God, what a bore!
When she had agreed to attend this seminar, it was mainly as a diversion from the dreary repetitiveness of her job. At this moment, work seemed preferable to this - a droning presenter with no realisation that he was the source of everyone's irritation, and the agenda for this conference was hardly inspiring. The break for lunch was a welcome respite.
It was while she was ordering her meal that she first noticed him. Of all the attendees he seemed the most out of place. His clothes were ill fitting at best, though in a strange way they suited him. Once or twice he had caught her eye, then quickly turned away, embarrassed.
She settled down to her meal, which admittedly was one of the rare highlights of the day. At least the food was good, and she was about to tuck into a slice of roast lamb when someone joined her at the table. She looked up - it was the strange man she had seen earlier. Ordinarily she would have ignored him or, if necessary, had him ejected from her table, but his manner was unthreatening and she had to admit that she was curious about this man.
"What do you think of the conference?" he asked.
"It's hardly my field," she confessed. "I'm only here as a favour to a friend, and I was looking forward to a break from my normal routine."
He nodded understandingly. "These things are never quite what one expects. I take it you don't enjoy your work?"
"No, I . . . " The question had caught her off-guard. This time last year, she had been involved in some very high-profile work - the kind that never gets general recognition. Now, she was back at her old haunts, where she had assumed that she could pick up where she had left off. But time had moved on, and her life was a pale shadow of what she had known before. She shrugged. "It doesn't matter. What's your interest here?"
"Oh, just general interest," he replied. "I like to keep abreast of things when I'm visiting. The latest innovations, that sort of thing. But this isn't the most riveting of presentations, is it?"
He smiled, and she returned the smile. At least she had someone to talk to. Perhaps this conference wouldn't be quite so bad after all.
The rest of the day passed by relatively quickly. Whenever proceedings began to drag he was there to raise her spirits, and conversations between them became long and involved, but never dull. She was quite sad when the conference was over - it had been refreshing to talk to someone who was on her wavelength.
"I say, do you have to rush?" She turned. He was hurrying to catch her up, oblivious of anyone he bumped into along the way. "I was hoping for a chat before you left."
The hotel bar was still open and they settled down at a corner table, engaging in idle chit-chat. He waited until their drinks had arrived before he broached the main topic of conversation. "I have to confess, our meeting wasn't entirely accidental."
She had suspected as much, but had decided to let the day run its course. Besides, he had been excellent company. "Go on," she prompted.
"Oh, well it's a little difficult to explain," he began. "You see, we've met before. Though I haven't met you yet." He noted her confused expression. "Oh, this isn't coming out right, is it? What I mean is, you've met me, but not me."
He had expected some sort of reaction; confusion, shock perhaps. But laughter? This wasn't going well at all. "I'm sorry," she apologised, recovering her composure. "But I don't think I've heard anyone try to explain something so straightforward in such a roundabout way."
Now it was his turn to be confused. "I'm glad you think it's straightforward! This isn't easy, you know!"
She smiled. "I've been expecting you," she explained. "Ever since a mutual friend of ours contacted me recently. I recognised you from the description he gave me - 'a little fellow with a baggy frock coat and check trousers.'" She paused. "He says 'Hello, scarecrow.'"
He bristled slightly at that nickname. "Fancy-pants!" Then he visibly relaxed, relieved that the need for subterfuge was no longer required. "So, you knew all the time?"
"Not everything," she replied. "I knew to expect you, but nothing else. Something to do with time paradoxes, I suppose." She leaned forward. "So come on, Doctor. Why do you need my help?"
"Well you see, Miss Shaw . . . I say, may I call you Liz . . . ?"