He was young, and very slim – the technical term is, or used to be, ‘asthenic’. He woke in his tiny flat over the shop in the busy street, assailed as usual by the cacophony of voices in his head. Years of attention from psychiatrists since puberty, when the trouble began, had failed to find a solution; drugs only muted the racket and made him feel, well, drugged. The specialists had eventually given up and allowed him to live as he wished apart from periodic visits from a Community Psychiatric Nurse.
He dressed hurriedly, almost carelessly, and headed for the nearby park where, at least early in the morning, he could be almost completely free of the voices. There was a café there, too, where he was if not actually comfortable at least less troubled than elsewhere, and he could get some breakfast. If that pretty red-headed girl was there he knew it would be even better – her presence, for some reason, muted the voices completely.
He sighed in relief as he walked among the trees and the voices faded to a mere background mutter, though he was aware of the animals around him – mostly squirrels, of course. He assumed it was his imagination that imbued that awareness with meaning.
A glance in the café door. Good! She was there.
“Hullo, David! What can I get you today?” Her smile warmed his heart and as usual her presence soothed his mind. His eye was caught by a gleam of gold on her left hand, which derailed his train of thought.
“Your usual? Veggie breakfast and coffee?”
He pulled himself together. “Yes please. When did you get married?”
“Oh, just a couple of weeks ago.” She handed him a number stick and turned away with the ticket for his order. Maybe ten minutes passed as the girl polished windows and wiped tables, then she was delivering his breakfast, and coffee with it, as he preferred. As he finished, the café still empty apart from himself, she came and sat in the chair opposite him. “You’re not mad, you know.”
“You. There’s nothing wrong with you. You just have a talent which has never been trained or controlled.” She handed him a slip of paper, which bore an address and a telephone number. “Come and talk to me. Any time between eight and ten in the evening. Or ring and I’ll find a time when I’m not working in the café.” She saw the expression on his face and chuckled. “Hey, this isn’t a come-on. I love my husband, and if you come round, he’ll be there. It’s just that I think I can help you. If you let me.”
He ate his breakfast and, though the café began to fill with dog-walkers (the dogs left outside to bark or whine until their owners reappeared) and parents, out with their pre-school children, his mind was still at peace. He was tempted to stay but felt bad about occupying a table as the café was so busy, so he left to walk up the valley.
It was a windy, blustery, overcast day with an occasional splatter of rain, so few others were about – just dog-walkers, really. Of course, they were talking (so were the dogs) but one voice, or two, he could cope with. He walked all day, and returned to his flat rather wet and footsore. A makeshift meal of cheese on toast and baked beans stopped the hunger pangs but did nothing for the renewed cacophony in his head, so taking a deep breath he set off for the address the redhead had given him.
The clamour eased as he stood in front of a very ordinary front door, but it was several minutes before he could bring himself to ring the bell. The door was opened by a middle-aged guy in dark grey trousers and a white button-down shirt, open at the neck.
“Hello!” the man spoke warmly. “It’s David, isn’t it? Kat said you might call. I’m Harry Bird, Kat’s husband. Kat!” A large ginger cat with a white bib emerged from the first door along the hall and weaved around Harry’s calves, purring, then streaked off upstairs. “Well, come in, David, come in.” He backed up to make room for the young man, reached round to shut the door, then led the way into the room the cat had emerged from.
It was a comfortable, if uncoordinated room, the furniture being two sofas and an office type chair at a small table bearing a laptop. A moderately sized t/v stood next to a bulky stacking Hi-Fi set-up, and a fire burned in a small stove, set in a brick fireplace.
“Take a seat – Kat’ll be down any minute. Would you like a drink? Tea? Coffee? Soft drink?”
“A cup of tea would be lovely, um, Harry.”
Harry left the room and David settled in one of the sofas and looked around. He noticed a little pile of clothes in a random heap next to the table and wondered about it.
Kat came in, smiling. She was dressed in ... what? It was off-white – perhaps ivory, or something like that. One piece with no apparent fastenings, it covered her from neck to ankles and had a sort of hood draped at the back. A thin rope of the same colour gathered the material in at the waist with the ends dangling in front.
