It was only 10 o’clock and already the heat was rising up from the sticky pavement. There was that unmistakeable smell of an urban summer - warming tarmac, car fumes and a faint undercurrent of wee from the late night drinkers caught short on their way home. Liv picked her way carefully around the bags of restaurant rubbish spilling out across her path. The foxes had been out in the night and onion skins, carrot peelings and chewed paper napkins were littered everywhere. She joined the gaggle of people waiting to cross the road. The lights, as usual, took ages to change and Liv checked the time again. Only 20 minutes until her shift started and she needed to get a ridiculously strong coffee first. She hadn’t slept all night, replaying every single answer to every single question she’d been asked at the interview the day before. Plus, with a double shift today, she wouldn’t get to sit down properly again until she fell onto her bed sometime after midnight. She needed all the caffeine and rest she could get.
When the lights changed, Liv dodged the slow coaches in front of her and sprinted into Pret a Manger.
A couple of minutes later Liv slid onto a high seat in the window and popped the plastic lid off her giant, steaming, black Americano with an extra shot. She stirred it with her little wooden stick and blew on it as hard as she could to cool it down. The temperature of the coffee, which, judging from the bloom of steam quickly spreading across her face, wasn’t far off molten lava. Healthy and safety would probably be all over it but she was determined to get some inside her before she started work. She almost lost the whole lot a minute later when someone jostled the back of her chair. Liv steadied the huge wobbling cup and snapped her head round to give the culprit her best death stare. It was totally wasted. The culprit,
a tall, scruffy guy, was grappling with a mountain of things. He had a computer bag in one hand and a loaded tray in the other. A huge backpack hung in the crook of the arm carrying the tray. Liv could see that he was struggling to put down his tray without the backpack slipping down his arm and knocking it over. If he’d at least apologised for knocking her chair and she’d been in a better mood, Liv might have offered to help. As it was, she watched out of the corner of her eye as his brain tried to work how to manoeuvre three unwieldy things with only two hands. It struck her that his stuff looked so clean and expensive – she couldn’t help noticing ‘Tom Ford’ discreetly stamped on the leather laptop bag and backpack – but he looked like a tramp. He had a grubby, light blue trucker’s cap pulled down low and messy blonde surfer hair spilled out underneath it, hiding most of his face. What Liv could see of his face was covered in one of those silly hipster beards that made him look like a Victorian wrestler. His nose, the only feature not covered by bushy hair or a dirty hat, was strangely elegant - long, straight and with a very neat upturn at the end. It was the nose of a Disney prince on the head of a bin man.
When his tray safely made contact with the bar, Liv turned back to her coffee. In the air conditioned café she could still see the steam rising off it. She took a tiny, cautious sip and yes, it was still as hot as liquid rock. Sighing, she leaned forward again to blow on it. From the horrible scrape of his chair, Liv saw that Trucker Cap had plonked himself down in the seat next to her. He was trying to shrug off his
battered old biker jacket. He stretched his arms out behind him to shake it off but his arms got caught in the sleeves. She had no idea why he didn’t just get up and take it off like a normal person. Or even better, why he hadn’t taken it off before he’d sat down. Trucker Cap had one final, frustrated shake of his arms. The leather of his jacket cracked like a whip as he flapped it down hard, hard enough to catch the very tip of Liv’s elbow. In one of those slow-motion moments, she saw her hand wobble on her cup. Then she saw the cup wobble a fraction. It was only a tiny wobble but enough to send a ripple across the surface of her coffee. The ripple hit the edge of the cup and a wave of scalding liquid surged out onto her hand. Liv shrieked and let go of the cup. She instinctively pulled her hand up and held it against her chest. Then the cup went over and in an instant a waterfall of coffee landed in her lap. The second it hit her lap, she sprang up and pushed herself away from the counter but it was too late. The coffee quickly spread through the fabric of her skirt and blouse. She desperately tried to pull the wet blouse away from her skin, pinching the fabric between her fingers and trying to shake the coffee out, but it clung to her. A second later she was showered with more liquid. This time it was freezing cold. She looked up, trying to work out what the hell was going on. One minute she was being burned and the next she was being doused in freezing water like a fashion editor in an expensive Austrian spa. She saw Trucker Cap was spraying her with a bottle of mineral water. He sprayed a steady stream all over her stomach, chest and legs. When the bottle was empty, he picked up another, ripped the sports cap off with his teeth and started dousing her again.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Liv yelled, now half burnt and half frozen.
‘You’re meant to treat burns with cold water,’ he said calmly, looking at her as if she were mad for asking.
A girl in a staff uniform appeared next to him. ‘Quick,’ she said grabbing Liv by the elbow. ‘Let’s go out the back and get your clothes off.’
‘Thanks,’ Liv said, grateful that someone sane was trying to help her. ‘Just let me get my bag.’ That’s when she turned and saw her phone. Her iPhone was sitting in a pool of black coffee and water. She snatched it up and frantically pressed the home button but the screen was blank. Nothing. She shook it and sludgy water poured out of the charging port. She glared at Trucker Cap. ‘Fuck,’ she yelled. ‘You’ve ruined my phone.’ He looked at her and shrugged.
‘Come on,’ said the girl. ‘Maybe we can dry that out too.’ She steered Liv away and shouldered her way through a door marked ‘staff only’ into an industrial-looking corridor. ‘There’s the loos,’ she said pointing to another door. ‘You take off your blouse in there while I grab the first aid kit and a spare t-shirt. My name’s Naomi, by the way.’ She smiled and then ducked through some double doors into the kitchen.
