Robin Christopher, beleaguered retail worker, isn’t having an easy November. His boss is raising stress levels planning a Black Friday to end all Black Fridays, his family doesn’t understand him, and his best friend thinks his new crush is a hallucination brought on by watching too many episodes of Doctor Who.
Archie Levine dresses in Victorian style and divides his time between caring for his young son and creating weird and wacky steampunk gadgets from bits of old junk—when he’s not looking after his mum and trying to keep on good terms with his ex. The last thing he’s got time for is a relationship, but the flustered young man he met while disembowelling a fridge is proving very tempting.
When his mum’s social conscience is roused by a local store with a cavalier attitude to the homeless, former rough sleeper Archie shares her anger. Little does he know that Robin works for that same store. When Archie finds out he’s sleeping with the enemy, things could cut up very rough indeed.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
References to past underage sex
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, acceptance, angst, atonement, biphobia, child abuse / neglect, family, fandom, fitting in, geeks / nerds, homelessness, homophobia / transphobia, illness / injury, mental illness, pining / UST, protection, self-confidence, Steampunk (community/hobby), trust issues
It had been a bright, sunny autumn day, the perfect weather for a walk in the park to admire the rich colours of the trees and crunch through fallen leaves. At least, Robin assumed it had been. All he’d seen of it were tantalising glimpses through the store windows, and the cheery smiles and reddened noses of scarf-muffled shoppers coming in from the cold. A new staff hire hadn’t turned up today, meaning he’d had to work through lunch. To add insult to injury, as it was a Thursday and therefore late-night shopping evening at Willoughbys Department Store, he hadn’t been able to clock off until after nine.
Even Sheppy’s Mum, who kipped down with her dog in a doorway near to Willoughbys and probably wouldn’t know well rested if it jumped up in front of her and did a hula dance on the pavement, had told him he looked tired when he stopped to say good night in passing.
The sun was just a distant memory by the time Robin made his weary way home from the bus stop, and the only fallen leaves on his street were mixed with discarded crisp packets and no doubt hid the sort of litter you really wouldn’t want to be crunching through. Or, as it might be, squelching.
A few deflated Halloween pumpkins stood sentry at doorways, but others, it appeared, had already gone to their ultimate destiny: makeshift footballs for groups of lads or ladettes. One or two buildings still showed signs of having been egged, which was a terrible waste of food in Robin’s current opinion.
If he hadn’t moved out of his parents’ house, an inner voice that sounded a lot like Mum insisted on pointing out, Robin would have had a much nicer street to walk down. And he’d have been home by now, tucking into a plate of cottage pie or ham and eggs, rather than racking his tired brain to think of something appetising he could whip up before he fell asleep from exhaustion. Available ingredients, from memory: a shrivelled, sprouty onion, a packet of instant noodles and the bottle of gravy browning Mum had shoved into his hands when he’d moved into the new flat.
There was always the chippie. But it was two streets out of his way, which might as well have been two continents. And the woman who worked there scared him, with her partly shaven hair, weirdly retro vibes, and belligerent manner, like the fifties pinup love child of Tank Girl and Rosie the Riveter.
Halfway home, Robin faltered mid-trudge and stopped to stare at the strange scene by the side of the road, illuminated by a flickering streetlamp.
There was a pair of legs sticking out from behind a fridge.
Robin felt very strongly that fridges didn’t belong at the side of the road in a well-ordered world. Oh, he was willing to concede that sometimes they had to occupy that position for a night or so while waiting for the council to pick them up and take them to their final resting place or, as was more likely these days, nightmare dystopian recycling plant. But what he wasn’t prepared to accept was any situation in which they should require human occupancy.
Maybe the man was homeless? From what he could see—battered combat boots, and a pair of tweedy trousers that might have belonged to someone’s not-overly-particular great-grandad—that could very well be the case. Robin reminded himself he was all for having consideration for the less fortunate members of society. And anyone who couldn’t find anything more comfortable to snuggle up to than chucked-out old white goods probably needed all the consideration they could get.
Should he suggest a local hostel? Point out that it was a reasonably clement night for the time of year and that the local park was only a hop, skip, and a jump away, at least for those unencumbered by obsolete kitchen appliances?
Just as he was thinking that it was probably best to leave well alone, there came a triumphant cry of “Got you, you rascal!” and the rest of the man emerged with a grin. He was tall, about Robin’s height or maybe a smidge over, and his broad shoulders were nicely showcased by a rather dapper-looking waistcoat over a striped, grandad-collar shirt. There was an actual pocket watch chain draped casually across the waistcoat front.
Robin blinked. “Did I somehow stumble into an episode of Doctor Who? Because I’ve always wanted to travel in time, but a bit of advance warning might have been nice.” He darted a mildly panicked glance at the houses beside them, and had never been so glad to see a satellite dish in his life.
