The remaining forty-five minutes of Matheus’s shift passed uneventfully. He returned to Sandra and the desk and didn’t rise until his shift had ended. The work that he had been assigned for the morning being completed, and having had no other business of his own to take care of, Matheus removed the copy of Pride and Prejudice from his bag. Delicately, with infinite care and the help of a blunt pencil, he reopened it at the ripped page, and tried to continue to read.
The word ‘tests’ was floating around inside Matheus’s mind like the one guest who refuses to acknowledge that the party has ended. He wondered what more they could test. After the event, they had tested everything conceivable, or so Matheus had thought. He could still remember their prying, and poking, and above all their stares. What more could they possibly want from him?
Matheus found his mind circling. First, he would try to read. Then, he’d remember what would be happening later that day. His feelings of frustration and misery would grow. Then he would remind himself that it would all be over by the end of the day, and resign himself to some discomfort now. Then he would return to his reading, and the cycle would begin anew.
Finally, with agonising slowness, the clock struck three. Matheus closed his book, a mere three pages further from the rip.
‘Well, thank you, Matheus, as usual it’s been a pleasure,’ said Sandra with a tired smile.
‘Likewise, Sandra. It is always good to speak to you,’ Matheus responded, but he barely heard the words as they left his mouth.
‘Are you in again this week?’
Matheus could not summon the mental energy to remember. ‘Perhaps. I would need to check my schedule to be sure.’
‘Remember the meeting on Friday. Let me know if you can make it, and I’ll pass it on to Lucy.’
Matheus paused. After a moment, he remembered.
‘The book club,’ he said, ‘I shall inform you if I am able.’
They said their goodbyes, and Matheus left the department, swinging his satchel over one shoulder as he went. He made his way through the library and out onto the street.
Matheus toyed briefly with the idea of taking the subway. Though he had never walked from this particular library to the Parma Station, he was certain that it wasn’t all that far. After briefly calculating distances in his head, he was fairly certain that either way would get him there with fine, but walking would save him the worry of being on a crowded car surrounded by people’s furtive glances.
The streets were fairly quiet this time of day, though still more crowded than Matheus would have liked. Though the weather was still brisk and bracing, the sun was out, which had drawn window shoppers and dog walkers, in addition to the people who’d be out no matter the weather.
Pedestrians drew Matheus’s attention to his own size. He was aware of how faster they had to walk onto the road to get past him. How he had to practically press himself into a wall in order to let the flow of people going the opposite way get by. How negotiating a dog’s leash could take minutes. Despite the constant awareness of the people around him, Matheus kept a steady pace, reminding himself not to view them as a threat.
After five minutes of quick and careful walking his eyes fixed on the ground, Matheus paused. Ahead of him, the street was covered in scaffolding. It was narrow, allowing only two streams of pedestrians through. Feeling annoyance, he looked for a place to cross to opposite sidewalk, but there was none.
An irritated young man in an expensive-looking shirt strode around Matheus. He realised he was holding people up.
Breathing out heavily through his nostrils, he walked towards the scaffolding. He had to bend low, so low that he felt he was squatting and shuffling forwards. Matheus knew he’d made a mistake before taking three paces. It was narrow. Far too narrow for people to get around him. But he couldn’t turn back without walking into more people.
Luckily, he’d entered at a time when no one else was approaching. He tried to cover as much ground as he could, shuffling low and sideways to avoid crashing into the metal bars.
Matheus could hear the irritation of the people behind him. Angry murmurs were growing.
Embarrassment and annoyance welled up, mingling into a red, hot feeling that drenched Matheus’s insides.
He continued, hoping no one would squeeze past him. They couldn’t touch him. If they touched him, they might realise what he was.
People were waiting on the opposite end of the scaffolding. They’d looked in to see him crouch-walking through, low and undignified, blocking the whole of the walkway.
Matheus saw their expressions.
He redoubled his speed as best he could, shuffling painfully slowly. People were behind him were getting closer. Wondering if they could sneak past.
Matheus was nearly at the end now. A businesswomen ahead of him took that as a cue to begin sidling through herself.
Matheus mouth opened, ready to chide her, to tell her to wait her damn turn. That all she needed was a little patience, and everything would be fine. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t draw attention to himself.
