This is a true story. To protect the people involved, their names and the locations have been changed. But if you would like to know who the real people are, I like white chocolate and Mills and Boon books. Just saying...
Ann-Marie had been working at the same place for the last five years. It was cold, at the end of an hour long walk from her hour, and smelled of fish, which was especially bad because Ann-Marie worked in a pizza shop, and it is a well known fact that pizza shops should always smell of tomatoes, cheese, bread and/or urine. As you might expect, she hated it. Two things kept her from leaving:
- Reason One: For something known in the business as a ‘Minimum Wage Job’, Ann-Marie was not paid minimum wage. Mario Bonera – the shop’s owner, head chef, accountant and occasional cockroach exterminator – mistakenly wrote £7.93 instead of £5.93 on Ann-Marie’s contract, and due to heavy reliance on gin that has all but destroyed his mind, hasn’t noticed in the five years since.
On the afternoon in question, because being a classy pizza shop in a classy town, it didn’t open until its customers were already drunk and the staff didn’t really need to be there that much earlier, Ann-Marie had been the last person to arrive. On the walk to work she had, as had a crowd of gaggling schoolgirls and a homeless man wearing a top, witnessed a spindly gentleman of no more than thirty-five try to throw himself off a bridge and succeed in only standing on the wall and wobbling in the wind. When she walked past the man, who was by the point down on the pavement and wrapped in a blanket and being swaddled by an elderly woman lacking front teeth, she clearly heard him say that he was just looking for some excitement in his life, and had meant no harm. Had she not been in a rush, Ann-Marie would have recommended diving from a diving board rather than a bridge, and diving into marshmallow, although that was just a dream of hers.
There were only two other people working that day: the owner Mario and a new recruit, who’s name, Ann-Marie was told, was Toby, but whom she had never heard speak in the three weeks he had been working there.
- Reason Two: Ann-Marie was a fan of Toby’s face. Especially his smile. He had the kind of smile that showed that he was happy, which, despite what you might expect, is not always the case.
Mario manned the ovens. It was his domain, and it was best to leave him there. Not because he was embroiled or dedicated to his work, it should be pointed out, but because, tottering from the gin as he no doubt would be, his mood would be foul and his temper would be short, which, ironically, are two perfectly suitable words for describing the man himself. Toby was nowhere to be found. This again was hardly surprising. The boy had a habit of squirreling himself away during the quiet times, and could easily go for an hour without being seen. Resigned to her position as the only useful member of staff, Ann-Marie rolled up her sleeves in preparation for the customers she would soon be facing.
Three hours later and the shop had barely had a customer. There was one man, a tall blonde man wearing a matching track suit combo and considerably too much hair gel, spent twenty minutes trying to decide on a pizza, only to realise he couldn’t actually afford the one he ordered. Ann-Marie enjoyed eating free pizza whenever it was given to her. She just preferred it had toppings that tasted nice, or were well cooked. At 1:36 am exactly, the bell above the door rang.
Through the door ducked a man that towered above any human being that Ann-Marie had ever seen. He wore a blue suit, freshly ironed and freshly bought – the tags hung down across the shirt collar – with reflective black loafers, reflective black leather gloves and reflective black sunglasses. His skin seemed blotchy, patterned with orange spots against his already slightly jaundice pallor it looked like dozens of rugs on top of a custard field. In his left hand he had a bright A2 cardboard book, the kind normally found in children’s nurseries. With slow, methodically practiced steps, he walked up to the counter and opened the book to the first set of double pages.
Where is Toby? read the book, and in the background was an African safari scene, minus the animals. Ann-Marie looked from man to book, and back and forth between them until she could successfully process what was happening. Nobody had every communicated to her via a children’s book before, and until this moment, she hadn’t realised how thankful she was about that.
“You want Toby?” she asked. She had felt stupid asking it. The only information she had been presented with was that this man wanted Toby’s location, but, she rationalised, it didn’t hurt to double check. The man vigorously nodded, a movement that highlighted his stalactite-shaped head, and tapped the open double pages over and over. Ann-Marie leaned her shoulder towards the back room and shouted for Toby. When, as she had expected, there was no reply, she told the customer to wait for just one moment while she went off to find him. Mario seemed unaware of any of this as he played with his ovens and his gin.
The backrooms to the shop had, through time and sheer lack of caring, become like a labyrinth of freezers and boxes of ingredients piled up high above the eye line. Down one of the paths were the metal shutters to the back alley, down another would be the staff toilet, which was to be avoided at all costs (even if those cost was self-respect and new underwear), while down yet another would be a family of mice or cockroaches or, just the one time, a small kindle of kittens. Just before taking her second left, she stopped and walked slowly backwards. She had just walked past a tower of boxes stacked slightly uneven to the one below it, like cardboard Jenga, when she realised that she hadn’t seen them before and that these boxes didn’t have faded pictures of salad dressing or pizza bases like the usual ones did, but rather had on them handwritten names such as ‘Clothes’, ‘Books’, and ‘Mouth Knives That Taste Like Mint’. Ann-Marie poked her head closer.
Behind the boxes, slipped like a piece of paper into a plastic wallet, was Toby, his head stuffed between the pages of The Little Prince. Ann-Marie just stood there and stared at him, and it wasn’t until two long and silent minutes had past that Toby’s eyes strayed from the page and he caught a glimpse of the eyes spying him through the gaps between the boxes. He would have jumped out of his skin, had this not been preposterously impossible.
“There’s a customer wants to see you.” Ann-Marie smiled as she said it, enjoying the look of lingering fright on Toby’s face. She waited to see how he was going to get out, curiosity more than getting the better of her, but he disappeared from her view, and only a handful of seconds later tapped her on the shoulder from behind and started walking off.
