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The light in the room lights him from the back so she can not be sure, of course, but she stands paralysed for a few moments, feeling very exposed even on the edge of the shadows. Time seems to draw on forever and neither of them move. But then a gaggle of tourists come walking down the canal, weaving between the street lamps and parked bikes to get past her. She hears the group jabbering in Spanish around her, loud and busy and with several conversations going on at once within the group. She takes a step back into the shadows to let them pass, keeping her eyes on the window opposite. The Spaniards don’t spare her a glance, of course. She is just a local on the street and they are having a good time together in a foreign city. She might just as well not be there at all. As she is watching the window she sees Fred turn and walk away. Where is he going? Will he come out? What will he do? What will she do if he does come outside? A feeling of panic is rising inside of her as she realises that she has no idea! Then as the last person of the tourist group passes by, Helena decides to take the safest route available to her and quietly steps out of the shadows and into step with the Spaniards. Some of them look at her oddly as she joins them, keeping her head slightly down while still glancing to the other side of the canal. However, none of the tourists say anything but instead continue their own conversations.
By the time they reach the next bridge, the group comes to a standstill, apparently undecided on where to go next. Two men and a woman start a heated debate while the rest is looking on. Several of them look at her strangely as she lingers among them, but she pays them no heed. She keeps an eye on the front door of the building with the crow plaque on it. Will he come out?
Just at that moment, the front door opens. She sees the light from the indoor hallway spill onto the porch and light the street. Helena’s pulse quickens as she sees someone step out of the house. Oh heavens, it’s Fred!
The Spanish man next to her looks at her with concern. “You okay, ma’am?” he asks softly, and adds “are you in any kind of danger?”
“Uh,” she stammers, eyeing Fred as he stands looking out over the street and peering to the other side of the canal. Left and right, he looks, left and right. Helena looks at the man next to her. “I don’t know, to be honest!” she hisses and she feels unable to keep the panic out of her voice. The man nods and murmurs something to the woman next to him. She raises her eyebrows, then walks over and throws her arm around her shoulder, like they are lifelong friends on leisurely stroll around Amsterdam with a bunch of friends. The man immediately moves to the mouth of the alley off the canal at the man’s signal, and they enter the pub on the corner with a lot of Spanish chatter and debate. It takes a few minutes and they are inside. Gently prising herself from the woman’s kind but firm embrace, Helena immediately moves to the window to get a look at the building again but the door has closed. Has he gone out, or stayed in? She searches wildly up and down the street and bridge, trying to make out people and faces, when she feels a hand on her shoulder. Alarmed, she turns around quickly, only to find the Spaniard looking out of the window too.
“You might want to step a little away from the window,” he says, “or he might see you. Better to retreat to the shadows for now.” He smiles at her encouragingly, then turns back to the window. Helena feels a surge of gratitude for this kind man who will immediately provide a safe haven for a stranger in distress. She thanks him but he shakes his head.
“Do you see him?” he asks.
“No, I can’t find him.”
“Was he following you?”
“Um, no,” she says, “he wasn’t. He was just… stepping out of the house on the opposite side of the canal… I am sorry, it is nothing really, I am not even sure why…”
“Please,” the Spaniard turns to look at her again. Lines by the sides of his eyes betray that he is middle-aged, probably somewhere in his late fifties or early sixties, and his voice is calm but decided, “please don’t ever apologise for wanting to be safe.”
He smiles again and beckons to the woman who had embraced Helena earlier. “My wife, Marta” he introduces her, “Me I am Rogelio. We are strangers here but you can trust us.” With this he gestures to the whole group of Spaniards, still chattering but all of them smiling reassuringly at the weird Dutch woman who turned up in their midst. Apparently this is a normal occurrence for this group of people because none of them seem nonplussed about being called upon to be guardian angels on a regular night out.
Helena gives a small wave. Most of them wave back.
“You want a drink? Please sit down! You are safe now.” Rogelio assures her. He accompanies her to a barstool that the group has left vacant for her.
“Oh how kind! You are all so kind!” Helena exclaims, “But I must refuse! I actually came here to find this man!”
“Oh sweetie,” Marta looks at her with pity in her eyes and takes her hand, “I am sorry, I know what that is like. But you must believe me, he is not worth it!” Several women of the group, and even most of the men, nod in agreement. “Let it go, sweetheart. You will find another who will be worthy of your love and attention!” With this she looks at Rogelio who grins and kisses her on the cheek.
“No, it is not like that! Not like that at all!” Helena shakes her head vigorously, “I tried to find him because I think he is involved with…”
“That is of no consequence to you, my dear!” Marta interrupts, and her hold on Helena’s hand tightens. “Leave him to his involvements and conquests! Live your own life!”
Helena laughs and tries to politely shake off the misplaced sympathy of the group of Spaniards who are now all of them trying to get her to stay with them, convinced that before long they will hear her story of heartbreak and woe. “I am so sorry – again – but I must really leave…”
Right as she tries to make a break for it, her breath stalls. Fred is standing right outside the window, trying to peer inside with his hand over his eyes.
The Spaniards all look in the direction of the window but Helena is already ducking between the legs of the pub’s patrons towards the toilets in the back. The door of the pub opens as she is making her way along the far side of the bar, bent over to avoid being seen. She cannot hear must else as the group of Spaniards, to a man, move over to the bar for a drink, thus blocking the way of anyone stepping over the threshold.
In the bright and bleak light of the bathroom, Helena looks at her hands resting on the edges of the sink. This is absolute madness! First she wants to go and find Fred, but when she does she wants to avoid him! What is going on? Doesn’t she want to know what is going on? Doesn’t she want to find out about the crow? Doesn’t she want answers to all of the questions that are burning inside of her, about the necklace and the metal and the stone and all the stories about dead people who have once touched the stone? She does! So why does she run from the one man she knows who could be holding so many of the answers? Besides, this is Fred! A man so solid he always eats the same sandwiches, two with old cheese and two with peanut butter, at exactly the same time of day, half past eleven in the morning. A man who keeps his tools so clean you could almost sell them as new. Whose clothes are always immaculately clean, even if he works every day outdoors in the fields and woods. Whose husband once described him as ‘a bit particular about things’ only to add that if he were to change his own hairdo, he would probably be murdered in his bed – and who had then laughed, of course. A small frown appears between Helena’s eyes. Hm, maybe she should have been paying a bit more attention to the real man Fred instead of making a list of his peculiarities.
The hubbub of the pub increases for a moment as someone opens the door to little hallway that leads to the bathrooms, then goes down again as the door closes. Helena stands stock still and holds her breath. Is it Fred? Or, maybe just as likely, Marta? Then she catches her own eyes in the mirror. She sees a hunted woman looking back at her, slightly dishevelled and frightened. This is ridiculous! Just an hour ago she was changing in Betty’s backroom and absolutely determined to find out what Fred had been up to. Look at her now! She is barely holding it together, trembling because someone has opened a door in a pub, and on the brink of maybe, just maybe, meeting a man outside the bathroom door that she has seen nearly every day for the past six months. It is time to put her big girl panties on and stop ducking. She pulls her hair back into a new bun that immediately becomes messy as she releases it, and takes a deep breath. Then, because she may be brave but not stupid, she picks up the glass soap dispenser and weighs it in her hand. Then she opens the door.
tl;dr Helena seems to have been spotted by Fred and follows a group of Spanish tourists into a pub to get away. In the pub’s bathrooms, Helena plucks up the courage to encounter whoever is standing in the hallway just outside the door…
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