well. "It's just not right," he said. "You know how it's going to be when you take a government information job. Still feels like a cover-up sometimes."
"What kind of cover-up?"
"If I knew, I'd tell you." Rob ran long fingers through his greying blond hair. He needed a haircut. "Boss gave me a box full of files he just wanted put away without indexing today. He didn't want to answer any questions."
"Hm. No idea what it was all about?"
"They're talking about creating a new office to handle the workload; that's all I know. If I'm lucky, they'll let me manage all the information and I'll have some state secrets to leak to the newspapers any day now." He winked.
I called the kids in to dinner, effectively ending intelligent conversation for the night. Shelley wanted to talk about monkeys, and Alex wanted to explain all the ways that monkeys could be killed and dismembered. Our house is a riot, really.
Rob went to bed early, shortly after reading stories to both kids, and I stayed up to work on a story about monkeys. I know every housewife with a creative background thinks she can write a picture book, but that doesn't stop me thinking I can do the same thing. The monkeys weren't cooperating, though; they kept being interrupted by weird people attempting to sell them stuff they could get just as easily at the market. Finally, I gave up and took Ferguson's business card out of my handbag. I put his name and contact number into my computer and my mobile phone for no reason I could think of, other than some unhealthy obsession with the extraordinary.
Speaking of unhealthy obsessions with the extraordinary, I got an email from my mother that night, just before I gave up on everything and headed for bed. She forwarded me an article from London Underline, detailing sightings of a confidence scheme run by leprechauns in Manchester. The article alluded that the leprechauns were part of a nationwide scam ring, operating in gaming shops all over England. At least she didn't call to follow-up on the email, I thought.
Unsurprisingly, my dreams were filled with bacon men and leprechauns, with the blonde lady striding through every scene, threatening to report them all to the authorities, whoever they might be.
The next day, I got a call from one of Lewisham's two independent bookstores. They'd unexpectedly lost a counter employee and needed somebody with retail experience to work mornings. I made an appointment for Friday morning and got on with my day.
That evening when Rob got home, he told me to put dinner preparations on hold. "We're going out for a curry," he said.
It's expensive to go out in London; we never do it. "Are we celebrating something?" I asked.
"Well, just a little lateral move for me." He winked. "You're looking at the head information officer for the newly-formed Other Ministry."
"The Other Ministry?" I laughed. "Don't they have a name for it yet?"
"That is the name."
"Subsequent departments will be called the Other Other Ministry?" I suggested. "Our government has so little imagination."
"Hush, woman. Get the kids ready to go."
Over dinner, in between Rob's explanation of his new salary, perqs, and the fact that he'd have to work late for the first few months, 'just to get the department up and running,' I told him the story of Ferguson and the bacon man.
"That tattoo sounds cool," said Alex. It was the first time he'd seemed interested in the conversation since Rob's patient explanation to Shelley that no, he wasn't going to be working with any monkeys.
"It was," I said. "I tried not to stare, but it was pretty impressive. It was made up of blue lines and filligree, very finely done."
"I want a tattoo," Alex said.
"What kind of tattoo do you want?" I asked.
"I want a big axe," he replied, as if he'd given the matter considerable thought. "Right down my arm, with the axeblade on my hand. It means I'm licensed to chop!" He made a karate-chopping movement with his right hand.
"Yeah," Rob said, "because girls are just queueing up to go out with boys who have big axes tattooed on their arms."
Alex made a face. "I'm not interested in girls. I'm interested in axes."
"Alex likes girls," Shelley said. "He's got pictures of girls."
Alex turned beet-red. "Somebody at school gave me one."
"Yeah. We'll discuss that later. I have an interview at Wonderbooks tomorrow morning."
"That's great news, Leigh. You probably don't absolutely have to have a job right away if you don't want one now."
"Nah; I'm bored. It'll give me something to do in the mornings. Probably only a couple of days a week, anyway."
"Wonderbooks. That's the one next to the fabric store?"
"Yeah; in that little pedestrianised street."
Rob frowned. "I'm sure I read something about them the other day. I was surprised: I thought they'd closed up shop. Dusty used books aren't exactly big revenue producers."
I thought back. "They closed up for the summer, I think. Probably doing book shows or something. Can't remember if they were closed last summer."
"Hmm. Yeah; I'm sure I read something about them recently. I'll tell you if I remember."
"I want dessert!" Shelley had inhaled her chicken tikka.
"Shel, you don't like any of the desserts they have here."
"Well." Rob leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. "I think this means we need to hop on the bus and go to Greenwich for ice cream."
There was no arguing with that.
My interview was at ten o'clock in the Wonderbooks office, a room easily half as large as the store itself that seemed to double as storage, with a tired-looking woman. She introduced herself as Beth Wonder and explained they needed to replace a part-time employee who'd unexpectedly left to start a university course. "She might have given us more notice, but that's life. You're not planning on moving to Norfolk, are you?"
"Nope," I replied. "I'm just looking for something to do in the mornings. Moving out of London isn't in my plans."
"Oh, good," she said. "You've got some retail experience?"
