The car swerved towards him; his moped skidded and slipped out from under him. And then he was down on the tarmac with sudden and frightening violence. He came to a stop and somehow, got up, running and limping away. He found himself running desperately along a side-street he’d never been down before, his crash helmet abandoned somewhere. He didn’t know where he was, nor how he got there. He was limping just as fast as he could manage, breathing in desperate ragged gasps. They would be after him, his pursuers from the other gang. They would not let up until they got him. They could not; there was no escape; no way out, no rescue.
Four or five doors down the street was a café, with a big window. The window had a dark green frame. Peering in the window he could see tables and chairs inside, and napkins, tablecloths, glasses and plates. There were chequered tablecloths of white and brightest egg-yolk yellow. He became aware that he was cold and hungry. Inside, he could see a lady, perhaps a waitress or a cook, busying herself with her work. The lady turned toward the window, and with a start, he recognised her. It was his reception teacher, Mrs Burke! She saw him. She made a movement of her head that was not a suggestion but a command – that he should come along inside. All of a sudden he felt about four years old; he was in reception class. He was being chased by the school bully. He pushed the door open and went inside. A bell gave a little jangle.
His eyes darted around looking for a place to hide. In only a few seconds they would be upon him. They would burst in here and finish off what they had started. Mrs Burke looked at him, arms on hips.
“Round the back”, she said. “Quick”. He dashed past a serving counter into a sort of private area behind. Here they could not be seen from the street. She followed him, looking at him sternly, and yet somehow kindly. He remembered her well; she looked almost the same as she did years ago when he was in school. She had been the nicest and friendliest of all the teachers.
“What are you like? What on earth have you been up to?” she asked. “Look at you! You’re in a right state!”
He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“Someone’s after you. Don’t worry – they won’t get you. You’re safe here. But look at you” she repeated, “your clothes are torn and filthy. You’ve been fighting, haven’t you? Sit there, and we’ll see to you.”
He slumped into a chair, all of a sudden drained of strength. Mrs Burke turned away and left the room for a few moments. She returned with a shiny green box, and a glass of lemonade. The big green box had a white cross on it – it was a first aid kit. The glass of lemonade had ice and leaves in it. He looked askance at the leaves as he took the proferred glass.
“Some of the leaves are mint” she said. “You don’t have to eat it. Drink round it. It makes the drink taste fresher. You’ll like it. Drink it up. Some of the leaves are not mint; they are very special, with healing properties.”
As he gulped at the lemonade, Mrs Burke dabbed with cotton wool and ointment, at his grazes and cuts. There was an odd sensation in his head; almost as if everything was slowing down or unwinding. It was if a single moment was going on, and on, and on. It was like a clockwork toy running down.
“Now, in a minute, go into our bathroom – through there – and get yourself tidied up. There will be some clothes laid out for you. Wear the new clothes instead of your dirty clothes. Just leave the dirty clothes on the floor. Have a proper bath with bubbles. There’s plenty of time. If you come out to soon, I’ll send you back in again to do a proper job! Now git! Take your lemonade with you.”
He got up and went further back into the rear of the café, to the door indicated by Mrs Burke. Through it was a tiny space with two doors, one for boys and men, the other, for the girls. He went through into the men’s bathroom. There was a tiled floor; it was warm, heated. There was a bath with big old-fashioned taps. There was a dressing table with a mirror. Various grown-up lotions and potions stood on the dressing table. He looked at a few of them and sniffed at them. Grown up perfumes. Body lotion. Eau de cologne. Shower gel. He had never in his life seen so many toiletries, never had he smelt so many nice smells in one place at one time.
There was a big frosted glass window…there was a big frosted glass window, and there was sunshine streaming in through it. There was a big frosted glass window, and there was sunshine streaming in through it…but it had been a dull and rainy day only moments ago when he came into the cafe. He peered closely at it, trying to look through, pressing his nose against the cold glass, but he could make out nothing through it other than light. There was no way to open the window.
He put the plug in and started the bath. He poured in a great deal of a green substance with a nice smell. He hoped it was bubble bath. It started to make bubbles. It took him quite a bit of fiddling with the hot and cold taps to make the water just right. While the bath was filling, he took his clothes off. Over a towel rail were laid some jeans and a sweatshirt, socks and underwear. Bemused, he picked up the sweater and jeans and looked at them, felt the material in his hands, and then put them down again. He looked through the various jars and bottles on the dressing table. There was a jar of some brightly coloured crystals labelled “bath salts”. He’d heard they were good for baths, so poured them all into the foaming water. He’d not had many baths. They’d had no bath in the flat on the tower block where’d been with his mum, when he was a little boy.
