Feeling particularly stupid, I stood peering out the window of a corner store, a packet of frozen peas in my hand. At least the girl behind the counter sat too engrossed in her magazine to notice me.
Most decidedly Bradley was to blame for this. Only an hour ago my night had come to an end. The sun had risen, and it was time to leave; I needed to escape before the morning merry-go-round began. As I did every morning. While the day staff filled the corridors in droves, I left quietly by a back stairwell. Once more I literally hid from people, even from Melody with her infectious happiness. Weary to the point of tears, I lacked the energy to face freshness en masse.
Escaping unscathed outside, I paused in the sunshine, trying to remember exactly where I’d parked the car, and so work out the quickest way to reach it. It hadn’t been in the parking lot – that’d been the night before, in the rain. Was it? Or wasn’t that now two nights ago? I honestly couldn’t remember parking my car at all. Then I remembered – it’d been up the top of campus, ready for my nightly escort. That small cul-de-sac now seemed impossibly far away. Maybe some cows would be waiting there to watch me, or perhaps a horse or two standing in the sun. I wished, like them, I could simply stand with the sun drenching my back. It was a skill I needed to learn.
A fat moon hung against the redness of the morning sky as I finally reached my car. When I turned at the second roundabout a golden eerie glow fell over the world. The light had changed; bushfire light. It coloured everything. I didn’t know if the fire was yet out, or if soon I’d see smoke filling the sky.
As I drove it slowly dawned on me that today was Thursday – a miracle, really, since I rarely knew what day it was. Perhaps it came from was the radio I wasn’t listening to. Sleep sat seductively beside me, yet I resolutely kept driving. Although I was tired and befuddled, I couldn’t bear going home this morning. On Thursdays Bradley started late. Right now he’d be home, at least for a while before emerging into the world to do all his good deeds before work. I simply couldn’t face him. I’d been raised in a place of impeccable crockery and dust free corners, and watched it pull my mother apart.
I needed some space for my mind to settle comfortably within its perpetual mist, so when I finally made it to bed my thoughts wouldn’t wake me with their churning. There was no way Bradley would allow me that space. So, instead of returning to the sterile house, I decided to take the back way to Dave’s grave, driving along the bay rather by the waves. Despite this side of the university being surrounded by paddocks, both bay and sea were only some fifteen minutes away. As if still asleep, the water lay vast and still, glistening under the morning sunshine. Trails of smoke left the sky misty, but the fire I’d watched from the roof while standing beside Henryk lay on the far side of the uni, not down near the bay. Here there was little trace of it, and the eerie light which had drenched the day as I left the Uni had little influence here. Instead, the wooden poles of the oyster beds stretched into the translucent stillness. I pulled up and stood beside my car for a few moments, staring over the calmness. All traces of the sunrise had long vanished, and the sky stretched blue across the vaults of heaven. Five pelicans soared overhead. Silently they circled to catch the currents. Now they tipped their wings to descend and glide over the bay, their outstretched wings teasing the water but never touching it, until with a final flourish and a simple splash, the five came to rest as one near the houseboats.
These houseboats cast a spell over me. There were only three, each completely distinct in style. One was little more than a functional box, painted a dark blue; another was a pretty little white thing complete with a small picket fence for railings. The one closest to me boasted a jungle on its roof, along with more sedate geraniums hanging along the lower verandah where-ever space allowed. I’d never seen anyone moving about on board, though at night their lights streamed across the bay. I wanted to know what it’d be like onboard when it rained, bobbing on a water turned choppy and grey. Under the morning sunshine, they looked idyllic.
The road swept along the edge of the bay then cut across the headland. Some five minutes later I pulled into the car park and sat looking over the sea. I had no regrets about failing to pack my swimmers, despite promising myself everyday that I’d do so and have a swim on the way home. The way I felt, one dive under a wave and I wouldn’t resurface. Besides, although the water of the bay sparkled, and the day promised sunny and bright, even from the car the ocean looked rough and murky. Somewhere beyond the horizon a storm must be playing havoc, for along the sand hundreds of jellyfish lay stranded, washed ashore by last night’s turbulent waves. Around them, the sand looked crumpled. No one was swimming, not even surfers on their boards – despite the warmth of the morning, the water looked particularly uninviting.
