Harriet turns down the telly for a few seconds, straining to listen. She knows the sound of those footsteps by heart, partly because the young man who makes them has been living in the flat upstairs for about ten years now. The reason she really remembers them, however, is something she couldn't put her finger on for a very long while, but eventually figured out, and she's proud of that fact. He has the lightest, quickest footfalls she's ever heard: soft and smooth, as if he's scarcely touching the ground.
She's seen him a goodly number of times, too. He's usually dressed in fine shirts, dark trousers, and a nice jacket, but can't hide the fact that he's all angles, really quite thin. In spite of that, his movements are graceful—swift, serpentine.
When they're getting home at the same time, which isn't often, he always holds the door for her, wearing a sheepish smile. He's handsome, Harriet supposes, in a starved-James-Dean kind of way, although she still doesn't know what color his eyes are because he's forever wearing an expensive pair of black sunglasses. She knows they're expensive because her son used to wear an identical pair.
(He was wearing them when he died at the wheel of his beloved sports car twenty years ago.)
Harriet asked his name once, about six months ago, when she helped him up the stairs with an armful of potted plants. He'd paused for a few seconds, fumbling his key into the lock, as if he wasn't accustomed to using it. "Anthony," he'd finally said, hastily scooping up the pots. "Pleased to meet you," he'd added, using his back to brace the door open behind him as he retreated into the flat, "and thanksss."
The lisp was sort of a shame, Harriet thought. She wouldn't talk much, either, what with how cruel others could be.
Harriet might have worried for Anthony, taken him for one of those lonely, depressed corporate sorts prone to eventual suicide, but he seemed to have something resembling a social life. About a year after he moved in, he started bringing somebody home every other week or so.
In truth, he wasn't at home all that much; Harriet couldn't help but wonder if he spent most of his daylight hours (and his nighttime hours, too, several times a week) wherever his guest lived. She knew it was always the same person because the footsteps that accompanied Anthony's up the stairs were always the same: deliberate, laden with consideration.
There's no way it could have been a lady-friend, not with footfalls like that.
Today, it's the same set of accompanying feet. What's unusual is, this is the third time in a week, and they seem to be coming and going together. She's never seen Anthony's mystery guest, though she's heard their voices drifting down through the ceiling at odd hours, quite faint, engaged in animated conversation. She knows that they drink quite a lot of wine, because Anthony's recycling bin is always full to the brim with glass bottles, which are always washed with the labels carefully removed. It's a pity, that, as she'd really like to know what they're drinking.
(Anthony has good taste, just like her son. Some of the bottles look even older than she is.)
Harriet switches off the telly, listening as the door upstairs opens and the two sets of footsteps make their slow way across her ceiling.
She supposes she knows what's happening, in an abstract sort of way. She's heard about people like this, of course—in the newspapers, magazines, sitcoms, everywhere. As a believing Catholic, she's not sure it's right. At least she was sure when she'd stopped speaking with her son.
Now, what she is sure of is that anything keeping that nice young man from an untimely death can't be wrong.
Gavin uses the alley behind the bookshop because it's safe, convenient, and the bookshop is hardly ever open. Well. It's inhabited, anyway, as he can see lights in either the flat above it or through the back-room window on most nights.
An older chap owns the place. Glasses, greying fly-away blond hair. Gavin's only caught him coming in the back door once or twice, always mumbles a hello or a good evening and makes sure to keep his arms covered. The gent always smiles politely, returns the greeting, and goes in.
Anybody else would have reported him, even here. People don't seem to remember what it means to mind their own fucking business. On nights when he's careless, too high to think of anything except how good it feels, he leaves sharps behind, but they're always gone when he returns.
Somebody else could be taking them, he supposes, using them, which is really fucking stupid, not even he does that, but still. He doubts it. He thinks the bookshop owner disposes of them. Bless the bastard.
Gavin got a right scare the first time the guy called Crowley came knocking 'round the back. He had been just blasted enough that, with those dark glasses and his furtive demeanor, the guy looked like he might have been hired by somebody to whom he owed a considerable amount of money.
