|Credit: B Miller|
Happy New Year, dear Supernatural Undergrounders!
I thought I should start the new year the way I mean to go on – with story. This is the first half of a two-parter: the second (and final) half will post next month.
If you like, I may post more stories as 2015 progresses, so do let me know. All commenters over the two parts of this story will go in a "Tuckerization" draw (via Random), i.e. the winner's name will be used for a character in a future short story.
– – –
Bird of Passage: Part 1
© Helen Lowe, 2014
She was sitting on the lowest step of the fire escape when I got home, accompanied by one of the neighborhood cats that regard the overgrown shrubbery as a kind of no-man's-land, belonging to all their kind and to none. This cat, lean as all the others, was crouched a careful yard, perhaps as much as two, from the steel toes of her boots. You could see though, that in the cat's mind at least, they were together, sharing the speckled sunshine that fell through the overhanging oak. It overshadowed everything that tree, even the two-storey villa with its characteristic, witch's hat gable.
"Do I know you?" I asked, coming down the narrow path beside the house and stopping at the sight of her. The cat was up and away before I had finished speaking.
"You frightened her," she said. She did not seem troubled herself, even though I was scowling, wondering what on earth she was doing in my overgrown excuse for a back garden – who the hell she was. I had already found the first evidence of her presence at the front of the house: a large, haphazardly stuffed pack, a heavy coil of rope and an ice axe. She was wearing some kind of velvet hat pulled down over her ears, but her eyes were pale as abalone shell, shifting from blue to green in a round, tanned face.
"I'm Debbie," she said. "Tom's friend, from the Coast. Aren't you expecting me?"
A number of answers hovered on my lips: the obvious – no, closely followed by the observation that any friend of Tom's should know better than to rely on him to arrange anything. The third response was that Tom's friendship was not necessarily a passport to mine, especially if this Debbie thought she could emulate his habits and stay for months on end, living hand to mouth and preying shamelessly on my goodwill. I met her look of friendly inquiry and hesitated, before deciding on a different approach. "So where is Tom these days? The last I heard he was going to Australia."
Debbie nodded. "He changed his mind. He was up near Westport the last I saw him, and going to the glaciers after that. That's when he said he'd ring and let you know I was coming through." She smiled, a slight, wry twist of her lips. "He said you had plenty of room here, and wouldn't mind if I stayed for a bit."
I regarded her cautiously, taking in the steel capped boots, the velvet hat and the wide, patchwork skirt beneath a black, fisherman's jersey. I thought of some of the other birds of passage that Tom had sent through, and decided that this Debbie might be one of the odder kind. "What are you here for?" I asked. I did not add, and for how long, not yet. "Surely it's not for climbing?"
She looked puzzled for a moment, then shook her head. "Not me. I just brought that gear through for someone else – I'll drop it off tomorrow. I'm here to do a course at the Polytech."
Uh-oh, I thought. "How long's the course?"
The smile reappeared, and stayed a little longer this time. "Don't worry, it's only for two months, at the design school. I'm kind of a sculptor, and they're having a symposium."
So I let her stay. I suspected, rightly, that a "kind of a sculptor" would not be well up in funds, which was presumably why Tom had sent her to me in the first place, and that she was relying on living rent-free to get through the two months. It was a big house, and I usually put visitors downstairs so they didn't get in my way. But this time, moved by some obscure impulse, I gave Debbie the big, upstairs room with the witch's turret. I rationalized that it was coming on to winter and would be too cold and dark downstairs, a cold that she would feel after the northern regions of the Coast. Besides, there would still be half a house between her room, which looked out towards the harbor, and mine, which faced the sun.
The room I gave Debbie was big and sparsely furnished like all the others in the house, but the view down the harbor was fantastic. She walked to the window as though drawn by a magnet, and stood there, gazing out.
"I'd love to go there," she said at last, "right to the end of the harbor. There's something about it that draws you in – or is it on? It makes me feel there's something mysterious out there, waiting to be discovered."
"It's easy enough to get there," I said. "You can drive right out to the heads. There's a beach there, with the remains of an old wreck on it. You can still see the paddle wheel, standing up in the surf."
"I'd like to see that," she said, so softly that I almost didn't catch it. Then she gave herself a little shake. "But I'd better get on top of my course first."
I didn't see a great deal of her, after that. I had a big project on and was often working late, and Debbie's course seemed to demand early starts and more than a few late nights of her own.
"Although that's because we just like to hang around, talking about what we're doing, rather than because we have to work late," she confessed, on one of the nights when our paths crossed. She was cooking, and it was only after we had been talking for some time that I realized she was making enough for me as well. She had brought a bottle of wine, cheap but cheerful as she put it, and insisted on sharing that, too. Apparently the course was going well and a few of the local galleries were showing interest in her work – so, as Debbie said, it was all good.
She certainly looked good, I thought, in a matching crimson hat and jacket, one of her Op shop acquisitions. She was wearing a vivid carmine lipstick to match. "Cheap and cheerful," Debbie assured me, with her slow, deep smile. "Like the wine."
The next time I saw her for any length of time was three weeks later, on a Saturday morning when I was trying to get both the mountain bike and myself out of the house. I asked her, on auto-pilot, how the symposium was going and it was only later, pumping furiously uphill, that her slight hesitation struck me. There had almost, I thought, changing down a gear, been constraint in her reply. She had looked tired, too, with noticeable shadows under her eyes. It must be the course, I decided, they seemed to like burning the candle at both ends – and promptly dismissed the matter from my mind.
To read the second and final part of Bird of Passage, posted on February 1, click on: