He took it all in, savouring it for one more time as he sipped on a flute of Jansz champagne – a gentle tribute to the southern isle of his birth. The old man had returned to the hotel by river cat. He’d spent the last few hours at the Belgian Beer Bar, a constant in his many visits to Brisbane over the years, travelling up from Mangoland, his property near Bangalow. Mangoland was the place he’d called home for fifty or so years now. A good set up he’d had – well, still had – down there. It was a short hop, step and jump to Byron, where he still took off to every time he felt like a paddle through the shallowest of Pacific shallows. It was the same in the opposite direction to Lismore, the location of his chambers up until the day he retired. Of course Mangoland was at its best, its most splendid when she was around. But she’s long gone now, the old man reflected. She didn’t even see him to the end of his working life. Since then he’d employed a succession of locals to maintain the place. He’s willed it to the community to do what they want with it – there’s nobody to pass it on to. They couldn’t have kids – it wasn’t for want of trying. They just accepted it – got on with life – as you did in those days. Maybe these days science could have changed their fortunes in that regard, but really, all they needed, in truth, was each other. Then she went. Cancer. She, who for all her adulthood led a healthy vegan lifestyle – compared to him with his penchant for reds, whisky and craft ales. Life’s not fair sometimes.
Down below his eyrie, on the seventeenth floor, the summer’s day was dying. As he took another sip the old man thought back to her and how she changed what he thought would be his life’s course. He cherished those years with her, by far the best years. It hadn’t exactly been an arid desert since, but now it was time. He was eighty – and being eighty in 2031, the way the world was, it was time. He wasn’t ailing – there just didn’t seem any more point to it. He didn’t like what he was hearing these days. He used to be such a newspaper junkie, but now that all that had gone on-line, his news came from the radio. He had no time for the rubbish they served up on television, itself almost an anachronism. The world had changed so much. All the doom and gloom about the climate, the sea, the fast disappearing wildlife – he didn’t want to be around to watch it all go completely belly-up. Yes, it was time. Over on the bedside table the old man had placed a bottle of Glenfiddich and a certain something else as well.
He’d enjoyed the afternoon. He had been happy in the bar, working his way through a couple of Leffe Brunes for the road – another constant since the first time he travelled with her to the city as a married couple. For a change they had stayed down that end of town and they discovered the bar by accident. Of course, by then she knew. It took hold so quickly they never had the chance to return, but he did – every time he came up to do what he did in the years after her death. That is, until the time he was with Tasha. After her he knew it was ridiculous to continue. He had passed that other beer barn earlier in the day, hopping off another city cat. The memory of it made him smile, as it had many times in the years since. It was where he found Tash.
He’d had his bucket of mussels in a beery broth at the bar. ‘Christ,’ he’d thought. ‘Jesus would have been hard put to do any better than this!’ He didn’t need any company this day; with part of his mind on what he had to do; part of his mind thinking about Tasha, his wife and Mangoland. He was at ease though, content enough every now and again to watch the passing parade, enjoying one of his life’s pleasures.
Back at the hotel, as the heat dissipated from the city streets below, he ruminated on that trip all those years ago – the one that eventually would lead to this. It was the year of the Dismissal – he couldn’t forget that. 1975. The year hope was sucked from a nation for a decade, but not for the three young men who set out in that Kombi – the hippymobile they’d called it. They’d had fun painting it in the bright swirls of psychedelica. The truth was, that period was drawing to an end as the world reverted to default. The ‘Summer of Love’ was long over – it just took everything a little while to work its way to their island backwater. At any rate he, Murph and AJ were far from being hippies – they were just playing at it. They were no Age of Aquarius gypsies. The three of them had their law degrees in their back pockets as they headed to the north of the state, aiming to catch the ferry that would take them to the ‘big island’ and adventures. It was to be a year off – what would be called a gap year now, the old man mused. Then they would settle down, back in Tassie, close to family and complete their articles in some established law firm – ‘or that was the plan,’ the old man chuckled as he sipped his Jansz and looked out over the view he loved in this, his regular room, 173, on the seventeenth floor. By the window, the dusk was settling over the city as he looked down the Brisbane River towards the Story Bridge. The lights were coming on in the towers all around. He wondered what had become of Murph and AJ. He knew the latter had made it all the way up to Cairns, liked what he saw there and had realised quickly that Port Douglas had potential. He invested on the ground floor and made a killing, setting himself up for life. He’d lost touch with AJ decades ago, as with Murph who, as far as he knew, was still practising the law back in his home town on the island. Whenever he went back – which wasn’t very often, he was always going to look him up. He never did. He thought now of the great times they had as mates, on the first part of the trip, before he met her, as well as during his uni years. ‘Funny how it all turns out,’ he pondered.
