Alice heads upstairs with her Ginger Latte and a cream Bath bun, and Connor and I follow presently, after a fight over the last chocolate brownie. He wins by rock-paper-scissors, meaning I get carrot cake instead with my Maple Syrup Latte. As we sit down in the window sofa as before, side-by-side, he splits both in half so we share equally anyway - and I realise he just enjoys winning a fight, over just about anything.
Alice is curled up in a huge armchair in the opposite corner like a Jackanory storyteller, the 'Kitty, Kitty' free Spring catalogue open on her lap. She's texting behind it, obviously adding to her own story with her latest inspiration.
"What did you get?" Connor asks, nodding towards my shopping bag. "And when do I get to see you in it?"
"Never mind," I say indignantly, not sure I can handle this level of conversation in public, under the circumstances. "Something they recommended."
Connor just grins, not in the least bothered. I think he likes seeing me squirm as well.
"You could wear it on our next proper date," he suggests, catching me out.
"Sunday," he reminds me. "I did ask already."
I nod, vaguely remembering something to that effect. I feel as though it was someone else having that conversation at the time. Connor watches as I peel off the biker jacket, and after I put it down, he picks it up and finds my wallet in the inside pocket, flipping it open and sliding out my cards and I.D.
"What are you looking for?" I ask, not in the least fazed by his curiosity.
"You," he says, finding my photo I.D. "Here you are. Recognise yourself?"
I glance at my driver's licence in his hand. My hair used to be dark, but it's still me. I have a weird feeling, sort of a settling sensation, as if I've been in an out-of-body experience all morning. Seeing the photograph of myself is the necessary grounding force to bring me back down to Earth.
"That's what I thought." Connor puts it away again. "Transference. Spend too much time focusing on someone else, you lose your own sense of self. Remote influencing acting on the observer, not on the subject. Like Flynn said, you're a psychological sponge. To be honest, I don't think this is the work direction they should be pushing you in, for your own sake."
"They think I'm good at it."
"Yeah, you are, because you forget yourself in the process. I think you should be doing something that reinforces who you are, instead of steals you from yourself."
"Maybe I don't want constant reminders of who I am," I remark.
"Too late," Connor smirks. "Because you've got me backing you up now."
As I look at him, with no idea of what to say, he leans over and gives me a kiss.
"I don't know who I am in this situation," I confide, before he moves away. "Only what I read in other people."
"Nobody knows who they really are," he whispers in return. "You just have to wait and see how you deal with your own reality, not try and predict it, by projecting how you'd cope in someone else's."
He sits back and rests his arm around my waist as he sips his black coffee, glancing out of the window. Now I find myself wondering how he does it. Apart from admitting to his own self-control issues. Even without that, he still has a stronger sense of his own identity than I do.
Also, I don't know how he seems to have all the answers to mine as well. It's as if I've been studied under a microscope. He seems to know fairly certainly what's me and what isn't, and how to keep what is me on the right track. And without all the peer counselling techno-jargon of the sort I'd get from either group therapy, or someone like Warren. Connor just cuts out all the social niceness and politically-correct preliminaries, and gets straight to the point.
"What do you suggest I should be doing instead, then?" I ask, more as a challenge than a concession. Connor smiles to himself and doesn't quite make eye contact.
"I've got a pretty good idea," he admits. "Been trying to talk you into it for a while already."
"Now I reckon you really are just brainwashing me," I tell him, and he chuckles and shakes his head.
"More than you were getting brainwashed before I turned up just now?" he says, looking at me. There's still a slight smirk on his face, but his eyes are saying something else I'm not familiar with. Before I can start trying to break it down into logical conclusions, my phone reminds me what I'm doing here with another update.
Out of the corner of my eye, Alice is now settled with her soup-tureen-sized coffee, gazing out of the window in a Hollywood starlet faraway-thoughts photo-opportunity pose. Probably at least half real, the other half part of her developing current secret life fantasy, acting how she wants to appear to others. Mysterious and thoughtful and aloof. Not empty-headed, gullible and suggestible. That would be me, if I put on any act. The dumb blonde reality would show me up every time. I can't even do cute and scatty, the generally accepted face of internalised self-denial. It's like Martha, adhering to her cultural background in the modern world - watching Alice hang onto her fantasy life in spite of the evidence to the contrary. I don't seem to have any tenacity in comparison. Too willing to let go of ideas, and self, and reality.
