Jacqui Ventura sat by the window sipping from a cup of hot tea. Outside, a cutting wind, blown across the continent from Siberia, whisked up swirls of paper and dead leaves and swept them erratically about the empty spaces of the Croydon bus depot. A few coaches awaiting departure stood in readiness. Their engines idled anxiously, as though uncertain whether to brave the impending snowfall, or to stay for the night in the safe confines of the bus depot. As she watched, the snow was already beginning to fall as a fine dry powder. It was not a good night for travelling.
She looked out in silence, both hands clasped about the hot cup. She took comfort from the warm feeling it gave. Her silent trance was interrupted by the reflection of a figure in the window of the cafeteria. Her eyes adjusted to focus on the man who had left the service counter and appeared to be heading towards her table. She might not have noticed him with the dark coat he was wearing, the collar pulled up around his neck. It was the contrast that attracted her attention. Above the coat collar he wore his hair almost to shoulder length, neat, wavy, and almost pure white. Her eyes continued to follow him in the window’s reflection as he drew closer to her table.
“Is this seat taken?” the voice asked.
Jacqui turned away from the reflection and looked up into the face of a very tall man. He had the frame and general demeanour of someone elderly in years, yet his face belied that impression. She couldn’t put an age to it - forty-five, forty-eight? It could even have been seventy or eighty had there been any lines on his face to indicate the wear and tear of years. Mesmerised by the face and her unaccountable inability to place an age on it, she had not answered.
“This seat,” said the man, indicating the spare chair at the table. “It seems to be the only vacant seat with a view of the depot.”
Jacqui, absorbed with the look rather than the voice, jolted herself alert and answered the man’s question.
“Yes! No!” she corrected herself, “I mean, no, it isn’t taken.” She reached over the table to retrieve her bag from the vacant chair.
“Thank you.” The man placed his cup of coffee on the table and seated himself facing her. “It’s a cold evening,” he said matter-of-factly, “Is it often as cold as this here?” he asked.
Jacqui couldn’t help staring at the stranger. He possessed an uncanny air of intrigue and mystique. Looking into a pair of extremely deep blue eyes, as alert as a child’s, she felt a momentary feeling of uncertainty, quite out of character with her normal self-assured nature.
“No,” she replied, “this is very unusual for November.” After a pause she asked, “You’re not from around here?”
“Yes and no,” said the stranger without volunteering any further explanation.
“Oh, you’ve been away for some time then?” Jacqui said, automatically assuming that to be the case.
The man showed the hint of a smile that softened his lips, but did not reach his eyes. Then a “Huh,” which sounded like a stifled laugh, or maybe a verbal exclamation of frustration. It was a sound that suggested the question either could not be answered, or had been answered too many times before.
“In a manner of speaking,” he replied eventually.
Jacqui had the impression that he didn’t wish to give her any further information on the subject, but something intangible prompted her to push for a more appropriate answer.
“That’s a strange way of putting it,” she said, “How can you only be away in a manner of speaking?”
The man sighed, almost imperceptibly.
“Yes, I imagine it does seem strange. That’s probably because it is.” He offered nothing further.
“In what way?” Jacqui pursued, when he didn’t speak.
“Too strange to go into here,” he responded calmly, then, “You ask a lot of questions. What about you? What are you doing in a desolate place like this on a bitter...” he paused for a moment, “What day is it?”
“Friday.” Jacqui answered. Was this man just forgetful or was there another reason for his question?
“...on a bitter Friday evening in November?” he finished the question, and then added, “You did say it was November?”
“Yes I did.” There was something distinctly odd about this conversation. “D’you mean you don’t know either the day or the month? You do know what year it is?” she asked with a smile.
“What year is it?” asked the stranger.
Jacqui laughed aloud, “I think it’s 1996,” she said.
The man nodded reflectively, “Good, good,” he said seriously, as though he really hadn’t been sure.
“You’re not suffering from amnesia, are you?” Jacqui asked with concern.
The man laughed and for the first time his face broke into a wide smile transforming the ageless contours into the features of a youthful boy. Jacqui was taken aback by the transformation. The face of this man appeared to be literally ageless – or more correctly – all ages.
“No,” he laughed, “but sometimes I just wish I was.”
That smile seemed to break the tension.
“My name’s Jacqui. I run an information technology centre nearby and am on my way home. I’m unsure whether to drive, or take a bus, what with this bad weather closing in. It might even be wiser to stay in town for the night. What’s your name?” she asked, “You do remember I suppose?”
“It’s Zorando,” he offered.
“Zorando? Is that a first name or a last name?”
“It’s just my name, Zorando.”
“That’s neat, just one name. Are you an entertainer? I guess they call you Zoran?” Jacqui suggested.
“No. Zoran is someone else.”
“Oh really. And who is Zoran?”
“He’s my...” Zorando broke off the sentence without finishing it.
“It’s not important,” said Zorando, shaking his head.
