By Carol Stone
She arrives at Paddington on the District line. Well-worn suede shoes, lace-ups, a shade of blue-grey with a thick flat sole. She is a stranger to this line. From where I sit it’s always the shoes I notice first. The polished city brogues, shiny patent stilettos, athletic sneakers. I’ve seen them all but never shoes quite like hers.
Amidst the rushing bodies she stands on the platform, the map she holds turning this way and that. Beneath the rim of her knitted hat, wisps of caramel hair protrude which float wildly as the air is sucked through the tunnel. Brushing it from her eyes she glances around, confusion on her face. Then my watching eyes meet hers and a smile comes my way, not fearful or sympathetic but the genuine kind not usually reserved for the likes of me. Momentarily I forget myself, forget where and who I am. Then a man rushes by, kicking my feet, sharply returning me to reality. I burrow down into my sleeping bag, hoping she won’t be there when I next brave a peek. Except the suede clad feet are already heading my way. Before long they are beside me.
She kneels, giving me her smile again that on closer scrutiny sits beneath a pretty freckled nose. “Excuse me, sorry to bother you but would you know the best route to Northwick Park? Apparently the Bakerloo line is down and I’m new to the tubes. It’s all so confusing.” She wafts the map, shrugs her shoulders.
The respect she shows is touching. Sitting upright I take my arms from beneath the cover of my bed and point to direct her. “Go through the tunnel over there to the left. Take the yellow Circle Line to Baker Street then change to the purple Metropolitan line. That’ll get you to Northwick.”
She beams. “Thank you very much for your help.” Her hand disappears inside her bag to reappear seconds later with coins in its outstretched palm. It’s a hot meal or a charity shop pullover to fend off the threat of hypothermia. Usually I would oblige, even when it’s money thrown at me or given with a sneer under the pressure of guilt. Beggars cannot be choosers as the saying goes. Yet for some reason I cannot take this woman’s money. “No thank you,” I say as I gently push the coin-containing hand away.
A gentle pat upon my shoulder, then she’s gone. The uplifting encounter, if somewhat brief, is consigned to my memory. I revel in the unfamiliar lightness of my heart until the growls of hunger beckon. I search my pockets, maybe fifty pence but definitely not enough. Her coins would have come in handy. Still, Harry may have saved yesterdays pastries.
I scratch at the wound on my thigh then ease from my bed, catching sight of the wallet lying on the cold floor as I stand. A wad of notes, a pack of postage stamps and a photograph of the woman- Emma Tate – are what I find within. On further investigation a debit card, its PIN scribbled on the reverse in black permanent ink. It’s a treasure trove, a pot of gold at the end of that ever elusive rainbow, a means of starting afresh. Without haste I roll up my bed, squeeze it into the backpack I used during my time in North Africa and the Middle East and I head for Harry’s, her wallet safely concealed within the inside pocket of my backpack.
Slowly I limp through the station. I’m yards from Harry’s stall when I see Emma step up to his counter, drawing an instant grin upon the old mans face as she greets him with that smile. My legs grind to a halt. I watch from that short distance as they strike up conversation whilst Harry operates his beverage machine.
Two steaming cups are placed upon the counter. Harry alternates between rubbing his hands together and patting his arms, trying to ward off the vicious January chill as he waits for payment. Without hesitation she unwinds the thick woollen scarf from her neck and pulls the hat from her head. Tugging the hat down over Harry’s ears and wrapping the scarf around his wrinkly neck, she places a kiss on the ecstatic mans cheek. Then she ferrets in her bag. Embarrassment, then horror swiftly follows. I make for Harry’s stall as quickly as the wound allows, retrieving the wallet from my backpack as I go.
“You dropped this.” I hold out the wallet which could have provided a fresh start at her expense. I won’t deny it crossed my mind but again I couldn’t take from her. “I’d have handed it in to the police if I hadn’t run into you again.”
Tears sit on her lower eyelids. “Thank you so much.” No suspicion, no accusatory glare. She doesn’t even bother to check the contents.
Harry refuses Emma’s offer of payment. She takes the cups from the counter and holds one out to me. “I was about to bring you tea for helping me earlier but it seems I owe you another favour. What’s your name?”
I wave away her offer. “Tea is payment enough. And it’s Dan.”
She beckons to one of Harry’s tables. “Sit with me, Dan.” Harry, looking like an Eskimo in his newly acquired outfit nods his encouragement and plates up yesterday’s pastries. The microwave whirs as my breakfast is warmed and I join Emma at the table where we sip tea together. Drink and company are comforting and I take pleasure from both, from the simple things that I once took for granted.
“Here you go.” Harry hands me yesterday’s pastries. “Left over apple pie, too.” His grin is practically toothless.
“I appreciate it, Harry. Nice woollies by the way.”
He laughs. “That’s an extra round of washing up young man!” Harry attends to a waiting customer. It isn’t usual I sit at his tables yet he seems not to care that I may put off the punters.
“You seem so young, Dan” she says, concern in those clear emerald eyes. “To be here, I mean.”
Answers to such a question never come easily, if at all. “Twenty eight,” I say and leave it there. She doesn’t need to know about the bloody combat or the gunshot wound on my thigh. It only brings sympathy, a sentiment I don’t want. I chose the life of a soldier and I’ll live with its consequences. My only wish since ending up here was to be acknowledged as a human being despite my ragtag clothing and unkempt hair. Today, it seems, I have been granted that wish tenfold.
I offer Emma the apple pie. She accepts my invitation with a smile, genuine, not sympathetic. It tells me I don’t need to say anymore because she already knows. She’s read what is so blatantly written all over my face.
Lowering my eyes, I gesture with my fork. “I like your shoes. I’ve never seen anything quite like those before and from where I sit it’s always the shoes I notice first.”
Emma laughs. We tuck in. Today, yesterday’s pastries taste divine.
Previously long listed in Flash Fiction 500 & published in Alien Skin, Coloured Chalk & the soon-to-be released Great British Write Off anthology, “Yesterday’s Pastries” is Carol’s first competition win. Carol is currently sweating over an anthology of horror stories in between working as a learning disability nurse.