Tommy was astonished to see me alive when I'd been declared dead and buried eighteen years earlier. Then there was the fact that I only looked a handful of years older. It was almost too much for him to comprehend. For a while he listened to me talk, nodding weakly, not taking anything in. But eventually his head cleared and he focused on what I was saying.
I spun him a far-fetched but just about believable tale. I felt bad, lying to my old friend, but the truth was stranger than fiction - it was simpler and safer this way. I said I had a rare disease which prevented me from ageing normally. It was discovered when I was a child. The doctors gave me five or six years to live. My parents were devastated by the news, but since we could do nothing to prevent it, we told no one and tried to lead a normal life for as long as we could.
Then the Cirque Du Freak came to town.
"I ran into an extraordinary physician," I lied. "He was travelling with the Cirque, making a study of the freaks. He said he could help me, but I'd have to leave home and travel with the Cirque - I'd need constant monitoring. I talked it over with my parents and we decided to fake my death, so I could leave without arousing suspicions."
"But for heaven's sake, why?" Tommy exploded. "Your parents could have left with you. Why put everyone through so much pain?"
"How would we have explained it?" I sighed. "The Cirque Du Freak is an illegal travelling show. My parents would have had to give up everything and gone undercover to be with me. It wouldn't have been fair on them, and it would have been dreadfully unfair on Annie."
"But there must have been some other way," Tommy protested.
"Maybe," I said. "But we hadn't much time to think it over. The Cirque Du Freak was only in town for a few days. We discussed the proposal put forward by the physician and accepted it. I think the fact that I'm still alive all these years later, against all medical odds, justifies that decision."
Tommy shook his head uncertainly. He'd grown up to be a very large man, tall and broad, with huge hands and bulging muscles. His black hair was receding prematurely - he'd be bald in a few more years. But despite his physical presence, his eyes were soft. He was a gentle man. The idea of letting a child fake his death and be buried alive was repulsive to him.
"What's done is done," I said. "Maybe my parents should have searched for another way. But they had my best interests at heart. Hope was offered and they seized it, regardlessof the terrible price."
"Did Annie know?" Tommy asked.
"No. We never told her." I guessed Tommy had no way of contacting my parents directly, to check out my story, but he could have gone to Annie. I had to sidetrack him.
"Not even afterwards?" Tommy asked.
"I talked aboutit with Mum and Dad - we keep in touch and meet up every few years - but we never felt the time was right. Annie had her own problems, having a baby so young."
"Thatwas tough," Tommy agreed. "I was still living here. I didn't know her very well, but I heard all about it."
"That must have been just before your football career took off," I said, leading him away from talk about me. We discussed his career after that, some of the big matches he'd been involved in, what he planned to do when he retired. He wasn't married but he had two kids from a previous relationship, when he'd lived abroad.
"I only get to see them a couple of times a year and during the summer," he said sadly. "I hope to move over there when I quit football, to be closer to them."
Most of the performers, crew and guests had departed by this stage. Harkat had seen me talking with Tommy and made a sign askingif I wanted him to stick around. I signalled back that I was OK and he'd left with the others. A few people still sat and talked softly in the tent, but nobody was near Tommy and me.
Talk turned to the past and our old friends. Tommy told me Alan Morris had become a scientist. "Quite a famous one too," he said. "He's a geneticist - big into cloning. A controversial area, but he's convinced it's the way forward."
"As long as he doesn't clone himself!" I laughed. "One Alan Morris is enough!"
Tommy laughed too. Alan had been a close friend of ours, but he could be a bit of a pain at times.
"I've no idea what Steve's up to," Tommy said, and the laughter died on my lips. "He left home at sixteen. Ran off without a word to anyone. I've spoken to him on the phone a few times, but I've only seen him once since then, about ten years ago. He returned home for a few months when his mother died."
"I didn't know she was dead," I said. "I'm sorry. I liked Steve's Mum."
"He sold off the house and all her effects. He shared an apartment with Alan for a while. That was before?" Tommy stopped and glanced at me oddly. "Haveyou seen Steve since you left?"
"No," I lied.
"You don't know anything about him?"
"No," I lied again.
"Nothing at all?" Tommy pressed.
I forced a chuckle. "Why are you so concerned about Steve?"
Tommy shrugged. "He got into some trouble the last time he was here. I thought you might have heard about it from your parents."
"We don't discuss the past," I said, elaborating on the lie I'd concocted. I leant forward curiously. "What did Steve do?" I asked, wondering if it was in any way linked to his vampaneze activities.
"Oh, I don't rightly remember," Tommy said, shifting uncomfortably - he was lying. "It's old history. Best not to bring it up. You know what Steve was like, always in one form of trouble or another."
"That's for sure," I muttered. Then my eyes narrowed. "You said you've talked to him on the phone?"
"Yeah. He rings every so often, asks what I'm up to, says nothing about what he's doing, then hangs up!"
"When was the last time he rang?"
Tommy thought about it. "Two, maybe three years ago. A long time."
"Have you a contact number for him?"
A shame. I'd thought for a moment that Tommy might be my path back to Steve, but it seemed he wasn't.
"What's the time?" Tommy asked. He looked at his watch and groaned. "If my manager finds out how late I've been out, he'll sack me! Sorry, Darren, but I really have to go."
"That's OK," I smiled, standing to shake his hand.
"Maybe we could meet up again after the match?"
"Yeah!" Tommy exclaimed. "I'm not travelling back with the team - I'm staying here for the night, to see some relatives. You can come to the hotel after the game and? Actually, how'd you like to come see me play?"
"At the semi-final?" My eyes lit up. "I'd love to. But didn't I hear you telling Jekkus the tickets were sold out?"
"Jekkus?" Tommy frowned.
"The guy with the knives - your number-one fan."
"Oh." Tommy grimaced. "I can't give away tickets to all my fans. But family and friends are a different story."
"I wouldn't be sitting near anyone who knew me, would I?" I asked. "I don't want the truth about me going any further - Annie might hear about it."
"I'll get you a seat away from the others," Tommy promised. Then he paused. "You know, Annie's not a girl any more. I saw her a year ago, the last time I was here for a match. She struck me as being very level-headed. Maybe it's time to tell her the truth."
"Maybe," I smiled, knowing I wouldn't.
"I really think you should," Tommy pressed. "It would be a shock, like it was for me, but I'm sure she'd be delighted to know you're alive and well."
"We'll see," I said.
I walked Tommy out of the tent, through the campsite and stadium tunnels to where his car was parked. I bid him goodnight at the car, but he stopped before getting in and stared at me seriously. "We must talk some more about Steve tomorrow," he said.
My heart skipped a beat. "Why?" I asked as casually as I could.
"There are things you should know. I don't want to get into them now - it's too late - but I think?" He trailed off into silence, then smiled. "We'll talk about it tomorrow. It might help you make up your mind about some other things."
And on that cryptic note he said farewell. He promised to send over a ticket in the morning, gave me his hotel name and mobile number, shook my hand one last time, got into his car and drove away.
I stood outside the walls of the stadium a long while, thinking about Tommy, Annie and the past - and wondering what he'd meant when he said we needed to talk some more about Steve.