Simmons, regional manager for a chain of high street discount stores, slipped his change into his pocket then neatly folded his newspaper in half and tucked it under his arm. He quickly glanced at his watch before leaving the shop and rejoining the faceless mass of shoppers and office workers crowding the city centre pavements outside. He checked through his diary in his head as he walked. Weekly sales meeting at ten, business review with Jack Staynes at eleven, lunch with a supplier at one-thirty…
He stopped walking when he saw her. At first she was just another face on the street, nondescript and unimposing and as irrelevant to him as the rest of them were. But there was something different about this particular woman, something which made him feel uneasy. In a split-second she was gone again, swallowed up by the crowds. He looked round for her anxiously, desperate to find her amongst the constantly weaving mass of figures which scurried busily around him. There she was. Through a momentary gap in the bodies he could see her coming towards him. No more than five feet tall, hunched forward and wearing a faded red raincoat. Her wiry grey-white hair was held in place under a clear plastic rain-hood and she stared ahead through the thick lenses of her wide rimmed glasses. She had to be eighty if she was a day he thought as he looked into her wrinkled, liver-spotted face, so why was she such a threat? He had to act quickly before she disappeared again. He couldn't risk losing her. For the first time he made direct eye contact with her and he knew immediately that he had to do it. He had no choice. He had to do it and he had to do it right now.
Dropping his newspaper, briefcase and umbrella Simmons pushed his way through the crowd then reached out and grabbed hold of her by the wide lapels of her raincoat. Before she could react to what was happening he spun her round through almost a complete turn and threw her back towards the building he'd just left. Her frail body was light and she virtually flew across the footpath, her feet barely touching the ground before she smashed up against the thick safety-glass shop window and bounced back into the street. Stunned with pain and surprise she lay face down on the cold, rain-soaked pavement, too shocked to move. Simmons pushed his way back towards her, barging through a small crowd of concerned shoppers who had stopped to help. Ignoring their angry protests he dragged her to her feet and shoved her towards the shop window again, her head whipping back on her shoulders as she clattered against the glass for the second time.
'What the hell are you doing, you idiot?!' an appalled bystander yelled, grabbing hold of Simmons' coat sleeve and pulling him back. Simmons twisted and squirmed free from the man's grip. He tripped and landed on his hands and knees in the gutter. She was still on her feet just ahead of him. He could see her through the legs of the other people crowding around her.
Oblivious to the howls and screams of protest ringing in his ears, Simmons quickly stood up, pausing only to pick up his umbrella from the edge of the footpath and to push his wire-framed glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Holding the umbrella out in front of him like a bayonet rifle he ran at the woman again.
'Please…' she begged as he sunk the sharp metal tip of the umbrella deep into her gut and then yanked it out again. She slumped back against the window, clutching the wound as the stunned and disbelieving crowd quickly engulfed Simmons. Through the confusion he watched as her legs gave way and she collapsed heavily to the ground, blood oozing out of the deep hole in her side.
'Maniac,' someone spat in his ear. Simmons span around and stared at the owner of the voice. Jesus Christ, another one! This one was just like the old woman. And there's another, and another… and they were all around him now. He stared helplessly into the sea of angry faces which surrounded him. They were all the same. Every last one of them had suddenly become a threat to him. He knew there were too many of them but he had to fight. In desperation he screwed his hand into a fist and swung it into the nearest face. As a teenage boy recoiled from the sudden impact and dropped to the ground a horde of uniformed figures weaved through the crowd and wrestled Simmons to the ground.
Lunatic. Bloody hell, I've seen some things happen in this town before but never anything like that. That was disgusting. That made me feel sick. Christ, he came out of nowhere and she didn't stand a chance, poor old girl. He's in the middle of the crowd now. He's outnumbered fifty-to-one and yet he's still trying to fight. This place is full of crazy people. Fortunately for that woman it's also full of police officers. There are two of them down with her now, trying to stop the bleeding. Three more have got to the bloke that did it and they're dragging him away.
Damn, it's three minutes to nine. I'm going to be late for work again but I can't move. I'm stuck in this bloody crowd. There are people bunched up tight all around me and I can't go backwards or forwards. I'll have to wait until they start to shift, however long that takes. There are more police officers arriving now trying to clear the scene. It's pathetic really, you'd think they'd show some respect but people are all the same. First sign of trouble on the street and everyone stops to watch the freak show.
