Dolphin woman arrived on a terribly miserable day, the sky shot with rain and sketched with dark, grey clouds. The place I work at is normally busy around three in the afternoon, or if not busy, home to a sprinkling of customers at least. People will waddle in, searching eagerly for that specific thing they know they want, but haven’t thought of yet. Children will rummage through our drinks, ruining the painstaking neatness our managers insist on. Elderly folk will glare at the children as though the very idea of youthfulness offends them, and bark orders to infants who bare no relation. “Stop running” they’ll snarl, earning a confused look from the child and a shake of the head from the parents. “Stop messing around, go sit down!” They talk as if somebodies paying attention, as if the world, imperfect as it is, will fall into place just how they like it, if only they keep on complaining for a few moments longer.
The day the Dolphin Woman arrived, however, there was silence. The soundtrack of screams and shouts and giggles had been replaced by an eerie absence. The pitter patter of raindrops danced gently against the pavement outside, splashing slightly past the door. A small puddle was crawling inside, and I watched as it struggled to close the distance. As each raindrop landed, it grew, a tiny wave radiating out from wherever the impact had been. They were like drop pods, falling from space, a thousand mini soldiers spiralling out into a great aquatic army.
A boot stomped down into the puddle. In less than a second, one thousand tiny warriors were dead, bodies erupting in a sudden splash. She had arrived, the rainclouds a herald to her coming. Dolphin Woman regarded me from the doorway, a sweet smile playing tentatively on her lips. “Hey” I said, as she approached. My voice grew weak beneath her gaze. “Nice day, eh?”
She did not smile. Or, she did smile, but it was a smile that made me feel bad about myself, rather than proud of my humorous aside. “Can I help?” I submitted, falling back into the rote lexicon of retail service. She said nothing.
She regarded the products coolly. She shot her eyes across the shop floor, no doubt casting judgment over the display. Perhaps she was searching for something, something specific that she hadn’t thought of yet. No, that wasn’t her style. She knew exactly what she wanted. We, however, didn’t have it.
“Do you have a Greggsnut?” She asked, even though she knew the answer. Perhaps because she knew the answer.
“No” I managed, meekly. “Sorry.”
“They do at Huntingdon. They give me a very warm welcome at Huntingdon, y’know. They love me at Huntingdon.”
I’m sure they do, I thought, in the way that someone learns to love their kidnapper. But if she went to the Huntingdon store, why was she here? Perhaps she had decided to change her roost. The thought sent shivers down my spine. It was bad enough with the old paedophile who always sat at the back, watching us work. With Dolphin Woman setting up her nest here as well? I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to cope.
“Well” she continued with a sigh, “I suppose I’ll have a mug of tea.” I nodded quickly, and got to work. The boiling water splashed out of the cup and scolded my hand, but I bit down on my lip so as to lessen the pain. The tea bags were all knotted and difficult to separate, but I ignored the frustration. I couldn’t show any sign of weakness. The moment I did, she would pounce. I placed the mug down on the counter gently, and she gave a curt nod of approval. She was already holding out her money. Exact change, of course.
“You know” she said, tilting her head just a little to the left, “the ladies at Huntingdon carry it through for me.”
“I can do that” I spat, without even thinking. Why was I so eager to please this woman? Was it her voice, soft and delicate to the ear? Was it the way she dressed, every inch of her skin covered in a coat the perfect, passive blue of the most beautiful summer sky? Or was it what she could do to me, should she deem me unworthy?
I followed her through to the seating area. We walked, and walked, and walked, stony, uncomfortable silence pervading the shop. She went to the furthest possible table from the counter, and slid herself nimbly into a chair. “Just here will do.” I placed the mug down as lightly as I could, looking to her for a sign, any sign, that I had done my job well. She nodded, and paused, waiting for me to leave.
I stood there, watching her. She seemed nice enough, now that I thought about it. I felt like there was something evil, just waiting to make itself known, but… I was being unfair. There was nothing scary about her. There was nothing nasty, or controlling, or wrong. She was fine. I noticed a small dolphin, hanging from her purse, then. It was perhaps the size of my thumb, and swung loosely like a body from a tree. I decided right then I was going to be civil. She was no monster, and it was about time I stopped treating her like that. “Cool dolphin” I said, flashing her a smile.
“Oh yes” she giggled politely. “I do love dolphins. Such peaceful creatures. They’re like me, y’know. I’m a very peaceful person, it’s in my nature. I think dolphins are such wonderful beings.”
I nodded, admiring her enthusiasm. “I like dolphins too” I said, doing my best to sound engaged. “It’s sad how we-“
“I’m sure there are other people like me out there, but I must confess I feel most at one with those oceanic mammals. I love to watch them swim, it’s beautiful, the way they travel together across the water.”
“Have you ever seen one in real life?” I asked.
She paused at this, as her smile grew a millimetre wider. “I dream to. And I always succeed at my dreams. If I dream to do something, I’ll do it. So, while you’re stuck here selling coffee, I’ll be swimming with dolphins.”
“Yeah” I said, smiling. “That’s good, living your dreams. Well, I better get back to serving.” I turned, and headed to the store front, left precariously unmanned for much too long.
Once back at my post, staring out into the endless pouring rain, it took me only a few seconds to register what she had said. Her voice, as soft as the highest cloud, and her smile, ever present and unmoving, masked the content of her language. But then I felt the insult like a pin in the back of my neck. I visibly flinched, stepping away. “While you’re stuck here selling sausage rolls, I’ll be swimming with dolphins.” What… What the hell…
I turned back to find her. I searched the seating area, seeing empty chair after empty chair. I rose my gaze to the very back of the room, where she had been sitting, where I knew she had been sitting because I spent so long taking her tea there for her… But there was nothing. No one. Silence.
I was alone, except for the rain outside. The puddle, bigger and growing still, had hauled itself a little way through the front doors. I supposed it was my problem now. I grabbed a mop, and headed off to do my work.
As I was mopping I caught a flash of blue from the corner of my eye. I glanced towards it, and I saw the Dolphin Woman, watching with her sugar sweet smile. I couldn’t bring myself to speak beneath her calculated gaze. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at her for very long. I held my mop up in my hands, and sighed, pushing the puddle back out into the rain.
I headed back to my counter, and waited, as the water crept ever closer.