Mysteron by Peter Arscott

A foreigner who frequents a local café is so mysteriously quiet that rumours start to spread about him.

Image generated with OpenAI
When people do not provide information about themselves, others will do so. Rumours inevitably pile up one after the other. There is some malice, but mostly genuine curiosity and a desire to slot the man into some sort of role that will define him within the town. This man's name is Karvon Kleet - this is confirmed by Jim the postman. His name sounds foreign, everybody agrees. And he looks foreign, what with the wide forehead and jet-black hair, and the dark almond-shaped eyes. Everyone knows that he lives in a small, detached house on the edge of town, and that no one else seems to live with him. Somebody refers to him as "Mysteron", and the name sticks.

Townsfolk on their way to the station every day pass the wooden palisade that separates his garden from the street: no flowers or flower beds, an unkempt lawn, weeds growing through the narrow concrete terrace by the back door, and a clothesline that is held up by a pole stuck in the grass, lopsided and given to swaying if ever there is a breeze. They have never seen any clothes drying on the line.

People sometimes see him get on the train, usually in the late mornings, and others confirm that he gets off at Worcester Foregate because, perhaps, he works at the university, an academic of sorts, carrying out research. That sort of thing. Probably does not teach, otherwise some of the local students would confirm it, and always carries a briefcase but avoids eye contact. Marge Myrtle, who runs the convenience store on the corner of Oakfield Road, states categorically that he only ever buys a pint of milk, a loaf of ready-sliced bread and half a pound of bacon every other day, and that he neither says "good morning" or "goodbye", but always pays with the exact change. "I'm sure he's up to no good," she always says at the end of any conversation about him, folding her arms and hugging her sides.

Some think he lives with his mother and that she is seriously ill and thus unable to fend for herself. Others believe him to be an informer who has been given a new identity and address. Probably IRA, according to Harry, the bartender at the Oak. Others suggest that he is an undercover agent working for the government on an IT mission linked to the university. A few believe him to be a writer of pornographic novels, and even fewer are convinced that he is a secret lottery winner trying to keep his head down and hiding from the tabloids. A handful, including Mr Snodgrass, the retired headmaster, are of the opinion that the man is a former prison inmate who has served his time and deserves to be left alone. But whatever the disagreement over his identity, they all agree on one thing: he is not from the area and is undoubtedly foreign.

Like a few of the town's younger women, though she will not admit to it, Roxy Hopkins finds him intriguing and alluring. She works full time at the Albatross Café where she and Ann wait on the tables, operate the coffee machine, wash the dishes, the cups and saucers, hoover and mop the floor, make the sandwiches, talk to the customers and bank the money on Mondays. They do everything required to keep the business going. Even though it is not theirs.

Five years before, after leaving school, Roxy tried her hand at secretarial work, and then had the idea of becoming a primary school teacher but decided against it after volunteering as a teaching assistant at the local school - an experience that confirmed her suspicions about children. They are not mini adults, but different animals altogether - direct, with their own logic, and unfazed by what awaits them. This realization did not worry her, she simply accepted it as a fact, knowing that she liked and understood people, just less so in their embryonic or primary stage.

Unsure of what to do next, she got the job at the café after she saw a notice in the window. It struck her, as she read it, that the ebb and flow of customers, the variable rhythm of daily work, the easy banter and the aroma of coffee and pastries, appealed to her convivial personality and to her desire for everybody to get along. She enjoys fathoming her fellow humans.

Her fellow waitress, Ann, a girl a year ahead of her at school, is friendly, open, and given to smutty comments about the local men, for whom she has little respect, treating them like younger brothers, even if they are years older than her.

"I bet he's got one as small as a winkle," she will say to Roxy as a hulking leather-clad biker pushes his way into the cafe. "Sit down anywhere, love," she will call out. "Hungry, are you? Mummy left you alone for a few days?" But they never get angry, and most laugh along with her.

Ann is the louder of the two, but it is Roxy's smile that draws the attention of customers. It is crooked, rising more on the left side and forcing two smooth creases to appear, like quotation marks.

