The Last Newspaper in the World
31 December 2014
21 ROS TAKES FLIGHT
The rain of the night before lingered in the morning. Harry had gone by the time I surfaced. A message from Diana on my phone said we needed to talk. I reminded her of my meeting at Gordon’s, and ignored the reply. It wouldn’t make any difference, so why bother. Harry called and, yeah, I had to go in. It was after 8 am but I reckoned on being okay for time.
Diana stood up and started walking over to Harry’s office as soon as I came in. Pulling my note book out of my jacket pocket, I followed her in and sat beside her. The old man was looking out the window and turned when he heard us shuffling about.
‘So Diana tells me the Brands were a perfectly normal, happy couple,’ he said, addressing me. ‘You got anything to add to this picture?’
‘Maybe,’ I said, but I hesitated.
‘Maybe what?’ Harry asked, and Diana turned to look directly at me.
‘Some of the neighbours did hear some stuff going on before Brand died.’
‘What sort of stuff?’
‘Arguments, rows, cars coming and going, you know, that sort of thing.’
‘So they had a few arguments,’ said Harry, ‘sounds like a normal couple.’
‘Besides,’ Diana added, ‘everybody says they were a lovely couple and they’re really shocked by the murder.’
‘Who is everybody?’ I said quietly.
‘Everybody I talked to,’ Diana said quickly, almost crowding out my sentence.
‘Not everybody. For instance, the two directly next to the Brands on the side of the street where I was seemed to have heard and seen some goings on.’
‘Oh those two old folks,’ Diana said, waving a hand in the air. ‘Isn’t the old girl blind and the old guy pretty much deaf?’
‘Not exactly reliable witnesses, Bill,’ Harry added. ‘Look, it all seems a bit flimsy so let’s go with neighbours shocked by the murder and the Brands are a lovely couple.’
I looked at Diana. She seemed triumphant without having a grin, just that competitive look people have who want to win.
All I really wanted to do was to get out of there.
The wind had dropped and as I drove along the ridge above the beach I could see rain falling out to sea in gangs rather than the massed movement of the night before. An annoying rain drop slid with a wriggle down the back of my neck as I walked up the path to Gordon’s Café. She was already inside, hands wrapped around a cup. Early or late? Angelique came through the door from the back and, smiling, kissed me on both cheeks. I tingled with happiness, like when a kid gets slightly tickled, and returned the greeting in a clumsy bump of the heads. We laughed. I gestured to the table and ordered a coffee and a date scone. Angelique took the order with a ‘oui monsieur’ and moved behind the counter, after a second glance.
‘Hi sorry I’m late. Thanks for coming,’ I said, taking off my jacket and sitting down.
‘No, no, I’m a little early,’ she said as she looked up from the book she was reading. Pulling back the frizzy black hair with her left hand she offered me her right.
‘We didn’t introduce ourselves last night. I’m Ros Peters, but I know who you are,’ she said. Her hand was warm from the cup and her fingers long, slim and quite firm.
She knew, she said, this because the professor knew Harry, of course
‘You prefer to go surfing than to take in high art apparently.’
‘Oh, the art show but…’ I was about to protest, but she smiled and told me not to worry.
Angelique came over with my coffee and scone, placing a light hand on my shoulder as she went past.
‘Certainly a friendly place this isn’t it? Or are you a special customer here?’
I wanted to answer her, to say I was in love, and had been in love with Angelique for a long time. She was my girlfriend, my partner or whatever. I just shrugged what was probably a sheepish smile.
‘Yeah, something like that. So how is the prof? What’s he up to now that he’s retired?’
‘Oh, he’s not retired. He’s just having a sabbatical.’
‘Is that what it’s called? I hear you’re one of his students.’
She looked down momentarily and then with both hands pulled her hair back over both shoulders and looked at me directly.
‘Alistair’s burnt out. He needs a rest. He’s writing his book.’
‘Oh, what’s it called? When Spring Meets Autumn?’
