The Mean Streets of Cambridge [fiction]

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This is the beginning to a longer story, which I am in the process of writing. It is intended to be a pastiche of detective stories.

Setting it in present-day Cambridge gives me an opportunity to write about real-life places that are dear to my heart, as most of my writing is dystopian science-fiction.
The Man on the Train

The man sitting opposite me on the 18:03 from London to Cambridge seemed perfectly normal.
He was in his late forties, with a kindly, well-lined face that seemed to glow from within with a strange vitality.

He sat, cross-legged, drinking coffee from an obnoxious Starbucks cup, wincing at every sip. The smug, vacant face on the logo reflected my piercing gaze.

He wore a silky three-piece suit that looked elegant without being snobbish. I wondered if it was tailored, then I saw the M&S label sticking up behind the rumpled collar.

He took a copy of the Times Literary Supplement from his battered old leather briefcase beside him and opened it on his lap. His head was bowed, as he became absorbed in it.

The only thing that differentiated him from the telecommuting herd was his hat.

It was wonderful thing, a wide-brimmed Panama with a large red silk band. It gave him an air of the exotic and worldly-wise, setting him apart from my fellow worker drones and I, with our laptops and our mobiles and our dishwater-like American coffee.

But he seemed friendly enough when I asked if I could use my laptop, and proceeded to read his newspaper as if he hadn't a care in the world.

He stretched in his seat, he smoothed his creased shirt, and generally did all the things that normal people do on a train journey, while I engrossed myself in some worrying sales figures, and tried to think of some more content for my presentation on advertising revenues.

So you can imagine my horror and amazement when, about two-thirds of the way to Cambridge, he stood up, took his umbrella down from the luggage rack, and stabbed himself with it.

I must have screamed in shock, for several other passengers turned round and looked at me with the stare vague disapproval that people do when someone is causing a fuss, but we're too British to say anything to them.

A few looked at the man, who held the collapsed umbrella in his right hand, and, grinning at me deposited it inside his briefcase. He sat back down, and spent the rest of the journey staring into the middle distance with a vague smile on his face.

I ought to have been furious with the man for pulling such a childish trick on me, but something in me was curious to more about this fellow. I had never talked to anyone I met on a train before, except for purely perfunctory reasons.

As the train pulled into Cambridge Station, and the commuters started to exit into the chilly evening, I followed the man off the train and into the station. Outside the horrible station building I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me?"

"Yes?" he said, looking completely unperturbed. In fact, he looked rather pleased.

"I was just wondering what that little scene on the train was all about," I said, bluntly.

The man craned his neck to one side, seemingly trying to remember.

Then - "Oh yes, that." He chuckled wryly. "I'm extremely sorry if I caused you to lose face. Perhaps I could apologise in more hospitable surroundings." He shivered in the cool breeze that the night wafted around us. "Do you know that delightful below-ground café off the market?

I nodded dumbly.

"Well, I'll meet you there tomorrow at, shall we say, one?"

"Err, OK," I said. I don't know why, I was presumably steamrollered by this man's audacity.

"Excellent! See you tomorrow!" he said, and walked off into the chill April dusk.

I stood there for a moment, not sure what to think. I really did have nothing to do tomorrow, and I had to say that this man intrigued me. Also, I might get a free lunch, if he was as polite as he made out.

The next day was a Saturday. I woke at a leisurely pace, dressed myself, and spent the morning sipping half-heartedly at a lukewarm cup of tea while listening to the amiable burbling of Radio 1.

At twelve I let myself out of the little flat I occupied alone, and made my way across Cambridge by a meandering route. All you're doing, I told myself as I walked past the Fitzwilliam Museum, is meeting someone you met on a train because you have nothing better to do today.

I shivered in the adumbration of the majestic building. Its off-white architecture took on a sinister tone.

I arrived at the market square in plenty of time. I hung around the edges for a bit, listening to the truly dreadful sound of a busker trying to get a tune out of a didgeridoo.

I checked my watch. Ten past one. It was the first time I'd been deliberately late for anything, but I felt like giving this man a taste of his own medicine. Presently I walked over to the tiny doorway, and headed down into The Steps.

