by Michael E. Lloyd
|Table of Contents|
Book I: Windmills Everywhere
Chapter 2: Friend At Hand
part 1 of 2
Is he going to say anything? I’m certainly not going to start a conversation ...
‘You don’t look very happy.’
Oh, thanks a lot. But at least he’s honest.
‘Well, I have had rather a fright ...’
‘Want to tell me about it?’
Seems nice enough. Tall. Chunky.
But he must have overheard what happened just now. Why hasn’t he mentioned it? And he must have been running, to keep me in sight, but he seems to have got his breath back a lot faster than I did ...
‘You won’t believe me. Nobody else does.’
‘Try me. And my name’s Shaun, with a “u” ... Shaun Pesaner.’
Bang! Nice brown eyes. Honest eyes. Nice warm handshake. Boyish looks, for his age. Three or four years older than me?
‘Well ....... OK, Shaun, there are ... there are people out there swapping around the façades of some of our greatest buildings, right in front of our noses. And no-one seems to care. I’m really worried about it!’
‘So am I!’
‘So am I. Thank goodness I’ve found someone ...’
‘You mean you’ve noticed it too?’
‘I certainly have. The latest one to go is the British Museum.’
‘Yes, exactly! That’s why I’m so unhappy. And they’ve given it the frontage of the National Gallery. Ionic columns replaced by Corinthian! It’s a travesty!’
‘It’s worse than that. I’ve just come from Trafalgar Square. The Gallery’s got the façade of the Museum now.’
‘What? Oh my god! That can’t be allowed!’
‘Hey, calm down! And sit still, you’re spilling your drink!’
‘I just don’t believe this! It’s all too much! They mustn’t ...’
‘Look, take it easy. Sshhhh. Easy. There, that’s better — hey, I don’t know your name yet ...’
‘Oh, I am sorry, Shaun. I don’t know what came over me. You’re being really kind. Thank you. And ... my name’s Donna.’
What a nice guy. Held my shoulders very gently.
‘OK, Donna. So, have you been able to do anything about it yet?’
‘No. All I get is mockery whenever I try to make people understand what’s going on ...’
Damn, where are my tissues?
‘ ... and it’s driving me crazy!’
‘Hey, don’t cry, Donna. I’ve had the same problem, and I’ve been too scared to speak out about it in public. I’d almost stopped caring. But now ...’
Wow. This is too good to be true.
‘So what changes have you spotted, Shaun?’
‘Oh, lots of them, all over the place.’
‘Have you seen what they’ve done to St Martin’s?’
‘Yes. They’ve replaced it with ... ah, wait a minute, that one’s slipped my mind ...’
‘The Opera House!’
‘Yes, of course. How did I forget that?’
‘You were probably thinking of Mansion House. They’re quite similar at first sight ...’
‘Dead right. You’re reading my mind!’
‘Oh, I’m so glad I’ve found you, Shaun. Or rather, that you found me ...’
‘I think it was serendipity, Donna. After all, you chose this particular pub.’
‘Only because it was here when I needed it!’
‘No, I meant its name.’
‘I don’t know its name.’
‘You don’t? It’s called the Friend At Hand.’
‘What! Oh, now you’re making fun of me too! It’s not fair!’
‘I’m serious, Donna. If you don’t believe me, go back out into the street and see for yourself ...’
I will, dammit. I’m not going to be taken for a ride by this sweet-talking guy.
Oh my god.
It must be a sign. Maybe we can ...
‘I’m sorry I didn’t believe you, Shaun. This is amazing ...’
‘I think it’s just fate, Donna.’
I need to know more about this lovely man.
‘So, what do you do when you’re not out chasing ... conspirators? Oh, hang on ... you haven’t got a drink yet.’
‘Can’t afford one, I’m afraid.’
Huh? His clothes don’t say that ...
‘Oh. OK, I’ll pay — here, take this. And get me another vodka while you’re there, please ...’
‘So, I’m all ears ...’
‘Nothing much to tell, Donna. I’m quite a failure, really. Dropped out of my private school when I was seventeen. My parents got really angry about that, and cut off my allowance. Gave me three months to fall back into line. But I didn’t. Soon as I was eighteen they disowned me completely, and then they moved abroad. Sounds weird, these days, doesn’t it? But it happened.’
Poor guy ...
‘That was nearly fourteen years ago ...’
Aha! Spot on, Donna!
‘So I never had a proper education. University of Life, me. I pick up casual work when there’s some going, get digs when I can, otherwise I sleep wherever I find a floor. I even had a credit card a few years ago. But I soon blew it out. Bought some quality clothes at the time, though. I’ve had to look after them very carefully ever since ...’
Right again, Donna. You’ve got this guy sussed!
‘So are you quite happy with that sort of life?’
‘I suppose so. Never known any other. I like the freedom. Only thing I’ve ever really regretted is not having a steady girlfriend.’
