Nooks and Crannies
by Terry Gibbons
At what point in time do you begin to realize that there is something wrong with this picture? As the aroma of the strong black coffee drifted into my nostrils that blustery winter's day, it finally dawned on me what had been picking away at the back of my mind for the last hour.
The cafe was the trendy kind, the kind that had infested my home town over the last few years -- intended for the young and motivated professionals who never stopped walking, or talking with a phone in one hand and an 8 dollar coffee in the other. It played well on the egos and self-image-conscious suits who were totally convinced the world wall fall apart if they missed work for a single day.
I had to admire the store owners of this particular café; they knew their target and played them beautifully. The owner even had posters of the latest i-Phones, i-Pads and designer suits along with the array of massively overpriced coffee, and pastries. They knew their stuff.
Perhaps in some way that's why I totally failed to fit into this scene as well. Forty-five, dumpy never married, I wore as little make up as possible and was totally devoid of ambition. I must have looked as totally out of place at that trendy cafe as I felt. I was on leave at the moment from my job as a legal secretary and was totally at a loss as to how I was going to spend the next 2 weeks of my life. In truth my boss had made me take leave, as he usually did.
"Go and have a holiday, Jenny, for heaven's sake! We can manage for a little while without you."
Grumbling, I headed for the door to take my forced vacation. I had accumulated too much leave over the last few years. I seldom took holidays unless forced to, like now. Perhaps it was a lack of social life that stopped me, or lack of social skills, who knew. All I could say for certain was that I was most comfortable with my own company and uneasy around others.
As I opened my eyes slowly and looked around the scene about me, it I finally realized what the problem was: it was a man, a stranger, sitting alone at another one of the outdoor tables, reading a newspaper...
I may have failed to mention the one slightly remarkable thing about dull old me. My mother used to call it a sixth sense, a feeling, an ability to spot things out of the ordinary. She had it as well; it had served her for many years as a store detective at one of the local big brand clothing stores. She could read people, their faces, dispositions, emotions to a staggering certainty. Getting away with anything when I was a kid was a total impossibility. My mother could spot the slightest fib from a thousand yards. For me, it was more a case of looking at a picture and seeing what truly didn't belong there, and that man didn't belong in this picture.
There was nothing strange about his appearance or what he was doing, but everything about him had my alarm bells ringing. The suits passed him in their droves totally engrossed in their latest schemes for promotions or pay hikes; they failed to see there was something out of place here.
He was dressed in a plain old fashioned trench coat, like the kind made famous by Inspector Gadget some years ago. To be honest it looked a little like the one I was wearing and I pulled the coat closer to my shoulders a little self-consciously. He looked about thirty, with short brown hair a slim build and a pale complexion. His nose was a little too long and he had the darkest eyes I have ever seen in a person, the irises almost totally black. He had a plain but kindly face much like my own. I continued to observe him through the steam of my overpriced coffee. The coat looked too big for him and he wore it almost like a tent; his pants were black and his shoes were the most polished shoes I have ever seen in my life. There was nothing sinister about him at all, but there was something not right.
The way he held the newspaper was strange; he fumbled with the pages as though unfamiliar with this kind of media. His eyes scanned the lines carefully drinking in every word, looking at every detail, yet despite this he always carefully looked at each person as they walked past. He examined everyone yet he was very subtle about it -- just not subtle enough to fool my mother, or me.
After a short time he got up and started a casual stroll down the street.
I decided to do something totally daring and completely out of character for me, I decided to follow him. My heart pounded despite the fact I was doing little more than walking casually down the street; I felt absurd, wishing I had dark sunglasses on, fighting the urge to duck behind a telegraph pole every few meters. I lacked my mother's subtlety and ability to blend into the background, but I was very aware of that and tried not to set any alarm bells ringing from my quarry. Thankfully he didn't seem to notice.
I followed him for several blocks, doing my best to look casual.
He went into several stores and I followed. He seemed as fascinated by the latest fashions as he had been by the newspaper. He made several purchases of shirts and pullovers and I noticed now that he seemed ill at ease when handling money. The man behind the counter in each store had to assist him to pick the appropriate bills and coins.
