He looked away, embarrassed. Her mother was somewhere nearby. In fact, yes, there she was – standing over on the other side of the room, chatting with a friend, only half-heartedly keeping her eyes on her daughter. Why the hell did he keep staring at people in public? But it was too late now, the damage was done. She gave an inscrutable little smile and walked over to him. She wore a white tee-shirt and red trousers.
“I’ve seen you before,” she told him bluntly.
Her directness caught him off-guard and he found himself floundering for a second or two, before catching himself again.
“Oh, right,” he found himself mumbling.
She said nothing. Just stood where she was, a few metres from where he was sitting on the worn plastic seat.
“You here with your mum?” he asked.
“You should get back to her, she’ll be worried if she sees you talking to a stranger.”
That seemed to perplex her a little and she screwed up her face before giving another little smile.
“That’s okay,” she said, “She’s talking with auntie Ruth. She won’t mind me talking to you.”
In this day and age, he thought, that was highly doubtful. But she seemed determined to talk to him all the same. She was a strange kid all right.
He glanced over to her mum and what he presumed was auntie Ruth. The mum glanced over to him and gave him a half-smile. It was the kind of smile adults sometimes give each other which said “Oh god, she’s being a nuisance isn’t she? It’s okay I’ll rescue you in a minute. Promise. Once I’ve finished talking.”
He suddenly felt the need for a cigarette and reached in his pocket for the battered lighter.
She screwed up her little face in disapproval.
“You’re not gonna smoke, are ya?” she asked.
“Erm…yeah, I was thinking of….”
His voice trailed off. Busted by a kid. How old was she? Eight? Nine? It was ridiculous.
“Mrs Robins says cigarettes are bad for you. She’s my teacher.”
“Very sensible woman,” he said approvingly. “I wish I’d had a teacher like that when I was your age. I’d probably never have started.”
She nodded, sagely. “You should quit,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, You’re probably right,” he said lamely.
As his hand moved out of his pocket, leaving the lighter behind, his mind quickly skimmed over the day’s events so far. He’d woken up at the usual time, reached for the vodka bottle, fumbled and knocked it on the floor. Not that it mattered, as he’d remembered he’d emptied it the night before. He left it where it was.
He lay there on the bed, a throbbing in his head and a sticking feeling in his throat, as if a tribal orchestra had taken up residence in his brain. After what seemed like an age, the mobile bleeped. He hadn’t felt like answering, but he’d hit the green ‘talk’ button anyway. At least it wasn’t his ex-wife or her lawyer. It was almost as bad. It was his editor. Did he know his column was due today? He could extend until 3pm but it’d have to be in by then, pictures and all. It wasn’t the first time either and could he make sure…
None of it was important. None of it seemed important. Nothing mattered in the slightest. His head felt filled with marshmallows and his eyes felt dry and strained.
He uttered the usual platitudes, got rid of him, stumbled to his feet, showered and got dressed. Blue shirt, black slacks, his last clean pair of socks, smoked two cigarettes and glanced blearily at the clock. They were still serving breakfast. Could he be bothered to walk downstairs, navigate the lurching corridors for the sake of two measly overcooked sausages, a rubbery egg and some plastic bacon bits? On balance he decided he could, so he’d wandered off, absently clicking his plastic doorkey in the slot behind him.
That was an hour ago, or was it three hours ago? It didn’t seem to matter particularly. Life was just one succession of stimuli after another as someone had once said. The past was a closed book and the future offered nothing of any significance.
His thoughts jumped back to the present. She was still stood near him as if waiting for him to say something.
“When do you go home?” he asked, struggling to find conversation.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Then next week I’ll be back at school.”
“Oh.” he said. “Is that good?”
He could hardly blame her. He was 37 but he hadn’t forgotten how much he’d disliked his own school even though it was 20 years since he’d left. Suddenly he felt unaccountably sorry for her.
“Do you have a lot of friends?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “Mandy Paxman used to be my friend, but she’s not any more. She’s gone off with Shona Harker and Isabelle Street. I don’t like them.”
“So who do you hang around with?”
“I don’t. I just stay in and read. The teachers don’t mind you doing that.”
“Read? You mean like, comics?”
The question was ill-judged, given the look of contempt she flashed at him.
“No, silly – books.”
He felt foolish.
“Er yeah – sorry – of course, books…” he mumbled.
“Do you like books?” she enquired.
“Sure,” he said, “I write them.”
She examined his face, looking for a trace of a lie. He met her gaze, confident for the first time.
“Wow,” she paused. “That’s neat.”
He laughed, despite himself. She smiled.
“I don’t know about ‘neat’ but thanks.”
“What’s your name?”
He told her.
She rolled the name around in her mind for a moment or two before deciding she’d never heard of him.
“Do you write books for children?”
“Not now, but I used to. When you get back to school, why don’t you have a look in your library? See if any of mine are in there.”
She stuck her hand on her hips. “Now you’re just fooling,” she admonished him.
Over on the far side of the room, mum and auntie Ruth had finished their chat and mum was walking towards them.
She seemed to notice this and suddenly flashed a serious-looking little glance at him.
“Listen,” she said, “I want you to promise something. I want you to promise me you won’t smoke any more.”
“Sure,” he said.
“I mean it,” she said. “They’re bad for you.”
“Okay,” he said. “You got a deal. I’ll never smoke again, in fact, I’ll quit right now. Good enough?”
She gave a small, satisfied nod and smiled broadly.
Her mum was alongside her now and took her hand. She smiled at him and said ‘bye’ before leading her away. He watched as the two of them disappeared into the maze of the lobby.
As she left, he pulled the final cigarette out of his pocket, scrunched it up and threw it in the metal bin, along with the lighter and the packet. He’d never smoke another. A promise was a promise after all.
He got up and walked to the lift, which took him up to the top floor, stuck his key-card in the door hole before entering the room which was as dishevelled as it had been when he left. The maid had clearly not been this way yet.
He fumbled in the battered suitcase and took the object out, wrapping it carefully in the thickest towel he could find, then held it against his temple and pulled the trigger. The muffled noise raised no alarm and it wasn’t until the maid entered half an hour later that they found the body, sprawled across the floor, empty vodka bottle inches away from the outstretched hand.