The only customer Ann never says anything about is Mysteron. He always comes to the café mid-morning and sits at the corner table by the window, not to look out at the passers-by but to open his laptop and begin working. He never speaks, only ordering his flat white by pointing at the price list. He never smiles. However, there is something about his manner that does not put people off. The waitresses learn not ask him questions but instead come out with statements that require no response. When bringing him his coffee they will say:

"Lovely day today. Just look out of the window, beautiful, though I say it myself." Or, "You wouldn't believe the traffic there was on the road coming into work this morning. It could be Piccadilly Circus, this place."

He will spend forty minutes on his laptop, hunched over it and every now and then taking a sip from his cup or looking down at his neatly piled notes until an abrupt thought makes him look up, close the lid of the computer, gather his papers, put them in a briefcase along with the laptop, force him to his feet and prod him to the counter where he will pay the exact amount, no tip, and turn and walk out.

"Bye. See you tomorrow." Ann, or Roxy, will say with a smile and a shrug.

One morning Roxy notices the green leggings. She is on her way to work when she sees them hanging from the clothesline. They are the first article of clothing she has ever seen drying in Mysteron's back garden, but then the image of somebody wearing them comes to her. Green leggings, or whatever you call those knitted sock-like tubes that ballet dancers wear when they are rehearsing. Surely he does not wear them - there must be somebody else who lives with him, and it is obviously not his mother. A girlfriend? Maybe a man? The thought of him in green leggings will not go away and accompanies her all the way to the café, so that she seems distracted when she pushes the door open and it screeches on its hinges, as usual. Ann cocks her head while washing some dishes and asks if she is alright.

"I'm fine. Just thinking. Do you think Mysteron could be a ballet dancer?"

"What? No way, not with those spindly legs. Why do you think that?"

"I saw a pair of leggings drying on his clothesline, you know, the sort dancers wear."

"He doesn't look strong enough. He's pale, isn't he. Doesn't look the type who does much exercise. Probably never even goes for walks, what with all the lovely countryside around here."

A man sitting at a table by the counter clears his throat:

"'E's a layabout. One of them freeloaders from Romania or somewhere, you mark my words."

His companion, a large woman wearing a felt hat, nods in agreement:

"My friend who works in the city says she sees him standing on a corner selling those newspapers, you know... The Big Issue. And when he finishes his stint, a car, a fancy car comes along and takes him away, would you believe it."

"But you have to shout to sell The Big Issue," says Roxy, "and he has never said a word to me, or to anyone, as far as I know."

"Yes," adds Ann, "and he lives in a house on his own. How could he afford to do that selling The Big Issue?"

"That's the thing, you see," says the man, "they're clever. They know how to milk the system, how to get money off the council. I bet he jumped the queue to get the house. If you're an immigrant you go top of the list, I tell you."

"Oh," Ann raises a sceptical eyebrow, "so you know it's a council house, do you?"

"Well, I bet it is," he mutters and looks down at his mug of tea. The large woman pats him on the arm, showing him whose side she is on.

"Anyway," says Roxy, "I think a man who uses a laptop in a cafe is going to be a writer, or a salesman, or a... I don't know, he's not going to stand on corners selling newspapers, is he?"

The couple keep quiet, a resentful hunch of the shoulders bringing any exchanges to an end. Ann winks at Roxy as she puts her apron on.

It turns out to be a slow morning, so when Mysteron arrives at about ten, it is an empty café, and he sits at his usual table by the window. Roxy brings him his flat white.

"There you are."

"Thank you."

The reply stops the waitress in her tracks. The voice is gentle and, yes, there is a foreign lilt in the word "thank". It sounds more like "thenk", though it could be (Roxy thought) that he is posh, like the rich people in the mansion in that series on TV her mother likes to watch. She smiles and nods and turns back to the counter where Ann is waiting wide-eyed with mock surprise. Roxy frowns at her in disapproval. Ann's face settles and she clears her throat.

"Not many in today," she says loudly.

"Probably the weather," says Roxy.

Both women turn their heads to look at the man, who is sipping his coffee and not taking any notice of them but instead tapping at the keyboard with his free hand. The two women look at each other, Ann winks and aims her chin at the man, and then mouths the words "talk to him" at Roxy. With her smile in place, she walks up to the table, tea towel in one hand, and stands before him.

"Can I get you anything else?"

The man's hand freezes over the keyboard, and he looks up with anxious eyes. A faint sound escapes him, a kind of murmur, but his mouth opens and closes like a fish's, his eyebrows knit, and deep furrows appear on his wide forehead.


