|Flowers In Her
by Padraig Hanratty
- Part Two -
Onstage, they all wore bandanas and hats to protect themselves from the rain. Or to make some obscure fashion statement.
That night on Fifth Avenue, nothing protected Silvio from the wild cathedral rain. It pounded him with relentless fury, screaming at him for what he’d done. And he knew he’d deserved that fury. Judgement had been passed and this was his punishment.
Silvio had never worn flowers in his hair. But, looking back beyond those dark days, he could remember times of peace and love, times with Clara when love was all there was. Such times could never last forever, but his memory could try to keep them alive. Memories at the way she’d laugh at his stupid jokes.
This horse walks into a bar. The barman asks, “Why the long face?” Clara had loved that one.
Memories of the concern that clouded her eyes whenever he was ill or anxious. Memories of her belief in him when everyone else, including himself, had given up on him. Memories that he couldn’t remember now, but he knew were looking somewhere inside the untidy storeroom of his brain.
The Hard Rain credits began flash onscreen as Dylan pounded on heaven’s door.
The Maestro Bistro was too crowded for Silvio’s liking. As he sat waiting for Lucy, he tried to busy himself reading the menu. He avoided making eye contact with anyone, feeling out of place amongst the brash office suits on their lunch break.
Lucy had said that she’d be spending the day with friends in town, but that she could meet Silvio for lunch. Silvio had suggested the Maestro Bistro.
Silvio had wanted to ask Lucy exactly who her friends were. He and Lucy still seemed so unsure of themselves. Silvio had revealed more and more about New York to her over the past four weeks. Lucy had revealed a few scraps about her own past, such as the problems her marriage went through in its later years and her difficult relationship with her mother. But they each revealed each layer slowly, carefully, each uncertain how the other would react.
Nothing on the lunch menu appealed to Silvio. With some annoyance, he realised that he would have to limit himself to soup and a roll. He’d cook something when he got home.
However, even the soup was not a certain option, because the menu didn’t say what exactly the soup of the day was. After waving and loudly clearing his throat a few times, Silvio finally got a harassed, ginger-haired waiter’s attention.
“What?” The waiter glanced impatiently around the restaurant. “Come on.”
“I was wondering,” Silvio asked, “if you could possibly please tell me what the soup of the day is?”
“In what way?” The waiter glared at some customers who had just entered the restaurant. “It’s soup!”
“No,” Silvio smiled, trying to hide his exasperation. “I was wondering what flavour it is.”
“I don’t know!” The waiter heaved a loud, shuddering sigh that creased his white shirt. “I have enough things to worry about. I have to try and keep track of what all these... people are ordering.”
“Well, could you find out, please?” The patience began to fade in Silvio’s voice. “You see, I’d like to know what it is before I order it. I’m funny that way.”
“Right!” The waiter stormed off. “I’ll find out, then!”
Silvio placed the menu back on the table, vowing never to come to the Maestro Bistro again.
Honest to God, you’d think I asked him to translate the menu into Sanskrit. Surely it’s not too much to ask. I didn’t realise it was a state secret. Maybe I should...
“What?” Silvio looked up, startled, and saw that the harassed waiter had returned. “What has been read?”
“The soup. It’s... red!”
“Oh!” Silvio still wasn’t sure. “You wouldn’t happened to have discovered the flavour, as well as the colour?”
“I don’t know.” The waiter was already twitching to move away and ran agitated fingers through his hair. “I just looked over that... woman’s shoulder and I could see clearly that it was red. With bits of... something floating in it. It must be nice. She was guzzling into it like a... with great gusto, from what I could see. Mustn’t have eaten all week. Now, can I go, please? It’s my first day here and I don’t want to... mess things up by making a bad impression.”
“Thank you.” Silvio reminded himself to make sure he found a different waiter when ordering. “My guess would be that it’s probably minestrone...”
“Do you want it or not?”
“Actually, I’d like to wait until my friend arrives, if that...” Silvio noticed that the waiter had already walked away, ginger hair sticking out at awkward angles. “Glad I didn’t ask you to describe the dessert.”
If Lucy doesn’t arrive soon, one of these customers will eat me up. Some of them look like they were injecting raw caffeine into their veins. Each one of them is trembling with stress. I don’t think it’s safe for any of them to be out in public. That thin rake with the blonde hair looks like his head is about to explode. God, I thought things were bad in Madison Avenue!
Silvio was relieved to see Lucy entering the Bistro. He waved to her, managing to finally catch her eye.
“Silvio, I’m sorry I’m late,” she said, sitting down. “I completely lost track of the time. I hope you haven’t been waiting too long.”
“Not too long,” Silvio smiled. “The charming young waiter has been keeping me company. That harassed ginger guy who has just splashed a glass of water all over that woman over there.”
“Poor soul,” Lucy muttered, glancing over at the waiter. “Make sure we don’t get him. Is there anything nice on the menu?”
“I’m not sure. It seems to be a bit of a state secret. The soup may be minestrone, but that awaits confirmation from the committee. The rest of the food would appear to be a riddle inside an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, rolled in breadcrumbs and served with apple sauce. Chef’s secret recipe.”
“Sounds intriguing,” Lucy laughed, eyes flitting down the menu. “I think I’ll just have the salad.”
Silvio saw that Lucy was in good humour. Her eyes had a darting, eager sparkle, at peace with what they saw. None of the clouds they sometimes hid under.
“How are your friends keeping?” Silvio wondered if any tiny secrets were going to be revealed today.
“In good form, thanks for asking.” Lucy was still peering at the menu. “I’m wondering if I should have any dessert. I had their apple tart here one day and it was absolutely fantastic. Well, as fantastic as warm apple tart and cream can be, I suppose. How was your morning?”
“Okay,” Silvio shrugged, slightly disappointed. “I suppose we’d better order before they throw us out.”
Silvio signalled to one of the older waiters.
