Sensitive content warning: has themes of sudden loss, bereavement and mental health.
There were three of them in Mr Smith’s outer office: Appleby (who had a gut feeling he had to see Mr Smith); Mrs Stuart (Mr Smith’s secretary, with a sharp nose, concrete hair and the absolute authority of those who are always right) and the pudgy boy with no name (Appleby hadn’t been paying attention).
Mrs Stuart, in the manner of a queen graciously bestowing an undeserved favour, had informed Appleby the boy was Mr Smith’s son, but offered no further information. He looked about 6 years old and Appleby, as was now his wont, immediately ignored him.
They sat in a silence only relieved by Mrs Stuart’s machine gun rattle of keys as she (Appleby presumed) answered emails, dispatching mordantly grisly replies to all and sundry. The boy stared at the floor. Appleby thought of fiddling with his phone, as this seemed to be the default leisure activity of anyone old enough to walk, but he’d never been much good at that, so in the end he too just stared at the floor.
A few minutes passed. Appleby scratched his head so he could take a surreptitious glance at his watch, but Mrs Stuart noticed, and the staccato thumping of the keyboard paused. She said, Mr Smith will not be long. Mr Smith is getting a haircut. He knows you are here.
Appleby felt strangely emboldened by this information, so he said, How?
Hands poised to resume pummelling, Mrs Stuart looked at Appleby as if he was completely mad. Her ferocious eyebrows lifted. Her affronted tone could have blistered concrete. How?
Yes, said Appleby, how does he know I’m here? I didn’t have an appointment, and he was out when I arrived. He realised the boy with no name was staring at them.
Mrs Stuart’s mouth opened, but before she could peel the paint from the walls, the boy said telepathy, I bet, telepathy.
Appleby felt encouraged by this and said, I just asked, as I didn’t see you use your phone.
Mrs Stuart’s face twisted and her voice became strangled with righteousness. Mr Smith, she said, is always contactable, day and night. He knows you are here, and, once his hair has been cut, he will come back. She made it sound as if Mr Smith was visiting heaven to deliver a sermon before being obliged to return to more earthy matters.
Yes, said Appleby, I understand that, but how does he know I’m here? He took a breath and spoke a lie: I’m interested in technical stuff.
The boy with no name ran his hand around the collar of his mustard yellow T-shirt and repeated, telepathy.
Appleby added, after all, as I said, I didn’t see you use your phone.
Mrs Stuart removed her wing-tipped glasses, and Appleby had the wild thought he was about to be turned to stone. She said, using this PC, I added a proposed 11:15 appointment for you into Mr Smith’s electronic diary. His phone, which he is never without, is synchronised, so it would have buzzed in his pocket and sounded a small ding. If this made the hairdresser jump and Mr Smith returns with a bald patch, it will be your fault. However, Mr Smith has already accepted this change to his schedule and by doing so, I feel confident in informing you he will be back by 11:15.
And with the finality of doom, she returned to destroying her keyboard.
Appleby checked the time. 11:05. 10 more minutes before Mr Smith returned, floating down on his celestial cloud. Unless, of course, he had wings.
Mrs Stuart stopped hammering and shuffled some papers together. She stood and revealed herself as resoundingly short. She said, I have to go out for a few minutes. Thomas, behave yourself. Then, to Appleby, look after him.
Without her formidable presence, the atmosphere relaxed.
The boy said Jeepers, she’s scarey, huh? New I guess. He stood on his fat little legs and shuffled over to sit next to Appleby. Without preamble he said, I’m hungry, got a sandwich?
Appleby slumped in his seat and shook his head.
The boy pointed through the window at the striped awning of a stall across the street. You can get me one there, he declared. Tuna, lettuce and mayo. That’s what dad does.
Appleby ignored him, but the boy became insistent. A sandwich, he repeated, tuna, lettuce and mayo. He knows me, over there, he knows dad. Appleby stood, crossed the room and sat in one of the other chairs. Undeterred, the boy followed.
What’s wrong? His voice was churlish. Don’t you like me?
Appleby mumbled something purposely unintelligible.
The boy pulled at his arm. Why don’t you like me?