Wow. Now take it easy, Donna. One step at a time ...
‘So that’s all there is to know about me. What about you?’
* * *
Sat 2 May, evening
What a day! Awful experience at the British Museum. Then I met a wonderful guy called Shaun and everything suddenly got better! I think he said his surname was Pevsner. Fancy having the same name as my other architecture hero! Maybe he’s a great-grandson or something. Wow.
He’s rather mysterious, and that’s very exciting! I am a bit mixed-up about quite how he managed to bump into me like that. But who cares? Carpe diem, Donna! You’ve found someone who knows what you’ve been going through, at last. Someone who believes you. Someone you can trust.
I wanted to explain about Mother and everything straight away, but I thought that might be a bit too much for our first meeting. So I started to describe my job at the Institute, but then I realised that was a bit of a faux pas, so I dropped it quickly and ended up just telling him about all the strange things I’ve seen happening to our buildings this week.
I must have been so busy talking about me, I never thought to ask him again about what other changes he’s spotted for himself. But I can do that in the morning. ’Cos he agreed we could inspect the City thoroughly together tomorrow, in case any new façades have sprung up overnight. Yes! Call me Roquentin this evening! I really feel a new sense of commitment after all those hopeless dreads ...
Shaun had to leave the pub soon after we fixed that up. Said he needed to check out the chance of a few hours’ work this evening, and it was a five-mile walk back to his pal’s flat (he’s sleeping on the floor). No money for a bus or the Tube! I lent him a fiver. He was really grateful. Gave me a little peck on the cheek when we split. Double Yes!
* * *
Well, if I can be on time, I don’t see why he can’t. Fifteen minutes late already. Maybe he ...
‘Oh, you gave me a shock, sneaking up from behind like that!’
‘I didn’t sneak up. I just arrived from that direction.’
‘Yes, of course you did. Sorry. And I’m very glad you’re here now. So, where shall we start?’
* * *
‘Well, everything’s looking good so far. Fancy stopping here for a coffee?’
‘So, did you get the job?’
‘No, there were more than twenty people waiting by the time I arrived. No chance. Still, I’m used to that.’
But I gave him money for the bus.
‘Oh, I am sorry. Is there any other work around?’
‘No. And I’d offer to buy the coffees, but I used all your cash on the Tube fare ...’
So what happened to the change from that last round of drinks?
‘No problem, Shaun. A friend at hand, right?’
‘Thanks, Donna. You’re a real brick.’
Does anyone actually still say that? Well, obviously yes. People who went to private school. Wow.
‘By the way, I meant to ask you again yesterday ... what other building changes have you spotted in London?’
‘Apart from the ones we talked about? Well, the front doors of the Job Centre and the Library up near my mate’s flat were exchanged last Tuesday ...’
‘That’s hardly a disaster, is it?’
‘But it’s still important, right? And on Thursday I thought I saw something very different about the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum ... you know, those double doors with the sort of arched decoration above them ...’
‘Oh no, that’s just awful ...’
‘Hey, calm down! That’s better. But it’s funny — I couldn’t put my finger on what they’d done to it. Still can’t ...’
‘Maybe they’ve swapped it with the National History Museum.’
‘Yes, yes! That’s it, exactly!’
‘Oh, I don’t believe it!’
‘But you’re quite right, Donna. Hey, you’re really good at this stuff! How come you know so much about it?’
‘I studied it at University. Combined honours course in Western Literature and Architecture — right up my street, but it was the only one available, and I had to go and live in Scotland for three years! And of course I’m still learning more all the time in ... oh, what the heck ... in my job at the Institute. We’re the European front-end of an American cultural foundation, and I do a lot of advance research for big new archaeology projects all over Europe. And then there are my books, of course — my lovely Fletcher and all my ... Pevsners!’
No reaction to that. How weird. Maybe he’s just very modest about it ...
‘So how about you? I guess you picked up a lot about architecture at home.’
‘Eh? No, my parents weren’t interested in that sort of thing. Nor was I. But I’ve built up my knowledge over the years, just by observing what I see on the street ...’
So maybe I’m confused about his surname. But that’s par for the course this week, dammit.
‘OK, back to work, then, Mr Mystery. Let’s see who can be the first to spot another swap!’
* * *
‘What’s the matter, Donna? Whoa! ... stand still or you’ll do yourself an injury!’
‘Can’t you see it, Shaun? Oh, please tell me you can see it!’
‘See what? Your eyes must be much sharper than mine! Where am I supposed to be looking?’
‘Straight ahead! At the Bank of England! See what they’ve done to the row of double columns at the top? Oh, no ...’
‘Hey, you’re right! It does look a bit different. Sshhhh, Donna, it’s OK. I can see it too! Aw, come on, you don’t have to cry. I’m here, I’m here ...’
Oh, it’s so good to have somebody holding me tight. And he can see it too! Someone else can see it too!!
