Short Story – The Usual, for Two

I am not quite sure where this story came from. My other short stories have been clear responses to things that have had some impact on me as a writer – my fantasy writing evoking Shonagon and Pliny, my robot-stories drawing on Infinity and Aim for the Top and more.

This aesthetically, I suppose, most evokes Michiko and Hatchin and Black Lagoon, set as it is in some unreal, loosely-defined setting somewhere between South America and Asia. I know I wanted to try and, in descriptive terms, evoke the fantastic opening to Under the Volcano by Lowry even if there is nothing of Lowry’s novel specifically in it save a description of a possibly South American tourist town.

I do know it was easy to write. Once I began describing Cana Luz filling out this image of a fictional settlement between a town and a city, somewhere in the midst of postwar reconstruction, it was very easy to visualise. The decadent, narcissistic Governor was a similarly easy character to visualise. At one point she – and her conversation-partner – were going to have defined names. They didn’t make it into the final writing.

Cana Luz tumbles down a red mountainside like a bored child scattered their toy-set there and never tidied it. Before the war, its haphazard charm attracted so many visitors that a new railway-station was proudly built at the foot of the mountain, a stucco’d relic in tan and white and red fronted with faux-classical pillars with hanging-baskets at their tops from which rich pink bougainvillea fell. Every day, train after train, first a malachite-green steam engine and then in time an equally green diesel-locomotive which over the years faded and became worn, would dispatch new arrivals to Cana Luz. Tourists weighed down with steamer-trunks and suitcases. Businessmen with their attache-cases and clients in tow. And ordinary people coming for no reason other than to see Cana Luz, the town which had appeared one day to be prosperous. On the far side of the mountain, for sure, there are vineyards scrabbling for nutrition from dusty ground. The wines of the region are sharp and light, and sell moderately well. But it is hard to understand precisely how this odd little town ever became an odd little city, and harder still to understand why there was a time when it was a hotly contested battlefield.

It turned out even the blast of war, even fighting-suits crushing the quaint little cars and wrought-iron benches beneath their armoured feet, could not dampen the unfinished spirit of Cana Luz. Some of the buildings still have shell-marks in them. People get by. The streets of bright colours and white front-steps and window-frames are a little charred, a little dustier than normal, but it is like the war never really came to much of the city even as the rest of the country rebuilds. As if awaiting the trains’ constant running once again, dozens of restaurants and cafes and snooker-halls and cinemas sit boarded up, or turned into workmens’ shelters or little art galleries or small places where the people of this city can find refuge from the sun. Imagine a city where the passage of time in the grand-scale is paused – a city turning over like an idling car, just needing a push to be off again.

High on a ridge that overlooks the city is an equally unglamorous sprawling estate, built years ago even before people knew that this place was destined for something big. A movie-star, on the cusp of retirement, offered the proceeds of her final film in surety for the construction of En Palais, a wonderful holiday-home in a then-unspoiled piece of mountainside. The film made no money. En Palais was half-built for a very long time. During the war the government forces’ general made it his base, and his last stand took place in the second billiard room. When the war ended, though, someone bought En Palais and paid a not insubstantial amount to see it finished. Now it is, to the disquiet of most of the people of Cana Luz, the governor’s palace.

It is still not quite finished and probably will never be. En Palais was ambitious and arrogant to the extreme and nobody – even the new governor of the region – can quite stomach precisely how decadent it would be if fully furnished. To walk from one end of the walled estate to the other, through the pleasant water-garden, and the two-levelled Asian garden, and the surprise garden where sculptures peek like mischeivous children from tall hedges, and to take in the circular swimming-pool with its amusing fountains and the competition-sized swimming-pool with the lanes marked in gems of some description, would probably take twenty minutes. To walk from En Palais to the edges of Cana Luz, the streets where the first buildings signal the return of daily life, takes about twenty more. It is a pleasant walk, the road easy on the feet and lined with trees. The current owner makes it every day or two.

Leaving the station, a visitor’s attention is drawn with what passes for architectural intent to the Gran Hotel, a huge red building a little like the station in design, with arched windows and a sea of trailing flowers on its walls. Every Saturday, the governor of the region will take the hour or so’s walk from En Palais’ gate to the Gran Hotel, beginning it when the sun first begins to sparkle on the sundial swimming-pool, and take breakfast. A table is prepared for her now, always in the centre of the mezzanine-level restaurant’s short edge above the doors so in one direction she can look down over the other diners, and in the other out over the Playa en Hotel.

