The tube quickly became very overcrowded as it made its way into the centre. Kathy was on her way to meet Emma after work. Since they’d moved in together she’d hardly seen each other, after a summer together on top of their time at Durham Kathy had assumed they would be inseparable as they carved out their new life in London. She liked having time on her own, but on top of spending most of her day teaching English she was not fond of returning home to an empty flat each evening.
The forced loneliness was not something that she would have expected. Her family were in London, the church was the same as she had attended all her life. But everything seemed different. When she had returned during the summer and holidays while at university she dropped straight back into the same formula of friends returning, catching up, going away together and then dispersing to the respective corners of the country for another term. Kathy had expected that moving back would be like that in extended form, but the people were not the same, and those who were had their own friends. People who had never left London had a whole life of their own which she was not a part of.
In short, as Kathy walked into Leon she realised that she was probably more alone than Emma. Emma had moved into London on a whim, and seemed to have thrived off the novelty. Kathy had not wanted to ask too many questions of her plans, especially when it came to money, art was unlikely to pay the bills so she had guessed Emma would find some other work. She had been a bit picky about the jobs Emma was looking at, to be honest she would not have wanted to work in a cafe, but then her job was hardly what she dreamed off she she choked back her complaints and congratulated along when Emma got the job. What had surprised Kathy most was just how much Emma seemed to enjoy it. When their paths occasionally crossed in the kitchen before she headed out to work she would always have a story about someone who had come in, or a colleague, or something otherwise designed to interrupt the monotony of the day. For herself there was very rarely interesting diversions from conjugating verbs and teaching lists of vocabulary.
* * *
Ingrid was in deep concentration as she finished mounting the stuffed otter on the wall. This was one of the oddest commissions she had ever received, but also a bit of a coup. The life of a taxidermist was rarely glamorous, but she had made it her niche to turn it into a minor art form. It had been a few weeks back at a small gallery opening that she had exhibited a few items of work alongside some, perhaps, more conventional artwork.
As she tidied up her work and made ready to leave she saw Emma and Theo behind the counter, it had been the pair of them who had suggested that she might be able to get a wider audience for her work. Emma had been exhibiting at the same gallery and Theo, who Ingrid assumed was Emma’s boyfriend, encouraged her to bring her work into the head office.
Emma saw Ingrid looking over at them and was glad she’d been able to give a fellow artist a bit of a leg up. She couldn’t, however, help but be slightly frustrated that it was Ingrid’s work now adorning cafes across London and not hers.
When she saw Kathy walk in she knew that it was about to all come to a head, she had tried so hard to ingratiate herself with those she worked with, and felt a slight smug satisfaction that she had settled into her new life so swiftly. Suddenly her credibility would be affected by Kathy and Kathy was a hard person to predict. She’d persuaded both Ingrid and Theo to join her and Kathy and come along to the boat party St Bart’s was organising. It could all go wrong if Kathy decided to be difficult thought Emma, she was also very conscious that she didn’t want anyone to think that her and Theo were together, she’d still not quite got her head around being friends with guys. Particularly guys who asked for a lot of advice about their potential relationships.
As they all left the cafe Kathy seemed to have taken an immediate shine to Theo, the pair were chatting away in a very animated manner as they made their way towards the river. Ingrid was probing Emma about the church, in particular whether there would be any strange rituals at the party. This Emma could provide some reassurance of, however, if they came along to church as she hoped they might it would be a different story. Emma remembered her first impression of church when she had gone along with Sam to a service in Manchester. It hadn’t been anything like St Bart’s but it was still so very different from the church she’d attended for school carol concerts.
Emma hadn’t really got the measure of Ingrid. She seemed fascinated by all things religious but very unwilling to actually talk about her views. Maybe it was the South African mentality, maybe it was just her personality, but the questions never seemed to stop, there was always something else that she wanted to know. It was only on their second meeting that Ingrid had started probing her about Theo, and what was going on between them. And the answer of nothing didn’t seem to suffice. Emma had to be careful because Theo had talked a lot about his potential romantic liaisons, and it wasn’t her place to let anything slip to Ingrid, not least because she didn’t want to either give away that he wasn’t really available, or conversely, provoke her to start pursuing him.
Theo was not really there throughout the evening, and only Emma really knew why. And that made it hard, he was in an unfamiliar setting, Emma was his only point of contact, yet it was clear to Theo that she was trying to keep her distance. Now wasn’t the time for them to talk but there needed to be time, Theo felt there was so much going on in his life at the moment and could only process so much at once. He needed Emma’s advice and if coming along to this boat party would help guarantee it then he was willing, but he just hoped there was no preaching. Suddenly memories of his families strict Jewish practice came flooding back, not that this party even faintly resembled anything of that heritage, but it was still religion and he had done is utmost to avoid all hint of religion for the past decade. It was not until his sixteenth birthday that Theo was allowed to stop attending synagogue with his parents. And that wasn’t a moment too soon.
The problem for Theo was Talitha. She had completely confused him. Before she went back to South Africa there had been nothing between them, but that didn’t really seem to hold true any more. But Theo had no idea what was true, she was also a far better Jew than he was, and that made life harder. If anything was going to happen he’d need to sharpen up his act, which perhaps was why he equated his friendship with Emma and his acquiescence to attend this evening with some strange religious development which might make him more prepared to step foot in a synagogue once again. Even on a boat full of people who he should have been attracted to his eyes had nowhere to go. In everyone he looked at he saw a feint relic of Talitha. In every conversation that was of interest he was reminded of something she said. Each time he felt lonely in the midst of the crowd he wondered what she was doing.
Emma knew that Theo was lovestruck, and therefore did not see him as a threat, and despite Ingrid’s suspicions knew that because they were spurious it did not matter what she or anyone else thought. She watched Ingrid and Kathy chatting away, and was glad to have introduced them before the waves of familiar faces meant that Kathy was far too busy to look out for the new arrivals. Ingrid seemed to adapt to any new situation with a chameleon like ability to shift style and morph into a person suited to that scenario.
Snippets of conversation which Emma had overhead proved this once again, she would take about religion and the experience of the mystical in vague terms, perhaps conscious that her definition of embracing mystical experiences was perhaps rather different to that of those she was being introduced to for the first time. The details were kept scant to avoid any conflict. Ingrid seemed to float between groups of people, talking with excitement and moving serenely from group to group without a care that each group was a bunch strangers, each person relating to their own friends which she had chosen to intrude in and grace with her presence for a few moments of her precious time.
And through it all Emma sat and watched. She felt alone among a crowd, she seemed lost amid friends, she was aimless while travelling down the river. Emma felt as though her existence was now tied to those she related to. Not out of any personal ambition, but that these were the things that mattered. Not having a job which was a career was in some way liberating. She heard the stories of stress and overwork and was glad that she was able to switch off at the end of the day. Emma was grateful for the people who she had met, those at Leon, her colleagues, the customers, the regulars who came in at the same time each Sunday, just as the breakfast menu was coming to an end and ordered their porridge and sat in the corner to write. She was grateful for the church, even though it was hard to know where she belonged. She looked around and saw people she knew and many she didn’t and wondered whether this would ever feel like home.
The music carried on playing and she walked onto the dance floor, found Theo, Ingrid and Kathy dancing together. Emma realised that the Christian format of dancing was perhaps a little strange, Theo and Ingrid were doing their best to behave, but Ingrid’s inhibitions lowered she started to pull Theo towards her and he turned and walked away, found solace on the upper deck as the boat drew into it’s dock he was ready to get off. Talitha was not here, so he didn’t want to be.