Lazy Luddite Log

31.1.11

Three Shoreside Tales - Story III

I tend to be a happy person and a lot of the things I make are likewise happy. However I have a tendency to end happy things on a sad note. So a playlist of generally cheerful stuff will end with a melancholy track. Likewise here I am making the third and final story of this set different from the others. It is rather different from the second story that it shares a scene with.

For the fifth time in five years, Elspeth sat in the Cranberry Cove Bakery Café, sipping a café latte and hoping Gregor would walk in the door. As she stirred her beverage she reflected on her first encounter with her surprising stranger in that café. It was the first time they had spoken even if it was the second time they had met. That they had spoken at all was surprising to both of them. They both had problems in talking to strangers, and indeed to anyone at all.

Ask Elspeth why she found communication difficult and she would have difficulty telling you. And even in her own internal dialogue she could never formulate an answer. All she knew was that she had always been this way. She could overcome her inhibitions for the sake of necessity – buying milk at the shop… collecting her pay cheque every week from the accounts office at the factory… telling her sister (whom she lived with) what she had missed in the last few minutes of Home & Away. Anything more than that was incredibly difficult, and had been so throughout her forty three years of life. That somehow changed on meeting Gregor.

A group of four young people came into the café and occupied the table next to her. They were three young women and one young man. All were glowing with life and possibility, and it was as if they knew it. They chatted in an animated and skilful fashion that had always impressed and intimidated Elspeth. The feller was wearing a necklace sporting a small shell and this reminded Elspeth of the first time she saw Gregor.

Elspeth loved to walk along the beach and wade in the rock pools at low tide. She had been coming to Cranberry Cove Foreshore Camping Reserve with her sister every Summer for over a decade. They stayed in the same caravan but would spend most days apart. Jessica had been given a much younger name by their parents and it seemed to affect her behaviour. Jessica seemed to know and get along with all the regular campers so, while she chatted and drank, Elspeth would go on long walks and collect shells.

As she collected shells and avoided stepping on crabs, Elspeth noticed another person doing the same thing a few meters distant. It was a bit unusual, she felt, to see someone alone, other than her, in such a pursuit. Mostly she saw children or families exploring the rock pools together. The stranger, who looked a similar age to her, moved slowly, deliberately, awkwardly, and seemed to pay close attention to everything in the water. At one moment they both looked in each other’s direction. The stranger tipped his sun hat momentarily, she smiled, and then they both returned to looking intently at things in the water, real or feigned.

Elspeth was distracted from her fond recollection by the young people chatting. What were they discussing now? They never seemed to stick to one topic. There was music, then politics, then movies, then more music, then something that made Elspeth blush. How did they do it? Maybe they all loved one another, outlandish as that notion seemed. That was how Elspeth supposed she could talk for hours with Gregor and only with Gregor.

Five years ago, and a day after the rock pool almost-meeting, Gregor had wandered into the Cranberry Cove Bakery Café and started examining the wall-menu. Elspeth had been sipping a coffee and reading a romance novel, and between sips she observed the stranger furtively. The subject of her observation ordered a milkshake, took a table number, turned round and then started walking towards Elspeth. He withdrew something from a pocket, proffered it at Elspeth, and declared that it was an “Undulate Volute Amoria”. His words were like poetry to Elspeth even if she was puzzled by them. She must have looked puzzled because the stranger then made a longer statement: “I am Gregor and I saw you collecting shells yesterday, and so was I, and this is one I collected”.

Following that, conversation seemed to flow and to this day Eslpeth wondered how. She asked him how he knew the name of that kind of shell. He told her of his avid interest in marine life. She asked him if he was a local. He told her he came here camping every year. Somehow Elspeth was talking like a normal person. She even uttered with feeling “you make me like talking”. At that the conversation paused. Gregor looked at her and then made the strangest statement – “it must be the magic of the shells”.

The magic of the shells – it was just a throwaway line Gregor later admitted, but he also felt that it was significant, given that he normally never managed to make such spontaneous statements. Elspeth later embellished that line with additional meaning. From childhood we are told that shells hold and store sounds, such as the roaring of the ocean, and for Elspeth the shells they had been collecting held conversation in them, an enchantment that allowed Elspeth and Gregor to talk. And from talk so many other things can grow.