The waiter took their order and confirmed that the soup of the day was indeed minestrone.
“It was strange talking to Valerie today,” Lucy said, glancing around the room. “It brought back a lot of memories.”
“The friend I was visiting this morning. We were at school together, way back before the dawn of time. We’ve kept in touch now and then over the centuries. Her husband died a few months ago. I’ve been promising to call round to her for a while. It was interesting to take a wander down memory lane.”
They drifted into silence for some minutes.
Just beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable, Silvio was glad to see the waiter arriving with their lunch.
“I’m sure I’ll enjoy this,” Lucy said. “I’m absolutely starving.”
“Well,” Silvio laughed, “hopefully my company won’t put you off your food.”
“No, but if the incomparable Mr. Dylan comes on the radio, that will. I saw him on some documentary last night. It was about rock stars and Christian fundamentalism. Dylan was singing some song about sheiks and trains. He sounded like a donkey that had been at the helium bottle. I hadn’t realised that he’d found Jesus.”
“He claimed that Jesus actually found him.”
“He was probably looking for someone else,” Lucy smiled. “Maybe someone who could sing.”
They ate and talked about the latest political scandal, the discovery of a prostitute in a government minister’s limousine. They talked about the previous evening’s edition of Mischievous Monks. They talked about a lot of things that didn’t really matter.
Silvio began to unwind, watching the sparkle in Lucy’s eyes. However, he couldn’t help wishing that he had been a fly on the wall when Lucy was talking to Valerie. He wanted to know about Lucy’s past, to walk down memory lane with her, rather than try to construct it from the odd pebble she left behind.
“I was talking to Charlie earlier today,” Lucy said. “Work seems to be getting him down, but he said that you were helping him try to keep things in perspective. You’re quite fond of Charlie, aren’t you, Silvio?”
“Yeah, he’s a good kid. He has his... problems, but he tries to get on with life as best he can.”
“He always seems to have this crucified look in his eyes,” Lucy nodded. “If he’s not going though some pointless crisis, he’s trying to find one. When he gets to our age, he’ll probably never get out of bed.”
“Even if he lied in bed all day, he’d still find some crisis to agonise about!” Silvio laughed. “Of course, the mad thing is that if the world did come crashing down, he’d probably be off some place else, moaning about something trivial. He’d miss the whole thing. He’s lucky that way.”
“Oh, we’re all lucky in our own ways, Silvio. We all just have different definitions of what it is.”
“I guess you’re right.”
They listened to the music for some minutes.
“It’s a uniquely Irish philosophy, that,” said Lucy, frowning slightly. “We seem to have to always count ourselves lucky, no matter how bad our situation is. When do you have the right to stop feeling lucky, stop being thankful? We always seem to have to thank God that things aren’t worse... Oh dear, would you just listen to me! I sound like a bitter old hag. We’re here to have a nice lunch, not philosophise on how hard life is.”
Over the previous weeks, Silvio had told Lucy a lot about himself. He wanted to. He knew that Lucy was beginning to understand him, to create a sharper picture of him in her mind.
Silvio’s picture of Lucy remained blurred. He silently gazed at her as she ate her salad, the conversational clatter of the bistro swirling around him. He took in all the details. The light blue blouse. The small white necklace. The lightly spread pink lipstick. The green eyes focused on the piece of lettuce that trembled on the end of the fork. The gleam of her white teeth as she opened her mouth.
He always seemed to be looking at Lucy through a veil. He was afraid to tear aside that veil. He knew the veil would disintegrate in its own good time. She’d become clearer the more he got to know her.
So many details. All correct. Why can’t I see you clearly? The edges are blurred, the background too faded. It’s as if... Oh shit! I’m gaping.
“Is there something stuck between my teeth?” Lucy sounded slightly amused. “Or slithering down my face?”
“Em... er... sorry.”
“You were looking at me strangely...”
“No.” Silvio could feel his face get red. The bistro seemed to have suddenly gone quiet. He thought he could feel every face staring at him, every stressed office suit awaiting his explanation. “I was just observing that piece of lettuce on the fork. It... um... seemed to be trying to escape.”
The sound of Lucy’s laugh blended back in with the noise of the bistro. Silvio felt himself relax again.
“So, tell me,” Silvio said, before any awkward silence could be built up, “what was it like going back down memory lane?”
“That sort of stuff,” Lucy smiled at him, “is really only interesting to the people who have been down that lane.”
The young ginger waiter was reluctantly apologising to a stern, middle-aged grey-haired man for accidentally elbowing him in the face. The man rubbed his nose and glared up at the waiter. The waiter threw his arms up in exasperation.
“Oh, I don’t know, Lucy. We all have are own tales to reveal.”
“Perhaps. But not everyone leads an exciting, or even interesting, life.” Lucy paused for some seconds. “I was saying to Valerie earlier, though, how you sometimes wonder how you got to where you are. Sometimes, it all seems to have happened by magic. One day, you’re sitting at the back of the school room, wondering why you have to learn how to speak Irish, and the next day, you’re waking up beside your husband of twenty years, wondering where on earth he came from. It’s funny when you think about it.”
The bistro was beginning to thin out. Some people hurried to get back to their desks, desperate to meet some temporarily critical deadline. Others dragged unwilling bodies back, already predicting the afternoon’s pressures. And others looked as if they thought they really didn’t have a care in the world. Watching them, Silvio could see his colleagues in Albert & Stone fleeting in the shadows.
“Do you have time for coffee, Lucy? Seeing as we don’t have to rush back to some corporate hamster wheel.”
“I think so,” Lucy said, glancing at her watch. “I have some things to do this afternoon, but, like you say, there’s no real hurry.”
Silvio signalled to a waiter and ordered two coffees.
“Oh, look,” Lucy said. “There’s Kathleen.”