“Ah . . . No? I’m pretty sure this is the twenty-first century. I think more would have changed if it wasn’t. We’d probably have noticed.” The grin had faded and its owner now wore an expression of concern. He had a neatly trimmed beard, and a moustache with curly, waxed ends, like a Victorian dandy or cartoon villain. Robin was suddenly thankful that the nearest railway track was miles away. Tattoos bordered the man’s neck, spelling out some word or phrase that was partially hidden by his shirt.
He was strange. And hot. And did Robin mention strange?
Robin tried desperately not to stare. Or to think about the fact that he’d been babbling on about time travel to a perfect stranger. “Fine. Sorry. I just— Sorry.” As he turned to go, oddly mortified, something the man was holding glinted rose gold in the lamplight, like one of those Ted Baker water bottles Robin had his eye on in the sports department. Words burst out without him consciously willing it. “What the hell is that?”
The wicked grin returned as the man held up a thick, loose coil of copper wire with strange, silvery bits on the ends. His strong forearms were bared by rolled-up sleeves. Why wasn’t he shivering? Maybe his planet had a colder climate . . .
“That, I’d say, is an aetheric field generator.” There was a strangely compelling gleam in his eye. “Or possibly a miasma detector. Haven’t decided yet. What do you reckon?”
Robin wasn’t at all sure what he reckoned. Apart from that the whole Doctor Who thing was looking increasingly likely. “Uh . . . do they often put those in fridges?”
“Pretty much all the time, yeah. I mean, they call them thermocouples, but you and I know better, don’t we?” The (tall, fit, and possibly villainous) man tapped his nose significantly, and the ends of his moustache quivered.
Robin might have quivered too. He hoped the strange (and hot, and delusional) man/alien hadn’t noticed. Very slowly, he raised a hand, and tapped his own nose in reply as if exchanging a secret Masonic sign. Oh God. Perhaps that was it, and he’d just claimed membership in some bizarre organisation that partook in ritual fridge disembowelment.
Dark eyes widened. “Right, got to run. Left the horseless carriage on a double yellow. Rest of her’s all yours. See you around!” And with that, Robin was alone. Staring at a violated fridge. Having apparently been invited to make himself likewise free of its innards.
He averted his eyes, shook himself, and walked briskly home.
The next day did not begin well. Robin slept through his alarm and struggled out of bed groggily, his head fogged with vague yet enticing dreams of mad men in boxes.
By dint of missing breakfast and sprinting to the bus stop, he managed to just catch his bus. Only to realise five minutes into the route that it was the wrong bus, which had lulled him into a false sense of security by heading towards the town centre before veering off in the direction of villages unknown.
Miraculously, he made it into work only twenty minutes late. Unfortunately, as Robin slunk into the menswear department, trying to blend in with the Ben Sherman shirts and Timberland jackets, his manager, Gail, caught his eye from over by Gifts and Accessories. Fixing him with a stern glare, she marched over to him, heels click-clacking on the tiled floor, and folded her arms. “Well?”
The expression on her thin, perpetually frowning face said (a) his excuse for his tardiness had better be good and (b) she wouldn’t believe it anyway.
Robin did not cringe. “Sorry. I’ll set two alarms tomorrow.”
“This isn’t good enough, Robin. You’re supposed to be setting an example to the junior staff. And I’m sure you’re well aware this is the most important time of the year for Willoughbys.”
She said that all year round, but Robin was guiltily aware it was actually true this time. “Sorry,” he said again.
“Now, don’t just stand there. Get to work. I’ve got more important things to do than cover for staff who can’t be bothered to get up in the morning.”
She click-clacked away. Robin glared at her suit-clad back, stuck up a surreptitious but heartfelt middle finger in her direction, then scurried behind the counter to become a picture of professionalism and customer service.
An elderly lady doddered up to the sales point. “I’ll take these handkerchiefs,” she said in the overly loud voice of the hard of hearing. “And a bag, although it still seems a nonsense that we have to pay for them. Back in my day, it was all part of the service.”
Robin rang up the sale and bagged the hankies. “I’m afraid it’s a legal requirement, madam. But it all goes towards the environment.”
“Not that I’ll live to see the benefit,” she complained loud enough that they probably heard her upstairs in Furnishings. “Still, I suppose it was worth an extra 5p to see you making rude gestures at that hoity-toity young madam of a manager.”
As the old lady shuffled away, Robin cast a mortified glance around, hoping against hope no other customers had been in earshot.
And looked straight into Gail’s furious eyes.
Robin offered her a weak, apologetic smile that fizzled and died in the burn of her glare, and scuttled off to rearrange the socks.
At lunchtime, he had his best friend, Azrah, crying on his shoulder about her latest breakup.
Since it was Azrah, there wasn’t any actual crying involved. More along the lines of cursing and swearing eternal vengeance. But still, it wasn’t the most relaxing of mealtimes.
