THE GRAY-HAIRED MAN MADE his way slowly through the crowd, frowning with concentration, careful not to spill the two plastic flutes of champagne. A band was playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan on the sunlit lawn ahead, surrounded by hundreds of people sitting on white plastic seats. It took him a moment to make out his friend among them.
“Here we are,” he said, handing her a precious drink and sinking with a sigh of relief onto the seat beside her.
“Dear Emerson.” She smiled at him, noticing the flush on his face. “Was there a huge line?”
“Not when they saw the prices. These cost more than our flights.”
She patted his hand. “I’m sorry. I think you’ve had enough of this, haven’t you?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. We’ll stay as long as you want.”
“I’ve had a wonderful day, but my feet are getting tired and I’d be happy to wander back.”
He nodded, hiding his relief. He’d seen more than enough blooms to last the rest of his lifetime. A kind of numbness had set in somewhere inside the vast central marquee in front of yet another spectacular cascade of white or pink or purple flowers, and the rising temperature and crowd numbers had made him feel increasingly uncomfortable.
“You’re not sorry I dragged you over here?” she asked.
“You know I’m not. I’ve enjoyed every minute. Though I do think you might have let me book us in at the Hilton.”
She laughed. “But our place has so much more character.”
“Oh, it’s got character, all right—a manager who can’t see, a concierge who can’t speak, and a bellboy who can’t walk.”
“That’s cruel, Emerson.”
“But true. And you still haven’t told me why you picked it.”
“It’s a secret, but I will tell you, when I’m good and ready.”
“A mystery, eh? Won’t you give me a clue?”
“It’s a ghost story, but I won’t say any more than that.”
He laughed, then sat up and peered out over the heads of the seated crowd. “I thought I saw your admirer again back there. I took a picture, here.”
She peered at the image on his camera, and made out the man in the dark glasses, taller than the people around him, with black hair slicked back. “Oh yes, that’s him. He’s rather sinister, isn’t he?”
“Like a Mexican gangster. Can’t see him now though.”
“He’s probably gone home to his luxury penthouse, which is what we should be doing. Come on.”
They finished their drinks and got to their feet, feeling stiff now and tired, and threaded their way down the row of chairs and through the trees onto the avenue leading back to the entrance gates, becoming part of a solid stream of people making their way out onto Lower Sloane Street.
“No sign of a cab,” he muttered.
“Doesn’t matter. It isn’t far. Do us good.”
He doubted that. The question was whether they would have enough energy left to climb all those stairs at the hotel when they got back.
They crossed Sloane Square and continued up Sloane Street. There were fewer people on the footpath now and they walked at a steady pace together, her arm in his. Once, he recalled, a couple of decades ago, he had harbored fantasies about doing just this, running off to London or Paris with Nancy, their spouses none the wiser. He had never asked her. Would she have agreed? It was an intriguing question and one that he might put to her, late one evening over a bottle of wine. But now those spouses had passed away, and so had the lustful impulse. Now she was just a very good friend, as agreeable a traveling companion as anyone might wish for.
And as he formed that thought, a massive blow on his right shoulder sent him crashing to the ground. Dazed, head crackling with confusion, he lay on the concrete pavement aware of a harsh squealing noise that filled the air, and then abrupt silence. He tried to push himself upright but his arm and shoulder seemed to have no strength. He heard screams, human ones this time, and the sound of running feet. Someone was bending over him, asking if he was all right.
* * *
THE FIRST POLICE AT the scene were two officers from Chelsea police station in Lucan Place, who arrived at the same time as the ambulance. While one heard a confusing mixture of contradictory accounts from bystanders, staring with hands over their mouths, or talking into their mobile phones, the other spoke to the driver of the number 22 double-decker bus that was pulled into the curb. White-faced and jerky in his gestures, the driver was in absolutely no doubt about what had happened.
“After the Sloane Square stop the road ahead was clear. I crossed Cadogan Gate and noticed this bloke up ahead turn and see me coming, then start running, and I thought, you’d better get a move on if you want to catch us at Pont Street, mate.”
“How fast were you going?”
“Twenty, twenty-five, no more, God’s my witness.”
“This runner dodged around the people on the footpath, then as I got closer he charged straight into this old couple. I saw one of them, the bloke, go flying, and I thought, you stupid bugger, look what you’ve done. Then…” The driver hesitated and stared for a moment at the policeman’s chest, as if he could see a film unreeling in front of him there on the black protective vest. “Then the runner grabbed the other one, the woman, and lifted her up in his arms, like she was a baby, and spun her around and threw her in front of my bus.”
“Hang on,” the officer began, but the driver had buckled and was being sick over his boots.
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Maitland