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Evasion - Part Three - Justine's Admirer
This is a continuation of Evasion, but follows the life of Justine and a non-Grange Hill character, Max, in a very lightweight and brief tale.
Max swore angrily to himself as he walked down the high street. He had taken an alternative route from work to home in order to skirt around Justine. As he passed a shop called “Get up and Go” something made him look in the window. It was a shop that rented and sold costumes for fancy dress, and had an array of disguises and jokes in the window. Many of these were so ludicrous as to be amusing. This only took his mind off his problems for a brief respite.
“How could I be so stupid,” he said to himself out loud, as was his habit. He had first noticed her a week ago, sitting outside a café every day at 12.30 during his lunch break. She had made eye contact and smiled at him on the second day, he had smiled back, and then yesterday he had plucked up courage to sit down and talk. And it had all gone very well for ten minutes with him telling her about his most boring office job in the world, and she explaining that she was a researcher for the BBC working in the local library. He had almost drowned in her deep green-brown eyes, and she had had to repeat herself several times.
And then came the dreadful faux pas, when he had not been paying attention, and had agreed with her most assuredly. Her look changed at once, and he knew he had shattered their fragile relationship into a million pieces before there had been time for it to properly form. For the life of him, he could not recall what she had actually said, but evidently she was looking for an emphatic denial.
After this she had gone frostily cold, and left saying how she thought she would be in better company among the doddering old men browsing the ancient manuscripts in the library. And so that was that – the initial approach ruined, and she must be thinking he was some kind of insensitive berk. If only he had a time machine and could wipe the slate clean. He looked at his reflection in the fancy dress shop’s window: a disconsolate figure stared back – a man in his early thirties, close cropped head of light brown hair, a too-pale face, blue eyes concealed by modern-frame glasses, and below all that a nifty business suit and shiny black shoes.
Max glanced down the street. From this vantage point, it was possible to make out Justine sitting at her usual table. To his annoyance there was a young man talking to her. If only he could be a new person and start again. A new person… An idea came to him, spawned by the items fancy dress shop window. A sign proclaimed “Special offer - costumes reduced”. He went in the shop.
A while later a young man emerged. He had a mop of thick black hair, which looked faintly ridiculous and a matching thin moustache. Max looked at his reflection again – not bad, with just a few more alterations… He trotted off home to his little flat above the takeaway. There, he changed out of his smart suit into jeans, tee-shirt and trainers. He realised that he would need to change again, and then might be late for work, but put that thought to the back of his mind for the moment. He headed back to the café. Just as he was about to turn the final corner, Max had a sudden thought – his glasses were a giveaway – he removed them – the transformation was complete.
At the café, Max noticed that Justine was alone again, but as he approached she glanced at her watch, and stood up. He stopped for a moment, pretending to look at the menu in the café window, while she was getting together her carrier bags. She looked up and saw him, and he smiled, but she just narrowed her eyes almost imperceptibly. Justine walked off before Max could speak. Tomorrow, he thought to himself, tomorrow I’ll do this all again, but get here earlier.
Max was reprimanded back at the office for his lateness – just his luck to turn up when old Morris was nosing around. It wasn’t as if he was rushed off his feet. The open plan section in which he worked was totally empty this afternoon with the accountants at some seminar or other. His upper lip still felt sore from removing the fake ‘tache. During the afternoon while he watched the tick of the large office clock (how was it that it didn’t lose time, when it had that noticeable delay as the second hand reached twelve?) he thought about his plan of action for tomorrow. He would have to don the disguise at home, again going the long way round to avoid the café, and he must remember to lower his voice.
“Mind if I join you for coffee?”, he practised, and then tried an octave below.
“Mind if I sit at this table?”. No, that was too low, how about higher? “Can I join you for coffee?” Definitely not higher – she would think he’d been breathing helium!
“Practising ventriloquism, are you?” Max spun round in the swivel chair.
“Oh Carter, didn’t see you creeping around. Yes, that’s right – for my niece’s party next week, she’s nine.”
“I was behind the photocopier trying to fix it. I should give up the act, you’re flippin' awful at it mate. Could see your lips move. Do some card tricks instead.”
“Mm maybe you’re right.”