I pass my phone to Connor and let him read the incoming update first, in case he considers anything in it hazardous to my allegedly ongoing identity crisis, or at least to allow him to pre-empt anything in it that is. He scrolls through, before handing it back.
"Reminds me of a documentary monologue by someone not otherwise known for their introspection," he remarks. "Reaching around for something deep and meaningful to say when you know they get their groceries delivered by Harrods and unpacked by their house staff, and all their laundry done by a hotel service. The most they see of a kitchen is when they go to look for a corkscrew."
I nod, familiar with that type of entertainment in the Media. Give a celebrity a camera and send them off to survive for a week in a Council flat, or working in a fast-food joint. Suddenly they come over all philosophical and philanthropist, not realising they're going to be showing themselves up as having thought nothing much about anything for the last decade or more. Other than their pole-position ranking on the red carpet, and their page number in the tabloids. But then the broadcasters probably don't see it either, being part of the same bubble. It's hard to say what is intentionally ironic in the Media nowadays. With so many people wanting to challenge the public perception of themselves, and ending up reinforcing it, it's no wonder there's an endless supply of it about. Running vicious circles around themselves as they try to stay in the public eye, and yet be more to the public eye than just eye candy. Exploiting anything of any humanitarian value within their own comfort zone, as if the rest of the world isn't aware of humanitarian issues, in order to somehow become more human themselves. There is something vampiric about it, eternal life by the suffering of others. I can't remember a time celebrity pressure ever changed the licensing laws at The Plaza, so why they think it should change laws and policies in foreign countries is a mystery. Probably easier to get public support for, than carrying no formal I.D, coked out of their heads, and drunkenly trying to bluff their way past a nightclub door supervisor (who's already having a crap night) into a gay strip bar.
Probably the reason they do it, I muse to myself, re-opening the file Connor has just browsed on my phone. Proving they're more than those sweaty alcoholics falling off kerbs and out of taxis in London's West End, where they're mostly known for wasting police time, and that getting on TV in places like The Gambia is better than being seen in Groucho's. As if central Africa is a posh yob's club outside of SIA and the licensing law's jurisdiction, where they don't have to adhere to a dress code and not swear. A combination of edgy open-air rock festival celebrity dive, and minimalist detox holiday for the rich. The opposites of Robin Hood, feeding their self-image and ego off the poor locals.
Connor was bang on the money in his response to her internet blog post. There's a lot of I feel that… opening sentences, fairly typical of someone with nothing real to say and a lot to speculate about. Speculating about the risks of underestimating the dangers that could be ahead, and keeping her identity secret, the thrill of a new challenge in uncharted waters, and the responsibility of such a task being given to her. And about what levels in society she must now be expected to mingle and familiarize herself with, whether her acting skills are up to standard in order to fit in, and not arouse suspicion. All acutely contrived clichés that could be applied to any new job, from Benefits Fraud Investigator, to Mystery Shopper, to Government Advisor On Education. She's got the skill of weaving stereotyped statements together vaguely enough to attract unqualified attention, not quite Mills & Boon standard, but definitely bored online bingo chat-room fodder, or Miss Haversham's Raffia Mafia audience. But still with nothing substantial or detailed or concrete enough to be termed a work of serious insight. More a fashion-victim of her own storylines, following whichever path she notes gains her the most attention. Maybe increasing her blog followers today by me and a couple of idle police monitors is spurring her on to write more about anything that comes into her head, fulfilling what she perceives is her public's demand.
Remote influencing by audience. Like offering a reward for information, but not specifying either the information or the reward. The speaker knows a reward is forthcoming for filling their airtime in a worthy way, and the Scheherezades all come out of the woodwork. Kiss and tell or kill and tell, it's all filling the same awkward silence there would otherwise be instead, if everyone kept everything about themselves confidential.
I put my phone away and lean on Connor as he pulls me towards him gently, my brain wearing me out as it tries to smash holes in anything that looks like a cliché in my own present situation. Even not saying anything, I'm glad he's here, because so far he's the only person who can listen to my silences and seems to understand them.
"I think she just likes the sound of her own voice, in any given format," he murmurs. "This is just the outlet she has when there's nobody in front of her to share it with. Share whatever fantasy she's currently living in."
