THE MYSTERY MAN
With a hectic new job and stubborn old boyfriend, Jo had lots to keep her occupied. But still, she was intrigued by Pete...
Jo Linden had no real idea where she was going. This was only her third day in her new job and the university campus was a sprawling maze of buildings, pathways, steps and alleys.
It didn’t help that Kay, her new boss, was distracting her. “So if you could pop in the shop...” “Okay.” “And bring two boxes...” “Two. Right-o.” When Kay rang off, Jo stowed her mobile, realising she had taken the wrong path, because she was now heading away from the Physics Department. She immediately veered across the damp grass, regaining her target.
Her new job was in the university’s Public Relations Office, helping to present a positive, vibrant image of a forwardthinking tertiary educational establishment. To paraphrase the job description. Basically she was there to help the university show itself off. Currently the Physics Department was up to something and her assignment was to get a few words from the man involved – Professor Sam Mandel – and grab a picture or two.
And also get two boxes of pens from the campus shop because the office had run out.
Her mobile rang again as she approached the building. Caller display told her it was Andy. She killed the call and stuck her tongue out at the screen, switching it off when he instantly rang back. She really would have to find out how to block his calls.
A man was holding open the door and she scurried through with a smile and a thank-you.
Pete Gallagher held the door open. The woman thanked him and he smiled in return, wondering why she was sticking out her tongue at her phone.
He swung his toolbox ahead of him and headed from Physics towards the library, leaving behind a repaired plug socket and going in search of a broken bulb in the psychology stacks.
He liked his job. Electrician. His ex-wife hadn’t. She’d wanted someone with more a high-flying career. Funny
She killed the call and stuck her tongue out at the screen
she hadn’t realised that until four years after the wedding. Maintenance didn’t quite strike the right note for someone who had become obsessed with rising to the top echelons of management.
Dev suddenly appeared at his side on the path, matching his stride. “Got a date for you.”
“I don’t want a date,” Pete said. “She’s lovely. New admin girl in Law.” Dev was in campus security. He had the uniform, the radio, everything. “I’m heading over that way again now. I’ve told her all about you and she’s definitely interested.”
“Well I’m not.” “Go on! It’d do you good.”
“Dev, I don’t need your help to get a date.”
“You can’t sulk about your divorce forever.”
“I’m not sulking.”
“Are too. Hey, think about it, yeah?” He nudged Pete and swerved on to a different path. “I’ve got to go. Flamin’ law students have got on the roof again. I’ve been tasked to investigate.”
“Don’t shoot anybody this time.”
Dev laughed. “Don’t tempt me.”
Pete strolled into the library and took a lift to the psychology section on the fourth floor.
How many psychologists does it take, he wondered as he worked, to change a light blub?
Only one, he reckoned, but the psychologist would take twelve sessions to work out exactly why the light bulb wanted to change.
He smiled to himself, but the smile quickly faded. He’d thought of a joke, but couldn’t share it. Okay, there were students milling around and possibly – judging by the beard and the cardigan
– a librarian, but not so long ago he would have told his wife when he got home.
Not now, though.
He sighed and checked his watch. It was a slow morning. No more emergencies, no scheduled maintenance. There was the fuse box in the Great Hall, but he had all afternoon to look at that.
So, instead, he wandered to the window and leant on the sill, staring out.
The Law Department was to his right. Big Betty, the clock tower, stood directly ahead and beyond that the Great Hall. Physics was over to the left. And in between were paths, criss-crossing amidst the grassy bits.
So many paths.
So many people walking along them. Some even running. Paths crossed, resulting in greetings, conversations, occasional hugs.
His phone beep-de-beep-beeped. He checked the message.
Roof, it said. From Dev.
He looked up and there on the roof of the Law building was Dev. Dev waved, then pointed, downwards, and mouthed something that Pete didn’t understand.
And Pete waved back, apparently catching the attention of a woman on the floor below.
Jo Linden hadn’t spent long in the Physics department. Professor Mandel had been suddenly called away on family business just five minutes before she arrived. And no one else was available.
So she switched her mobile back on and called Kay.
“Forget that,” Kay said. “I’ll reschedule. On your way back pop into Law for me. There’s a new girl in admin. Get some details and a headshot and we’ll put her on the website.”
“Will do.” Jo herself had appeared on the website as a new girl. It was customary. The page listed all the comings and goings of staff. It was supposed to make everyone feel included, but Jo felt embarrassed instead by her picture grinning inanely on the screen.
In Law, Jo hovered by the window while Emma – the new admin girl, all lip gloss and eyelashes – answered the telephone.
All those paths, she thought, staring out across the campus. Here, there and everywhere. Crikey! It would take ages to memorise the layout.
Movement caught her eye and she saw a man waving from a library window, apparently at her. He looked vaguely familiar.
She automatically waved back, but then wished she hadn’t when the man went all awkward and backed out of sight. Maybe he’d been waving at someone above her. Although wasn’t that the roof?
