Short story: A day for decisiveness

Another of the five shortlisted entries in M magazine's short story contest.

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Taking advantage of a glorious summer's morning, Derrick sat at one of the pavement tables outside Jan's Sandwich Bar. As always, he had arrived for breakfast 20 minutes before his tube train departed. However, unlike any other mornings, today he decided to consume his cappuccino and Danish pastry in the open air.

"Not like you to grab a pew in the sunshine, Derrick," said Janice, the eatery's middle-aged owner. She took out her order book and pencil. "The usual, young man?"

Derrick nodded.

"Some things never change," she observed.

Not bothering to jot down the order, she went back into the sandwich bar to fetch Derrick's breakfast.

Some things had changed, though, Derrick noted. Apart from him occupying one of the pavement tables for the first time, one other thing was glaringly different this morning. "Queen" Mary, the bag lady who begged outside the nearby tube station, was nowhere to be seen. In her place was a grubby old tramp in a threadbare jacket and dirty trousers. His hair was tousled, knotted into higgledy-piggledy dreadlocks, and his eyes stared wildly at the passers-by as they scurried past.

Janice returned with Derrick's coffee and Danish.

"Who's the Old Testament prophet?" Derrick enquired. The tramp was haranguing two commuters who were sensibly giving him a wide berth.

"Dunno, luv. Maybe Queen Mary's sick, so her hubby's taken over."

Derrick let out a snort of laughter, causing him to spill coffee on the table.

Janice rolled her eyes.

"Sorry!" said Derrick, and returning to the previous conversation topic, asked, "Can you catch what he's saying?"

"Sounds something like 'Beware the lacuna', whatever that might mean. He's been shouting it since he got here."

Derrick frowned in puzzlement, and while he munched on his Danish pastry, the sandwich bar proprietress wiped up the spilt coffee. Meantime, at the tube station entrance, the old man accosted yet another commuter. "Beware the lacuna!" he implored.

"Beware the what?" a shop girl at the adjacent table asked her colleague.

"'Lacuna'!" said the second shop girl. "Sounds like some kind of exotic bird or something. Maybe it's an environmental message."

"Wasn't Julius Caesar told to beware something?" the first shop girl wondered.

"That was the Ides of March, you silly moo."

The shop girls giggled, and Derrick smiled to himself.

"Isn't a lacuna one of those open lakes in the middle of a coral island?" asked Janice. "There was programme about it on the Discovery Channel."

"That would be a 'lagoon', not a 'lacuna'."

"Well, excuse me, clever clogs!" she sniffed, hands on hips. Suddenly her eyes glinted mischievously. "Hey! Here comes your girlfriend!"

A blonde woman in her early 20s was clip-clopping down the road, teetering on outrageously high heels. She threw a careless smile in the direction of the sandwich bar. Janice's face lit up, while Derrick's cheeks reddened. To disguise his embarrassment he concentrated on his cappuccino.

The young woman continued towards the tube station, and Janice resumed her teasing. "I've seen how you watch her every day from the window seats. Pretty little thing, isn't she?"

"I hadn't noticed," Derrick lied, his face reddening some more. He chanced a sideways glance. The tramp was dancing in front of the blonde, waving his arms about and warning her about the mysterious "lacuna".

Derrick dropped a £2 coin on the table, jumped to his feet and left his breakfast half eaten. "Keep the change!" he called over his shoulder.

"Thanks!" Janice replied with deadpan insincerity, before adding airily: "What are you up to? White knight to the rescue?"

Cursing Janice's mocking tone, Derrick hurried towards the station entrance. By the time he got there though, the incident was over. Laughing cheerily, the pretty blonde was heading for the ticket machine. The old tramp now turned his attention to Derrick, who, wanting to avoid an embarrassing encounter, fobbed him off with 50 pence.

"You think I want money?" the tramp bellowed. He angled his nose upwards, appearing grossly offended. "I don't need money." He pointed a bony finger at Derrick, looking more like an Old Testament prophet than ever. "Beware the lacuna," he intoned, gravely.

"Right, you are! I'll do that," Derrick promised, going swiftly on his way.

Inside the station forecourt, the blonde girl was at the front of the queue for the ticket machine, fumbling for change. It was true what Janice had said, Derrick mused unhappily. He did watch her every morning as she walked past. The first time he'd set eyes on her, however, had been on the tube station platform from which they both took the same train. He'd wanted to talk to her, to engage her in chit-chat while they waited - only he couldn't pluck up the courage, and hadn't been able to since.

"Move it along, Barbie," the next commuter in the queue grumbled, glancing at his watch. "We haven't got all day."

The blonde put a crinkled £5 note in the slot, but it was immediately returned. Putting aside his customary reticence, Derrick stepped forward with a crisp new fiver.

"Thanks!" she said, as they swapped banknotes. She flashed Derrick her trademark smile. "Mine was in my jeans pocket when I did the washing."

Derrick opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't think of a reply.

The impatient commuter wasn't lost for words, though.

"Gawd, blimey! Love blooms at the bleedin' ticket machine. Come on! Move it!"

The blonde chuckled good-naturedly as she got her ticket, but Derrick found himself blushing to the roots of his hair. He watched ruefully as she descended the steps to the station platform, precariously balanced on her high heels.

Perhaps, Derrick mused, I can catch up with her while we wait for the train.

Yet once he got down to the platform, she was talking with the group of company secretaries who always stood around speaking and laughing too loudly for Derrick's liking. She didn't look as if she enjoyed their company though, for her smile appeared forced and insincere. So Derrick sidled down the platform towards where she stood and learned from eavesdropping on the loud-mouthed secretaries that the blonde girl's name was Sarah.