“David! I’m so glad you came.”
“I ... well ... I get pretty desperate sometimes, you know.”
She nodded, her face sympathetic. “Yes, I do know. But it’s probably worse for you. I knew what I was, so things made sense to me.”
At which point Harry came in with a tray – two mugs of tea, sugar and milk, and a glass of fruit juice. He set the tray on the table next to the laptop.
“Do you take milk and sugar? I should have asked.”
“A little of both, please.”
Harry dispensed tea to David (milk and sugar, just a little) and to himself (Earl Grey, black and straight) and orange juice (freshly squeezed) for Kat, who smiled at him and pursed her lips in a mimed kiss.
“Would it be best if I left?” Harry asked.
Kat looked at David, who shrugged. “I don’t think I care.”
As they sipped at their drinks, Kat began. “Would you like to start, or shall I?”
“I’d be interested in what you think is wrong with me and why you think you can help...”
“David, you come in the café pretty regularly, don’t you?”
“Sure – you know it.”
“I see your face, and I see the tension leave it when you come in. More to the point, I have ... a gift. I sense things about people. Not always. In your case, I think you have a gift, or a talent, perhaps, but one which is uncontrolled. You hear voices in your head, don’t you?”
The young man’s eyes widened. “Y ... yes...”
“But they aren’t usually distinct voices, are they? I mean, you don’t hear them talking to you, or about you, distinctly, do you?”
“Well, no. I mean, it’s more of a babble. You know – lots of people talking at once.”
“Exactly. What it is, David, is you’re hearing people’s thoughts. Because you’re untrained, you can’t shut them off, or tune into one distinct set of thoughts. So you hear this cacophony of voices most of the time. But you don’t have the problem in the café, do you?”
“Well, no...” he paused, “especially when you’re there...”
She put her half-drunk glass of juice down on a nearby coffee-table, rose and adopted that semi-kneeling pose on the floor in front of him that looks so uncomfortable to the average man. He had to look down in order to meet her eyes.
“Do you trust me?” she asked, quietly.
He shook his head slightly. “Well, I’m here, aren’t I? And no-one else has had any help to offer.” Then, after a few moments more, “Yes, of course I trust you.”
She stretched out her hand and, after a moment’s hesitation, he took it. Her grip was firm, warm and dry, though not threatening; his, cold and moist with anxiety, but she showed no sign of distaste at his touch. “Close your eyes, David.”
He seemed to be floating over the path outside the house, though he could feel the pressure of his seat upon the sofa; it was dark and cold. He saw an elderly woman walking a small dog on a lead along the path, and seemed to hear her voice muttering disjointed words, mainly about what food she needed to buy the next day, but muddled in with ... pictures! Pictures of couples dancing ... words ... thoughts, of course ... about the people, about the dancing... ‘Strictly’ of course. Then he was back in his place on the sofa, and she’d released his hand. (Strictly Come Dancing – a BBC reality t/v show. Strangely popular)
“I’m hearing thoughts?”
“I can teach you to shut the voices out, or tune in to one person’s thoughts.”
“I don’t want to hear what someone’s thinking!”
“No? Never wanted to know if someone was telling you the truth?”
“Well...” he smiled – was it the first time? “Sometimes I wonder about the doctors and the nurses. I’m sure they think I’m mad.”
“Well, David. You need to go home – I’ll give you a little potion which will block your ability to hear thoughts – and give you space to think what you want. I won’t deceive you – it’s not going to be easy. But first, you need to turn your ability off. Don’t take too much of the potion – a teaspoon at night is enough, okay?”
She rose gracefully to her feet and left the room, and the young man looked at Harry. “She’s really something, your wife.”
He smiled. “Yes, she really is.”
Kat returned to the room after perhaps five minutes, and offered David a small, clear, bottle containing a light blue liquid. “No more than one teaspoon at night,” she said. “And it takes several days to brew this.”
“Can I ... can I pay for this?”
She shook her head. “No. No payment is required. But come back when you’ve made up your mind.”
He took the little vial and placed it carefully in a pocket. “Thank you.”