“Take a look at the photocopier if you’ve nothing to do, old man. This came out, see if you can find out where it goes.” Carter put a little cog on Max’s desk, leaving an imprint of toner on an office memo.
“Should call in the engineer, really, but okay I’ll take a look.”
Max spent a happy half-hour tinkering with the photocopier, but he could not figure out where the missing part fitted. In the end, he found a piece of paper hidden inside one of the rollers, and when he pulled it out, it was neatly concertinaed like a Chinese fan. He tried a test run, putting a ten pound note on the glass and noted with satisfaction when a photocopied version of it plopped on the out tray. Ah, if only he could print money like that, he wouldn’t have to work in this dull office, he thought. Then he looked at his hands – black as coal. He set off to the toilet to clean up, and while he was washing, it came to him that he ought to do something about skin colour. Up close, might Justine recognize him? He thought about using the tanning facilities at the Gym, but he doubted he could usefully change his paleness significantly. Then he remembered that there was such a thing as fake tan in a jar – that sounded a more promising idea. He returned to Carter who was busy disassembling his phone.
“Here’s your cog back, Carter. Copier seems to work well enough without it.”
“Oh thanks mate. Not surprised really, it didn’t really come from there – it was in the old fax machine that I took to bits. Kept you amused for a while though.”
“Oh thanks, I love wasting time.”
Max left work as soon as he could manage – the second hand had done its usual hesitant final click to the top of the hour, and he had rushed home, then straight out to the shopping centre for a jar of fake tan. The array of choices was bewildering – he thought about calling his sister up for advice, but was certain she would make fun of him forever afterwards. In the end, he found a lotion that promised to give just a subtle tan, was easy to apply and quick drying. Max did a quick test run on his leg, which went a subtle shade of light brown, not too much darker than his existing colour. He decided to leave it to the following morning, then it would have a full morning to dry, and he would not end up with stained bedclothes and pillows.
Max woke at 7.00, and immediately remembered his plans for the day – his second chance at Justine! He showered then with a towel around his waist set about his tanning experiment. He gave the instructions a cursory glance – use with caution, blah blah, always wear gloves, blah blah, do not drink, blah blah. He wanted to tan his hands, so to hell with using gloves, he thought. He applied the tanning lotion to his face, neck, lower arms and hands. He looked in the mirror – perfect, just a light brown to replace the pale flesh. Satisfied with the result, he sat and watched TV for a while, eating a bowl of corn flakes and waiting for the lotion to dry. He dressed and shaved with his electric razor and finally dashed a few drops of aftershave against his skin. Then he left his flat, and walked to work, feeling like a new man.
At work, the temporary receptionist gave him a funny look, but that did not surprise Max who found the girl surly and uncooperative at the best of times. He imagined that she had been hired from Rentabitch. As he sat down at his desk, and turned on the computer, Carter approached.
“I don’t know how busy you are, but can you give me a hand with these forms? Bit of a mess-up on the printing – see they’ve put 20 blank blank on the date of birth and… my God what’s happened to your face?”
Max put his hand to his face, but it felt dry. “Why, what’s wrong,“ he asked with a feeling of despondency.
“Well – it’s just you have these green spots under your ears. Did you always have a tan like that? I always took you for the indoor type with your pasty white skin.”
“Oh hell. It must be my aftershave… erm, probably faulty batch – cheap stuff from the market.”
Max walked quickly to the bathroom and studied his face in the mirror. It was obvious what had happened – the aftershave had reacted to the tanning lotion, and light green blobs mottled the areas of skin where the two fluids had met. He looked like some kind of monster from Dr. Who.
“Oh no, no, no,” he muttered, and frantically washed his face with the inferior soap bar that is always provided workplace bathrooms. After several minutes, the green almost completely disappeared, but also so had the tan. Dismayed by this, he squeezed his face with his right hand, and then noticed that the tan was still very much in evidence on his hands and arms. Max tried to wash the tan from his hands, conscious that he now had a rather unbalanced appearance, but that stayed firmly in place – of course the aftershave had made the tan come loose. Max sighed and went back to work – perhaps it wasn’t too bad, if he kept his hands out of the way.