After sitting a while watching the waves, I got out of the car and followed the sandy path to the graveyard. Droplets of dew clung to the grass, leaving my sneakers, then my socks, then finally my feet soaking by the time I reached Dave’s grave.
Shaking the water from my feet, I lowered myself wearily onto the stone. My back and hips ached in an unknown way, as if during the night the maladies of old-age had crept over me. I shivered as the morning air tickled my skin. From above the horizon the morning star gleamed back at me, and even the moon had sunk only a little closer towards the horizon, taking her time going to bed.
Although at the time it’d been awkward, I’d insisted on burying Dave here, near where he had worked. Where he’d been happy, for a while. I’m glad I did so. Family members had shot out from the woodwork, aunts and uncles and distant cousins I’d rarely seen, blithely informing me of my stupidity and selfishness. My brother, they repeated to all who’d listen, should be buried back home, beside our parents. I stood my ground despite my catholic guilt, only to be then surprised by the number of people who actually came to the service. Those from the university politely shook my hand then left with quiet dignity.
I picked up a flower lying on Dave’s grave. A week ago it’d been fresh and red, but now it lay dark and wrinkled in my hand. Its colour pulled me back into that great myth-making land of primary school, where some kid (Jeremy from memory, Jeremy with the sunglasses and feet forever too large for the rest of his body, Jeremy who did back flips off the balcony whenever the teachers weren’t looking but the girls were) had enthralled the class with the story of his big brother’s summer job at the local abattoir, where he had to swim in a huge vat of blood to stop it from congealing. A vat of blood the same colour as the flower now dying in my hand.
Such a great story, especially the way the words fell from Jeremy’s lips. I can still see this older brother in his sluggos, swimming round in endless circles. “Did he wear goggles?” I asked.
“Of course,” replied Jeremy, happy to answer all our questions. “And he needed a face mask, so he could see where he was going. Plus the boss gave him flippers, so he wouldn’t get too tired.”
“What about boardies?” someone else asked.
“There’s an old pair used especially for the job.” Jeremy’s knowledge proved endless. “Along with a snorkel so he can breathe without swallowing any blood.”
“Ahh,” we all sighed in unison.
Of course I’d believed him. Jeremy even promised his brother would be on show not this weekend but the next, when he came to watch Jeremy play football. I’d repeated the story to Dad, (but unable to execute the embellishments and excitements which fell from Jeremy so naturally). Dad simply smiled his compassionate, far away smile, and gone on worrying about someone else. Mum, after telling her daughter not to be so ridiculous, repeated the story over innumerable humming-bird cakes and desiccated sugar cubes. Eventually the story filtered back to me in strange variants and different guises – as did everything, I was then discovering, that I told my mum. Yet it still took me a while to learn to stop telling her.
I snuck a cautious look around the graveyard. Henryk hadn’t shown up. Not that I expected him to. Or hoped. Of course I didn’t. He’d be in the library, doing his thesis, not thinking of me at all. I merely wondered what such an enigmatic man would make of such a tale of vats of blood. With his thesis of myths and legends, perhaps he’d see a labour of Hercules, or some story originating with the ancient Babylonians. I sighed and pulled my faithful cardigan tighter. Why couldn’t I pass my days thinking of such things? Or recite poetry to people? No-one had ever recited poetry to me before. (I had no idea what the poem was Henryk had narrated as I got into my car. I only knew I’d never be brave enough to ask him.) Jason only opened the car door for me when someone else was around.
Not even Dave showed up for a chat. The hours he kept continued a mystery to me, and did not always coincide with my need to talk to him. A few sparrows hopped in and out of the bushes as I sat moping. They played round my feet, their head to one side as they twittered and looked at me, ever hopeful for a feed. I felt sorry I had nothing to give them.