“He’s your son, right. You’re married and don’t want me to know.” Jacqui was quite accustomed to being approached by married men feigning no ties. These days they seemed to be the only men around. At thirty five she had given up trying to find someone responsible and resigned herself to a single life, uncomplicated and self-controlled.
“No, it’s not that. Zoran isn’t my son.” The response interrupted her thoughts and put her mind at rest. She considered herself a good judge of character and would have been surprised to find that Zorando was like most other men she met, and that, he most certainly was not.
“Your brother?” she asked.
“You certainly ask a lot of questions.”
“Sorry,” Jacqui replied without conviction. Then, nodding her head towards Zorando as though prompting him, she said, “Well, don’t keep me guessing.”
“Zoran is my great great grandson,” he explained. Jacqui saw a look on his face that suggested he would rather not have given an explanation. Jacqui’s own expression was one of incredulity. Then it dawned on her.
“Sorry, I know I’m too pushy. I deserved that,” she said, assuming Zorando had given her a stupid answer to put an end to the questioning. She thought Zorando accepted her comment with some relief and wondered at that.
“Why do you think people would call me Zoran when my name is Zorando?” he asked, somewhat perplexed.
“It’s shorter. Easier to say.”
“Do you find Zorando difficult to say?” he asked, even more perplexed.
“No, of course not. But everyone shortens names as a matter of course.”
“Do they? Why?”
“I don’t know,” Jacqui laughed, whilst thinking ‘who is this guy. Has he been on another planet’. In case he had she clarified the point, “My name is Jacqueline, but everyone calls me Jacqui. They always have, ever since I was small.”
A look of sudden understanding showed that Zorando had found the answer to this peculiarity.
“Ah, yes. I’d forgotten how extremely lazy everyone was back then”, he said aloud, but to himself.
It was a simple sentence, but those words, and the way they were uttered, made the hair stand on Jacqui’s neck. Just what was Zorando inferring by using the past tense? Suddenly, irrationally, she found herself in fear of this unusual stranger. What was she getting into here? He was probably the local fruitcake whom everyone else kept clear of. She looked around for confirmation, but found none. But as she turned back and looked into those deep blue eyes, as quickly as it had formed, her fear dissipated leaving her with a strong desire to learn more about him.
“What are you doing here? Are you waiting for a bus?” she asked casually.
But Zorando was not paying attention. His gaze was fixed on someone in the bus park. A figure had emerged from the far side of the depot. A man? He was wrapped in a swirl of white flakes that had now started to fall heavier. The gusty wind blew against him as he struggled forward, leaning into its pressure, but then losing control as the gusts changed direction. He staggered against the flurries and headed towards one of the waiting coaches.
Zorando was in deep concentration, his eyes slightly narrowed as he squinted in the manner of one trying to get into better focus. The man outside drew closer until he reached the coach. His face came into focus under the weak beam of the park lighting. Zorando relaxed and returned his attention to Jacqui.
“I’m sorry, did you ask something?”
“I asked if you were waiting for a bus.”
“No, I’m looking for someone.”
“Was it that man in the bus park?”
“Oh. The way you were looking, I thought it might have been.”
“No,” said Zorando, “My friend won’t be here until tomorrow.”
“You don’t plan on waiting here, do you? They’ll be closing up before long.”
“No. I’ll have to find somewhere. Is there somewhere around here I could get a room?”
“Not at this time of night. At least I don’t know of anywhere local.”
Just then a waitress appeared at the table. Zorando had not touched his coffee. The waitress wrote out Zorando’s bill, placed it on a plate in front of him, and moved on to the next table. Zorando picked up the piece of paper and read it. He looked puzzled.
“What is it?” Jacqui asked with a laugh, “Have they overcharged you. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“What is this?” Zorando showed her the paper. Jacqui looked at it.
“It looks like about twice as much as a cup of coffee is worth. Here, let me put it on my bill,” she said. And without waiting for argument she put the paper alongside her own, laid two crisp five pound notes on the plate and handed it to the waitress who was at the next table. She got up from the table and Zorando stood also.
It was not Jacqui’s way to befriend total strangers on cold winter’s evenings, just out of pity. Not that she had never accepted dates with men she had met only briefly. Unfortunately, this had happened only too frequently in the past.
She worked hard at her office business and convinced herself that she deserved a little pleasure from life. That pleasure came too infrequently these days. The men she dated seemed ordinary and harmless, and that’s just what they were; so ordinary as to provide nothing but an extension to the growing chasm in her lonely existence.
This man was not ordinary. Was he harmless? If anything in her life was going to change she had to make some different decisions. Perhaps the time had come to make that change.
“Look,” she said, “Seeing how bad it is out there I’ve decided to stay at the office tonight. I’ve got a spare lounger you can use if you just need somewhere to stay tonight. You’ve got a very honest face, and besides, I find you interesting and want to know more about you. There now, I’ve broken the ice and made the first move. Now it’s up to you.”
“Thank you,” said Zorando, and followed her uncertainly, outside into the bitter night air.