They’d gone to their favourite café in the town centre, the one near the church. The in-store café wasn’t the place for emotional conversations. Walls had ears. So did the accounts department, who tended to eat en masse around now. Generous to a fault with any and all gossip that came their way, they weren’t just hooked in to the workplace grapevine, they were the workplace grapevine.
Robin had known Azrah since they were at primary school together. They’d been friends ever since he’d naively asked her one playtime why Jayden Simpson had called her a Paki and she hadn’t stabbed him with her newly sharpened colouring pencil (Jayden Simpson hadn’t been so lucky). They’d spent the next seven years with Robin’s mum persistently referring to Azrah as “your little girlfriend” despite their increasingly loud denials, until he’d come out at age fourteen mostly to get her to stop.
It’d worked only too well—Mum had barely spoken to him at all for the next week and a half. Not only that, but she’d seemed on the verge of tears every time she even looked at him. Still, a decade on, she seemed to have mostly come to terms with it.
One of the reasons—all right, the main reason—Robin had moved out of his parents’ house was so he could bring a boyfriend home once in a while. Mum had never gone so far as to say she didn’t like him bringing men home . . . but then, she didn’t have to, not with the whole awkward-politeness-and-unhappy-looks thing she’d had going on every time he’d tried.
They picked up their lunch from the counter and headed for their usual table at the back of the café. After a full morning on the shop floor at the beck and call of customers, neither of them fancied being on display in the front window like a couple of off-duty mannequins.
“So what happened?” Robin prompted Azrah when she only stared moodily into her cappuccino.
She flicked her long black hair angrily away from her face. “That bastard. He actually had the nerve to give me the whole ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ bollocks.”
Robin snorted into his tuna salad. “And you’re complaining? I’d kill for an ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ breakup. All I get is ‘We haven’t got enough in common’ or worse, ‘I thought you were more interesting when I met you.’” He shuddered at the still-painful memory.
“Be fair. It was only Ethan who called you boring.” Azrah took a savage bite out of her chicken and pesto baguette. “And he was a tosser,” she added with her mouth full.
“You think all of my exes are tossers.”
Azrah swallowed. “And what does that tell you?”
“You have impossible standards?”
“Think again, white boy. Think again. Come on, Ethan’s idea of interesting was someone who preferred clubbing to conversation, knew where to get him the good drugs, and didn’t mind watching him get off with other blokes.”
Robin sighed. “Yeah, but he was hot.” Warmth tingled through him for a moment, turning to a shiver when he ruthlessly replaced the memory of Ethan-in-bed with one of Ethan-being-disparaging.
Azrah huffed. “Now you sound as shallow as him.”
“I don’t know.” Robin’s shoulders slumped, and he chased a bit of cucumber around his plate half-heartedly. “Maybe I am shallow? I mean, really, what is there to me?”
Azrah put down her baguette and studied him, her head on one side.
For a long time. Robin began to wish he hadn’t asked. “Is it honestly that hard a question?”
“Uh . . . You’re not bad looking, in a sort of twinkish way.”
“I am not a twink! Twinks are . . . blonder. And musclier. And brainlesser.”
“That’s twinkist, that is. And I’m almost certain only one of those is actually a word.”
“They might be words. Or potential words. Shakespeare made stuff up all the time. I was asking about deeper things, anyway. My inner qualities.”
“If they’re inner, how am I supposed to know about them?” She grinned. “Face it, it’s not like I’m ever getting inside you, is it?”
“Yeah, well, likewise, I’m sure.” She took another bite of her baguette in what Robin felt was an unnecessarily pointed fashion. “You’re not boring, okay? You’re funny—when you’re not moping, at any rate—and you’re shit-hot on fashion. Like, to a fault, actually, Mr. I-can’t-go-out-in-a-belt-that-doesn’t-go-with-my-shoes.”
“No, the issue was that it did go, too well. You can’t go around being all matchy-matchy. It shows a lack of imagination. I’d have looked like I’d been interior designed. And hang on, aren’t you supposed to be building me up here?”
“Uh . . .” Azrah’s pause once again went on quite a bit longer than was flattering. “Um, you’re really focussed on your career?”
“Thank you so much. When it comes to dating prospects, that’s just a sub-heading under boring.” And it wasn’t even true, not exactly. It was more that he didn’t want to spend his entire working life being told what to do, and you had to get ahead to, well, get ahead.
Azrah sat up straight and all but bounced in her chair. “Ooh, I know one. A good one. You play three musical instruments. That’s not boring.”
“My mum says ukulele doesn’t count.” She was a bit on the fence about the guitar too, to be honest.
“Your mum says a lot of things.” Azrah’s tone was dark.
“Has she been hassling you about Islam again?” The pep talk having contained a lot less pep than Robin had hoped for—in fact, it’d pretty much been a pep-zero talk—he was keen to change the subject. And Mum never seemed to get that although Azrah’s family were nominally Muslim, it didn’t mean they were the world authorities on Sharia law or even went to the mosque, like, ever. Which was ironic, considering Mum would proudly announce herself to be Church of England despite not having set foot in a church for as long as Robin had been alive, leaving aside the traditional ceremonies to mark hatching, matching, and dispatching.
