They were sitting in the poky staff room ingesting coffee and cake after a rough couple of hours shelving books and the like.
Aloysius tried to think of the words. Tentatively, like a mouse emerging from its house to engage in some sort of metaphor, he ventured,
"She seems a little... Spiky?"
"What, like an armadillo?"
"You mean porcupine, surely?"
"No I don't, porcupines are the feathery things aren't they? And don't call me Shirley."
"Stop trying to pad out the word count by spouting needless non sequiturs."
"Sorry," Adric said, rubbing his eyes vigorously using his hands, of which he had the usual number, "but you’ve got to admit, it's too early for this."
"It's quarter to five!"
"Yes well, I'm not a morning person."
Aloysius was puzzled, and not for the first time that day, as the more astute of you readers may recall from previous chapters. But he sucked it up and got on with it, because that’s what a manly man would do. Then he'd probably punch some guy in the face, then catch and eat some raw meat. But this isn't that kind of story. Not yet anyway.
"So you found her a wee bit defensive, then?"
"You could say that. She seemed alright, quite a strong character, but like, with issues of some kind. Is that baby hers?"
Adric looked surprised, which basically meant his eyebrows went further up his face than usual for a short period of time. This looked quite comical, and the amusing effect was heightened by the presence of a large white blob of cream above his right eyebrow.
'How did that even get there,' Aloysius wondered, by which point it was too late to say anything because Adric was talking and had been for several minutes.
"- and so me and Vhairi think it might be a ghost."
Aloysius wondered whether he would get away with it if he asked Adric to start again.
"I can see you don't believe me,” he was saying. “And why would you, it's pretty out there. But you have to admit the whole thing is pretty suspicious. And once you've eliminated the possible, the impossible becomes the most likely to be probable. Viz a Viz, QED, it's a catch 22."
"Glad you agree. Right, that's 5pm, let's get out of here."
Aloysius waited for his bus so deep in thought that sparrows could have collected in the furrow of his brow, but only if that hadn't been an utterly preposterous idea. He wished he hadn't offended Bracken, although he was a bit irritated with her for jumping to the conclusion he had been deliberately offensive rather than just confused about what to say. There again, Adric had implied she had some pretty heavy stuff going on. Or at least he thought that's what he had been saying. But he couldn't seriously be entertaining the notion that her baby was a ghost, could he? People with views like that don't scale the dizzying heights of middle management; they stay on the bottom rung, googling conspiracy theories.
It wasn’t that Aloysius was not open minded about matters supernatural - he had met several ghosts in his time, and even seen an elephant fly. That’s a fly that looks like an elephant, not an enormous mammal with wings. But his openness was precisely why the concept of a ghoul inhabiting the body of a baby made no sense to him - that's just not how people roll in the afterlife. Well, would you? And anyway, the baby had seemed pretty corporeal as it sat there sucking its pie. Kind of soggy and gross, but definitely real.
His musings were momentarily interrupted as the bus arrived, in an atmospheric swirl of fumes and spray from the road. Aloysius boarded as if in a dream, and the driver exhaled slowly but threateningly as he fumbled in his pockets for change. One of them had the beginnings of a hole in it, and he had already lost a few 5ps as a result.
And what had those guys in the black cars been about, he wondered, mechanically putting £1.20’s worth of coppers into the box thing that you put bus fares in when you get on the bus (assuming you don’t have a concessionary pass, day ticket, etc). From the look on her face when they pulled up she didn't seem to know them. But she didn’t seem to react well to whatever they’d said to her, so it was unlikely to be the postcode lottery or Jimmy Saville fixing it for her to go on Broadway, or whatever it was girls wanted to do.
Maybe she'd borrowed some money she couldn’t pay back and now she was being threatened? He felt a metaphorical chink appear in his otherwise impervious suit of musty man armour. Bracken being kneecapped by the mafia didn't bear thinking about.
Or was it to do with the uncle, perhaps? Hadn’t she described him as nice but a bit of a soft touch? These sorts of people didn't suffer fools gladly, Aloysius knew - he'd seen gangster movies. He’d seen The Godfather (I, II and III), Goodfellas, Casino, that other one with the guy…. The expensive suits were a dead giveaway (as far as Hollywood was concerned) that these guys were up to no good, but trying to mask it by looking outwardly respectable.
