by Rachel Belward
The first time we meet, he tells me his name is Sufjan.
I take my earbuds out. He is glassy eyed and short of breath. His hair is ruffled, a dark curl drifting onto his forehead. A smear of slightly gummy blood above his right eyebrow. It makes me think of one of the cheaper serums I bought in my attempts to fix my face. A bruise has begun making its way across his cheek.
I’m thrown by the formality. He’s my age. Maybe a little younger. He’s wearing a shirt that used to be white, torn at one of the elbows. I steer us towards the cash point near the office as his explanation tumbles out of him.
He came down from Birmingham to collect something from Gumtree. For his mother. He had his earbuds in – he pauses to gesture at my head, and my heart dips.
The moped came out of nowhere. Two of them. They jumped off, slammed him into the road. Took his wallet, his phone, the Oyster he’d borrowed from his cousin. He’ll pay me back, he promises, if I just give him my name, my email, my phone number, anything. Does this happen a lot in this part of London? How much is a ticket back to Birmingham, anyway?
He doesn’t sound like he’s from Birmingham. He sounds American. The many times people have made assumptions about my heritage cycle through my head. I bite the inside of my lower lip.
He’s hurt. I have no idea how much a ticket to Birmingham is. He’s still talking, telling me the police were no help. Neither were TFL. He’s backed away from me, on the edge of the pavement, almost in the bike lane.
I haven’t said a single word, other than ‘ok.’ I fold two twenties, fold them again. When he accepts them I notice the angry scratches on his palm, too.
‘Thank you so much. Really. The world would be better if there were more people like you. What’s your name? I’ll say a prayer for you.’
I don’t know what to say. I’m disarmed by his earnestness. The way his fingers trembled a little when he took the notes.
He gives me his number, tells me his name. Holds my gaze for a couple of seconds longer than is comfortable, and does a bizarre kind of half bow. I feel a creeping sense of shame.
He effusively thanks me again. I save him under “Sufjan.” He walks towards the Stratford Centre. I only look over my shoulder once.
Only when I’m in the lift do I remember that he said they took his phone.
* * *
In the morning, I look up ‘motorbike robbery Newham.’ I only get articles from a couple of months ago.
I look up ‘con artists’, slip into the internet. I read the whole synopsis of the 1988 American comedy film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Wikipedia’s ‘list of con artists’ has a section called ‘living people’, which closes with Donald J. Trump. I wonder how long that will stay up. I feel a shadow edge across my desk, quickly minimise.
‘Coffee?’ The new guy in the Data team whose name I keep forgetting gives me a watery smile.
I wait too long to answer. ‘Oh, thanks – no thank you.’ He smiles again, but it looks watered down even further.
I spend the afternoon printing my manager’s slide handouts incorrectly and emailing my CV to recruiters.
“The third time we meet, all pretence is off. He smiles as soon as he sees me. This time it fits perfectly, reaches all the way up to his eyes.”
* * *
The second time we meet, I recognise him before he recognises me.
I’m on lunch with Cherelle. The air is close, hot tarmac, large fries. Towards the shopping centre exit, cigarette smoke and perfume samples. The pavement clinging to our sandals for slightly too long after each step. Sun dress weather. Prickly legs.
We don’t notice him until he’s right in front us of. His shirt has one button too many undone. His face is fully healed. A boy of about five is gripping his hand, staring at us intently. Similar curls.
People flow around us on the pavement, shaking heads, rolling eyes.
Is his nose less perfect? Eyes slightly darker? Is his hairline different? I’m looking for excuses but I don’t need them. The shock is pulsing behind my eyes and in the back of my throat.
‘Sorry to bother you both, I left my wallet at home, I only have 30p. Promised my little brother a Cornetto. Spare any change?’
Such a weird, small lie. Why has he roped this child into helping him?
Cherelle glances at me, too embarrassed to keep opening her Twirl.
He’s staring me down. Daring me to say something, to force him to break character, make him splinter off into the crowd sifting around the exit.
‘We’ve met before.’ My words crack slightly. I nervously run my tongue over dry lips.
He smiles, with all his teeth, but it looks like he’s wearing it the wrong way round.
Cherelle pushes a pound coin at him impatiently, takes my elbow. ‘Don’t be weird.’
Her phone goes off, and she doesn’t notice the way he ducks his head towards me as he walks past, still hand in hand with the boy. His voice is low, scented with synthetic strawberry.
‘You have a good memory,’ he murmurs. He might mean it to sound mocking. Threatening, even.
It sounds like a compliment.
I eat my Solero at my desk, looking up the term “super recogniser.” I read about intelligence officers trawling thousands of hours of CCTV footage.
I look up ‘shapeshifter.’ Under ‘people also ask’, a question catches me off guard.
‘How can you tell if you’re a shapeshifter?’
I smirk, close the window. My keyboard is sticky. I still haven’t done the photocopying for tomorrow.
* * *
The third time we meet, all pretence is off. He smiles as soon as he sees me. This time it fits perfectly, reaches all the way up to his eyes.
I’m on my way in, a coffee in each hand ahead of the morning huddle, laptop bag slipping off my shoulder. He’s outside the entrance this time, with the men who play accordion and drums. He’s holding a tambourine, occasionally hitting it against his thigh. He’s out of time.
I guess I am, too.
I still don’t understand what he is, but I don’t really understand what I am, either.
He extends a hand, eyes hard with challenge. I place the coffees on the ground. We kick them over onto the laptop bag when I twirl him around, laughing.