A Meeting in the Park – A Short Story Revival

Another example of anecdotal sludge snatched from the jaws of File Shredder in the nick of time.  I always liked this one:

“I think you’re very beautiful.”  Martin said.

Alana felt the hot scarlet of a blush as it crept up her graceful neck, the way it always did whenever she was surprised by a compliment, no matter how clumsily it was delivered or by whom.   “Thank you.  I wish I deserved that.”  She said with a shy smile.

“I saw you and I thought…” Martin hesitated, gathering his strength; “I thought I must speak.  I simply had to speak.  I often walk Rufus in this park, but I don’t remember seeing you here before.”

“No.  I don’t suppose you do.  I’m new here, you see.  We just moved in to the new apartments over there.  Your dog is very clever.”

“Yes.  You can pet him if you like.  He’s extremely gentle.”  

Alana crouched in front of the fair-haired Labrador, offering her delicate long fingers for Rufus to get her scent before she gently scratched his ear.  “You’re a clever boy!”  She praised him.  “Without you I would have lost my diary.  Thank you.”  And Rufus pressed his head against her hand, wagging his tail furiously.  She looked up at the young man.  “I wish I had a treat for him.”

“Oh please don’t worry.  He’s a natural retriever, you see.  It isn’t a trick to Rufus; he just can’t help himself.  He saw you’d left your book on the bench when you walked away and he went straight to it.  It’s what he does.”

“Well, I’m very grateful.”

“I wonder…” the young man was tongue-tied again.  “I wonder if someone as lovely as you would ever consider going out to dinner with someone like me?”

Alana smiled her demurest smile.   He was very uncertain of himself, this young man, and some might have thought him a little creepy, but she recognized the loneliness in him and understood.  He was good-looking, if you took away those heavy-rimmed glasses, made him trim those lank strands of black hair.  “I would love to.”  She said. 

They met at Sardi’s on the Quayside, where they feasted on lobster that had been landed that morning and drank white wine from Bourgogne.  He learned that Alana had an elder brother and they had arrived in town only a week ago.  She learned what she had first suspected:  that Martin lived alone in a small bedsit overlooking the park.  He was lonely, she decided. 

“You don’t have any relatives?”

“Not here.  They live up-country.”

“You don’t get to see them very often?”

“Scarcely at all.  My father and I, we argue every time we meet.”

“So when did you last see him?”

“Oh – years.”

Martin was a software engineer.  “I’m sort of freelance.  I don’t get much work these days…”

“I bet you’re very good…”

“Things move so fast – I don’t keep up so well.”

Alana smiled consolingly, placing her hand on his.  “Martin, I can help you.”

Martin walked her home, and by the time they reached her door he was clinging to her hand as though his life depended upon it.  He looked up to her windows to see there was a light shining there.  “Your mum and your brother – I expect they’re home.”  He said wistfully.

“I think they are.”  She said.

“Will I see you again?”

“What about tomorrow evening, when you’re walking Rufus in the park?  I’d love to join you then.”

He smiled, comforted by the knowledge she had not been bored by him, that his conversations surrounding the swift evolution of software had somehow entertained her.

As if she were reading his mind, she said:  “Thank you for a lovely dinner and your company Martin.  It’s been fun.”

He waited, expecting her to turn, disappear through the door.  She waited, filling his eyes with hers.   Impulsive?  No, he was never that. So she leaned towards him, and kissed him, almost chastely: almost, but not quite.  He walked away before he had to admit he was crying.  

The hours to the following evening passed very slowly for Martin.  They were punctuated by impossible hopes and dreams which floated around the ethereal image of Alana.  Alana in the blue dress she had worn last night, Alana in white wedding weeds, Alana in – he could only dare himself to peep – nothing at all.  Guilt consumed him, anxiety possessed him, and fear (that she would not keep their assignation in the park) almost drove him to distraction.

He reached his habitual walk early, with Rufus in enthusiastic tow, but lingered.  He positioned himself upon a bench with a view of the park gates while Rufus fidgeted at his feet, eager to be walked.  From where he sat he could see Alana approach, watching her even, faun-like stride through the railings.  The evening was warm enough for the short green skirt she wore and the street quiet enough for the click of her heels to be audible.