She smiled warmly. “It’s a pleasure. Sleep well, David, and I expect I’ll see you in the café.”
He made his way home to his little flat, hearing the cacophony of babbling voices grow and fade as he walked. Back in the tiny kitchenette he extracted the vial of light blue liquid from his pocket and examined it against the light, then shrugged, found a teaspoon, unscrewed the lid and carefully poured out the prescribed spoonful. After a moment’s hesitation, he popped it in his mouth and swallowed.
It had a thin taste – that’s how he thought of it – and it felt cold on his tongue, then hot, with an odd, sharp flavour he couldn’t quite describe. The racket in his head continued, and he went to boil the kettle for a cup of tea, cynically wondering why he’d even hoped for a solution to his problem. It was only as he sat with the tea and reached for his current read, that he realised that the noise in his head was fading. The absence of the babble to which he was so accustomed was replaced by a curious numb sensation – definitely not the pleasant comfort he’d experienced in Kat’s presence. It was not altogether enjoyable in itself, but he had to admit it was a great deal better than what he was used to.
Back in the Bird household, once David had left, Kat stood in front of Harry and did her transformation; the large ginger cat with a white bib struggled out of another tangled heap of clothes, pounced in his lap, and stretched up to lick his face with her rough tongue before switching back, her plump, curvy, naked body (which he’d always found irresistible) in his lap. She leaned in for a deep kiss before standing, hip-shot, in front of him.
He reached out for her, a theatrical growl in his throat, and she danced away, heading for the stairs with Harry in hot – very hot – pursuit. On the stairs he reached between her thighs and she squeaked and sped up as he touched her. She was very wet there.
Their coupling, as it often was, was tumultuous, and both cried out as they reached their conclusions almost simultaneously. As they spooned together in the afterglow, his hand stroked her round belly. “I love you,” he whispered.
“I know,” she answered. “I love you too. I’m so glad we found each other.” Then, “Can you feel her growing?”
“Not yet,” he said, a smile in his voice. “You’re sure it’ll be a girl?”
“Oh, yes. I can feel her.” They were silent then for several minutes, and Harry was about to drift off to sleep when she asked, “Do you want a son?”
“I don’t mind,” he murmured, “but when she’s born, perhaps we could think about it?”
In the morning, Kat saw David enter the café and approach the counter, though it was a different girl at the till at the time. He ordered his usual breakfast and went to sit down, when Kat wandered over to say hello.
“How are you feeling today?”
“Okay, I suppose. I slept really well. It’s just ... there’s a part of me that seems ... numb.”
“The potion worked, then.”
“I suppose it did...”
“Are you ready to learn how to switch off your mental ears, then? It would be better than taking my potion and feeling numb.”
He met her eyes with a wry smile. “I suppose it would be.”
It took nearly two weeks for David to catch on. She got him to ‘switch off’ fairly quickly, but it proved difficult for him to learn how to ‘switch on’ again, especially when she wasn’t there to guide him. Also, he was unsure if he even wanted to listen to anyone else’s thoughts. However, Kat pointed out that he didn’t need to use his ability, but he did need to be able to use it. So they spent a further two weeks during which he learned not only to use the ‘switch’, but also to ‘tune’ his ability. He was sure he’d never use it...
The winter passed, slowly, and one damp, gloomy morning in March Kat welcomed David to the café with her usual warm smile. “Your usual?”
“How are you doing?”
“Quite well, thank you; I’m going to start working at Tesco next week. Just shelf-stacking, you know, but it’s a start. The first proper job I’ve ever been able to get. I can’t thank you enough, Kat. You’ve changed my life. Really.”
“That’s wonderful, David. Would you do something for me, now?”
“If I can.”
She leaned across the counter. “Go and sit with the dark-haired girl in the corner. Listen to her,” She said very quietly while handing him a numbered wooden spoon. Then louder, “I’ll bring your breakfast over.”
The café was over half-full, and it was quite reasonable for him to ask the girl (who he picked out immediately) if she minded him joining her.
“Ssss ... ure. I I I d.d.don’t mmmind.”