Elspeth and Gregor walked and collected shells… they ate dinner at each of the three local restaurants on different nights… they watched the sun setting. Finally on the last night of her holiday, Gregor asked Elspeth back to his one-man tent, a request to which she happily assented. Both lacked experience of intimacy, yet both engaged enthusiastically in the activity of that night, buoyed by the thrill of having thoroughly immersed themselves in the strangeness of another personality.

The young people were discussing the pros and cons of skinny-dipping, a term Espeth only knew because of American movies set in the 1950s. It was all somehow very politically charged, which puzzled her. She was also puzzled by how long she had been sitting in the café. Her coffee was now cold and Gregor was absent. Gregor lived interstate cataloguing rare marine species on tropical reefs and only came to Cranberry Cove due to a childhood connection to the place.

Every year for the last three years they had met here and resumed their relationship as they had left it. Every year he would walk in with some unusual shell to show her and name. Normally it took only one cup of coffee for him to wander in and order a milkshake. What was different now?

Carla, one of the staff, came over and refreshed her coffee, and then made more than just the usual small talk with her:

“Hey, Elsie, I have a letter for you, addressed here and care of you.”

Elspeth was surprised, and stammered her thanks, taking the envelope and waiting for Carla to go back to her work. Who had written to her and why? How did they know she was here? She had a peculiar feeling forming in her tummy and a suspicion took shape in her mind.

She had never seen the handwriting, but then, Elspeth realized, she and Gregor had never written to one another. She opened the letter and read it in silence while the café clamour continued around her.

The wording was economical and sparse and the message was explicit. Gregor was staying home these holidays. Things had changed. He had gotten into a relationship with a workmate. The confidence he had developed at Cranberry Cove had allowed this to happen. He was sorry for his absence and hoped she had a nice holiday. He had included his return address so they could be pen-pals if she wanted...

Pen-pals? They had never written… never called… because the magic only worked in person, or so they had believed… and now she had lost even that… even her annual dose of attention and attraction?

Elpeth felt the forming of tears that seemed stuck inside her eyes. It was as if the shell she would never now be given held her tears imprisoned within it. Had she been in her tent alone maybe then she could have felt more but in this café she found herself thinking.

Yes, Elspeth felt abandoned, but she and Gregor had never promised anything except another Summer… and another… and another… one at a time. Was it good that someone she loved had grown as a person and had all the things he wanted now in one location? Should she be happy that she had contributed to the happiness of another? A line from the novel she had read that important day four years ago returned to her:

“Love compels us to want what is best for the other person rather than for ourselves.”

That line from a pulp romance gave Elspeth a moment of calm acceptance. Was that it? Was that all she needed to dispel the awful emptiness and hurt that had suddenly been cast upon her? Her dull dim pondering was momentarily eclipsed by the continuing chatter from the young people. They were arguing still, using discussion as a way of making decisions, and Elspeth started to converse with herself once more.

She needed more than just this thing in her past. She needed her life to touch and be touched by others. She needed to be part of a world she had only ever observed from a safe distance. If Gregor could benefit from what they had shared then Elspeth could do likewise. And she could draw on more than that… more than some silly love story… and maybe give some things back too.

Elspeth scoffed her second coffee down then left her table. As she walked past the young people she stopped and, directing her attention to the most argumentative of the group, told her something:

“Life is short and blue, honey, like your hair, so make the most of it, whatever you decide to do.”

With that Elspeth left the Cranberry Cove Bakery Café, feeling something she had never felt. She had made a profound comment to a total stranger and was now on her way to pay a bit more attention to life and make it notice her.

Elspeth had resolved to go find Jessica and her mates and see if they had anything for her to drink. Maybe she had a story to tell and they would be amazed and shocked by it. Maybe they would tell her theirs. Maybe the anger and sorrow that she knew would linger could provide an excuse to form new bonds. Elpeth knew now that it was she, rather than shells, that held the power of sharing her life with others.

That was the most difficult to write for me because it departs the most from my personal experience. And yet there are aspects of it that resonate with me and draw on things I have felt even if only in imagination. I worry that the kind of rapid personal transformations I describe in this story are just too difficult to make this story anything more than pure fantasy.

Cross-posted here.

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