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   Chapter 9 Seating for Singles

Attention Span and Other Stories By PaulineWiles Characters: 19457

Updated: 2018-01-11 12:02


Becky slogged up the last few stairs to her flat, balanced by a sagging bag of groceries in each hand. The thin plastic handles cut into her fingers, matching the pinching of the ankle strap on her right shoe. The narrow red brick building, slotted in neatly between a launderette and a fish and chip shop, was far too old to have a lift. But the daily stair climbing kept her calves in shape and Becky knew she paid a hundred pounds less in rent each month than the three Lebanese waiters who shared the space below.

Her landlady, Mrs Cargyle, wasn't mean, just old. She lived two streets away with three near-identical terriers and a Great Dane, but didn't get out much. She tended to be absent-minded about scheduling maintenance, including window cleaning. As a result, Becky's flat was darker than it should have been, but at least the top floor did catch the breeze during the muggy August nights which passed for summer in Bethnal Green. Now, though, in October, the draughts were more of a problem.

It might be time to look seriously for a new job, Becky thought, as she nudged her key into the wobbly Yale lock of flat four. She'd hoped to become an architect, not waste her days taking messages, arranging long tubes of site plans, and ordering stationery supplies. Martin could be such a drama queen when someone nicked his beloved brand of pencil. You'd think he was about to paint the Sistine Chapel, she thought, using her backside to nudge the door shut behind her, not sketch a conservatory in Barking.

With a grateful exhale, she lowered the shopping bags to the floor, wriggling her foot from the pesky shoe at the same time. The flat was decidedly chilly: maybe she should bleed the radiators again. Becky flicked on the light. Nothing happened.

She sighed and hobbled, still wearing one shoe, towards the kitchen. The hall lights had been okay, so if the kitchen light wasn't working either, probably a fuse had blown. This was not unusual, as the electrics were roughly the same age as Mrs Cargyle. But Becky's dad had – cautiously – presented her with a toolbox for her twenty-fifth birthday in April, and she'd been tackling more and more of these irritations herself.

'Didn't want you to get your hopes up that it was full of make-up, ' he'd said, after she'd removed the red bow from the shiny silver case with reinforced corners.

'No, no, it's great.' Becky had kept her face bent over the box, buying time by examining the different layers of screwdrivers, spanners, pliers, picture hooks, and fuse wire. It was quite a contrast to the silk dress and matching cashmere shawl of four years ago, chosen by her mum. Still, who needed silk dresses to crawl around under the big desks of the architect's office? What good was a cashmere shawl when the internet router had to be reset? 'Maybe you can teach me what to do with it all?' she'd suggested to her father, whose relief was visible. It was important they spend time together, find something in common, now they were a family of two.

Halfway to the kitchen, Becky tripped over something. Already unbalanced by her single shoe, she found herself nose down on Mrs Cargyle's grey, fusty carpet. At least, it was grey now. Becky had never liked to ponder what colour it had started out.

'Oof, ' came a female grumble. 'You gone and woke me.'

'What was that?' said another girlish voice.

'Oh, she's home!' This, Becky was sure, was a third person, also female, and young.

Becky sat up as, behind her, someone switched one of the living room lamps on. Not a fuse, then, was her first thought, her brain choosing to process the mundane detail first. Several microseconds later, the bizarre scene registered.

Peering down at her from their perches on every piece of furniture, were girls. Pale-skinned girls, some short, some tall, but all skinny, with huge white eyes. They wore the same clothing: bottle-green pleated skirts, white shirts, and white knee-high socks.

'Who the hell are you?' Becky scrambled up, shock grappling with indignation. 'Why are you in my house?'

They weren't Carmela's friends, surely? Becky's flatmate, a quiet young woman from Madrid, worked part-time as a nanny in Stoke Newington. Most evenings, the curvy Spaniard played poker, consistently fooling the other players with her innocent appearance. The result, Becky knew, was a five-figure investment tucked away in a FTSE tracker fund.

'She won't hurt us, will she, Maria?' One of the smaller girls nudged closer to her larger neighbour, a teenager whose shirt strained across her chest. The rest of the group, making a total of five draped over seats plus three on the floor, watched in silent wariness. The one whose feet, or legs, had tripped Becky up, drew her limbs back into the smallest possible space.

Something about their guarded faces and piercing gazes made Becky pause.