Silvio looked up and saw Kathleen asking the ginger waiter if there was any particular place she should sit. The waiter informed her that he didn’t care where she sat, it was a free country, the Taliban hadn’t invaded Dublin, as far as he knew. Kathleen scowled at him, ready to respond when she noticed Lucy waving at her.
“Best to rescue her from that waiter,” Lucy said. “She looks like she’s ready to skewer him.”
Kathleen came over, dressed in a light cream suit and black, low-cut blouse. She carried a large, bulky shopping bag.
“Hello,” she smiled, “may I join you?”
“Of course,” Silvio said. “So long as Basil Fawlty in the corner has no objections.”
“I tell you,” Kathleen said, glaring back at the waiter, “he’s lucky there wasn’t a pair of pliers and a blowtorch handy.”
“How has your day been so far?” Lucy asked, glancing at the ginger waiter, who was now staring in disbelief at tray of cups he had just dropped. “You must be on a late lunch.”
“Oh, fine, I suppose,” Kathleen shrugged. “As good as can be expected when you’re working with a truckload of headless monkeys. By usual standards, though, this day has been relatively disaster-free. Only one slight problem, so far. I accidentally sent a bouquet of flowers to the convent.”
“That must have made their day,” Silvio said. “I’d imagine they don’t get too many flowers.”
Kathleen ordered a cup of strawberry tea from the older waiter. Both Silvio and Lucy said they were fine for the time being.
“However,” Kathleen continued, grimacing at the memory, “there was a message with the flowers.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Lucy said. “It’s always good to have the personal touch.
“Unfortunately,” Kathleen said, “the message appears to have caused some convulsions up in the convent. I don’t think the nuns will get over the shock for a while. They’ve got a rosary marathon going on already.”
“What on earth did the message say?” Silvio asked.
“The card said something along the lines of: ‘Thanks for a great time last night. We desperately needed that. Sorry some of the men sweated so much; they’ve been out of practice. The two new guys in the office are hardly able to walk today. Geoffrey said that it was the most exhausting ride he ever had!’ Something like that.”
“Why in the name of God,” Lucy asked, once her laugher subsided, “did you send them a card like that?”
The waiter arrived with Kathleen’s tea. She stirred in two spoonfuls of sugar, smiling slightly.
“There’s going to be hell to pay over this,” she said. “The Ravendell Gym, meanwhile, is wondering why they have received a bouquet of flowers from us, thanking them for their prayers and recent expression of sympathy over the boss’s mother. I’d say that’s the last time they’ll offer us a free evening’s supervised training in their new gym. Geoffrey nearly broke his leg on the exercise bike... Anyway, Mr Jinks has gone to reassure the nuns that their convent wasn’t secretly invaded last night while they were asleep. Apart from that, it has been a fairly mundane morning.”
Silvio smiled, watching Kathleen sip her tea. She was never going to die of corporate stress, because she could clearly see the inherent insanity of the whole enterprise. It had taken Silvio years to see the insanity of Albert & Stone. At the time, all that madness had made perfect sense, all a rational chain of events that could not be broken.
One morning, Clara was drinking coffee at the breakfast table. Some night later, Clara was throwing steaming coffee in Silvio’s face. All a rational chain.
Dylan’s “Lonesome Day Blues” began playing on the radio.
“What the hell is that?” Kathleen looked in horror at the speakers. “Give that man some cough medicine quick.”
“That’s Bob,” Silvio smiled. “He’s bawling the blues.”
“Mauling the blues would be more accurate.”
“It’s interesting,” Silvio said, knowing well that neither Lucy nor Kathleen were the least bit interested, “how that song references some of his earlier songs. All performers eat their young. Metaphorically speaking, of course.”
“Dylan certainly looks like someone has taken a few bites out of him,” Lucy said, as the ginger waiter poured too much wine in a slim businesswoman’s glass. “Not enough, though.”
“People always feel challenged when a performer is breaking new ground.”
“Sounds more like he’s breaking wind,” Kathleen laughed.
“Have you been shopping?” Lucy asked, looking down at Kathleen’s bag. “Or are you going to a party? Hopefully, it will be a bit livelier than the party I had in my apartment those weeks ago.”
“I actually enjoyed that evening,” Kathleen smiled, glancing at Silvio. “At least, until I realised that Bill was drooling comatose on the couch. You can’t take him anywhere without him breaking down!”
“So, have you treated yourself to something, Kathleen?” Lucy raised her eyebrows, obviously intrigued. “Sometimes, you just decide that it’s time to spoil yourself a little.”
“Yes.” Kathleen laughed, awkwardly. “It’s very important to love yourself once in a while.”
“You know, I sometimes think that love is like a wild horse that we can never hope to tame,” Silvio said. “It throws you in every conceivable direction and all you can hope for is to hold on for dear life. Because if we let go, it’ll throw us off and run away from us just as suddenly as it caught us.”
“Silvio, you really know how to spin the bullshit,” Kathleen laughed. “I haven’t heard such nonsense since Bill tried to explain why his had his hand on that little blonde tart’s poxy knee at the Christmas party.”
The ginger waiter was glaring at them, tapping his watch.
“Me and Bill are taking part in... well, I suppose you could call it... a party.” Kathleen shrugged. “Sort of a... fancy dress party.”
“What are you,” Lucy asked, “going to dress up as?”
“I was thinking of dressing up as Cinderella. And Bill wanted to be Prince Charming, which would have been a fucking joke. One kiss and he’d turn back into a frog. I’d have to take him home in my handbag. And then maybe flush him down the toilet. He’d probably block up the pipes, though, just to spite me...”
Kathleen stared into her empty cup, apparently debating with herself.
“Okay, I’ll tell you the truth.” She shook herself out of her reverie. “My relentless boyfriend has had another big idea. He wants to spice up our love life. Yet again!”
“Really?” Lucy’s eyes widened. “You can always rely on Bill to put an unusual spin on things. My conversation with him at the party that night was… enlightening.”
