For Disclaimer, please see Chapter 1.
Misplaced People by Devize İ 2004 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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Chapter 3: Fiction weaving
Okay, I can do this.
Striker knew she was visibly shaking as they emerged from the rainforest atmosphere of the Underground. The fresh air helped, and she took a few deep breaths, closing her mouth hurriedly as Morien looked up at her and smiled.
"I think there’s a good place round the corner," she said, taking the lead, much to Striker’s relief.
The street was crowded: a typical summer Saturday in London. Around them could be heard every accent from every corner of Britain, embellished with voices from further afield. No one thought twice about an American and a Welsh woman talking quietly together as they found a single empty table on the street in front of a cafŝ.
"Damn...," Morien said, as she glanced at the menu. "There’s a minimum charge at this time of day. Are you hungry? We could have some lunch."
The thought of lunch made Striker’s stomach rumble. She had last eaten about six hours before: half a chocolate bar.
But the thought of lunch with Morien... now that made her stomach lurch. The thought of drinking coffee with this woman was terrifying enough in itself.
And the panic was apparently obvious on her face. "It’s okay," Morien said, half-rising from the chair, her voice low and understanding. "We can go somewhere else. Maybe just get something to drink and find somewhere...."
"No... no... lunch would be good...." Striker smiled, hoping she didn’t look too scared. "If you’d like?"
Morien sat back down again, placing her bag under her seat. "That would be nice."
They ordered drinks. A simple mineral water for Morien. Striker wanted a beer. A good, strong, cold beer. Followed closely by a second. But decided that alcohol at this point might not give the right impression and stuck with a cola, while hoping she wasn’t talking gibberish in the field of small talk.
The ice and the bubbles seemed to settle her a little. As did the forest warmth of her companion’s eyes. She wanted to spend time with Morien. Hadn’t that been her desire for months now?
Stop being such a fucking jerk and behave like a human being.
She sat back, feeling more comfortable, and breathed a little easier.
"So, where do you come from?" Morien asked.
"Originally? Philadelphia. You know, Liberty Bell, city of Brotherly Love...." Striker’s voice trailed off, leaving a note in the air. It wasn’t quite bitterness, but there was something, Morien thought: sadness, regret - disguised by a smile and a sip of cola. Morien half thought about commenting, but Striker swallowed and continued. "Lived in New York a while after that, then here."
Morien paused for a moment, digesting the information. "And you’re obviously not here on holiday. Unless it’s a busman’s holiday."
"Not exactly. I...." Striker looked across the table, considering, aware that she’d already gone too far and Morien was expecting more. "I came over here to see my mother." Kind of.
"Oh, I see. And she lives here in London?"
"Yes." Another sip. "When I saw the job at Vinnie’s I thought I’d apply. I like it here..." a new start, "...despite the weather."
Morien smiled. "How long have you been here now?"
"Almost a year." She could see Morien’s forehead crease slightly in puzzlement, trying to work it out. She answered the question that was trying to be posed. "My mother’s English. I have dual-nationality. I may sound like a Yank, but I hold a British passport as well, so I’m all good and legal." Her blue eyes twinkled over the rim of her glass, and her voice dropped to a stage whisper. "Don’t tell the authorities, though, I still don’t understand cricket. Gimme baseball any time."
Morien laughed, and Striker melted at the sound, grinning with the victory of eliciting that sweet music.
Their meals arrived, and they started them in silence: Morien neat and tidy with a salad and knife and fork, Striker with a bite that caused blue cheese and burger to slop onto her plate.
Smooth. She coloured slightly.
Morien smiled. She liked this woman. Extraordinary that she should be so drawn to someone she’d met barely an hour ago on a crowded station platform. She watched Striker’s attempts at putting her burger back together, taking advantage of the American’s diverted concentration.
She couldn’t put her finger on it... but.... there was something about her that was familiar...
Striker was interesting.
She had shucked off the leather jacket, and Morien absorbed the broad shoulders, the dark hair attempting to escape from its braid and cascade down her shoulders - Striker would push it back behind her ears when she was nervous, Morien had noticed. Her bare forearms were solid, strong-looking; her fingers, currently covered in a thin sheen of grease, seemed able but graceful at the same time. She seemed at once completely at home in this urban street, and at the same time as if she belonged to another time... another world.
