Mistakes didn’t happen in his world. Miracles did.
He knew the girl was on her way, and he would wait as long as it took. He was good at that. He shifted on the bench and arched his back as the nineteenth bus in three hours pulled away in a cloud of choking smoke. London always suffocated him. As far back as he could remember, the city had wrapped her iron fingers around his throat and brought him back to her, time and time again. He could hear the capital whispering her secrets. Old secrets filled with a relentless rhythm; a drumbeat only her people could hear as they hurried from A to B. He pitied them. They didn’t understand that every step they took left a unique footprint upon layers of history stacked beneath their city’s pulsating pavements. Neither did they care that every one of their laboured breaths had been inhaled a million times before. There was nothing new here; there never would be.
He stretched his legs. A light fluttering in his stomach was followed by a dull ache. Perhaps he was nervous. The sensation was new. It hadn’t been like this with the others; he had done his job, his call of duty, and he had been satisfied. But this girl was different; she had always been special, and she was on her way.
He continued to watch the people streaming by—constantly rushing to the next place. Didn’t they realise the present didn’t exist? That it was nothing but a monotonous treadmill pulling them along, tripping them up and dragging them into a future they hadn’t yet created? But the past was always there, waiting; it never hurried. The past was a safe place, a private space where every story lay holding all the clues and all their answers. Yet the people continued to file by him, busy, so busy, forever moving forward to the next life without a backward glance.
He squinted against the weak September sun at a bus trudging its way up the hill. This was it. The girl’s appearance would have changed, that was normal, but would she be the same? Would he recognise her? Of course he would.
The soft hiss of the bus doors opening pulled him out of his reverie, and, with the measured actions of one who had done it a thousand times before, he stood and leant against the bus stop. A man in paint-splattered trousers stepped out and turned down the hill, followed by two schoolgirls laughing and pushing each other towards the Tube station. Nobody else followed; she wasn’t there. He sighed and headed back to the bench. Then he heard her voice.
‘Bollocks! Esto es una mierda!’
A young woman was marching to the front of the bus.
‘How can you say it’s the last stop when we’re in Archway and the front of the bus says Highgate?’
She was younger than he’d expected and wore her hair differently. It was still thick and brown, but this time tousled waves tumbled down her back. He wondered what it would feel like to dip his finger into one of her curls, pull on the silky lock, and watch it bounce back into place. She pushed her fringe out of her eyes and peered into the bus driver’s window.
‘Oi!’ she shouted, banging on the glass. ‘I’m not getting off. You have to take me to the top of the hill; my bags are really bloody heavy!’
She turned her back to the glass and scowled, blowing her hair out of her eyes. The driver twisted the dial to Not In Service and kissed his teeth.
‘Look, lady, I don’t make the rules. Get off the bus or I’ll radio the police.’
She shot him a dark look, shrugged on her backpack, and grabbed a large bin bag in each hand. She half carried, half dragged them to the exit and stumbled down the steps as the closing doors folded shut. She kicked the heaviest bag down the last step and sent dozens of books tumbling in a flurry of pages to the pavement.
‘Hijo de puta!’ she shouted as he pulled away, leaving her squatting on the floor, inspecting the torn plastic bag.
She looked up in the direction of the bus shelter.
‘Excuse me. Yeah, you, can you give me a hand?’
The girl was talking to him; he was the only one there. What was he going to say to her after all this time? His stomach clenched again as he raised the hood of his grey hoodie and grasped the frayed cuffs in his fists. It felt good to hold onto something.
‘Oh, hi,’ she said as he squatted beside her. She picked up two books and looked at him again. ‘Sorry, I thought I recognised you. Do we know each other?’
She hesitated then turned her attention back to her ripped bag, her olive skin failing to hide her blushes. Together they stacked the crumpled paperbacks into two neat columns on the side of the road.
She stood up and wiped her hands on her jeans. ‘Thanks,’ she said, eyes fixed on the books at their feet. When he didn’t respond, she rushed in to fill the silence. ‘I’m Ella by the way.’
So that was what she called herself. He let her name hang in the air, feeling it form behind his closed lips, his tongue flicking against the roof of his mouth. Ella. Ella. It was close enough.
She kicked the curb with the toe of her boot, waiting for him to introduce himself too, but he didn’t. He was there to listen not speak.