“You know what he’s like once an egg hatches in his head,” Kathleen sighed. “He was on one of those bullshit teamwork training seminars with his work crew last week. This particular training involved role playing. Now, Bill has been reading a book called Fun-filled Fidelity recently. It’s all about adding sparkle between the sheets at home so that you don’t have to go looking for it elsewhere.”
“Sounds like an interesting book,” Silvio laughed.
“So Bill is reading this book. I’m hoping it might inspire his jaded loins. And he is attending a seminar involving role playing. Needless to say, the hen lays an egg. Role playing! He has now become completely obsessed with the idea, as only he can. So I’ve decided to try it out. I suppose it won’t do too much harm. It’ll be fun to see Bill’s mouton dressed up as lamb, so to speak.”
“I’m sure,” Silvio said to her, “you’ll have fun.”
“Yes,” Kathleen shrugged. “It should be... hilarious. Anyway, we all have to do mad things every now and then... if only to prove that we still can. Dig out the old magic and see if it still works.”
“The magic’s always there,” Lucy said, finishing her coffee. “We were talking about that before you arrived. You look back over life and see nothing but magic and mystery at work in it.”
Silvio frowned. He hadn’t realised that that was what they had been talking about. He wondered if he had been paying enough attention to Lucy.
“I’d best be going,” Kathleen said. “I think that young waiter is going to get the bouncers to evict us or eat us or something, the way he’s staring at us. God knows what’s happened in the office since I left. Someone has probably sent forty glow-in-the-dark dildos to St Gerard’s monastery. Wouldn’t surprise me after this morning’s fun and games.”
The young waiter looked relieved when he saw Kathleen standing up to leave. He then glared at Silvio and Lucy when they showed no intention of getting up.
“You know, Silvio,” Kathleen smiled, “you’re a really interesting person. There was always something about you that intrigued me.”
“In other words,” Silvio replied, “you thought I was a bit odd.”
“God, no!” Lucy looked mortified. “What I meant was...”
“That’s okay. Everyone thinks I’m as odd as hell. And I am, in some ways”
“Well, I’m sure you’re no odder than most people. Your comment about wild horses struck some chord with me.”
“You know,” said Silvio, his heart pounding uncomfortably, “I think we really should... I mean, if you want to... do this more often. We seem to enjoy each other’s company... and it would be nice... to do it again some time soon.”
Lucy smiled. Her whole face relaxed, her eyes shining with warmth.
“Silvio, I’d love to do this again. It’s nice to sometimes share some time with someone, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Silvio’s heartbeat returned to a more comfortable rhythm. “It has been very pleasant. Better than staring at a wall or trying to talk in a crowded pub.”
They drank their coffee while the radio continued to gently play in the background. The ginger waiter noisily swept the floor around them.
“What are you thinking about, Silvio? You look like there’s a herd of those wild horses stampeding through your mind.”
“Oh, nothing much,” Silvio lied. “I was just thinking about how nice the day is.”
“Really?” Lucy’s raised eyebrows showed she didn’t believe him.
“As you know, Lucy,” Silvio said, glancing into his coffee, “I’ve been more or less a loner since I came to Ireland. Back in New York, Clara and I used to go for a meal every Thursday evening to O’Sullivan’s on 32nd Street. That was what really introduced me to Irish culture. There were always some interesting characters in that joint. And Clara was completely taken with Irish music.”
“You still think about your wife a lot, don’t you?” Lucy gently said.
“Yes,” Silvio sighed. “Even after all these years. Isn’t that pathetic?”
“No, not really. Gerry was taken from me four years ago. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t find myself thinking something like ‘I can just imagine what Gerry would say if he saw that.’ The ones who matter are always there, sleeping in the back of your mind, waiting to be called.”
Silvio looked at Lucy. There was pain flickering in her eyes.
“That’s a nice way of putting it, Lucy. It’s amazing how hard it is to forget the past.”
“Well, life rolls on over you, no matter how important you think what’s happened to you is.” Lucy gently tapped the side of her coffee cup, staring into it. “God doesn’t stop the world to give us a chance to catch our breath. Eventually, you realise that you have to pick yourself up, brush yourself down and keep on going. No matter how much you ache, the world eventually gets bored with your pain...”
The ripples rolled across the surface of Lucy’s coffee as she tapped the cup. Silvio found the movement of the ripples hypnotic. The ripples glanced up at him before disappearing into the edges of the cup.
A few more customers left. The waiter aggressively moved his sweeping brush after their feet.
“It isn’t easy, Lucy,” Silvio sighed. “After Clara left me, I was convinced that I could never be happy again. That I didn’t deserve to be happy again... Not until she left did I realise how completely I had messed up my life. It took me years to begin to rise above it, to just hold my head above water. Some days were good. Some were bad. Some days, you sink and sink and sink and think you’ll never find your way to the surface again...”
Silvio could find no words in the coffee ripples. He looked up at Lucy. She was staring at him, intently. He realised that she knew what he was talking about. She didn’t know his pain, but she understood it. It was in her eyes. It was in her motionless lips. It was in the tapping of her fingers on the coffee cup.
“That’s the past, Silvio.” Her voice was barely audible. “We can’t change what happened. No one can. Not even God. I spent months cursing God for taking Gerry away from me. Then I cursed myself. Was it my fault that he got drunk that night and smashed the Ford into a tree? No. But I still could find reasons to blame myself. Did I disappoint him in some way? Maybe. But then again, you can’t live up to anyone’s expectations. It’s hard enough living up to your own! We just have no control over all that stuff.”
“But I did have control.” Silvio could see the raging Manhattan skyline reflected in the coffee ripples. “I just lost it.”
“You can’t change what happened. No matter how often you relive it in your mind.”
“So maybe,” Silvio smiled, looking into Lucy’s eyes, “we are all just blowing in the wind.”
“Maybe,” Lucy smiled back. She stopped tapping the cup. “Who knows?”
