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Tales from the back of the eyelids

Money

Years after we had split I met up with Susan again. She was married and had two small children - both girls. We had arranged to meet in the children's section on the second floor of the large bookstore in London she used to work at. There was a café amongst the bookshelves and after kissing each other on the cheeks we sat down at a table, ordered a couple of cups of tea and chatted while her two girls played on the plastic mat laid out for children nearby. The girls were both sweet and one day would be good-looking like their mother. When we had finished our tea, we kissed each other on the cheeks again, and went our own ways, each to do what we needed to do in town.

Just as I was leaving the building I realised that I had forgotten something important: in my wallet I had a voucher worth £20 for children's books. I went back into the store and took the lift up to the second floor. When I got there, though, I was surprised to find that there were no children's books on that floor.

"Perhaps I made a mistake," I said to myself, "and got the floors muddled up."

I went back to the lift and tried all the floors in turn, starting from the top of the building. No children's books anywhere. True, it was a big shop: perhaps I had overlooked them. I could not understand how, though, as I was sure I had been systematic. I had already spent a long time in the place and was beginning to get irritated. I went back to the second floor and asked an assistant where I could find children's books.

"We don't have children's books here," the young lady replied.

"How come?" I asked. I could hear annoyance beginning to come through in my voice. "I bought some children's books in this shop. They were defective, I returned them and, as you can see, I have a voucher which allows me to take some others to the value of £20. How can you say that you have no books?"

"Can't you see," the young woman replied in a strongly sarcastic tone, "that we are packing up all the books in here?"

I looked around me. Indeed there were people going to and fro with piles of books and big cardboard boxes. The shelves were being emptied and there were books all over the floor. It was chaos, as it always is when moving out.

"So? What's that got to do with anything?" I said. She was deluding herself if she imagined she could fob me off that easily. "I have my voucher here worth £20, and you owe me. You owe me children's books to the value of £20! Where can I get them?"

"Don't you understand?" Hissed the young assistant, visibly getting angry herself. "The store has gone bankrupt. You can't get your books here, or anywhere, for that matter. Your voucher is useless. I'm sorry. Goodbye." And saying having said this, she abruptly turned her back on me to attend to something else.

"Hold on!" I cried agitatedly, grabbing her by the arm. "You can't do that! That's not right! You owe me the books."

The girl turned to me, furious, red in the face. But she did not say anything; she just stared at me.

"Look," I said. "This isn't good enough. I want to see someone more senior. I want to see the manager."

"You're wasting your time," she sneered.

"Just get the manager, please," I said, releasing my grip on her arm.

She went off and I was left standing amongst the bookshelves. Some seconds later I realised that she had not gone to get the manager. She was at the far end of the room and was talking to two burly men in dark suits. They were security guards. She was was pointing me out across the room and was showing how I had grabbed her by the arm. The two men strode menacingly towards me, puffing out their chests, getting ready for action.

I thought I knew what kind of action they had in mind and so I did not wait to find out for sure. I turned and ran for the stairs.

"Oy, you!" Shouted one of the men. "Stop!" And they both began to run after me.

I skipped down the stairs three or four steps at a time - I'm quite good at that – and by the time I had got to the bottom I had a good lead on them. But the ground floor was crowded with customers and I struggled to get through to the exit. The guards were gaining on me.

"Stop him!" One of them shouted over the heads. Either out of confusion or indifference no one paid any attention and I slipped out of the sliding doors before my pursuers reached me.

The street outside was also full of shoppers. I ran and I dodged. At the first corner I stopped, put my hand against the wall and caught my breath. "What thugs!" I thought to myself

It didn't occur to me that the thugs would bother to chase me once I was out of the shop. But looking up I saw a ripple of movement in the crowd and the next moment I spotted them only feet away, racing towards me. I bounced up to sprint. One of the men leaned forward and grabbed my coattail: he stumbled and fell as I pulled away.

I bolted down the street. The two were hot on my heels. King's Cross railway station appeared before of me. I'll hide somewhere in there, I thought. The only thing was that the station was on the other side of the busy Euston Road. I jumped over the railings bordering the pavement and darted across. A car swerved to avoid me and honked. The men ran onto the road too but I saw they had to wait for a large lorry to pass before they crossed.

Once inside the main hall I saw that a train was beginning to move off. With an athleticism considerably increased by fear, I ran onto the platform and pulled at a doorhandle at the end of the train. The door opened and I leaped inside. The two men were already on the platform. They raced for the train: one grabbed the handle but I was holding it fast from my side. He struggled with it for a while, but seeing as the train was gathering speed, soon gave up. The other one made a determined rush for another door, but he was too late. As the train departed I watched the two of them standing on the platform scowling, fuming, and disappearing into the distance.

Some time later the train pulled into East Dereham, the end station. This is when I noticed a glaring error: there were mountains in the countryside as the train approached the station. This was East Anglia. In other words: flatlands. There should not have been a hill for miles around, let alone mountains. It was a sloppy mistake and it irritated me. "I am going to have words with the director about this," I said to myself.

