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The Sore Thumb

Characterisation exercise: Members had to see someone from their past, while on a train, and notice how dramatically they had changed. This person also had to be carrying something that was part of the story in some way.

Pamela’s sore thumb? Never …? All of a sudden, Shakespearean quotes were rattling around in my head. Was it Macbeth or Much Ado about Nothing or … what did it matter? Shakespeare had nothing to do with it at all. However, ‘Do my eyes deceive me?’ kept intruding on my usual, everyday thoughts as I strap-hanged on the London tube to my monthly writer’s meeting. Unfortunately, the meeting’s time clashed with the 9-5ers Bun Rush and making my way any closer to this woman was impossible in the press of flesh that kept standing passengers squashed vertical during our journey.

I couldn’t help staring at her head (which was all I could see). It was unmistakeable from the back. I mean, Pamela sat on my immediate left in the adjoining row of desks in primary school so I was very familiar with the side and back angles of her head. She was a little closer to the yawning fireplace in the corner, that was lit for those chilly days. What was strange was that ‘Pamela’ (for I was convinced it was her), held a hairdresser’s magazine about various hairdos for women. That made me doubt her identity momentarily, given the still-existing Sore Thumb.

However, I digress. I must admit it fascinated me that she could still sport that Thumb, more than 60-odd years later. Surely not. The strange thing about it though was that Pamela, even in primary school, had a wonderfully thick head of light-black hair that was flecked with an inordinate number of white hairs. Even when worn in her usual plait, it allowed a bouffant effect where it wasn’t plaited. However, those white hairs were something I had never seen on anyone else’s head at such a young age. Pamela’s hair now was steel grey flecked with white.

A few people alighted from the train at Euston but so many more quickly took their place. ‘Sore Thumb Pamela’ remained firmly attached to her patch of floor, like myself. I had to make my way towards her, if, for no other reason to satisfy my curiosity. I had liked her sore thumb so much at school that I had copied it myself. Spying an empty strap, I pivoted my weight at an odd angle with a few ‘excuse me’s’ and wriggled between other passengers towards where she hung. Gathering my courage, I spoke, “Pamela?” She turned towards me and those watery-green eyes were unmistakeable. It was her. Not that I would have recognised her face as it was now – ravaged with wrinkles and leathery from too much sun. 

“Yes. Do I know you?”

“We were at school together. Mrs Murray’s class. You’re still wearing the Sore Thumb!” I said excitedly. Shaking her head in a perplexed fashion she asked, “Sore Thumb?”

“Your hairdo. We both ditched the bows and wrapped our hair ribbons around our upturned plaits like a bandage.”

Her eyes widened in astonishment. “My goodness … Judy? Judy Brown?”

“Yes, er, no, not Brown.”

“I’m sorry but this is my station. You’ve mixed me up with someone else. Bye.” And with that, she ducked her head embarrassingly and scurried away.

We both knew I hadn’t mixed her up. It was Pamela. We always competed seriously in art. It was always hers or mine that was pasted on the blackboard by the teacher as the best for the week. However, in the game of life, the years had not been kind to her and she knew it. I was not really showing my age but poor Pamela had not fared as well. Where had life taken her? Sadly, this competition was a hollow victory. 

I don’t know what made me do it but a split second before the train’s automatic doors closed, I slipped between them, onto the platform. I had this irresistible urge to know more about Pamela but I had no idea why. After all this time, did it really matter? For some inexplicable reason it did.

It wasn’t difficult to follow her, she had been wearing these bright-red, highly-polished shoes and once I had emerged from the underground platforms onto street level, I was able to spot her immediately. They were a strange shape, almost bulbous, and I found myself mesmerised by their shininess as they reminded me of two toffee apples on sticks -- for Pamela’s legs were as skinny as sticks. The idea of toffee apples walking made me giggle and I wondered what on earth I was doing, following a girl I had competed with at primary school, more than six decades ago. I felt like some kind of spy or something but it wasn’t difficult being one on the UK streets. Londoners didn’t walk or amble, they hurried and scurried everywhere as though life’s purpose had to be maintained at top speed. Oops, Pamela turned a corner, where an old tobacconist’s swing sign displayed a huge Meerschaum pipe. I mustn’t lose her I thought, adjusting my stride to the locals and almost breaking into a run.