'No, ' she said, removing her hands from her hips. 'I just want to know who you are. Are you with Carmela?' Silence. 'Are you from Spain?'

The teenager – Maria – put her arm around the smaller girl. 'We're from Romania, ' she said.

Bloody hell, thought Becky. Refugees? Brought here in the secret compartment of a container lorry and tipped out on Hackney Road to fend for themselves? That Yale lock was more useless than she thought.

'You said you'd help us, ' said the tripper, from the floor.

'I what?' Becky gaped at her.

'You did, ' confirmed Maria, who was clearly the group leader.

'Er, no.' Becky folded her arms now. 'And I'm, umm, sorry, but you have to go. All of you.' For some reason, her eyes went to the bags of groceries. She wasn't about to try to feed nine people with a loaf of bread, three apples, two tins of baked beans, a pint of milk, and six loo rolls. 'Now, ' she added. Then, because she was British, after all, 'Sorry.'

'You absolutely promised to help us. I read it.' Maria's hair was cropped unusually close to her head, in a style, Becky saw now, they all shared.

'Where?' Becky, outnumbered, was on the defensive. 'When?'

'On Facebook.' Maria raised her chin infinitesimally.

'You said it was an outrage and that the world should be ashamed, ' said a girl on the floor.

'And that you'd help us get home.' This came from an intruder perched on the arm of the sofa.

'Hang on. I don't understand.' Becky looked from one to another. 'You want to go home?' This wasn't normal, surely, for refugees, to want to go back so soon?

'Of course we do. We were kidnapped.' Maria's voice betrayed exasperation that Becky was being so dim. 'We miss our families.'

'Jesus Christ. You're the Romanian schoolgirls!'

Half the uninvited guests made 'duh, obvious' gestures, while the others drew back a little.

'There's no need to use the Lord's name like that, ' Maria said. 'But yes, we are. Some of them.'

'I don't understand. How are you –?' Becky's hand was over her mouth. 'When did you –?' She stopped. These girls had been the talk of social media for, what, ten days? Two weeks? Becky's entire social network had been appalled at their kidnapping, had shared and tweeted and pinned and commented with gusto. Becky remembered now, she'd been so caught up in it, she'd completely forgotten to buy biscuits for the Tuesday staff meeting.

'And you said you'd do everything in your power to get us home again.'

'It's there, on your Facebook profile.' The small timid one was gaining confidence.

'I don't believe it.' Becky shook herself. 'How can this…?' She took a faltering step back, trying to put distance between herself and her eight uninvited guests. But in the cramped flat, it was futile. 'All right, ' she said instead. 'I'll make a cup of tea.'

If not an answer, that was at least a reasonable gesture. It would help with the shock, for starters, and as far as Becky knew, offering tea was a sign of hospitality in most cultures. But did she have eight spare mugs?

She stepped into the kitchen, which was little more than an alcove off the living room. The light switch, thankfully, cooperated, but Becky took one look at the scene it revealed, and smacked it off again. She half turned back to the assembled schoolgirls, then took a deep breath before trying the kitchen light again.

'Mother of –' Just in time, she stopped herself from blaspheming again.

A seven-foot model of the Eiffel Tower took up the entire floor space, its legs splaying to the fridge, the window, the oven, and the recycling bin. Becky had only visited Paris once but as far as she could tell, it was an accurate miniature, with three levels, intricate crisscross ironwork, and little staircases at the corners. Bizarrely, perched on the horizontal parts, were vegetables: carrots, broccoli, cauliflower. Courgettes were stuffed in some of the smaller gaps, while a marrow teetered above Becky's head. Tomatoes decorated the highest parts, and she spotted a glossy purple aubergine.

'Who put that there? And what the hell's with the veggies?'

If she'd expected an answer from the schoolgirls, none was forthcoming.

'This is ridiculous.' Becky tried to squeeze past the Eiffel Tower to reach the kettle, and found it was impossible, at least not without dislodging several cucumbers.

Aware her heart rate was rising, she decided to seek refuge in the bathroom. Surely that wasn't full of girls or gourds?

It wasn't. It was worse. In the bathtub was a lion, his impressive mane a little bedraggled, standing patiently while a woman in a grey pinstripe skirt suit and patent court shoes hosed him down with the handheld shower attachment.

Becky gave an audible yelp, followed by an 'oh' as she realised the lion was bleeding from a wound on his back.

'Don't worry, ' said the woman, reaching for Becky's chamomile shampoo. 'He's harmless.'

