There was a tinge of tar and smoke in the air as I trudged along to the cafe. I could hear a drilling and hammering in the background which may have explained it, and it was quickly replaced by the more appealing smells of fresh-cooked bacon and coffee as I loitered like a career criminal outside the cafe. A light spray of summer rain was pattering on the stripy canvas shelter in front of me that I might call an awning if I was sure of the actual name. The Polish girl was still there, not doing an awful lot thanks to the small group of people actually visiting.
I took an unsteady breath, checked my faint reflection in the glass of the window, and walked inside for the second time in 2 hours. She turned when the door made a chiming noise, and the expression on her face was a mixture of surprise and, I hoped, happiness.
"You again? Was there something on our menu you didn't try, Bill?" she said with a grin that might as well have been on a billboard advertising toothpaste.
I laughed nervously, replying: "It's not about that - I am in a dire situation and need some advice or help from someone I can trust in this city. That means either you or the Queen, and I'm not really on speaking terms with Her Majesty." A tortuous couple of seconds passed while she digested this and put on a very serious face.
"You're not in trouble, are you? You don't say you are on the lam and want me to keep you hidden from the rozzers, do you?" Clearly this girl was trying to prove just how good her English was, and I was impressed by the obscure words.
"Well put, but I've never even had a speeding ticket. Which makes sense as I don't really drive. I just have an interview and I don't want to be dragging around this luggage - it doesn't make a great impression when you are holding onto something this knackered. Do you know if there's somewhere I can find a storage locker around here?"
She scrutinised my bags for a moment, and nodded her head. "No need, kid. You said you trusted me, and I am working here until 7 tonight. Let me keep your stuff safe in our storage - well away from the grease and food in the kitchen - and you will just have to get back before closing time."
I clasped her hand and shook it. "Thank you so much! I can't believe you'd do that for me... I'm so grateful. You're a life-saver, I don't know how I'm going to pay you back for this," I garbled. She let go of my hand and smiled, striding around to the front of the counter.
"Don't worry about it - it's what Analya does for nice people," she said. I was really glad of the unusual way she chose to say this as I was still really clueless on what to call her. She hefted my bags into a small room with a dim lightbulb and a lot of cleaning products, taking care to keep my suit-bag uncrumpled.
"I'm not sure if you know me well enough to say I'm nice yet - hopefully your opinion won't change about that in the next few hours," I thought out loud.
"I know you are funny, patient and like my coffee," Analya replied as she locked the door behind her with a snick. "Get going to your interview, and let me know if you get the job, 'kay?"
She started to shoo me out of the door with a gentle nudging and practically shut the door in my face after saying: "I have your number if I need you, right?" and deftly pulled the £20 note from behind my ear, then blew me a kiss. I must have been blushing for the next hour as I prepared for the interview.
* * *
I spent a little time in an internet café printing off detailed directions from the point at which I was sitting to the country pile I would be visiting. I had 2 hours and change before I needed to be at the place and knocking on their door. The initial journey would only take a couple of Tube journeys which would, with a little luck, get me within half a mile of the destination with a half-hour to spare.
I walked to the nearest Tube station and bought a full day's unlimited access to the Underground from a machine that looked as though it was built in the 1970s, and delicately barged my way through the gates. As I waited for the next grey banshee to scream its way into view, I used my souped-up super smartphone to look up details about the Sutherham family. Never entirely satisfied with looking at one piece of evidence, my eyes were glued to the tiny screen even on the second leg of the journey where we started to see the occasional patch of countryside instead of densely-packed boroughs of immense buildings.
I was on my way to a very expansive, expensive mansion. The grounds, including gardens, covered about the size of 2 cricket pitches and included a small set of stables, an outdoor pool and an arboretum (which I admit I had to look up separately). It was a traditional house for a Lord to occupy - members of the House had been occupying it since the 18th Century when it was built by a skilled architect named Crowther. I digested this information as best I could, but my mind was focused on the info I found on the man himself. The more you read about Sutherham, the more intimidated you get.
Pulling into the station, seeing the large Pine trees of North Finchley interspersed by pale brick buildings and chocolate-box cottages, I felt just about ready. A mini cavalcade of motorbikes roared past and I knew I had to find a way to get from here to the manor in the 40 minutes I had left. Just as I set foot out of the station, poked my head past the cover of the dark-blue fronting, the Heavens opened and rain stopped play.
I wasn't planning on spending a massive amount of money to get to this interview, but a taxi would keep me dry and there were 3 available. After ensuring the guy at the front of the rank knew where I was going (or, at least, his SatNav did) we set off at high speed thanks to me becoming 20 pounds lighter. I'd better get this job was a constant thought during the journey, interspersed with talking politics, news and sport with the driver.
We arrived with plenty of time to spare, and I declined his polite offer to get me back to the station as the rain had stopped just as fast as it started. I shuddered, staring at the large gold-trimmed gates that towered in front of me, and he drove off without another word.