strong dark espresso
A group of us arrived together. We were the Christmas
volunteers at a homeless shelter in east London. Easy for
me, I thought. Third time, this is. I didn’t have anything else to do
but many of them were using up holiday leave so that they could help out at the
shelter’s busiest time of the year.
‘Hello, I’m Diana,’ she said, beaming a smile
that lit up the room.
‘Hi, I’m Kevin.’
My voice sounded quiet, unsure, small yet in my head those
three words were booming in time to my heartbeat. I knew from that very moment
that she was special, a magnet I’d be unable to resist. What I didn’t know then,
though, was how this girl would change my life for ever.
‘It’s my first time at volunteering so I’m all
yours. Just tell me what to do,’ she said.
For the next five days, Diana and I were inseparable. We
decorated the community hall with gaudy foil decorations, served Christmas
lunches to over three hundred homeless guests and organised entertainment for
after the present-giving. Who would have thought that well spoken girl would
have been such an expert in making balloon animals?
‘The little ones I look after love it when we
make these,’ Diana explained, transforming two long orange balloons into a
squeaky recognisable dachshund. ‘Did I tell you I work as a nanny?’
I was sure she didn’t need
to work as a nanny. She rarely gave much away about her private life but
from her accent and a few hints about where she went to school and what her home
was like, I knew our backgrounds couldn’t be further apart. I was being drawn
into her net, becoming obsessed. Diana’s was the last face I saw when I went to
sleep and the first I saw when I opened my eyes to begin another day. Yet, she
had no idea the effect she had on me …or did she? The way she looked at me coyly
and the way she leaned her head on one side running her hand through her cropped
blonde hair made me wonder whether she was playing with my feelings. There could
be no future for us, I knew that.
‘I can’t believe this is all coming to an end,’ I
Diana just smiled and I knew, then, I would never be able to
say good-bye for good.
The end did come and we exchanged
mobile phone numbers, promising to text each other.
‘Perhaps we can meet for a coffee sometime?’
‘Maybe,’ Diana said, without much conviction.
A lump formed in my throat as I watched her almost break into
a jog as she left the building for the last time.
‘Perhaps I’ll see you next year, Kev,’ she
shouted, without a backward glance.
It was as if now the Christmas
period was over and her charity work was at an end, she would go back to her
privileged lifestyle and forget all about me. What’s happened to the
compassionate vibrant girl who made the guests feel so at ease? I thought.
What about the girl with the infectious giggle who made me feel on top of the
world? Was I part of her ‘ease-my conscience’ plan too? Well, she hadn’t got rid
of me as easily as that.
I went back to the pokey flat I shared with my mother. She
was pleased to see me at least, so she said, but soon started nagging again.
‘What’s up, Kevin? You’ve been
moping around getting under my feet ever since you got back from that
‘Leave off, Ma,’ I said. ‘What’s
‘Charity begins at home, I say. You
went swanning off to help them homeless without thinking that yer nearest and
dearest was ‘ere all on ‘er lone-some over Christmas. I don’t know what the
Well, you’ve hit the nail on the
head, there, Ma, I thought. The attraction was in the form of a
beautiful young girl I just can’t get out of my mind.
‘It’s about time you got out there
and tried to get yourself sorted. A job for starters,’ she said, droning on.
‘That way, you could start paying your way in this place. Plus, you may get
something resembling a social life too instead of staying in night after
I glared at my mother and stormed
out to my room. You don’t have to rub it in, Ma. What had I got to offer Diana,
anyway? I had no job, no money, no friends. I would put her out of my mind and
forget all about her. Well, that was my plan anyway.
I lasted a week before I texted.
‘Hi, Diana. Hope u r ok. Missing u.
Luv Kev.’ I hesitated before adding XX, then pressed ‘send’.
Nothing came back. I suppose I
expected an answer back straightaway.
I pressed ‘Resend’.
And so began my pursuit of the one
girl who’d made me feel so special. We hadn’t kissed, we hadn’t even touched
apart from that first handshake and the odd brush against each other but without
Diana I felt empty inside. I called her mobile.
‘Hello. Who is this?’
‘Umm, Kevin? I don’t think I know a
I felt as if I’d been kicked in the
‘Kevin. Kevin Smith. We met at the
shelter. You gave me your number.’
‘Oh, that Kevin. Hi.’ At the other
end, Diana’s voice changed. Her words became more clipped, as if I was taking up
precious minutes of her time. ‘What do you want?’