His two cobbers were surfers – lawyering surfers. He wasn’t, but he loved their company, loved the beach and he’d plenty of books along for the trip. It caused a chortle as the old man raised his glass to his two great mates of days of yore.
They’d disembarked at Melbourne and headed for the Surf Coast – Bells Beach and all that. After their fill there, they went to the edge of the Nullabor, to the legendary surf spots there. It took them a couple of months. And along the way there were girls. AJ, with his shock of blonde hair and plenty of front, was in his element. He had no trouble picking up in those easy days. Occasionally he’d score with a girl himself who saw through AJ’s bullshit. Poor old Murf – he struggled in that regard. He was already balding and looked very ‘nerdish’, to use a modern term. Put him on a surfboard however, he’d surf the pants of AJ and anyone else who cared to take him on.
Once they’d exhausted the watery pleasures of Ceduna they took to the Barrier Highway, cutting across the middle of the continent, making for the Pacific, via Broken Hill and Dubbo. In the old Kombi it seemed to take forever, but they emerged on the eastern rim at Port Macquarie. They would ‘do’ Sydney and the southern beaches on the return journey. At that stage they had no notion that that would never happen. Murph and AJ surfed their way north – up through Nambucca, Coffs, Yamba, Evans Head and Ballina till they hit Byron.
Byron Bay then didn’t have the cachet it does today, the old fellow by the window recalled. It was all pretty raw – but already was becoming the mecca for alternatives and drop outs it would later develop into, before the latte set took over. AJ, as always, knew someone who knew someone who lived in a commune on the road to Nimbin. The three resolved to check that out before they crossed over into Queensland. The old man remembered that already he was starting to like the look of the country in this part of the world and wanted to stay longer in Byron Bay, but he was out-voted. They proceeded north, but detoured to check out the commune.
As it turned out it was going to be quite some time before he set eyes on the Gold Coast, for on that rough and ready commune on the side of a hill off the road to ‘hippy-central’, he found nirvana. And, as well, the love of his life.
It took a while to find the place, with the hippymobile again struggling to come to terms with the task it was set. They breached the crest of a hill on little more than a dirt track and there, below them, in a cleared gully, were some pretty basic buildings – three long ones radiating out from a smaller central one. All around was cleared ground lush with organised growth. In the vegie patches were a range of people hoeing away in various stages of undress – some, men, women and children – completely starkers. That was all a bit of a shock to the relatively sheltered lads from provincial Tasmania. As they drove up a couple of the residents sauntered over and AJ asked for his ‘friend’. He, it turned out, was one of the ‘founders’. He invited them to stay a while, pointed out the rules and directed them to one of the communal dorms where they could find a space to bed down, if they chose. Of course AJ was all for it, so they took up the offer.
The room was darker now. The old man lurched off his stool by the window and switched on the lights. There looked to be one more glass in the bottle of Jansz. He would make it last as he wandered along his memory. He knew he had to take it slowly. There was still the scotch beside his bed and he didn’t want to lose the plot completely – he needed to retain enough sobriety to do the deed, but not be too sober so as to have second thoughts. He returned to his spot by the window to watch darkness shroud the city; to continue working his way along the route his memory was taking him. His thoughts went back to where he’d left off; back to the commune and the girl.
