Coming towards the end of September we were plunged into an Indian summer and it seemed like everyone in town hit the streets or the parks. Women and girls gave one last outing to their summer dresses and the men fell back into shorts. The temperature kept on climbing.
Lunch time I was sitting at a pavement table at the Pig and Pastry watching the teenagers from All Saints collecting their chips and pizzas. The girls with their dyed hair and skirts hitched up high, the boys battling adolescence with their pale blue uniform shirts open to the waist. The constant babble of their chatter was a song to freedom.
The guy who was sitting opposite me had no shoes. He wore a baggy T and brown shorts and from under his shorts a serpent tattoo protruded and wound its way down to his toes, where it disappeared. He didn’t smile but his features resembled those of the Dutch renaissance painter, Hieronymus Bosch.
He ordered kippers. Two of them.
He gazed at me over the table. I nodded, smiled, gazed back at him for a second or two and, receiving no sign of recognition, averted my eyes back to the teenagers.
A minute or two later a large woman in a crumpled smock and scarlet jeggings crossed over the road and stood over him. I glanced from him to her and back again. He was gazing at me. Her lips were red and tight. Her fists were clenched. Her hair was insane.
‘Michele, you stole my purse,’ she said. He didn’t move a muscle. The other people at our table and the adjoining one fell silent and found oceans of interest in their food or coffee or, in one case, a woman stared in disbelief at her fingers.
The jeggings woman held out an open hand. ‘Give me it,’ she said.
He placed a small green leather purse into her hand with his eyes fixed on me.
‘You’re a rat,’ she said. ‘You know what you are? You’re a rat.’ She opened the purse and looked inside. ‘Where’s the money? There was twenty quid in here. At least twenty, and change, maybe thirty quid.’
A waitress came out of the cafe with a couple of kippers and some bread and butter on a plate, but she smelt a rat and took the kippers back inside.
‘I’ll pay you back,’ said Michele. Italian accent. So he wasn’t Dutch.
‘I don’t want paying back. You can’t pay me back. You’ve got nothing. I want my money and I want it now you rat-faced thieving bastard.’ She slapped him across the head and he fell against the plate-glass of the window.
‘Fuck sake,’ he said. ‘No need for that. The money’s gone. OK? Scratch-cards; I had a few drinks. And the kippers.’
‘And what do I give Clare and Josh after school? I can’t feed them scratch-cards, dead scratch-cards.’ She hit him again, harder than the last time. His face merged with the plate-glass.
He scrambled to his feet and ran over the road, weaving through the screeching and hooting traffic, his bare feet slapping the tarmac.
The jeggings woman took his seat and put her face in her hands.
‘What a tosser,’ a woman at the next table said. ‘Are you all right, love?’
When the waitress reappeared and asked, ‘Anyone order kippers?’ the jeggings woman got to her feet and said, ‘Can you put them in a bag, please? I’ll take them with me.’