I thought I’d pushed it a bit, but she laughed but firmly corrected me.
‘No, actually it’s about what famous prisoners ate when they were incarcerated.’
‘Okay, so how does that work?’
‘Well, of course, where possible we have to experience it so he can write about the food.’
‘So at the moment we’re having mealiepap for breakfast, like Nelson Mandela did when he was on Robben Island.’
‘Sounds lovely. What’s that all about? Like porridge?’
‘Basically it’s dried maize kernels ground down and served with milk and sugar. Although we don’t have the sugar, of course, because it wouldn’t be very authentic.’
‘Of course,’ I said, and muffled a laugh as I sipped the last of my coffee.
‘Oh dear, would that be too much for you? I’m not looking forward to the next chapter. It’s about what prisoners of war ate when in Changi prison.’
‘Changi is…where, what?’ I said, shaking my head.
‘Singapore. It’s where the Japanese tossed POWs during World War Two.’
‘Yes, I knew that. So what’s the food you are testing?’
‘That’s gotta be fun.’
‘Oh, in that case, I’ll get Alistair to invite you and Harry to dinner then shall I?’
Leaning back, with my hands up, I declined the invitation. We were quiet for a minute and then she said she wanted to go for a walk on the beach. When I asked why, she didn’t say anything but just stood and walked to the door. Waving to Anqelique, I followed. Roz was standing outside, pulled the collar up on her long black coat. She tied a black shawl over her hair, looking like she wandered out of the mist somewhere.
The rain wasn’t at all heavy and the wind had gone right away, although I could feel it turning to the south as we crossed the road. She stood at the edge of the bank down to the beach. I jumped down and turned around to wait for her. Peering up, she seemed suddenly to soar in silhouette in the light rain, almost with a halo of light around her black hair, the long black coat and black boots. I thought she was going to float off and fly around the dunes, like a dark angel in the drizzle. In a way she did, because Angelique walked up behind her and Ros was flying through the air.
‘Catch me,’ she called, her arms out in front of her.
Before I could protest, she fell forward and I grabbed her waist. Her momentum pushed her body hard into mine, so my head was resting on her thin chest. The coat smelled of rain, and the frizz of her hair tickled my cheeks. I looked up and Angelique was looking down, her full lips suddenly pursed. She turned and walked back over the dunes to the café. I went to climb up and follow her but Ros grabbed my arm surprisingly strongly.
‘It’s okay, see her later. I need to talk to you now.’
We walked down to below the high water line and walked along creasing wet sand below our feet. Spray from the sea stood high in the air around us. I was disturbed, but thoughts of Harry and Diana’s insistence on another perception of the Brands drove me to ask Ros what it was that she wanted to tell me.
‘It started a few months ago,’ she said, her head down against the drizzle. The rain seemed heavier now we were out here on the beach. When I didn’t prompt her, she glanced over at me and continued.
‘I used to see Mariana walking past our place. One day, I was out the front doing some gardening. Alistair’s hopeless in the garden, so try my best. Mariana is a great walker and has a terrific exercise regime. She’s terribly fit.’
‘That’s one way of putting it, I suppose,’ I said remembering the svelte figure at the funeral service, or did I just think it? Ros went on.
‘We said ‘hi’ and this time she stopped and we had a chat. I was just starting up a book club and invited her to join. She wasn’t too keen but we talked about books. It developed into a regular thing. Once a week, we’d have lunch, sometimes at my place or sometimes out. Never came over here, but we might in the future.’
Ros looked up at me and tucked a tangle of hair back under the hood of her rain coat. Her brown eyes sparked and she smiled.
‘So you went out to lunch and…’
‘Well, we never went to her place. I asked her once and she just said it was dreary and she wanted to get out. The property didn’t look dreary to me. From the outside it seemed very what might be called now and shiny. I was happy enough with the arrangement as it’s not my kind of place anyway.’
I was beginning to drift away. In the distance, further down the beach, I could just make out the figure of a fisherman at the water’s edge.