“Yeah. She came in for a new nonstick saucepan”—Azrah worked in the kitchenware department—“and to secretly check you’re not dead yet from living on your own for two weeks already, and she was going on at me about the rights of women and dress codes and all that. I mean, look at me. I wear Western clothes all the time, and have you ever seen me in a hijab? Seriously, the last time I wore a headscarf was when I was a shepherd in the primary school nativity play.” She snorted. “My dad had a right go at the school for that, I can tell you.”
“Nah, he’s just really anti people’s beliefs being shoved in kids’ faces. Anyway, I keep telling your mum, I’m not the person she should be asking about that stuff. But you know her. It’s like she listens, but she doesn’t hear you, right?”
“Why? She produced you, not the other way around. Mind you, she did say one other thing. Something about ungrateful sons who never visit, and how she was sure that never happened in Muslim families. Hey, do you think she’s planning to convert?”
“Maybe we should warn the local imam. Got his number?”
“I know one digit of it.” Azrah held up her middle finger and Robin grinned.
“Anyway,” she went on, “why are we even talking about your mum? We’re supposed to be talking about me.”
Robin put down his fork and leaned towards her with an earnest expression on his face. “Go on, I’m listening.”
“Fuck you.” She shook her head. “Oh, what is there to say? It’s always the same bloody thing, isn’t it? Men. They’re all the same. Present company excepted, obvs.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment? Anyway, you’re wrong there. I met a bloke last night who was definitely different.”
Azrah’s eyes lit up. “Tell me more.”
Robin gazed at the wall, lost in memory. “He was a bit like one of the old Doctor Whos. You know, the blokes.”
“Yeah, which one, though? Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant? Either one of them would do for me, but I’m not sold on the rest of them.”
“It wasn’t like that. I mean, he didn’t look like one of the actors. He just dressed a bit eccentrically and spouted strange science-y stuff at me. And then he ran off.”
“So did you follow him? Ooh, is this going to turn into an alien-abduction story?” Azrah cackled. “Did he get out his probes?”
Robin couldn’t help picturing the thick copper wire with silver . . . things on the ends the strange man had been so excited about. “Well, he said it was a thermocouple.”
Her eyes widened to roughly the size of Robin’s plate. “Do I even want to hear the rest of this story? And in case you’re wondering, the answer is yes, yes, I do.”
“Nothing happened! But he was definitely different.”
“So are you seeing him again?”
“It wasn’t that kind of meeting.” Robin slumped. “I suppose I might bump into him again. If he’s local.”
“Local to Hitchworth, or local to that council estate no-go area where you live?” Azrah glanced around as if hoping a hot Doctor might saunter past at any moment.
Robin glared at her. “It’s still Hitchworth, you know. There’s some quite nice streets nearby. And there’s nothing wrong with council estates.”
“Or no-go areas?”
“Shut up. You’re just a snob. Anyway, I met him on my street, but he might only have been there for the fridge.”
“The . . . Tell you what, don’t explain it. Leave it part of Mystery Bloke’s essential mysteriosity.”
“You mean ‘mystique’?”
“You know, I always wondered why you spent three years at uni. It was so you could flounce around being all superior and correcting people’s grammar, wasn’t it?”
“Uh, I think you mean vocabulary.”
“I think I mean fuck you. So what did he look like, your mystery man?”
Robin couldn’t have held back the eye roll if his life had depended on it. “I thought you wanted to keep him mysterious? Fine. Tall, dark, and fit.”
“Marathon runner fit or”—her voice went all low and husky—“hundred meters?”
“Sort of somewhere in between.”
“Okay, that works. Dark skin or dark hair?”
“Hair. And, uh, beard.” Robin shied away from mentioning the curly moustache. He had an instinct she might not treat it with the dignity it deserved.
“Hmm . . . beards can look good, but if I wanted to floss my teeth it’s not his face I’d be kissing.”
“Do you talk like that in front of your mum and dad?”
“Hah. What do you think? Just cos they’re not into religion doesn’t mean they’re totally untraditional.” She rolled her eyes. “They’re not as bad as your mum and dad, mind. Your mum still thinks good girls should cover up like nuns and save themselves for marriage. Last time I bumped into her on date night she was going on at me how I ought to be careful about how I dress, in case the bloke thinks I’m up for a shag.”
“She did not say ‘up for a shag.’” Robin might not have been there, but he knew his mum.
“Well, she might have used the words, ‘Offering something you’re not ready to give.’ But she definitely meant shagging.”
“She’s never said anything like that to me.”
“Yeah, but that’s cos you dress with taste and style. Not to look slutty.” She shrugged. “What? Sometimes a girl just wants to let her inner slut out to play. You should try it sometime.”
Robin sighed. “That’s pretty much what Ethan used to say.”
