Paula was painfully aware of what she would wear that Sunday. She wanted to make her attire as discreet as possible. She was going to a political meeting and she was afraid. When she finally got out of the house, she looked both ways as usual. Only this time she was watching out for police cars. Then she thought if she was going to be followed by police, it would not be so obvious, probably. She walked to the bus stop as usual, convinced that some one was following her. She knew it was all irrational. But she had learned about a political meeting in a public forum after all, and now she was heading there.
Paula could now afford using the underground, but on the one hand the tube station was further away from her house than the bus stop, and although buses were so much slower, she found them cleaner and of course more entertaining to peek from.
The conviction of being followed did not go away when she got on the bus.
She saw a cyclist from the bus and she once again envied how fast they went. She had had a puncture recently and she had not managed to fix it yet. As the cyclist disappeared speedily even in the empty streets, she decided to bring her own bicycle to some shop to have the puncture fixed.
She had to change buses once in central London. She did not see any one person or any one car in her sight for the whole time she was waiting for her next bus, so she relaxed a bit. It was unlikely some one would follow her and take so much pain to remain unnoticed.
The second bus journey was shorter than the first one, but slower, so it took almost as long. As usual already in that city, she had got out of the house in broad daylight and she would arrive at her destination in dark night. At least travelling by bus allowed her to experience the transition. It made her deeply depressed to get into the underground in daylight and find night darkness when coming out.
She double-checked on her A-Z map as she walked. It was the same book she had bought two years earlier and she had been using it daily, so some pages had been inevitably detached from the rest of the book and she had to hold it with both hands to keep the pages together. She was relieved to see that the street that had been announced in the forum actually existed, both in her map and in the street sign she was now seeing.
She turned round the last corner.
And then she saw it.
A police car.
A police car had its car lights on, although in silence, right outside the pub where she was heading. Her heart stopped functioning, and so did her brain. Her legs, however, continued walking at the same pace as before. (“Might as well”, thought Paula, “because it would have been well suspicious if I had stopped back there. What do I do now? Do I pretend I have taken this turn by mistake? Do I walk past it all casually pretending I was not coming here? But I “am’ in that internet forum, they know I know about this place, and I have no other reason to be here. Then, what will happen if I just don’t get in? When will be the next time they announce another meeting? They may never announce it. It took them months to announce this one, didn’t it?”)
Paula decided to avoid looking at the police car and got inside the pub.
Luckily there were no police inside the pub. At least, no police officer in uniform. But then, would any of these punters qualify as a potential police officer in plain clothes? Paula had no idea. She looked at their faces. Which was easy, because now every one of the customers in that pub had their faces turned to her.
The pub was a typical English pub, only not as luxurious as some of the pubs she had worked in. there was carpet all over the pub including some stairs leading somewhere upstairs, but it was so worn out, she thought she could see the wood underneath in some places. Or may be it wasn’t the wood and it was some dark stain. She couldn’t tell because it was pretty dark. There were plenty of light bulbs all over the ceiling, but none of them was bright enough to give the place a feeling of well lit atmosphere.
There were small tables against one of the walls, and back benches perpendicular to the walls. It gave that part of the pub a strange train-like feeling. There were also benches against the walls, with tables in front of them and stools on the other side of the tables.
Three old men sat in one of the train-like compartments. Another old man sat on his own on one of the back-less stools. And three other old men sat on the tall stools at the bar. They all looked at her and stayed looking at her until she reached the bar, at which point Paula managed to ignore the men and centred her attention on the bar tender, a woman younger than the old men but older than Paula.
Paula spoke making a huge effort to speak loud enough for the bar tender to hear her, but most importantly, soft enough to not be heard by the old men.
“Is there a meeting in this pub?”
“They are upstairs.”
The bar tender made no effort to speak softly. She was obviously used to this. Also, her glance told Paula that she was not welcome to walk away from the bar without at least a drink on her hand.
“Can I have a lemonade, please? No ice, please.”