Beneath the sleepy warble of a magpie came the thudding of the surf. It beckoned. It’d been far too long since I’d run across the baking sand to dive into the ocean. I’d never sipped champagne by moonlight before skinny-dipping amongst luminescent waves. I’d never even owned a bikini. First I’d been too skinny, now I had too much flesh. ‘Nice girls don’t wear such things’ had been Mum’s constant refrain, along with other dictums such as ‘socks with sandals are a sensible idea’ and ‘only fast women wear black’. Always a reason not to do things, so much effort spent not doing things, never a reason offered to actually do something. As if sipping champagne, or being a fast woman in black socks and black sandals, needed reasons.
I reached for my bag and stood up. Breakfast called. Something decidedly unhealthy, in a place where the dead wouldn’t pull up a chair and sit beside me and sip a macchiato. Or the living, for that matter. I needed a place where I could sit and not pretend to be in any movie. Where I didn’t even have to talk to my brother.
I had a place in mind, not far from the beach. At this time of day, the only other souls there would be surfers, for the café conveniently straddled a path leading from the road to the beach. Despite having seen no-one in the surf, cars filled the road and I had to park quite a way down the street. My tummy rumbling, I hurried along the street, only to spy Gillian standing in the doorway of a shop on the other side of the road.
Before she had the chance to see me I ducked into the shop nearest to hand. So perhaps after all I should be blaming Gillian for the fact I now stood with a packet of frozen peas in my hand, for my shop of refuge proved to be an old-fashioned corner store (although, technically, not a corner store as it stood in the middle of a row of shops). Yet since it had the requisite half-empty shelves offering two choices of groceries, along with chest freezers filled with more ice than food, for me this was the quintessential corner store, simply moved to the middle of a street. In the back of the shop slept a pile of handy-around-the-house things, such as mouse traps and fishing hooks, all capturing dust during their long slumber as they waited for someone to appreciate their use.
Keeping an eye on the window, I moved to the newspaper stand in the corner. Above it was a community bulletin board, with notices advertising such things as babysitting services and leaf-blowers for sale. I half perused the scraps of paper while watching Gillian. Almost involuntarily I reached up, pulled an ad free, and popped it into my pocket. I glanced back outside; Gillian had now paused outside a hairdresser and stood talking into her mobile, with seemingly no intention to move. What was she doing here anyway? The shops in this sleepy backwater were definitely not her type of shops, and that was definitely not her type of hairdresser.
I look down at the peas still in my hand. Pretty silly, really; I’d been wandering around the shop carrying them, not even noticing my fingers were now half frozen. Just like – whom? I couldn’t think. For once, no actress sprang to mind, no film dropped its scenarios into my thoughts. But were I to make the movie, I’d shoot it in black and white, with the packet of peas melting across my palm as if painted by Salvador Dali.
I dropped the packet into the shopping basket beside the few other things I’d aimlessly collected. My frozen hand tingled. Gillian still stood outside. How long did she plan to stand there gossiping? Didn’t she have a job to go to? I couldn’t hide in here much longer; the girl at the counter was bound to notice me eventually.
Rounding the end of another aisle, I came across a small stone fountain sitting on the counter, the water tumbling around a couple of candles. Looking at it, I tried to recall what the Buddha said about not being able to step in the same stream twice. Or was that a Zen thing? Henryk would know. Not that I’d go ask him. Anyway, I wallowed in that stream. I carried it with me everywhere. That’s why my life never changed, why I still hid from everything and everyone.
My rumbling stomach churned with glee as I saw Gillian finally close her car door and drive away; I desperately needed some breakfast, and now I could pay for my few things and leave in safety. At the cafe I planned to sit in the courtyard out the back, alone, and feel the sunshine dance along my back. Picking up a packet of rice and adding it to the basket, I made my way over to the counter where, looking up from her magazine, the shop girl noticed me for the first time.
Sitting in the courtyard of Jim’s, I took a long sip of fresh juice, taking a moment to savour the feel and taste of the pulp as I swallowed. I always sat in the courtyard when I came here, although I hadn’t come as often as I’d like. Sometimes Jim was behind the coffee machine, sometimes he sat at a table, a newspaper before him but more often filling the place with his effortless voice as he chattered to various customers. Sometimes he wasn’t there. I saw no pattern.
