She wants to know. To know about the girl. He laughs quietly, almost to himself. Smiles a bent, wistful smile. The one I pretended to be? he asks her playfully. Or the one I remember?
The one who made you write that way, Aurelia Zhou tells him, listening to his sputtering heart. The inexorably ticking clock of his life.
She lifts her stethoscope from his rickety chest – with its white wiry sprouts and liver spots – and looks into his yellowy eyes. To see that he is gazing at her like a thousand miles. With the enormity of all his years; and a mad tenderness as huge as the beautiful red continent they both cling to the edges of.
For a second or two he is not breathing. Stilled in his chair. Back in the presence of the girl who changed everything.
He rarely speaks of her these days. Does not like to. Not because it is painful – rather, that he has used up all his words for her.
Can I ask why? he says.
She thinks for a beat about lying – covering up her true intentions – but then yields to the simple truth of the matter. She is hoping that something in his story will be of use to her. Will help to quell this thing inside her.
If not quell – release.
Erasmus sees in Aurelia something of himself. An orphan of sorts. A seeker outside the facile domain of names and titles. Someone in search of more than mere answers.
He draws in a drunkard’s breath of her freshly washed, long black hair. Consumes her uniformed loveliness. Imagines the soft space between her breasts and the slender ecstasy of her wrists.
Then it shall be my honour, he sighs with unabashed delight.
She smiles back at him with her eyes – the smallest crinkle at their corners. Even though he is three quarts blind he detects this intimate flicker. Whatever else has faded from view – beauty is as bright as ever.
He wants to say something ridiculous. Poetic. But doesn’t. It is enough that she is here with him. That she obviously cares. That she has come to smooth his path.
I have to tell you, though, he warns her. It’s going to take me a damn sight longer than twenty minutes.
About Erasmus William Lyle, Aurelia Zhou remains conflicted. She understands the boundaries of her profession – the necessary disconnect that makes medicine do-able. And anyway, she has crossed similar lines before and suffered because of it. This is why she is a nurse now – not an actor. Because rules were not observed. Crazy chances considered.
She sits shaking at her glass topped Ikea dinner table, thinking she should call and cancel. Convincing herself it would be for the best. Perhaps she does not really need to go where the old man will surely lead her.
Then she sees the book, still propped open on the black, stylishly uncomfortable lounge where she had been feverishly scouring it the night before. Try as she might she cannot extinguish the hope that a kind of liberty awaits her in those much analysed paragraphs. A freedom from the box that her family and her culture have housed her in.
Slowly she drinks her tea, inhaling its soft fragrance like meditation. Hoping for a Tao like clarity amidst the rattling clamour.
Because it scares her that she is so scared.
She never used to be.
She thinks of her mother – stranded in the old certainties she left behind in Hong Kong. Still not quite found in a country she adopted for the failed promise of a man. Clinging to Cantonese and bitterness.
When Aurelia looks in the mirror nowadays, this is the face she sees.
Then she remembers Erasmus. Old, ugly, immobile. A man without scope for dreams and hope. And yet he smiles – and his heart still fearlessly kicks down its walls for love. She has never known anything remotely like it.
This is what Aurelia Zhou wants to see in the bathroom mirror. Love in the face of everything else. Light at the door of darkness.
Now the tea is tasting that much sweeter. Now she looks outside and notices how gloriously blue the sky is. How the supple air is tinged with warmth. And how uncoiled she suddenly feels. As though she were in alignment.
A knot unties. Blood flows more freely.
She has decided.
Four minutes and eighteen seconds later her phone beeps twice.
She sees the telltale light. The envelope icon.
You have one new message.
Now her heart is banging like hope and terror combined.
Her trembling index finger.
The name of a boy.
Aurelia Zhou does not believe in coincidence – and so now she feels abruptly courageous.
She checks the time, grabs the book, makes sure she has everything she needs in her bag and leaves her expensive, elevated cell for the short walk to the main gate of the city’s biggest and most beautiful park.
Where she will meet an old man and talk about love.
By the wrought iron, nineteenth century gates she waits. Lovers parade in the spring sun. The birds up above sing their hearts out. Flowers bloom. All seems well in the world.
Aurelia checks the time on her phone and is tempted to read her new message once more. She taps on his name and the words appear. The emoticon. The xx. She closes her eyes – cannot help but smile.
When they open up again it is to the sight of the taxi. To the old man’s crumbling antique grin through the open passenger side window.
There is a huffing shuffle of activity as Erasmus strains to lift himself up and then down again into the chair that the driver has dutifully extracted from the trunk. By the end of it he is sweating – red with distress – and Aurelia feels a small shot of guilt. She could have picked him up herself but …
Damn those rules.
