Beware of the Ides of March (part 5 of 10)
Lisa does not return to her maisonette on Blackhorse Avenue until 8pm. The only thing on her mind as she unlocks the front door is a cup of hot chocolate and a foot spa in front of the TV. This will be followed by a glass of Bristol cream sherry, to take away the tension between her shoulder blades. She will put all the events of the past eight hours right out of her mind – apart from Dr Armand, perhaps, who is not an altogether bad looking fellow.
David will wander in at 9:30 slightly drunk. He will not apologize profusely for forgetting that today is her birthday, nor will he promise to make up for the oversight. Instead, he will shamelessly pretend that he has spent the whole day thinking about her, and will make his perennial promise of having a surprise up his sleeve. At this rate, he will need a bigger sleeve to accommodate this year’s surprise together with last year's and the year before that. Of course, she will smile and give him a grateful kiss. Just to have him is good enough for her. He is young, tall, and handsome and every bit like Leonardo Dicaprio, although he can be brash and irresponsible most of the time, and he has been unemployed for as long as she has known him.
Tonight, she will make them both some Pasta with spicy chicken lasagna, and they will dine by candle light, to celebrate her 28th.
She is surprised that her key will not open the lock. The extra effort of twisting the long skeleton key hurts her wrist and leaves an angry pink welt on the inside of her index finger. This lock has never given any trouble in all of the six years she has lived here. Oddly, it seems, in the first place, that the door might have been locked from inside. But that is just a vague, unlikely thought, quickly dismissed and which she will recall only later on. No use calling David to find out if he knows what is going on, because he will only go into a right royal huff if disturbed while watching Manchester United vs. Chelsea with his mates at the Hufflers Arms. She picks her way round the back of the house, along the uneven concrete tied floor, brushing against the overgrown hedge that forms part of the party fence with her next door neighbour. The cold air carries a smell of stale food and gone-off milk, emanating from the wheelie bin which David should have put out for collection two days ago. The mixture of the crisp dry winter air and the acrid pong hits her so hard in the nose that it causes her eyes to smart.
The spare backdoor key under the flowerpot is her contingency plan for lockout scenarios such as this. Although the key has gone slightly rusty, it does not disappoint. She gratefully lets herself into the kitchen and is immediately confronted by a pile of plates in the sink, and scattered cornflakes and bits of bread on the mottled, ash-grey worktop – clearly not the pristine state that she left the kitchen this morning.
She takes off her jacket and carries it through the kitchen into the lounge and then she stops dead as she notices the smell of cigarette. A movement catches her eyes in the half-lit lounge. Someone is on the sofa; a shadowy form at first, and then the full outline of a man, the glowing end of a cigarette indicating the position of his lips. Before she can collect her thoughts together, he leaps from the sofa like the spring bar of a nipper rat trap, ‘Who are you? How did you get in?’ with a voice more raspy than the dragging of a heavy wooden box on a dusty floor,
‘This is my flat. I live here, who the hell are you?’
'I'm Alan's friend.'
'Who is Alan? No one by that name lives in this flat. If you don’t leave at once I will call the police.'
'No, don't call the police. Perhaps there's been a mistake.'
Lisa can hear him hear him breathing heavily; he must have run a marathon just before breaking in. She reaches for the the dimmer switch for the lighting in the lounge.
'Please don't turn up the light. I’m on the run from the police. A mate of mine said I should come here and stay with Alan. This is 27A Blackhorse, right?'
'This is 27A, but Alan does not live here. Please get out. I cannot allow you to stay'
She can see him looking around frantically - a rat trapped in the middle of a deep dark pool, surrounded by a hundred cats licking their lips in hungry expectation. She steps quickly back into the kitchen.
'I'm not a criminal; I'm not going to attack you. Please don’t call the police. I think we can sort this thing out.'
Lisa sighs. What a weird, frustrating and gruesome shite of a day it has turned out to be. She is suddenly overwhelmed by a soul-wrenching attack of tiredness. ‘What do you want me to do?' she asks tearfully, 'Why don’t you just go somewhere else?' But in spite of her lamentation, she feels sorry for him because, although he is of average build and probably the same height as David, he does not appear particularly intimidating. On the contrary, he is every bit a picture of misery and despair, his shoulders hunched and his head tucked in like a contrite and utterly repentant convict on the way to the gallows.
‘Please, give me some time’
For the second time today, Lisa finds herself faced with a request to do something against her better judgment and again she allows her weakness to override that subtle sense of foreboding that is her early warning signal.
‘David will not let you stay; he will throw you out the moment he gets in’
To which he merely shrugs
She glares at him as if by trying hard and long enough she can make him disappear.