Closing my eyes, I submitted and let the sun stroke my back. Despite the blankets of bushfire heat smothering the day I snuggled into my cardigan, feeling nothing but a coldness swimming through my bones. I’ve been tired for so long.
Thinking this a good time to peruse Dave’s list once more, I lifted my bag onto my lap. My packet of Twisties lying neatly on the top. I stared dumbly at them. I last remembered holding them while Henryk and I talked of a wine dark sea; I must’ve taken the packet up on the roof to watch the fires, though I couldn’t really remember still having them with me. I couldn’t even remember opening them. All I could remember was drinking that awful French-vanilla coffee, and running while still clutching the cup. Had I put the Twisties down when Henryk grabbed my hand and ran me to the roof? But I hadn’t gone back to collect them; and after the fires I’d been busy. I must’ve thrown them in my bag along with everything else as I left this morning, but simply couldn’t remember doing so. By mere chance they’d come to lie neatly on top.
After a little bit of fishing around I found my filofax, and took out Dave’s list. I carefully unfolded it, and read it once more: Pyruvate, amber, a vial of saltpeter (so medieval, don’t you think?), an opal, nambulite, granite (think of it as an igneous rock), tigers eye, my fossil stenaster, azurite, limonite, limestone, fluorite (have you noticed its fluresence?), ulexite, diaspore, glass, epidote, dolerite
Nothing. As if that piece of mind had hardened to stone, no ideas spurted forth, no suggestion, not even a clue sprouted. I wouldn’t know ulexite if I fell over it, and still had no idea what the stenaster fossil looked like. I simply had no idea what Dave had been on about. Plus he’d made no mention of the mosquito sleeping eternally in a piece of amber.
Taking another sip of my juice, I gazed vacantly through the open French windows back into the café. Some surfers sat scattered amongst the tables, hoeing into huge plates of food. None had looked up as I walked in, too busy refuelling their aching bodies to notice my footsteps. So some had braved the choppy surf and sea of jellyfish after all. I suppose that’s why God invented wetsuits.
A turtle slept on a log near my feet. A few others wandered at their leisure amongst the potted flowers and a small wading pool. They were one of the reasons I always sat out in the courtyard. Leaning forward, I ran my fingers across the animal’s back. The shell was smooth, but damp and mossy. Like the horses standing in the paddocks with the sunshine on their backs, the turtles seemed content with their lot. This one stretched out his neck and waved his head towards me in answer to my caress.
My hand froze on the turtle’s smooth shell, imprinting the pattern under my fingers on my memory. I looked up to see him standing at my table, silhouetted against the morning sun.
“It’s been a while,” continued Jason with his mellow tones. Then, with a nonchalant pause, he raised a quizzical eyebrow. Why have you not rung me? asked that eyebrow. Why have you waited so long?
“I, er, Ralph,” I answered. The name I used in a wasted attempt to make him feel guilty. The name I’d used in private moments together, as proof I knew him better than anyone else; even then I guessed he would slide away, and I’d tried so hard to hold on. Back when Dave had first met him at uni he’d introduced himself as Jason. After paying a consultant a fortune, he’d decided his middle name would prove more appropriate. A name sincere and interesting, not safe and boring; a name to be trusted, but never mocked. How could I recognise such ambition, when all I wanted was to pass exams?
“What are you doing up here?” I asked, straightening myself in the chair. Undeterred, the turtle clambered of the log over my feet.
“Oh, I need to sort out a few things before my broadcast,” flowed the flawless answer. His hand rested on the back of the chair opposite me with a casual but practised I-know-everyone’s-watching-me indifference. “You are coming?” It wasn’t really a question. From the way he stood, to anyone watching it must seem Jason merely waited for me to invite him to sit down, though I knew this not to be the case. He’d always liked being seen. “A stroke of luck, really, coming in for a coffee and seeing you sitting in the sun,” Jason continued. “Gillian told me you’d moved up here and I was hoping to cross paths. I don’t seem to have your mobile.”