It was all so fine and grand. All this grown-up posh stuff to use. There was a bath mat that felt like fur on his bare feet. There was a stack of towels, white like snow or perhaps like clouds against the blue sky of mid-morning. He took one out and it was so big it wrapped around him a number of times. It too felt soft and luxurious to the touch. On a little bench he discovered a pile of magazines. “Sick!” he said to himself. They were new and glossy, with pictures. Some were car magazines; another had pictures of scenery and people from different places in the world. A third was about different pop stars. Another was about engines and motors.
He climbed into the bath, wincing as the hot water touched the grazes on this legs. This was nice. He looked through some of the magazines, and just lay back in the hot soapy water. When his fingers looked shrivelled, after quite a while, he got out. He was feeling quite hungry now. He put the clothes on, and went back out into the kitchen, where Mrs Burke was busy. She turned as she heard the noise of the door opening.
“Ah. Good lad. Let’s have a look at you now”. She came across to see him, her sleeves rolled up. There was flour on her fingers. She peered at him short-sightedly, as if over the top of reading glasses she was not actually wearing.
“You’ve drunk some of my very special lemonade with bits in it. That’ll make you feel a lot better. You’ve had a bath in my bathroom and that will have done you the world of good too. And you’re looking very smart in some new clothes.”
“How did you know my size? You can’t have known I was coming…and…what about the sunshine?” He moved a little to look out of the door into the main part of the café; outside the big window, there was grey afternoon, rain. He looked sharply at Mrs Burke and went back into the bathroom. Sunshine was still streaming in through the frosted glass. He came out again, back into the presence of Mrs Burke, in the café, a shelter in the world from the rain, a place to hide from the other gang, who sought to end him. Their knives were out for him, but he was OK here with Mrs Burke.
“They won’t get you; you’re quite safe here, and when you do leave, you will be safer still. They cannot harm you now. Now: sit down here and have some supper. It’s OK; people outside cannot see you.”
He sat down, no longer capable of worrying, just wanting to eat something.
Mrs Burke appeared with a little notepad and a pen, poised to write.
“Are you ready to order, sir?” she asked.
He read slowly through the menu and noticed that nearly everything on it was his favourite food. He ordered pizza with pepperoni and hot chilli sauce, and a coke, and then some ice-cream. It seemed strange to him that the café had no other guests. Perhaps it opened in the evening only, just for grown-ups. It did not seem strange to him that Mrs Burke was in charge. He was in a strange kind of place where strange things could happen, and he was not at all bothered by it.
When he’d almost finished eating his ice-cream, Mrs Burke came to sit down opposite him.
“Nice?” she asked. “You’ve seen our special bathroom; by now you’ll be very much aware that this is an unusual cafe. It’s not anywhere. Not everyone can come here. You can’t even see it on the street. You could walk by it and not notice it. But the people that do notice us, well, they always come in, and they always feel very much better for it. I’m really pleased to see you. You’re going to be OK now. You’ll be able to do great things by yourself. You’ll be going back to the place they can get you: but they won’t get you. But you need to change yourself. You’ve to turn to the future, turn away from the past. You’ve to stop all those dodgy deals I know you’ve done, and get on the straight and narrow. You’ve got greatness ahead of you, believe me, young man. Even if you had not been here, you would have been able to do great things. But people who have been washed in our bathroom here, find it difficult to get into trouble later. You will – you must – go on. You must get back to college. But the very first step is the hardest. You’ll walk out that door, and then take that step.”
“Have a look in the mirror in the bathroom” she said. He went into the bathroom and looked at himself. He seemed unchanged, though perhaps a little pink and clean from the bath he’d had, and from the effect of the new clothes. As he left the bathroom and went through the anteroom, he noticed that the tiled floor had a spiral of yellow tiles starting in the middle, getting bigger, spiralling out to the door into the café. He went through the door one last time to see Mrs Burke waiting for him.
“On your way then, young man”, said Mrs Burke.
“Will I be OK?” he asked.
“Believe me when I say, you will be fine.”
And with that, he opened the door – which tinkled again – and walked out into the afternoon. Hours must have passed: the rain had stopped and late afternoon sunshine was breaking through. As he walked away from the café, three men suddenly burst round the corner on the opposite side of the street. One of them glanced across the street at him, for an instant, before ignoring him and running on. The other two men did not even notice him. They ran on down the street away from him, past the café, and disappeared. He came to the end of the street and saw the street name: Lorien Street.
In the next street, there was a crowd at the scene of an accident. A youth on a moped had been hit by a car. Police were there, and paramedics in green were tending to the badly injured youth. As if from an immense distance, he saw the youth being lifted on a stretcher into an ambulance. He had an odd head-spinning moment of disorientation, as he became aware that the youth on the stretcher was him.