NOTE: End now rewritten
The Suit (Short story, 985 words)
Once this street had accommodated urban peasants. Now the house doors had been painted in gloss colours, painted and re-painted. Gentrified.
A woman answered Farquhar’s knock, her face blotched with crying. Farquhar said, “You’re troubled. I’ll leave.”
The woman’s puffy eyes focused on his shabbiness. “You’re troubled too. Is it money?”
Farquhar smiled. “I was looking for clothing. The nights are parky. Old clothes, anything.”
The woman paused. “You need an anorak. My husband doesn’t have one. He works in a bank.” Her lip trembled. “Worked.”
“I don’t want to worry…”
“Just suits,” she said.
She was back quickly, holding a charcoal-grey pin-stripe on a hanger, the dry-cleaner’s plastic still in place. Also a black roll-neck pullover. She giggled. “I was thinking collar and tie. Do men still wear ties? The pullover’s better. And cash.” She giggled again, the tears very close. “It usually helps.”
The door closed and he had a twenty-pound note in his hand.
In The Cut he bought scissors costing 99 p and a cracked hand mirror reduced to 50 p. They wouldn’t let him sit down in the café where he'd spent £1.50 on chips so he ate them watching the Thames slide by, burdened by the suit and pullover, being careful with his greasy fingers.
The next morning he crossed the river dressed in the suit and wearing his older garments hidden by the new pullover. Southwark library offered an accessible, well-equipped set of toilets; also a notice in which “mendicants” appeared twice. He went in unchallenged.
By wetting his hair first he was able trim the ragged edge overhanging his jacket collar, flushing the cuttings down the plughole. Last night’s tentative hacking had improved the contours of his beard. In a couple more days it would almost be stylish.
Upright and confident he entered the warmth of the reading room to take over a virgin copy of The Times. Two hours passed without harassment and even when it arrived the tone was deferential. Farquhar spoke cheerfully: “I'd arranged to meet a friend here but he seems terribly late. I suppose you’ll need to kick me out.” It was daring to take that line but it had the desired effect. The librarian, or whoever, glanced embarrassed at his watch and said, “Let’s say another half-hour.”
A watery sun had raised the temperature by the time Farquhar left the library and this time the café allowed him to eat his chips seated, the queue bustling about him.
That afternoon a discarded Financial Times gave him an idea. Tucking it under his arm he entered an HSBC branch determined to press his new persona to the limit. The interior looked like an amusement arcade – a dozen machines but nobody who resembled a bank employee. He occupied one of two vestigial chairs, shaking out the FT and starting to read one of the inner pages. Half an hour elapsed before he was cautiously approached.
“I’m enquiring about a loan,” he said loudly.
“Has someone seen you?”
“A young chap.”
“Did you, er, catch his name?”
“I fear I didn’t. Young.” As if experiencing a vision, Farquhar smiled seraphically. “He wore a suit.”
Forty minutes of centrally heated warmth ensued before two bank minions escorted Farquhar from the building, neither of them certain they were doing the right thing. “You do have those application forms don’t you,” said one anxiously. “Come in and see us when you want to open an account.”
It was dark now and Farquhar was tired, if not thermally exhausted. He circled the Festival Hall bar overlooking the Thames until he found a glass with an inch of red wine left. With that as justification he pulled over a bar stool and started to read a James Paterson paperback carefully shrouded in the FT. It was not exactly comfortable but he was isolated from the light flickering on the river and the sensations that went with that inhuman beauty.
At seven-fifteen the bar started to empty as most made their way to the concert hall. The suit continued to protect him but he was now more exposed to scrutiny. From time to time he remembered to look up and glance around, as if waiting for someone.
The next time he did so he’d been joined at the table by a woman about his own age, fifties. Her ankle-length astrakhan coat looked expensive.She shrugged as their eyes met. “Have you been mislaid by someone? As I have?”
“You could say that.”
“Someone who has the tickets?” she said.
“I certainly don’t have them.”
“No concert tonight, then?” She had a voice that might be described as educated, as if her punctuation were audible.
“Not for me at least,” he said
“Are you prepared to talk?”
“And yet…” she said.
So, despite everything he didn't look entirely plausible. “Honestly, I'd like to talk,” he said.
“I still feel I’m intruding.”
He sighed. “Not at all. But I should warn you, there is a degree of deception. You’d be talking to the suit.”
She took this in her stride. “You aren’t who you appear to be?”
He considered the odd, evasive day he'd just spent. "Let's say I don't live up to the suit."
"Does that matter?" she asked.
"Not really. I can be an affable talker."
She nodded. “I had that impression. God knows why. How do I come over?"
He glanced again; noticed her trim hair, her careful make-up. Only one thing stood out. “That's an expensive coat.”
Perhaps. But did it matter? He shook his head. "Just expensive. It does you proud."
“I live with your suit; you live with my coat," she suggested
"A fair swap. But I'm squeamish about doing a blood oath."
It made her laugh. He added.“That person with the tickets?"
"As imaginary as the one you refused to talk about."
He nodded. “I might run to two coffees.”
She pointed to the glass with its inch of wine. “That would be less namby-pamby.”
End was rewritten in response to reader reactions