Silvio looked at her, his heart pounding. He wanted to kiss her. To take her in his arms and kiss her forever.
But he knew he wouldn’t. No matter how long they stared at each other, he would not kiss her. Not today. Maybe never. But not today.
Their friendship had entered a new stage. He wanted to enjoy that stage before he moved on to any others.
“Anyway, Silvio” Lucy laughed, “I think we should head on before we move on to any more philosophical discussions. We’ll be trying to solve the world’s problems next.”
“I’m sure we could,” Silvio said, standing up.
They ignored the waiter’s loud sigh of relief as they left.
Sitting on the bed, Dylan was wearing a grimy hooded top and scuffed blacked jeans. His boots were caked in the mud of a thousand concerts. Despite the gloom of the bedroom, he wore dark sunglasses. He cradled a well-worn acoustic guitar as if it were a precious child.
Silvio watched his hero, listening to each aching chord strummed on the dusty guitar. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” never sounded so broken. It was no longer an exuberant, self-confident “fare thee well” to fickle love. It was now a funeral dirge for a dying relationship, all parties too shattered to try to understand what was happening to them.
Dylan sang softly, lingering in the pauses. His voice croaked at the end of some lines, leaving the melody unspoken. This was not a self-confident young rooster crowing triumphantly into a microphone. It was the baffled musing of an older man, looking back, unsure what he is looking for and afraid of what he might find. A broken man saying goodbye to his dreams and pretending he didn’t care.
He barely whispered the words, apparently thinking that they were so fragile, they’d shatter in his mouth if he sang them too forcefully. Many times in the past, he had thrashed those very words in front of bewildered audiences all over the world. Strangers who looked at him and frowned. And then walked away, shaking their heads. Today, he gently caressed the words, begging their forgiveness.
“The lunch with Lucy was very pleasant,” Silvio said, stretching out on the old armchair. “Kathleen joined us for a while.”
“Speaking of lunch,” Dylan drawled. “I had a row with the manager of the Italian restaurant down the road. I had to give him a pizza my mind. Ha ha ha. Is Kathleen that that fiery woman you once told me about? The one with the mixed-up boyfriend?”
“The very one,” Silvio smiled. “I’m trying to help her to understand her relationship with her boyfriend.”
“You offer your hand to some people,” Dylan replied, “and they take your whole arm off and some of your shoulder.”
“They’ve got involved in role playing and fancy dress.”
“Fancy dress?” Dylan plucked a few random strings. “I wrote the book on that game. It’s hard enough being yourself without trying to be someone else. There are only so many costumes you can hide behind, man.”
“Lucy also was in fancy dress.” Silvio frowned, taking a cigarette from his packet. “She’s always hiding behind something.”
“That sounds like one hell of a lunch.” Dylan stopped plucking the strings. “Give me one of those cigarettes. By the way, I parked the motorcycle out back. I tried to park in the hospital car park. However, an official said ‘You can’t park here. It’s badge holders only.’ I told him that I did have a bad shoulder, but he chased me outta there.”
Dylan lit up, blowing a slow cloud of smoke to the ceiling. The smoke dispersed around the light bulb as the strings began chiming again. It then swirled around Dylan like an angry wife, refusing to let him ignore its presence. The more he tried to wave it away, the more it stung his eyes.
“Sometimes, you pull off the disguise and find another one underneath,” Dylan said, smoke curling around his mouth. “Other times, the greasepaint just can’t be washed away.”
Lighting his own cigarette, Silvio wondered whether Robert Zimmerman longed to throw away his Bob Dylan disguise.
There was no sound in the room for some minutes, except the gentle strumming of the guitar.
“It’s all a mystery,” Silvio sighed. “I’ll never understand women.”
“Neither will I,” Dylan shrugged. “And I’ve had plenty of experience.”
“Right,” laughed Silvio. “You’re fighting them off you.”
“Hey, a lot of women think I still have plenty of sex appeal.”
“True, Bob, but those women also think they’re Marie Antoinette and spend their days in an institution writing sonnets to Napoleon.”
Dylan idly plucked random strings, waiting for the melody to assert its presence. Until then, each sound vibrating from the strings would exist in isolation, meaningless, waiting for its companions to justify its existence. Each note, on its own, failed to stir even the most delicate soul. However, combined with others to form chords and melodies, it could become a thing of stirring beauty.
“Must you make such a racket, Bob?”
“I’m just waiting for the muse to strike.”
“She’ll probably strike you across the head and tell you shut up.”
Dylan continued to play for some minutes. Silvio listened, getting lost in random memories. Seeing Clara. Seeing Madison Avenue. Seeing baby Daniel. Smelling the ink in Albert & Stone. Feeling the heat of Julia Cummings’s bedroom in Flushing. Hearing “New Morning” on the radio. Seeing Nigel Penn celebrate being awarded the Courtyard contract. Seeing Dylan hidden beneath a hood in the RDS Arena. Hearing him sing “Every Grain Of Sand”. Hearing Carla yell at him. Feeling the coffee splash against his face. Trying to find meaning in it all. Any pattern.
Maybe Lucy was right. Maybe it is all a mystery.
“Got it!” Dylan played a confident melody. “This song has been rattling in my head all day. Do you remember ‘Tight Connection To My Heart’? I really kicked that one back to life in The Supper Club in ‘93.”
Dylan began playing an upbeat, assured rendition of the song, whipping up a cloud of dust from the strings. The melody shook with the dazed memory of age. Wondering where on earth his love was, an air of unfulfilled desperation hidden in the words. And the bruised tenderness of a Humphrey Bogart character.
Silvio listened to the guitar strings, and all the mystery no longer seemed to matter.
“So, Silvio,” Dylan said, when he had finished, “tell me why you are still sweating and fretting over the mysteries of life and the universe and all that cosmic bullshit you can’t do nothing about?”
“I don’t know,” Silvio sighed, causing the smoke to flee from his lips. “I’m not sure I have the energy for this game any more.”
