“In the course of a life it’s normal, you understand, completely normal, to forget nearly everything.” Sigmund offered article one of his philosophy, shrugged and held out his open palms.
“In the course of a life it’s normal, you understand, that some things stand out. They appear as bright, gold tesserae such as you can find in the dome of St Peter’s, or as coloured bonbons. Or perhaps as mountains or berries or first kisses. Such things you remember. Well, a man remembers the beauty that opens his eyes. He does.” Sigmund continued.
“How could I know this… this…this unknown would be a sort of herald? Of course I paid him no attention. He appeared as just another panama hat and blazer to me.” His grey old eyes fluttered, revealing a lingering sense of amazement.
“Gilbert, I tell you, I’ve seen hundreds. I have learned to forget them all. They are so flagrant, usually. Yes, that’s the word. They are flagrant. They bring nothing and expect everything. I have learned to serve them and make sure they pay their bills, that’s all.”
“We see so many gamblers through here. Speculators, shills and brokers; they fill the place sometimes. Well, so it seems. They like to come here. I call them gamblers. But they are all-sorts. They like the seafood and the wines, Gilbert. They want to make it in the morning and spend it at lunch. Well, who wouldn’t?”
“They want to make money and love in roughly equal parts. Those two, they make good friends, but even better enemies, if you ask me.” Sigmund sighed. “People want to punt. That’s why they’re here, to punt that things will fall their way, that money or love will come and settle in their laps. Well, who can say they’re wrong to think that way.”
“Strangely, I do remember him. I don’t know why. He was not bright or aromatic. He seemed unremarkable. But from courtesy, Gilbert, only from courtesy, I showed him to this table. This very one, by the window, overlooking the garden. It’s charming. The lilies. The lotus. The jasmine. The herring bone pattern in the little bricks, lying on edge that way…a placid joy in a mundane and mercenary world, Gilbert.”
“ It is a cool refuge for hope. Yes, shade in a hot and thirsty world, don’t you think?” Sigmund looked with affection into his small glade and sighed. “I showed him the usual, you understand, just the usual welcome…”
He entered through this door, from the sunlit pavement, through the front portal. He was light on his feet and took the steps up to the landing without a hurry. The pale, Paros-grey marble of the door frame and stairs contrasted with his blue jacket – a deep blue, a navy blue, in linen, with a pale blue shirt, achieved in cotton – and the hat, a woven straw hat, which he had removed as he entered and held low by his side with one hand.
His eyes were taking in more than they were giving out, so, in the half-light, it was not obvious what colour they were or what expression they carried. He was a tall and lean proposition. That’s the best one can say of him, he gave away so little in his features or his posture. He could have escaped from the pages of any good magazine, lithography rendered on quality paper.
Sigmund showed his guest in to the mahogany enclave of delicacies and culinary prizes. “Here, please, allow me, Sir, perhaps this table? Beside the terrace, you see, it is a private table. And there is the garden. Will you be dining alone, or do you care to wait a little, Sir?”
“Aw, I’m alone today, my friend, thanks just the same,” he said. He removed his jacket and passed it with his hat to Sigmund. “Here, would you be so kind, thank you,” and then helped himself to his chair. He eased into it as if it belonged to him, in the way that feet learn to covet shoes. “I’d be very pleased to have some water if that’s possible,” he said, his throat as dry as newsprint too, it seemed. Perhaps his accent was Irish or perhaps not. But his speech was round and tender, humble – cured, you could say.
“There was one thing I noticed about him. I thought nothing of it at first. You know, I thought it was a mark left by his hat. Well, at first, that’s what I thought. Those hats, you know, they have a heavy band inside, to hold them on. I thought the band had left a bruise, a swelling. His temple. He had this patch on his temple, a ridge or a scar. He didn’t touch it, but I thought it seemed to pulse, as if the blood ran through it. Red? White? Pink? Lilac? Blue? I don’t know. It seemed to pulse. Whenever he was reading or thinking. It was charged when he was with his friend, the Professor.”
Sigmund was holding the menu and was on the point of opening it for Gilbert when he decided not to. Instead, he made his preferred speech:
“My dear friend, I know you love mussels. We have the finest today. They are plump, full. They are bursting. It’s the right time. And the sauce, superb, I promise. I promise you will be delighted, and the bread, it is the best as usual. I will recommend the Chablis today. We have a new supplier. It’s grand. The vintage was the best for many years. You will see. With the frankness of the sauce and the intense plump bites, the salt and the garlic and the herbs, I want you to have the best. Considering everything, please, the best. It will be my pleasure. I haven’t seen anything like these since Old Sebastian retired.” Sigmund insisted, his smile as wide as his red bowtie.