‘These aren’t all mine,’ she said, pointing at the books with her foot. ‘The librarian at uni…I’m at RCU. Royal City University? It’s in central London. Anyway, the librarian mentioned she had loads of books she didn’t need anymore, and I offered to take them to my local charity shop as the bus stops right outside. Except for today, of course. Prick!’
She jerked her thumb at the stationary bus on the opposite side of the road, her hands flying up in a hopeless gesture and flopping back against her thighs with a smack. The flickering sign above their heads displayed the minutes until the next bus. She glanced at it and screwed up her face.
‘Twenty minutes? What’s the matter with this bullshit city?’
She kicked the torn bin bag and he watched it blow down the road. He envied its freedom.
‘This is bollocks. I might as well leave these books here,’ she said. ‘I can’t be arsed anymore; the bags are all ripped. Mierda!’
While Ella moved the books out of the gutter with her foot, he took the opportunity to look at her. Really look—at her thick lashes that framed her dark brown eyes, the tiny freckle on her cheek, the curl of hair above her ear that kept coming loose no matter how many times she tucked it away. He wanted to remember every detail.
‘I’m heading for Highgate too,’ he said, nodding at a long, black holdall under the bus stop bench. ‘Put the books in my bag. It’ll be quicker to walk.’ She thought about it, then shrugged a ‘why not.’
They walked side by side in silence, the bag slung over his shoulder which he shifted occasionally as the sharp book corners dug into his back. His neck strained with each step and small beads of perspiration ran down his temples. He pretended not to notice when she looked at him, although every one of her glances scorched his skin. She may have found him familiar, initially, but she would never remember who he was.
‘Was that Spanish you were speaking?’ he asked after they had been walking for a few minutes.
‘Yeah, sorry, it just slips out when I’m a bit, um…stressed.’ Ella rubbed her finger along her ragged thumbnail then filed it across her teeth. ‘I’m Spanish,’ she continued. ‘Well, half. My dad’s Spanish. Never met him, the waste of space. My mum’s English.’ She turned to him but he didn’t respond. ‘I’ve only lived in London a few months. I was brought up in Spain, in the south. We moved to England after Mum married Richard Fantz.’ She slowed down. ‘You not heard of him? He owns a bunch of hotels.’
He kept his pace and Ella quickened hers to catch up.
‘OK, well, he’s beyond loaded, and now my mum’s turned into a real airhead. Would have followed him to Mars if he’d asked her. I have no idea why I’m telling you this. Anyway, she’s a selfish cow. I liked it in Spain. I could see the sea from my bedroom and it was always sunny. You can’t be pissed off when it’s sunny.’
‘Why didn’t you stay and go to university in Spain?’ he asked.
A shadow passed over her face, and he wished he hadn’t said anything.
‘I was going to. The plan was to live with Juliana and study in Malaga. You know, keep my life as normal as possible.’ She noted his look of incomprehension. ‘Juliana was my grandmother, the closest thing I had to family. She raised my mum and came to Spain when I was born. She died six months ago. I could hardly leave my mum; she was in bits.’ Ella sniffed and cleared her throat. ‘I wanted to go travelling, but I had a huge fight about it with my mum. She made this big deal about how she never got the chance to get a degree so I had to and that I could go abroad any time. As if I was going to be stupid enough to get knocked up on my first holiday like she did. So here I am.’
The landscape softened as Archway melted into Highgate. They passed a church with two green domes and a large, stained-glass window, and stopped to catch their breath outside the gated entrance to a park. Highgate Village was just visible at the crest of the hill. He dropped his bag and rolled his shoulders, looking at the cutesy shops with little signs swinging above their doorways.
‘Posh,’ he remarked, nodding at the row of town houses sporting glossy wrought iron fences, flowers at the windows, and stone steps leading to pillar-box-red-and-racing-green front doors. ‘You got one?’
‘Nah, mine’s bigger.’
His grin made her giggle. He closed his eyes and let the sound wash over him. Her laugh hadn’t changed. It gave him hope.
‘The house isn’t mine, of course,’ Ella said. ‘It’s my stepdad’s. It’s nice though, right in the middle of Highgate Village but hidden. It’s like you’re driving down a little side street, then there’s a small turning—no one would know there was anything there—then there’s these huge gates. It’s like the TARDIS, you’d never think a big house like that would fit there, you know? Anyway, they sweetened me up and gave me a massive room. It’s OK, I guess.’
He peered over her shoulder. ‘Is that the shop?’