Martin spotted the man in the red bomber jacket almost before Alana did. The man was young, well built with a strong face and a bold, confident stride – everything Martin was not.   He was walking towards Alana, he knew her.  A thousand tiny needles of apprehension pricked at the back of Martin’s eyes as he watched them meet, as they performed a ritual of hand gestures in pursuit of their hum of conversation.  HE was someone she would want to be with; the kind of man a girl like that deserved.   HE would have a decent income, a regular job, property, a fast car…

Alana saw Martin as soon as she turned away from the man.  She gave a quick glance over her shoulder to see if the man was watching before she waved cheerfully.   “You’re early!”   She said as she hurried towards him.  “Come on, Martin, let’s walk!”

He gave her one of his bleakest, most defeated smiles.  But he did not ask her about the man.  He dared not.  Alana did not volunteer any information; instead she snuggled cozily into his side, her arm through his as though they were already lovers, while Rufus trotted faithfully behind.  For what seemed an hour neither would break the silence, each just happy to bathe in the other’s company as a red sun set slowly over the distant hill.  At last, resting on the memorial benches by the lake, Martin summoned up all his courage.  With shaking fingers he took her chin as gently as he could and turned her to him.  Then, trying not to breathe, he kissed Alana on the lips.

She sighed, saying softly:  “Not bad.  Now let’s try that again.”  And she returned his kiss.  And she taught him how mouths could explore, and hands excite.

After a while, when his first lessons had been learned, Martin’s disbelief would no longer let him remain silent.  He asked:  “What is it?”

Alana rested her head upon his shoulder contentedly:  “What is what?”

He hesitated because he knew it was a question he should not ask:  “You know what I see in you.  What is it – what can you possibly – see in me?

She turned her head to his, so close he could feel the warm waft of her breath on his cheek, hear the tremulous edge in her voice.  “Perhaps I see much more than you do.  There’s something about you – and Rufus.  Don’t forget Rufus.  Perhaps vulnerability turns me on.”  She squeezed his hand.  “Come on, my little man, I want to take you home.”

So they walked again, retracing the steps that had directed them to their tryst, consumed with laughter and promise.   At the park gates, Martin found himself pausing to look up at Alana’s apartment windows.   “They’re not in tonight.”  She whispered.   “It’s just you and me, Martin.   Come on, let’s hurry!”

Rufus caught his human companions’ mood and pulled them heartily on his leash across the road and along the pavement on the further side,  To his own amazement, Martin was no longer afraid of himself.  He matched Alana’s pace as they hurried to her door, and almost skipped beside her on the wide stone stairs.  Inside the lobby of her apartment he took her in his arms and made her laugh at his ineptitude as he rained kisses on her cheeks, her neck, her arms…  Rufus snuffled, Rufus whimpered, Rufus growled.

The room was dark inside – dark and warm.  A faint, sweet scent filled the air.

“Don’t.”  She whispered, very close.  “Don’t turn on the lights.”

It was Alana who shook now, whose hands were quaking in the grip of her desire, the certain knowledge of his need. 

“You can touch me, Martin.  Touch me darling – I won’t break.  Come on now, don’t wait….don’t, don’t wait.”

It was surprising, in no subtle way, the lance of warmth that pierced his heart.  It found its path with so little pain, so little resistance he scarcely knew it had happened.  Alana was trembling in his arms and crying out her ecstasy.  He was shaking in hers; but it was not joy that made him so.   Making his final, desperate clutch at life his eyes took in the room, now lit; the table he was being thrust back upon, the long, thin knife in Alana’s hand.  And he clattered down beside the saw, and died.

#

“Hi!”  Alana said, pleased despite herself.  “Isn’t it a little early to come calling?”

“You settling in OK?”  Asked the young man in the red bomber jacket.  “I’m kind of interested, being your upstairs neighbor and all.”

“Yes.”  Alana leant against her doorpost.  “I’m fine.”

“Got yourself a dog.”  Rufus, a little scared of the young man, was hiding behind Alana’s legs.  She felt, rather than saw or heard, his presence.