She was pretty, in an understated way, though he could sense her tension. He could also tell why Kat wanted him to approach the girl. Uneasily, he opened the switch and looked into her eyes as he sought the right ‘frequency’.
‘ ... as if he’d be interested in a skinny, stuttering girl like me. He looks nice, though.’
He opened his mouth to respond to that, but just in time realised that would not be a good idea. “I come in here pretty often, but I haven’t seen you before. Are you new to the area?”
She nodded, with a smile. “Ttttwo wwwweeks.” ‘How do I tell him I moved here from London?’
His breakfast arrived, with his coffee, delivered by Kat, who asked the girl, “Would you like a refill of that latte?”
She was torn between embarrassment, a desire to run away, and a strong desire to stay near this ‘nice young man’ who seemed not to mind her halting speech. She nodded. “Y-y-yes, p-p-please.”
Kat took the cup and made another latte as David consumed his breakfast, and when she delivered it the girl fumbled for her purse, only to be told, “It’s on me – don’t worry.”
“Th-th-thanks.” ‘But how do I get to know him? How do I talk to him. How... ‘
“I have a gift,” he said, with a smile, between mouthfuls. “I can sometimes know what someone is thinking.”
“R-r-r-really?” ‘If only that were true!’
“I shouldn’t have told you that – you’re going to think I’m weird, or nuts, or something.”
“Well, for one thing, only mad people think they can hear other people’s thoughts.”
“I-i-i-it w-w-would m-m-make things easier for me if you c-c-could r-r-read m-my m-mind.” ‘If you really can, ask me to walk in the park with you when you’ve finished your breakfast.’
David paused in mid chew and stared at her, finished the mouthful and swallowed. “I’d love for you to walk with me when I’ve finished eating.”
Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped – an expression he’d heard but never previously witnessed. “B-b-but I’m...” ‘just a scrawny stuttering girl’.
“I think you’re quite pretty, and I think it’d be nice to have company for my walk.”
‘What! He just said he’d like to have my company – well, company, anyway – but is it safe?”
“Tell you what – my name’s David. If you want to think about it, I’ll be in tomorrow and the next day. I don’t come in on Saturdays because it gets crowded. I’ll be in Sunday, but I start work for Tesco’s on Monday, training, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to come in again. If you’d like to think about things I’ll give you my number.”
“O-o-o-k-kay.” ‘I wonder what his full name is?’
“I’m David Tomlinson. May I know your name?” He smiled and raised an eyebrow.
He wouldn’t have thought she could look more surprised, but she managed it. “P-p-penny.” ‘I’d rather people called me Penelope, but it’s such a job getting it out.’
“Well, Penelope ... what about it? A short walk up through the park? Feed the ducks?”
“C-c-can...” ‘can he hear everything I think?’
He reached across the table and gently touched her hand with his fingertips. “Penelope, it depends on what I do. I usually switch off so I can’t hear anyone’s thoughts. If I tune in, like with you, it depends how deep I look. I’m just reading your surface thoughts, so I ‘hear’ what you’re about to say. If it bothers you...”
“N-n-no.” ‘it’s just some things are embarrassing... ‘ “Y-y-yes. I—i-if y-y-you w-want m-me, I-I’ll w-w-walk w-with y-you.”
They’d passed the first pond, slowly, watching ducks and black-headed gulls squabbling over scraps thrown by a little girl. David apologised for forgetting to pick up duck-food from the café counter. But as they crossed the bridge over the brook, her hand slipped into his. He squeezed it gently as reassurance that he didn’t mind a bit. They walked as far as the old grinding shop called ‘Shepherd’s Wheel’ before turning back and parting ways at the park gate.
Thursday and Friday were much the same; they met in the café, then walked up the valley a ways and back, so intent on each other they didn’t notice Kat’s satisfied smile. Penelope, freed from the agony of her speech impediment, just enjoyed being with a young man of about her own age with whom she could communicate with no problems. Both of them found that their tastes were very similar; nature, wildlife, the outdoors; folk music, art and reading.