We're finally starting to move. I can still see that bloke being bundled towards a police van on the other side of the street. He's kicking and screaming and crying like a bloody baby. Looks like he's lost it completely. The noise he's making you'd think he was the one who'd been attacked.
I know I'm a lazy bastard. I know I should try harder but I just can't be bothered. I'm not stupid but I sometimes find it difficult to give a shit. I should have run across Millennium Square to get to the office just now but it was too much effort so early in the morning. I walked and I finally got here at just gone quarter past nine. I tried to sneak in but it was inevitable that someone was going to see me. It had to be Tina Murray though, didn't it? My sour-faced, slave-driving, unforgiving bitch of a supervisor. She's standing behind me now, watching me work. She thinks I don't know she's there. I really can't stand her. In fact I can't think of anyone I like less than Tina. I'm not a violent man - I don't like confrontation and I find the very idea of punching a woman offensive - but there are times here when I'd happily smack her in the mouth.
'You owe me fifteen minutes,' she sneers in her horrible, whining voice. I push myself back on my chair and slowly turn around to face her. I force myself to smile although all I want to do is spit. She stands in front of me, arms folded, chewing gum and scowling.
'Morning, Tina,' I reply, trying to stay calm and not give her the satisfaction of knowing just how much she winds me up, 'how are you today?'
'You can either take the time off your lunch hour or stay back tonight and work over,' she snaps. 'It's up to you how you make it up.'
I know I'm only making things worse for myself but I can't help it. I should just keep my mouth shut and accept that I'm in the wrong but I can't stand the thought of this vile woman thinking she's in control. I know I'm not helping the situation but I just can't stop myself. I have to say something.
'What about yesterday morning?' I ask. I force myself to look into her harsh, scowling face again. She's not at all happy. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other and chews her gum even harder and faster. Her jaw moves in a frantic circular motion. She looks like a cow chewing the cud. Fucking heifer.
'What about yesterday morning?' she spits.
'Well,' I explain, trying hard not to sound like I'm patronising her, 'if you remember I was twenty minutes early yesterday and I started working as soon as I got here. If I'm going to make up your fifteen minutes for today, can I claim back my twenty minutes for yesterday? Or shall we just call it quits and I'll let you off the five minutes?'
'Don't be stupid. You know it doesn't work like that.'
'Maybe it should.'
Bloody hell, now she's really annoyed. Her face is flushed red and I can see the veins on her neck bulging. It was a stupid and pointless comment to make but I'm right, aren't I? Why should the council have it all their own way? Tina's staring at me now and her silence is making me feel really uncomfortable. I should have just kept my mouth closed. I let her win the face-off and I turn back round to sign-on to my computer again.
'Either take it off your lunch hour or work over,' she says over her shoulder as she walks away. 'I don't care what you do, just make sure you make up the time you owe.'
And she's off. Conversation's over and I don't get any chance to respond or to try and get the last word. Bitch.
Tina makes my skin crawl but I find myself staring at her rather than my computer screen. She's back at her desk now and Barry Penny, the office manager, has suddenly appeared. Her body language has completely changed now that she's speaking to someone who's higher up the council pecking order than she is. She's smiling and laughing at his pathetic jokes and generally trying to see how far she can crawl up his backside.
I can't help thinking about what I've just seen happen outside. Christ, I wish I had that bloke's umbrella. I know exactly where I'd shove it.
Sometimes having such a dull and monotonous job is an advantage. This stuff is way beneath me and I don't really have to think about what I'm doing. I can do my work on autopilot and the time passes quickly. It's been like that so far this morning. Job satisfaction is non-existent but at least the day isn't dragging.
I've been working here for almost eight months now (it feels longer) and I've worked for the council for the last three and a half years. In that time I've worked my way through more departments than most long-serving council staff manage in their entire careers. I keep getting transferred. I served time in the pest control, refuse collection and street lamp maintenance departments before I ended up here in the Parking Fine Processing office or PFP as the council likes to call it. They have an irritating habit of trying to reduce as many department names and job titles down to sets of initials as they can. Before I was transferred here I'd been told that the PFP was a dumping ground for underperformers and, as soon as I arrived, I realised it was true. In most of the places I've worked I've either liked the job but not the people or the other way around. Here I have problems with both. This place is a breeding ground for trouble. This is where those motorists who've been unlucky (or stupid) enough to get wheel-clamped, caught on camera or given a ticket by a parking warden come to shout and scream and dispute their fines. I used to have sympathy with them and I believed their stories. Eight months here has changed me. Now I don't believe anything that anyone tells me.