‘One day about a couple of weeks ago she didn’t arrive to lunch so I rang her. Her voice was muffled and I could tell she was upset. So I went up there to her place even though she said she was fine. You know how it is when people sometimes say they’re fine and you know they’re not. Alistair was against me getting involved but that’s just him. He’s so detached. I went up the road to her house. You know you have to press an outside speaker system to gain entry? I did and Ros answered, in what for her was a quiet voice. When I told her it was me, there was silence at first then the gate clicked and I walked in. Even before entering the house I thought it must be like living in a mausoleum.’
‘Like in that Beirut song – In the Mausoleum?’
Ros looked at me again.
‘Time travels to mourn
Your secret life
In your mausoleum’
‘Yes, yes, something like that. Funny I’d thought of that too.’
After walking up the wide, white steps to the front door, Ros pulled the chain and bells sounded somewhere in the depths of the house. The sound they made was so impressive she thought there might even be monks swinging on the end of ropes. Nobody came to the door at first and she took a few steps back to try to see inside. Eventually the door was opened slightly and Mariana was standing in the doorway. She was beautiful, tall in a figure hugging dress down to the floor, and long sleeves covering her arms. Ros stepped in and went to hug her friend, noticing how she winced to her touch. Up close as she kissed her cheek she could see a bruise near her left eye. Mariana was normally impeccably dressed and well made up Ros thought it made them two unusual friends. This day, however, her make up was heavier than usual but not sufficiently heavy to fully hide the bruise. Ros held her friend and looked up at the face before her. The eyes were distant. Just when she was going to ask what had happened, Mariana turned away and walked to the back of the house. Ros followed her into the kitchen. Mariana filled a coffee machine with water and Ros noted she had to use two hands to pick up the jug. As Mariana busied herself with the coffee things, Ros looked around the kitchen. It was modern in that glistening magazine home style. Vast in its own right. What struck Ros though was the view out the back. The window overlooked Coastlands and stretched down the coast to the distance. The backyard was pretty much covered in tiles, with some embedded shrubs and that long skinny grass that doesn’t need cutting. A swimming pool was sunk into the ground on one side. Bush tumbled down the back of the hill over the boundary. It was idyllic in a southern California kind of way. Not my kind of thing, Ros said to me, but she could see the appeal. She felt Mariana come noiselessly alongside her and grasp her hand.
‘Come, let us have coffee.’
They went into the open lounge. Ros remarked on how sunny it seemed on that autumn morning. They sat on the couch, Mariana still holding her hand. Ros wasn’t too perturbed by the hand holding, although the grip was quite tight. She had become used to what she thought of as Mariana’s Latin ways. She told Ros how she’d met Brand in Argentina, where he was on some council business. She’d been a model but had been under threat of having to go under the knife to keep up with younger models. Ros had expressed surprised but Mariana just laughed, but not happily, and said it was common. Mayor Brand had met her at a reception, where she and some of the girls from the agency had been paid to brighten up the scene. He pursued her, and she was enamoured with his macho ways, tales of the beauty of his country, his great standing in the community and life she might lead as the wife of an important leader of the community. So she came to marry Brand and live in a new country. At first she thought she loved him, and in a way she did. She went to mass and prayed to feel better about her marriage. She confessed what she thought was her sin to the priest but he just told her all married couples went through periods of doubt. This was just one of those times. She thought this might be the case, but the more she prayed for her marriage the further she seemed to drift from Brand. Then, suddenly putting down her coffee cup, Mariana took both Ros’s hands and pulled her close to her.
‘I love somebody else. A person who I love so much but I can’t have,’ Mariana said pushing her face close to Ros’s cheek.
Ros stopped in the sand. Even as the drizzly rain dripped down her face, her cheeks were red.
‘I thought ‘oh my gosh, I have a lover’. What am I going to do?’
Serious now, Ros told me this sort of thing hadn’t happened to her for a long time but it did happen, particularly when she was younger. How young? I asked.