“Yes, got him yesterday.  Nice dog.   Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

“I’m from Glasgow.”  Said the young man.  “You can probably tell from my accent.  Forgive me stopping you in the street like last night, but I couldn’t help thinking I knew you from somewhere.  Then I remembered:  you used to have red hair, right?”

“No, I think you have me mixed up with….”

“No, I don’t.  I worked in Glasgow CID, you see, before I transferred down here, and we had a lot of photographs of you.   Never did find your mother or your brother, never could hang anything on you.  Always squeaky clean, always tidy.  There was a lot of washing and tidying going on down here last night, wasn’t there?”

Alana was becoming annoyed:  “Look, I don’t know who you have got me mixed up with, but you’re wrong.  Now will you go away – please?”

“Fine dog, isn’t he?  Good retriever.”

“They always are, this breed.”  Rufus had come to sit at her heel.  She reached down to pet his shoulder.  “So what?”

“So he’s brought you a shoe.”

“Oh Rufus!”  Alana scolded.  “Whatever am I going to do with you?”  She looked down.   And she added in quite a different voice:  “Put it back, Rufus.”

But Rufus trusted the young man and he wanted to give him the shoe as a gift.  First, though, he had to adjust his grip, so he put the shoe down and, to achieve better balance, he picked it up again, holding it by the leg that was still wearing it…

© Frederick Anderson 2015.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Cat

catThis, the man decided, as his eyes took in the comfortably chintzy living room with its gentle colours and mysterious nooks and crannies, was the most unbelievable stroke of luck!  Not an hour since, the lady who owned this house had been a total stranger; a far-off star of loveliness way beyond his reach.

Since he first met this woman he had been besotted.  He had (there was no other word he could honestly use) lusted after her, watching her through her windows from his shop across the street and dreaming.   Only In the silent watches of the night, alone in his room, had he found the words he sought to seduce her and cried them aloud, knowing she would never hear them.  A purity, an innocence defended her, so he could never speak plainly.  His innermost desires, his private yearning, remained a sad and rather squalid secret.

Now?   Now he was sitting in her living room.  Suddenly it was all possible!   Somehow, her cat had turned up in his bookshop, the cat he had seen on her windowsill; the cat she brought into his shop once on one of the occasions when she came to buy a book and her radiance had, as ever, rendered him tongue-tied and stupid.  It had made a home for itself upon his bookshelves and refused to leave.  In the end he had no choice other than to carry it across to its proper home.

She had answered the door.  Her face had lit up with pleasure; no, with joy, when she saw he had brought the cat.  And now he was sitting on her sofa in her front room, drinking her tea.

“I must just leave you for a moment.  I won’t be long.”

Another opportunity was slipping by.  He was alone with the cat, which sat upon the armchair, watching him.

“Oh, Kitty, what a night I could spend with your mistress!”   He enthused.  This was man-talk, of course, but then it was deeply felt; and after all, this was only a cat.  Who was it going to tell?

“Just a night?”  The cat responded.

“Well, alright, two or three nights I suppose.  We’d probably get bored with each other after that.”  He checked himself.  “Wait!  I shouldn’t be telling you this!  I should be telling your mistress.”

“I wouldn’t advise it.”  Said the cat.  “Do you usually conduct your amours at such a noble pitch?”

“Too direct?  A little unsubtle, I concede.”   Something felt odd.  “Just a moment!  Why am I talking to a cat?”

“I am a pretty creature, am I not?  Or so my mistress describes me, after she has called me Furis, which is my given name.  I do not answer to ‘Kitty’, generally.“  The cat stretched, anchoring its claws into the fabric of the armchair.

“You are certainly a very fine cat.”  The man agreed.  “But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should engage in  conversation”

“Why not?  All humans talk to their animals, don’t they?  They see their own image in our eyes and they talk to that.  They even persuade themselves we understand them, a little.”

“And do you?”

“All too well.”  The cat flowed from chair to window sill with liquid grace.  “Sometimes I can see myself as if I were another cat, here in this glass, in the dark time.   We might play with one another and hone our skills for a while, my pretty other self and I, but I know my reflection:  I am not a fool.”