‘We don’t smoke here'
‘Sorry’ he stubs his smoldering cigarette in the makeshift ashtray - the warped lid a marmalade jar. ‘I promise not to make a mess; and I will keep out of your way’
He transfers himself to the single wicker couch at the furthest end of the lounge and sits with his legs drawn underneath the chair, as if to make himself as small as he possibly can.
Lisa lingers awkwardly in the doorway of the kitchen for a moment then she sighs and climbs wearily up the stairs to the bedroom, still carrying her jacket.
When she comes back downstairs the intruder is still sitting in the same position, although his ashtray has disappeared. Lisa goes into the kitchen and finds that the plates have been washed, put away and the worktop has been wiped clean.
‘You didn’t have to –‘
‘No it’s okay. It’s the least I could do’
‘Why are you running away from the police?’
‘I was paying for my petrol and the filling station attendant found that I was using fake bills, He called the police, so I legged it before they turned up’
‘And you’re on the run just because of that?’ Lisa asks, almost laughing
‘No, it’s a lot more complicated than that, I have other reasons why I can’t afford to be questioned by the police.’
‘No, no I’m not a criminal -’ he sounds like a drunk denying being drunk.
‘Don’t you think you’d be better off going to the police instead of breaking in and hiding in other people's houses?'
‘Yeah, right, so they can pin some nasty charge on me.’
She glances anxiously towards the kitchen door, expecting David to come in at any moment. He did not sound overly alarmed when she called him from her mobile phone while she was in the room upstairs. He even discouraged her from calling the police, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll come in straightaway and sort this whole thing out’. For once, he is true to his word and arrives within a few minutes. He enters the house through the back door and walks straight into the lounge. The intruder glances up in surprise but not panic.
‘So Eric sent you?’
‘Yes, he said you owe him…’
‘What? You know Eric?’ Lisa’s voice is shrill.
‘You keep out of this, Lisa. This has nothing to do with you.’ He replies without looking at her, and then carries on talking to the intruder. ‘Okay, Eric told me about you but I don’t want to know what you are in trouble with the police for, and I want you to be out of my hair as soon as possible, Okay?.’
‘Wait!’ Lisa finds her voice after a brief moment of bewilderment, ‘He’s not staying here. This is my flat. I can’t have a criminal using this place as a hideout from the police’
‘I told you, I’m not a criminal -’
‘I don’t care who you are, I don’t want you staying here’
‘Lisa, you don’t understand. We can’t just throw him out. I‘ll get in to trouble, with Eric’
‘Well who is this Eric, anyway? David, what have you gone and got yourself mixed up in?’
‘Nothing I can’t handle, don’t you worry your pretty little head about nothing.’
Lisa is sniffing and rubbing her eyes. She is staring directly at David as hard as he is refusing to look at her. The intruder is watching with combined guilt and pity. Towards David he feels a volatile mix of envy and anger. Although he is relieved that he has been allowed to stay, he wishes he can to go elsewhere. But where else can he go? He has to lie low and avoid being picked up by the police. He knows that they will be on the lookout for him if not for the counterfeit bill, then from whatever they find in his vanished van, if they recover it before Eric and his boys.
‘Lisa, don’t you think you can go blabbing to the police, okay?’ David stomps up the stairs in an unconvincing show of gangster-like machismo.
‘What is a decent woman like you doing with a prat like him anyway?’ It is an unguarded remark that has escapes the lips of the intruder almost by accident.
‘Isn’t it a bit rich of you calling someone else a prat? Look at yourself, look all the trouble you got yourself into… Not just you but other people …people you’ve never even met’
‘Look, I’m so sorry for the inconvenience I am causing you. If I didn’t have anything to hide I’d do to the police straightaway. It was just my bad luck today that some guy paid me in fake 50-pound notes.’
Lisa suddenly freezes. ‘That person who gave you the money, did you know him before?’
‘I’d never seen him in my life. He called me out to change a lock and then paid me after I had finished the job’
‘What did he look like?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Nothing, just being curious. Never mind’ she says hoping he hasn’t noticed jitter in her voice.
‘He’s about my height. Brown, straight hair, grey eyes. He was wearing a black suit and a pink tie’
Lisa’s stomach tightens and a sudden chill causes her bones to rattle.
‘Are you okay? You look as if you have just seen a ghost’
‘I’m okay, it’s nothing’
She is now quite sure that she has counterfeit money in her wallet. No matter what David says, never mind the Eric bloke - or what’s his name - she is going straight to the police first thing in the morning.