‘Quite, quite young. Men and women seemed to want me to love them. I can’t explain it but I felt bad about myself for a long time, like it was my fault.’
Ros shook her head. ‘No, he is different,’ she said, but I wondered how different.
I looked down the beach and could see the fisherman was Jimmy’s dad. Mr Tatua was in the water using his surfcasting rod to cast the bait out beyond the waves to the fish.
Ros looked quite bedraggled now but she wanted to keep talking, and I didn’t stop her. Mariana told Mayor Brand that she didn’t love him anymore, omitting the minor detail that she probably never had, and she had met somebody else and wanted to leave him. They argued. Brand started in a low controlled voice but as Mariana’s replies became more determined, he became more strident and louder.
‘Who is he, this mystery lover of yours?’ Brand said. She wouldn’t say, too afraid of what he might do to Ros. He grabbed a handful of her sleekly shiny hair and pulled her close to him. ‘Tell me or else,’ he said, giving her a smack on the side of the face to reinforce his determination. He stood over her and was about to kick Mariana when she flung her hands up on outstretched arms and gave in.
‘It’s Ros, my friend Ros,’ she said, a sob welling up in her throat. Brand dragged her up again by the hair demanding to know who Ros was and where she lived. He gave her a slap, hard, as a prompt. ‘My friend Ros Peters. You know, I have told you many times how we have been meeting and talking about our love of books. I’ve fallen in love with her and cannot bear to be without her.’
‘That curly-haired black bitch from down the road? The blown away hippy? You love her more than you love me?’
Mariana shielded herself as he raised his hand again. ‘She doesn’t know, she doesn’t know, I haven’t told her. Please don’t do anything,’ she pleaded, hanging on to his jacket to prevent him from leaving. ‘You can hit me again but I don’t love you and I don’t know if I really ever did. Can’t you forgive me for that?’
Brand suddenly seemed deflated, for a moment at least. Then he suggested that Mariana just had a crush on Ros and he was going away the next day, so they could both think about things and talk about it when got back. He reminded her of his status in the community and how he would be a laughing stock among the robust voters out there should it become known his wife had left him for another woman. They slept separately that night and Mariana stayed locked in her bedroom the next morning, not seeing off the mayor on his trip. She had met Stead at a function and called him the next day to talk about a complaint regarding Brand’s assault on her. Instead of Stead alone, Brand’s brother Gerry arrived as well. They talked it through into the early hours of the next morning. Gerry helped himself to his brother’s extensive liquor cabinet, fell asleep and stayed the night. Stead left but came back several times to talk to Mariana, his reasoning wearing her down eventually to the point where it was decided she wouldn’t press charges.
‘They told her she was still beautiful and the bruise would quickly go away. Why ruin a career for a moment’s passion? I tried to convince her to go ahead, clear the air and have him charged,’ Ros said.
‘But you wouldn’t have wanted your relationship with Mariana to come out in court?’ I said.
‘I wasn’t worried about that. I just wanted Brand and his mates taught a lesson. Besides, our relationship isn’t like that; it can’t be.’
The drizzle was clearing as we reached Mr Tatua. He was hauling in a fish and I waved at him.
‘Hey Bill, come and give me a hand to land this,’ he called.
I turned and Ros was walking away from me up the beach. ‘Hey don’t go,’ I called. ‘Is that it?’ ‘Yeah, pretty much I’d say. I do love Mariana and she is living with me and Alistair now, but only as a friend. That’s why we didn’t want you to come into the house last night. She doesn’t want to talk right now,’ Ros said, pre-empting my question, ‘but I thought you should know.’ ‘Can I call you some time if I need to check something?’ I asked, thinking that at the least Mariana might pick up the phone. Ros shrugged and turned away. Over her shoulder I could see the prof standing on the dunes waiting for her.
Mr Tatua had the fish in the shallows.