For a while it was all quite strange and new, but a week in the he felt he was an old hand. The nudity surprised him at first, but once he realised no one gave a rats about how dressed or undressed you were, he quickly acclimatised to it. Many seemed so zonked on the weed that almost grew wild they barely knew what day it was – not that dates counted for much there. He knew he couldn’t go ‘all the way.’ AJ of course took to it like a duck out of water. The rules were simple. For your board and tucker – only vegetarian – you were expected to work in the vegie plots and help out building a new dorm. He laboured hard, enjoying the novelty of physical work for the first time. He quickly discovered an aptitude for tools and implements he never imagined he possessed. He was beginning to realise it would be very difficult to leave this paradise when the time came. He knew it had a few drawbacks – when it rained it really rained, that ‘free love’ was not his thing and that the food was bland with a sameness to it. The insects at night were a pain and there were the few that constantly whined about it all, but were usually too addled to have the wherewithal to pack up and vamoose. Then, after a couple of weeks, he started to notice her – and she, him – as it turned out.
Nora was quiet. Nora, by the commune’s standards, was demure – usually garbed in the ubiquitous cheesecloth of the day. Some of the girls flaunted their sexuality, their nudity; some were more subtle about it, but Nora was like him. Some of the girls had a reputation for sleeping around; some were more subtle about it, but Nora was like him. AJ had a different girl hanging off him every week it seemed. Meanwhile, Murph had taken to the habit of driving off in the Kombi after the daily chores were done – not returning till later in the night. He wouldn’t say where to. As for the old man back then – he was just content to watch it all unfold before his eyes. He knows now it was his reserve that drew Nora to him. She was in a bind as she hadn’t really bonded with the place, unlike he had. She was travelling around Oz with a number of companions who were right into the notion of the hippy lifestyle. She? Well she couldn’t wait to get away, but wasn’t game to do so on her own. She was a Kiwi – a Christchurch girl. She also hated the sexual antics of the place, the unbridled nudity and abhorred constantly fending off stoned cave-men trying to hit on her. In looks, she reminded him of a younger version of Junie Morosi – the woman who won a deputy prime-minister’s heart and helped destroy a government. She had the same hue of hair and skin, the same full lips and shining eyes – although she was far from as overt as that seductress. One night, after the home brews had been bought out, she sauntered over to him, sat down and told him her story – of how she was also taking a year off before getting on with her life back in NZ. She told him of her dislike of the commune, particularly the guys who always assumed that she would be eager for them to bed her. He still remembers her exact words, easily bringing them to mind by the window that night – ‘Maybe,’ she said, ‘if I hung around you they would lay off.’
He asked her if that was an invitation. ‘Maybe,’ she responded. ‘Let’s just see how it goes, see what happens.’ She then laughed, before continuing – ‘You wouldn’t mind, would you?’
He answered in the affirmative, saying he’d like that very much.
As time passed slowly at the commune he came to know her exceedingly quickly. It was soon accepted that they were in ‘partnership’ and she was left alone. Eventually they started sleeping together. He found out that, under that cheese cloth, there was much to like when she wrapped herself around him. Soon, he knew he was deeply in love with her and that she felt the same way.
It turned out that Murph, on the sly, had set himself up with a position in a legal firm in Lismore and he took his departure from both the Kombi van and the commune – although he’d only be just down the road. AJ was getting fidgety too – he’d run out of eligible women and wanted to get moving again. The old man remembered how it felt, way back then, that one life was over as he farewelled his blonde mate, but that another one was beginning. His life with his Nora.
A month or so after AJ’s departure, a shaky Murph paid him a visit. He had word that his father was critically ill and was returning to Tasmania for the foreseeable future. Would Nora and he be interested in taking over his flat in Lismore, as well as his friend his position at the chambers? As much as he enjoyed the commune, its limitations were starting to get to him and he knew that Nora was still desperate to move on – so in the end it was a no-brainer. Overlooking the river, he recalled that at that time he was prepared to put the happiness of his Kiwi love above anything else in his life; that being how it would remain for the rest of their days together. He was over pretend hippydom. Once that decision was made, he knew in his bones that he would never look back – as long as he had Nora.