After his shift ended, when he ought to have been heading home, free at long, long last to do stuff he wanted to—like, say, hang around the streets in case a certain moustachioed alien fridge-fiddler turned up—Robin had to stay behind for a staff meeting.
Everyone crowded into Gail’s little office. There was only one chair for visitors, which by longstanding agreement belonged to Mary-from-Haberdashery on account of her varicose veins, so the rest of them had to stand around after being on their feet all day. Gail, of course, sat behind her desk like a queen receiving her courtiers.
“Now, as you know, we’re holding a Black Friday sale this year to compete with online retailers. Profits this quarter . . .”
With the best will in the world, Robin couldn’t stop his tired brain from zoning out as she recited a list of numbers in excruciating detail. He started to nod off on his feet, waking up with a jerk when Gail slapped a file down on her desk.
Azrah raised her hand. “Yeah, I got one. Why are we even having a Black Friday sale? It’s an American thing—nothing to do with us.”
Gail gave her a look like she’d just announced that she had ideological objections to selling stuff. “Coca-Cola is an American thing, Azrah, but you didn’t seem to have any problem with keeping a can behind the counter in blatant violation of store policy. Don’t think I didn’t see you drinking from it when you were supposed to be working.”
Oops. Robin would have let the ground swallow him up at that point, but it was illicit fizzy drinks off a duck’s back for Azrah. “Yeah, but it’s all to do with Thanksgiving over there. It’s a public holiday, innit? Day one, enforced turkey dinner with the family. Like Christmas, but with no presents to open. Day two, they get let out to go shopping. Like Boxing Day, but with no presents to take back to the shops and change for what you really wanted. Here, it’s just another day in November.”
Gail’s expression became, if anything, even more sour. “And how are we supposed to compete with online retailers if we don’t discount our goods like they do?”
“That’s like arguments for foot-binding, that is.”
Every pair of eyes in the room turned to stare at Azrah from beneath identical baffled frowns.
She tutted. “They said, like, men won’t want to marry a girl if her feet are bigger than other girls’. So everyone bound their feet and then they were back in the same position they were before. Only in pain and crippled.”
The frowns deepened.
“I fail to see what this has to do with the retail industry.” Gail’s voice could have been used to build a snowman.
“If everyone discounts, everyone has to discount. If nobody discounted, though, then we could all sell at full price up until Christmas, and have our sales after that like God intended.”
Robin, who unlike Azrah had been sent to Sunday School as a lad and therefore didn’t totally reject the possibility of there being a God, wasn’t sure this was what He originally had in mind for the celebration of the Saviour’s birth.
Heath, the tall gangly redhead who worked in the electronics department and occasionally tagged along on trips to the pub, cackled. “And lo, an angel of the Lord appeared and said, ‘Rejoice, for I bring glad tidings of great joy. Unto us a Sale is given.’”
“Thank you, Heath,” Gail snapped.
“‘The heavenly deals ye there shall find—’”
Heath’s voice dropped to a low mutter. In a room that size, he might as well have been shouting. “‘Lying in a bargain bin—’”
“Heath!” Gail looked dangerously close to rupturing something. Possibly something Heath would find extremely painful.
There was an ominous silence. Gail let it settle for a moment before carrying on severely. “We all need to pull together on this. The Black Friday sale is an important boost to our turnover this quarter, and a kick-starter for Christmas shoppers. We can’t afford to miss any opportunity to persuade shoppers to shut down their computers and come out to shop in a real store. I don’t like to mention the word ‘redundancies’ in the run-up to Christmas, but . . .”
But she had. Robin’s mood slumped, along with the shoulders of a number of his colleagues. Most of them were probably already calculating which of them was last in and therefore potentially first out. Robin had been working for the store practically since uni, so he ought to be okay—unless Gail was really peed off about the rude gesture this morning? He swallowed and crossed the offending finger over its neighbour. Anyway, what about Azrah? She was a lot newer. She’d been working in one of the local discount stores until that closed down, and Robin had put in a good word for her at Willoughbys. And Gail didn’t like her much.
“Black Friday needs to be An Event this year.” You could almost smell the capitalisation as Gail went on. “Hitchworth’s Biggest Christmas Shopping Event. We don’t want people idling in to see what we’ve got on offer.”
“We don’t?” Robin blurted. Wasn’t that what it was all about?
“No! We want US-style scenes of people sleeping on the street so they don’t lose their place in the queue. We want people booking time off work specifically to come to our Event from miles around. We want—”
“Fisticuffs in the furniture department, and wholesale riots in Haberdashery?” Heath had the gleam of the fanatic in his eye.
“Well, I hope not!” Mary-from-Haberdashery shifted in her chair, which squeaked in protest. “It’s bad enough when we sell out of black embroidery thread. I blame people panic-buying and stockpiling the stuff.”