If you go to Cambridge, and become bored of the sightseeing and the seemingly endless crowds of tourists, and the small groups of monosyllabic teenagers clustered around these rip-off chain-store cafes, then restore your faith in this town by going to The Steps.

As I descended the narrow stairs, its cosy, wood-panelled atmosphere seemed to welcome me like a long-lost son returning to the family bosom.

It was packed, as it always is on Saturday lunchtime, but it didn't matter, because I would wait an age for the wonderful food, as well as my peculiar rendezvous.

I sat down at the nearest vacant table, thinking of what to have.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted someone looking at me. Then they were gone, hidden behind a newspaper.

Taking the utmost care not to appear as if I was looking at them, I very slowly turned my eyes to look in their direction. Nothing could prepare me for the shock I was about to receive.

It was the man from the train!

Crouching behind a newspaper, he was watching me covertly.

How dare he, I remember myself thinking. How dare arrange a meeting with me, then watch my reactions when he doesn't turn up?

I'll show him!

Slowly, I got up, and walked out of The Steps.

Once outside, I positioned myself on a bench next to the town hall, and watched the entrance for any sign of him coming out. None. In fact, there none for the next fifteen minutes. After that I decided to go back inside The Steps.

I had only walked a few steps towards the entrance, when he rushed out, closely followed by two big men in leisurewear. He didn't look too happy, and when he turned his eyes towards me, I was momentarily pierced by a glance of such heartfelt and terrified pleading that I was overcome. I could do nothing but watch as he was led away to a BMW parked by the side of the road. The "pedestrianiastion" of the street seemed to be lost on these men as they pulled away towards the streets of Cambridge.

For a few moments I was struck dumb with shock. Then I sprang into action. The hellishly difficult streets of Cambridge would slow them down. I tore across to King's Parade and hailed a cab that was parked adjacent to Kings' College, looking for tourists to exploit.

I hurled myself into the back seat and shouted, "Follow that car!" pointing at the BMW, whose driver had suddenly discovered the true meaning of "minor gridlock".

I was promptly ejected from the cab with a few perfunctory words of advice as to where I could follow that car.

Keeping my own directions for ignorant and insensitive cab drivers to myself, I stumbled along Kings' Parade, bumping into a surfeit of babbling foreign tourists large enough to cause a major diplomatic situation.

I reached the car wheezing and puffing like a fleet of asthmatics. I vainly tried to halt its progress by banging on the back window repeatedly, but that only made them spur ahead through the stalled mass of cars.

I suppose seeing a wild-eyed maniac breathing heavily and hitting your back window isn't the greatest sight to fill you with confidence.

I dropped heavily to my knees in the middle of the road, feeling deflated. A mystery had just been snatched away, and one that I would dearly like to solve.

I almost laughed at myself then, as I made my way to the low wall bordering the immaculate grass of Kings'. This is Cambridge, I thought, not the mean streets of Sam Spade;

A dozen other hard-boiled detective clichés flooded my head. The sultry femme fatale who slinks into his office with a case ; the dead partner ; the bottle of scotch with two glasses laid out ; the hard-mouthed gumshoe, wrapped in his trench-coat and fedora, prowling the mean streets where the rain lashes the glistening pavements...

I was disheartened. There seemed to be nothing I could do, except go back to my flat and look over those sales figures one more time, trying to erase what had happened from my mind. Then, in the evening, I would go out to a pub, talk to a few people, and generally carry on with my life, as if nothing had happened.

But I also knew, as I picked myself up off the low wall and made my way along the mean streets of Cambridge, that I had been there to see evil done, and it was my destiny to set it right.
A Good Smell

Back at my flat, I sat down and reviewed the facts. There weren't many.
This man who had played a strange practical joke on me only the other day, arranges to meet me at a café he obviously knows of. He then comes in disguise, and is ushered out by two burly men who then make off with him in a BMW.

I almost laughed. The events seemed so much like a gangster film that I honestly wondered, for a moment, if life really does imitate art…

Where could they have gone? In somewhere like London, the question would have been vastly incomprehendable, but in Cambridge it was merely impossible.

