Copyright is held by the author.
ONE GLANCE at the sea of strangers, and Lucy gulps in fear. The wave of noise is disorienting, but she keeps herself steady as the barista hands over the change and tells her to find a seat. Head down, she approaches the tables, daring a timid glance here and there, until she spots an empty place in a quiet corner. Lucy slumps in relief on the chair, sets down her dripping umbrella. Water pools onto the floor, like her embarrassment. The other patrons chat with enviable self-confidence in pairs or groups. She is the only singleton, and the waves of snatched banter mingle with her shyness and shame. Why does she care what anyone else thinks? More shadow than substance, no one notices her anyway.
From her bag, Lucy draws out the library book due for return today. She has finished it, but begins the travel-guide again, only too grateful to hide behind the shield of well-thumbed pages. No need to take out her phone and text a friend; she doesn’t have any. Social anxiety has taken care of that well enough.
In a few minutes, her heart rate returns to normal, her breathing stabilizes. The Italian guidebook starts to pull her in. Perhaps visiting a café alone isn’t too intimidating after all. Those self-help books might just be right in their advice to face your fears. This is Lucy’s umpteenth attempt at dining out alone, and it is slowly becoming easier each time.
“One latte and croissant,” says the waitress beside her, holding a tray aloft.
“Thank you.” Lucy’s voice is too quiet for the woman to hear. Anything she says always needs repeating in a louder tone.
The latte is hot and strong, its rich coffee aroma soothes her soul, like the therapeutic oils she burns at home. Even better, the croissant has been warmed and melts in her mouth, buttery and sumptuous. She sighs with pleasure between bites and sips, taking care not to ruin her book with grease-marks. Loveless ones, she muses, deserve happiness too.
Relaxed enough to look around now, Lucy watches the crowds in the square outside, her view restricted by the silhouettes of patrons sitting at the windows. The caffeine in her bloodstream begins to take effect. Before her, the rainy vista transforms into Venice’s Piazza San Marco or Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. Either dream-destination would do. She knows both by heart, though has travelled to neither. One day, maybe, she thinks, fantasizing of alfresco gelato at a marble-top table, ordered of course in perfectly enunciated Italian. Not a chance, she concludes, the tentacles of her anxiety regaining their customary stranglehold. Communication in her mother-tongue is difficult enough. What hope has she of mastering a foreign language?
Behind the busy counter, the staff find time to shout their thank yous to departing customers. As Lucy passes them on her way out, she turns.
“Thanks. Bye!” she calls. No one seems to see or hear her, however, and she feels like a ghost again: silent, invisible.
She rushes through the downpour to the library, and returns her book. Requiring another, she starts her search in the appropriate section. Drips of rainwater from her umbrella darken the carpet, following her, tell-tale, up and down the aisles. Guilt makes her blush. Soon she is sweating with discomfort, but she continues with her task.
The book eludes her. Lucy will have to leave it or ask a staff-member for help. She gulps, looks about for the nearest person wearing a lanyard, and with fluttering heart, approaches the man behind the desk.
“I’m looking for a book,” she says, avoiding eye-contact, as per usual.
“And the title, please?”
Lucy smiles, undeterred for once by the man’s laconic response. She didn’t have to repeat herself! “The Art of Being Seen and Heard.”
He taps on the computer keyboard, frowns, then shakes his head.
“If it’s not on the shelves, it must be a misfile. There’s nothing I can do.”
“But . . .”
The man looks at her over his computer screen: official, busy, bothered. She feels insignificant, a waste of time.
“Thanks for trying.”
All the way back through the square, she berates herself for her timidity. Anyone else would have been more assertive. Anyone else would have succeeded in obtaining their prize, but not Lucy. A gloom settles over her, darker than the sky. She bows her head, defeated.
Shouts of children rouse her attention. They are running in brightly-coloured wellingtons through a flock of pigeons, kicking at them and laughing as they go. The scene incenses her and she speeds up to chastise them.
“Why you little brats, those pigeons have as much right to be here as you. How would you like me to kick you out of the way, hey? Shall we give it a try?” Lucy mumbles this under her breath as she cuts between the children and the birds, glaring at the parents as hard as she dare. “Hooligans!” she calls after them, when they are safely out of hearing.
