The Six Degrees of Separation
Molly Knight is 29, and is hanging up "MISSING" posters, carefully shielded from the rain in plastic wallets. The posters have pictures and information, a number to call and the promise of a reward. Her brother is missing, presumed dead. The posters are for her cat.
Mr Tiggles has been missing for 3 days, and Elijah Knight has been missing for 25 years. Molly can barely remember her brother's laugh, or his gurgling manner of speech, or how he used to pull faces at his babysitter when he thought she wasn't looking. But she remembers Mr Tiggles's soft, dusty-coloured fur, how he blended into her grey, threadbare carpet and how he would nestle in at her side on nights when she cried for a kidnapped childhood and a lost baby brother. So Mr Tiggles is on her posters, and Elijah Knight is in her heart. She can only be realistic about finding one of them. The plastic wallet finally co-operates with the bluetack and Molly wipes off the raindrops, leaving the picture clear and resplendent for a fraction of a second. Then the water inevitable re-collects, and she sighs, smiling sadly. She turns around, and immediately bumps into-
"Oh, blast it!"
"Mr West! God, I'm so sorry-"
"Just stop- oh, don't worry. I'll get another one."
Fred West is standing outside his usual haunt, The Looking Glass Café. His usual briefcase sits neatly by his feet, and his greying hair is parted in the usual way. His usual coffee, however, the much-loved strong cappuccino with two sugars, as hot as they'll make it ("thanks very much Hannah",) is slowly running down his crisply ironed shirt in scalding drops, burning his skin and decorating the white linen with little rivers of brown and amber. He tuts, throws the coffee cup away and winces as he straightens up. He takes out his phone- shiny silver, latest model- and checks the time. The most important meeting of the year is in ten minutes. He's getting too old for this sort of thing, he thinks, as his fingers scroll down the contacts list , finally alighting upon the right number. His most dialled number, if he was honest. One tap and then it's ringing incessantly, two beats and then two beats and then two beats until-
"Hannah, thank God-"
"Fred, your meeting is in ten minutes, where are you?"
"Carrol Street. I need a clean shirt and a coffee, but I've got to dash. Can you-"
"Pick something up and run it over to you at work? On my way."
Hannah Moran is half-walking, half-running down a busy street at 8:36 in the morning. Her frizzy blonde hair has started to escape from its carefully constructed bun and her glasses keep getting spattered with raindrops, but she's in an awful hurry and is "perfectly fine, thank you!" Hannah's job is to fetch, and to carry, to make phone calls and scribble down dates in perfect secretarial shorthand. It is not to look after herself, and never really has been. So if Fred needs a clean shirt and a coffee, she's not going to complain. (Besides, she has three or four of them, neatly pressed in a drawer in her bedroom, and The Looking Glass Café is only round the corner.) She knows the owner by sight now. Molly is a pretty girl about her own age, with mousy brown hair and sad eyes. She smiles at Fred when he orders coffee, and though Hannah knows that she smiles at everyone it still makes her feel uneasy, in a private, unseemly sort of way that always surprises her. But blowing away those thoughts for now- it's too early to muddle along in that fashion, she knows- Hannah makes her way into the café. It's warm in there, and perfumed by honeyed notes of coffee beans and hazelnuts. On a normal day she likes to sit at one of the carved wooden tables, just for a minute, to regain a sense of order and calm. But she hasn't got a minute, she's barely got six and as she's in the queue, tapping her foot impatiently, a hand starts to snake around her waist and-
"Clive! Don't do that!"
"You startle easily. Bit late for Fred's morning coffee, isn't it?"
"Oh, don't start. It's going to be a long day, I can tell. You on your own?"
"No. Darren's just picking up his mum, and then we're all meeting here."
"Ooh, tea with the mother. Good luck!"