‘Hey, let’s at least have a look at this fish,’ I called out to Ros. It was a bit flimsy but she did stop and turned. We walked down the beach to Mr Tatua. He’d just pulled in the fish and it looked like a good one. A snapper, it was not too big but I knew the old man would have full use of it all. He slipped the hook nearly from the fish’s mouth and lay it down in the sea water as its swirled around his boots. The fish flipped and slipped away out through the incoming tide.
‘They believe you should return the first fish you catch,’ a voice said behind us. I turned, and it was Alistair. This morning he had tight jeans over his old rooster legs. A scarf wound around his neck.
‘Oh, why is that Alistair,’ asked Ros, stepping away from me and running her arm through his. She gave him a peck on the cheek. The drizzle kept on.
‘It’s bad luck if they keep the first fish. It’s a tradition.’
Mr Tatua was walking up through the water to where we were standing next to his fishing gear. Nice stuff it was too. Not cheap but well used. We greeted each other, and Alistair gave him a rather forceful hongi.
‘Is that your first fish today?’ I asked, probably a bit too loudly but the surf was taking breath so I had to raise my voice.
He didn’t say anything but flipped open the lid of his bin to reveal three or four other fish, larger than the one he’d just thrown back.
‘Nah, it just wasn’t the one I wanted,’ he said, smiling as he looked down at his catch.
Turned out he and Alistair knew each other already, as the prof was involved in helping in the preparation of a book about a project Mr Tatua and his community were part of involving the building a waka. The boat was being built using traditional tools and materials, and Alistair’s work was as a kind of archivist to record the process and eventually provide a documentary record once the waka was launched. The work was nearly completed, so they talked about the details of combining the official launch with the publication of the book. Alistair was a little behind in compiling the material, so Mr Tatua was giving him a deadline to work towards. One of the interesting things I picked up from the discussion was how the prof’s work had been interrupted by the drama around the Brands, the inclusion of Mariana in his nest with Ros and the mayor’s tragic death. Mr Tatua knew all about this, which kind of surprised me but, in a way, it did make sense given the old man’s connections and his son’s work in the police.
Ros and I walked towards the dunes where Alistair had parked the car. The drizzle had eased up and the beach now looked grey from the sky right down to the damp sand. There was no wind and the surf behind us was formless, waves falling over themselves in a kind of aimless and powerless procession.
‘What will you do with this now?’ Ros asked, as we walked up to the car. ‘This is just for your background, of course.’
‘Not off the record as such?’
‘No point really. Somebody will find out soon enough and I think it should be you.’
‘Well, I won’t quote you, if that’s what you mean.’
Alistair was coming up the dunes towards, so I thought it best to quickly wind things up and leave Ros to him. But before I could go, Ros held my arm and told me quietly to go and see Mariana while she diverted Alistair.
‘Sorry, I have to go now but can I call you if I need any more help with this please?’ I said loudly.
Ros, not looking at me but at the rapidly advancing Alistair, nodded. ‘Text me,’ I said quietly and, remembering I had a couple of worn cards in my jacket, quickly pulled one out and pressed it into her palm.
Angelique was serving when I walked back to the café but she saw me getting into my car and came out into the car park.
‘What was all that about before?’ I asked. ‘Why’d you push her; you could’ve hurt her?’
Angelique actually smiled and tilted her head to one side, her eyes narrowing.
‘Maybe. I just wanted to give her a message to stay away from you.’
‘What? She is just trying to help me with this story.’
‘You think so? You are a silly boy. I could tell by the way she looked at you and touched you that she wants you.’
Touched me? I didn’t know that. I protested again, but was it a little too much?
‘You don’t know and you probably would never know,’ Angelique said. ‘She is probably tired of her old man and sees you as someone new and interesting.’
‘I don’t think so but you certainly gave me a fright. I thought she was going to take flight for a moment there and join the gulls over the bay.’
Angelique shrugged and kissed me on the cheek, turned and went back into Gordon’s café.
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The Last Newspaper in the World
Copyright © 2012 Mick Stone
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