I like to go for a walk after therapy. It clears my mind. I head out of the door after the usual dithering, and am about to tie my boots up when I realise I’ve got the wrong watch on (my standard watch which M got me many years ago, doesn’t have a stopwatch on it), so I pull off my boots and go back to the kitchen to get the right watch. Boots on, out the door. Cold and windy. I do the usual twists and turns up the road, down a snicket, into another road, then into the avenue that leads to the main road.
‘Hello, mate.’ A voice from the drive of an ochre bungalow. ‘How you doin’?’
‘All good,’ I say, although I don’t know this gentleman with the beanie on. I have seen him talking with C, though, a guy who lives a few doors up from us and who’s an interesting bloke (really into 80s music, really loved all the New Romantic stuff, brushes up well, witty). ‘You doing ok?’
‘Oh, yes.’ His Volvo estate is full of insulation material. He comes onto the pavement from the drive. ‘Oh, you’re not who I thought you were. I saw all the dangly ear-rings and thought you were C.’
‘Nice lad, C,’ I say.
‘Yup. … What you doing?’
‘I go for a 2-mile alk every day.’
‘Good for you. I still do the odd gym exercises.’
‘Well, at my age,’ I say.
‘How old are you?’
‘That’s nothing. I’m 67. Was alright till my late 50s. Could outdo people twice my age. And then.’ He clicks his fingers. ‘It just fuckin’ went, just like that, so now I just do the best I can.’ All this said with a soft Norfolk accent, not too broad, just with that harsh edge to it, of a man who likes the outdoors, and likes talking.
‘We can only do our best.’
‘Probably seen you before.’
‘I’ve been walking down here since we moved from Stradbroke May last year.’
‘Stradbroke? Never! I had an auntie in Stradbroke. Must be 50 years since. Lovely area.’
‘Yeah. But the middle of fucking nowhere.’ This is me code switching, so people know I’m listening to them.
‘Been thinking of moving that way south.’
‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Over 30 years. Gets a bit much. But then I think is it a good idea. I like the countryside and things, but what with my ailments and things, probably best to stay in a town.’
‘That’s one reason we came here, too. Close to the hospitals, infrastructure.’
He nods sagely. ‘Aye. That’ll be it. Probably for the best. … Not keepin’ you, am I?’
‘No.’ And I mean it. I love talking with people.
‘This country’s fucked, you know.’
I’m expecting the worst.
‘All these out-of-town retail parks. It all needs to come back into the cities. … And I don’t hold with all this nationalistic shit. Don’t matter what colour, orientation, nationality anyone is. If they’re nice people, that’s all that matters.’
‘Exactly,’ I say, relieved and heartened. ‘And all these people slagging off immigrants – they pay more taxes than a lot of the English.’
‘Fuckin’ hell, it’s grand to hear someone else say that. I get fuckin’ impatient and angry with all these anti-immigration folk. Don’t hold with it.’
We shake hands. He’s A.
‘I’m Richard,’ I say.
‘If I talk too much,’ he says, and takes off his beanie to reveal a cochlear implant. ‘It’s because I’m deaf. I can take over conversations because of it, so just tell me to shut up if I talk too much.’
‘You’re not talking too much.’
‘Any time you come by, mate, just feel free to stop and chat. You don’t have to, of course.’ He pulls his beanie back on. ‘Don’t get out much, see. No pubs or restaurants – too much noise in the ear that works with this thing. All the scraping of the cutlery, and the voices, and all those noises. Can’t stand it.’
‘Do you sign?’
He shakes his head. ‘Never learned it. And not much use if it’s all too loud for me to concentrate. Best off staying in. Or being outside.’ He smiles.
I smile back. ‘I’d better get on now.’ The light is going.’ I hold out my hand. ‘You’ve made my day, though. I love chatting.’
He grabs my hand, and an ever bigger smile creases his face. ‘You serious?’
‘Course I am.’ And I am.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 250
It’s a risk, and she knows it. Valentine will probably be tracking her through his hacks into the public CCTV systems. But she doesn’t particularly care, because he knows where she’s headed anyway. She still stays in her invisible mode, because the last thing she wants to do is to attract unwanted attention from elsewhere. She walks to the end of the platform, ignored, as usaual when she’s in this mode, by everyone, waits for the next train bound for Central London, knows that the fron carriage will probably be deserted, because no-one ever makes their way to the end of the long platform least of all the tourists or the business travellers. Too much effort for them. The train roars into the station, the round tunnel magnifying its rumble, the ground shaking. Aggie gets in, finds her way to the very front of the carriage, the seat right by the door to the driver’s cab, scrunches herself into it, waits for it to leave, hopes it will stay as empty as it is. She’s weary, just wants to get home, wants to just leave the threads of all this dangling for the three hours or more it will take her to get back to Norwich, for once wishes she could just switch off completely, could just sleep. She closes her eyes and slows her breathing down, still aware of anything that’s going on around her.
Start. Stop. Stop. Start. Hiss. Clank. The sounds repeat at every station the tube train stops at. There is the occasional fellow passenger in the carriage, but Aggie doesn’t open her eyes. She doesn’t need to. If there was a threat, she would be awake to it, would be able to move faster than it, ward it off, destroy it, defend herself. The noise level does rise the closer they get to Central London, people cluttering the platforms, clicking in and out of carriages in their heels and boots. She counts the starts and stops, opens her eyes when they’re one station away from Holborn, which is where she slips out of the train unremarked-on, changes to another line. Just a few more stops. At Liverpool Street, she feeds bank notes to the machine, gets on the train that’s due to leave in ten minutes, finds herself a seat she hopes will be undisturbed by crowds. It’s too early for the rush hour crowd. She slips her facemask on, slides into a seat without a full window, stares out of the part-window she does have by her, the window no-one can look into, feels a sense of relief when the train does start moving out of the station.
However much she tries, she can’t stop the excitement starting to build in her, the excitement at seeing Lily again, although it’s less than 48 hours since she left. It feels more like 48 days, and a foolish thought takes hold in her mind – will they recognise each other? She almost laughs out loud at herself for such a ludicrous way of thinking. She should be worried instead – will everything be ok? Or will Valentine have decided to get there first, and finish the job he wants her to do? And now she’s not weary anymore. She needs to plan, needs to work out how to mislead him into believing that she will kill Lily and the others, fool him into believeing that she has killed them, that she is on his side now, that she will do his bidding, and do what he wants her to do. Lead his army in his conquest of the world.