2012 Short Story Competition runner-up, by Sharon Ingle, of Norwich.
Is this seat taken?” asked a quietly spoken man whom Veronica had never seen before. “No.” She gestured to him to sit down. She shuffled her papers and moved her pile of books to allow him more space on the table.
“Thank you,’’ he said. He remained standing while he took off his hat, unravelled his stripy scarf and pulled off his gloves, easing each finger before unveiling slim hands. It was a further five minutes before the man got down to business with his pen and paper. Everything he required was precisely arranged, including his own wrist rest which he set down before gently rattling his fingers over the keyboard like an alphabet pianist.
Veronica remembered how she and Alastair had met here at the library years ago. “Izzatsatetook?” he had said.
He was seated before Veronica had the chance to look up, let alone reply. His voice was loud, the accent strong and he had the urgency of someone playing musical chairs and not wanting to be out. His duffle bag had clattered to the floor, spilling its contents. Unbothered, he had slammed books around and drummed his fingers on the table. He kept his jacket on and glanced at the big clock on the wall regularly.
After 20 minutes, he leapt up like he had just received a cup of hot tea in his lap.
“Right. That’s me,” he announced. “Can I get something to eat here?” “Yes, there’s a cafe over in the corner, they do sandwiches and so on” “Will ye join me? I’m sorry to say yell have to pay for yoursell, I’m not yer average mean Scotsman by the way, I was too generous with my last lady friend. My name’s Alastair”
Veronica was amused, at first. Alastair barged his way into her life, stomped on her plans for the future and lived each day at full pelt. It was flying without wings and she loved every moment. Until she became pregnant. Alastair couldn’t decide what he wanted. She had to make up her mind. She had the baby, alone. Alastair decided that he must return to Scotland. Veronica remained in Devon and brought up their son with her parents and an aunt providing emotional and financial support. She was both relieved and proud that her son had grown up to be a fine young man, now living in London where she was due to visit him at the weekend.
After an hour, the quiet man slowly started to pack away his belongings. Glasses cleaned before being folded and returned to the case. Pen returned to inside jacket pocket, a firm click on the lid to ensure no leakage. He draped his coat over his arm and tipped his hat at Veronica before replacing it upon his head.
“I don’t want to stop you working” he said, “but could I buy you a coffee? I’m taking my newspapers to the cafe. I’ll be there a while if you’d like to join me?”
“Thank you, yes,” said Veronica “I’m almost done here. I’ve booked my train tickets, I just need to checkout my books and I’m finished. Actually, would you mind checking my books through? I find it tricky manoeuvring my wheelchair around the displays.”
She handed him her library card, the man scanned her books carefully. The man returned her card to her after reading the details.
“Veronica” he said, “Elvis Costello sang a song about you. Someone called Veronica anyway.”
“Oh, do you like his music too? For me there’s only ever been one Elvis and that’s Costello”
“I do actually. I’ve seen him live, he puts across experience into his songs and he’s there as himself, not all stardom and celebrity. Life would be easier if more people were who and what they appear to be”
“I know what you mean,” said Veronica. “Glitz and glamour dazzles people and lies can go undetected. Sorry, that sounded cynical.”
“Don’t apologise” the man laughed, “My middle name is Cynical. My first name is Peter.” He placed her books in her side bag and secured the buckle before propelling her towards the cafe.
“Oh look,” he said “vanilla slices. I haven’t had one for ages, can I treat you?”
“Yes please. Have your cake and eat it, that’s definitely one of my mottoes.”
The only empty table was near to the open doorway. Peter slowly pulled apart a paper napkin and spread it across his lap, attacking the vanilla slice with a fork before picking it up and tucking in with relish. He eyed the tiny squidges of cream and flakes of pastry remaining on his plate with satisfaction.
“I enjoyed that immensely. Excuse me, I must go and wash my hands.” Veronica watched him, everything about him was considered, co-ordinated. On his way back to the table, he took a brief call on his mobile.
He returned to Veronica. “It’s busy in here, is it always like this?” he asked.
She nodded. “Pretty much. At least I’m guaranteed a seat.”
“Ah, yes – the wheelchair. I didn’t notice it at first, and I’m not being polite. It wouldn’t be so bad if I wasn’t a Detective Constable, my guvnor would laugh her head off if she knew. The observation skills of a bookcase. She always tells me I can’t see the bigger picture. Too wrapped up in the detail.”
“Detail is important. I do watercolours, the initial washes are relatively straightforward but I spend hours building up the minutiae. It’s the rewarding part. Plus it’s the one hobby I’ve been able to continue with. I can’t wait to ditch the chair and get back to my usual routine. It’s surprising how much I’ve missed the mundane”
“So the chair’s not permanent?” asked Peter.
“No, a necessity following bunion operations on both feet. They don’t recommend doing both feet at once but I need to get back to work. I can’t survive on sick pay. I’m suffering for the stilettos I used to tower around in. I’ll be glad to be five foot nothing again and accept my lot in wide fit flatties.”
“Yes, the rudeness of age. Pointing out the little things that you can no longer manage, at least unaided. Like waking in the morning and not being able to see what the time is until you’ve found your glasses. All day long I’m juggling with glasses cases to find the right pair for driving, VDU work, or sunshine. Always searching, always finding that what I seek is right under my nose. Did you get a good deal on your train tickets can I ask?”
“What? Oh, yes. I’m visiting my son; I’m travelling off-peak so it’s more reasonable than it might have been. It’s always cheaper to book online”
“Only I couldn’t help noticing, you’re going first-class. I read the details on the screen; I had my seeing glasses on. And your address; your house is in one of the most sought after areas in the country. You didn’t get that on sick pay.” Veronica drained her cup and prepared to leave.
“Oh, please, Veronica, don’t go all cold on me. It’d be a shame for you to miss the last pieces of the jigsaw fitting in place. That wheelchair of yours, not available on the NHS, hi-tech and high-cost. You’d need an MP’s salary to afford one. Or at least whatever you can get from blackmailing one.”
Veronica stared at him, then at her hands.
“A wheelchair isn’t the best getaway vehicle as I’m sure you realise. Well, I admit it and I’m not sorry. Alastair left me to bring up his baby without a penny of support. He bullied and blagged his way through politics the same way he invaded my life and took what he wanted. He left me to it and charmed his way into a seat in the Commons. Izzatsatetook? That’s the first thing he said to me you know. When he became an MP, he became a target I could aim at, he’d disappeared from my life and been anonymous for all those years and now I could get him.
“I told him if he didn’t pay me money I would tell the papers about our son and how he’s had nothing to do with him. Quite different to the family values his party portrays”.
“I agree that he treated you badly Veronica, but blackmail is a crime and we have a duty to protect people, even those in public service. We are still gathering information but it is most likely that you will be arrested and the case will go to trial. I am telling you this so that you are able to make arrangements as necessary.”
The weekend saw Veronica boarding the London train, minus the wheelchair and with a large case. Upon reaching the capital, she ventured further on and bought a ticket for Eurostar.
“Is this seat taken?” she asked quietly of a man she had never seen before.