Yet Erasmus is too happy to notice. This is the first date he’s been on in years. It was worth getting up early and wrenching himself through the long winded bathroom routine for this. Worth the now painful battering beneath his ribs.
The sight of her is enough to undo all the tethers. Leave him floating.
He believes that she is the most beautiful woman he has known since … since her. Aurelia’s lithe, petite figure, her classical Asian features and her immaculate dress have bowled him over. Whatever treasures he has left, he will yield them up for the pleasures of her nearness. And if he should die in the swoon of her perfect splendour he will go to meet his maker grinning from ear to ear. It is that simple.
As she wheels him along the winding, uneven pathways – beneath the lush canopies and past the formal flower beds – he listens to her breathing and senses her happiness. He pretends not to hear her so that she will lean in closer – and when she does his blood fires up with the timeless, buzzing thrill of sex. Her body is so firm and real and close to him. He can feel its heat. Smell her skin.
To complete his fantasy, her hair rains down upon him. Such a feather touch. Makes him shiver.
He cranes his head back – and she is smiling down at him. No longer his nurse.
It occurs to him to think that she might be playing him but he is far too far gone to care about any of that nonsense. Erasmus has long since ceased to fret about being right or wrong – because neither will matter in the end.
They eventually settle on a patch of grass near the kiosk. He sends her off to get coffee and while she is gone he lurches out of his confinement and sinks as carefully as he can to the ground. Which he gladly presses his face into.
Gordy has been showing him the simple joys of smelling the earth – and he draws it into himself as hungrily as he would a cloud of marijuana.
By the time Aurelia returns, Erasmus is already lying on his back.
A child once more. Looking up at the sky in wonder.
For a second Aurelia is frightened, blasted with a reflex terror. Momentarily rigid. But then she sees his buckled smile. Notices him laughing. With a gasp of relief she sets down the coffee and cakes and stretches herself out on the turf next to him. Their fingertips brush – the faintest of touch – and both are filled with the electrics of release. Of exoneration. Recognition.
I never used to do this kind of thing, he tells her. Until she came along.
Now that he has opened up about her, he feels the downhill rush of remembrance. The momentum of memory tumbling out of him. Connections form. Tears well saltily, stinging weary eyes. It is a story he has told so many times, in such detail, that he is surprised to find that his feeling for it – for her – is still so fresh. As though it were springtime in his heart and she was still the most brilliant bloom in the garden.
But then again, she always was the one. The one who made him feel.
Anna Carmela, he sighs.
He cannot recall the last time he spoke her name aloud.
Anna Carmela, he whispers even lower – just for the joy of wrapping his tongue around it.
She was a dancer. I was a block of wood.
Aurelia Zhou wonders what it would be like to have a man speak of her in such terms. To be loved that way.
Although she is revelling in the lyrical quality of his recollection, partly she is saddened by the realisation that the most romantic things she has ever heard are coming from the thin and cracked lips of a nearly blind geriatric. A man on the edge of time.
It is not simply that no man ever thought to say such things to her but that she herself has never even imagined them – let alone felt them. But then, she forgets all that and allows herself to be seduced by his effortlessly effective language; and she is lost inside his rambling, disjointed story and only inspiration remains.
A single word. Reunion.
Something rescued from history. Like the old man’s love. A flame plucked from fiction. Fed fresh oxygen.
She sees how moved he is – hears the quavers and catches – feels the way that compassion has filled in the enormous vacuums of time and unknowing.
Next to her, he is murmuring distantly, pulling threads together. There was a certain point – quite early on it was – when I knew absolutely for sure that I was not in control. That she had set something in motion that I could not switch off with my cleverness. And somehow, by some instinct I didn’t even know that I had, I just knew that I shouldn’t even try. That I should just give up. Let whatever it was do whatever it wanted to do; and I would just accept the outcome.
But you were strong, she says. You always knew you were going to be okay.
Erasmus laughs, gives a slight shake of his head. That was the thing. I didn’t. I was forced to abandon that particular comfort and accept the very real possibility that I might not.
Aurelia is fascinated. Were you scared?
Terrified, he confesses. I could see myself being slowly dis-assembled. I knew I was in a destructive spiral. Not sleeping. Barely eating. Unable to think of anything of but her. It was ridiculous. But somehow I just knew it was a fire I had to walk through – not around. That it wasn’t a problem that needed to be solved, or an illness that needed to be cured. It was more like waking up. Like the moment when the first shoot pokes its head out of the ground and feels the sunlight. Like a whole new world. Scary … but unbelievably beautiful.
Is that why you wrote about it? Aurelia wonders.
Actually it was only when I started writing about it that I realised just how incredible it all was.