Navigating the dreary sea of waves of humans dressed in mainly dark blue, black and brown was depressing. The English didn’t seem to enjoy colours at all. In a land where the sun didn’t shine that often, you’d think a bright scarf here and there would make a person happily unique. However, blending-in seemed to be the order of the day. Not so for Pamela though. Now that I was following her at a steady pace, I was able to observe her more closely. These were not my stomping grounds so running into anyone I knew was highly unlikely.

Pamela looked slim, too slim. Her nondescript clothing hung limply over bony shoulders, like a hurriedly-hung piece of cloth on a wire hanger. A wrinkled, camel-coloured checked, pencil skirt, topped by a turtleneck jersey in muddy brown, with a grubby-pink, fringed shawl wrapped around it. Of course, like everyone else, she carried the necessary UK accoutrement -- the ubiquitous umbrella.

My dogs were getting sore. Unlike Pamela, I had not been prepared for sleuthing and my shoes were totally unsuitable. I kept wondering how comfortable the toffee apples were. Suddenly, I forgot about my feet and paid more attention as Pamela had slid quietly into the back door of what appeared to be a restaurant of some kind as huge bins overflowed with vegetable leaves of spinach tops and cabbages. Was Pamela a waitress? Her appearance certainly didn’t give any indication that she could own the place. Mind you, it was as seedy as she looked. What should I do now? I decided to go in and order something to eat. 

Once I had perused the fly-specked menu, Pamela, now in some kind of red-coloured uniform, appeared to take my order. She did so but then, obviously, recognised me. Her haunted eyes widened, became frightened and her breathing laboured. I knew then that something was definitely wrong. I put my finger to my lips in an attempt to calm her down. 

“Could you show me the way to the Ladies room, please?” I asked chirpily. Without uttering a sound, she pointed to the room behind the kitchen. I just hoped she trusted me that I was on her side.

Then, the strangest thing happened. In the alcove next to the Ladies room, a large, metal air conditioning unit seemed to be connected to the kitchen and out of it, an angry man’s snarling voice was clearly heard. 

“And, don’t think ya can weasel out of your debt, either.”

“But you promised. You said I could go, last month.” (Pamela’s desperate voice.)

“Ya’ll go, when I say ya can go! Your looks have gone but ya’re still useful to me. You just need to turn a few more tricks for these big clients who are coming in from overseas. They’re not fussy but they’re always wantin’ it and one of them remembers you from his last visit. He wants you, he said. Nobody else. You must still have something but I can’t for the life of me imagine what. Now get out there with this order. I don’t want any complaints. My regulars know what that red uniform means. If you’re nice, I may even tip ya more but only if I get a good report from them. Do ya understand! Eh? Well, answer me, ya snivelling, little whore.”

“I, I understand.”

“Good. Good. We wouldn’t want ya family to know about ya, now would we?”

“Please, no. Please don’t tell them.”

“I’m a man of honour. Ya keep yar end of the bargain, duckie and I’ll keep mine.”

Stunned at what I’d heard, I crept quietly back to my table. I had no appetite but made a show of enjoying the meal. The owner came out to enquire if I was happy and I was glad of my days in theatre, when I had to act. This was the greatest performance of my life. I just wanted to kick him but held my anger back. When he asked if I wanted a receipt, I cheerily said I did as I always tried to stay within my budget every week.

“Pamela will see ya get one. Won’t you, Pamela? She always makes sure the customers are very happy, don’t ya, Pamela?” He smirked. And, fortunately, he returned to the kitchen. 

When I paid with my card the machine spewed out the receipt. I added a tip and handed the pen to Pamela, who hurriedly wrote on my receipt. ‘Help me, please.’ The ‘please was underlined and combined with what I’d heard through the outside vent, I was convinced she needed help.

I silently nodded and tapped my nose to indicate I understood. It was something we always did at school, when we saw the teacher was coming back and we were going to be caught out of our seats. 

Returning home, I made another detour and slipped out of the tube at Westminster Station as It was only a one-minute walk away from New Scotland Yard. 

I never saw Pamela again but the headlines in The Times a few days later made me glad I’d followed my hunch to follow her. The police had been after these lowlifes for some time. It was not only a drug cartel and prostitution ring but far worse. I may have missed my writer’s meeting that day but boy, did I have a story to tell them now. 

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