'He doesn't look harmless.' Becky should have asked who she was, where the lion had come from, and why he was being hosed down in her bath. But her stare was glued on the beast as he gave a small yawn, exposing two neat rows of deadly weapons.

'Cedric knows you're a friend.' The woman gave the feline a pat, before aiming the shower head to rinse around the edges of the bath. Becky could see diluted blood running to the drain.

'He's hurt, ' she blurted. Surely animals attack more readily when they feel vulnerable?

'Just a scratch. Lucky for Cedric, the wally had terrible aim.'

Becky sagged against the doorway now, not even murmuring a protest as Cedric's bath attendant grabbed Becky's favourite fluffy towel – the cream one, of course – and began rubbing his mane gently. Then she looked up.

'Oh, you're a wee bit nonplussed, are you?'

'I… I really don't understand.' Becky would have liked to flee back to the relative safety of the Eiffel Tower, but her legs wouldn't comply. 'Who on earth are you all? And why are you in my flat. Did… Carmela send you?' Could this be a poker bet gone wrong?

The woman threw the now sodden towel on the floor, stood upright, and stretched.

'Carmela? No. We're your feed, of course.'

'My… my what?'

'Your Facebook feed. Your social media.' She stuck out a hand. 'I'm Fey, nice to meet you.'

'There must be a mistake, ' Becky said, even as she shook Fey's hand out of reflexive politeness. Why did everyone keep talking about Facebook today? 'I don't know any of you.'

'But you do, silly!' Fey gave Cedric one more pat. The lion shook himself, and to Becky's horror, looked like he was considering a leap from the bath. Instead, he sat down where he was, and raised a front paw to lick it. Becky breathed again.

'Look, come and sit down, ' said Fey, then, as Becky didn't argue, led the way back to the living room.

Obligingly, two of the Romanian schoolgirls shifted from the sofa, one of them sliding to the floor and the other leaning against the small dining table Carmela had squeezed in next to the wall.

'We're your feed, ' Fey said again. 'All the things you said you're passionate about.'

'I'm not passionate about you, ' Becky said, her eyes darting around the room. If anything, she felt more trapped than she had in the bathroom, with a four hundred pound lion close enough to touch.

Maria tutted. 'We've been through this, ' she said. 'Everything in your power to get us home. You promised.'

Becky looked at Fey, not so much for support as to avoid Maria's intense scrutiny.

'She's right.' Fey nodded and sat back.

'And – the – the lion?' Becky's voice rose.

'Cedric? Oh, he's Cecil's brother. You remember Cecil, don't you? You were so indignant when he was shot.'

Cecil the lion. Becky closed her eyes briefly. Yes, that had been awful. Some American tourist paid a few thousand dollars for an excursion to exterminate one of earth's most majestic creatures. She had been up in arms, so to speak, over that. They all had been.

'You tweeted that you wouldn't rest until animals like Cecil were protected, ' said Fey.

'That wasn't just me, ' Becky protested. 'Everyone was outraged.' Even Martin had spent that morning reading out bits from the newspaper. Nor had he complained when Becky spent the afternoon clicking online petitions and sending links to her friends.

'It's good you were outraged, ' Fey smiled. 'But then what did you do about it?'

'What do you mean, do about it?'

Becky remembered her two bags of shopping were still sitting by the front door, but this didn't seem a good moment to retrieve them. Anyway, she couldn't get to the fridge.

'You didn't do anything to follow through, did you?' Fey said. 'You forgot about it.'

'I didn't, ' lied Becky.

'Yes, you did. Your attention span doesn't last more than two minutes.'

'Which is bad, ' said one of the Romanian girls.

'So, you're – what? Here to remind me?' This wasn't the evening Becky had envisaged at all. She'd far rather be lying under a radiator with a spanner right now. And she still hadn't had that cup of tea.

'That's right!' Fey beamed.

Thinking of tea reminded Becky of the kitchen. 'So what's with the Eiffel Tower?'

'Oh, that. Well, the shootings, of course.'

Becky held her gaze. Carmela had once told her that was important, not to let your poker opponent see your uncertainty. Well, she wasn't going to let on to Fey she didn't know –

Abruptly, she remembered the previous year's terrorist attacks in Paris. 'Yes. That was horrible.'

Fey nodded, silent for a few moments. The Romanian girls were still, too.

