"I need a story." Luke stood with others, waiting to cross the road. He was aware of a bus and a few cars, sweeping across in front of him. He wouldn't forget the bread shop, which was his target, and a bag of ten wholemeal rolls would return home with him. All this was at the back of his mind, though, and he was slow to follow the young woman who took the first step as the red light came on for the cars and before the green appeared for the pedestrians. In an uncertain wave, the five or six moved forward, Luke bringing up the rear.
"I need a story." He may have mouthed the words, but they didn't escape further from his thoughts, so nobody looked at him strangely as they paused together on a concrete island in the middle of the road. Luke stood back as others jockeyed for position. He was content again to take last place when the little green man appeared, allowing them all over the second stretch of tarmac. He was vaguely aware of a figure standing in front of him. Maybe the lights were changing, and she'd decided to wait for the next cycle.
"You need a story." Did he hear it? Did he imagine it? Did it matter? He was past her in a couple of seconds, stiffening but not quickening his pace, as if she had her hand out for money. The bread shop was two aluminium windows away. It was easy to walk past someone who may have spoken to him, fail to react in case of engagement, in case of embarrassment. It wasn't so easy to acknowledge what she might have said.
Had he actually heard anything, or was it the echoes in his own head? He walked half a shop too far then turned in annoyance, especially because two people ducked in just before he did, and they wouldn't have been ahead of him if he'd been thinking straight. He stood with others, fuming perhaps more than they were, shuffling along the back wall and then the other way along the glass-topped counter.
She had smiled, of that he was certain as he tried to piece together a picture of the woman. At least she hadn't followed him, so he was free to consider what he could remember of what he'd seen. She wore some kind of dark suit - a jacket with no lapels, a knee-length skirt. He was fairly sure about the skirt, though he had no memory at all of her legs.
The hair had been short but not severe, brownish, the eyes large - though that was perhaps because they were looking straight at him. How old was she? Late thirties? Forties? And had she really said anything? Luke found that he couldn't recall any movement of the mouth, nor any impression of the mouth, because for that moment - and now - the eyes had been everything.
"Yes please?" Somehow, he was at the front of the queue. Somehow, he remembered his errand, stammered out his order, found his money. And then he was on the doorstep and strangely reluctant to leave the shop. Only when he had to make way for someone behind him did he step down onto the pavement with a grunted apology.
Turning to the left, he walked back the way he had come, but he passed the lights and the marked crossing, because he always crossed the road further down on the way back - some kind of round trip mentality. Past the general store which sold booze and a couple of tins of sardines, and the hardware shop that specialised in garish plastic storage boxes. And there she sat, at one of the half-hearted, dirty-white tables that comprised the area's first faltering step towards a café society - just next door to the animal charity shop.
Excitement and fear boiled within him as he tried to show no recognition, but her eyes held his as he walked, and only a mockingly demure look down at her coffee cup allowed him to get past her.
"She didn't say anything." Luke was back home. "So maybe she didn't say anything the first time." He was talking to the mirror, but there were noises of movement throughout the house, so he spoke silently. "Maybe I'm going mad. That would be the easy way out." It wasn't the first time that thought had come around.
His face, viewed as if by a critical friend, was looking tired - slackness under the eyes, an area on the right cheek where carelessly shaved hairs offered an incomprehensible hint of newspaper photograph. He stooped a little to view himself in the full width of the oval glass. That's democracy - only the average can look themselves in the eye.
"That you, Dad?" It was Ellie on the other side of the bathroom door, probably five minutes awake and indignant that some parts of the world were tardy in their alignment to her fourteen-year-old desires.
"Just a minute." Luke would have died for her, but she seemed to have such a limited grasp of what went on when she wasn't looking. Since he'd visited the bathroom to commune with the mirror rather than to use the normal facilities, he gave in and opened the door almost immediately. Ellie swept in with a throw-away "Thanks Dad," leaving him on the landing with his usual mix of amusement and exasperation that she didn't think anything he did actually mattered, unless it also concerned her.