By now darkness was shrouding the city, the champagne was gone and the whisky beckoned. He took some ice and poured himself a finger or two of the juice from the peat, settling himself on the bed to continue his reverie. He still had an hour or more before he’d do the other. He felt a little worse for wear, but was too het up to be sleepy. He knew he’d have to watch his intake – to really savour it as if there was no tomorrow. He gave a slight chuckle at his macabre little joke with himself.
The North Quay Park Regis opened by the river in Brisbane back in 1989. It was the year after what had been, to that stage, an overgrown country town, had became a city of the world with its bicentenary World Expo. The new hotel, being close to Roma Street, made it very convenient to take the train up from Lismore, walk the block there and use it as a base for their times in the big smoke. He began to enjoy the attractions of South Bank as they came on line, particularly the twin galleries. She shook their communal beginnings off with shopping, mainly to transform their Mangoland into her vision. Later on, after she was gone, the park lands behind the station became an attraction with their sub-tropical coolness away from the often oppressive heat of the city. And he never knew who he might meet in them. Their first stay at the Regis was not long after the opening. They were delighted with their room on the seventeenth floor – a spacious, airy apartment with stunning views down river and to the ever changing skyline. Each time they came to ‘town’ there seemed to be another tower, outdoing the last in height and architectural wizardry. The place was booming as they turned the corner into the nineties.
The old man’s business was thriving back then, which allowed him to purchase their spread on a few acres on the seaward side of Bangalow – handy to his chambers, in which he was now a full partner, as well as the beaches around Byron. He would always retain a passion for those. He made some percipient business decisions as Australia’s most easterly town also took off as the place to be in the nation’s consciousness – he wasn’t short of money. Life was very peachy. The older Nora became, the more she bloomed. With her diet and exercise regime, she was a picture of health, or so he thought. He was still as smitten by her as he was back in the days of cheesecloth. They planned to make it all formal and marry when their first child came along, but that never occurred so they decided to go on as they were – it, after all, seemed to work well. He never strayed, she was his delight and inspiration. Like Morosi before her, she retained her striking looks as the years went on. They travelled, indulging in collecting up and coming artists to place on the walls of Mangoland. Then, as the world prepared for a new millennium, came the diagnosis.
She’d felt a lump. It turned out to be aggressive. Soon, to their horror, they were told it would only be a matter of months. She went downhill quickly. One night, as he lay in bed with her, she took his hand and asked if he would do her the honour of becoming her widower. He didn’t hestiate. A small gathering was arranged the following week at Mangoland. They made commitments to each other – he was strong as he said the words to her, but now all these years on, tears flowed from the old prone man’s eyes as his synapses gave up the details of the most poignant event of his life. She was well enough for a brief ‘honeymoon’ in Brisbane. For once they eschewed the Regis and went for an even flasher venue on the other side of town, overlooking Eagle Street Pier. It was nearby they discovered the Belgian Beer Bar a short walk away – the first time be sampled Leffe, the first time he partook of the brothy mussels.
It wasn’t an easy death when it came – the more reason for what he was doing that night. Nora fought; she fought hard and had the best care his money could provide. Nothing could persuade the cancer not to follow the doctors’ prognosis – she hardly saw any of the new age that dawned on the planet back in 2000. He mourned; mourned as hard as she had fought to hang on. It knocked the stuffing out of him, but his friends and the Bangalow community rallied around, took him under their collective wing, seeing to it that he made it through to the other side. Slowly he realised he wasn’t going to lose the plot; slowly – ever so slowly Nora ebbed away and he began to see that he could move on. In which direction was the problem.
