They collapse into my cab in a bouffant of net petticoats, tight bodices and Dior perfume.
“Ithaca Road, please,” Miss Powder Blue says.
I glance in the rear view mirror and marvel at my cargo of female beauty. Hasn’t it always been so? We men are defenceless.
Miss Pink Sateen is the prettiest but I rather like the brunette in broderie anglaise. She speaks and I am struck with that old familiar feeling. “I think we are too dressed up,” she says softly.
“It’s Elizabeth Bay. We are not too dressed up,” her friend hisses.
As I pull away from the gutter, the gum trees rustle and the late summer sun kisses the top of the houses in Lavender Street. The harbour bridge hums and the girls whisper in the back seat. I can feel the heat of the day ebb from my cab. I want to close it up after the girls jump out. Trap this moment to live off for days. As I drive I remember Ithaca Road as it once was. The cool, square houses and the blue water. In particular a deep garden and a verandah with a small return that I used to kip in for the night. I breathe out my Peter Stuyvesant and watch the fare tick over.
“Brian Paignton is going to be there,” says Pink Sateen.
“I’ve got my sights set higher than that,” remarks Powder Blue.
“We’ll have to contend with the Kambala crowd.” All three groan.
“I’m determined to meet someone tonight,” declares Blue. Not when she expects to and not if I can help it, I decide. I park the cab not far from their destination, inches from an FX Holden in front and a blue Zephyr behind. Pink pays me and they stand for a moment looking up at the balcony of the old house, the steep rise of flats behind and a Cook Island pine shadowing both. Laughter drifts down as the girls begin to ascend.
Up, up you go girls. Your destiny awaits. I pause and let things settle. Count the minutes for the hostess to get through her introductions, for the hors d’oeuvres to be served and the years to fall away.
“Zach! Is it really you?” Mrs Hungerford studies me. I can tell she is wondering what to do with me. Where can she put a taxi cab driver? In with the bankers or the doctors? Maybe the poet won’t mind. I look around but can’t see him.
“Can I steal your balcony for a few hours? I’ll just sit and contemplate your view.”
She is confused. “If someone needs…”
“Of course, I’ll drive them.” She is immediately relieved. I am here as a standby taxi driver. Nothing more. Never mind the night, twenty three years ago, we spent in her bedroom. I wonder for a moment if it is still painted white, the curtains like Scheherazade billowing gently on us. Do they still billow? Does she?
Suddenly her face brightens. “Can I send one or two guests to you if I’m desperate?”
“The lost ones?”
“There are not so many of them now, thank God.” She pauses. “Time passes,” she comments blithely but frowns when she studies my face. My hostess doesn’t wait for my reply.
I spend about an hour on the balcony. For most of that time Miss Broderie Anglaise is a smiling wallflower. No accounting for tastes. She is worth all the others together, rolled up in a Persian carpet. I can’t stop myself from turning and observing her. She drifts beautifully. Young men in grey suits with baggy legs drift towards her but don’t stay talking long. I can see this happening for years. Most of the time I let things take their course. Just simply watch the patterns unfold and tweak here and there. I’m not as old as Methuselah but I have the luxury of the long view.
The problem is, keeping my enthusiasm up. I’ve grown tired of marvelling at how small the points of divergence are. The difference between two people meeting, finding they have something to keep them together and then staying together. The last part, of course, is a challenge but at least it is grounded in the everyday. The first part is the stuff of dreams and where I do my best work. A wrong address, a crossed line, a missed flight. A sudden remark that lifts an eyebrow. A mood that is uncharacteristic and suggests the unexpected. A spilled drink. Sometimes it is just one word.
The sky is black now and sprinkled with stars that wink in the bay. As I stand up and stretch, my hostess brings me a White Russian. She hasn’t forgotten. I smile at her and take a sip. Before I look up again she has disappeared back inside. So I may not be in luck tonight, although I know her husband has been dead since ’44. It was a bad year to be with the RAAF. So many lost and nothing I, or others like me, could do about it.
I put my drink down and think about that one word. It’s not sky, or luggage or moon or rose. I close my eyes and see a beautiful stretch of coast road, a headland and a smashed car. An officer and his dead wife. I hold the word in the air and then glance at Miss Broderie Anglaise. She is at the table helping herself to some punch when he walks in. Late. Nervous and adjusting his tie. He is the man who holds that word inside him; who has been cutting his teeth on it for too long. It is just as I thought. She glances up as he arrives but he quickly looks away. I know what he’s thinking. She’s too pretty. She looks as though she’s rich and beyond his reach. He hasn’t realised yet that she is standing alone.
She is aware of him though. His country boy looks complete with cowlick and broad shoulders, only a year or so older than herself. As he looks in despair around the room, Broderie spills her punch and curses. He turns with a handkerchief like a true gentleman.
“I’m so clumsy.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Thank you.” She pats discreetly at her chest.
“You look really nice.”
“Thank you.” She pauses. “Can I get you anything? The smoked oysters are really nice.”
“I’ve never had them before,” he admits. He moves closer to the table.
“There they are,” she points.
He sees them on the platter.
“They’re wrapped up in bread.”
“I’m not good at these things.”
“It’s hard when you don’t know many people.”
“I meant the oysters,” he says as he struggles with one. He curses to himself. He has nearly lost the moment, but luckily she is looking at him sympathetically. He pauses. “Yes, meeting so many people too.”
She smiles at him and he feels a little more confident. “My mother is a friend of Mrs. Hungerford,” he says.
“She’s got a lovely house, hasn’t she? I went to high school with her daughter.” Broderie points to a vision in scarlet.
“Yes,” she agrees. “My name is Lucy.”
He takes her hand. “Sorry, I should have said. My name is Charlie and I think you’re much prettier.” He is relaxing a little and has helped himself to some punch. “So you grew up in Sydney?”
“No. I grew up in a place called Lorne, on the coast.”
And there is the word. That one simple word. The blood has drained from his face. He turns away for a moment and she believes he has lost interest. People always seem to, I can feel her thinking. But he rallies.
“It’s in Victoria,” he says numbly.
“Yes. Do you know it?”
I wait for him to choose the right answer for the two of them. The carpe diem answer. And he does.
“It’s where my brother killed himself during the war. He was on his honeymoon and the tyre blew out on their car. She was killed instantly.”
I glance in to the crowded dining room again. They are in the corner nearest to the balcony and she has moved towards him. Suddenly she straightens up.
“My dad never got over the disgrace,” he continues, but she is only half listening.
“Was it at the Grand Pacific Hotel?” Her mind is racing ahead to the past. “My grandparents still run the hotel.”
“What?” He’s confused and says for the hundredth time, “It was a cowardly thing to do.”
“No, it wasn’t.” She has gripped his arm. “It was because of her luggage.” She pauses. “He sort of rallied after it happened and then there was the mix-up.”
He moves closer to Lucy and grips her other arm. “You need to tell me what happened!”
And she does, whilst food is eaten and more drinks are poured. They are alone in the elegant drawing room. No one else matters. No one else will ever matter but children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The lamps and the chandelier have extinguished the stars. I finish my White Russian and leave.
Debbie Robson loves to write fiction set in the first sixty years of the last century. Zach is a relatively new character in her short fiction and she is enjoying getting to know him. This is one of six short stories featuring a disgraced angel caught between two worlds.