I sit here most days eating my lunch. It’s close to work and my favourite sandwich shop. I like to watch people - and there’s nowhere better to do it than a city shopping centre.
I usually sit next to Alex if there’s a space on the bench. Mid 50s, quite smart, he‘s rarely seen going into a shop, yet he’s always here.
Last Monday I hung around for five minutes pretending to look at the Spring Collection in the window of Next. It’s time I started buying clothes. I’ve never been able to take an interest, although I have tried. At 29 I should be old enough now. I should be looking a little smarter; the way people do when they start to earn a bit of money. At last the woman with the pushchair moved and I tried not to rush to sit next to Alex.
“Alex. What’s the latest?”
We must have seemed unlikely friends, a 29 year old woman and a middle aged man, but nobody took any notice. That’s what I like about a city; you can be whoever you want to be, to a certain extent, and nobody bothers you.
Alex is easy to talk to and good company. That day he was wearing what he called his big coat; not a big coat really, more a glorified bomber jacket with a fluffy lining. He must have been feeling the cold.
“Big news today, Sammy. Police were here an hour ago. I reckon someone’s stealing mobiles again.”
“What? The police on foot?”
“They spoke to a few people but not me.”
“You don’t look dodgy enough, Alex.”
“No. If you were here they’d have come over. Suspicious character if ever I saw one. Something must’ve happened. They usually just use the glass to keep watch.”
“The glass – the looking glass over there – not many people know about it.” “Alex, what are you talking about?”
I followed his gaze to the sandstone three storey building that was the old market. It had been there long before the rest of the indoor shopping centre and now each of its arches houses a different clothing store, restaurant or coffee shop.
“Window at the top of the first arch. Notice anything about it?”
“That’s a two-way mirror. There’s always a cop on the other side spying on us. They’ve done it ever since the first murder, two years ago.”
“Why haven’t you told me about this before?”
“It’s easy for the police to stay in the dark, as long as they remember not to switch the lights on in the room. That’s why they keep these lights (he pointed to the shopping centre lights) on all day.”
I looked at the window, the lights, then at the billboard outside the newsagent’s to my right. “Third victim’s family demands action.”
“Oh my god!”
“What’s wrong, Sammy? It’s not as bad as all that.”
“Jesus, Alex, look at the time. I have to get back to work.”
“Wave to the nice policeman behind the window.”
“Go to hell.”
On Tuesday I had to stand up. No room on the bench. Alex spotted me. “If it’s about the m-i-r-r-o-r keep your voice down. Not everyone knows about it.” “I could have told half the city by now.”
Two elderly women spotted a friend and rose from the bench, allowing me to sit down.
“It’s been bothering me. Where did you get this crazy idea about the mirror, Alex? Why do you come here? Why do you sit here watching the mirror watching you?”
He lowered his voice again.
“Why did you come back today wanting to know more; asking questions; wanting to sit in front of it; not being able to stop your eyes drifting towards the glass?”
“No, it draws you in. It’s not like a camera. A camera isn’t really watching you. This is real watching. They’re really sitting there staring at us and watching our every move. That’s what they’re doing instead of getting out and catching the murderer.”
“Maybe they are.”
“Maybe they’re staring at him right now, waiting for him to slip up. Maybe he knows they’re on the other side of the glass.”
“Maybe they think it’s you, Alex. You’re always here.”
Alex was right. I had to sit on the bench looking at the billboard stories, staring at the glass that was staring at us. I had things to do, yet I was compelled to sit here at lunchtime every day, staring at the glass and listening to Alex and wishing he would say something interesting.
It was Wednesday and I could only stay for ten minutes.
“Are you bored with me already, Sammy? Why don’t you go shopping? Buy yourself some new shoes or something. You must be earning a bit from that job of yours and I saw you window shopping the other day. You still look like a student.”
I looked down at my feet and knew he was right. Now that I was working and pretending to be a proper grown up I wore the black block-heeled shoes my mother had bought me to go to a funeral four years ago. They had been worn for a wedding, two funerals, two job interviews and now for work.
“How do people know what shoes to buy, Alex? I really admire people who know what they like. I’d love to go into a shop, see a pair of shoes and say, ‘I like those shoes, have you got them in my size?’ How do they do it?”
“You have to be interested, Sammy. You’re a girl. Take an interest. Try looking at people’s feet as they go by instead of reading the paper or staring at the glass. You can learn a lot from people’s feet.”
I had to go.
On Thursday I was back and needing some distraction, I bought a newspaper. Alex reckoned I was being rude.
I read about the murders. April 2nd two years ago. A 23 year old girl going through the park on her way home from work. The second one was down at the docks, an older woman, in her 40s and the third, another girl in her twenties, at night in a car park.
Alex’s voice reached me, “You need to stay safe.”
“I have to get back to work.”
“Stay safe and wear proper shoes, Sammy, good ones for running away.”
I ran. I had stayed on the bench too long. I hoped Alex wasn’t offended by my lack of chat. He would still be there in a couple of hours, after I had sorted out a few things at work.
I was back in the square by four. My shoes were no longer comfortable; my feet soon soaked by the heavy rain. He wasn’t sitting on the bench.
My eye was drawn, as ever, towards the looking glass. There was a solitary figure standing in the arch below it and I could just make out the brown bomber jacket and the sturdy boots that were Alex. He jumped violently as I touched his arm; my approach muffled by the rain pounding on the roof. His response to the shock was to grab my upper arm tightly.
“Jesus Christ, Sam, don’t you ever do that again. You should be more careful. Fear and shock make people react in dangerous ways. Anyway, shouldn’t you be at work, or on your way home, or something?”
“I needed to finish our chat and I needed to get closer, to see for myself. You’re still squeezing my arm, Alex.”
He didn’t seem able to let go. I had frightened him to the core. I tried to distract him.
“The looking glass. Take a closer look at it, Alex. Stare at it, then take your eyes away and look around the square. Can you see anything? No it’s not really there is it, Alex? You have to be here to really see what’s going on.”
His grip grew slacker as he stepped backwards, into the rain for a better view.
“I’ve seen them, Sammy. We’re both getting watched, Sammy. Why have you come back? Look at your shoes, they’re soaked.”
“Look straight at the glass, Alex. Tell me what you see.”
“You’re a crazy woman, Sam.”
He tightened his grip once more.
“LOOK INTO THE MIRROR, ALEX. What can you see?” I stood next to him, he seemed mesmerised, unable to pull away. “Take a really close look.”
He was shaking like a frightened dog as my back-up team emerged from the rain with the handcuffs, telling him his rights, leading him and his sensible shoes to the car.
He turned and shouted through the noise, “How did you know?”
“You said it yourself, Alex, they’re watching us all the time.”