The cracks in the pavement didn’t exist. The joins where one slab met another? Gone. She guided the stub of chalk, leaving trails, fragmented and soft—a stream of white noise. Just the clench of a muscle, the pull of a tendon somewhere in her hand, and the chalk would stop. The line would break.
I watched her. She had been there three weeks, by the juddering automatic doors of Peacocks, fronting onto the market square. Week one—eagle; week two—giraffe; week three—antelope. I sat opposite, on a bench engraved with initials and bearing a plaque for Betty.
The girl crouched over her work, raking a tangle of dark hair up with one hand, sketching with the other. It was the beginnings of a tiger. The faded antelope was only just visible a little further along. The other two pictures had vanished.
I’d taken a break from staring at my office computer, to stare at her instead. She created art and I ate a salty pink square trapped between two slices of granary. The drawings were stunning, intricate images lifted from nature books and mapped out. But it was her I watched.
My shirt pocket vibrated with a phonecall from my girlfriend. I ignored it.
I saw the rain-spots on the ground before I felt the drops. Walking over, I brushed crumbs from my chest, and my tongue hooked a seed from my tooth—molar, bottom-right, teasing a pain through the fractured filling. I felt my stomach gulp.
The girl’s cheekbone was smudged.
‘It’s raining,’ I said. She traced the animal’s back, dipping in the middle, rising at the haunch. ‘Aren’t you worried?’
‘Worried?’ She looked up. A scar, a permanent laughter-line, cut outwards from the corner of her eye.
‘It’ll get ruined.’
She carried on drawing. ‘Does it matter?’
It felt like it should. ‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘If I told you it’s Betty would you believe me?’
‘Is it really?’ The question came too quickly.
She smiled, stretching a mouth filled with words she refused to let out. ‘Does it matter?’ she said.
I went back to work.
The next day she was gone. She didn’t come back. If it weren’t for the haze of colour still tinting the concrete I might have believed I’d made her up. I fought the clingfilm off my sweating lunch and took a bite.
A woman with greying hair ran over the tiger’s remains, wheeling her grandchild across the silent gape of its mouth. I sat on the bench, watching. And I felt the dig of Betty’s plaque against my spine.
Spitting the churned pulp of bread and processed meat into my hand, I threw the lot in the bin and walked away. I didn’t go back to my computer, or my desk, or the office. I didn’t go home either. And I’m still deciding whether or not to return my girlfriend’s call.
Does it matter? It feels like it should.