“The situation could get ugly,” Heath went on with enthusiasm while Robin was still trying to get his head around the idea of panic-buying needlecraft supplies. “I can see the headlines now: ‘Shopper stabbed with knitting needle in dispute over discount yarn’; ‘Bargain hunter bludgeoned with bolt of broderie anglaise’—”
“Heath!” Gail practically had smoke coming out of her nostrils. She cleared her throat. “I expect all of you to come up with initiatives to make this happen. We may be a small, independent department store, but we need to show Hitchworth—and the whole of Hertfordshire, for that matter—that we can punch well above our weight. Robin?”
Robin started, having only been half listening. “Yes?”
“I’m expecting great things from you.”
She was? Why?
“As our only university-educated member of staff—”
“Hey, I did physics at Brighton,” Heath interrupted.
Azrah snorted. “Yeah, for like two weeks.”
“They were a very intensive two weeks. I learned a lot.”
“Yeah, like where the bar was, and who sold the best weed.”
Gail banged on her desk, probably because it was in easier reach than either Heath’s or Azrah’s head. “As I was saying, as our only graduate member of staff, I’m sure Robin will be keen to be involved in the planning process for our Event.”
Everyone looked at Robin. He had an uneasy feeling he was blushing as red as his namesake. “Er, you do know my degree’s in music, right?”
“Music and mathematics are supposed to be very close, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it,” put in Mary-from-Haberdashery.
There was a moment’s silence. Then Gail spoke up again briskly. “It doesn’t matter what your degree’s in, Robin. It’s more that you’ve learned to think. I’m expecting you to come up with publicity initiatives that are relatable both to our core customer base, and more importantly, to those who don’t currently shop here. Perhaps with a touch of humour—after all, you seemed to be using that to extremely good effect with your customers this morning.”
Oops. Robin had been hoping she’d forgotten about the rude-gestures incident, seeing as she hadn’t hauled him over the coals about it already. Apparently she’d been saving it up to guilt him into other stuff.
“Er, yeah. I’ll get right on it.”
She gave a tight smile. “Good. You should be asking yourself: How do we attract new customers to the store?”
“Thank you, Heath.”
“No, seriously. Mulled wine and mince pies. Everyone loves that stuff when they’re Christmas shopping. Waitrose did it last year and I stopped going to Tesco altogether while it lasted.”
Everyone goggled at Heath, probably as surprised as Robin was to hear what wasn’t actually a bad idea coming from his lips. But then again . . . “No,” Robin found himself saying. He frowned at his shoes. “I mean, yes, it’s a nice idea, but can you imagine it in a Black Friday sale situation? If we get a crowd of new customers in, the kitchens would be overwhelmed. And there’d be crumbs and spilled wine all over the stock. That sort of thing’s better for, say, a special Christmas shopping evening for loyalty card holders.”
Robin glanced up to see everyone staring at him again, Gail in particular with a worryingly misty look in her eye. “That’s perfect! I knew I could rely on you, Robin. Everyone, I’ll expect you to give Robin your fullest cooperation as he’s organising our Loyal Customers’ Christmas Shopping Evening.”
Robin groaned inwardly. The Christmas Shopping Evening had achieved audible capitalisation. There was no way he’d be able to get out of it now.
By the time they were finally let go for the night, Robin was desperately in need of alcohol. It was probably too early to bump into Fridge Bloke, anyway. “Quick drink down the Millstone? It’s Friday night.”
Azrah made a face. “Aren’t you working tomorrow? Cos I know I am.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like you’re going to have a hangover.” She didn’t drink. Robin put it down less to her Muslim heritage than the fact that her mum and dad’s house was the place to go if you wanted a lecture on how alcohol fucked up your life choices while giving you wrinkles. They seemed to have a knack of timing it for when you were terminally hungover and wanted to die quietly, but maybe that was just Robin. “I’ll buy you some chips.”
She let out a martyred sigh. “Go on, then.”
“Yeah, cheers, mate.” Heath—who Robin hadn’t even noticed was still looming behind them—clapped Robin on the shoulder. “You’re a good ’un.” He leaned down to whisper in Robin’s ear. “I think Gail likes you.”
Robin jumped a foot away from him and nearly fell into a wall. “What? No she doesn’t.”
Azrah sniggered. “Yeah, we all noticed you’re teacher’s pet now.”
“If she asks you to get into a cage,” Heath said solemnly, “just say no. And remember, safewords are there for a reason.”
“Gail does not like me. She’s old enough to be my mother.” Actually, Robin wasn’t sure how old she was, but he was betting twenty-four was a distant memory for her. “And she’s a woman.”
“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed. I like a strong woman.” Heath sighed. “But she’s only got eyes for Rockin’ Robin here.”
Robin shuddered. “Don’t call me that.”
Heath grinned. “The Boy Wonder?”
“Do you want these chips or not?” They’d reached the pub. As he glared at Heath, Robin’s eye was caught by a tall figure on the other side of the street, striding away from them. The man was wearing a long overcoat, which wasn’t that unusual this time of year—and a top hat, which definitely was. His heart leapt into his throat. Could it be Fridge Bloke?