Clive Watson firmly believes that he needs all the luck he can get. Couldn't a black cat walk past, or some magpies fly by? Eight for a wish. Then he could wish for the ground to swallow him whole, because what was he thinking? He can't impress his own mother, let alone his boyfriend's uptight, upper-class one. He can already see her pursed lips and narrowed eyes. Why did he think that a corduroy jacket was appropriate attire for this? Oh god. Hannah dashes out the door and he envies her quick escape. How should he introduce himself? Hi, I'm Clive. I work as a student teacher, and I'm going to marry your son. I've known this ever since we met at a pub while I was trying to sing "I Will Survive" on karoke, completely hammered. He wore pink sunglasses. Definitely not. He glanced at his watch. They should be here by now, surely. No familiar faces appear at the door and his head slides out of his hands and on to the table with a loud thunk. He lets himself melt onto the surface. The sounds of the café are amplified- he can hear the faint drum of chatter and the high-pitched whistle of the coffee machine. Then there's the sound of click-clacking heels, and as long, pointy nails tap his shoulder he lifts his head, momentarily bemused to see-
"Excuse me, young man? Would you happen to be a Mr Clive Watson? I was told to look out for a someone fair-haired."
"Mrs- Mrs Fenton?"
"Ah. It seems we have met at last."
Georgia Fenton is worrying about her damp hair, her make-up, her generally dishevelled appearance. She's worrying about her son; if he's gotten lost on the way to the café, or if he can't find a place to park. She's worrying about the man opposite her- is he a good man? Faithful? Reliable? He's clearly not fashion-conscious, she notes, that or he's rather apathetic about meeting her. Either way, she's not impressed. But it is rare that anything is ever enough to impress Georgia, aside from her beloved son. Her pride and joy. The most beautiful child, never difficult, (apart from those first few weeks.) He always made her happy, just as she knew he would. She remembers earlier today, how he had been talking about Mr Watson in the car, and how his eyes had lit up and his smile had grown just that little bit brighter. Which was why she was sitting in this ridiculous café, with its rabbit decorations and frilly tablecloths, making small talk. She resists the urge to roll her eyes at Mr Watson's inarticulate manner of conversation. He must be nervous, she reasons, and understandably. She knows that she is the very picture of class and elegance, knows that she cuts quite the intimidating figure when she feels so inclined. But she's bored already, and as an uncomfortable silence weighs upon the two strangers she finds herself fiddling with her hair, checking first her nails, and then the hat-shaped clock on the wall, counting the seconds that the big hand ticks, one, two, three, four, five, until a jingling sound diverts her attention to the door and-
"Darren, what on earth took you so long?"
"Sorry mum, it took a while to park. I see you two have met!"
Darren Fenton is watching his boyfriend's relieved face as he slides down into one of the puffy armchairs that surround their little table. He shoots him an encouraging smile- they both know that "tea with the mother" is likely to be excruciating, but it has to be done. Afterwards, he can wear his new ring on the appropriate finger, instead of hiding it around his neck. And he does quite like showing his fiancée off. Beautiful Clive, sweet, honourable, chivalrous Clive. Darren knows he is lucky. And Clive reminds him of someone else too, someone he might even have loved once, but it's a fleeting idea and he just can't pin it down in the fluster of awkward conversations. He talks to both of them. It's not exactly light and easy discourse but it's a start, and he can tell how much both of them are trying. It means a lot. There is no father to please- there never has been, so impressing mum is of the utmost importance. He tries to look attentive, doesn't pay much attention to the girl who brings them coffee. But then he sees her face, and it's immediately familiar. He doesn't recognise her properly till he sees the cat brooch on her cardigan, and then it all comes back to him, the important information that he'd stored but never thought he'd have to use, and he's happy, brilliantly happy because-
"Excuse me, but are you the girl who's advertising a missing cat? On the posters outside?"
"Yes, that's me. How did you know?"
"I recognised you from the photo. I think I've seen him around- there's a grey cat that keeps sleeping in my forecourt."
"Really? If that's him- can I give you my number? So you can call me, if you see him again?"
"Of course! I'd be happy to, really. He's been lovely, I'm glad he's got a nice home to go back to. I was worried about him."
"You absolute darling. Here's my number, and I'm Molly, by the way. Molly Knight."
"How funny. That's my favourite name. I called all my stuffed animals Molly, when I was a kid."
"Really? After anyone in particular?"
"No. I never knew a Molly. At least, I don't think I did."
Darren Fenton is 25, and is about to tell his mother that he's engaged.
Molly Knight is 29, and is thanking god that for once, putting up missing posters worked.