I sipped my juice and made no effort to rectify my mistake. (It was my fault, obviously, that Jason didn’t have my number.) Strange how he’d come here twice in quick succession to prepare for this broadcast. Wasn’t that the job of underlings? Something more important must be riding on this broadcast. It’d been a year since I’d seen him last, at Dave’s funeral. Those photos Gillian had used for torturing me had shown the truth: Jason had indeed grown a little sturdier, a little more reliable; but the essence he oozed hadn’t changed. When he looked at me, did he see a difference? That Jason saw nothing to regret was obvious, but in his eyes had I merely let myself go more than a little, or was my essential ooze now also different? Which changes, of the two of us, were the worst?
“Listen, I know how awkward this is for you,” Jason continued, still making no effort to sit, “but I need to ask you a favour.” He offered neither small talk nor chit-chat. He knew me too well; silence was my one strength and his only fear, and, wasting time with meaningless words only granted me time to strengthen my nerves to say no to whatever he was about to require of me.
I hardened both my ears and my heart. I didn’t want to get pulled in again. I’d escaped last time simply because Jason had spat me out. I couldn’t succumb again; I didn’t stand a chance.
“I’m busy writing my first autobiography,” he said.
That was unexpected. “Your autobiography?” I repeated, unsure if I’d heard correctly. First autobiography, he’d said. First. Only a chosen one like Jason could be both granted more than one life and also know it. The Ralph I knew could barely put pen to paper.
“You’re actually writing it?” I asked. “How do you find the time?” I quickly added, hoping to smother my rudeness.
“Well,” Jason answered smoothly, apparently mistaking my tone for one of amazement, “I’m getting a little help. My publisher has set me up with someone who does the groundwork, and I add the finishing touches.”
“So we’re talking a biography, then?” I asked. I took another sip of my juice and refused to meet his eye.
“No, I told you, an autobiography. It’s about me.”
“Yes,” I answered, “but if someone else writes it, it’s technically a biography.” I knew I sounded pedantic but I couldn’t stop myself. This was how it’d ended, with me being finicky about things he treated so glibly. I knew ghost-writers were often employed to help with autobiographies, but to my mind it was cheating.
“I think the publishers know what they’re doing,” came the lofty reply. “Now, I was hoping you could give back any letters of mine. Usually I photocopy all my correspondence, but for some reason...”
“Thanks for ordering for me. Sorry I’m late.” Like my ever-sought Grey Nurse Henryk materialized when most needed beside me, pulled out a chair and sat down. Before I had a chance to say anything, Jim appeared bearing two large bowls, a tea towel over his shoulder.
“Here you go,” he said, placing a bowl of steaming pasta before me. “I saw you come in earlier, young Stephanie, but I was playing around in the kitchen. A new recipe I’m trying. I’m interested in what you think.” After tap-dancing across my table the old man’s words filled the courtyard and spilt back into cafe, out the door and towards the beach.
“Smells delicious,” said Henryk. “Did you order coffee, by the way,” he asked, looking at me. “No? Thoughtful of you to wait. Two lattes, when you get a chance, Jim. Strong.”
“Of course,” said Jim, “the usual, for both of you. I’ll send Louisa over with them right away. Not a problem.” Considering his age, he moved with remarkable speed back inside.
“Do you mind?” said Jason. “We’re having a private conversation.”
“Really?” said Henryk, leaning back in his chair and looking at Jason as if seeing him for the first time. “I could hear you inside the cafe. Well, you we could all hear. Stephanie here, her side of the conversation was more discrete. An Audrey Hepburn to a Jim Carey. Besides, we’re having a private date.” He rose and offered a hand. “Henryk, by the way. And you would be?”
Audrey Hepburn. I’d just been compared to Audrey Hepburn. The coldness sleeping in my bones receded, a little. Plus Jim knew my name.
Jason’s perfect countenance faulted only briefly on taking the offered hand. I couldn’t decide if he was as confused as I was, or merely angry.