Her mobile rang. Andy again. She killed it and turned to the new admin girl. “Do you know how to block calls?”
And apparently Emma did. She also advised Jo to get a new SIM and end the problem of Andy’s calls once and for all.
Pete Gallagher was in the basement of the Great Hall, attending to the fuse box, when he had a visitor.
“Ah,” said Dev, “they told me you were here.”
“Booked you that date.”
“With the new girl in Law admin. Emma.”
Pete sighed. “Dev, I don’t want to meet her.”
“You don’t have a choice. I’ve arranged it so that you can meet at ten past five outside the bookshop.”
“Didn’t you see her? When
I was on the roof? I pointed.
Her desk should have been right below my feet.” He laughed. “Saw you back off suddenly. Guessed she’d looked out and seen you, waving like a lemon.”
Pete realised he had seen her. And in the two seconds he’d seen her for, at some distance, she’d seemed nice. Pretty. Possibly vaguely familiar. But even so...
“I’m still not going.”
“You can’t stand her up. “What will she think?”
“Possibly that I’m not a loser who needs an insane friend to set him up?” “You’ll regret it.”
“I doubt it. Now, if you don’t mind...” He gestured with his screwdriver. “...I am busy.”
But he wasn’t really busy. He was just finishing and within five minutes of Dev
leaving he was on his way too.
“Sorry, excuse me.”
Although he didn’t know why he was apologising. It was the woman who barged straight into him.
Jo Linden bounced off the man with the toolbox and hurried on. “Sorry,” she called back. That was the trouble with corners in corridors. You never knew who was lurking round them.
She was certainly seeing a lot of the campus today. Kay had her running everywhere. She still hadn’t got the boxes of pens either.
She stopped suddenly, her tummy tickling, and looked back. But the corridor was empty now.
That man, with the toolbox... He looked like...
She frowned. Who did he look like?
Pete Gallagher frowned. And looked back. But he was almost outside now, so the woman was out of sight. Wasn’t she...?
No, it couldn’t have been. He was mistaken.
But oh heck, this Emma. She was playing on his mind and he’d never even met her. Rotten Dev. Setting him up. He wondered whether to call Law, or pop round, to cancel the whole thing. Or maybe just pretend it wasn’t happening and ignore it.
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t simply leave her waiting for him. That wouldn’t be gentlemanly. But any other course of action involved interaction.
Which he really didn’t want.
Which is how he came to be hovering in the shadows opposite the campus bookshop at ten past five.
Torn between decisions, he’d made no decision at all.
But there she was. She looked different from the brief glimpse he’d got when she’d waved from the window. More make-up now. Hair styled differently. Hair styled, in fact, rather than windblown.
Not his type at all.
He wouldn’t have recognised her had she not been loitering outside the bookshop, clearly waiting.
Oh well, only one thing for it. He’d go over and apologise and make his excuses and leave.
He set off.
Jo Linden had been hurrying about all day and she was exhausted. Her feet hurt too. But she still hadn’t picked up those pens Kay had asked for and the shop was open until half five. She scurried round the corner and bumped into someone.
“Oh hello again!”
“Hiya!” It was Emma, the new Law admin girl. “You had any more trouble from your bloke?”
“Two voicemails and three texts.” At least Andy’s calls weren’t coming through directly any more, now he was blocked.
“New SIM,” Emma advised again. “Definitely.” Jo smiled and darted past the bookshop to the stationer’s next-door.
Pete Gallagher used Emma’s momentary distraction to slip past and carry on walking.
It was no good. He couldn’t do it. He’d apologise somehow tomorrow, and possibly murder Dev shortly afterwards. Right now he headed for home, just missing the train at the campus station and having to wait for the next one. He boarded, found an empty window seat and plonked his holdall next to him on the aisle seat, determined not to move it. For anyone.
Jo Linden just managed to leap on the train as the doors were closing. It was busy, but she spotted a spare seat.
She sat down and looked out through the window.
A train was serving the opposite platform too, ready to go the other way. A man was sitting on it. A familiar man? He turned and their eyes met. Then the trains moved apart.
There was no avoiding it really. Their paths were set to cross
ete Gallagher – piecing together the various bits of his day, heart juddering – twisted quickly, craning his neck, but she was gone.
It was her though.
The woman from the window with the windblown hair.
And he was still thinking about her the next morning as he crossed the campus, toolbox in hand.
Thinking of her... then seeing her.
JPo Linden was also still bothered the next morning by the mystery man on the train.
What was she thinking? She was barely over Andy and yet here she was, hurrying across campus to her next assignment, fantasising about a man she’d hardly seen, let alone met...
But crikey, there he was, walking along the other path, perpendicular to hers. Now he was slowing though, staring across at her.
For some reason she slowed too. She frowned at the curious sensation in her chest.
But there was no avoiding it.
It was inevitable really.
Their paths were set to cross.
All they had to do was keep walking and maybe say hello...