In the loos, Liv caught sight of herself in the long mirror on the wall. Her pristine, white blouse was now a filthy, muddy colour. It clung to her skin and you could clearly see her pink bra through it. Her full, black skirt was plastered to her legs too. Watery coffee was dripping from the hem and collecting round her feet. With shaky hands, she fumbled with the zip on her skirt and managed to peel it off her legs and step out of it. She was struggling with the buttons on her blouse when Naomi burst in carrying a big green first aid kit and a stack of tea towels. Liv noticed how young she was, probably just 18 or 19, with a cute little Louise Brooks bob dyed jet black. The cuteness was broken by the thick silver hoop through her septum.
‘Shit,’ she said looking at Liv’s stomach. ‘That looks really red.’
She was right. Liv looked in the mirror and saw a huge raised, red patch stretching from just below her bra all the way over her stomach to the tops of her legs.
‘Jesus,’ Liv whispered. ‘I’m burnt.’
Naomi quickly turned on the cold tap and drenched a tea towel in water. She wrung it out and then pressed it lightly against Liv’s stomach. The cold towel felt lovely on Liv’s tight, scalded skin. Another girl burst in carrying a chair and a can of drink.
‘Fuck, that looks sore,’ said the second girl, another teenager with more cool hair and facial piercings. ‘Here, sit down and drink this. It’s sugary. That’s meant to be good, right?’ She ripped the pull tab back, handed Liv the can and dashed back out.
Liv sat down and lifted the can to her mouth with jittery hands. She wasn’t sure if she was cold from the freezing water or in shock. ‘Just tell me when the tea towel starts to warm up and I’ll swap it for another one,’ said Naomi over her shoulder as she dunked towels in the sink.
There was silence for a few minutes as Liv drank the fizzy orange and Naomi prepped the towels.
‘Don’t you need to get back to work?’ Liv asked, worried that she was getting Naomi into trouble with her boss.
‘Nah,’ Naomi smiled. ‘Don’t worry about it. The manager’s cool and besides, they don’t want you to sue them! How does it feel now?’
‘A bit better thanks,’ she said, swapping the old tea towel for a new one.
‘I can’t believe that guy,’ said Naomi, as she rinsed out Liv’s skirt in the sink and took it over to the hand dryer. ‘He’s just run off and left all his stuff behind. He didn’t even say sorry to you.’
‘I know,’ replied Liv. ‘He was such an arse.’
‘He’s been in a few times this week and he does exactly the same thing every time,’ Naomi yelled over the vicious blast of the hand dryer. ’He spreads all his stuff out in the window seat and then hogs it all day. He radiates ‘fuck off’ through his back so you can’t even go and collect all the cups and plates he’s got stacked up. It’s usually the homeless guys who do that but from all his gadgets and stuff, I’m guessing he can afford somewhere to live. Most homeless guys don’t have a Patek Philippe watch.’
The mention of the watch made Liv suddenly remember the time. ‘Shit,’ she hissed, standing up. ‘What time is it?’
Naomi slid her phone out of her pocket. ‘Ten past 11.’ Seeing the panic on Liv’s face, she held out her phone. ‘Do you want to borrow my phone to call someone?’
Liv was late for her shift but, worse than that, much, much worse than that, was the fact that the university might have rung with their decision and her phone was dead. Liv’s mind raced through the next logical, panicky steps. They might call her home number. India wouldn’t answer. India never bloody answered. When she was painting India happily ignored phones, the front door bell and most irritatingly of all, actual humans standing right in front of her asking simple yes/no questions. If the university didn’t get an answer, Liv would end up playing phone tag for days before she finally found out what they’d decided. And she couldn’t wait that long. She’d have to ask Kate or Tim to sit and wait for the call.
Calls made, Liv handed the phone back. ‘Thanks for all your help,’ she said, itching to get home all of a sudden. ‘I really appreciate it. I’m sure my stomach will be ok. It just looks worse than it feels.’
She wasn’t being entirely honest – her skin still felt hot and tight. Naomi handed her a Pret t-shirt and a pair of standard issue black trousers with an apologetic shrug. ‘It’s all we’ve got, sorry.’ Liv quickly pulled on the t-shirt and just the cotton brushing against her skin made her wince.
‘Let me at least tape some gauze over it otherwise the t-shirt might rub it and make it worse,’ said Naomi.
When she was finally dressed, they went back outside. Naomi went to fish out Liv’s bag out from under the counter by the tills.
‘There’s something else for her under there,’ said the girl who’d come in earlier with the chair. ‘From the weird guy with the cap. He said I had to give it to you before you left.’
Naomi rooted around and found a small Vodafone carrier bag. Liv took it and they both peered inside. There was a business card taped to top of a familiar, white, rectangular box. Liv peeled off the thick card. On the front there was just a name, a number and an email address. Benedict Cassel, Cassel Enterprises. No logo, no website – very minimal, tasteful and, judging from the smooth, heavy card, expensive. She flipped it over and saw he’d scrawled a message on the back in scratchy writing.
This one is charged up and your sim’s in there already. BC
Inside the smooth white box was a brand new iPhone X. Liv pressed the home button and the screen lit up. She took it out of the box and swiped her finger across it. All her contacts, texts and photos were already there. She wasn’t sure whether to be freaked out or impressed.
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