“Jason,” he answered, turning on his smile. “Perhaps you’d like an autograph?”
Henryk took his time to sit down. “No, why...”
“I don’t have any letters,” I said quickly to cover Henryk’s reply.
“But everyone knows to keep all my correspondence,” Jason answered, the corners of his smile fading as he turned back to me.
“Then maybe I’m not everyone,” I continued, “because you never sent me any letters. Not even a postcard.”
“This is delicious,” said Henryk, wiping his mouth.
Following his wise example, I took a forkful of the homemade pasta, and prawns, and cream, and cracked black pepper. It was both delicious and strangely perfect for this hour of the day.
“Well, if I was you I’d just eat a little. It looks too rich for our little Stephanie,” came the expert opinion.
But I’d stopped listening, preferring instead to breath in the steam and aromas from the pasta. There was something else in the heavenly smell, something I couldn’t quite pick. Something more divine than being belittled to mere correspondence. Who else would think to photocopy their letters in the hope that the world should desire to read them someday? In the belief they’d be important.
“But I send letters to everyone,” Jason’s continued, his voice a little louder, the tone more insistent. “Why, with Paula,” he said but then paused as I finally turned my attention from the pasta and looked at him through the steam rising from my bowl. It seemed as if in quickly scanning his list of set responses, he failed to find one appropriate for this new Stephanie, who didn’t seem quite so compliant as the old. Is that the difference Jason saw when he now looked at me? I hoped so, though in all probability he simply thought me churlish, set on punishing him for breaking my heart as woman were want to do.
“I believe congratulations are in order,” I said flatly through the steam. Maybe my words might be coated with the scents of prawns and cream and garlic. “Gillian tells me you’re engaged,” I continued. This was his one chance. His one last chance. To say I was the one. The only one. “Congratulations.”
“Gillian? Oh, you know how the poor girl exaggerates. It was just a silly misunderstanding. Still, one does one’s best to move on. Now about those letters. I’m sure I can remember...”
“I don’t have any.”
“You what – I mean, do you mind looking through your things? Just in case?”
“She said she didn’t have any,” Henryk said, and although he spoke softly between mouthfuls of pasta, the quiet strength of his voice demanded attention. People might not turn their heads as he entered a room, but as he spoke his presence could not be denied. I now sat beside a knight errant, or a samurai who had abandoned an unjust lord to do good and rescue the defenceless, when it would be much easier to go the library and finish an overdue thesis. Someone who takes one not for the team, but for the world, although it would bring them neither fame nor fortune.
Jason finally took his hand from the back of the chair. “Well, if you find any,” he said. “You’ll be coming to my presentation – I’ll see you there.”
“I work nights, Ralph,” I said. “I doubt I’ll make it.”
With the curt nod which of an outraged aristocrat, my ex-lover turned and left.
Henryk sat in silence beside me, eating. Slurping through his meal, he seemed oblivious to my awkwardness. I wondered if he really hadn’t recognised Jason, or preferred simply to annoy him.
After a few moments Henryk put down his fork. “You’re allowed to cry,’ he said. “Or scream. Whatever.”
“Don’t,” I said without looking anywhere near him. “Or I will.” I dabbled at the cream running down my chin. Such Audrey Hepburn elegance. “Thanks, by the way,” I added, watching the turtle fall asleep on a log.
“For what? All I did was simply butt in where I had no business. I’ve seen that man around the Uni a few times, and there’s something about him I just don’t like. Just a little too aware that everyone is watching him, and enjoying it a little too much. I popped in here to check on Grand-dad, and saw Jason standing there, looking for all the world as if giving you a lecture. You didn’t have the look of an adoring fan.”
I took a few more mouthfuls of my pasta. Strange that Jason had become such a fixture at the Uni, so far away from where he lived and worked. And I’d only seen him now. “Your grand-dad,” I said. “Your grand-dad’s Jim?”
“Of course,” said Henryk. “Surely you realise I’m related to about half the people in this town? Just count the fingers to work out which ones I’m related to.”
