The Leaves Are Turning Brown – Chapter 16

Thursday morning comes around. I haven’t been to the lab in days, but a brief text to my colleagues and a slightly longer email to my boss and it’s sorted.  I’m lucky that I have the kind of position where the ends justifies the means.  I text Jules a simple message asking if we can meet up, then sit back for the agonising wait.

I know Jules will be at work, diligently early, as usual.  She has a job unlike mine, where her presence is the main yardstick of performance.  I used to have jobs like that, where they require you to wear a suit, just to answer the telephone to customers. Hellish.  It’s probably been 3 years since I wore a shirt tucked into trousers, let alone smart shoes.

Lying in bed I picture Jules at her desk, typing and sorting, a thin smile on her face to show that she is not only present, but also deeply focussed on her work.   She hasn’t told me that much about her work, passing it off as inconsequential to her life outside.  It’s mid-morning and she may not check her phone for a while. I put some music on and pick up a book, pretending to read the paragraphs and dialogue laid out, my mind constantly trying not to think about my phone.

I feel the mild buzz of my phone, silently alerting me.  My mind tells me to relax, it’s probably just a spammy email, or work-related message, my internal voice speaking over the inner voice hoping it’s a message from Jules.

The message is from Jules, so I jubilantly open it and read it quickly.  “Who is this? Please stop texting me, I’m very busy and important, and also a bit grumpy about being ignored all week! 😉 x”.

I can’t help but smile and appreciate the comedy, the comical way she has broached the communication standard she expects at this juncture in the relationship.  I text her back quickly, trying to maintain the pretence of conversation over text.

“Oh no, who could possibly ignore you all week? What a terrible person.  Could we meet so you can give me a detailed description, then I will hunt this person down and teach them a lesson in manners. x”

It takes a few minutes for her reply to come in, which is ample time for me to whip myself up into a frenzy of excitement.  I’m such a child sometimes, and consciously try to reign my boyish fantasies in, and pull myself back to reality.

“Half-day today – meet me at lunch outside the office and I’ll prepare a photofit of the bastard”.

Good enough, I think to myself, that’s just what I was hoping for.  I check the clock, plenty of time to wash and get ready.  I don’t get up right away though. Remaining on my bed I watch a series of glimmers appear and move off.  I’ve become quite used to seeing these ‘other me’ people wandering off and doing things I should, or could, do.  Most of these glimmers are grabbing towels and toiletries and heading out the door, in a slightly different order.  It’s fun to watch, and I’m getting better at picking a glimmer and focusing on them, letting the other glimmers dim and fade out of view.  To look at one particular glimmer takes some focus, and if I were to blink I would lose it to the background, seeing it fade as the others almost disappear.  I still don’t know what is happening to me, or whether I am quite insane, but I’m enjoying this journey.

Showered and clean, fresh clothes and brushed hair, I head out down the stairs and into the lunchtime traffic near my flat.  Jules works just up the road, but it’s a cool day and I jump on the bus, standing downstairs and watching the world blur by from the window.  I feel a little euphoric, which could be the release of sanity and the pressure being mentally stable brings, or it could be that I’m going to see Jules. Either way it’s a happy state to be in, here on the bus, and I don’t feel any of the darkness closing in on me.  The bus rumbles along the road, stopping a few times, with a hiss of the air-brakes each time we stop.  I see her office coming into view, a small squat block that looks like it was unimportant in the 60’s when they built it.  The overarching theme of this building is “grey”.  Grey walls, grey-tinted windows, grey artwork in the foyer and grey people in suits, coming and going all day.  I’m not a colourful person, but have at least a few bits of red, green, yellow and blue on my clothes today.

Stepping down from the bus I suddenly feel an anxiety coming on.  What’s the etiquette for saying hello to Jules.  Is a hug too little, but is a kiss too much? What’s the middle ground? Should I kiss her hand? No, not that.  I’m walking towards the sliding grey doors and I see her coming though the grey reception.  She has at least donned a bit of colour, in the red shirt she’s wearing under her grey jacket.  It’s the only way I can see her in the darkened, grey building.  She comes outside and immediately starts walking toward me.  As she reaches me she slaps my arm. “Idiot”.

Not the greeting I was expecting, in all my predictions from the bus stop to here.  I’m not sure how to react, so pull a hasty, ill-formed, drawl of a smile.  She puts her arms around me in a full-body hug.  My mouth and nose are filled with the smell of her hair and perfume, her chin is resting on my right shoulder, and I lose all sense of being in this world.  Even the hiss of more bus brakes just behind us doesn’t disturb me.  She turns her head slightly to the side and kisses my face. I attempt to turn and kiss her neck, but am so covered in her hair that I kiss a lock, and then I pull back, trying to release the hair from my lips before we pull fully apart.  There are a few strands that refuse to leave my lips, and she tucks her hair behind her ear to pull them off.  I smile at her, a little goofy, and I hope it’s a nice smile.  She has a great smile.  She takes my hand and pulls me away, up the pavement, towards town. I follow behind her, like a good puppy, wagging my tail and skipping along, happy to be lead anywhere by this lovely hand on mine.

A few hundred metres up the road, we’re walking almost side by side now, she’s still leading me when she turns suddenly into a little cafe.  She smiles at the man behind the counter and takes a seat by the wall.  This place is a typical greasy spoon, formica tables and plastic chairs, laminated menus and plenty of pictures of food.  I haven’t been to one in such a long time; the majority of cafes like this have been gentrified into bistro’s, coffee shops and organic vegan seed bars.  I like the feel of the seat and the shimmer of the menu under the strip lighting.  I look over and Jules is grinning widely at me.  “So, what’re you having?” she asks nodding towards the menu in my hand.  I can’t decide if this is a test.  If I order a full english will she be impressed, or disgusted?  Is this a date? If so, I have to be careful about what I eat or drink, so as not to give the wrong impression of being a caveman.

“Full english, chips, no tomato, extra egg. And a diet coke”.  I speak the words before really making a final decision, but they’re out now, and I scrutinise her face for a reaction, good or bad.  She laughs, tapping my hand with hers briefly.

“Good call, same here.” She goes up  to the counter and has a relaxed chat with the guy there, who jots down our orders. Coming back over with the diet coke and two small glass tumblers, she’s still smiling.  I feel great, like all the cares and worries of the week are far away, outside this place.

The food arrives really quickly, but looks delicious, and not too greasy.  I look over at her plate, she has two grilled tomato-halves. I look up and she looks at me.

“My egg for your tomato, deal done”.

I laugh and tuck in, working with methodical attention in the combination of egg, bacon and chip, then beans, chip and mushroom, then just egg.  I have always loved the various combinations one can make with a fried breakfast, and also what to avoid.  I usually insist, for example, that my beans should be as far as possible from the eggs, and am happily relieved when I see they are at opposite ends of the plate without request.

As we eat I catch up on her week, since we said goodbye on Saturday. She had to catch up on some work on Sunday, and then has had a rubbish few days at work.  She reiterates the joke about being ignored by this twit she saw at the weekend.  I tell her she should choose her new friends more wisely, and it’s no surprise she attracts weirdo’s with her smile.  She feigns offence and we laugh again.  I am impressed by the similar methodology she has for eating her fry-up, and nicely relieved that we are eating at the same pace.

She asks me about my week and what I’ve been up to since I left her flat.  I tell her about Sunday, regaling her with my philosophical musings on double-bed dynamics, and she giggles.  I tell her about not going into work, but that it’ll be ok.  I skirt around the subject of what has happened over the last few days, aware that we need to relax in each other’s company a bit more before I lay into the weirdness.  We finish up our lunch, wiping the bean and egg juices up with the last of the chips.  I put my cutlery down hard and declare myself the winner. My reward is picking up the bill.

