It was already dark by the time Alex returned from work. He walked down Shakespeare Street underneath the orange-white glow of its streetlights, his shadow lengthening as he got further away from each one, and then shortening as he approached the next. He paused at the mid point between two of them and briefly tried to remember the maths. Why would his shadow grow ? He figured it was just triangles. He used to know this stuff. As he continued down the street the light closest to his destination, number 42, faded to a dull orange and winked out. That’ll save the Council about 27p tonight then. He’d just finished a project reviewing potential infrastructure savings for all the London Boroughs; something the Mayor’s office had commissioned. That was the stuff he knew now. Next door’s cat, tabby with white feet, watched him from the wall outside the house, both of them now in darkness.
“Alright Schrodinger ? Bet you’ve had a better day than me,” he said to the cat to no reply. “I guess you’ll only answer to Socks, eh ?”. Socks remained silent and Alex, shaking his head, let himself into the house.
He could hear voices from up on the terrace as he stepped into the hallway, almost tripping over a large, flower patterned carpetbag that had been left behind the door next to a propped up umbrella. Rob and Sarah and a woman’s voice he didn’t recognise. They seemed to be laughing a lot. Their guest. Air BnB. A bag and brolly he didn’t recognise. Slowly he put the pieces together and somewhat reluctantly headed up to join them.
“…so then Rob moved in a few months after we’d met at some event.” Sarah was just finishing the story about how they’d ended up in the house as Alex emerged on to the roof. She was sat forwards in the deck chair talking to a small, immaculately dressed lady. Late 60s ? Alex was terrible at gauging ages. The first time he’d met Sarah he’d guessed she was 35, largely on the basis that she had been wearing a cardigan and had just told him that she was a big fan of Countdown. She’d been 25 at the time. Their guest had short, grey hair, pushed back on one side with an ornate mother of pearl hair clip, a bright white flower design above her left ear. She was looking at Sarah intently and smiling. She sat straight, upright and there was something immediately confident and calm about her, like that moment when a passer by intervenes at an accident and announces “don’t worry, I’m a doctor”.
“Hey, Alex, you’re back,” said Sarah, noticing him and jumping up from her chair. “You must meet Maria.”
“Hello part timers,” replied Alex before more formally turning towards their guest and extending his hand. “Hi, Maria, lovely to meet you. I’m Alex.”
She stood and took his hand, her grip firmer than he’d expected. They held eye contact for a few seconds before she closed her other hand on top of their grip and squeezed, smiling. “It’s lovely to meet you too Alex.” She spoke softly and slowly, drawing out her vowels slightly.
“Was your journey okay ? Did you have far to come ?” he asked, curious about her accent now.
“I’m over from Kansas. It’s been a fun trip so far.”
“We’ve done the Wizard of Oz joke,” interrupted Rob before Alex could reply.
“All you London folk do sound a little like munchkins to me though,” said Maria, eyes twinkling. She sat back down smoothing her skirt on her lap before folding her hands together. She was precise and graceful in her movements. “I was saying to Rob and Sarah how much I adore your roof terrace. It’s the reason I booked the room.”
“It’s the reason we took the house,” said Alex. “It’s just a shame we get more light from the streets than we do from the sky. You must have more luck at home ?”
“Oh sure. Out in the countryside it’s glorious. And if you ever get a chance to get over to Bryce Canyon then it feels like the stars are laid out across the sky like diamonds that you could just pluck down and claim as your own.” She briefly paused and looked down at a ring on her left hand, turned it on her finger, rubbing its single stone. “But it’s good to see a different view of it once in a while.”
“Maybe we should swap,” laughed Alex. “I don’t seem to make out what I want to see up there.” He gestured up and out at the night sky.
“When things get dark you’ll see what you need to see,” she replied.
The four of them contemplated the London sky for a few minutes, lost in their own thoughts. Sarah broke the silence, insisting that they were being terrible hosts and rushing downstairs to fetch glasses and a bottle of wine. Maria sat and had a drink with them for half an hour or so before declaring that jet lag had defeated her and that she ought to retire to be fresh for her planned tour of London’s galleries in the morning. She asked Sarah if she’d like to accompany her. Alex filled in the blanks and realised they must have been talking about her painting before he’d arrived home. Impulsively Sarah agreed, shushing her house mate’s queries about work. Looking quietly pleased Maria left them and went downstairs to her room.
“How are you going to get out of work ?” asked Rob after Maria had gone.
“I’ll chuck a sickie or something, “ said Sarah. “It’ll be okay. Besides there’s a game in the production schedule for next year set in London so it’ll double as research if I take my sketch book with me.”
“But we don’t know her ?” said Alex.
“And yet we’re perfectly happy to have her stay in our house,” said Sarah. “That’s kind of how AirBnB works.”
“I think what Alex is saying is that it’s not AirBnBnTourGuide,” said Rob, trying and failing to enunciate each ‘n’ clearly.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” said Sarah. Rob faked a silent laugh, sarcastically, by way of reply. “It’ll be nice. She’s over her on her own, doesn’t know the city. Why not show her that Londoners don’t deserve their less than legendary reputation for hospitality ? What do you think, Alex ?”
“I guess it’ll be fine,” he said. “I don’t know. There’s something about her that I can’t really describe though. Like she’s got a…”
“An aura ?” said Sarah. “Really ? Coming from you, Alex ?”
“Not an aura,” sighed Alex.
“A dark and mysterious past that haunts her ?” said Rob, now switching to mock film voice over mode.
“Not that either. I don’t know. A presence. There’s something assured about her. She just seems utterly and completely herself if that makes sense. She knows who she is. And, no, Sarah, I haven’t started believing in auras.”
“Sounds a bit like it to me,” teased Sarah. “I think I know what you mean. That’s why I’d like to spend the day with her.”
“One things for sure,” said Rob. “None of us are in Kansas anymore. I’m going to bed.” He theatrically clicked his heels together, muttered ‘there’s no place like home’ and left Alex and Sarah sat out on the terrace looking up at the night. Out of habit Alex looked for Polaris but there was too much light. It seemed rare that he could find it these days.