"Speaking her internal voice out loud, like internet Tourette's Syndrome," I sigh in return. "That's why it's so weird. It sounds like someone thinking aloud, but not with anything genuinely on their mind. Clutching at straws for things to say."
"Do you have an inner voice like that in your collection?" he asks me.
"I have an inner narrator on constant watch whose job it is to wrangle all the others, so mostly I hear that one trying to keep track of everything, and who are the real people and who are the ones inside my head," I admit. "I'm sure I did have a voice like hers, when I was about four, and thought that the Christmas Tree Fairy was a real job prospect for the future."
Connor just grins.
"Aha," he remarks. "Christmas Tree Fairy."
"What about it?"
"Nothing. Just something I was thinking about earlier."
I get another text, this time from Niall Taylor. Fancy a drink b4 work 2nite? X
"Is it Thursday today?" I ask Connor. "I thought you lot were picking him up?"
Connor glances at the message, frowns and gets his own phone out, pressing Autodial on his last caller to ring head office. He keeps the speaker on Privacy due to the public surroundings, but considering the clamour of shoppers, and chatter of other people on mobile phones, there would be little chance of being overheard in the cacophony.
"What's the latest on Taylor?" he asks. He listens for a few moments and then hangs up without saying anything else.
"Girlfriend withdrew her complaint," he says, abruptly. "Doesn't sound good. Try to avoid him, unless you want to end up in his next photo album with her."
"Is he off the list, does that mean?" I ask.
"Unless he picks up a contract any other time he's bored, and looking for extra cash," Connor tells me, and drains the last of his coffee. "But when I'm bored, I can always pick him up for something minor and make him an appointment with the rubber-glove team. Along with the rest of those perverts you work with. Keep away from him."
He looks at his watch as he replaces his cup back on the table.
"I've gotta go, they want me back on site," he says. "I'll catch you after work tonight. Don't buy too many more shoes to go with that outfit."
He gives me a kiss and squeezes my hand, before he gets up and heads out.
"Yeah, be careful," I mutter to myself.
I put my phone away without replying to Taylor. I don't know whether I have any loyalties at all at the moment, never mind divided ones.
Alice starts texting again. On top of everything else, now I'm going to have to wade through more of her Twaddle looking for anything useful. At least this is where having been a blackmailer comes in handy. If anything has any leverage value, my past self will recognise it. But not necessarily for the reasons head office want me to.
I find the free catalogue in my shopping bag and flick through it idly, my rebel streak finding the shoe pages and skimming through them. Designer hi-jacked styles in PU and faux suede look attractively photographed but fail to thrill me much, seeing as most of what I've already collected is the real thing, and was cheaper on iBay and official sales than they're charging for their brand new plastic rip-off copies. Although I do get an idea or two for customising shoes, including corsage decorations and big satin bows, the kind of thing not suitable for work in any context. Sitting-down shoes. The most walking they do is between taxi and front door.
My phone vibrates again with the latest update, and I'm doubtful how long the battery will last under the onslaught of all the attention. It's a Tweak update.
I'm looking at my first assignment now. Tall, dark, attractive, Sicilian - possible Mafia connections. My heart is racing. He doesn't know he's being watched - just walking his Great Dane like he hasn't a care in the world. Not like I imagined a murderous crime lord. I'll have to keep my emotions cool and distant - otherwise I could be in a different sort of danger…
I look up at Alice quizzically. She too is perusing shoes in the catalogue, tapping her phone against her bottom lip and smiling to herself. She seems to have another idea and starts texting again, entirely in a world of her own.
Fuckanory, my inner teenage critic announces. She's not just a slightly brainwashed attention-seeker. She's a liar.
Head office must have something evident to want her followed, otherwise I'm on a pointless mission to read her FBI assassin fan-fiction while she sits blogging in coffee shops, like a younger Rowling planning to harvest the souls of a generation with her thinly-disguised Blyton meets Pratchett mash-ups. I text head office. CAN YOU BACK TRACE THE CASH SHE PAID IN KITTY KITTY? They reply immediately with: Will do at point of banking. I put my phone away and turn to the underwear pages, looking for a distraction. It's bad enough that I have my own alternate realities to contend with in everyday life. Now I'm going to have to deal with at least three more of Alice's - the reality, the brainwashed cult identity, and the escapist fiction...