'Did you see that bloke this morning?' a voice asks from behind the computer on my left. It's Kieran Smyth. I like Kieran. Like most of us he's wasted here. He's got brains and he could make something of himself if he tried. He was studying law at university but took a holiday job here last summer and never went back to class. Told me he got used to having the money and couldn't cope without it. He buys an incredible amount of stuff. Every day he seems to come back from lunch with bags of clothes, books, DVDs and CDs. I'm just jealous because I struggle to scrape together enough money to buy food, never mind anything else. Kieran spends most of his day talking to his mate Daryl Evans who sits on my right. They talk through me and over me but very rarely to me. It doesn't bother me though. Their conversations are as boring as hell and the only thing I have in common with them is that the three of us all work within the same small section of the same small office. What does annoy me, if I'm honest, is the fact that they both seem to be able to get away with not doing very much for large chunks of the working day. Maybe it's because they're friendly with Tina outside work and they go out drinking together. Christ, I only have to cough and she's up out of her seat wanting to know what I'm doing and why I've stopped working.
'What bloke?' Daryl shouts back.
'Out on the street on the way to work.'
'The high street, just outside Cartwrights.'
'Didn't see anything.'
'You must have.'
'I didn't. I didn't walk past Cartwrights. I came the other way this morning.'
'There was this bloke,' Kieran explains regardless, 'you should have seen him. He went absolutely fucking mental.'
'What are you on about?'
'Honest mate, he was wild. You ask Bob Rawlings up in Archives. He saw it. He reckons he practically killed her.'
'I don't know, just some old woman. No word of a lie, he just started laying into her for no reason. Stabbed her with a bloody umbrella I heard!'
'Now you're taking the piss…'
'You go and ask Bob…'
I usually ignore these quick-fire conversations (most of the time I don't have a clue what they're talking about) but today I can actually add something because I was there. It's pathetic, I know, but the fact that I seem to know more about what happened than either Kieran or Daryl makes me feel smug and superior.
'He's right,' I say, looking up from my screen.
'Did you see it then?' Kieran asks. I lean back on my seat in self-satisfaction.
'Happened right in front of me. He might even have gone for me if I'd been a few seconds earlier.'
'So what was it all about?' Daryl asks. 'Is what he's saying right?'
I quickly look over at Tina. She's got her head buried in a pile of papers. It's safe to keep talking.
'I saw the old girl first,' I tell them. 'I nearly tripped over her. She came flying past me and smashed up against the window by the side door of Cartwrights. I thought it must be a group of kids trying to get her bag off her or something like that. Couldn't believe it when I saw him. He just looked like a normal bloke. Suit, tie, glasses...'
'So why did he do it? What had she done to him?'
'No idea. Bloody hell, mood he was in I wasn't about to ask him.'
'And he just went for her?' Daryl mumbles, sounding like he doesn't believe a word I'm saying. I nod and glance from side to side at both of them.
'Never seen anything like it,' I continue. 'He ran at her and stabbed her with an umbrella. It was gross. It went right into her belly. There was blood all over her coat and…'
Tina's looking up now. I look down and start typing, trying to remember what it was I was doing.
'Then what?' Kieran hisses.
'Idiot turned on the rest of the crowd. Started hitting out at the people around him. Then the police turned up,' I explain, still looking at my screen but not actually doing anything. 'They dragged him away and shoved him in the back of a van.'
The conversation stops again. Murray's on the move. For a moment the only sound I can hear is the clicking of three computer keyboards as we pretend to work. After looking around the room and staring at me in particular she leaves the office and Kieran and Daryl immediately stop inputting.
'So was there something wrong with him?' Daryl asks pointlessly.
'Of course there was something wrong with him,' I answer. Christ, this bloke's an idiot at times. 'Do you think he'd stab an old lady with an umbrella if there wasn't anything wrong with him?'
'But did he say anything? Was he screaming or shouting or…?'
I wonder whether it's even worth answering his half-asked question.
'Both,' I grunt.
'Was he drunk or on drugs or…?'
'I don't know,' I say, beginning to get annoyed. I stop and think for a second before speaking again. In my head I can still see the expression on the man's face. 'He looked absolutely fucking terrified,' I tell them. 'He looked like he was the one who was being attacked.'