He sat down next to an old woman who appeared to be asleep. The whole bus smelt of wet dog and leeks, but he soon came to the conclusion that most of it was emanating from her. Bracken would never smell like that, he found himself thinking. Then he thought, ‘damn, why am I still thinking about her?’ and he balled his hands into angsty fists. After years of seeing things through a prism of his own problems and discontent, it was both odd and upsetting that she should keep cropping up in his brain.
"I don't even know what she really looks like under all that makeup," he said out loud.
The man in front turned round, and slowly examined the old woman Aloysius was sitting next to. The one who smelled of wet dog and leeks, and probably gin.
"If that's makeup, I dread to think mate,” he quipped. “I'd let her keep wearing it if I were you."
Later on that day, the man was to develop an unusual rash on the backs of his knees. He didn't connect this with insulting the old lady on the bus, having forgotten all about that as he went about his daily routine, in which she did not feature. However, there are some folks round the estate who think that said lady is a witch, with a penchant for inflicting people with upsetting rashes for their misdemeanors. And if I were Sherlock Holmes, I might notice that these two things make for a strange coincidence.
Aloysius rolled his eyes, and said
"Oh leave her alone mate. It’s pretty unfair to start on her when she's sleeping and can't defend herself." This chivalrous defense could be what saved him from his own hex. Unfortunately it also made him miss his stop.
"Bollocks," he said vehemently, pressing the stop button without due care and attention. The driver screeched to a halt, and then put on the brakes to stop the bus. It was pissing with rain as well.
"Cheers," Aloysius said to the bus driver, because good manners cost nothing, and he took off towards the flat in an awkward, loping run.
"You're late," his mother informed him as soon as he opened the door, "I thought something had happened!"
He glanced at the clock.
"How do you know I'm late," he asked in a measured tone. "This was my first day, we didn’t know how long I'd be."
"I had to take my medication on my own," she said, wheeling through to the next room.
"It's only Vitamin C," he said, following reluctantly.
"I know," she said, "I'm just a bit on edge is all. Was it alright?"
"Yeah, fine I guess."
"None of those jakey types have a pop at you?"
"Alright, alright. Its just that I never envisioned this as a career for you, my boy."
"I know. I didn't exactly plan it myself… But it'll do for now. We need the money, after all. What with your legs and-"
"We're probably eligible for some sort of help, though," she cut in.
"We’re not going on benefits, mother. That all goes on file you know. They aren't having any private information about me."
"Don't be so paranoid, dear."
"Maybe you'd be paranoid too, if everybody was out to get you."
"That's a touch melodramatic, even for you."
"Well it's true."
"If you say so. Cup of tea?"
He shook his head.
"No thanks. I need to go and brood awhile."
"Really? So soon? I thought we moved away from the moors because you were ready to live again?"
"I thought I was, but now... Now I'm not so sure."
"Was there a girl at your new job?"
"There were several. But I don't see what that has to do with anything."
"Well that’s because you are being willfully obtuse,” she observed wryly. “Off you go then, brood away. Do a bit of pacing for me, I can't do it like I used to."
"I find that in very poor taste."
"Why? I'm the one in the chair."
Aloysius took this opportunity to exeunt stage left, out of the back door and into their poky shared garden. A cat gazed balefully at him from the wall. He ignored it, and began to pace up and down.
It only took him four steps to navigate the entire length of the place, so after a while he stopped and sat down next to the cat.
"Am I ready to love again?"
The cat looked noncommittal.
"I've been to hell and back in the name of that saucy emotion," he expanded, "but some time has elapsed since then. Almost a year, in fact."
"Miaow," said the cat, which didn't really want to get involved but felt like there wasn't really a lot of choice in the matter.
"Oh no," said Aloysius, laughing nervously, "there's nobody else. No mad wives hidden away in the tower to set Bracken alight during the night."
The cat said nothing, having spotted a rodent in the grass a few yards away.
“I think maybe I’ll ask her to come out with me,” he said, more to himself than the cat (which was just as well, because by this point it was half way home with a gory present for its owner).
“Yes,” he told the moon, “I will. I am ready to move on.”
“Guess who,” came a sultry voice from behind him, and his heart dropped down to his toes and dribbled out the ends in a terrified puddle.
There was only one woman in the world whose voice had the power to do that to him.
Aloysius turned around in slow motion, hoping it wasn’t so. But there, larger than life and leaning over his garden gate, was the strapping figure of the only woman he had ever loved, who had jilted him at the alter for his best friend Kyle.
“Hello, spunkface,” she said cheerily.
“Esmerelda,” he replied…