‘I just wondered how you were. It’s
been a week and I’ve missed you. Do you think we could meet for that coffee we
talked about?’ My hand was shaking and I knew I sounded pathetic. How could one
person have an effect on me like this?
‘The coffee you talked
about, you mean. I don’t think so. I mean, it was jolly good fun at the shelter
and all that, but that was it. Move on, I say, and put it down to doing our bit
of good-will for those pooor people. Bye.’
I was left looking at my silent
mobile wondering if I’d heard correctly. Surely she couldn’t just dismiss me
like that? How dare she?
I began phoning several times a day after that but she never
answered again. Either the phone was picked up and immediately switched off or
it went straight to answer-phone.
‘Hi, you’ve reached Di. I can’t take your call at
the moment. Please leave your message and phone number after the tone and I’ll
get back to you.’
But she never did. I left message
after message telling her how I felt. It was hopeless.
I started using my mother’s phone when she was
out at Bingo. She never remembered to take it with her. I rang Diana’s number
and waited to hear her voice.
I was unable to answer, so shocked
at hearing her voice once again. I pressed the off button and re-dialled.
‘Hello. Who is this?’
I cut her off again. Her voice
sounded more anxious that time. I carefully pressed each of the digits and
waited for the dialling tone.
‘Who’s there? Just say
But I didn’t. I just held the phone
close to my mouth, knowing she would hear every breath.
‘Who are you? What do you want? Who are you, you
perv? GET OFF MY LINE!’ This time she cut me off.
I waited a month before phoning again. Ma was in
bed and I rang Diana’s number at two in the morning. She took what seemed like
an age to pick up. She hadn’t blocked the number, then.
‘Hello.’ Her voice was husky and
each syllable was sleepily monotone.
I exhaled a long breath and
whispered, ‘No one rejects me. Ever. You’ll live to regret it.’
Diana’s scream pierced my ear
before the silence of being cut off brought me to my senses. What have you
just done, you stupid man? I thought. She’ll know it’s you now. What
if she contacts the police? You’ll be charged with harassment. They’ll trace
your mother’s phone. You love Diana, for God’s sake. Why terrify the poor girl?
I decided not to contact Diana
again and life returned to tedious regularity. I managed to get a job packing
boxes so at least my mother was happy about that. I got up each morning went to
the factory, came home, ate my dinner and then spent every evening alone in my
‘I don’t know what you do in
there,’ Ma said. ‘All I hear is that awful music, pounding away. It’s as if the
ceiling’s going to cave in.’
I got up and left the table, making
my way into the hallway.
‘Not healthy.’ I heard her say.
‘Not healthy at all.’
It was no good. I couldn’t get
Diana out of my head no matter how hard I tried. Even the ‘awful music’ my
mother detested was full of melancholy with lyrics about lovers being spurned by
beautiful girls, girls who discarded suitors like unwanted rubbish. I began to
see her face everywhere, or so I thought. I was being pulled and sucked into a
vacuum, where I couldn’t breathe, with Diana at the centre. If only I could find
out where she lived so that I could see her in person just one more time, then
I’d leave her alone, I told myself.
A voice pounded in my head.
‘She told you where she lived.
Don’t you remember? Not the actual address but the area. Don’t you remember how
she laughed when you let out that long whistle?’
I did remember. The properties in
that area of South Kensington were worth millions but she assured
me that she and two friends were ‘just renting’. I remember jotting it down on
the back of the information pack the people at the shelter had provided when
we’d arrived. I rummaged through the discarded pile of papers in the corner of
the room and found was what I was looking for. My heart raced in my chest. I
knew that one final sighting of Diana was all I needed to get over her, once and
for all, and by finding that address, it was there in my grasp.
I started missing work. I’d leave at the normal time but
would take a tube across London getting off at Gloucester
Road station and wander round the nearby streets searching out the names.
Stanhope Gardens, that was it. I
remembered her saying it sounded as if she lived in a garden not a street. I
walked up and down peering in all the windows especially the basements where I
could see right inside the rooms. The white houses there were very grand with
square bay windows and steps up to each front door but some had separate
entrances to basement flats.