I laughed. “Silly me. I should’ve known. And – well, you did recognise him?”
Henryk smiled. “Of course. Despite being a philosopher I have been known to watch mindless TV in my time. But it was kind of fun pretending not to. Childish, but that made it all the more fun.”
“Three coffees,” said Jim, putting them on the table. “Not for that awful man who’s just left, but because I’ve decided to join you.” He pulled out a chair and sat down, patting my hand as he did so. “I was about to come and rescue you, my dear, from that horrid man when Henryk here arrived and volunteered.”
“I take it you also don’t like him.”
“He’s been here a few times,” Jim answered, “and I just don’t like his attitude. Obviously expects us to fawn all over him. Plus he calls me gramps. Never met the guy in my life, and he has the gall to act like he’s my grandson.” He picked up his coffee. “I’ve decided I’m off duty,” he said. “Which you can do, when you own a place. So, since I can’t rescue you from that man, I’ll have to rescue you from young Henryk here. Cheers,” and with that Jim raised his coffee as a toast.
“The pasta’s delicious,” I said. “There’s something in it, something I can’t place. Probably because I’m a hopeless cook.”
Jim laughed, letting loose a booming noise which bounced off the walls. “Apricot liqueur,” he chortled. “Which I make myself, from my own tree. Grown from a seed brought back from the war.”
I looked at Henryk, who laughed in his turn. “It’s true,” he said. “The tree’s in our backyard. The trick is to slide the bottle over the apricot when it’s little more than a bud, then let the fruit grow inside. That way you get a whole apricot floating in a sea of liqueur. Delicious.”
“I feel like I’m in the middle of some post-modernist painting,” I said, rubbing my eyes. Everything I knew as a surety had slipped away. Ninety-year old men making lattes, let alone owning a café and making-up recipes; a knight errant who appeared from nowhere to save me and then carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened; and most strange of all, I’d spoken to Jason in an unknown way, and made him walk off in a huff. Now a story of an apricot surviving a war which had torn a world apart.
“You should try growing up in this family,” Henryk said. “Reality becomes an optional extra.”
“If my grandson is bothering you, just tell him to go away. He’s always butting in where he’s not wanted. Has he asked you out yet?”
“Jim!” said Henryk, looking shocked.
“Don’t look at me like that,” his grandfather replied. “You’ve already wasted a few days.”
I took a sip of coffee. “This is really good,” I said. “I can’t believe the years I’ve wasted drinking instant.”
“Never waste the years, little one,” Jim said. “Took me a war to learn that. Henryk, here, he’s always rescuing maidens in distress. Not that it gets him anywhere. How long have you known this girl, and what have you done?”
“Can you tell me about the apricots?” I interrupted. I didn’t want to know about the other maidens.
“Ah, the apricot tree,” sighed Jim. He cast a knowing look at his grandson. “You know how it is. Middle of a war, and you find yourself in an orchard, eating apricots. I’d shot more than a few Germans that morning, and slit the throats of another two. It seemed important at the time, until I sat under the tree and caught my breath as the battle swirled away. I decided, should I live to tell the tale, to bring a seed home and grow my own tree. Simple as that. Whenever I have some of the liqueur, I give thanks for being here. A strange bugger, war. You do terrible things in the hope it’s for some greater good, but that’s just rubbish they feed you with every meal. Only those who stay at home ever want to fight in another.”
Jim took a sip of his coffee. “Henryk here tells me you’re a doctor.”
I pushed back my chair to turn and stare at my knight errant, who at least had the grace to look sheepish.
“It wasn’t that hard,” Henryk said. “You see, part of my job is delivering some mail overnight. One that I popped in your pigeon-hole was addressed to Dr. Allen. Not that strange, really; took a few hours before it twigged that, if you had your PhD, you wouldn’t be working nights. I mean, that’s why people do nights. To get their PhD’s. A bit slow of me, really. So, I thought, what sort of doctor? A Google search, and voila.”
“Google search? You Googled me? And got an answer?”
“Of course! Surely you realise if you don’t exist on Google, you don’t exist.”
