They’d been playing for most of the afternoon, despite the cold, but as soon as the light began to fade, their mothers began summoning them inside. Time for dinner. See you tomorrows were called with cheer as one by one they left the square, until eventually it was just Martin remaining. He watched the sky swell grand and purple, felt the cold turn piercing, and then made his way out of the square, back to the street, urban branches closing and tugging at his coat on the way. He emerged on the wrong side. The layout was strange and entrancing at this hour, and all roads lead home eventually, he’d been told, by someone at some time. And so he walked, passing long terraces of quiet houses, then he turned right because that felt right, then left because that felt right too.
‘How old are you?’ he asked.
‘How old do you think I am?’ she said.
She too was wearing a mask, so he had only clothing choices, posture, eyes, mouth, and voice to go on. She was tall. Her hair was thick and dark, though he wasn’t sure what that told him. ‘I’m no good at this,’ he said.
‘No good at what?’ Her voice clear, low, unhurried.
‘At ages. Guessing.’
‘You don’t have to answer,’ she said. ‘Keep it to yourself. However old you think I am, that’s how old I am.’
Later, still masked, on a couch in a different room, they drank bitter clear liqueur from tiny glasses. ‘Have you noticed,’ she said, ‘how I haven’t asked you about your age?’ She licked her lips. Her tongue was deliberate, and pinkly vibrant.
He said nothing, and nothing was expected, then after a while, ‘No, I hadn’t noticed,’ he said, ‘but I’m aware now.’ He thought some more then said, ‘I did notice that you didn’t query the relevance of my question.’
‘Which question?’ she said.
‘The one about your age.’ He thought he’d only asked her the one.
‘Didn’t I?’ she said, and perhaps she smiled. He detected for the first time a delicate perfume, hers, a hint of white flowers, and something else, something suggesting softness and marshmallow, and then it was gone, absorbed in the incense burning from another part of the building.
Later still, when he was alone with the realisation that they wouldn’t meet again, with the knowledge that she’d been accurate in calling their encounter a one-off, he was puzzled by an inability to recall the details of the mask she’d been wearing, other than its having definitely been a mask. Its shape, colour, texture and material, how it had been secured, all was lost and absent. All seemed important, particularly as he’d never once sighted her full face. This vagueness bothered him, and the bother would thrive and sometimes visit, surprising, as the years peeled away.
It’s a squarish room, plain by day, and nothing to speak of. But after dark, when the lamps are lit and the candles positioned, the room takes on an inviting glow, and were you to walk inside from the chill of a wintry evening, throwing off your coat and rubbing your hands together, you’d think it had the air of an old-fashioned club. A suggestion of wood-panelled age, perhaps; of capacious leather armchairs, and small low tables ready for heavy tumblers of whisky. You might describe it as a pleasant room, a cheery welcoming place. A place where a roaring fire and reliable grandfather clock wouldn’t be unexpected.
But that isn’t the real room. Often he keeps his head still, feigning sleep, then rolls his eyes gently to the side, and he can make out the profile of a face, or the line of a limb. And sometimes, if he concentrates, he hears whispers and breathing. But whenever he moves his head to probe the deep corners, there’s no longer anything certain to observe. But he knows his eyes and ears aren’t the only arbiters of all that happens in the room.
He has no friends. To have friends might create a need to explain himself. Why is it, they might ask, that your life is one way and not another? And eventually he’d have to tell them about the company he keeps. It’s the ghosts, he’d say.
“And then lunch, and your winter desserts. Hot custard over steamed puddings. Home-baked. You never used much sugar. Bad for the teeth. And then Mummy’s comments. She always had something to say. ‘It could use a little more sugar, this dessert,’ and you’d tell her that maybe she could make dessert the next time. And that look again, across the table. Not in front of the boy.”
My short story Interrupter has been dramatised for broadcast on Cover To Cover on Vision Australia Radio on Friday 6 April, repeated Sunday 8 April. The program can be heard on the radio or online in Australia, and online in the rest of the world. Visit the Vision Australia Radio website for more info and a handy frequency finder.
Interrupter was published in pocketbook format in 2015 by In Short Publishing Co.
Cover To Cover is VAR’s weekly literary program, produced and presented by Tim McQueen.
“And the friend will ask what comes next now that the animal is held in place, is transfixed and bound by a strange spell. Kesh will say that the magic (and he’ll say this word shyly, because he still feels a little modest in this regard) only goes so far, only goes as far as has been shown, and that he has no idea of how to lift the animal from its trance.”
The Cat Mesmerist is included in the latest Roomers magazine. Issue #63: What’s your superpower? is available to download here.
Previous issues of Roomers can be downloaded here.
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