“Of course, of course. You know what you have,” Gilbert approved, keen at the prospect of Cockburn mussels.
“It looked like a wound that had closed but not properly healed, like a burn,” Sigmund pronounced. “It was several colours and had a life of its own, as if it needed some ice or some dressing.”
Sigmund left the table to take command of the bar while Ellis picked up the menu and glanced through it. But he was not interested. He couldn’t bear to think about it but had decided he must eat. He would order something – anything – some crab. He thought crab would be as good as anything. Mandurah crab: Blue and Sweet and Light. Yes. Crab and ginger with lemon grass. A coulis. The idea of coulis eluded Ellis, but he didn’t care. He had no hunger.
Ellis read through the menu a second time, to check the dishes. Reading, indexing the flavours, he noticed the lemongrass vapours from the kitchen and the jasmine from the garden. The ginger smacked. The scents filled his nostrils as if for the first time, piercing, like bright pins striking the interior membranes of his nose.
He inhaled. Without thinking he drew in through his nose. He steeped his lungs and felt his vents open, filling; lifting his shoulders back. He sucked the aromas in; felt them dilate inside his torso. He felt himself growing lighter and lighter and thinner and thinner; and then, when he felt like nothing more than his own memory, he felt the scents lift him, body and soul; felt them lift him up and hold him; enthroned in space; rigging him a good three inches above the upholstery. He waited, silent, breathless, poised and stifled and stilled; lungs filled and nose sucked tight-shut. Several seconds passed and then several more. Then, as if by an act of forgiveness, as silently as he had been lifted up, Ellis was returned to the chaise.
“My Lord. Whatever was that?” Ellis exhaled and felt completely transparent, as if, were it not for his shirt and trousers, sunlight would penetrate right through him. It was not the first time he had experienced absolute emptiness. But this was the first moment that he had actually floated in thin air. He felt as flimsy as a wish.
“My, oh my. Whatever has happened now?” Ellis was utterly perplexed.
Sigmund returned to the table with a decanter of chilled water, some ice, some slices of lemon and a tall glass. “Sir, please allow me,” and he then prepared a drink for his arid guest.
“Crabs, Sir. A very good choice, Sir, they’re from the Inlet, the Peel Inlet, and are very sweet at this time of year.”
“I’m sure they’ll be very good. I know the Inlet. I know the headwaters and the fishers. I’ve fished there myself, but in the past, before, before all the works were even thought of. It was a different time. Going back to the fall – to djabalariny as I know it. Oh, that is a long story. But the crabs will be just right for me today. I do need another glass of that ice water. Thank you, that’s grand.” Ellis was babbling.
He felt the lightness returning and wondered if he would lose his seating once more. He felt again an implacable fatigue; sagging yawns through his muscles and drought in his cracking bones. He felt for his heart with his ribs; felt everywhere inside his pale hull, and listened, listened, ears unstopped for some beat or murmur. At that moment, Ellis felt he might dissipate into absolute nothingness and reached eagerly for the water in the hope that he may quench all, and gulped and gulped and gulped. He gasped and held his throat with one hand, held on for dear gravity.
Ellis thought of his petition. He needed help. He was short of language now and needed to borrow some vocabulary. He felt his imagination taking him by the hand in the direction of his sorrows and his archives and felt his body thinning out again and his shoulders begin to hover. “Oh, No,” he whispered to himself.
“No, no, no.” He calmed himself, soothing both his questions and his answers with a posy of hope, which he had noticed growing in the courtyard next to him. “Oh, I must visit her. I must explain what has gone before and ask for her help.”
A waiter, young, sprightly, smooth as fluid and twice as gleaming, appeared at the table. “Sir, your crabs. They are still steaming. Please allow me.” She bowed so slightly and placed the dish in front of the silent Ellis, who just managed to maintain his seat while the young woman attended to him, showing him every grace and consideration, opening his napkin and splitting the shells with pointed shears and then cracking the claws with silver pliers, serving Ellis with swift dexterity.
Ellis, his mouth emptied of everything, sucked mercilessly on the crab while the juices ran down his grateful chin. He felt supped and lipped. He felt poured and licked. And he felt opportunity. For the first time since his return, he felt a semblance of a chance.