“This is different.  I think you do understand me and I can hear you, quite clearly.  Your mouth does not speak the words, yet your meaning is distinct.  I’ve not experienced this before.”

“Does it make you uneasy?”

“Somewhat.”

“Then stop talking.”  Said the cat, licking a protruding paw with an air of distaste.

The man tucked his legs beside him on the sofa, and lapsed into an edgy, impatient silence, but it was clear to the cat this restraint could not last long.  “Very well;”  it said.  “Let us test your assertion.  Ask me something, and try not to make your question too boorish.”

The man stared, for the cat had formed these words without interrupting its wash.  It had draped itself before the window, relishing the light of a bright spring morning.   Taken aback, he groped for something to say.  “Is that your favourite window?”  He muttered nervously.

“Oh, do speak up!”  Snapped the cat, brusquely.  “ Is this my favourite window sill?  I cannot answer that.  There are two you see –two windows, two sills, two worlds.  With the morning sun upon it this is my choice.   At night the window at the back of the house is where I sit, making my plans for the gardens and fences and waste bins outside the glass that are my world – my night-time world.   There I can chase down the little creatures, to play with them a while before I kill, or sit with my brothers upon the copings, telling tales or serenading the moon.

Now, though the street beyond this window is not of my world the sun is warm:  all the little ones sleep; while here I stretch myself on the warm paint, do the combing and washing so necessary to my body’s machine, and some sleeping too.  There!  Was my little speech sufficient to prove your point; or mine?”

“Well, you certainly weren’t speaking in the normal sense;”  acknowledged the man, frowning.   “It could be that my mind is inventing words for you; lending articulation to things I would expect a cat to say.”

“Could it?  I gather you have the monopoly of what is normal?”

“Ten minutes ago I would have presumed so.  Not now.”

“Nevertheless, I am just a ‘normal’ cat, aren’t I?   Look at me – you can stroke me if you wish!  Admire my claws.  See how I hide them, so my feet are soft and silent?  I can pat you – thus – and you will barely feel my touch.   Now see how sharp are my claws when these outstretched limbs reveal them?  They are my secret.  When my mistress cuddles and plays with me I pat and dab and keep them to myself. But they are weapons, and the little creatures have reason to fear them.”

Somewhat hesitantly, the man reached out to run his fingers over the soft fur of the cat’s warm flank.   “You must want to sleep, if the night is your time.”

“ I feel tired – I do!  Such luxury!”  The cat yawned.  “So easy to sleep, here in the sun, on the safe side of the glass.  You have questions to ask, though, don’t you?  I promise I will stay awake.  What would make you feel at ease?  Should you have brought one of those repulsive books you keep beneath your bed to help you pass the time?”

“So you know of those, too.  What do you not know?  Explain to me.  Why are you so harsh with me?”

“Because you richly deserve every barb you draw, dear man.  Yet I see there is a sweeter, finer side to your nature and so I would teach you, if I could.”

“Really?”  The man managed to dredge up some dismal sarcasm.  “Perhaps we could concentrate upon my finer points?”

“You carried me here, didn’t you, across that frightening street.  The world which is not mine.  Your hands are gentle.  Just as my mistress was carrying me, out there, when first I saw you; as you stroked my side a moment since.  You may not purr, but you are not all the leprous creature you pretend.   Your hands betray you:  you are capable of love.

“Come and join me, look down to the street that is a good jump below us, watch as I watch:  humans blundering about, vile smelling cars and lorries and vans dashing by.  Oh, I can mingle down there – sun myself upon the step, or collect plaudits from passers-by; and It is amazing what I can achieve by simply purring, or rubbing myself against an ankle – mutual grooming; favours, even food.  But the street is a place of horrors.  I have seen friends taken to Forever Stillness by the stroke of a car wheel, or crushed to meat beneath a lorry’s tyre.  To make a crossing there is fraught with peril, so my mistress carries me across, when there is the need.”

Mollified by the cat’s altered tone, the man rose to his feet, carefully balancing the cup of tea the cat’s lovely mistress had brought him.  His eyes followed the gaze of the cat, across the thoroughfare to the bookshop where he worked.  “She brought you to see me the other day.   I think she wanted to show you off.  She dotes on you, you know.”