Instead, the guy had slid his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose, just a little, blinked (it was the light from the upstairs window, that or the smack, that made his eyes glitter like Carter's first glimpse into Tut's tomb), and said, "Who're you? A customer? He's not open."
"I'm nobody," Gavin had said, defensively, still a bit creeped out. "Who're you?"
"Crowley. Listen, is anybody home in there? You seem like you might know."
"Light's on upstairs," Gavin had said, shrugging. "Of course he's not open."
Crowley had snorted, half smiling. "Tell him I called."
As usual, Gavin didn't remember much after that and woke up on that very spot the next morning with a pounding headache and an old tartan blanket draped over him. He almost knocked over a half-cold cup of tea that was sat at his elbow in the dust.
That had been at least a couple of years ago. He knows now that Crowley normally uses the front door and that he and the bookshop owner spend long hours drinking and arguing about really daft shit. Or at least it sounds like arguing. It might just be healthy debate. Gavin can't tell if they're lovers or enemies. Whatever they are, there's genuine affection involved, and it gives him the warm-fuzzies.
He's the only junkie in Soho with a pair of guardian angels. He hopes they'll stay.
Lapsang Souchong and Earl Grey are back. Rashid has been the one fielding that weekly, sometimes bi- or tri-weekly order, since at least '87. They usually order their tea and their food separately, never opting for one of the Afternoon Tea offerings.
Just as well, Rashid thinks: those are kind of a rip-off, and they'd get boring if you were dining in the Palm Court several times a week—which these gents frequently did. What's unusual to start is that neither one takes milk with his tea, at least not when ordering his usual. Sometimes, when Lapsang Souchong becomes Darjeeling and Earl Grey becomes Rose Congou, milk enters the equation.
It's the opposite of what Rashid would have expected, but then, the opposites-factor is what makes these two regulars so interesting.
There's their looks, for starters. Rashid likes to imagine the slightly older-looking gentleman is a retired lecturer from one of London's many universities, or perhaps a senior curator at the British Museum, and that the younger one is a celebrity in disguise. He knows the younger one's name is Anthony J. Crowley. It's usually his credit card they use to charge their indulgences.
When they're in the mood for wine, Lapsang Souchong becomes a well-aged French red, whatever they have in at the moment, and Earl Grey becomes a dry German white. Beaujolais and Riesling.
If Rashid wanted, he could probably find out what Lapsang Souchong's name is. He's served them often enough.
Even though he knows Crowley's name, he still prefers to think of the twitchy young man as Earl Grey. He's never seen what's behind the sunglasses, but it's been an item of burning curiosity amongst the staff for years.
Today, Sunday, there's a sense of rightness and quiet. Outside, he hears birdsong that reminds him of home. Rashid drops sugar cubes in each tiny glass bowl—refined white for Lapsang Souchong, demerara for Earl Grey—and readies the tea tray for delivery.
Ruth doesn't mind the competition turning up on her doorstep. On the contrary, she quite anticipates it, because Mr. Fell never pays her a visit unless he intends to buy. She's been meaning to visit his shop in Soho for years, but she can't seem to work up the nerve. She's heard he keeps odd hours, and it's not the sort of place she'd like to go after dusk. So, she lets Mr. Fell come to her.
She took over the shop when her husband passed on. They'd had no children—never wanted any—and their marriage had been long and happy.
Ruth thinks of the shop as her husband's legacy, shelves full of letters and stories he's telling her from wherever he's gone, some of which she'll never get to read because they sell before she manages to reach them. She's only halfway through the inventory, and new books come in by the week. It's getting difficult to keep track of what she's read or not read, but she manages. The poetry section is her favorite, because those books don't sell as well and are likely to stick around for far longer than the rest.