Erasmus looks over at his young friend and sees the next question in her eyes. The moment I started writing that book, he replies, I knew that I’d somehow stumbled across something entirely magical. My writing was … changed. Like it wasn’t even mine. And I realised that if I just surrendered to the voice that seemed to be whispering all these words in my ear – and I just typed out what it said – that it would all be true. Not word of a lie. And that I would be liberated by that truth.
As he says it, a wave passes through him and tears flow down his arid cheeks and he has the feeling of a golden light shining from inside him and he is in a state of ecstasy and connection. His lips tremble and he looks to the sky – to the great nothing that sits inside everything – and Anna Carmela is beside him once more and his love for her flows like a never ending river.
And now at last Aurelia understands. Or believes she does.
Time and space have collapsed for him today. She is in his bloodstream again. Dancing for him once more. Her eyes alight as she pirouettes in his loungeroom. Sighs in his arms. Her hunger like his. Their feeding deep and quiet.
While Aurelia wheels him through the park he talks in snatches – sometimes at her prompting, others as if reminded by a scent or a subtle shift in the air.
I suppose we were only really ‘together’ for about six months, he recounts. Then there was this long tail. Like a stretched out ending. I tried to be her friend; but in the end I couldn’t stand it.
So it was you who broke it off? Aurelia enquires.
I grew tired of pretending.
This intrigues Aurelia. As a Cantonese woman she has been schooled in the values of harmony and in the obscuring of personal feelings that this much vaunted cultural cohesion requires. She has always pretended. Indeed she feels that it is her natural state.
But Erasmus does not have her Asian reserve. His book will open at any page. He has nothing to lose. Or gain.
As soon as I knew for sure that she would never allow herself to be loved – by me or anyone really – and that I would always have to censor how I felt, I could no longer find the will to overlook all the obviously awful things about her. The way she lied. Disappeared for days on end. Her so-called ‘episodes’. The promises I was always stupid enough to fall for. So I put it all the line.
Listening to him describe it, Aurelia feels that she does yet possess the strength to risk what he had – to write an all or nothing letter and be prepared to accept the resulting severance.
About two weeks later she moved away and I never saw her again, he says as evenly as he can. She never wrote. Never phoned. And then, y’know, weeks became months became years.
And then you wrote a book about her.
And she never knew.
Erasmus and Aurelia both privately reflect that this was a sad outcome for Anna Carmela. For if she could know she would never again doubt that someone once loved her beyond all measure. That for a time she was the queen of everything. The most lovely. And that hers was a shadow cast by light.
Do you ever wonder what happened to her?
Almost every day, he whispers.
But you never tried to find her?
He looks over his shoulder at his young companion and says, with all the kindness he can muster, You do know you can never go backwards, don’t you?
In her head she agrees entirely – but in her heart she holds onto the fact of the text message. Of the boy’s return. Is this backwards? she thinks to herself. Or the beginning?
When he has talked himself dry, Erasmus manoeuvres his arthritic frame into yet another cab. His misty eyes devour Aurelia for a few moments more. His fingers hold onto hers as they say goodbye. He feels the vibrant heat of her young body – its health and sexual promise. Its life force.
As the car creaks away and she recedes – waving at him – he crashes.
Not just her. Anna Carmela.
Years. Distance. Longing. Never, ever knowing.
Love still burning bright. A fire in a room where no one goes.
His heart cracks open – as though the hot blade of a knife had been surgically inserted. Even after all this time he still aches. Bleeds so readily.
He leans back into his seat, opens the window and lets the warm and scented spring air flow over him, as the motor purrs and the radio plays and the ghost of a beautiful girl lingers at his side.
And he thinks to himself: If I have built a temple out of wisdom, how effortlessly you break down its doors. How thoroughly you smash its useless idols with your faintest touch.
Then he allows himself the small pleasure of laughing at his own sentimental folly and asks the driver to take a detour. He wants to drive past the block of Art Deco apartments in which he and her were once neighbours. He wants to see the window where her light once shone.
While the driver obliges and the fare mounts in steady, incremental clicks, Erasmus wonders why. But the answer is obvious. Because Aurelia Zhou will stand to gain – and in the final chapter of his life, he is ready to give anything and everything to be within touching distance of such splendour. For he is a man – however broken – and she is a woman; and he has come to believe that there is nothing more profound than the savage gravity that slams them together and breaks them apart.
Aurelia walks home alone – but not before she reads his message again.
As soon as she is comfortably settled, she replies. The button pressed. The next phase begun.
She realises that she is shaking uncontrollably. Nervous. Exhilarated.
But at least she has a plan now. Much clearer after today.
She feels sure he will agree. He likes crazy things. That’s what drew her to him. He wasn’t afraid. And she remembers too how beautifully he kissed. The thought of which makes her tremble even more.
Then she imagines a fire like the one in the old man’s heart – and her whole body fills with warmth.