The pigeons continue to peck and coo without judgement, and Lucy stands awhile, watching them in admiration. Some of their toes, even entire feet, are mere stumps but they hobble around with persevering unconcern, blinking beady eyes the colour of carnelian-stones. She hopes they know that someone notices. That someone cares.
Beneath her umbrella, she feels a comforting anonymity as she makes her way across town through the soggy throng of afternoon shoppers. The dazzling light of a jewellery-shop display lures her to the rain-splashed window. Gold pendants and bracelets glitter temptingly on blue-velvet pads, while diamonds sparkle with brilliant rainbows, hurting her watering eyes. She peers closer. A couple rush over, cosy under their shared golf-umbrella, and begin pointing at the solitaire rings, making their choice just as they had chosen each other. Lucy turns away as the pair approach the door, their voices high with excitement. That ring she had seen, the round-cut diamond; how well it would look, flashing on her finger in a gondola on the Grand Canal! The cold makes her nose run. She sniffs, and fumbles in her coat-pocket for a tissue.
Despite the faux-fur trim of her boots, Lucy’s feet are numb with cold and she quickens her pace to warm up. Ahead, a homeless man sits in his sleeping-bag outside a chain-store, begging for spare change in dejected monotones. Everybody ignores him. How cold he must be, she thinks, forgetting her own discomfort. The spare bedroom at home flashes through her mind…but no, she couldn’t possibly invite a stranger to her home. Instead, she takes off her gloves, reaches in her purse and, with a satisfying chink, adds her last pound coin to the polystyrene cup. He thanks her, and for a second she returns his gaze. She finds herself staring suddenly into the cerulean depths of Lake Como under an August sky. Lucy hardly notices the bedraggled mop of unruly hair falling into those eyes. She mainly sees their beauty. Warm, Tuscan sunshine infuses her on the journey home. If only, if only she could do something more to help.
Outside her door, she spots the new neighbours’ cat sheltering under a bush. He rushes to greet her in a frenzy of leg-circling.
“Well, hello Bubbles. Why aren’t you warm and dry at home?”
Bubbles meows querulously. He looks hungry and grubby, and his eyes weep green pus. Then Lucy remembers: his owners are on holiday in Majorca. They’ve locked him out and left him to fend for himself for the week, in the middle of winter! When they came round to ask her to keep an eye on the house, she thought they looked sheepish when she mentioned Bubbles. They mumbled something about a cattery. No one had called at the house, she would have seen.
Fury wells within her, and she lets Bubbles follow her inside. Luckily, she already has a cat who tolerates him, and Bubbles is soon crunching hungrily on kitty kibble. Lucy paces the kitchen, wondering how to right this wrong.
She plucks up the courage, googles the number she knows she must ring, and with a thumping heart, dials. Before it connects, she ends the call, overwhelmed with fear. The process is repeated several times.
“Hello?” she says eventually, to the voice that answers her call. Her hands are shaking. “Yes, I wish to report . . .”
“What did you say? I can’t hear you. Can you repeat that please?”
Lucy clears her throat, tries again. “I want to report a case of animal cruelty…and find out if I can adopt the animal myself.”
“Okay, I need to take some details.”
Bubbles curls up on her knee on the sofa, purring ecstatically. Lucy has cleaned his eyes and a vet appointment is scheduled for tomorrow. Who cares what the neighbours think? Bubbles matters more. She pours herself a glass of prosecco from the small bottle just purchased from the local shop, feeling as effervescent as the fizzing wine. For this occasion, the miniature bottle of whiskey kept in the cupboard for emergencies simply won’t do.
“Salute! Here’s to being invincible, not invisible.”
If she dare do that, what’s next for her? Who else can she help? What more is she capable of?
Cosy and comfortable, Lucy switches on the TV to her favourite Italian cookery program. The chef prepares a delicious dish of pasta in front of a stunning backdrop of cypress trees and olive groves. Next time she’s in town, who knows, she might call into the travel-agents for a brochure.
She’ll book a cat-sitter well in advance.