strong dark espresso
A group of us arrived together. We were the Christmas volunteers at a homeless shelter in east London. Easy for me, I thought. Third time, this is. I didn’t have anything else to do but many of them were using up holiday leave so that they could help out at the shelter’s busiest time of the year.
‘Hello, I’m Diana,’ she said, beaming a smile that lit up the room.
‘Hi, I’m Kevin.’
My voice sounded quiet, unsure, small yet in my head those three words were booming in time to my heartbeat. I knew from that very moment that she was special, a magnet I’d be unable to resist. What I didn’t know then, though, was how this girl would change my life for ever.
‘It’s my first time at volunteering so I’m all yours. Just tell me what to do,’ she said.
For the next five days, Diana and I were inseparable. We decorated the community hall with gaudy foil decorations, served Christmas lunches to over three hundred homeless guests and organised entertainment for after the present-giving. Who would have thought that well spoken girl would have been such an expert in making balloon animals?
‘The little ones I look after love it when we make these,’ Diana explained, transforming two long orange balloons into a squeaky recognisable dachshund. ‘Did I tell you I work as a nanny?’
I was sure she didn’t need to work as a nanny. She rarely gave much away about her private life but from her accent and a few hints about where she went to school and what her home was like, I knew our backgrounds couldn’t be further apart. I was being drawn into her net, becoming obsessed. Diana’s was the last face I saw when I went to sleep and the first I saw when I opened my eyes to begin another day. Yet, she had no idea the effect she had on me …or did she? The way she looked at me coyly and the way she leaned her head on one side running her hand through her cropped blonde hair made me wonder whether she was playing with my feelings. There could be no future for us, I knew that.
‘I can’t believe this is all coming to an end,’ I said.
Diana just smiled and I knew, then, I would never be able to say good-bye for good.
The end did come and we exchanged mobile phone numbers, promising to text each other.
‘Perhaps we can meet for a coffee sometime?’
‘Maybe,’ Diana said, without much conviction.
A lump formed in my throat as I watched her almost break into a jog as she left the building for the last time.
‘Perhaps I’ll see you next year, Kev,’ she shouted, without a backward glance.
It was as if now the Christmas period was over and her charity work was at an end, she would go back to her privileged lifestyle and forget all about me. What’s happened to the compassionate vibrant girl who made the guests feel so at ease? I thought. What about the girl with the infectious giggle who made me feel on top of the world? Was I part of her ‘ease-my conscience’ plan too? Well, she hadn’t got rid of me as easily as that.
I went back to the pokey flat I shared with my mother. She was pleased to see me at least, so she said, but soon started nagging again.
‘What’s up, Kevin? You’ve been moping around getting under my feet ever since you got back from that shelter.’
‘Leave off, Ma,’ I said. ‘What’s your problem?’
‘Charity begins at home, I say. You went swanning off to help them homeless without thinking that yer nearest and dearest was ‘ere all on ‘er lone-some over Christmas. I don’t know what the attraction was.’
Well, you’ve hit the nail on the head, there, Ma, I thought. The attraction was in the form of a beautiful young girl I just can’t get out of my mind.
‘It’s about time you got out there and tried to get yourself sorted. A job for starters,’ she said, droning on. ‘That way, you could start paying your way in this place. Plus, you may get something resembling a social life too instead of staying in night after night.’
I glared at my mother and stormed out to my room. You don’t have to rub it in, Ma. What had I got to offer Diana, anyway? I had no job, no money, no friends. I would put her out of my mind and forget all about her. Well, that was my plan anyway.
I lasted a week before I texted.
‘Hi, Diana. Hope u r ok. Missing u. Luv Kev.’ I hesitated before adding XX, then pressed ‘send’.
Nothing came back. I suppose I expected an answer back straightaway.
I pressed ‘Resend’.
And so began my pursuit of the one girl who’d made me feel so special. We hadn’t kissed, we hadn’t even touched apart from that first handshake and the odd brush against each other but without Diana I felt empty inside. I called her mobile.
‘Hello. Who is this?’
‘Umm, Kevin? I don’t think I know a Kevin.’
I felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach.
‘Kevin. Kevin Smith. We met at the shelter. You gave me your number.’
‘Oh, that Kevin. Hi.’ At the other end, Diana’s voice changed. Her words became more clipped, as if I was taking up precious minutes of her time. ‘What do you want?’
‘I just wondered how you were. It’s been a week and I’ve missed you. Do you think we could meet for that coffee we talked about?’ My hand was shaking and I knew I sounded pathetic. How could one person have an effect on me like this?
‘The coffee you talked about, you mean. I don’t think so. I mean, it was jolly good fun at the shelter and all that, but that was it. Move on, I say, and put it down to doing our bit of good-will for those pooor people. Bye.’
I was left looking at my silent mobile wondering if I’d heard correctly. Surely she couldn’t just dismiss me like that? How dare she?
I began phoning several times a day after that but she never answered again. Either the phone was picked up and immediately switched off or it went straight to answer-phone.
‘Hi, you’ve reached Di. I can’t take your call at the moment. Please leave your message and phone number after the tone and I’ll get back to you.’
But she never did. I left message after message telling her how I felt. It was hopeless.
I started using my mother’s phone when she was out at Bingo. She never remembered to take it with her. I rang Diana’s number and waited to hear her voice.
I was unable to answer, so shocked at hearing her voice once again. I pressed the off button and re-dialled.
‘Hello. Who is this?’
I cut her off again. Her voice sounded more anxious that time. I carefully pressed each of the digits and waited for the dialling tone.
‘Who’s there? Just say something.’
But I didn’t. I just held the phone close to my mouth, knowing she would hear every breath.
‘Who are you? What do you want? Who are you, you perv? GET OFF MY LINE!’ This time she cut me off.
I waited a month before phoning again. Ma was in bed and I rang Diana’s number at two in the morning. She took what seemed like an age to pick up. She hadn’t blocked the number, then.
‘Hello.’ Her voice was husky and each syllable was sleepily monotone.
I exhaled a long breath and whispered, ‘No one rejects me. Ever. You’ll live to regret it.’
Diana’s scream pierced my ear before the silence of being cut off brought me to my senses. What have you just done, you stupid man? I thought. She’ll know it’s you now. What if she contacts the police? You’ll be charged with harassment. They’ll trace your mother’s phone. You love Diana, for God’s sake. Why terrify the poor girl?
I decided not to contact Diana again and life returned to tedious regularity. I managed to get a job packing boxes so at least my mother was happy about that. I got up each morning went to the factory, came home, ate my dinner and then spent every evening alone in my room.
‘I don’t know what you do in there,’ Ma said. ‘All I hear is that awful music, pounding away. It’s as if the ceiling’s going to cave in.’
I got up and left the table, making my way into the hallway.
‘Not healthy.’ I heard her say. ‘Not healthy at all.’
It was no good. I couldn’t get Diana out of my head no matter how hard I tried. Even the ‘awful music’ my mother detested was full of melancholy with lyrics about lovers being spurned by beautiful girls, girls who discarded suitors like unwanted rubbish. I began to see her face everywhere, or so I thought. I was being pulled and sucked into a vacuum, where I couldn’t breathe, with Diana at the centre. If only I could find out where she lived so that I could see her in person just one more time, then I’d leave her alone, I told myself.
A voice pounded in my head.
‘She told you where she lived. Don’t you remember? Not the actual address but the area. Don’t you remember how she laughed when you let out that long whistle?’
I did remember. The properties in that area of South Kensington were worth millions but she assured me that she and two friends were ‘just renting’. I remember jotting it down on the back of the information pack the people at the shelter had provided when we’d arrived. I rummaged through the discarded pile of papers in the corner of the room and found was what I was looking for. My heart raced in my chest. I knew that one final sighting of Diana was all I needed to get over her, once and for all, and by finding that address, it was there in my grasp.
I started missing work. I’d leave at the normal time but would take a tube across London getting off at Gloucester Road station and wander round the nearby streets searching out the names. Stanhope Gardens, that was it. I remembered her saying it sounded as if she lived in a garden not a street. I walked up and down peering in all the windows especially the basements where I could see right inside the rooms. The white houses there were very grand with square bay windows and steps up to each front door but some had separate entrances to basement flats.
It was a particularly wet day in August when I spotted Diana for the first time since I’d started searching. I was on the point of going home after yet another wasted journey and was sheltering from the rain under a bus shelter. The number 49 bus drew up and a group of three girls got off, armed with bags of shopping. I’d know that giggle anywhere, I thought. My heart started racing and I shifted to the corner of the shelter to avoid being seen. I put my hood up, pulling it forward over my face, then followed Diana and her friends along the street. They crossed over and disappeared down the steps to a basement. I made a note of the number and stood to the side looking down in on them.