He stayed up after she went to bed, for example, and that time was obviously wasted in pointless fatherly pursuits that she would have no interest in. Unless she was having a stopover, of course, when he sometimes had to play the heavy-handed parent and suggest to the knot of nubility on the bedroom floor that a couple of hours of sleep might well be conducive to general health and happiness.
A big thing he did was to go out to work, and then it felt as if the shutters went down very loudly and finally. Maybe they were his shutters - he hoped not, but had to acknowledge the hours he could spend at his desk with an excuse to forget about family problems, money problems and all the rest. Even if he did use work as a refuge, though, nobody at home seemed to think it mattered. So long as the money kept coming in, which it obviously did: it was the outgoings that they should have noticed.
He needed a story. And more than a story.
By mid-morning he had dropped Ellie off at her friend Judy's house, where they promised to be working on history course work and would probably be down to the sexual histories of their class mates within moments of the bedroom door shutting. His son Paul was with Dave, another eleven-year-old who was due to transfer schools with him. It's good to have a friendship to take you through that kind of move, thought Luke, but is it really a friendship when you spend 98% of your time together connected to separate gaming controls?
He had driven his wife Carol to the other side of town, so that she could work on plans for the kids' canoeing group which her friend Mary's husband Peter had allowed himself to be manoeuvred into. Luke had driven back slowly, anticipating the empty house, approaching the empty house, then letting himself quietly into the empty house. It was Saturday, and he now had several hours to himself, plenty of time to address his problems. Or ignore them.
After a cup of coffee, then a sandwich which he didn't really need, then a large whisky which he really didn't need, Luke sat back and looked at the clock. It was a digital unit in the top of the cooker, and it informed him that the morning was not yet over. It was time to walk round the block again. He checked that his mobile phone was switched off, left it on the worktop and went out through the front door.
There were a few more clouds than earlier on, but it was still a comfortable mid-April day. Glints of light accompanied him along the shop fronts, the sun reflected inconsistently from the various sheets of plate glass in their aluminium frames.
At the specialist greengrocer he bought some globe artichokes, which would probably be thrown away in a couple of weeks because nobody else wanted to do anything with them and he would never find the time. After ten minutes in the second-hand book shop he emerged with a copy of Madame Bovary. He'd read it in French at school, forgotten every word and every idea, heard a few snatches of the recent radio serialisation, but maybe one day he would get round to reading the whole thing again.
And now he was on his way home, but the thought of those familiar walls closing round him seemed somehow unnecessary. As was a coffee - he had better stuff in his own kitchen, but the four empty tables on the concrete pavement offered a last staging post. He sat down, mouthed "coffee" to the girl who appeared at the door, and extracted the book from its plain brown wrapper.
"Is that the story you need?" Luke turned in alarm to look over his right shoulder. It was an almost familiar face. "Do you mind if I join you?" He did. She frightened him. But he said nothing, and she took the seat opposite him with a certain slow grace. Again, the girl in the white apron looked out, took a wordless instruction and disappeared. Ellie had talked to her parents (and her friends) about applying for that job. What would she have said to him this afternoon if she'd been serving? He had his doubts that his daughter's concentration would have been up to the coded signals, but that was unfair.
Now that the woman was fixed in his view, and he in hers, he filled in some of the details. The hair was indeed short and dark, but with more curl than his mental photofit had allowed for. With the jacket, she wore a golden-cream blouse with a loose ring-neck and no jewellery at her throat, which was somehow surprising. But when Luke allowed himself to take in her face he found he could add no more details to his earlier sketch, for the eyes had him again - amused, cold, inescapable.
"Coffee... cappucino." There was little emphasis in the girl's voice but she put the black coffee on Luke's side of the table with no hesitation so he assumed that cappucino was the correct order for the other. They both waited until her flat shoes took her back inside, then eyes which had relaxed a little to track the retreat locked on again and Luke felt a moment of complete disorientation as she threw him a lifeline.
"I can give you a story."