Along with most of her friends, Becky had tinted her profile picture with the stripes of the Tricolour. Had she tweeted Je suis Paris? Probably. But other than that…

'You also vowed to take on the big food producers and hold them accountable for fake ingredients, palm oil, and pesticides.' Fey was businesslike again.

'The vegetables?' Becky phrased it as a question, but she knew she was right. She was catching on, if nothing else. But she didn't remember any kidnaps, shootings, or scandals involving a woman called Fey. 'So who are you?'

Fey shrugged. 'I'm not important.' But she was studying Becky's single left shoe with interest.

Embarrassed, although why, with a flat full of schoolgirls, French monuments, and predatory felines, she should care about wardrobe eccentricities, Becky removed it. As she straightened, she noticed again how stylish Fey's patent pumps were.

'That's it!' she announced, pleased to recall at least one hot news item from the previous twelve months. 'You were sacked! For not wearing high heels.' She remembered now: a legal firm in the City had sent Fey home when she declined to wear teetering shoes for a nine hour stint at the reception desk. Becky's online community had gorged themselves on satirical outrage, much of it featuring Photoshopped images of men in stilettos.

Fey inclined her head. 'I'm flattered you remember, ' she said drily, and removed her beautiful footwear. 'You must catch me up on your feminist activism since then.'

Becky flushed. Could Fey possibly know about Martin's advice earlier that week, that she might be a more obvious choice for promotion if she dressed more appealingly? She wished, now, she'd told him where to stick his favourite pencil. 'All right, ' she said, head lowered. 'I can see I haven't exactly… er… followed through.'

'Your heart's in the right place, ' Fey said. 'But your energy is wasted if you won't stick to one thought for more than a few minutes.'

'And you're here to punish me with a lion, a French tower, and more than enough girls to form a netball team?'

'Not punish you.' Fey stretched and stood up. 'Just… nudge you a bit.'

Becky shrank back further, being careful not to invade the space of the gangly schoolgirl next to her.

'But first things first.' Fey nodded to the gangly girl. 'We'll make everyone a nice cup of tea, and then we'll see. You sit there for a bit. After all, you've had quite a shock.'

Mouth dry, Becky allowed her spine to curve into the cushions of the sofa. Maybe Fey could do something with all those vegetables and concoct dinner for everyone. Maybe Cedric would be okay with beans on toast. Maybe, tomorrow, she'd find out if there was a long-distance bus service to Bucharest.

Maybe, if she rested her eyes for a moment, she'd feel better.

~~~

The front door closed with a thud.

'Why are you here in the dark? Are you okay?'

Becky sat up, blinking, to find her flatmate standing over her, jangling her keys.

Carmela didn't wait for an answer, already moving towards the kitchen, leaving Becky to look around the entirely empty living room. Beside her, on the floor, was one left shoe. But no sign of any patent heels.

'I'm making hot chocolate. Want one?' Yet another question that appeared to need no response.

Becky waited for the squawk when Carmela tumbled over the Eiffel Tower, but none came. Wincing, she unfolded herself from the sofa, clambered to her feet, and went to the kitchen. Peeking around the corner, she found it empty save for her Spanish friend, busy with the microwave. Its LED clock said it was just after midnight.

In silence, Becky turned again, this time to the bathroom door. She waited two, three seconds, then, with one finger, pushed it open.

The room was entirely empty, the bath dry as a bone. Becky's fluffy cream towel hung, pristine, on the rail. She reached for it, fingering it carefully, then pressed the soft fibres to her face.

'How was your day?' The flat was small enough that Carmela could call from the kitchen and be sure that Becky would hear.

'Oh… fine.' Becky straightened the towel, satisfied she'd merely fallen asleep on the sofa and had a dystopian dream. With a last look around the bathroom, she switched off the light, ignoring the faint scent of chamomile in the air.

'And you?' Becky said, as she arrived next to Carmela in the kitchen. 'Did you win?'

Carmela unwrapped the luxurious dark chocolate she only bought when she'd had a lucrative poker night. 'He didn't stand a chance.' She smiled. 'Too distracted, no attention span. People need to realise how dangerous that is.'

'Right, ' said Becky, and opened the fridge in search of milk.

As she closed it, the jolt from the door caused a slight vibration in the adjacent counter. It was just enough to nudge the aubergine that was lying there into motion.

Unnoticed by either of the flatmates, it rolled gently from side to side.

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