I knew then I’d be back. In the dark. I could watch all her comings and goings from the gardens opposite. Before leaving the street, I used my new phone and dialled Diana’s number.
‘Hi, Di speaking.’ (‘Ooooh, Di speaking.’ Someone taunted and giggled in the background.) ‘Shut up,’ Diana said. ‘Oh, not you, sorry.’
I took a deep breath, exhaled and said, ‘I know where you live. I can see you. I’ll be back.’
Why had I just done that? I imagined the scene in the flat. Diana would be shaking with fear, I was sure. Maybe hysterical. Her friends would be comforting her, sympathising, offering to check the street perhaps, insisting she rings the police. I knew I had to get away and fast. I was taking a risk just being in the vicinity. Hadn’t I told myself that I wanted to see her one more time and then I’d leave her alone? Yet here I was, getting in deeper and deeper. She was my drug. The more I had, the more I wanted and I couldn’t stop.
I left it a few days until I went again. It was a Thursday night. I walked up the street. It was dusk and I saw that the flat was in darkness. I sat in the gardens opposite and waited and waited. There were plenty of people around to begin with, using the path around the fountain in the centre as a short-cut between streets. When darkness descended completely and it got later and later, past midnight, the gardens became deserted, quite spooky in fact. The light from the only street lamp was blocked by the full leaf of the trees. It was a place of shadows and two female voices carried clearly through the night air. I was in luck; one of them belonged to Diana. I made my way through the blackness to the opening on the other street.
‘I’ll be fine. It’s only a minute or so through here,’ I heard Diana say. ‘It takes absolutely yonks to go all the way round. I’ll be fine as long as that saddo who keeps ringing me isn’t around.’
You shouldn’t joke about things like that, Di. You didn’t think it was a joke last week, did you? Annabel told me how upset you were. They were on the verge of ringing the police. Why did you put them off? And another thing, how did he know your number?’
‘I think it’s a guy I met at the shelter last Christmas. He was besotted with me. My fault; I did rather play up to him. You know what I’m like. He’s completely harmless.’
‘Well, if you’re sure.’ The two young women embraced and Diana made her way along the path.
She was a couple of yards in front of me.
‘Saddo, am I? Harmless am I?’ I said, in a low whisper.
She turned round, her mouth open, eyes wide. ‘Oh my God, who’s there? Kevin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?’
‘Nobody turns me away. Nobody leads me on and then dumps me.’ I grabbed her arm and pulled her towards me, twisting it up behind her back and dragging her into the gloom of the trees.
‘Kevin, you’re hurting me. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have flirted with you. It was only a bit of fun. I’m always doing it. Just let me go, pleeeeease!’
I could taste the fear in her eyes and I hated myself for it but there was no turning back.
It was starting to get light and somehow I knew I had to get away from there. I couldn’t remember what had happened but I had a feeling of terror, my heart was thudding in my chest. It was more a denial that I couldn’t even admit to myself, I suppose. I left the gardens behind and walked back to the tube station. My eyes darted everywhere.
On reaching the flat, I fumbled to turn the key in the lock and let myself in.
‘That you, Kevin? You dirty stop out. Why didn’t you tell me you were staying out all night? Some girl eh?’ My mother’s voice shouted from the living room. ‘Hey, d’ya know what date it is? Ten years to the day that poor Diana died. It’s all over the news. Look at all them flowers people left. Aw, so sad. I don’t believe it was an accident though, do you?’
I steadied myself against the hall door, shaking uncontrollably. Diana. Yes, she died. My hand made its way into my jacket pocket. I felt the cold steel blade inside. No, no accident, Ma. The blade felt sticky.
Yes, I remember now. I started to sob and reached for my phone.
‘Kevin. You alright, love?’ said Ma.
About the author
Jan is a fiction writer living in Cardiff, Jan regularly submits short stories to magazines and competitions. Several have been published on Alfie Dog Fiction and Cafe Lit. A member of RNA's New Writers' Scheme 2016, she is in the process of submitting her first novel to agents and publishers. www.janbaynham.blogspot.co.uk