On the inside
When Autumn arrived it was with a crown of flame in her hair and the smell of woodsmoke on her breath. Leaves of scarlet and amber flickered to the ground, flashing fire in the darkening sky and coating the pavement outside Sophie’s office in a carpet of burning colour. She was the last to leave again.
The others were in the pub, but Brenda had insisted someone stay to answer the phones until the office officially closed and she chose Sophie. She always chose Sophie. Debbie had flashed a quick sympathetic smile, but hurried out of the door regardless. Debbie got to leave with the others now, since Sophie joined.
She pulled the office shut. The air was deep blue and hazy with damp. The streetlights fought valiantly, sending tendrils of yellow light forth into the deepening darkness, but the evening had a gloomy, empty quality despite their efforts, and the chill in the air promised winter with every breath. A boy hurried past with a Guy Fawkes under his arm.
Sophie thought about joining the others, but, by now, they’d be two pints in and laughing together in a place Sophie couldn’t follow. Brenda saw to that; Brenda, the glue that bound the group together, and, when she was the boss and buying the rounds, it was difficult for the others to refuse.
And Brenda knew that being inside the group felt just that bit more delicious if there was someone outside - a captive audience for their in-jokes and stories.
As she neared the entrance to the underpass Sophie’s heart sank as the strains of the accordion drifted out. He was still there then.
Every morning he shot her the same toothless leer, his fingers whirling a waltz on the worn keys. Something in his eyes unsettled her; they stared, unblinking and far too pale, set deep in the sockets of his filthy face.
But it was this or walk the long way around.
In the underpass she looked fixedly at the floor. One, two, three. Nearly half way through now, just a few more steps.
The music surrounded her, bouncing off the walls, a frenetic polka that swept her up and made her heart race. Keep going. Five, six, seven…
Then the light snapped out and Sophie was alone in the dark with him, his ragged breath coming hard, the thud of his keys, the whirl of the music. The music was creeping into her eyes, her mouth, filling the darkness around her, inside her. If she looked up she would see those eerie, pale eyes staring at her, drawing her in...
Her eyes flew open, she hadn’t realised they were shut. The light was back and someone was calling her.
“Sophie, are you ok? I tried to catch you at the office. We thought you’d be leaving now.”
It was Debbie. Only Debbie.
“Look, please come for a pint. We’re at the Wheatsheaf and it would be brilliant if you could come for one? Brenda’s gone…”
Debbie smiled and rolled her eyes and suddenly, just like that, Sophie was on the inside. The underpass became just a grimy old tunnel; the accordion player only an old homeless man with cataracts.
Sophie smiled at him, tossed him a few coins and followed Debbie to the pub