I went to the window. Out of it I could see people meeting, talking, happily carrying on with their lives. I seemed apart of them, somehow. It was the middle of the day, but I felt very cold, and very, very alone.

I went out for a walk. I walked aimlessly, letting the feel of summer, of the city, bubble up through the tarmac and grass into the scuffed soles of my trainers.

Dogs chased sticks. Couples in parks writhed upon the ground. Teenagers hung round park benches, wearing that common expression of acute pain at the overall happiness of the world.

I was beginning, for the first time in several years, to comprehend that emotion once more. How could the world go on just as before, when a man had been kidnapped before my very eyes?

It was then it came to me; the essential uncaring blankness of the world. Through all the devices of modern society, we have reduced ourselves to the status of a computer-issued parking ticket. We don't know or care about who lives next door, we have TV and the Internet.

Locked off from each other, we communicate by phone and e-mail. When we meet each other, our eyes slide away, as if we are afraid to behind the other person's façade of bluff and bravado. Men and women, locked in an eternal struggle…

My grim reverie was interrupted by a woman's voice: "You saw it."

It took me a few feverish seconds to realise the voice came not from inside my head, but from behind me. I spun round, realising that a shadow had blocked out the sun.

The woman who stood before me was pretty, in a statuesque kind of way, meaning she was tall but good with it.

She had a large mass (I think that is the only word good enough to describe it) of black hair, drawn back from her angular, inquisitive face.

She leaned forward and said, "You saw them do it. You saw them take him away."

I was immediately cautious.

"Who?" I asked guardedly.

"Tom, of course," she said, somewhat exasperatedly. "Have you forgotten? Outside the Steps?"

"He was called Tom?" I said. I could detect a trace of an accent.

"Of course," she replied. "Didn't he tell you anything?"

"No," I said. "He arranged to meet me there at one, then watched from behind a newspaper."

"Are you a journalist?" she asked. She was leaning rather close to me now, and I could smell perfume from her, and coffee on her breath. It was a good smell.

"I work at Adhoc1," I said. "Why?"

"He said he was going to a journalist," she said, biting her lip. I thought the gesture somewhat flirtatious. "He said he was going to tell them what was happening, to bring it all out into the open."

"To bring what out into the open?" I was feeling rather exasperated. I didn't even know this woman's name and she was divulging her innermost secrets to me. It was too hot, there was a bee buzzing near me, and I was not ready to get in up to my neck in what this woman was about to tell me.

"He wouldn't tell me," she said.

"Looks like he didn't tell you much either," I muttered. "Can I sit down?"

"Sure." We settled ourselves onto the grass. I basked in the sun.

"Look," she said, "Tom has … had this big secret. He wouldn't tell me, but he said it was big, and he'd have to tell a journalist."

"I'm a restaurant critic!" I spluttered. "He might have told a caretaker, for all the good it'd've done him!"

"That was just like Tom," she said, a little sorrowfully, "always getting the wrong end of the stick." She turned away, and for a moment I could see tears in her eyes.

I remembered our tiny conversation on the train, and cringed.

"So," I eventually asked, "what was your relationship with Tom?"

She hesitated, then replied, "He was my tutor. I'm studying biochemistry at Trinity."

I felt ambivalent. I know about as much about biochemistry as the next man; ie: next to nothing.

"And you know nothing about these people who … took him away?" I ventured.

She shook her head.

I felt it was time to extend our conversation beyond the enigmatic Tom.

"So, what's your name?" I asked chattily.

"Kathryn," she said, turning her face towards me. "With a K and a Y."

I wrapped my head around this new spelling. Kathryn. It had a nice ring to it.

"What's yours?" she said.

I named myself.

"So," I said, "are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Yeah," she said. "Let's go find these people, and find Tom. Your place or mine?"

My wry comment about how our lives had suddenly become akin to an airport thriller was swept aside, as she strode out of the park, with me trailing behind.

Sam Spade never had it this way, I thought.
1Adhoc: Free local listings, film and restaurant reviews magazine, originating in Cambridge, but now spreading to other cities.

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