IT'S NOT YOU, IT'S ME - GAVIN BELL
“Specials today are the soup and sandwich or the all-day mega breakfast.”
The chubby waitress delivered her line while chewing gum, gazing out of the window and absently scratching her ear, all of which put her body language into a dead heat with her tone of voice as an effective means of communicating extreme boredom. Her nametag had a greasy fingerprint on one corner and identified her as ‘Tiff’.
Lisa said, “I’ll have the breakfast,” trying to sound enthusiastic.
Tiff scrawled on her pad with a chewed biro and shifted her bored tone up a gear, “Eggs?”
Lisa said, “Huh?”
A pitying sigh, “How do you want your eggs?”
“Oh... um, scrambled. Thanks.”
Tiff departed without acknowledgement.
Lisa sipped her coffee and rubbed sleep out of her eyes. There was a crumpled Herald on the next seat. She cast her eyes over the main stories: ‘Violence Escalates in Iraq’; ‘Killer Claims Fifth Victim’; ‘City Council Launches Investigation Into Child Prostitution’. Cheery stuff.
Lisa put the paper aside, took another gulp of coffee and surveyed the café, which was otherwise deserted. The street outside was much the same, only the occasional taxi disturbed the neon-lit rain-slick peace.
Night shifts were the worst, particularly at this time of year, Lisa thought. You finish at seven, get home as the sun’s coming up and by the time you wake up, it’s dusk. Good for vampires, perhaps, but not for ordinary humans.
Lisa closed her eyes and listened to the soporific hum of the ice cream machine and the indistinct vowels of chatter from the kitchen.
The voice should have startled her, coming out of nowhere as it did, but the tone was so smooth and natural that it almost blended into the background.
“Excuse me,” the voice said, “do you have a light?”
Lisa opened her eyes and saw a guy in his late-twenties dressed in expensive-looking jeans and a black leather jacket, holding a cigarette in one hand, the crumpled pack in the other.
Lisa smiled apologetically, “I’m sorry, I don’t smoke.”
The guy in the leather jacket raised his eyebrows philosophically and sat down across the table from her.
“Too bad,” he said, taking a chrome-plated Zippo from his hip pocket and lighting up. “You mind?”
Lisa tried not to betray any puzzlement. “I thought you didn’t have a light.”
The guy took a draw on the cigarette and exhaled through his nose, as if thinking this over. “Oh I never said that. I was just wondering if you did,” he said, finishing off with a grin. He was quite attractive actually. In an annoying kind of way. And that leather jacket didn’t look terrible on him.
Lisa opened her mouth to say something smart, but was interrupted by Tiff, the sunny-dispositioned waitress, depositing a plate of unhealthy-looking fried stuff on the table.
“I’ll have one of those,” Leather Guy said, “and a Coke.”
Tiff let out another exasperated sigh, got her pad out and scratched the order down before departing again.
Leather Guy leaned back in his chair and blew smoke at the ceiling. Lisa had an idea she ought to be angry at the intrusion, but she wasn’t. Hell, any break in the routine was more than welcome. She took a bite of overcooked bacon and tried taking control of the conversation.
“So. Do you often accost strange girls in diners at midnight?”
Leather Guy smiled and made eye contact with her that was somehow unnerving in its intensity. “More than you’d think. Do you often eat breakfast at midnight?”
Lisa sighed, “Unfortunately yes, I’m on nights this month.”
Leather Guy stubbed his cigarette out in a cheap foil ashtray. “So you’re... a working girl?”
Lisa let out a noise that was half offended gasp, half guffaw. Leather was holding that same eye contact again; it was impossible to tell if he was joking. His eyes were curiously colourless, grey like the sky during a summer storm.
Then there was a glint in his eye, like the sun coming out, and he broke into a sheepish grin, reacting to the shocked look on Lisa’s face. “I’m sorry. What do you do... really?”
“I sell crack,” she said defiantly, attempting to hold his gaze and keep a straight face. Leather seemed unperturbed, so she relented. “Actually, I’m a librarian.”
“Librarians work at night?” He didn’t sound as incredulous as people usually did, only interested.
“I’m afraid so,” said Lisa, grimacing in the direction of the illuminated clock tower of the University, just visible over Leather Guy’s left shoulder. “The Uni’s keeping it open around the clock for the exams this year. It’s a trial thing, they’re hoping it’ll help with uptake.”
Leather Guy considered this. “A librarian, huh? Why, that’s a real job.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“I couldn’t do it though, no way.”
“No? Why not?”