Mr. Fell is interested in antiquarian items—old Bibles and religious treatises—but he occasionally brings along a friend, this good-looking younger chap whose name starts with a C, who has an interest in poetry. Or at least Ruth assumes he has an interest in poetry, because he stands there flipping through book after book in the section with intense interest while she and Mr. Fell exchange gossip and trade secrets (granted, it's more of the former than the latter, as Mr. Fell doesn't actually seem to know the first thing about running a bookshop with an eye for turning a profit).
Sometimes, C will take his time looking through a book, as if he's reading page by page instead of just skimming. He's a quick reader, regardless; she's certain he's read almost every book in the section by now. On one occasion, she could have sworn he looked disappointed to discover that she'd finally sold the signed first-edition of Michael Smith's Times and Locations. An obscure title, certainly, but worth having.
It had taken her about thirty seconds to remember that Mr. Fell had been the one to purchase it, about a month ago.
It had also taken her far less time to realize how fond of the lad Mr. Fell truly was. He'd steal sidelong glances, as if concerned that they were leaving him out. C always tended to read on, oblivious, but he'd steal longing glances of his own the moment Mr. Fell was no longer looking.
Today, Mr. Fell has decided to purchase a new scholarly edition of the Wycliffite Bible. Before wrapping the book, Ruth takes a piece of shop stationery—From Maddow Books, With Compliments—and scrawls, simply, Tell him.
She slips it inside the front cover and says, "That'll be twelve pounds, then."
St. James's Park
If secrets had market value, then Geoffrey MacGregor would be a very wealthy man.
As it stands, he's not. He's chief gardener and has been for nigh on forty years now, although he doesn't tend to dwell on that, as time is irrelevant when you're fairly happy with your job and know that your employers know you're the best in the business. Also, he's not afraid of the pelicans.
Maintaining the grounds of a large royal park, you see a lot. In fact, you see a little of everything, even some things you wish you hadn't seen. During the day, it's mostly the usual—loud teenagers with piercings in odd places and substances they ought not to be using in public, couples snogging away on picnic blankets as if they think they've landed a private room at the Ritz, and so forth.
Nighttime attracts considerably more interesting characters, which sometimes necessitates ringing the police.
It's not entirely sordid, of course. In fact, that's why Geoffrey's stuck with it for so long: he loves the park and all its inhabitants, even the bloody pelicans. He loves the swarms of Asian and Italian tourists with their incessantly snapping cameras, the subdued middle-aged French couples arguing as they smoke on the bridges, the schoolchildren brought out for a romp in the middle of a museum-ridden field trip.
Two, he loves in particular, because they've been coming ever since he started.
When Geoffrey does consider time in conventional terms, he will grant that forty years is a long time. He will also grant that, although the strangers who pass through each day are almost too many to count, he never forgets a face as long as it shows up a second or third time. Likewise, those faces age, just as his own has, although he rarely looks in the mirror anymore. He can see himself in the water clearly enough.
The two he's thinking of can't be thought of in conventional terms, because they don't age. In fact, not even their clothing has changed all that much; but then, they're the sort to dress in a manner that the fashion industry would probably call timeless. Dark trousers, white shirts, and jackets never go out of style. Neither do tweed and tartan, regardless what his Mary might have said up till her dying day.
Forty years. Forty years they've been coming, these two men, at least once a week (and sometimes more), and never has either of them appeared to have aged. The younger one sits somewhere around a handsome thirty-five, Geoffrey supposes.
His companion might have ten years on him, but it's a graceful decade if it's a day.
They normally stand on one of the bridges, idly tossing bits of baguette or tea biscuit down to the waterfowl. Sometimes, of a Sunday, they stake out a bench and don't leave for hours, sipping tea from a thermos or whiskey from a flask. Unlike the stuff the teenagers bring in, whiskey, in Geoffrey's view, doesn't count as contraband, so he's inclined to let them be.
In forty years, he's never said a word to them, and they've never spared him a glance. Some folks, he reckons, are best left alone; they're timeless, and he knows how the fairy stories go. He'll watch over them, though, until the day he's gone.
He knows they'll still be here, talking, feeding the ducks, and loving each other as much as he's come to love them.