He knew he’d never find another Nora, but he also knew the answer lay with women. He couldn’t abide the thought of another woman sharing Mangoland with him back in those raw days – but on the other hand, he couldn’t conceive of his life without the opposite gender, in some shape or form, in it. By the time he turned his half century, a classic affair at Strop’s Byron pub, he knew he was ready for a new stage in his life. He enjoyed the do – for a while there he thought all enjoyment had been expunged from his being. He wanted spice back in his life; he wanted to feel the touch of a woman again. He knew the internet wasn’t for him. Mates tried to set him up, but he found it claustrophobic with them looking over his shoulder checking how he was going with Mary, Jane or Betty. No, he’d need another way. In the end he realised the answer was right under his nose. He would wait for it to happen, just as he did, inadvertently, all those years ago back at the commune, with Nora. He formulated a plan. When he confided to a close friend, he was informed it was sort of like ‘reverse stalking’, but he didn’t see it that way. He’d do it well away from Mangoland – being away would mean he could be free of those who may disapprove. He knew he’d never find another Nora – nor did he particularly want to – but he wanted some adventures. If not handsome, he was well groomed, retained most of his hair and was socially articulate. And, importantly he had money. On most occasions, it worked to a greater or lesser degree – and of all his attributes, the latter turned out to be the least important.
For his purposes the Regis was his base and he became even more of a regular, with the staff making sure he was granted, on most occasions, the pleasure of Room 173 – the room with the river view. By trial and error he found the best venues to go to – the places where they were.
The old man was taking the whisky slowly, not so much because he wanted to put off the other task, but as he was having a fine time working his way back through his adventures. The whisky also soon made him more emotional, but even the tears he’d shed reliving his final times with Nora were pleasurable in a way – there was no one who cared now if he didn’t wipe away the reflection on his manliness; on his stoicism. It was perhaps this that, in the end, led him to the finale to all his ‘adventures.’
He was winding down his business through the noughties. This allowed him the scope to spend as much time as he desired in Brissy. He’d stay a few days, a couple of weeks, even a month if that is what it took, at the Regis. He never made the advances – he’d sit by himself at one of his venues, sipping on a favourite tipple. If he noticed a woman of a certain age he liked the certain look of, he’d make sure she knew he was quietly ‘looking her over’. This was his method. On some nights he would receive no response. When he did, though, initially, it was magic. When a lady of a certain age did venture over to him it may have meant just a drink or a couple; maybe even a dinner. On enough occasions it meant coffee at hers or back in his room. Sometimes it lead to a night in a lady’s arms; sometimes more than one night. He never pressured for anything – if they were willing, so was he and the more he went on, the more spending the night became less and less important. He soon discovered what he was really interested in were their stories. They all had stories. In the end he was mainly collecting stories. He found, when he returned to Mangoland, he enjoyed writing them up in his special journal; embellishing, occasionally placing himself in them – but usually not. Some of his ladies of a certain age were determinedly single, some were just out to have a fling, some were lonely, some were married to the degree they couldn’t recall singledom, some were in stultifying relationships of pure monotony, some were content with life but gave him their stories none the less. In all, there weren’t a host of them, but there were more than a few. He thought of it as not diminishing Nora. In honesty, he never felt with any of them enough of a connection for him to take it to another level. If they were interested in prolonging, he was honest – with that usually being the end of it. Of course he was using them, but he was scrupulous about their feelings. They were savvy enough to know it was what it was. The very few who lasted for more than an assignation or two just wanted companionship, sometimes with added intimacy, in their lives. As it was ‘no strings attached’, he went along for the journey for a while. But then there was Tash. She was his last. After Tasha, he’d had his fill. He went back to Mangoland – to his books, to his writing, to continuing to ensure that Mangoland remained Nora’s legacy – and to his strolls on a Byron beach.
On these occasions, by the Pacific, he invariably thought of Tash, as he was doing now, peering over to his Glenfiddich, calculating that one more may finish the story. The smaller container, by the whisky, could wait a tad longer. Then he would complete his mission. He had only to think through Tasha and then his journey back would be complete. With the thoughts of Tash, Nora and the whisky in him, he knew he could do it. He poured himself another half glass. This time there was no ice – he was too wobbly, he knew, to make it to the icebox – but, even with one more – he would not be too far gone to do the deed.