When she looked through the doorway back into the presentable face of the shop and saw Toby and the man stood face to face at the counter, Ann-Marie was struck by a thought, as if it had just fallen onto her head: they looked startlingly alike. Yes, the man was taller, and Toby lacked the somewhat off-milk tinge of the man, but both were tall, spindly, and awkward, like human beings made by gluing together pencils. She crept closer, feeling with every step that she was disrupting something private and wholly intimate.
The man had placed the book on the counter and was flicking through it at an alarming rate, pointing to so many different places that no normal person could be expected to follow him, but Toby seemed to understand everything and nodded along all the while. Ann-Marie couldn’t make anything out from where she was other than a blur of colours, like every new page was a different palette smudged together, but before she had time to get close enough to see anything more, the man closed the book, looked directly at Toby, nodded, then walked out of the shop. The epitome of an awkward silence followed.
Ann-Marie couldn’t bring herself to ask what had just happened, she had no idea where to start, and so things faded back into what they had been, and those five minutes were seemingly forgotten into the night. A night in which business didn’t pick up much, and that Mario amused himself by slurring racist insults at the black-painted pizza ovens and the anchovies.
At nearly half past three, Mario passed out by his beloved ovens (the ones not painted black), and this was the unofficial signal to close the shop. The shutters were drawn and the money was counted and, all in all, this took Ann-Marie no longer than a minute for each job and a minute to question what had become of her life. She shouted good night to Toby, who she hadn’t seen since he’d had a conversation with a book held by a custard-coloured man in a suit, and left for the night. She did not expect, five minutes into the walk home, for Toby to sneak up behind her and link his arm with hers.
“Hello,” he said.
“Er... Hi,” spluttered Ann-Marie. She had the strangest feeling of something being trapped inside her stomach, and while she had always heard people say that they had butterflies in their tummy, this felt more like fireflies, their light tingling the inside of her skin.
“You are pretty.” He spoke like he was foreign, adding too many spaces in between his words as if, as he paused, his mind searched the translated dictionary for the right word. Ann-Marie cuddled tighter into his arm and they kept walking forward in silence.
Twenty minutes later, Ann-Marie was back at the bridge where, that morning, a man had tried to throw himself off. She looked over the edge and thought about it. It wasn’t that high a drop, but the river at the bottom wasn’t that deep, either. She had an idea. Grabbing Toby by the hand, she ran and dragged him towards the edge. He resisted, and their hands came apart, and with the stumbling momentum, Ann-Marie jumped up to the wall and stood looking over the edge. Her feet were spread wide apart for balance. The wind through her hair was exhilarating; no one else she knew had stood on the side of a bridge and had wind rushing through their hair as they could hear the water banging again the stone-splattered riverbed below, and experiencing it now as she was, couldn’t understand why more people didn’t do this.
“Ann-Marie?” As she turned around, incredibly slowly, Ann-Marie was shocked by the fear on Toby’s face. She was just having some fun, just trying to find some excitement.
“It’s amazing up here,” she screamed over the sound of the wind, “I feel so alive. Everything seems so real and so just me. D’you know what I mean? No same shitty pizza shop for the past five years and no drunken boss. So few people have stood up here and felt this. It’s exciting!”
“You want exciting and,” the quantity of words seems to be genuinely hurting Toby by this point, “special?”
“I want something not normal, something amazing, something...”
Ann-Marie was stopped dead in the middle of her sentence by something, as she had been about to say, magical. The boy in front of her, who looked like a man made of pencils and whose smile she loved, was growing, and changing colour, and changing species. Toby now had four long legs like straws that led up to a horizontal, orange-spotted body and a gigantic elongated, orange spotted neck. Toby was now a giraffe, and was staring right into her eyes. Gently, he rubbed his head and her cheek, and beckoned with his neck for her to grab hold, which she did. Ann-Marie slid down Toby’s neck like a slide at a fun park, and landed bum first on the pavement. She turned around to look at the giraffe again, only to find that Toby, normal human Toby, was now staring back at her.
“Please don’t do that again,” he said.
“I won’t. I... Hang on, you’re a giraffe?” To the best of her memory, Ann-Marie could never remember saying that before in her life.
“Are you going to explain a little more for me? Because I’m used to the people I know being humans, not animals that can apparently pretend to be humans. Or at least I think I am. Maybe everyone I know is secretly an animal. Mr Bonera would be a skunk, and my Mum would be a python, obviously, and...”
“No explanation. Walk you home?”
“What do you mean ‘no explanation’? You have to give me something, so I can at least try and understand.”
“Me and my Dad... It just happened.” Toby shrugged and looked lost, and when Ann-Marie thought about it, she supposed that asking a giraffe for answers to anything was quite silly, even if that giraffe happened to also be a human with a cute smile.
“Your Dad can do that too?”
“Yes. He came to see me at shop today.”
“The man with the book?”
“He hasn’t learned talking words yet.”
Ann-Marie smiled to herself, thinking about how similar the two had looked, both out of place in the same ways. She locked her arm back into his and set off walking towards her house again. It took them over an hour to get there. They didn’t walk quickly, there didn’t seem to be any need to be anywhere else than together. When they got to Ann-Marie’s house, she stopped on the doorstep to say goodbye.
“Are you sure you’re a giraffe? Not a magician? Or maybe I’m just on drugs and don’t realise it?”
Toby didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. He just smiled, and that was enough. Ann-Marie didn’t care that he was technically eligible to be an attraction in a zoo, or that in Africa people who safari to see him in his natural habit, she still kissed him, and by the time she had finished, she’d forgotten about everything except herself, the boy and his smile.
PS. This is not a true story. It just should be.