Appleby, face twisting in disgust at this contact, shrank away.
Dad, said the boy, dad always gets me a sandwich when I’m hungry. He’d like you to get me a sandwich. Tuna, lettuce and mayo. He frowned for a moment and added or a BLT, as if giving Appleby a choice made the request even more compelling.
Appleby mumbled no.
The boy asked, is it money? He went to Mrs Stuart’s desk and opened a drawer, saying, look, here’s the petty cash. He waved a couple of bills. Dad always raids the petty cash. He says I’m a justifiable expense.
Appleby turned slightly away and hunched his shoulders. A knot like a clenched fist was growing savagely in his stomach. He shouldn’t be here, having to look after this kid, shouldn’t be here.
But the boy seemed oblivious. He tugged at Appleby’s arm. Sandwich, he shouted, tuna sandwich!
Appleby rose and went to the door, opened it and looked out. Maybe the fearsome Mrs Stuart was returning, or Mr Smith, or any responsible adult.
But the boy thought solely in terms of tuna sandwiches, with a backup plan of BLT, so - with a surprising turn of speed - he dodged past Appleby and along the corridor, through the glass doors and out.
Appleby, heart in mouth, breathing heavily, charged after him, bursting like a wild-eyed banshee onto the sidewalk.
The boy was nowhere to be seen. Frantically, Appleby peered this way and that. Around him, reality seemed to tremble and slow, growing misty and remote. His knees bent and hit the hardness of the ground. A kind face hovered over his crying eyes. A gentle voice: hello, are you alright? Here, let me help you up.
Appleby blindly grasped the offered arm, but didn’t rise. Have you seen a boy? His grip tightened, fingers digging in, while the words came tumbling out, gaining in strength. I was in charge, he said, in charge, and he ran off, and I can’t see him. He wanted a sandwich, tuna, and I’m responsible, or a BLT, have you seen him, a boy, on his own, yellow top?
The face frowned. A boy, lost?
Appleby, voice thick with the past, eyes streaming, said yes, I was in charge, but she ran off, on her little legs, she was dressed in pink, for an ice cream, as it was hot, so she ran over the road, and the car came, too fast, too fast! He was now seeing when his world stopped 3 years, 5 months and 4 days ago. The words poured forth, a mumbling, incoherent torrent: there was the screech of brakes, I heard the brakes, the screech, but it didn’t stop, it couldn’t stop. Too fast, too fast! A swerve, too late, too late, hit, hit her, fast, too fast!
Inside his mind, he heard the thump, saw the spinning body.
Head bowed, he wept.
Hey, said the kind passerby. Hey, is that him, over the road, at the food stall? You said, yellow top I think?
Slowly, Appleby lifted his head. 30 yards away, a blur of mustard yellow, almost golden in the sun. Appleby rubbed his eyes. A small boyish figure, standing on tip-toe, waving a bill over the counter.
Appleby said, yes, thank you, thank you. He stood and, crouching, blindly scuttled into the road.
There was the screech of brakes.
An angry voice, yelling, you sonofabitch!
But Appleby was now with the boy, standing beside him, keeping him safe, while they watched the tuna, lettuce and mayo being assembled. The server handed it over, saying where’s your dad, oh here he is, hiya Mr Smith.
And Mr Smith, panting slightly, his bulk sweating from dodging across the road, said hiya son, you OK?
Thomas spoke through a mouthful of bread, tuna, lettuce and mayo. Hiya dad, I raided the petty cash, and I used the lights to cross, like you always tell me.
Mr Smith patted his son on the head, good boy. His gaze became shrewd as it switched to Appleby. Well, how are you now?
I told a stranger, said Appleby, about Janet. A stranger, about her. A stranger.
Mr Smith gently took Appleby’s arm. Come on, he said, let’s go back and start, shall we?
Appleby, his heart opening, said yes please, I am ready to start. I told a stranger.
They walked up to the traffic lights and stood, the three of them: Appleby (now childless and traumatised); Mr Smith (his therapist) and Thomas (the therapist’s son). They watched for the traffic to stop and the green man to appear, telling them it was safe to cross.