It was in 2013 that he saw the movie, in an art house cinema, on one of his excursions to Brisbane. He knows the exact date as he keeps a record of all his films – rates them, as he does his books. He loved this movie of a very elderly man and a rustically gorgeous young woman – ‘The Artist and the Model’. Could he ever have an experience like that venerable, wearying of life painter did with his young muse? He couldn’t imagine how it would occur, but he knew that if it did, that would be it. With that his ‘reverse stalking’ would end. It would be enough. He was starting to feel, in any case, that an end was coming closer. It was vague at the time, but at sixty plus he was tiring of the hike up to Brisbane for his stories. He was starting to make them up himself in any case – he didn’t feel the need any more. That is why the gift of the Spanish girl’s youth and body to the venerated painter resonated so much for him. He didn’t know then that it would occur – it would occur with Tash.
Nothing though, was further from his thoughts nearly ten tears later as he dined that night – a night now indelibly etched in his mind. It was at a German beer bar near Eagle Pier on a balmy late spring eve. At first he paid scant attention to the person taking his order and serving his first course. He was engrossed in a book and trying to shut out the racket of a crowd preparing for a big Friday night. As she bought his dinner to him, the first thing he picked up on was her accent – Eastern European, he thought. As she took away his plate he noticed the tightness of her uniform. Unlike the other girls who wore theirs loosely, hers was stunningly tight – her black micro-mini barely covering her petite posterior. A short while later she came bouncing back with his dessert. From a distance she gave him a smile as wide as the Great Australian Bight, seemingly directed at nobody else but him. Her eyes seemed fixed on him, only him. They seemed to him to be shining with mischief. Was she playing with his mind? Then he noticed her breasts. They were small, but barely contained in her lowly buttoned, stretched white shirt. He felt some stirrings that had, by and large, gone missing of late. ‘Bugger the book,’ he thought. ‘I am enjoying this immensely.’
When she came to see if he required a coffee, or any more of the bar’s services, he took the bit between his teeth. He remembers the conversation as if it occurred yesterday.
‘Your accent, young lady. I can’t place it. Where do you hale from?’
‘I’m Bulgarian sir. Have you ever met a Bulgarian before?’
‘I can’t say that I have. I’m Tasmanian. Have you, in turn, ever met someone from my island before?’
She laughed, obviously enjoying herself. ‘No, I have not. Certainly not before you, sir. You are exotic, just like me.’
‘What brings you to this country, my young friend?
‘Tash. My name is Tasha. A man, of course. What else? My boyfriend, he is an Aussie.’
‘Well thank you very much for looking after me so marvellously. I must compliment you on your smile. It lit up the evening for me.’ He reached into his pocket and drew out his wallet, giving her a generous tip. ‘Here, this is for you, just you. Don’t go sharing it. And here, here is my card. I collect stories and I’d like to hear yours sometime. Maybe we could meet for a coffee. I am harmless, but if you are concerned – bring your boyfriend – do. The card has my mobile number if you feel so inclined. Listening to your story would make this old man very happy.’
With that she said goodbye, giving him another killer smile as her parting gift, disappearing back to the kitchen – but she had taken his card.
Nothing happened. He didn’t forget her, just dismissed that he’d see her again. The summer was over when he did. She said she ‘refound’ the card – and yes, if he’d still like to – they could meet in a few days. She gave him a date, he gave her the place – Jimmy’s on the Mall. Everyone knew Jimmy’s. On the day in question, he trained north and was waiting for her, half believing she wouldn’t turn up. She did, right on time; minus boyfriend. Naturally he inquired.
‘He’s up on the Reef. Research. What you say – for his thesis. He’s away for a few weeks. I was feeling bored – so I remembered you, went looking for the card – and here I am.’
She was dressed more conservatively that day, he noticed. Even so, in her simple black cotton dress – she still stirred him.