Sarah, thought Derrick. What a lovely name - even coming from the lips of one of the raucous secretaries.

Giving up on any chance of talking to Sarah, Derrick waited quietly for his tube train to arrive. When it did, the crush of jostling commuters herded him into a different carriage to Sarah's. Yet he could see her through the window of the door at the end of the carriage, and his heart leapt when she smiled at him and gave a shy wave.

Forty minutes later, deep under the city streets, Derrick and Sarah's paths parted. While he navigated the maze of tunnels and escalators to the surface, she hastened along to an adjacent platform to catch a connecting train on a different line.

In the hospital where Derrick worked as a porter, he couldn't stop thinking about Sarah. The thought of her produced a spring in his step and a lightness in his voice that wasn't there the previous day. Everyone commented on it.

"You're in love, aren't you, dear?" said Mrs Henderson as he wheeled the big-hearted old lady to chemotherapy, talking encouragingly to her.

Meanwhile, Dr Montgomery pointed Derrick out to his interns and told them: "That's what I mean by a proper bedside manner. Always keep a friendly grin on your mug and a kindly word on your lips."

Towards lunchtime, Derrick recalled the crazy old tramp shouting about "lacunas" and went in search of a dictionary. He found one in the doctors' lounge.

"'Lacuna'!" he repeated over and over, as he searched the pages. Deep in thought, he read, "lacuna - 1. a missing part: 2. a gap".

What a meaningless word to be hollering outside a tube station, he reflected, before realising how prophetic the definition was when applied to himself. Until this morning there had been a gap - a "lacuna" - in his life; an indefinable melancholy, as though part of him were missing. Now, after that initial contact with Sarah beside the ticket machine, there was the promise of something more tangible in his directionless existence.

That evening, while Derrick waited on the train platform to begin his homeward journey, he kept one eye on the announcement board, the other on the lookout for Sarah. Finally he spotted her tottering along from the adjacent platform in her lofty-heeled footwear.

"Mind the gap!" a robotic voice warned over the intercom. "Mind the gap!"

With a few minutes remaining before their local train's scheduled arrival, Derrick pushed his way through the tightly packed commuters hoping to strike up conversation with Sarah. A whoosh of air informed him the express train was about to emerge from the tunnel.

"Mind the gap! Mind the gap!" went the intercom.

"Gap", thought Derrick, with an abrupt flash of foreboding. "'Gap'! That was one of the dictionary definitions of 'lacuna'."

"Mind the gap!" the robotic voice repeated, and in his mind Derrick heard the old man yelling out his warning, "Beware the lacuna!"

The doors of the just-arrived express train disgorged their human load, and over the commuters' heads Derrick caught a glimpse of Sarah. She was attempting to get out of the way of a young woman pushing a two-seater pushchair. Suddenly, with the train doors closing, she lost her footing. As she fell, her leg slipped between the platform and the train.

"Mind the gap!"

Elbowing protesting passengers out of the way, Derrick quickly arrived on the scene. In an instant he had Sarah around the waist and was lifting her, extricating her from her unlikely trap. However, her foot was jammed. So, as other commuters gathered around, propping Sarah up, Derrick reached down into the gap and snapped off the heel of her right shoe.

Suddenly free, Sarah staggered back to safety, falling to the ground as she did so.

"My hero," she said, grinning impishly from the platform floor and holding a hand out to her rescuer. "That's the second time you've helped me out today. By the way, I'm Sarah."

As the express train sped away, the platform erupted in applause.

Derrick pulled his damsel in distress to her feet and introduced himself.

"Let me help you over to a seat," he offered, blushing at his sudden fame.

Limping on account of the unequal height of her shoes, Sarah leaned for support on Derrick's shoulder.

"What am I going to do now?" she wondered, plonking herself down on one of the station's plastic benches. "I can't walk properly."

Without a word, Derrick kneeled down and broke off the heel of her other shoe.

"These are Ella la Rouche shoes!" Sarah protested, her eyes widening.

"They were Ella la Rouche shoes," Derrick corrected. "Now they're just plain sensible shoes."

Sarah's face broke into its familiar, open smile and she rocked back and forth laughing.

At their destination, the couple emerged from the tube station arm-in-arm and in animated conversation. Pausing, Derrick halted at the spot where the tramp had been. However, his place had been taken by Queen Mary, the bag lady.

"What happened to the old man who was here this morning?" Derrick asked.

"That cheeky beggar tried to pinch my pitch," Mary complained. "So I told 'im to clear off. Can't a lady go down the social without 'avin' 'er turf taken over by some filthy old vagabond."

Remembering herself, she grinned coyly, exposing stumpy-brown teeth. "Got any change, luv?"

Aware of Janice's eyes boring into the back of his head from the nearby sandwich bar, Derrick bent down and handed Queen Mary a 50-pence piece. As he and Sarah walked away from the tube station, the bag lady's voice followed them.

"When you've finished with those broken old shoes, darlin'," she called out to Sarah, "can you give 'em to me?"

About the author

Paul Freeman, 48, is a Dubai resident originally from London. He is an English teacher working at Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations. Before coming to the UAE, where he lives with his wife and three children, he taught in countries as disparate as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia. He is the author of four published novels and novellas and of numerous short stories. His story presented here is based on a 200-word piece of flash fiction he wrote originally titled The Matchmaker. On the topic of creative writing, Freeman says: "If you're good at writing, find out which discipline of the craft you're most skilled at (ie, short stories, romance novels, crime fiction, etc) and develop that talent. You must also learn to be thick-skinned so you can weather any rejection or negative criticism of your work. But never give up. Once an editor accepts your work for publication or you receive a positive review, it all becomes worthwhile - even if you've only made it onto the shortlist."