“I exist on Google?”
“A photo came up. Of you and Herr Jason. It said you were a junior doctor at, well I can’t remember the hospital.”
“Oh,” was the best I could manage.
“My dear,” interrupted Jim, leaning over and patting my hand once more, “you must forgive my grandson. Once he comes across a question, he won’t give up.” He gave Henryk a glare over his glasses. “If only you were that persistent about the damsels you rescue. Someone else always seems to get the thankyous.”
“I’m not upset,” I hastily reassured them. “I’m just, well, shocked at how easily it all unravels. I came here to get away, and I can’t even keep the most basic secret.” I looked from Henryk to Jim and grinned.
“My dear,” Jim said, “you look exhausted. You really need some sleep.”
Of course I needed some sleep. My mind had stopped working somewhere around learning Jim was Henryk’s grandfather. Anything seemed probable, if not entirely possible, after that. Even the fact Jason kept coming here, let alone materialise by my table as I sat hiding in the sun. I hadn’t the energy to start pondering that one. Not to mention the fact I’d said no to him.
Henryk pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. “Come,” he said, “I’ll walk you to your car. That Jason might be lurking outside.”
I smiled at the thought of Jason being reduced to lurking, but said nothing, instead following meekly into the café, pausing only at the cashier.
“Oh don’t be silly,” Henryk said as I reached for my wallet. “It’s Jim’s pleasure.”
“No,” I replied, “Don’t you see? I like it here. I want to come back, but if your family pays for me, well, it just makes it awkward, and I’ll stop liking it and stop coming back.”
Henryk looked at me a moment. “You know,” he finally said, “good argument. I like it. You’d have a future in philosophy.” He took the bill from the waitress before I had a chance. “In that case,” he continued, “let me. If I hadn’t dabbled away in the library I’d have been here earlier, and saved you the ignominy of young Jason.”
“I saw him out there,” the waitress gushed. “Do you really know him?” she said to me.
“Can we really know anyone?” Henryk parried, bestowed a withering glare in her direction. Handing over some money, he steered me out the door. “Jim tried to match-make the two of us when she first started,” he continued in a more normal tone when we reached the footpath. “You can see why he failed. He’s always trying to pair me off with someone. You must forgive him if he embarrasses you.”
“Oh,” I offered, a little deflated. “I assumed you were related to her. Everyone else seems to be. Related to you, that is. Not her.” God, but I was babbling.
Henryk just smiled and offered me a gentle but unassuming arm. “Now, I can’t see your car,” he said. “Do you ever park close to where you’re going, or were you hiding from someone else?”
“Actually, I was,” I answered. Placing my hand in the crook of his elbow, I led the way down the street.
Henryk raised an eyebrow. “Always, another mystery,” he said, then lapsed into silence. After a few steps he stopped. “Listen to that,” he said.
“What?” All I could hear was the call of gulls falling from the sky.
“The birds,” said Henryk. “They’re different. Something’s up.”
I listened again; he was right. A strange twittering now filled the air, almost urgent in tone. Even the gulls sounded different, now that I listened properly. Just as I heard them, all fell quiet.
“Up there,” Henryk said, pointing to the sky. “Can you see him?”
“Is it an eagle?” But I really didn’t need to ask. The dark silhouette drifted so effortlessly across the sky, barely a wing tip moving. “How incredibly high it is,” I said.
With no obvious effort the bird circled ever higher, before drifting out of view.
“Are you working tonight?” Henryk asked as he stared into the sky.
“Yes, I have a few more shifts before my week is up.” We started walking again. “And you?”
“Yes,” he said. “Like you, a few more shifts. Only, I’m never quite sure where I am working. Seems to change to a different section every few nights. Ah, I believe this is your car,” said Henryk. “There she lies. We have reached the end of our quest.” As he had a few mornings ago, he took my bag from me as I opened the door. Only in the process he kissed my hand with a nonchalant gallantry. “Perhaps we’ll cross paths tonight,” he said before shutting the door. Then once more he walked away as if I never was, yet for a brief moment I had existed.