Across the road was a blue doorway crowded with over-stuffed bin bags seeping discarded clothes and shoes onto the pavement. She nodded and they walked over. The ‘closed’ sign was partly hidden by the mountain of debris. He crouched and placed the books one by one on the step. Ella picked up his bag and shook it, the books flying into the doorway and narrowly missing his head. She read each one aloud as they slithered to the floor.
‘Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, Paradise Lost. Gives you flashbacks of English Lit classes, eh?’ she said.
‘I don’t know, I haven’t read them.’
‘What? Not even Dickens or Shakespeare? You’re joking! Here.’ She handed him a small paperback in shades of red and yellow. ‘1984, Orwell. It’s about a guy who lives in a world where the people in control are complete dictators and he can’t do anything about it. Story of my life. Keep it.’ She gave him a wry smile and looked at her watch. ‘Speaking of tyrants, I better go. My mum flew back from Italy today and she’ll be hounding me soon.’
He put the book in his empty bag. ‘Where shall I meet you to return it?’
Ella raised her eyebrows and he pretended not to notice, scolding himself for being overly familiar.
‘Oh, don’t worry about it. Just sling it in the doorway when you’re finished,’ she replied.
She took a breath as if to say something else but was interrupted by her phone ringing. She glanced at it and pressed the red button.
‘My mum,’ she said.
‘You don’t like her, do you?’
‘Not really.’ She sighed, leant against the wall of the shop, and put her phone in her pocket. He stood back up. Her eyes were narrowed, clearly wondering if she could trust him—if only she knew the things he was capable of. ‘OK, it’s like this… What kind of woman decides to marry an old widower—who, by the way, already has a son and happens to be minted, then insists he adopts her daughter as part of the deal? No biggie, but I was sixteen years old, for God’s sake, and he has a son, so it’s not like he needed another kid. So three years ago, I was made to change my whole identity—my birth certificate, my passport, they even had to rename me at school. My mum said Richard’s surname would make my life easier. Yeah, right!’
Silence.‘His surname’s Fantz, she added, eyebrows raised.
‘Hello! My name is Ella. Ella Fantz. I’ve spent the last three years being called Dumbo and hearing trumpeting noises every time I walk into a classroom. So yeah, that’s the kind of mum I have.’
Was she expecting him to laugh? He couldn’t. The silence hung thick between them. Ella picked at the pink skin of her thumb, pulling at a hangnail until it bled.
‘What’s your real name, Ella? The one you were christened with?’ he asked, though he already knew.
She blew out a puff of air.
‘Right, like that’s any better. My real name is Arabella Santiago de los Rios. Honestly, what was my mum on when she came up with that! She reckons she hardly knew my dad, doesn’t even have a photo of him, yet she gives me his surname and a middle name after the Virgin Mary. Can you believe it? She’s not even religious.’ She pulled her coat tighter around her. ‘Oh, and get this, she said she never even liked the name Arabella. So why name me it in the first place? The woman’s nuts.’
‘I like Arabella.’
He laughed lightly. It felt good to enjoy himself for once. She was a lot more fiery than he was expecting. It amused him, but it didn’t surprise him. After all, she was different every time he saw her. It was clear that he also intrigued her. She kept glancing up at him through her outgrown fringe when she didn’t think he was looking. Was he making her nervous? The thought thrilled him. Either way, he wouldn’t allow himself to get close to her—he could never do that. He wasn’t going to stay.
‘Your surname is Santiago de los Rios. Rios means Rivers, doesn’t it? Restless, yet beautiful. It suits you.’ He smiled. ‘It was nice to meet you, Rivers.’
He nodded and turned to go.
She reached for his arm, which flexed under her touch.
‘Thanks for your help…what’s your name? Wow, I’m so rude. I’ve been, like, half an hour telling you my life story and I haven’t even asked your name.’
He liked the way she used her hands when she spoke, each word illustrated by a twist of a wrist or a flutter of fingers. He wanted to take her hand, feel her fingers intertwine with his.
He dropped his empty bag on the pavement and lowered his hood. She wanted his name. There was no harm in telling her, or at least a variation of it. She would never make the connection. Running a hand through his damp hair, he scanned her face for that flicker of recognition again. Nothing.
Ella was looking up at him expectantly and he noted that her breaths were now fast and shallow. He held out his hand and she shook it, flinching at his touch. He’d felt it too, but it was too late. Could this time be different?
‘Nice to meet you, Rivers,’ he said. ‘I’m Zac.’