“Huh?” He looked back at the waitress.
“You asked my name. It’s Annie.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes,” he tried to untangle himself from his thoughts. “Yes, I’m fine. I might just sit down for a moment.”
Going back inside, he chose a different seat. One near the back of the cafe – anonymous, hidden. Usually he liked to be near the shop front. People could see him at a table in the window or by the door. He’d note the furtive glances as strangers passed by and interpret them as glimpses of appreciation or admiration.
“Michael,” he repeated the name a few times. Then he said it out loud just to hear what it sounded like. He imagined her calling it out in a moment of passion just as she’d once uttered his name.
He said, “Ecologist,” too, sounding out each syllable. “E-co-lo-gist.” He wasn’t even sure what an ecologist was.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Annie stood staring down at him coffee in her hand. “Here, drink this. You don’t look so good.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. Annie, if you were going out with a guy? A handsome guy. A guy with everything going for him. Would you dump him for an ecologist? I mean, that would be crazy, eh?”
Annie smiled. She met all sorts in here but this one took the cake. “Well, I’m not sure. I mean...”
“No, but what could an ecologist have that I don’t have? I mean, look at me.”
Annie’s smiled broke into a short stifled giggle. “Oh, so that’s it. She just gave you the heave-ho did she?”
“The heave-ho. Your lady friend. The one you were just with. She broke up with you.”
“What? Good god, no! We broke up years ago.” He spoke quickly and a little too loud, eager to set the record straight. “And I broke up with her.”
“Then it doesn’t matter.”
He looked up at her, eyebrow raised, waiting for an explanation.
“If you broke up with her then it doesn’t matter that she’s moved onto someone else.”
He shook his head slowly. She didn’t get it. How could he expect a waitress to know about someone as complicated and sophisticated as him?
He decided to walk home. That way he could call in on his friend, Tony. Tony worked in IT. In fact, he was something of a computer whizz. A bona fide hacker. He’d even been arrested once. Broke into some government website and left crude images on their home page. He couldn’t see that he’d done anything wrong. As far as Tony was concerned, he was protecting people from themselves. Exposing their vulnerabilities. Enabling them to increase security where required.
He hated the way Tony called him Bazz. He used to correct him with a curt, “My name’s Barry,” but he’d long since given up.
“What’s up, mate?” Barry asked “You look terrible.”
“What do you know about ecologists, Tony?”
“Ecologists?” Tony repeated the word like Barry had sworn. “Hell, I’m not even sure what an ecologist does. Something to do with plants and stuff, eh?”
“”Look, Tony,” Barry became suddenly animated, “I don’t care what the guy does. I just thought you might be able to help me find him.”
“Who? What guy?”
“The guy Sally’s been seeing.”
“Whoa, slow down.” Tony looked confused. “I thought you and Sally broke up long ago. She walked out. Said you were too self-centred, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.” He hated the way Tony was so matter of fact about his personal matters. “But she’s seeing this new guy and I just wanted to know about him.”
“You want to start stalking him.”
Barry shook his head. “Of course I don’t want to stalk him. I just want to know more about him, that’s all.”
But even as he said it, Barry, as lacking in self awareness and humility as he was, knew it wasn’t true. With only two words to go on – ‘Michael’ and ‘Ecologist’ – he already hated this man and was determined to find him. And then? Well, he didn’t know what happened next but he already knew just seeing him wouldn’t be enough.