“Can’t stand things being too orderly.”
“I’m not so orderly myself, you should see my CD collection. You get used to doing it for a living, though. So what do you do?”
Leather’s eyes dropped for a second, “This and that…” he trailed off, then said, “I’m sort of... between jobs at the moment.”
Leather’s breakfast arrived. Lisa decided to take the opportunity to find out if he had a real name.
“I’m Lisa, by the way,” she said, holding out a hand.
Leather took it and politely swallowed his mouthful of bacon before responding, “Pleased to meet you.”
Lisa smiled patiently, “Am I supposed to guess your name?”
She noticed he was staring at her in that intense way again, but this time not into her eyes. When he spoke, it was as if he was following the natural progression of the conversation.
“That’s not your natural colour, is it?” he said.
This took Lisa aback. The guy, whatever his name was, seemed to have a knack for wrongfooting her at every turn. She ran a hand through her shoulder-length blonde hair and tried not to look as embarrassed as she felt.
“You’re right. I’m a brunette in real life.” She had a sudden urge to tell him that she wore contacts too; the bespectacled librarian thing was such a cliché; but instead, she just smiled nervously.
Leather stared a second longer and then the sun came out in his eyes again, as if he was snapping out of a trance.
“My name’s Jerome. But I hate it, so call me Jerry.” He had a very genuine smile, and Lisa found her own lips forming into a reciprocal smile, almost against her will.
“Nice to meet you, Jerry.” They went on talking as they ate. Lisa found herself warming more and more to Jerry. Sure, he carried himself with an intensity that was a little odd, but it was a cool kind of odd, a charismatic kind of odd; the way she’d always imagined James Dean might have seemed odd.
By the time they’d finished the mediocre breakfast and had another cup of coffee each, Lisa was running late. They’d come to a comfortable pause in conversation and Jerry was smoking again, gazing out of the window at the night, and making absolutely no effort to ask her out.
Lisa decided to take the initiative. Having thought it through, she’d decided it would be better to get shot down than to risk wondering about the cute guy she met in Freddy’s Café at midnight whose number she never got.
“Jerry, would you... like to do something sometime?” she said, wondering why she could never think of an original way to ask someone out.
Jerry immediately turned his grey eyes from the street back to her, “I’d like that...” he said, putting enough emphasis on the ‘like’ to guarantee a ‘but’.
Lisa looked away, “Well, you know... whatever...” She chastised herself inwardly: Nice line there. Idiot.
An expression of regret creased Jerry’s brow.
“I really like you Lisa, but...” he covered his mouth with a hand and looked back out the window, as if mentally rephrasing what he was saying. When he looked back, Lisa could see genuine sorrow in those grey eyes.
“All my relationships end... really badly.”
Lisa got up from her seat and, for the first time since Jerry had sat down in her booth and her life, had to force a smile, “That’s no problem. Look, I start work ten minutes ago. I need to check my hair.”
Lisa walked into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face at the sink, before looking up into her own blue eyes, reflected in the cracked mirror.
“‘It’s not you, it’s me’,” she said to the mirror. “I hate that one.”
She stayed there for a few minutes, collecting herself and wondering why life wasn’t as simple to organise as the books in a library. Perhaps one day someone would invent a Dewey Decimal System for the human heart.
When she emerged from the bathroom, Lisa wasn’t at all surprised to find the booth she and Jerry had shared empty. He’d left a ragged £20 note, enough to cover both meals. The only other signs that they had ever been there were two dirty coffee cups and a folded-up newspaper.
Something about that caught Lisa’s eye, and she took a closer look. The newspaper that was now lying in the middle of the table, carefully folded to draw attention to one column in particular. She picked it up and saw that it was the serial killer story. The article gave an overview of the murders – all young, single, blonde women; all strangled after apparently consensual sex. There was even a psych profile of the killer that some police expert had released – young white male, probably outwardly normal, charming even, but given to fits of murderous rage after sex.
Lisa’s hands started shaking and she flipped over the paper to read the rest. Below the article, written on the white space of the bottom border in black biro was this:
Sorry Lisa, but you’re just not my type. Have a nice life. - J
The sudden voice beside her made her jump. But this time it was merely the waitress. Tiff sounded happy for the first time tonight.
“Nice tip! What a pleasant young man.”
BIO: Gavin Bell was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1979. He writes crime fiction, thrillers and horror, and has just completed his first novel, a blend of all three genres entitled Halfway to Hell.
The City on the Edge of Forever (1967)
5 hours ago