A STUDY IN CERISE (3/7)

He thought he might walk down to the village, same as yesterday. It was a fifteen minute walk away, down the hotel drive, turn left onto the main road and then just plod as the traffic rushed past. He supposed this was the country, but not the interesting sort with rolling hills and woodland. The village was disappointing too. Rather than village green, horse troughs and quaint old inns, it had a junior school, a grim, flat-faced pub with a weedy car-park called The Black Swan and a second hand shop which sold rusty mangles; salt and pepper sets in little glass holders; bisque dolls with broken faces; plastic popper beads and thin gold rings from dead old ladies’ dressing tables; books about the Nazis, and celebrities who died twenty five years ago. Yesterday he had gone in there and bought a string of black and white beads. He didn’t know why. He was bored, and they were black and white, and there was something about black and white that interested him. Like chessboards. The man said they were a sixties throwback.

People were always saying stuff to Charles which he felt he ought to understand but didn’t quite. Had the beads belonged to a sixty-year old lady who – in her devil-may-care youth, perhaps – had been in the habit of ‘throwing them back’ over her shoulder? Or perhaps they were the sort of necklace ladies wore dangling down the back of low-backed evening dresses, often with a knot in the middle? That was a possibility, but these beads were extremely large and clunky. If you ‘threw them back’ surely it would be painful when they landed. For want of anywhere else to put it, he had put it in his evidence drawer.

Today he was heading for the village’s only other attraction – the minimart, which sold chocolate bars and interesting items like tap nozzles, skipping rope handles, boxes of golden safety pins, pencils with erasers on the end (did anyone write with a pencil nowadays?) and Sudoku quiz books in recycled paper. It was run by an unhappy Asian lady and her ancient, equally unhappy mother. Even when giving change or putting stuff in plastic bags the two women’s eyes never entirely unglued themselves from the tiny TV set beside the counter, within which cavorted pretty Asian ladies with many bangles and smirking Asian gentlemen in white robes, round and round big trees, in colourful parks and so forth, singing the whole while but never quite getting round to kissing one another.

By the time he reached the outskirts of the village a chill breeze had sprung up, and a large grey-black cloud had appeared overhead. Charles decided to take a short cut over the village ‘rec’. He had discovered yesterday that this was a short cut to the main street with its handful of uninteresting shops.

The recreation ground had no children in it. This time of day, of course, they would be in school since unlike him they had not been given half a week off for a wedding (smirk!). A row of three swings swayed half-heartedly in the breeze; an ornamental flower-bed displayed it rows of purple and yellow pansies like soldiers on parade to nobody in particular and a red and yellow slide was collecting a sheen of raindrops as the grey-black cloud began to do as it had threatened.

Charles had been so sure the park was empty that didn’t spot them straight away: two young men sitting on a bench in the far corner, somewhat overhung by a silver birch tree. Charles deduced at once that this was the sort of bench people would normally avoid on account of where it was. When the sun was blazing down there would be insufficient shade from that excuse for a tree; and when, as now, the sun went in, it would be a dank, chilly spot. Charles didn’t take much notice at first. His gaze was unfocussed, for he was still pondering the problem of the throwback beads. He did notice that one young man was dark, almost swarthy, the other fair. And then something odd happened. For a moment Charles didn’t think it odd, and then it came home to him, that the dark one, whose arm rested along the top of the bench, had just leant towards the fair one and they had ‘almost kissed’ exactly like the Indian couples in the film. But of course that couldn’t be right. It was just this dim grey light, like you get when it’s trying to rain.

And then the fair man looked up, and both men spotted him. And then, oh horrors, they were calling him over. And then, oh no, he realised who it was he had been staring at this past minute. The fair one was Christina’s fiancé Patrick, and the dark one was one of the wedding waiters. He had seen the dark, swarthy chap in the dining room this morning. They had been having some sort of rehearsal for the Big Day; this one had caught Charles’ attention because he was swarthier than the rest, and grim-faced, a bit scary-looking. In a few microseconds Charles escalated from feeling rather stupid to feeling rather clever, as one realisation after another rained down on him. Now, suddenly, he also knew that the waiter had to be Jorge, the weird Brazilian. He was just so weird-Brazilian-looking. Unmistakeable, and too much of a coincidence. Perhaps Jorge hadn’t been invited, but followed Patrick down from London anyway, getting himself taken on as a temporary waiter, just to be able to share in the wedding experience.

They were gesturing for him to come over. Automatically he started towards them. No reason to run away, after all; not as if he’d done anything wrong, apart from accidentally spotting them almost-kissing, which they couldn’t have been doing anyway. So why did he feel so much like running away? And the next minute he was running away, across the rec and into the village, not looking round to check if they were following him, just heading for the minimarket. They couldn’t do anything to him in there, he reasoned, thinking of all those little stacks of baked bean and soup tins. Not without knocking stuff over, and not without the Indian ladies witnessing – whatever.

Once inside, he made for his favourite bit at the back, the bit with the plastic gadgets and the outdated stationery items. Already weird Jorge’s menacing face had begun to fade from his memory. He risked a sideways glance through the shop window. No sign of them. Probably they hadn’t seen him come in – he was running quite fast. Maybe they hadn’t followed him at all. It was probably nothing, he thought, picking up a glossy green exercise book and puzzling over the word Avoirdupois on its glossy green back. It had complicated-looking tables of Weights and Measures too. What were rods, poles and perches, he wondered. Were they the same thing, and if so why?

They probably only wanted to ask me the time or offer me an extra-strong mint, he told himself. He bought the exercise book. The tiny Indian ladies and gentlemen were still dancing round trees in the tiny TV, singing away. The Indian lady watching them looked even unhappier than yesterday.

‘Maybe you should get out for a walk every now and again,’ he suggested kindly. I have read that fresh air and daylight are good for your mood. It’s the ultra violet.’ She did not look up. Silly of me, he thought. She probably doesn’t speak English. I wonder what she does speak. Would it be Hindi or Urdu or one of the others? He recently discovered on Wikipedia that there are a hundred and twenty-two major languages in India. How could you fit all those languages into one country, even a big one? Britain had only Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Cornish – and nobody much spoke them, except Welsh. He suspected even the Welsh didn’t really understand what they were saying. It was just something they pretended to be speaking to annoy English tourists about, the equivalent of rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb, carrots and peas, watermelon cantaloupe, watermelon cantaloupe’ and natter natter (to which the appropriate reply is grommish, grommish) that actors make when they are pretending to be crowds. Charles spent a lot of time on Wikipedia playing a game of his own invention, codename: WikiDip.

He decided not to return to the hotel via the recreation ground, all the same. The sun had come out again; no need for short cuts. Patrick and weird Jorge were probably on their way back to the hotel by now. It was getting on for evening and Jorge must be due back on shift soon. But just in case.

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