The bottle was now a third gone. If he wasn’t careful, he knew, the room would start to spin and then he’d be cactus. Still, one more wouldn’t hurt – surely. That’d give him time to relive that afternoon, with what came after. He still finds it hard to believe – his own ‘artists model’!
To his shame, he cried that day. Just as he had during this vigil earlier, when the whiskey got to him. There was no whisky that day. He felt exposed at Jimmy’s – an old fart with a beautiful young golden haired Aphrodite. He suggested they go across the way – to his favourite coffee place in the foyer of the old Regent Theatre. And it was there she related her story for him.
She told of a hardscrabble upbringing in the outskirts of the capital, Sofia. Post-communist Bulgaria had more freedoms, but for most life was still pretty bleak. The young always had eyes open for a way out – to the West. She saw her chance whilst waitressing at a cafe in the ‘old town’ of her city. That was how he initially saw him when she caught his eye, had a brief chat and arranged to go out nightclubbing with the handsome tourist after she knocked off. It was not the first time she’d done that – but on this occasion it was different – she liked him. He was an Australian back-backer, spending his summer hols doing the continent on the cheap. Bulgaria was very cheap. In the end, with her cajoling, he stayed as his party moved on down into Greece. He was besotted. All she had to do was reel him in. It wasn’t long before she realised that there was a fringe benefit with him. She was in love too. Eventually he had to return home – but they kept in touch – skype, emails, social network – that sort of thing. Eventually she’d had enough saved, with a little assistance from his parents, for her to visit. They lived with his folks, which was becoming more and more intrusive, she commented, but she expected that once his final uni year was over, he would ask her to marry. She was hoping that this would occur – she really had no doubts that it would. Looking back, the old man wonders if it did. She told him that afternoon how much she adored Australia – its space, the beaches, the freedom, the sunshine. Did she get to stay and continue to enjoy that as well?
Then, she wanted his story – and he told it. When he came to the bit abut the passing of Nora, he broke down. She leant forward and took his hand, stroking it till he recovered. When he did so, he looked to his watch and realised that he’d spent more than three hours with her. He told her he would escort her to the station, to work, to a taxi – whatever she required. To his pleasure he was informed that it was her day off. If he wanted, they could share a meal together. He took her to the restaurant under the Regis – it was quiet there. She told him of her dreams, he of his travels with Nora. He invited her up to his room on the seventeenth floor for coffee.
‘No, not coffee – champagne, maybe?’
There was a bottle shop across the road and as luck had it, they had a cold Jansz.
‘This tastes of my island,’ he told her as they rode the elevator up to 173.
He guided her across to the window, from where she could admire the view, as he uncorked the bottle and poured drinks. He went over, sat down on a stool beside her and toasted, ‘Here’s to us. My past. Your future.’
The old man remembered they talked of movies, music and she talked of her Samuel. More than once he offered to take her to the trains, but no, no – she had plenty of time.
There was a lull in the conversation, eventually broken by, ‘Would you like to see me?’
At first he thought she was arranging another meeting. Then she turned her back to him and pointed to her zip. He then understood. He whispered that nothing would give him greater happiness. He slipped her out of her black dress.
She spent the night with him. They didn’t make love. She wouldn’t permit that, but she allowed him to drink in her body, to caress as she did for him – till she no longer needed to. Then she placed her head on his love-starved chest and slept. He forced himself to stay awake, determined to milk this time with her for all it was worth. She arose early in the morning. He felt a kiss on his cheek. He knew she was gone.
He in turn was savvy enough to realise it for what it was. If she did it because she felt sorry for him – he could live with that. He never sought her out again. And she was the last. He was now sated with what life had given him.
It was the moment. His story was done. He found the pre-written note; placing it beside the bottle. He felt sorry for whoever would find him in the morning, but knew this way was not as traumatic as other ways. He reached out for the pills.
They found him in the morning – two Filippino maids. They summoned management who in turn called the police and a doctor – the latter confirming death. The policeman took the pills from his grasp. The bottle had not been opened.