“You’ve got to play with the cards you’ve been given, man.” Dylan tapped the guitar neck, beating some secret Morse code to his muse. “Some days, you want to bet your life on just one hand. Go for it in a really big way. Other days, you’re afraid to look at your cards. There are nights when you just don’t trust the dealer. You spend all your time looking for the hidden mirrors.”
“Have you recently joined Gamblers Anonymous, Bob?”
“Everyone’s a gambler. Some play to win. Some play to lose. Some play just to pass the time on a rainy afternoon.”
“Tell me,” Silvio said, trying to shift the focus of the conversation away from him, “are you writing any new songs these days? Or do you just doodle aimlessly on the strings like today?”
“I’m always writing new songs.” An impish smile lit up Dylan’s face beneath the hood for a second. “Every time you have a conversation, you write a song. Every time you see someone on the street, you write a short story. It’s just that you don’t always get around to completing them. You throw all these ideas into a notebook and hope they’ll mate and produce something worth giving birth to.”
As Dylan tried to find the chords to “Seven Days” on his guitar, his hands indiscriminately trashing the strings, Silvio thought about Lucy’s smile. The way it shot through him every time he saw it. That warm buzz that he thought he could no longer feel.
“Lucy’s an interesting woman,” Silvio said, hoping to put a stop to Dylan’s slaughter of the guitar strings. “I imagine that in a previous life, she was a warrior goddess, or some mystic Egyptian princess.”
“Or maybe she was the wife of a Victorian chimney sweeper and she sold rotten fish down in the market.” Dylan gave up his search with a glare at the guitar fret, as if blaming it for not knowing where the chords were hidden. “That stuff doesn’t really matter, Silvio. We’re both like a bowl of fruit now. We’ve lived to a ripe old age. We’ve moved beyond all that nonsense.”
“I can sometimes see the flowers in her hair.” Silvio knew it sounded ridiculous, but he didn’t care. Dylan wouldn’t judge him. “They’re like a halo around her head.”
“Maybe it’s just dandruff. You know, sometimes the twinkle in someone’s eye is just a cataract.”
Dylan took off his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. His eyes were indeed bluer than robin’s eyes. Today, however, they were bloodshot and tired. The weary eyes of a dying camel lost in the desert.
“I’m hungry,” he complained. “I’d murder a bowl of cornflakes if you’d bring me some. I feel like a cereal killer.”
“You don’t have time to be eating,” said Silvio, glancing at his watch. “I’ll get you something to drink. Would you like one more cup of coffee for road? Ha ha ha!”
“I’d prefer a bottle of beer,” Dylan shrugged, guiding the sunglasses back to his rubbed-out eyes. “Or a margarita.”
“Best stick to beer,” Silvio said, standing up. “I’m sure I’ve some hidden in the fridge.”
Dylan gingerly strummed the opening bars of “Caribbean Wind” while Silvio went to get the beer.
“Hey, Silvio,” he shouted out, “did you know that when the moon blocks out the sun in the Caribbean, it’s called a total calypso the sun?”
“Actually, I’m not sure that you should have any more beer,” Silvio said, handing Dylan the bottle. “Your brain seems to be corroded enough already.”
They sipped their beers for some minutes, each exploring the uncharted waters of their memories.
“I dreamt about Lucy last night,” Silvio suddenly declared. “Every time I tried to kiss her, she turned into Clara and ran away from me.”
However, Dylan was now devoting his attention to the sole task of incessantly scratching his nose with a vigour that indicated that he was sculpting a third nostril for himself.
“You can answer in your own good time, Bob.”
“You know, sometimes dreams are God’s way of telling you the secrets of your heart.” Dylan tentatively tapped his nose, as if to make sure he hadn’t knocked it off its perch. “Other times, they’re just a sign that you’ve had too much to drink. Or your body is trying to tell you that one of the cogs in the machine has come a little loose. Sometimes they’re just telling you that one day all your teeth will fall out.”
“I want to be with her. But I’m afraid of messing everything up again. Just like I did with Clara.”
“A time comes when you can see your future very clearly. You know exactly which path you have to walk down. However, that doesn’t mean that you’ll walk down that path.”
“Is that what ‘Blowing in the Wind’ is about?”
“I haven’t a clue what ‘Blowing in the Wind’ is about.” Dylan’s voice got lost in a wheezy, smoke-fuelled laugh. “That’s what we have rock critics for. I have to keep them in a job. I don’t have the answer. If you asked me how to scalp a person, I’d have to confess that I can’t think of the answer off the top of my head. If you want answers, listen to those old folk and blues songs, Silvio. Every answer you could ever need is hidden in those words.”
“I’m meeting Lucy this evening.” Silvio lit another cigarette. “I don’t have time to analyse three million verses about roses and briars growing out of dead lovers’ hearts and lily-white maidens dressing up as lusty sailors. I need some simple quick answers.”
“Whenever I give simple black-and-white answers, you all start complaining that I’ve sold out or lost my ingenious ambiguity, whatever the hell that’s supposed to be. I can’t live up to your expectations because I don’t know what your expectations are. In fact, I couldn’t care less what your expectations are. Of course, that’s why Clara left you: she never knew what you expected from her.”
“I tried to make her happy.” Silvio winced at the memory. “And she couldn’t wait to be free of me.”
“Even the bird in the most beautiful gilded cage in the world dreams of freedom. Or its next mealtime. Everyone dreams of freedom. It’s just that they can’t agree on what freedom actually is.”
“You sound like George W Bush, Bob!”
“Hey,” Dylan laughed, “even a stopped watch tells the right time every so often.”
“Sometimes, you don’t know if you are climbing or falling.” Silvio chewed a mouthful of smoke. He waited for his throat to clear. “That night in Flushing with Julia Cummings, I thought I was inching one step closer to that Courtyard deal. There I was, cheating on Clara as if it was a perfectly normal understandable thing to do.”