After a morning of working through Carter’s forms, laboriously looking up each name on the database and manually correcting the bogus date fields, lunchtime could not arrive soon enough for Max. He walked home quickly, taking his long way round, checking that Justine was at her usual spot and then changing into his alternate ego. Perhaps I should call myself Badly-Tanned Man, superhero extraordinaire, he thought. He did the change into casual clothes, fixed on the moustache and toupee, and stored his spectacles in his jacket pocket.
At the café, he said to Justine: “Do you mind if I sit with you?” He used a softer version of his own voice. She shrugged indifferently. He took his place. A waiter came over, and he ordered a large cappuccino. She went back to reading her magazine.
“It’s nice here, sitting outside. I suppose we’ll not be able to do this when the cold weather sets in,” he said, making a conscious effort to not sound like his normal self. She looked up from her magazine.
“A bit of cold never hurt anyone. I’ll stop here for as long as they put tables out. Anything’s better than staying indoors.”
“Yes, it’s nice to get out of the stuffy office.” Max looked up as the waiter delivered a mug of coffee.
“Oh I don’t work in an office, I work in the library, researching for the BBC. Of course I’m not always doing that – just the project I’m on this week.”
“I see. And after that you’ll be zooming round the country, will you?”
“Sure. You have to go all around to find things out, speak to the locals, look up records. ”
“Sounds like a good life.”
“Oh I’m sure there are worse. It’s not without its risks though. Last week I was down at this old East End pub down near the river – a real throwback to the old days. The sort of place that you’d half expect to see Jack the Ripper creeping around.”
“Wow I thought they’d all turned into wine bars for yuppie stockbrokers.”
“Not all of them. Anyway I won’t go into too much detail, it still shakes me up to think about it. Enough to say that I was in a very dangerous position, and talked my way out of it.”
Max sipped his coffee. He was enjoying the conversation – things seemed to be going well. He took a more substantial drink from his cup.
“By the way, my name is Steve,” said Max.
“Mine is Justine. Excuse me being rude, but you’ve got cappuccino on your moustache.”
“Oh.” Max wiped it with his fingers. He was alarmed to find that the corners of it were coming loose.
“Oh God your fingers, how strange – did you get some kind of burn? They are the weirdest colour.”
“Oh yes, erm... that’s right, burned in a fire, and never quite recovered. I was lucky not to lose my hands.”
“What, a fire that just burned your hands, how peculiar!”
“Yes, well I was in a burning house, and touched the walls, and… I think I’d rather not talk about it, if you don’t mind,” he babbled. He realised he had reverted to his normal voice, and then took steps to go back to his soft, slow style. He took another draught from the coffee mug, and automatically wiped his mouth again afterwards.
“Well, it seems we both have things we don’t want to talk about,” said Justine, finishing her coffee, pulling an apple from her bag. She bit into it. Max enjoyed looking at her, her short cropped blonde hair and hypnotically beautiful eyes – careful, he thought, mustn’t do what I did the other day.
“You know, Steve, I was sitting here having my lunchtime coffee the other day, and a guy sat down and talked to me, just like you did.”
“Really? What happened” said Max, both worried and curious at the same time about where the conversation was headed.
Justine took another bite of her apple, then replied: “I was telling him how I found it hard to meet men and how they were all either just after one thing or were too full of themselves, and then I said to him that there must be something wrong with me – that I must be fundamentally flawed as a person to attract such men.”
Oh that’s what she said, said Max to himself, pleased to have at least solved the mystery.
“And do you know what, the guy agreed with me! Blasted cheek – I mean I barely had met the sod, and he’s telling me that something was wrong with me.”
Max shook his head, and made “tut-tut” noises.
“But you know, I got to think afterwards, and I came to the conclusion that he must have misheard me. I got worked up, and real angry, but thinking about it now, the look on his face was one of bewilderment, not satisfaction at having insulted me.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” replied Max, and finished off his drink, again wiping his mouth.
“And it’s a shame really, because I quite liked the look of him, and he did make me laugh.”
“What a pity. And I suppose you’ve not seen him again?”
“Well,” she said, and looked directly in his eyes. “Not till today. That’s quite a good disguise you have there Max. You might have fooled me yesterday when you walked by, but not today. Not for very long anyway - and by the way, your moustache has fallen into your cup.”
© 2008 Geffers
Evasion concludes in Part Four