It was a particularly wet day in
August when I spotted Diana for the first time since I’d started searching. I
was on the point of going home after yet another wasted journey and was
sheltering from the rain under a bus shelter. The number 49 bus drew up and a
group of three girls got off, armed with bags of shopping. I’d know that
giggle anywhere, I thought. My heart started racing and I shifted to the
corner of the shelter to avoid being seen. I put my hood up, pulling it forward
over my face, then followed Diana and her friends along the street. They crossed
over and disappeared down the steps to a basement. I made a note of the number
and stood to the side looking down in on them.
I knew then I’d be back. In the
dark. I could watch all her comings and goings from the gardens opposite. Before
leaving the street, I used my new phone and dialled Diana’s number.
‘Hi, Di speaking.’ (‘Ooooh, Di
speaking.’ Someone taunted and giggled in the background.) ‘Shut up,’ Diana
said. ‘Oh, not you, sorry.’
I took a deep breath, exhaled and
said, ‘I know where you live. I can see you. I’ll be back.’
Why had I just done that? I
imagined the scene in the flat. Diana would be shaking with fear, I was sure.
Maybe hysterical. Her friends would be comforting her, sympathising, offering to
check the street perhaps, insisting she rings the police. I knew I had to get
away and fast. I was taking a risk just being in the vicinity. Hadn’t I told
myself that I wanted to see her one more time and then I’d leave her alone? Yet
here I was, getting in deeper and deeper. She was my drug. The more I had, the
more I wanted and I couldn’t stop.
it a few days until I went again. It was a Thursday night. I walked up the
street. It was dusk and I saw that the flat was in darkness. I sat in the
gardens opposite and waited and waited. There were plenty of people around to
begin with, using the path around the fountain in the centre as a short-cut
between streets. When darkness descended completely and it got later and later,
past midnight, the gardens became deserted, quite spooky in fact. The light from
the only street lamp was blocked by the full leaf of the trees. It was a place
of shadows and two female voices carried clearly through the night air. I was in
luck; one of them belonged to Diana. I made my way through the blackness to the
opening on the other street.
fine. It’s only a minute or so through here,’ I heard Diana say. ‘It takes
absolutely yonks to go all the way round. I’ll be fine as long as that saddo who
keeps ringing me isn’t around.’
shouldn’t joke about things like that, Di. You didn’t think it was a joke last
week, did you? Annabel told me how upset you were. They were on the verge of
ringing the police. Why did you put them off? And another thing, how did he know
think it’s a guy I met at the shelter last Christmas. He was besotted
with me. My fault; I did rather play up to him. You know what I’m like. He’s
if you’re sure.’ The two young women embraced and Diana made her way along the
a couple of yards in front of me.
am I? Harmless am I?’ I said, in a low whisper.
turned round, her mouth open, eyes wide. ‘Oh my God, who’s there? Kevin, what
the hell do you think you’re doing?’
turns me away. Nobody leads me on and then dumps me.’ I grabbed her arm and
pulled her towards me, twisting it up behind her back and dragging her into the
gloom of the trees.
you’re hurting me. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have flirted with you. It was only a
bit of fun. I’m always doing it. Just let me go, pleeeeease!’
taste the fear in her eyes and I hated myself for it but there was no turning
It was starting to get light and
somehow I knew I had to get away from there. I couldn’t remember what had
happened but I had a feeling of terror, my heart was thudding in my chest. It
was more a denial that I couldn’t even admit to myself, I suppose. I left the
gardens behind and walked back to the tube station. My eyes darted
On reaching the flat,
I fumbled to turn the key in the lock and let myself in.
‘That you, Kevin? You
dirty stop out. Why didn’t you tell me you were staying out all night? Some girl
eh?’ My mother’s voice shouted from the living room. ‘Hey, d’ya know what date
it is? Ten years to the day that poor Diana died. It’s all over the news. Look
at all them flowers people left. Aw, so sad. I don’t believe it was an accident
though, do you?’
I steadied myself
against the hall door, shaking uncontrollably. Diana. Yes, she died. My hand
made its way into my jacket pocket. I felt the cold steel blade inside. No, no
accident, Ma. The blade felt sticky.
Yes, I remember now. I started to sob and
reached for my phone.
You alright, love?’ said Ma.
About the author
Jan is a fiction writer living in
Cardiff, Jan regularly
submits short stories to magazines and competitions. Several have been
published on Alfie Dog Fiction and Cafe Lit. A member of RNA's New Writers'
Scheme 2016, she is in the process of submitting her first novel to agents and