“As I dote on her.”  The cat said.

“I still don’t quite understand, then, how she managed to leave you behind in my shop.”

“My mistress has bought a lot of books from you in recent weeks.”

“True.”  The man frowned.  “Should I deduce something from that?”

“If you wish.  What better contrivance than to let me hide among the shelves for a while, knowing you would discover me?  Then you would have cause to return me to my owner, wouldn’t you?”

“Just so I could have an excuse to come here?”  The man found himself wondering if the object of his desires shared his feelings and needs:  but no – this was, after all, no more than an imagined conversation.  “Surely your mistress missed you.  She could have come to the bookshop.  She must have known where you would be.”

It was important to me to bring you to our home.  My mistress is beautiful, is she not?   Her raven hair, her dark eyes, her warm smile?”

“Yes.   Yes, she is.   Wait a moment!   Important to you?  You make it sound as though you plotted this.”

“Do I?   Is she not grateful?   She will return in a moment.  Meantime, you sip her warm tea and seem as though you belong here.  Was I wrong?”

“Yes….no…I don’t know.   I’ve no precedent.   I think this is the first time I’ve ever been invited to tea by a cat, especially one with critical faculties as sophisticated as yours.”  He thought of the cat’s owner, of the bottomless lake that seemed to exist behind her eyes and the intoxicating scent she wore.  And he realised that although it was a month since he had first encountered her, he had been too shy even to ask her name.

The cat was watching him intently:   “Well, then, will you stay?”

“Stay?”  Had the question been framed by a person the man would have been shocked.  But when a cat asked it, it was amusing.   His lips curved in a smile.  “What, you mean – actually stay?  The night, and so on?”

“And so on.  Yes.”   The gaze of the cat was suddenly focussed on his face, keen, almost harsh.  The intent look of a predator ready to spring.  “You must agree to stay.   Willingly agree.”

“Well, perhaps with time, if your mistress and I got to know each other better…”  What made him wary?  Why did he suddenly want to run?

“No.   Not ‘with time’.  Now.”  The cat rose to its feet, back arched.  “Feel in your pocket.  The left one.”

The man decided to remain silent.  This was becoming ridiculous.

“Check your pocket.”   The cat insisted.

“Where is your mistress?”  He countered.  But his hand explored his left jacket pocket, nonetheless.

“She is near.  She will be waiting.”

The man’s fingers encountered something roughly rectangular, which he withdrew.   “How did this get in here?”

The small rectangle of paper that now lay in the palm of his hand was wrapped, curiously, in hair – human hair.   When he pulled the hair away the rich perfume of the cat’s mistress assailed his senses, and when he examined the paper inside he saw it was a photograph of himself.

“My mistress, or I, we put it there.”  The cat replied.  “It does not matter which of us – we are one and the same.  It is a spell that binds you, and now you must fulfil your promise.  The promise you made in the night, when you believed you were alone.  But you were not alone.  I was watching.  I am always watching.”

Feeling his anger grow, the man rounded upon the cat:   “What if I choose not to?  You presume a great deal, for a cat!”

“Or a woman.”   Said the woman, who had transmuted from the cat before his incredulous eyes, standing with her back to the window so he could no longer see the street.  “For I am both.  My name is Ellandra, by the way.”

Although his heart pounded in his chest the man’s anger melted, because Ellandra was every bit as beautiful as he had thought her the first time they met.   “I don’t know what’s happening to me!”  He protested.  “This isn’t real.  It can’t – you can’t be real!”

Ellandra smiled a bewitching smile, and said simply:  “Stay.”

“But I can’t.  I mean if this was real I couldn’t.  I have a business…”

“You have no choice, I’m afraid.  You are bound by my spell, and if you try to leave, I shall simply have to turn you into a mouse.”

“And”  she said, suddenly a cat again;  “I would hunt you down and kill you.”

Aghast, the man collapsed into the sofa.  Breathing in storms, he could find no words.  The cat immediately slipped onto his lap and curled up, and there, after a few seconds, no more, it began to purr.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.