Was he foreign? Was our currency unfamiliar to him? On one particularly daring sortie I managed to stand right behind him at the counter in a clothing store so I could listen to him speak.
He didn't sound that foreign, but he did have a very slight accent that I couldn't place. His voice was calm and steady, but a little uncertain, as if he chose his words carefully afraid of saying the wrong thing.
It was raining outside when he finally finished his wandering and I walked closely behind as the cold wind of winter pulled at our Inspector Gadget coats.
As the rain began to pour down once again he seemed a little stumped as to how to pop up his umbrella, fidgeting with the clasp for almost a minute before it finally popped open, almost flying from his hands and rolling down the street.
I managed to hold back the urge to help him with his umbrella as any decent person would do when noticing someone in distress. My budding detective career would be cut drastically short by such a foolhardy move. Instead I continued to watch.
He spent the next hour walking and shopping, and I followed. He looked about with wide eyes at many of the mundane things we see every day; he purchased books, more newspapers, and even a stuffed toy of a pink pig that made the appropriate oinking noise when squeezed. He poked his nose into all the little nooks and crannies that make up a small town.
All this time I watched and followed.
Finally as the wind and rain were at their worst he turned a corner off the main street and into a small back alley.
Why is he going down there? I wondered. It was a dead end, no way out, no doors, nothing but a few big garbage containers belonging to the businesses at the entrance to the narrow laneway. I knew this alley well from my childhood. I knew it was sheltered, its shadows practically impenetrable from the main street, a great place for hide and seek -- the perfect place to go if you wanted to be unseen.
I started to worry now. There was no way I could follow him into that dead end without being discovered. What should I do? What the hell, I thought, if he spots me, I'll just play dumb and claim I took a wrong turn. No harm in that, right? Just a silly woman with her head in the clouds... Swallowing hard, I leant into the wind and followed him around the corner into the dead end alley.
The wind died away suddenly and I prepared myself to play the dumb middle aged woman who had gotten lost in the rain. I put on my best wide eyed and innocent expression. There was only one problem.
He wasn't there.
I looked about wildly, my wet hair flying. I looked behind rubbish bins, inside rubbish bins, I looked for manholes, fire escapes, anywhere he could have possibly gone. There was nothing, absolutely nothing.
"That's impossible," I whispered. "There's nowhere you could have gone."
I looked around, bewildered. He had only been out of my sight for a few seconds. I noticed a strange faint smell now for the first time, an almost burnt smell like burnt paper, yet there was no sign of anything burning in the dark cold alley. I quickly walked back to the street, looking up and down keenly to see if somehow, impossibly he had gotten past me without my seeing.
The wind and rain tore at me again the moment I stepped from the alley. There was no sign of him anywhere. After a moment I went back and looked again at the alley. All was quiet, a surreal calm given the heavy rain and wind just a few meters away in the main street. I just stood there listening and feeling the place, the faint smell of burning now beginning to fade. I stood there for an hour, waiting for him to emerge from some hiding place I had missed, waiting for my talent to reveal the thing that didn't belong, but there was nothing. Slowly, reluctantly I walked back to the street and with one final look at the alley and a shake of my head I headed home.
I returned to the alley the next day, and the day after, and the day after. I spent my entire two week vacation going over that small quiet place with a high-powered flashlight and even a magnifying glass, but found nothing, no way on Earth a man could simply vanish into thin air. Yet he had.
I never saw him again, even though I kept a close eye out in the passing months. I never found out who he was or where he came from. Was a visitor from the future? The past? Some alternate reality? Or was I simply losing my marbles?
Once a year I go and stand in that alley and look about, trying to see what cannot be seen, trying to make sense of what happened that day. There is now a feeling of something not quite right, something out of place, but I can't see what it is! I will continue to watch this alley from now on. If it is a doorway of some kind, then it may well be used again in the future. Only time will tell.
© 2012 Terry Gibbons
Bio: Terry Gibbons is yet another resident of Oz (the one near Tasmania, not the one with the Emerald City) who has found his way to Aphelion's friendly shores (if the point of closest approach to the Sun has shores). His story The Dying Days of Summer appeared in the November 2006 edition of Aphelion (among other places...)
E-mail: Terry Gibbons
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