“I once knew a raisin that cheated on its wife.” Dylan played a jaunty riff. “It was in all the papers, in the currant affairs section.”
“That night, I began falling,” Silvio continued, ignoring the laughing, smoky hood in front of him. “It wasn’t until I woke up in a pool of my own blood and vomit in that hotel room in New Orleans three weeks later that I realised that things were rolling away from me. Then I decided that I was going to take everyone else down with me. It ain’t easy riding those horses, Bob. You get on and you can’t tell where they’ll take you.”
The only sound for some minutes was Dylan strumming “House Of The Rising Sun” on the guitar as the smoke spread across the room.
Silvio was thinking about how fast the horses had gone. He had felt helpless, screaming like the woman tied to the driver’s seat in some B movie, racing to the edge of the cliff.
Clara could see the edge of the cliff. She had tried to help him, but he threw it all back in her face. He was determined to climb the office ladder again. He would win the new clients. He would work the endless hours. And when Clara tried to tell him to slow down, he just kicked the horse to make it run faster.
“Why did I start taking a gun to the office, Bob?” Silvio asked. “I remember staring at it in my drawer one day. I didn’t really want to shoot anyone. I just wanted… to frighten them.”
“By shooting them. That’s why I took the gun with me, I suppose.”
“You became paranoid,” Dylan replied. “In the office, up there on the twelfth floor, your paranoia took on a life of its own. You thought people were trying to steal your clients. You thought you could see right into the dark heart of the conspiracy. Someone was going to attack you in the office car park one night and steal all your papers, all your good ideas, and leave you for dead. So you decided to protect yourself. People have got a lot of respect for a man with a gun. You were going to teach your colleagues a lesson. But you really blew it.”
Silvio gazed into the stream of smoke billowing from the cigarette. Inside the orange glow of the burning paper, he could see himself being dragged out from behind his desk, the NYPD grabbing him by the shoulders, trying to handcuff him. The gun lay on his desk, still warm.
“You got caught up in a lot of bullshit and thought it was important. None of it was important. Focus on what is permanent, Silvio.” A few sinister blues notes trembled from the guitar. “The things of this world aren’t permanent. It will all be destroyed by fire, not water, next time. Which reminds me, why did Noah build the ark? Because news of the flood was leaked.”
“I can beat that. Why couldn't anyone play cards on the ark? Because Noah sat on the deck. Anyway, Bob, I’m assuming that the apocalypse isn’t going to happen over the next few days. That’s how I cope with life. Try not to worry too much about the future. Or the past.”
“But you can’t escape the past, Silvio.” The blues riff wrapped itself around all the pain in the world. “You can’t shake it off. It’d be easier to shake the heels off your feet. I can still remember the way Buddy Holly looked at me on that Duluth stage in the National Guard Armory in 1959. I’ll never shake how I felt that instant.”
“I don’t want to escape the past. I actually want to grab it by the collar and beat the shit out of it. And, God knows, there’s plenty of shit in my past.”
Dylan stopped playing the guitar and took off his sunglasses again.
“Listen to me, Silvio!” Those robin-egg eyes seemed to pierce into Silvio. “Some days, you look back and laugh. Some days, you look back and cry. Maybe it’s best not to look back at all.”
Silvio shrugged. The room felt stuffy. The smoke was beginning to sting his eyes, so he closed them. He could see the apartment in Flushing. The one where Julia Cummings lived. He could see the bed where he had sweated and groaned in 1973. Outside the building, he could see wild horses, ready to rampage up the stairs.
Silvio blinked his eyes open. Dylan had disappeared into the smoky darkness. No acoustic strings echoed in the air. The smoke tasted stale.
Silvio walked slowly to the bedroom window and pulled back the curtains.
Down in the courtyard, he could see Lucy’s green Fiesta.
“...and so when Gerry realised that she was actually Peter’s sister,” Lucy wheezed, trying to keep her laughter under control, “and not Peter’s wife, he didn’t know... ha ha ha ha... Oh God, I’ll never forget that look on his face! He just... just cleared his throat and handed the bra back to her... ha ha ha... He was absolutely mortified, his face as red as a busted tomato.”
In the background, her radio played Del Shannon’s “Runaway”.
Silvio smiled as Lucy exploded into another paroxysm of laughter. Midway through Lucy’s anecdote, Silvio realised he had forgotten who Peter and this mysterious woman were, but he kept listening away.
Lucy dried her laughter-soaked eyes, still giggling, and poured some more wine. In those eyes, Silvio saw mystic gypsy rhythms and dark oceans of ancient poetic thunder and all that other vague bullshit that he could never hope to understand.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Silvio. I’m sure I must have bored you to cobwebs with that story. God, I’d forgotten about that party for years. If you’d been there, you would have laughed so hard, your teeth would have walked out of your mouth. It was one of those daft situations where one misunderstanding leads to another until the whole thing becomes so farcical, all you can do is collapse laughing.”
“It’s a funny story,” Silvio smiled. He sipped his wine, getting more comfortable. Lucy’s laugh was infectious. The wine tasted good. The apartment was warm. “Not all memories have to be bad. I sometimes forget that there were good times in New York. Those memories must have been buried too deep.”
The radio segued into the easy sway of Ricky Nelson’s “Hello, May Lou”.
“That’s the way it goes, Silvio. Sometimes pictures shoot up out of nowhere. Gerry standing there, a bra in one hand, a glass of red wine in the other, a look of helpless astonishment on his face, the band murdering ‘Yesterday’ in the background. And suddenly, you remember the whole party.”
Recently, Silvio had found himself stumbling across happy memories from New York. An office party in 1959, when he had got very drunk and danced down in the basement with a young secretary called Janice. He remembered how they then had a month-long passionate, carefree relationship, before casually deciding to go their separate ways. She went to Miami, leaving Silvio with the idea that relationships could be superficial and easily discarded.