Could it, logically speaking, be anyone else? “Wait a minute.” Robin took a step down the road towards him, only to be yanked back by Azrah’s hand on his arm.
“Hey, you promised us chips. You can’t sneak off now.”
“I thought I saw—”
He tried to pull away, but was thwarted when Heath took his other arm. “Not cool, man. If you don’t deliver on your promises, that makes you no better than a Tory politician.”
Azrah tightened her grip. “Yeah, you don’t see me running out on my mates to ogle some random bloke’s arse.”
“He wasn’t random!” Robin craned his neck to gaze after the retreating top hat as they dragged him bodily into the pub.
Damn it. But on the other hand, this was good, right? It meant Fridge Bloke probably worked in town. Or possibly just liked to parade through the streets attracting double takes. Either way, it meant there was more chance of Robin bumping into him again. Hopefully without frenemies like Azrah and Heath in tow.
If it’d been him. For all Robin knew, there might be a whole tribe or religious sect of men in Hitchworth who liked to party like it was 1899.
“Okay, you can let go of me now. He’ll be gone anyway.” Robin shook off Azrah’s and Heath’s loosened holds. “Right. Drinks and chips.” Alcohol and comfort food, that was what he needed. Or better friends.
The Millstone was an old sixteenth-century coaching inn—or more accurately, it was around a third of an old coaching inn. The rest of it had been callously knocked down in the early twentieth century by a certain Mr. Willoughby to make room for his brand-new department store. There was still enough of the original structure to look impressively Ye Olde, with its steep gables and black timbers on white, and the arch the coaches used to drive through. It must have been quite something before the wrecking ball hit it.
Robin marched up to the bar. “Three bowls of chips, please, a rum and Coke, a Diet Coke without rum, and—” He glanced over his shoulder. “What are you drinking, Heath?”
“Pint of Old Peculier, ta.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Robin got out his wallet to pay for the drinks and food, then blinked at the tenner Heath had thrust under his nose. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Nah, that ain’t right, you buying us dinner and all.”
“Heath, it was literally as cheap as chips. Get me a sandwich at work sometime if you’re that bothered.” Robin looked around for Azrah and spotted her in the corner, where she’d somehow managed to commandeer a table. He turned back to the barmaid and paid up. “We’ll be sitting over there, thanks.”
They took the drinks over, Heath sipping his en route and somehow managing not to spill it even when a gaggle of office girls in tight skirts and heels burst in with raucous laughter. He did give himself a froth moustache, though.
Robin couldn’t help thinking of a different type of moustache. And its owner. Might he be on his way to molest white goods again tonight? Were there any left on Robin’s street to be molested?
Should he consider putting out something as a lure? He didn’t use the microwave that often . . .
“Oi, Earth to Robin. Are you going to hand me that Diet Coke or just stand there till it evaporates?”
Robin started, and quickly gave Azrah her drink. “Sorry. Long day.”
“Too bloody right.” She took a long swig of her Diet Coke. “Ah, that’s better.”
“I don’t get how that works when there isn’t any alcohol in it. How can that relax you? It’s made of caffeine, artificial additives, and fizz.” Robin sat down and took a sip from his clearly superior rum and Coke.
She shrugged. “It’s the placebo effect. I think it’s relaxing, so it is.”
“Doesn’t that only work if you don’t know it’s a placebo?”
“Yeah. So cheers for making me think about it and ruining the whole thing.”
Robin raised his glass in a salute. “Anytime.”
Heath, who’d somehow managed to sink half his pint already, put his glass down. “So who was this non-random bloke you were ogling?”
Robin froze. “Nobody.”
Azrah gave a sly smile. “Was it Doctor Who again? Robin met him last night,” she added to Heath.
“Maybe. I didn’t get the chance to have a good look, did I? Thanks to you two.” Robin glared at her. “Anyway, I said he reminded me of Doctor Who. Not that he was Doctor Who. Who doesn’t exist, by the way. And is also a woman right now.”
Heath stared dreamily into the middle distance. “Ah, she’s another strong woman, that one. Knows what she’s doing with a welding torch.”
“Okay, I’m going to have nightmares about your sex life tonight.” Robin took a thoughtful sip of his rum and Coke. He wouldn’t mind betting that Fridge Bloke knew his way around a welding torch. That image probably shouldn’t be as—heh—hot as it was.
“I bet your fridge guy knows what he’s doing with a welding torch,” Azrah said, making Robin choke on his drink and panic briefly that she’d read his mind.
“Fridge guy?” Heath asked. “He doesn’t keep dismembered bodies in there, does he? Cos that could be a warning sign if you’re planning to date him.”
“The man I met last night, who wasn’t Doctor Who or any kind of souvenir-keeping serial killer—”
“As far as you know,” Azrah put in. Heath nodded solemnly.