Morien tried to imagine any other circumstances in which she would accept an invitation from a stranger, but couldn’t. Then again she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been invited anywhere, by anyone. At least, by anyone who wasn’t a blood relative; who knew her and knew her circumstances. Maybe that was why she had accepted the spontaneous invitation: its rarity.
And the fact that this woman, if she worked at St Vincent’s, understood.
And the possibility of... friendship.
Friendship had become scarce since....
Striker successfully reconstructed her burger and looked up to find Morien staring at her, her salad-laden fork halfway to her mouth. The Welsh woman blushed and sought cover with a mouthful of greenery, and Striker found beautiful attraction warming her like an internal stove.
She smiled dreamily, allowing a brief study of the faint rhythm of freckles on Morien’s cheeks, then asked, "How about you?" Morien, her mouth still occupied by chicken and lettuce, frowned a little and Striker glorified in the little creases on her forehead. "I mean, what’s a nice Welsh girl like you doing in a big scary place like London?"
Morien swallowed, and rested the fork on her plate. A little half-smile crept onto her face. "Sometimes I wonder," she said. Then the smile blossomed. "I came to university here, to study art. Then kept finding reasons to stay."
Striker nodded, fully understanding. "What do you do?" It was a question to which she knew the answer. Partly. She had followed Morien enough times to the council building, but the inner workings that swallowed her remained a mystery.
"I work for the regeneration unit at the East Metropolitan Borough Council."
Striker paused in her mouthful. Then said, a mystified twinkle in her eyes, "What the hell is a regeneration unit?"
Morien grinned, somehow liking Striker’s reaction. Loving her attention. "It’s all very worthy," she said. "It’s the council’s attempt to make their locality a nicer place in which to live. It’s a given for any council, you would have thought, but not the way we do it. We go into housing estates, which have been run down since they were originally designed, and redevelop them. It might be something as basic as ensuring boarded-up windows are replaced, making sure that the streets are all properly lit, that people have adequate security in their homes and feel safe. It’s acknowledging that tweaking or even reforming architectural design can make huge differences to the social environment and the community."
"And that’s where your art training comes in?"
"It certainly helps." A little spark of pleasure ignited inside Morien: this stranger was taking an interest. In her life. In her. Her smile became still brighter. "We’re working on an estate at the moment that has awful problems with drug crime and gang warfare. We haven’t come close to finishing there yet, but already there’s been a fall in reported crime there. We’re just setting up a new community centre... you know, a simple meeting place for the community which encourages them to come together, discuss the problems that face them, or simply somewhere for them to go to have a cup of tea and a chat."
Striker smiled. "And it’s incredible what a cup of tea and a chat can do."
Or a coffee. Or lunch.
Striker had listened to the speech, exalting in Morien’s enthusiasm. Her eyes sparkled like sun on a river. She leaned forward on her seat, punctuating each point with a little bounce of excitement. And Striker was transfixed. This was the woman she’d fallen in love with. This was the woman she’d fantasized about day and night for months. But this woman - this living, breathing, beautiful, passionate, caring woman, whose lyrical voice made her glad she was sitting, because she knew her knees would give way - was better than she’d ever dreamed possible.
And she fell in love all over again.
Trying to calm her own ardour, she said, quietly, "The nice Welsh girl comes to the big, scary city to chase the monsters away."
Morien looked up from spearing her salad, a little startled by Striker’s choice of words. Startled but charmed. She regarded her, a half smile and her head slightly to one side. This woman wasn’t making fun of her, either. There was understanding in those amazingly blue eyes. And admiration. Again she felt that thrill. "Something like that," she finally said, around a slice of cucumber.
"And what do you do, in this process?" Striker asked.
Morien shrugged. "Fact is, I’m just a drone. I help organise and carry out other people’s ideas."
"You’re not a drone." Striker blinked. Avoided Morien’s glance by picking a tomato slice from her otherwise neglected garnish. "At least, you don’t strike me as a drone. Aren’t you allowed to have your own ideas?"
