Mind and phone me,' said Maureen.
‘I’ll give you a ring tomorrow.’
'Sure you don't want me to wait?’
Polly didn't answer.
'Number 92 mind.'
'I know. And you're the Northern Line. Would ye just go. I'll be fine.'
Maureen shrugged her backpack on and walked away.
Polly could sense her looking back as she opened the A - Z. but she didn't lift her head. The bus should take about twenty minutes. God, it would be great to get a bath with nobody queueing outside the door. She spotted the bus coming, and another right behind it. The first one looked full. It whizzed past so she grabbed her bag and stuck her hand out. The second bus didn’t stop either. She stood on the edge of the pavement and watched as it disappeared.
'Hard luck.' A man with long curly hair grinned at her from a VW van. The door swung open. 'Hop in. We'll catch that bus.'
And she did.
‘Where you headed?'
'Shepherd's Bush. To my aunt’s.’
'My neck of the woods. I can take you.'
'Ye don't need to do that.
' He overtook the bus but didn't stop.
'What's your name, love?'
'Maureen,' said Polly.
'I'm Vic. You Scottish? Edinburgh?'
'Me and my mate was there. Maryhill. Know it?'
'Not really.' He looked about twenty-six or maybe even thirty. She tried not to look at him as he would look at her and she was scared he wasn't watching the road.
'If you let me off at a stop I can catch the bus.'
'No point. What's the address?'
'Know it. Get you there in no time.'
She tried to get out quickly but the door was locked. He sat with his hands on the steering wheel before he switched the engine off. He lifted her backpack and got out. He opened the door, gripped her elbow and helped her down.
'Thanks very much,' said Polly She held her hand out for her bag but he put it on the ground. She turned away as he tried to kiss her and she felt his wet tongue on her cheek.
'How bout I pick you up later? Could drive up the West End and see the lights. Show you round a bit. Soho, Covent Garden – wherever you fancy. The Chinese in Soho’s the best. On me.'
'Thanks. And thanks for the lift.'
'Cool. See you back here then.'
‘I think my aunt will want a blether.’
‘I’ll be back at eight.
Polly nodded but he didn’t move.
‘I’ll wait and make sure she’s in.’
'Did you want to go out,' said Barbara.
Polly let the curtain fall back.
'No. No, I don't'
‘Because the three lads from downstairs want to meet you. We play cards every Tuesday.’
‘They sound nice.’
‘They come up to me. That was Ashley who let you in. He’s Jamaican’.
‘Like his accent. Are they all West Indian?’
‘Just him and James. They’re ever so good to me. Stevie’s a Glaswegian. He went to your school. He’s older than you right enough but he remembers you. Gallagher’s his name.’
‘Steven Gallagher. That’s amazing.’
Polly put bowls of crisps and salted peanuts on the sideboard and her aunt bustled about setting out cards and dominoes on a wee fold up table with a green felt top – ‘the real McCoy.’
At seven o’clock she put the kettle on. ‘You and me’ll have tea. Is that okay?’
‘The lads bring their own beer. They’re up early to open the cafe so it won’t be a late night.’
‘Is that where they work?’
‘Yes. They own it – more of a bistro than a cafe We’re invited to try their festive menu. I thought we could go for lunch on Friday?’
‘That’s dead nice of them.’
Polly would never have recognised Stevie. He looked dead grown up but kinda cool with his hair tied back in a pony tail. Not as tall as his two flatmates but he had a good six inches on her. Same big smile.
‘Polly McGuire. Been traipsing round the world I hear,’ he said.
‘Here and there. I’m heading home for Christmas.’
‘You’ve a great colour. Suits you.’
Stevie introduced James. He shook hands with her and so did Ashley. They sat on the high backed chairs next to her aunt and Stevie sat beside her on the sofa.
Ashley lifted the cards and shuffled them. ‘Rummy?’
‘I’m not much good at cards,’ said Polly.
‘We can share a hand until you get the hang of it?’ said Stevie.
She tried to concentrate as he whispered to her that they were aiming to get a run and explained why he was getting rid of certain cards. James won the first game and they all laughed when Barbara stretched up to high-five him.
‘Are you ready to be dealt in, Polly?’ said James.
She didn’t answer.
’Are you bored, pet?’ said Barbara.
Polly shook her head. ‘I did something really stupid.’
James put the cards down on the table and the four of them sat looking at her.
‘It was just an impulse. I was waiting for the bus and it ran right past so did the next one and then a guy stopped in a van and I took a lift from him. He said he'd be back for me.’
‘Jeezo,’ said Stevie. ‘Are you going out with him’’
Polly shook her head. 'I was too scared to argue. He’s a creep.’
Barbara patted her niece’s hand. ‘There, there it’s okay. He might not even come and if he does the boys’ll see to him.’
‘Sure. Tell him to fuck off,’ said Ashley, punching his fist against the palm of his hand.
Barbara tutted. ‘No need for that.’
‘I told him my name was Maureen,’ said Polly.
When the doorbell rang they all stood up.
‘Oh my God,’ said Polly, ‘That’s him.’
‘Let’s the three of us go down,’ said James.
‘Naw. I’ll see to him,’ said Stevie.
Polly and her aunt crept out behind him, James and Ashley at their back. Barbara switched off the lamp on the landing and the two women held onto each other. They tried to hear what was being said but the voices were subdued. It felt like ages before they heard the door shut and Stevie coming back up the stairs. He ushered them into the living room.
‘Is he away? What did he say?’ said Polly.
Stevie laughed. ‘He didnae fancy playing cards.’
Pat Byrne, December, 2016