Roxy takes a step back and tries to look calm.


Roxy looks at Ann across the room, but she seems as frozen to the spot as her colleague. All three are stuck, unable make the next move, Roxy clutching her tea towel, Ann frozen behind the counter holding a pint of milk, the man now gently rocking back and forth in the grip of his cruel demon.


He comes to an abrupt halt.


Then his shoulders slump. He looks exhausted. Even with his head down Roxy can tell that he is panting. She takes a deep breath, looks around at Ann, and slowly pulls a chair out with both hands, tea towel slung over one shoulder, and slides onto it. Her right hand moves across the table and comes to a rest on his.

"It's OK. I'm sorry..."

The breathing slows down, though the head remains lowered.

"Do you want a glass...? I'll get you some water. Ann, love, fetch us a glass of water."

When Ann arrives with the glass, she places it on the table with a sharp "clink" as it touches the coffee cup. He looks up. He sees the glass and takes it, bringing it to his lips and gulping down the water; all the while his other hand remains enclosed in Roxy's. His black eyes show concern, and he takes a long deep breath, as if about to say something, but instead it is an apologetic smile that emerges. He talks, he smiles, Roxy says to herself, and exchanges a glance with Ann, who smiles back at her.

Except for the tinny sound of the cafe's television in the background they all three remain silent. Outside on the High Street the sound of passing pedestrians and traffic is intermittent and muffled, and both women turn their eyes to the sunlit exterior and the clearest sky above the rooftops of the houses opposite. A giant white X fills the blue above, vapour trails left by two passenger planes, so white they shine and make the sky bluer than any sky Roxy has seen. Blue and white, clean and bright, straight from a child's paint box.

There is a loud squeal as the cafe door swings open and two women with shopping bags shuffle in. Ann goes back behind the counter, Roxy lets go of the hand and flicks the towel off her shoulder, and the man looks down at his laptop. The new customers sit at the table by the counter and Roxy goes to serve them. Ann picks up the remote control and turns up the volume on the television. It is the news, and all five look up to watch the images of crowds gathered at St Peter's in Rome. The screen shows the Pope, frail and sick, bent over in pain at the apartment window above the swaying crowd and he is trying, one can see he is trying so hard, to raise his right arm, so that his head rolls from side to side with the effort. After a minute his wheelchair is pulled back and his face disappears into the dark interior.

Mysteron's chair scrapes against the floor as he gets up from the table, briefcase tucked under his left arm. He makes his way to the counter and stands before the two women, his eyes looking directly from one to the other, his bearing straight, his expression determined.

"My name is K...K...K..."

There is a flicker of distress in the black eyes.

"I know," says Roxy. "It's Karvon."

"Yes," he says with relief. A smile appears that lights up his face. He reaches into his pocket and counts out the exact amount, putting it on the counter by the till.

"Thenk you," he says, and leaves.

Both women are silent for a while, until Ann says:

"The beginning of something? Got yourself an admirer there, I think, Miss Roxy."

"Hmm," says Roxy, smiling to herself as she wipes some crumbs from the counter and pictures a pair of green leggings dancing in the breeze. She is going to enjoy unravelling this human being. She wipes a tea stain from a tray with her dish cloth and says quietly to herself, relishing the sound of the word in her mouth:


The cafe door opens with a piercing squeal and a party of mums with toddlers trundles in. Roxy takes a deep breath and flicks her dishcloth onto her shoulder, ready for anything. Ann says:

"We've got to put some oil on those bloody hinges."


  1. I realllly enjoyed the cleverness of the speculation about who this gent is. An ex-con, a lottery winner, a researcher….etc.. All very clever! And in the aggregate it’s a good community effort! The leggings were a good touch. Inexplicable. My brain was singing as I read this story. The tone pleased me so much. A kind of compassion for the denizens of this local. I feel though, that a different ending would be better. Fantastic read!

    1. Hi June
      Thank you for your response to the story. And I am very interested in your thoughts about the ending - I wonder if it's in need of something more dramatic?

  2. I can relate to this story. I spend some time in a small village in Italy. The villagers make up the wildest stories about people when they are curious. A great read. The ending is very subtle. It works for me.