"Oh, yes. We’re encouraged to put forward our proposals."
"And?" White teeth bit into the tomato’s red skin.
"Sorry?" Morien asked, suddenly entranced.
"What happens with your proposals?"
Morien shrugged. "They generally get rejected."
"Spoken like a woman who’s been there, done that...."
"And the t-shirt’s being printed as we speak." They both chuckled and ate for a moment in silence.
"I’d like to know...," Striker finally said, wiping her mouth. "What was your proposal?"
Morien glanced up. Was the question genuine or was she being polite?
"There’s some derelict buildings in the south of the borough on a road called Tumblety Street...."
Recognition crept through Striker’s mind like an old London fog. A mention in the darkest of places, amongst the hurried explanations of medics and police. It had been the only place with which Morien had been connected.
"Isn’t that where you were... found?"
She saw a deep forest green pain bend in the Welsh woman’s eyes. Morien nodded. Looked down. Covered her hurt with a sip of water.
"So these derelict buildings...?"
The relief and gratitude that washed across the table were tangible. Another sip, more confident, and the glass went down.
"There’s houses in the area, many of which aren’t even habitable, some of which are used as squats. A few are still legally lived in, but it’s a grim neighbourhood."
"There’s a few grim neighbourhoods in east London. Why there?"
Morien liked this woman.
"The street’s all boarded-up houses on one side and neglected warehouses on the other. The architecture’s wonderful though: classic Victorian... worth looking after just for that, and there’s so much residential potential there."
This woman was bright.
Morien smiled. She almost seemed sheepish. "There’s a chapel in the middle of it all...."
"A chapel?" Hey, relax, she ain’t no Bible-basher. You watched her on plenty of Sundays. She never went near a church.
"It’s so strange. There’s all this dark, heavy-looking Victorian architecture and in the middle of it all is this tiny Welsh-style chapel. At the very least it was designed by someone who knew the architectural style that’s famous in North Wales."
"A taste of home, huh?"
Morien nodded. "It’s as if it’s being starved of light. Do you know what I mean?"
Striker understood totally. Starved of light, starved of love... neglected.... "Yet your proposal was rejected."
"For the time being." Morien pushed her plate away, determinedly, her salad finished.
"You live in hope?"
"Always." She smiled. "In the meantime, it’s all Woodhall Estate. There seems to be a lot staked on this project. A lot of reputations are on the line. A lot of political careers could be at risk...."
"The drones do all the work and the politicians get the payoff."
Morien lifted an eyebrow and Striker melted.
They ordered dessert and talked of the weather until it arrived.
"Do you know Wales at all?" Morien asked, plunging a spoon into raspberry frozen yoghurt.
"Only what I’ve read."
"And what have you read?"
"Dragons, King Arthur and burning cottages."
Morien chuckled. "Yes, that’s about right." She licked yoghurt off her spoon. Striker suddenly felt her entire body flame at the sight of her pink tongue flicking over the soft, wet mess of ice. Her skin buzzed, her mind was full of humming... until she realised Morien was asking her a question.
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah, yeah, just a little warm, that’s all."
"We could move."
"No, this is good."
"Yes, it is, isn’t it?" And Morien was surprised just how much she was enjoying herself. When she’d first accepted Striker’s invitation, she’d suddenly felt a glimmer of fear. For all their dull familiarity, there was safety in family. Strangers meant rejection and potential danger.
But this woman... this woman knew her background but had not dwelt on it, instead seeming genuinely interested in what she had to say. This woman had been suddenly so scared by the prospect of a cup of coffee, let alone a meal, and it had felt amazing to be able to take charge for once.
It had been a long time.
She smiled into the beautiful blue eyes. "It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything like this," she admitted.
"Not too many crazy Americans propositioning you, huh?"
"Not too many, no." She watched Striker scrape chocolate gateau off her plate and relish the taste. She imagined it sweet in her mouth. "How about you?" she asked, surprised at how interested she was in the answer. "All that healing the sick...," Striker snorted into her chocolate, "...you can’t have had the time to meet many people."
"Not too many, no," the American smiled. "But... I met someone early on and he’s helped with that. I live with him now."