Then he met Clara.
“One thing Clara always said,” Silvio said, as Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” began chiming on the radio, “was that you never really forget anything. She was hoping that I could learn to dig a bit deeper and remember what we had built together. All I could remember were the hard times.”
“That can drive you mad,” Lucy said, sipping more wine. “After Gerry... After all that, I thought all my memories had been wiped away. All I could remember was the row we had that last day, then the journey to the hospital. I could remember the rain beating on the windshield, the squeak of the wipers. The tramp begging on the hospital curb, the stink of whiskey on his breath, the emptiness of his eyes. After the funeral, people would tell me stories about Gerry, nice stories, but it was as if they were talking about someone else. Then, as the months drifted on, memories began exploding out of nowhere. The smell of the aftershave he wore on our wedding day. The small rip on the knee of his trousers the day we went to the bank looking for more money to keep the shop going. The cracked bottle of wine we drank that first night we spent in Paris. All these memories just keep rolling in, making no sense.”
“Ultimately, none of it makes sense,” Silvio shrugged. “You wake up one morning and you’re dead and then…”
“Oh, don’t start with all the adolescent black coffee and cigarettes bullshit about how we’re all going to die, Silvio,” Lucy laughed. “You sound just like Charlie. We all know we’re going to die. Everything we’ve ever done will be forgotten eventually. Blah blah blah. You just have to put all that stuff to the back of your mind. It’s like the giraffe sitting on the armchair knitting socks and singing ‘Kumbaya’. You try to ignore it and carry on regardless.”
They sat in silence for some minutes, listening to Buddy Holly, drinking their wine, letting their minds wander easily.
And that was when Silvio realised that this was how he was going to get to know Lucy. An anecdote here. A turn of phrase there. The taste of steak and onions one evening. The DJ’s voice on the 1950’s radio show another. The sudden illusion of flowers in her hair. The giraffe singing “Kumbaya”. All would become memories that would build into an ever-changing picture.
A series of notes building up to a symphony over time.
He had already revealed some of his past to her, about Clara, about Daniel. He had only revealed a fraction, he realised now. There were so many more memories to find. He too was an incomplete picture, a slowly developing photograph.
He could remember the way Clara laughed at one of his jokes in O’Sullivan’s Steakhouse on 32nd Street one bitterly cold January evening.
Clara, I’d like to order half a rabbit for the main course. However, I don’t think the chef will split hares.
They were still trying to get to know each other that night on 32nd Street. And after all those years, Silvio was once again trying to get to know himself.
Dean Martin’s “Gentle On My Mind” shuffled effortlessly through the room.
“You’ve gone very quiet,” Lucy said. “Be careful you don’t get lost in your memories.”
“It’s easily done,” Silvio smiled. “As you say, it’s hard to make sense of it all. You never know what you want until it’s too late.”
“Everyone thinks they know what they want. And when they get it, they eventually recoil from it in disgust. Maybe that’s all it means...” Lucy suddenly started laughing again. “Dear God, Silvio, that wine must be fairly potent. We’ll be debating like Plato and Socrates down in the Turkish baths before the evening’s done.”
Silvio laughed, and stood up. He was beginning to feel slightly drunk.
“I’ll head on, Lucy,” he said. “All that philosophy has left me beat.”
“Are you sure you don’t want...”
“I’m fine, thanks. I enjoyed this evening. It was good to dig up some of those memories. I hope I didn’t bore you too much.”
“No more than I must have bored you... Sorry, Silvio! That sounded awful. What I meant to say was...”
“I think I know what you meant,” Silvio nodded. “Your stories were fun to listen to. Guess we both have our store of happy stories.”
“And both with plenty of time to share them. Some day, I’ll let you know what I was like when I was Kathleen’s age. Once I can find any anecdotes that can be told in respectable company.”
“Plenty of time,” Silvio said. “I have yet to tell you about my own role-playing experiment. It was at a fancy dress party I attended in Long Island in 1970. I went dressed as the Magic Dragon. All the hippies at the party thought they were having acid flashbacks when they met me. I think I was more successful than Nixon’s anti-drug campaign in scaring people off the old lysergic.”
“Now that,” Lucy laughed, “is a story I look forward to hearing.”
“Goodnight, Lucy. I’ll be talking to you tomorrow.”
Silvio was still smiling when he walked back up to his apartment.
God Almighty, I haven’t thought about that Long Island party in years! Clara went dressed as Maid Marian. Lord above, she got very drunk that night. She was dancing to The Doors for hours, that crazy yellow dress of hers swirling round her like a hurricane, until the cops busted the party because the uptight neighbours were complaining about the noise. By the time we got back to our apartment, she was out cold, fast asleep on my shoulder. I had to carry her. Poor old Mr Porto nearly died of shock when he saw a dragon carrying Maid Marian down the hallway. I met him next day in the elevator. He told me he was going to go see his doctor, that his tablets had started disagreeing with him.
Silvio laughed out loud, remembering Mr Porto’s horrified face as he whispered to Silvio about the hallucinations. “Doctor must be some damn hippie, commie, pinko spy trying to poison me!”
Before going to bed, Silvio listened to “Blind Willie McTell” one more time.
Maybe the entire land was condemned. Maybe a holy fire would burn away all the lies and corruption. Maybe every star would one day be torn down from the skies. Maybe everyone would walk along the golden shores of heaven’s bright silver sea.
But, until that day, Silvio was determined to eke out just a little bit of happiness for himself. He would try to warm his toes every now and then in front of the fire of love.
Silvio heard Bill’s harmonica wailing across the hall as he went to bed.
“God only know what roles that pair are playing over there tonight!”
In the apartment below, Neil Diamond’s “Red, Red Wine” was playing. Silvio knew then that there were some things about Lucy that he’d never understand.
And he was happy with that. A little mystery always spices up life.
He put Phil Collins’s Hello I Must Be Going in his stereo and turned out the lights.
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