After getting off the train I wandered aimlessly around the town for a while. East Dereham did not look at all like the East Dereham I used to know. Granted, I was only nine years old when my family moved away from there: things must have changed and the memories must have become hazy. All the same, the streets couldn't have been that narrow nor the buildings that tall. On the pavement it was as dark as dusk and the only way to see the sky was to stand on the kerb and tilt the head right back. Ridiculous! What kind of layabouts were being employed as researchers for this film?

I walked up a long flight of steps to a large pseudoclassical portico which belonged to the only grand-looking building in town. Young people were sitting in pairs or in groups at all over these steps and were quietly looking out across the town, as if they were on the Spanish Steps or at Sacré Coeur on a sunny day and admiring the view. Actually there was nothing interesting for them to look at: only dark narrow streets and ugly tall buildings. I was surprised that they would bother to sit there at all, but that's where they were. I guess that seeing as they weren't in Rome or Paris they had nowhere better to sit. More to the point, though, was why wasn't I in Rome or Paris? It was pitiful and embarrassing to be starring in this shoestring movie for which apparently there weren't even enough funds to film in more exotic locations. Pathetic!

Anyway, there I was, standing under the portico, looking at the absence of a view when once again out of the corner of my eye, I saw a ripple of movement in the crowd. People were scrambling to get out of the way of two burly men in dark suits who were bounding up the steps. Yes – it was my scourges from the bookshop heading straight for me. I looked towards the other side of the portico and leapt – skipping three or four steps at a time – right down to the bottom, hitting the pavement running. And I ran and ran.

At first I was well in front, but the street was crowded and I was getting bogged down. I could hear the thudding of shoes on the tarmac behind me. They were getting closer.

I veered abruptly into a side-street. They followed. I fled down another street. The crowds were left behind. But something was wrong: I was trying to move my feet quickly but I was hardly gaining any ground. My legs felt as heavy as if I were wading through treacle. And all the time I could sense the two thugs bearing down on me. I was getting exhausted: I couldn't carry on much longer.

A little further on I turned into yet another street. It was a street of grey-bricked Victorian terraced houses which were fenced by iron railings. I ran down the steps into the sunken courtyard of one of these houses and crouched just under the level of the pavement, beneath the railings.

The two men sped into the street a couple of seconds later but stopped when they saw I had disappeared. Looking gingerly over the parapet, I saw them taking out guns from their underarm holsters which had been hidden underneath their jackets. They began stalking, one on each side of the street, weapon in hand. At each house they stopped to peer between the railings into the courtyard below. I ducked down again.

Above me, the crunch of footsteps was getting nearer. With my laser zapper at the ready, I suddenly jumped up and fired two short bursts, one immediately after the other. The two men tumbled to the ground. I was furious: you could tell it was not a very good film because they started to fall before the laser beams actually touched them. Bloody third rate B-movie! How on earth could the director have let such slipshod post-production get past him? To hell with him and to hell with the contract! I was going to quit! I was not going to let my reputation get trashed like this. There was going to be an almighty row about this!

Once the shoot was in the can, that is. Being a professional, I ploughed on. I came up onto the street and looked at the two bodies. Their heads were changing shape in front of my eyes : they were becoming rounder and bloated, their noses and ears disappeared, the eyes became huge and moved to the sides and their skins became stretched and smooth, like frog skin. They were turning into aliens. More precisely, they had been aliens all along and they were now reverting to their original form.

What I did not realise was that because they were aliens, I had not killed them when I hit them with the laser beam. One of them suddenly whipped out his hand, grabbed me around the ankle and hurled me to the ground. In a second both my adverseries were up and on their feet. Hunched over as aliens hunch, they advanced towards me from opposite sides. By the time I had got up it was too late: they were almost on me.

"Look lads," I said, making a last bid before they tore me to pieces, "let's be reasonable about his. What are we arguing about here?"

The two aliens hesitated and stopped, looked at each other, and then looked again at me.

"We are talking about twenty pounds, that's all," I continued. "Is it worth it? Let's think about it. Should we really be fighting over this? I'm willing to forget the £20. What do you say?"

One alien was nodding his head in a conciliatory way, the other did not seem quite as sure.

So it was worth emphasising the point. "We'll just wipe out the amount," I said with a sweep of my hand on an imaginary blackboard. "Let's go for lunch together and forget the whole thing. I'll treat you. Come on!"

The first alien smiled broadly and I slapped the second on the back, at which point he began to smile too. I put my arms around their shoulders, and in a threesome, chatting as if we were old buddies, we walked back to the centre of town. There we found what looked from the outside to be a good restaurant, and we went in and had lunch together.

As for the bust-up that I expected to have with the director - of course it never happened. Everything was forgiven and forgotten the moment I woke up.

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