    1. Thanks Rozanne - appreciated.

  3. “Mysteron” paints an incisive picture of small town folks holding negative conjectural assumptions about a stranger. This rang true, for me. Does Mysteron have a speech impediment or some other psychological or physical limitation? It’s unclear, but it would explain a lot. I disagree with June a little; the ending seemed good, as it opened up the possibilities for Mysteron, which are almost limitless. It shows that Mysteron’s transformation or evolution, will not happen overnight. Peter used interesting details to decorate his tail, speaking of “vapor trails from passenger planes” visible outside, so his is no bare bones fiction. I was interested in the ages of the characters. Roxy and Ann are described as young – five and six years “out of school” respectively – so for there to be some sexual tension between Roxy and Mysteron, one would think they were be of similar ages; I don’t believe that Mysteron’s age is addressed. Very good read, Peter!

    1. Thanks Bill. It's often the case that a reader will point out obvious issues such as defining, or at least getting across, somehow, the age of the characters. Just because I have an idea in my head about Karvon's age does not mean anybody else does. I find good self-editing difficult.

    2. Hey, Peter. I just wanted to personally thank you again for your story. And I was pleased that it was accepted by other readers with the same enthusiasm with which I regarded it. I think commenters enjoy when the writer responds to their remarks. Thank you for so doing. I noted that you are very gracious in receiving the thoughts of others. Is more of you work available online? I would very much enjoy reading more.

  4. A crack in the armor motivated by ?

    1. the security offered by Roxy at the cafe, since she is non-judgemental and open to others, as well as sensitive? And perhaps Karvon, with his regular visits, has gradually fallen in love with her.

  5. Seems like the ending works for everyone else…so it’s just me! I apologize. It’s a wonderful piece!

    1. Don't apologize, June. All comments accepted and mulled over.

    2. Hi June. Just because you’re outnumbered doesn’t make you wrong. As one other reader commented, (Stephen) a different ending might have been better. Indeed, it may have been immediately more viscerally satisfying. I just happen to like open endings more – maybe because I’m too lazy to find succinct endings in my own work; and because I don’t want others’ stories to end, but to run on with a conjectural life of their own. But please, don’t feel contrite about simply disagreeing with others. I always enjoy your comments, June, as you are always both reflective and well-meaning.

  6. Mysteron lives up to his nickname. The way the other characters react to him reveals much about themselves. The green leggings are an excellent touch. The open-ended conclusion makes me want to know more about these folks.

    — David Henson

    1. Thanks, David. I'm glad you like the green leggings. Isn't it strange how something comes into your head as you're writing that does not seem to make complete sense, but you instinctively know "fits"?

  7. I love how use use indirect characterization to reveal each denizen of the village via their personal speculations as to the true nature of Mysteron. And then Mysteron himself is (sort of but not exactly) an absent character - at least until the last 3rd of the story where he finally speaks and interacts with Ann and Roxy.
    Magnificent piece!
    This story stands alone, but could also be the first chapter in a novel I’d love to read!

    1. Adam, you've set an idea in motion. Perhaps not a novel, but a short story sequel would be interesting. Many thanks.

  8. Well written. The choreography flows nicely. A succinct ending might prove more effective. As I pronounce his name, Karvon, my mouth admits the first syllable, then traps the second syllable with my upper teeth on my lower lip, only to expel the name in the end. Perhaps this perspective might imply more than a passing reaction from the waitress.
    --Stephen Myer

    1. Thank you Stephen. I hadn't thought of the part played by plosives and fricatives in the story, which would be relevant, given the story deals with a stutter. Do you think the subconscious plays a bigger part in writing than we assume? Is that what you meant?

  9. By the way, many thanks Charlie, for the choice of image. That's quite a job matching image to text twice a week.

  10. Yes. Names are often used as metaphor or information about the character. The waitress is clever and seeks an undisclosed relationship with Karvon. Sense integration (sound, touch, hearing, etc.) can be a catalyst for passive or aggressive action--so the "subconscious" subtext may certainly play a significant role in the story.
    --Stephen Myer

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed this. An incredibly well described community of gossipers, rumour-millers (as is found in towns and villages the world over!) all speculating, in entertaining detail, about who the man who's slightly different from them in their town. I think you very effectively used Karvon's stutter to suggest to the reader than something more sinister and fantastical was at hand, but then to bring it back down-to-earth in that it's the poor guy's speech impediment, and Roxy's resulting sympathy - and perhaps more. Great stuff.