“—was taking parts out of an abandoned fridge. Fridge parts, not human parts.” Robin braced himself for a barrage of warnings to stay away from weirdoes, or alternatively a sad comment on the state of mental health care in the community.
“Oh. Cool.” Heath glugged down the other half of his pint in one go. “Hey, looks like our chips are here.”
“He said it was going to be a . . .” Actually, Robin couldn’t remember exactly what arcane words Fridge Bloke had used. “Flux capacitor?”
The barmaid-slash-waitress, a short, slender girl with a pierced nose and a T-shirt reading, Nobody cares I’m a lesbian, placed three stodge-stacked bowls on the table.
“Awesome. You got any ketchup?” Heath gave her a winning smile and she grabbed him the sauce from the bar instead of telling him to get it himself.
Robin felt obscurely deflated.
“I’m not convinced he’s real,” Azrah said with her mouth full. “Fridge Guy. Maybe he’s a ghost, like that plague doctor people keep seeing around after dark.”
Robin snorted. “Oh, please. The plague doctor’s just an urban myth.”
“Is not.” Heath sounded definite. “I’ve seen him loads of times.”
Robin and Azrah stared at him.
He shrugged. “What? Perfectly natural supernatural phenomenon. And everyone knows Hitchworth was knee-deep in plague pits back in the day. This place was built right on top of one.”
“Ugh. That means Willoughbys is too.” Azrah frowned. “So how come we never see him haunting the shop? Where have you seen him?”
“Other side of town, over by the Brick and Bottle. Saw him having a drink in there too.”
“A ghost having a drink?” Robin wasn’t sure how that would work.
“Why not? It was hard, harrowing work them doctors did. You can’t begrudge him a pint or two to take the edge off.” Heath sent him a disappointed look.
“I’m not— Oh, never mind. I really don’t think Fridge Bloke is a ghost. He was too technically minded for anyone from, like, a hundred years ago. Um. When were fridges invented?”
“Around 1750, the first ones,” Heath said airily.
Robin glared at him. “He wasn’t a ghost, all right?”
Azrah rolled her eyes. “Maybe he was a hallucination. Brought on by overwork and alcohol.”
“Hey, I hadn’t been drinking last night. Or before we got in here, either.”
“So? It stays in your system for seventy-two hours.”
“My mum and dad, that’s who.”
Robin rallied. “None of you even drink, so how would you know for sure?”
Heath waved a chip at Robin. “Fact. Not just alcohol, neither. There’s people who took LSD in the sixties who are still tripping.”
“In the sixties.” Azrah’s tone said clearly that she wasn’t entirely grateful for Heath’s backup. “They’d be, like, a hundred now. That’s not tripping. That’s dementia.”
“Yep. Caused by LSD.”
The argument kind of degenerated after that. Robin munched his chips and let it wash over him. If he left now, what were the chances he might bump into Fridge Bloke again? Or would it be too late already? He ate a little faster. Did the man even have a set time for acts of white-goods vandalism, or did he simply head out, tools in hand, whenever the whim took him?
Robin was chafing with impatience by the time Azrah swallowed her last chip, stood up and groaned. “Why is it sitting down always makes your feet hurt worse when you get up? I’ll see you tomorrow, Robin. You working, Heath?”
Heath shook his head. “Nah, I got a thing. I’ll see you next week.” He stood up too.
Robin got up so fast he knocked his stool over. “Oops. Okay, take care, you two.”
“And you. Watch out for your Imaginary Fridge Friend!” Azrah was out the door before Robin could protest.
“Yeah, go easy on the weed, man,” Heath threw over his shoulder as he loped off after her. “Who knows what they’ve cut that shit with?”
“I don’t . . .” Robin was talking to himself. He rolled his eyes and followed them out, his heart beating a little faster at the thought of maybe seeing Fridge Bloke again.
Halfway to the door, the barmaid handed him a card with a drugs helpline on it.
Walking back from the bus stop, Robin’s steps quickened as he approached the house where he’d met Fridge Bloke. The ransacked fridge had now been joined by a metal bedstead, its springs on wanton display for all to see. If copper coils were a . . . a thing, then wouldn’t bedsprings work too?
There was, however, no sign of Fridge Bloke. Or anyone else, most people being apparently far too sensible to linger on freezing-cold streets after dark. There was a strangely bulky figure just visible in the glow from a far street lamp, but all Robin could make out from the distant, not-quite-human silhouette was that it was either an advance guard for the alien invasion, or someone carrying stuff. It could have been Fridge Bloke . . . but chasing him down the street in the dark to find out probably wouldn’t go down well.
Robin hung around a bit, trying to look casual and not at all as though he were lying in wait for any deluded, handsome men who might stop by or turn around and come back for something they’d forgotten. All that happened was his toes went numb and people in three separate houses started giving him suspicious twitches of their net curtains.
Sighing, he trudged towards home.