"A little. From college. I worked in a bookstore then, but that was years ago."
"You like books."
"No criminal record?"
I laughed. "No."
"Right. You're only available in the mornings, you said? I'm here most mornings, in the office. How many days a week do you want? And I can't pay any more than the minimum."
I nodded. "I'm not expecting to get rich working in a bookstore. And two mornings, maybe three?"
"Good. We've got a student who works afternoons sometimes. Let's start with two days a week and see how it goes."
"Great!" I said. It was the shortest job interview I'd ever had.
"Can you start Monday? Good. Here's the paperwork. When can you bring it back to me?"
I said I'd go grab a cup of coffee and bring it right back.
This time, I was prepared for the wind, and I didn't lose a thing. I was only half surprised when Ferguson approached me with a grin and a wave. He sat down in the seat next to me.
"You haven't needed me," he said. He sounded matter-of-fact, not surprised. "Can you get us a cup of coffee? A latté?" He passed me a pound coin. "When he comes back round."
"Sure," I said, though the request was odd. Maybe he had a phobia about talking to people in the service industry, some mental problem. Bums always have a story.
"He don't serve me," Ferguson explained. "He don't see me. She does. I can get a coffee from her, but not him."
I was still confused. When the fellow came by with my Americano, I asked for the latte.
"Instead?" He frowned. "I charge you for both."
"No; it's for my friend," I explained, and handed him a pound for the latte.
He frowned again, took the coin, and went inside.
"I told you, Leigh Walker; he don't see me."
"Thompson," I corrected automatically. "Leigh Walker Thompson."
"Ahh," he said. "You hadn't finished writing." He stabbed a finger onto the application I was filling out. "See? Not magic. You going to work at the bookstore? That's a good place."
"It looks that way," I said. "I seem to start on Monday."
"Good, good. I come in there with money, you sell me a book."
"Sure," I said. "Pardon me for being cheeky, but you don't seem antisocial. Have you been banned from the bookstore?"
He laughed. "No, no; I go where I please and I do what needs doing. Just everybody don't see me. Like that."
I nodded uncomprehendingly. When the coffee shop fellow came with the latté, he put it down in front of me and seemed not to acknowledge Ferguson at all.
There was silence while I filled out the paperwork and Ferguson smoked two of my cigarettes over his latté. When I folded the papers and tucked them into my handbag, he pointed out a rosette on one of the Victorian shop mouldings. It was painted bright blue. "You see that?"
"Sure," I said.
"See, everybody see that. I paint it a different colour every week. Sometimes the council come round and paint it some ugly colour, sometimes the shopkeeper do it. People notice it's a different colour. I like that."
"Why do that?" I wondered.
"People notice it," he said. "They see something I do. I like that. Everybody see you. How does that feel?"
"I never thought about it," I said. "And anyway, everybody doesn't notice me. It's a big city; nobody notices anybody."
He hmphed. "You say that, but you know he didn't see me, the coffee shop man."
"He didn't seem to," I admitted.
"That's why I ask you to buy me a coffee," he said. "That man don't see me. Some people see me. How many people you see on this street?"
I narrowed my eyes and took a long look. There was a lady leaving the fabric shop. "One." There were two women having a sandwich at the sandwich café two doors up. "Two, three." Two men were talking outside the gaming shop. "Four, five." In the entrance to the alleyway, an androgynous young person sat on his or her heels, writing a note. "Six, counting that kid in the alley. I see six."
"Plus you and me, eight?" he asked.
"You see everybody." He grinned. "That's a great skill. I see everybody, too. But they don't always see me."
I was confused. "Well, it wasn't like there were a lot of people on the street."
"No, baby, not a lot of people. But most people, they look at this street right now, they only see six people, counting you and me. Well, not counting me."
"Who else don't they see?"
"Kid in the alleyway, Evan. They don't see Evan."
"He looks pretty clear to me."
"Me, too. Anything weird happen to you lately?"
"You not a mystic."
"Not a priestess or a witch?"
"Something must have happened."
"I lead a pretty normal life, Ferguson," I said. "The other day, when we met, the wind blew away some cigarettes and a container of artificial sweetener. That's the only other weird thing that happened that day."
"Ahh!" Ferguson smiled broadly. "Mystery solved. You were looking for something you weren't going to find, so you looked harder. Were you looking for your things even when I came to speak with you?"
"Yeah; it was so weird that they'd blow away like that. Of course, I think I know what happened to them now."
"Oh? What else did you see? And are you sure you don't need my help?"
"A man with a tattoo came by and asked me if I needed bacon. Later, I saw him selling stuff to a lady, and she asked for artificial sweetener. I think he took my things and sold them."
"Short man? Tattoo over his eyebrow, like this?" Ferguson formed an arch with his fingers.
"Yeah. The lady he was selling the stuff to threatened to call you. I remembered that."
"Her name Marion. Lady Marion."
I laughed. "Not Maid Marion?"
Ferguson made a face. "She ain't been a maid for a long time now."
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Location:Sanford St,Lewisham,United Kingdom