It’s funny how five minutes of one day can change your life. How five minutes of one day can go on to set the standard for all other days. This was one of those days.
It started off in the same way that all days normally do. I got up later than planned, didn’t wash my hair even though it needed it, pulled on the first clothes I could find, got to work and opened the shop. I’m usually on my own til about eleven. There’s only ever me, reading, dusting the shelves, drinking tea. A nice, luke-warm start to the day. Except this day. He scared me when he came in. Snuck up behind me so quietly that the first I knew of it was a soft waft of stale beer.
“Do you have any books about pirates?” he asked.
“Treasure Island, it’s over there. In the R section. We’re on first name terms with all our authors here.”
He laughed with his mouth closed and I blushed at my own piss-poor joke.
“I was thinking more along the lines of a reference book?” he said.
“We don’t deal in fact here. Fiction only. Treasure Island is the only one I can think of, off the top of my head,” I was babbling. It’s my worst habit. “It’s quite good,” I said, searching for something to save myself. “I read it in school.”
“I know,” he said, smiling. Lovely teeth. I suddenly noticed how lovely and blue his eyes were. “I know who you are, Cordelia Deadly. How could I ever forget a girl like you?”
And with that he was off. Into the labyrinth loosely titled ‘Popular Fiction, Bible-Present’. And I couldn’t stop staring. Like the odd glimpse of his elbow, a shot of his arm would make me remember who he was. You know when you know that you know someone, you just don’t know how you know them? He was walking back to the counter, book tucked underneath one arm when it hit me. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realised sooner. He hadn’t changed that much since we’d been at school.
“Why, Thomas Brown!” I said, “whatever are you doing here..?” I trailed off, embarrassed again. I knew what he was doing here. He was looking for a book, one about pirates. It was one of those moments when I wished I could stop time, think of a winning line and then press play again.
“Oh, you know. I’m just trawling second-hand bookshops looking for pretty girls I used to go to school with,” he grinned. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“That’ll be £3.99 please.” He paid for it in handfuls of change.
“Well it was nice seeing you again,” he said. I told him not to be a stranger.
“Stranger than what?” he asked. After he left I stared into space and wrote Cordelia loves Tom 85% all over the newspapers.
I was still daydreaming when Pete got in at twelve. He handed me a scrap of paper torn from the front of a novel. “I certainly hope it isn’t one of ours,” he grumbled. I didn’t answer as I hurriedly unfolded it.
I always wondered about you. Would you like to spend the day with me on Saturday? I’ll meet you here, at ten, in the morning. I’ll get up especially early and wear my good shoes. Hope to see you, Tom.
I woke up early on Saturday. I didn’t want to but I couldn’t help it. I never can sleep when I’m excited. I washed my hair and put on some eyeliner, found some clean clothes and gave my trainers a quick scrub with the dishcloth. I was at work for nine thirty, humming to myself. Pete wolf-whistled. By the time eleven o’clock rolled around, Pete bought me my fourth cup of tea and patted my arm in what I’m sure was supposed to be a reassuring gesture.
“I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation,” he said.
“I don’t doubt it,” I replied, when in actual fact I doubted it very much indeed. Maybe he’d forgotten, maybe he’d been drunk that day he came in, maybe he’d changed his mind. They weren’t reasonable explanations.
At twelve o’clock, Pete excused himself and went to watch the tiny black and white portable he kept in the back room. Since I refused to go home, I might as well make myself useful and watch the shop. Like I didn’t know that he spent most of his time smoking rollies and watching the racing in the backroom, whether I was there or not. A few minutes later, I heard him shout.
“Cordie, you’d best get in here, quick!” I was so jumpy, I almost ran. Pete was watching the news. Tom’s face filled the tiny screen, his face tilted in profile, he was laughing at something behind the camera, something we couldn’t see. The voice of the newscaster droned on, emotionless.
“…police are appealing for any witnesses to come forward.”
“What’s going on?” I asked, barely able to get the words out.
“He’s dead, Cordie,” Pete replied. “He’s been murdered.”
“He can’t be dead,” I said, “we’re going on a date.”
“Well at least you know he hasn’t stood you up. I told you there would be a reasonable explanation.”