‘Why did they have to steal the columns from St Paul’s, Shaun? Tell me why!’
‘I don’t know, Donna. But I can help you find out now, can’t I? So do try and calm down. There’s no need to be afraid any more ...’
Such a wonderful hug. Oh, I could stand here like this forever, if only ...
‘No, we have to run down to St Paul’s and see if they’ve actually swapped both sets of columns. We must go straight away!’
‘OK, OK, whatever you say. Come on!’
‘Listen, Shaun, I daren’t look as we go past. Can we keep walking to the end of Ludgate Hill? Then you can turn round and let me know what you see.’
‘Right, let’s stop here. I’m ready. Tell me the worst.’
‘Well, I don’t want to raise your hopes, Donna, but frankly I can’t see any changes. It’s probably safe for you to look for yourself.’
‘OK. But hold me tight first, please. Ah, that feels good. So, here goes ...’
He’s right. Everything’s normal. They haven’t got here yet.
‘Oh, it’s all OK, Shaun! What a relief!’
I’m going to risk a kiss.
‘Here, let me show you how grateful I am for all your help .......’
‘Gosh, what did I do to deserve that?’
Did he really say “Gosh”? Oh, wow.
‘You were just there for me, Shaun. And ... aaaarrgh!’
‘How did we get here?’
‘It was the first pub I saw after you insisted you needed a drink.’
‘You freaked out just after kissing me. But I think it was probably more to do with St Paul’s. You started shouting and screaming that its columns had suddenly changed to those of the Bank, while you were distracted. I couldn’t calm you down this time. Had to drag you in here ...’
‘I don’t remember any of that!’
‘Was the vodka the way you like it?’
‘The one that isn’t in your glass any more.’
Oh my god.
And is he being sarky? No, he’s smiling. That was just a little joke, wasn’t it? A good one, probably. Oh, he really is so nice ...
‘Ah. Well, I think I need another one, please. A double, with orange.’
‘Are you sure that’s wise?’
Now wait a minute, mister, don’t start ...
‘No, you’re right, Shaun. Make it a single, and get one for yourself this time. Here’s the money — oh, hang on, how did you pay for the first one?’
‘I started a tab for you.’
‘Feeling better now?’
‘Yes, much. Thank you for being so kind. You just don’t know how grateful I am.’
Why doesn’t he say something nice about me? And why doesn’t he try to steal a kiss for himself right now? Men! Useless! Oh well, it’s up to me again, I guess .......
‘Mmmm, that was as nice as the first one. So, you’ve told me about University and your job, but I still don’t feel I know very much about the real Donna.’
Why did he have to say that?? No, stop, don’t think like this, girl! He’s just trying to make friends with me in his own way. He doesn’t know anything about it — yet.
‘Don’t you feel we ought to discuss what we’re going to do about the conspiracy?’
‘Not yet. I think you need to get that off your mind for a while. And right now, I’d much rather hear more about you ...’
What a silver-tongued charmer! And he’s stroking my hand so gently. Shall I risk it?
‘Oh, all right then, if you insist, Shaunie!
‘I lived in North London for eighteen years, till I went off to Uni.
‘I don’t remember my father. Mother told me ... Oh, dammit ...’
‘Hey, don’t start crying again, Donna. I’m sure he was a fine man.’
‘Sorry. Couldn’t help it.
‘Anyway, I wasn’t crying about him. And I don’t think he was very fine, Shaun. He left home before my first birthday. Don’t know why. By the time I was old enough to really wonder about that, I’d lost any interest in finding out, especially since my mother had always changed the subject whenever I raised it.
‘He kept up the payments on our house, thank god. And apparently he sent my mother a small amount of cash each week — she said it was all he could afford — but it wasn’t enough, of course, so she had to go back out to work for the next twenty years.
‘And when I was older, and I started to get very angry about that, as teenagers do, she told me she’d always been too proud to chase after him through the courts for more money. I never did understand that. I thought she was really stupid ...’
‘Look, I’m sorry, Donna. I shouldn’t have asked. This makes my life story seem idyllic by comparison ...’
‘No, it’s OK, Shaun. Really. I want to tell you about it. I’ve never told anybody else ...’
‘Yeah. So, I don’t think I just lost interest in my father. I think I lost all respect for him, too. Hmmm ... actually, it probably makes more sense to say I never had any.’
‘Wasn’t that a bit unkind, since he probably was doing his best for you and your mum?’
‘I really don’t know, Shaun. Anyway, there’s more to tell you ...
‘I had a pretty uneventful childhood. But I never got on very well with the other kids at school. Problem was, I was very bright. Mother used to say she didn’t know where I got it from .......’
‘Oh, you’re crying again ...’
‘Sorry. I think you’ll understand why, soon. Give me a moment, eh? Have you spotted the loos?’
‘Just over there. Take it easy now.’
‘Yeah. Thanks ...’
Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd