The deeper the express train travelled into the tunnel the clearer became the woman's reflection in the window, giving
The notion of being captured in an all-embracing glance made him fidget and he rocked slightly on his seat. Forward and back. Soon, the agitation filled his head, turmoil he thought had long ago subsided. He was compelled to suppress it with a system of deep-breathing. As he inhaled, he ran his fingers along the plastic armrest, counting to ten. With every exhalation he scratched his chewed nails on the jagged edges of sundry burns, willfully accomplished with cigarettes, no doubt, by drunken barbarians. Mother wouldn't have liked that, he thought, recalling what a stickler she was for neatness, how she would toss into the bin anything marred by cuts or stains.
Now that he had a chance to study the woman, he saw that the skin on her throat was crinkly, like crepe, like his mother's, and he longed to touch her neck to see if it felt the same. There was an unusual fragrance in the compartment, of spicy perfume mingled with the polluted smell of soiled upholstery. Neither pleasant nor repulsive, simply unusual.
Her thinness intrigued him. How could a modern woman look so haggard when the whole nation was bordering on the obese?
Once again daylight entered the carriage.
As if weary of the view, the woman changed her pose, languidly shuffling round until she faced him, her cream blouse taught against diminutive breasts. Her eyes were moist and her lips trembled slightly, drawing his notice to the lines on her upper lip. A pity the lurking smile had disappeared. He would have liked to see it go. Sweet anticipation set him rocking again; back and forth, a shade faster than before, foreseeing an exhilarating adventure, when she would be as putty in his hands.
Suddenly, the door slid open and a fat-faced man, carting a battered brown suitcase and a bundle of newspapers, barged in like a squall of blubber. Another example of modern living. Without asking if the seat was reserved, he dropped the bundle on the table adjacent to
Having secured the case, he flopped on the seat opposite
Agitatedly plucking the front of his fawn jersey,
It brought a small, involuntary cry to Leonora's lips
And she knew she’d been right to be afraid
She unzipped the inner compartment and flicked through the papers there, but she had no joy. The wallet, containing money and credit cards, was missing. She could only think she must have left it at her daughter's. She leaned back, wondering what on earth she was going to do, so absorbed with her dilemma she failed to adjust the black skirt that had ridden up.
'I'm going to
This smattering of humour went some way to persuading Leonora that he was an approachable individual who might help solve her predicament. Not that she would relish asking a perfect stranger for a loan, yet she couldn't see any alternative. She could hardly walk from
'Well, isn't that just dandy. My luck must be in.'
In his corner, the scrawny little man scowled. His hands twitched in his lap, busy fingers stretching and curling as if he was squeezing an invisible object. It brought a small, involuntary cry to Leonora's lips and she knew she had been right to be afraid. Collectively, the two men arched their heads, but only
'Whatever is it, Ma'am,' he enquired.
Leonora opened her mouth to express her fear but, feeling inanely foolish, she hastily closed it. She felt rather testy, hating to feel intimidated, but the horror of being thought ridiculous prevented her from launching into an unjustified dialogue of complaint. Instead, as calmly as she could, she announced the loss of her wallet, and was relieved to see a token of concern remove the disagreeable glower from the man's contemptible face.
Even the brief glimpse of pale thigh that had so excited
He liked the notion of offering funds, even falsely, but recognized the infeasibility of such a suggestion, reluctantly acknowledging the numerous unwanted problems it would pose. Anyway, to do that he would have to find his voice. He always became incoherent when he was nervous. Words would jumble together in his mouth and emerge in the wrong order. It was the reason he had not engaged the Leonora in conversation. Leonora. As delightful a name as any he'd come across. Most of the casualties in his life had ordinary names:
'You mustn't worry, my dear,'
'Oh, dear,' exclaimed Leonora. 'I've just remembered where I left it.'
At that point
'Thank you so much,
Leonora dropped the lipstick inside the handbag and snapped it shut, offering the explanation almost apologetically, that she had placed the wallet by the mantel clock at her daughter's house while she looked for the ticket for the train. She had been distracted by her grand-daughter insisting she be picked up and nursed. In the event, she had forgotten it.
'Well, there you are,'
She did, after all, live entirely alone.
Not even a dog to defend her
For the rest of the journey
He meddled with the square card he'd rescued from the floor, thrilled that he'd had the sense to pocket it instead of handing it over. Surreptitiously, he glanced at it, scanning an address in
The disclosure that she was going home to an empty house inspired
Leonora peered through the window. She had not liked that last, lengthy tunnel. She had imagined the seedy little man making a grab for her, his heavily veined, dirty hands seizing her by the throat. But
'Travelling light, are you?' boomed
'Here, Leonora, let me help you with your coat,' Godfrey said, readily taking up the crimson garment. Another whiff of spicy fragrance was released as he held it behind her like a matador's cape.
By the time
Ahead, at the entrance to the escalator, he saw Leonora sailing through, her hand resting lightly on
She looked exquisite, standing there.
Mother would have adored her
One eye on
Leonora's polite cough stemmed his thinking and he turned to see her noting the time by her watch. Bygone police practices had driven her predicament completely from his mind. Noticing her anxiousness, he wondered again about the absurdity of giving money to a complete stranger. He'd have been stripped of his stripes if he'd been so daft in the old days. But he had a good feeling about Leonora. He trusted her. And he liked her a lot.
Movements beyond caught his eye. Two constables on the prowl, one redoubtable individual, bearing the hallmark of a long-serving copper, the other innocent and fresh: a slight-framed, bit-of a-kid rookie, just right for tackling the inhuman Arthur Mott should the need arise. 'Excuse me a tick, Leonora,' he said. 'There's a man over there I must have a word with. Will you wait for me here? And don't fret about getting home. I'll order a taxi.' Maintaining covert surveillance on
Hoping her loitering would not be misinterpreted by staff inside the building society, Leonora stood inside the doorway. The area was dreadfully crowded. People dashed in all directions: passengers with suitcases and shoppers lugging bulky plastic bags. She could smell the dampness on people's coats as they hustled by. Rain. And she wasn't wearing a mac. A long-haired mongrel dog of indeterminate parentage paused briefly to sniff a Malteser box, then snorted as if disgusted by its emptiness before scampering on its way.
She had totally lost sight of
His courage rapidly returning,
The crowd had moderated and he had no difficulty keeping tabs on her. She twisted round once, surveying the street. He thought she might have seen him but she was merely monitoring the traffic prior to crossing the road. Not that it mattered if she did see him, he had as much right to be here as she did, but if she saw him now that terminating jolt of bewilderment and incredulity that possessed his victims at the end would be forfeited.
After navigating a course through the queues of buses and taxis waiting at the lights,
She tried to fight the fear,
reasoning that her imagination was playing tricks
Clutching the scarf that refused to stay in place, Leonora followed the window round so that she was concealed from the road, yet her view of it was unimpeded. She had been so sure she was being watched that she needed to check it out. Then she saw that awful man from the train, staring at the site she'd just vacated, not even bothering to mask his interest. She saw him shove his hand inside his grey jacket, lift the scruffy jersey and slowly release a narrow, black leather belt until it hung by its buckle from his waist like a snake waiting to strike.
Alarm bristled like cactus spines, punching a warning at her brain. Beware. She realized she'd been spotted, the odious man was eyeing her through the window, toying with the buckle of his belt. He began to shuffle towards her, his face contorting in a hideous leer. Leonora's panic surged, swelling up like an eruption of boiling lava. She felt she would faint if she didn't get away. She tried to fight the fear, reasoning that her imagination was playing tricks, asking herself why she should feel so threatened, telling herself that nothing could happen to her in a public place. She attempted to pull herself together, relating her consternation to the man's obvious dirty-mindedness, a factor she so abhorred. The reasoning did not work. As
Some passers-by gawked inquiringly, others swerved sharply away. No-one came to her aid.
Leonora's feet were welded to the ground, her knuckles white as she gripped the door handle. He was only yards away, his colourless face distorted, hooked nose almost meeting twisted mouth, pupils enlarged with impatience. As if witnessing something in a dream, Leonora saw him release the belt from the waistband of his trousers. She became mesmerized by a snag in the material running from his fly to his left hand pocket. A drawn thread, looped in places. She heard children laughing in the distance, but couldn't tear her gaze away. The belt swung like a pendulum as he neared.
A youngster begged his mother to look at the strange man with a strap in his hand. He was sharply ordered to come away.
The incident distracted Leonora. Her common sense returned. Shaking her head, she paced back, intending to demand the use of the shop's phone. But she didn’t need it. There was a sudden tableau of flying bodies. Godfrey Hastings and a boyish policeman, brandishing a truncheon, had entered like mounties in a movie, overpowering Arthur and pinning him to the slippery ground.
Godfrey didn’t shout, he merely said, 'Got you, Arthur Mott,' as he hauled the puny man to his feet, thrusting him at the young officer, who quick as lightning slapped handcuffs on the man's wrist. Arthur squealed like stuck pig as he struggled within the policeman's grasp. Leonora trembled, her relief so heartfelt she was sapped of all her strength.
Later, in a coffee shop, sheltered from the world and its psychopaths, Godfrey's hand covering hers, Leonora listened to Godfrey outlining Arthur Mott's criminal history, though he benevolently apportioned blame to Arthur's mother: an overweight, oversexed woman with cross-grained chromosomes. According to
Leonora quaked, remembering the earnest scrutiny on the train, those rheumy eyes, the twitching hands and fingers that curled, guessing he had decided to kill her. It would have been so easy to overpower her and wrap his hands around her throat. The reality of the situation eluded her as she imagined how easily he could have overpowered her when she was hedged in that doorway. No-one would have taken any heed. Others had been killed in broad daylight. She shook as the horror recurred of that awful, insane moment when she was sure she was going to die. It took a while for her mind to clear and to realise that such a thing couldn’t happen in a public place.
'Now, dear lady,'
Leonora blushed as she regarded him, loving his style and liking what she saw, admiring the friendly blue eyes and the blonde lashes that fanned his cheeks when he blinked. Was it possible they had only met that day? The image of Arthur Mott slowly crumbled as the prospect of running her fingers through the tight spirals of hair filled her soul, the need to unwind one and watch it spring back into place so essential it was like a pleasant pain. She was comfortable in his company; she thought she could be snug and protected in his bountiful arms. 'I'll try to put the bad bits behind me,
Composed and unemotional,
(Sequel to follow next week)