Matheus shuffled all the faster. Trying to make it before the woman decided to move.
He was barely five feet from the end of the tunnel, when she started to walk through.
Matheus pushed his body to the right, instinctively, making a space for the businesswoman. He was a bare inch from her skin.
As he did so, he felt a distant pressure from the opposite shoulder, and heard a brief, wrenching screech. The twisting of metal.
Matheus had pushed into the scaffolding.
In doing so, he knew, he had bent the bars around his body.
Without so much as glancing back, Matheus emerged from the walkway, breathing hard through his nose.
He didn’t look back.
He didn’t dare.
At last able to pass him, pedestrians flowed around Matheus in a fast moving stream, like a drain pipe emptying around a recently loosed clog.
Matheus let them, doing his best to ignore their dirty looks, and failing. The hot, red anger churned with the fear. He walked faster. Today had not been a good day for keeping a low profile. With the upcoming tests, he thought that it was only going to get worse.
A few blocks later, and Matheus was approaching the entrance to the Parma Station. It was close to the river, east of Midtown. The area was usually populated by the wealthy and, in the summer, the tourists. Though the sun had brought out people here as well, there were far less than there had been around the library.
It was approaching three thirty, and Matheus was rushing to get to the station in time, but the more he thought about it, the more his pace slowed. Why rush? he reflected, the anger of the scaffolding still rolling back and forth in his mind. They were already calling him in on short notice. They couldn’t expect him to be right on time, could they?
He decided that he would stop by a coffee place close by. A cup of tea would help calm his nerves, Matheus decided.
He found a place that was reasonably uncrowded and relatively close, and made his way inside, stooping to get beneath the low doorway.
Matheus had never been in this particular store before, but he immediately warmed to it. It was uncrowded, and had a private feel. The building had clearly once been something more industrial, which meant that the high ceiling was nearly enough for him to stand upright. Glancing at the other people’s tables, he saw that the drinks looked good, even if the food was a bit too ‘avocado on toast’ for his taste.
At one table, he happened to see a woman drinking something green and foamy, and in a moment he knew he would order.
Matheus stepped slowly and carefully to the end of the small line before the counter. He was feeling an almost child-like excitement for his drink temporarily distract him from the thought of the oncoming tests, if only for a moment. It was a good feeling, and while he thought about it, he let his gaze fall around the room. He noticed a particular table at the back.
Matheus eyes narrowed for a moment, and he paused.
Sitting at the table was Dr Pretorius, nursing a coffee.
Quickly, Matheus turned away, not wanting to be spotted. Matheus wanted to get through this day with as little delay and distraction as possible, not another conversation. For a moment, he thought about skipping the drink, heading straight to the Parma Station. Stubbornly, he dismissed that idea. Matheus felt that he deserved the tea after the day he’d been having.
Matheus harboured no illusions about his ability to blend in, and was certain that within moments Pretorius would have spotted him should he keep looking. Though he didn’t glance again directly at the table, from the corner of his eye, he tried to see what Pretorius was doing. It seemed like in addition to nursing his coffee, he was speaking with someone. Matheus could not see who from his position.
Matheus inched forward, doing his best to ignore the corner that held the professor.
When at last it was his turn to order, he spoke as quietly as his deep, resonant voice would allow
‘I would like a matcha tea latte, if you would be so kind.’
Nodding, the man turned and began to make Matheus’s order.
While he did so, Matheus chanced another glance at Pretorius’s table. Though the older man’s eyes seemed to flicker as Matheus looked at him, he didn’t get up. He seemed to be reading something, perhaps a newspaper. Matheus assumed that meant he hadn’t seen.
He payed for the tea as it was presented him, waving the contactless credit card over the machine so that he wouldn’t have to fumble it from his wallet too small for his huge hands.
Picking up the drink and nodding a thank you to the barista, Matheus turned to the exit.
He nearly walked right in to Mrs Hashiji who had appeared just behind him.
Matheus jumped a little, actually spilling some of the hot latte on his hands, though of course, he barely noticed.
She turned sweet, slightly wrinkled eyes up at his.
‘Good afternoon, Matheus. Won’t you join us?’