On Saturday, David, as usual, avoided the crowding in the café and, not as usual, walked into town to visit the Central Library. There, freed from his ‘problem’, he spent the morning browsing the shelves and dipping into various tempting books. His mind, however, was not on the books, but rather on the dark-haired girl he’d spent so much time with. He found he was looking forward to Sunday morning with unusual anticipation, and decided he would ask her if she’d like a date. A film, perhaps? He researched what was showing and noted them down.
When Sunday dawned, though, and he arrived at the café (a little earlier than usual) she was no-where to be seen. He ordered and ate his breakfast and drank his coffee. Obtained a refill and sipped his way through that as slowly as possible, but she didn’t come. Worse still, Kat wasn’t on duty to take a message or have a chat...
His first week was orientation and training, and effectively prevented him from visiting the park café, so it was Sunday before he was in there again. Kat wasn’t on duty, so he phoned and was told to call round; which he did, mid afternoon.
“Hello, David! We’ve missed you in the café. How was your first week?”
He shrugged, but smiled. “It’s hardly rocket science, but it’s a real job. Now that I can concentrate properly, I’m going to do evening classes. You know, since you helped me, I think I might be able to get into counselling. I’d like to try to help someone else like you helped me.”
“Like Penelope. Have you seen anything of her?”
“‘Fraid not. If you’re serious about helping people, we’d better talk about how you go about that, but not now. Do you really like her?”
He frowned. “That’s ... difficult. I suppose I must do – I was looking forward to seeing her last Sunday.”
“White knight syndrome?”
“Do you need to help her, or is she someone who might become a friend?”
“Um ... I don’t know. I thought ... I thought she might be a friend. Maybe, girlfriend.”
“Well, you need to work it out before you see her again – if you do, of course.”
Time passed, as it does. David settled in to his new job and, when his shift permitted, called in at the café as he used to. Kat invited him to eat supper with Harry and herself several times, after which she talked to him about using his gift.
“Your gift is not a panacea,” she told him at one point. “You may know, absolutely, what someone’s problem is, but they have to voice it themselves. That’s why it would be worthwhile taking some counselling courses.”
“I see.” He didn’t, really, but he trusted her to know what she was talking about.
Working at the supermarket, he found he could get along with the other staff very well. In fact, several of the young women were particularly friendly, not that he realised what was happening, or knew what to do even if he had. One of them, a plump, pretty girl who reminded him strongly of Kat, actually asked him it he’d like to join her for a drink at a local hostelry. He enjoyed the time, though not the beer – alcoholic beverages had never formed part of his lifestyle as they didn’t agree with the drugs he’d taken to try to control the noise in his head – but the girl was disappointed if she expected anything more than a chat and a drink.
He told Kat about it one evening. She chuckled, not unkindly, and explained that the girl probably liked him and would have liked him to ask her for a date. He thought about that.
“Well, maybe, I suppose. She is nice. Pretty, too. A bit like you, as a matter of fact. But somehow...”
Kat just smiled at the compliment, and went on to talk of other things.
It was over five weeks from their last encounter that David saw Penelope again. He had, several times in fact, thought he’d had a glimpse of her but it had turned out each time to be a stranger. This time, however, while he was expecting another disappointment, it was her. They were in the large central library and his first sight was of her dark hair as she sat at a computer. Moving closer and round so that he could see her face, he knew it was her and he went up to her and lightly touched her shoulder.
“Hey, Penelope,” quietly, respecting the environment they were in.
“Oh!” she actually jerked in surprise. Then, seconds later, “David...”
“When you’re done there, how about a cuppa in the café?”
He moved away, but found a seat where he could still see her. When she stood, pushing her chair back, he went back to her. She met his eyes, and blushed. He gestured to the exit, and she preceded him there. The café in the central library is on the third floor – fourth, if you’re American – and they walked together up the broad marble staircase without speaking. They arrived, a little out of breath, at the top floor art gallery and made their way to the café, where they ordered and took their snacks to a corner table.
“May I listen to you?” David asked quietly.
“Y-y-you m-m-mean...” she pointed to her head.
He opened the channel. “I was sorry not to see you again in the park. Kat missed you, too.”