After a moment to relax and enjoy the full feeling, warm and sated, we rise and head out the door, paying and thanking the chef as we walk out.  She grabs my hand and leads me down a small alley, coming out into a garden square with a pub just on the side.  We go in and I get us drinks while she finds a table. She’s already mocked me for being an ale drinker, so I get her a little umbrella and a straw for her white wine. She laughs as I bring it over.  She’s picked a good table, in the corner, sitting across diagonally on one corner, with a good view of the pub.  I wonder if she has the same problems I do with public places, but dismiss it and notice it was just the quietest bit of the pub. Sitting here with her I feel the whole last few days wash away from my consciousness. I haven’t seen a glimmer since this morning, so am pretty sure I’m on the right path.

Her hair, almost auburn in this light, sits around her neck in a beautiful mess. She wears it neat at work, but as we left her office she shook her head just a little and tangled her hair in clumps.  Sitting here now in this lower light the few gaps open a highly seductive view of the side and front of her neck, and my eyes drift down to the top closed button of her shirt.  I worry she sees me looking at her in this way and quickly bring my eyes up to hers.  They are staring back at me, and she giggles.  I get up to fetch more drinks, another round of the same, and begin to feel like now is the right time to discuss the events leading me here today, and what I am seeing.  I haven’t known this girl long, but it feels so intimate to be around her, like we can share anything.

When I get back to the table she’s looking at me a little perplexed.  I ask what’s up and she looks behind me at towards the bar.

“Do you know that guy?” she asks adding a small upward nod to indicate who she was talking about. I look around and am about to reply no, but then something, maybe the light bouncing off the door that is just swinging closed, illuminates the bar for second.  I do recognise the man, he was one of the men who chased me to the train, one of the men who took me to see that mad woman.

“We’ve got to go, now.” I say, all humour leaving my voice, and I slightly worry myself that it sounds disingenuous and false.  Jules looks at me with the hint of a smile, I can see she’s trying to work out if I’m joking.  She can see I’m not.

“Ok, get your stuff and take a sip of your drink.  I’m going to walk toward the loo, then duck out the front door.  You run after me, as if I’m running from you, ok?” She looks dead into my eyes and makes sure I understand every word she’s just said.  She takes a sip, smiles and mouths her excuses, then gets up with her bag and walks slowly towards the ladies.  At the last moment she ducks left and out the door.  I stand, almost knocking my chair over, and start for the door.  The guy at the bar seems calm as I watch him from the corner of my eye.  I’m nearly at the door and then I see a glimmer run towards the man, lunging wildly.  I don’t stop to see what happens but just back into the door, spinning through the doorway. I see Jules over the road, and start running toward her.  We run down the road in the opposite direction of the alley we came in by.  We are running and her hair is blowing in the wind.  I forget myself for a moment and watch her, as if in slow motion, running down this small back street.  My feet keep pace with her and I’ll feel my lungs burn. It’s been a while since I ran like this.  I turn to look behind me and see nothing but parked cars, dotted down the right hand side of the road.  I feel my sleeve tug and Jules pulls me around a corner, down another small alley, out towards the river.  We come around another corner and meet the towpath, with people milling about as always here.  We slow to a walk, both panting but trying to hide it.  I take in big deep breaths and blow them out. She recovers much quicker than me, and I realise she is far fitter. We walk down the river for about 10 minutes, until we are near a busy area for tourists, where we can blend in more easily. Jules knows the area better than me, so she leads on, finding a small bar that we enter, and take up position at the windows, looking out for any sign of the man.  Jules goes to the bar to get us some drinks, and laughs when she brings them back.

“I think we’ve burned the calories to write these off, don’t you think?”.  I laugh, nodding agreement.  I’m still a little out of breath, but can feel everything returning to normal.  I really don’t feel anxious, like Jules has an aura of safety around her.  She could lead me into fire or war and I’d follow her there without question.  I look over at her, noticing a thin layer of glistening sweat on her brow, and smile warmly.

“Do you know them? Why are they after you?” she asks, looking straight at me, making me feel nervous that I have to tell her now, right now, and in full.  Before I left home I had decided to tell her a limited amount of detail of my week, but since we ran from the pub, it became clear I had to tell her everything.  I don’t know where to start, or how to put the words into my mouth. I take a deep long sip of my beer, relishing each moment the glass utilises my lips, preventing me from talking.  I can hear the thoughts in my head trying to put everything in the right order, but I don’t know where I should start.