She is there now, just arrived. Today a picture in black-and-white and lace. Somehow despite the dust and the pleasant sun her skin remains pale. Probably powder, most reckon. Some of the people in the East can do that. Powder and her wide-brimmed, veiled hat. She has been walking an hour or so, down steeply inclined streets, in red shoes that shine brightly and a long skirt and stockings and long gloves, and yet she is completely unperturbed and untired. Sitting down at her seat, she removes large-lensed sunglasses and folds the arms neatly, putting them with small movements in a red leather-coated case which snaps shut with the click of a latch and is placed an inch or so from her butter-knife. Next, she removes her hat, smoothing the veil which hangs from its brim, and places it on the corner of a neighbouring seat-back. Her affairs properly prepared for breakfast, her eyes – which some say are dark blue, others a rich violet and yet others black like a witch’s, pretend to skim the menu to attract a waiter.

The governor will always have the same breakfast. Three eggs, cooked so lightly they ooze and seep to the touch of a fork. Served on three slices of toast made only from the rye-bread that the nearby baker cooks. One glass of orange juice, and one glass of tomato juice into which a shot of fierce local spirit is added. A pot of coffee, served only in a silver pot. And to go with the coffee, an apple and a pastry. The ritual of consuming this with bites so small as to be almost invisible will take most of the morning.

She always sits so as to watch others, but watching her – seeing what dress she has selected from the vast library of vacuum-preserved relics En Palais’ original owner had had tailored, seeing if she will ever change her order, or do anything except stare down with dark, intent eyes – has become a sport for some people. The Hotel appreciates the flood of business on Saturday mornings. It more than makes up for the loss of one table and one breakfast.

Today there are, and this has not gone unnoticed, two sets of knives and forks laid. The silver coffee-pot is larger, a straight-sided modern-art edifice on which condensation forms a mist almost tempting one to write with a fingertip in. The governor bids the waiter not deliver her eggs and toast just yet. The eyes of the crowd are split – between the governor, and the door to the Hotel. A sea of perspiring faces and heat-worn linen suits waits like zoo animals at feeding-time.

Into the Hotel finally sweeps someone, a couple. It cannot be the right person, rushes the murmur across the crowd. The tension remains high. These people are rough types. One has burns that turn her face into something resembling the stucco of the station-walls. Another is a tattooed blond man with a rough queue wearing a suit that does not quite fit. They walk upstairs. The crowd draw breath. The scarred woman sits opposite the governor and immediately conversation is restored. What is happening? Who are these people? All eyes are off the governor. The morning observers finally have something to talk about.

At the top table, the conversation is not going well. Nobody is close enough to eavesdrop – the eggs have been brought (the scarred woman had nothing) but one only has to look at those talking to imagine every word. From under the table the governor had drawn a red briefcase and given it to the scarred woman. It was returned unopened. As they talked, an observer would have noticed something that no-one has ever seen before. Sweat beginning to bead on the governor’s pale forehead – smearing lines in the calculated paleness (it is powder!) The queasy expression of someone realising their seafood was contaminated curves across the governor’s face as the scarred woman turns to leave. The briefcase is offered again. Refused again. By this point the crowds are watching, because something else has caught their eye. Outside, trailing the car that brought these mysterious conversation-partners, two police cars now sit. A pair of officers appear to have pistols trained on the gallery-window. Two more have just entered the Hotel.

The governor always sits where she can see, and be seen. Her arrival and departure are public affairs, the location of her breakfast always the most visible in the Playa Hotel. As a result, it is very clear that there is no escape from this predicament. After weeks upon weeks of measuring her progress across the dining-room by the double-click of red high-heels in patent leather the regulars of the hotel know its dimensions by sound alone. And now, what this means is that even those not looking at the scene upstairs, not drinking in the visible terror on a face celebrated for its calmness, can count the footfalls until the arrest of the governor of Cana Luz.


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  1. Pingback: Short Story – Not A Lot Changes | Ideas Without End

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