Morien noted the softening of Striker’s face as she talked about this man. She noted that her eyes changed to a sea blue with the mention of him, and were fixed tenderly on the disappearing chocolate gateau.
And she noted that somewhere deep, deep inside herself, there was the tiniest, nonsensical, inexplicable... disappointment.
"What does he do?" she asked, politely.
Striker grinned. "Lives off me. He calls himself a musician. The government calls him unemployed. There’s a lot of people who call him the best damn DJ south of the river. Take your pick."
"And what do you call him?"
"Danny." She pushed her plate away, and pulled the battered cigarette packet from her jacket. "Oh," she said, almost as an afterthought, "do you mind if I smoke?"
Morien made a face. "Well I guess we’re outside. I’m surprised you smoke though."
"Why?" Striker gratefully placed the cigarette in her mouth and lighting it in the shelter of her hands.
"Considering what you do for a living."
Striker lifted an eyebrow. "Do you know how many doctors smoke?"
Morien opened her mouth to speak and then said, a twinkle in her eye, "I probably don’t want to know."
Striker grinned again and shook her head, and Morien watched, strangely fascinated, as smoke trickled between her lips. Her eyes narrowed. They had been skirting round the subject, both were aware. But after a pause in the conversation Morien asked, "How did you know me at St Vincent’s?"
"What do you mean?" Striker immediately felt on her guard.
"I don’t remember seeing you there. I remember the consultants: Mr Mistry and Mr Haywood, and lots of the nurses, and the man that brought dinner round." Striker grimaced. "But I don’t remember you."
"I’m based in A&E."
"You were there when I was first admitted?"
"God... you probably saved my life."
"Hang on... I remember my brother saying... when he first came in, it was an American in Accident and Emergency that showed him up to Intensive Care."
"Drake wanted to thank you."
Striker smiled. "He was scaring the receptionist, I had to do something."
"He can get a little intense."
"He was scared for his sister, I can understand that."
There was another pause. Morien drew circles with her spoon in the last puddle of frozen yoghurt.
"What happens when you’re in a coma?" she asked suddenly.
"Well, it’s like the brain closing down...," Striker said.
"No, I mean, hospital procedure." Striker watched Morien’s face. She was still concentrating on the patterns in her yoghurt, creating dunes like sea’s edge in the pink substance. But then she looked up catching Striker’s gaze, and their eyes locked. Morien held her breath. "I remember...," she said.
"Have you finished?" the waitress said.
"Yes, I think so. Thank you," Morien broke the connection and smiled at the waitress.
"Would you like anything else?"
Morien looked at Striker again, and Striker paused. There were so many ways to answer that. "No," she said, "I’m fine. Thanks."
Striker paid for the meal, despite Morien’s protestations. Guilt appeasement, Striker knew. Then they stood, a little awkwardly, wondering what was supposed to happen next.
"Thank you," Morien said, "for everything."
"Don’t thank me," Striker said. She was suddenly aware of how very tired she was, and despite the yearning to spend more time with Morien, her entire body felt heavy with food and exhaustion. "Look, I suppose I’d better get going. I ought to get some sleep at some stage."
Morien looked startled at the comment but then said, "Don’t tell me you were working last night?" Striker nodded. "I’m so sorry, you must be exhausted. Please, don’t let me keep you. And thank you again."
"No I’m fine, really," but Morien was already turning to go. Moving away. Striker wanted to go after her, to grab her arm - to kiss her goodbye - but the heaviness in her limbs rooted her to the pavement.
Morien took a few steps, was almost at the corner. She could see the nearest entrance to the Underground only a few heartbeats away. And then she looked back, and caught a glimpse of Striker between the crowds, still standing where she’d left her. She made a decision and reached into her bag.
Striker felt numb as she watched the scarfed head disappear among the throngs of passers-by. She felt bereft. And then suddenly, she felt a hand in her own, and a voice reaching up to her ear. "I’m going," Morien said, "I promise, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed lunch." And she was gone again, disappeared elf-like into the forest of people.
Striker opened her hand and unfolded the little slip of paper. A phone number.
Her fucking phone number. YES!
[i] Sappho used the Greek word muqor˘kos meaning "fiction weaving" to describe love