by Steven Benjamin
Short fiction Genre: Drama
"The Route of '81"
I had to be somewhere, but I forget where. What I remember is standing on a stone or marble walkway looking out at the mountain vista thinking to myself ‘I mustn’t forget the scarf’ – why that scarf… because I bought it for her. She only wore it once, but she liked it. She liked it so much, enough to leave it behind on her seat at the restaurant that same evening. She only remembered it when we got back to the room. I went back for it. That’s what I did. What bothered me as I stood there on the walkway thinking back, was why I hadn’t noticed it was missing earlier. If not for that damn scarf, things might’ve turned out very differently… loose ends I suppose.
And then, as if on cue, a stiffly breeze wafted across me, even raising the lapel of my coat.
As I was looking down at the offending lapel I felt a tap on my right shoulder but when I looked, no one was there, so I looked left, and there she was, smiling at me, shaking her head that I fell for that silly trick again.
‘You ready to go?’
I checked the view again and shook my head, but my feet started walking. Her smile widened.
As we strolled down the path, glancing back a silent goodbye at the mountain retreat, I said ‘This is where I ask you where we’re going? But I know you won’t answer me, not properly anyway.’
‘Then don’t ask.’
‘Okay, I haven’t. So now that you know that I haven’t asked what I wanted to ask, what would your response to my non question be.’
“Didn’t I just give it?”
‘No. You gave the response you would’ve given if I had asked. Or you responded to what my question would’ve been, not to what it is.”
She thought for a moment, narrowed eyes, then shook her head at me being silly. “That, I’m proud of you,” she said as I opened the car door for her. And as she tucked her dress in and reached for the door handle she continued, “and concerned. You’re gonna drive yourself crazy thinking so much about what we don’t say… or say about what we haven’t said.”
I closed the door and walked round to the driver side, stealing a last deep look at where we were, and the winding road through the narrow valley into which we were about to descend.
I got behind the wheel beside her. “Drive myself crazy? You’re the one driving me crazy.”
She was smiling broadly at that, clenching her thumb nail between her teeth, though her gaze was taken by the view out of her window.
I took a deep breath as I watched her a moment, before starting the car…
We drove in silence for a few minutes, punctuated only by the sounds of the old car, a faint creek from the rear suspension, the tires struggling to hold the road on the twisty hairpin bends.
‘That place is nice,’ I said, ‘but it needs an update. Still feels like its stuck in the 50’s.’
‘That’s why I like it’ she said. ‘I hope it stays that way. I know it won’t, but I hope they keep a fair bit of it. It’ll never be like it used to.’
I stole a glance at her for as long as I could manage before the road tore back my attention. ‘That’s why I rented this car. I just pray it makes it down the mountain. She’s a beauty, but she needs a little love and affection to restore some of her tired parts.’
Silence again, as we negotiated a few more grand bends in the road, the joy of the drive made rather perilous by the sheer drops down into the valley below. A chill crept up my arm from my hand which was clutching the gear lever as I felt her cold hand upon mine. I glanced at her briefly. She was staring at our hands and then her gaze lifted to the road ahead.
‘We’re going to a friend. That’s all I can say. You don’t know her. I haven’t seen her in years, and if I’m honest, I don’t even know if she’s even there. She’s from before I met you.’ Her voice had changed, and I could sense there was more to come.
‘I’ll ask some things of you that will be difficult to understand, as I have done till now. Hopefully in time I’ll be able to explain it all.’
We drove, chatting about life, like most couples. Stopping at the rest stops, taking pictures with the windup Kodak camera I bought before the trip. My favourite photo was almost a throwaway shot, one taken in between all the smiles and posing, among all the spanning shots of the way we’d come, and the shadows that the clouds made upon the mountain slopes. No, my favourite was one where I’d just pulled the camera out as I scanned the landscape before me at the last lookout spot, before we’d merge with the valley below… but I didn’t take the shot. I peeked through the viewfinder and felt nothing for it, so I lowered the camera to my chest and turned to look back. She was leaning against the front end of the silver Sebring, holding her elbows, looking down as she leaned back on her heels so her toes were off the ground. I couldn’t tell if she was looking at her toes in her sandals or at the ground between her feet, thinking of something else.
That’s when I took the shot.
She didn’t hear the click as a slight breeze blew by the lookout, ruffling her hair a little.
Her expression in that photo would forever remain as she was, elusive.
The place she directed us to was what I at first thought to be a rural village, but which turned out to be just the outbuilding remains of an old farm. We traveled through it and up a dirt road which wound its way up a small hill and then down a small dip, but as we came through a small clump of trees, I spotted it. It was only the roof of something just before the crest of the hill before us. The dirt road became a narrow one lane driveway, flanked by a stone wall a half meter high on the right, and what seemed like an ancient rusted wire fence on the left, the base of which was obscured by the long grass. The weather had changed along with the countryside, from the mountains to the hills, so too had the overhead clouds been replaced by sunshine and clear blue sky.
She told me to stop the car at the tree at the end of the stone wall. When we came to it I did as I was told. She was leaning forward looking across the dashboard over the lane which curved to the right, and led to the front of an old gateway the size of two garage doors. The gateway was home to two newish looking gates obstructing the view of the courtyard which lay beyond it. It was part of an outer wall made of the local sandy coloured rocks, which merged rather seamlessly with the small hilltop, it meant that the flat roof of the property could only be seen from some way off – as I had seen from the road, making it a perfect place for a recluse.
I stood leaning against the side of the car, arms crossed, staring intently at the gate which stood ajar some twenty meters up the lane.
I watched as she was greeted by a man in formal clothing. I could see her gesturing towards me, and then she disappeared from view, the gates closed and my nerves tightened into a ball sitting at the pit of my stomach.
A few minutes later as I strolled to the edge of the lane looking over the short stone wall and the faded sun-bleached green field beyond it, I heard a grating sound. It was the gate, opening again. This time the formally dressed man approached, walking toward the car with his hands clasped at his waist.
He stopped short a few feet away from the car.
“Beautiful day.” He said in vaguely accented English. “It never gets quite green, like a postcard, but than why would you want that? This,” he looked around, his right hand unclasping itself and raised, fingers contracting as he gestured, as if feeling the air itself, “this is right, little bit dust, colours a little bit ruff… this is real, yes?”
I considered him a moment, he seemed to do the same with me. I squinted in the sunlight, looking at this odd man until, eventually, I nodded.
“Will you come to join us while we wait?” he half turned, this time his left hand extended to guide the way to the gate. I couldn’t tell if he was right handed or left handed. That bothered me. He also didn’t strike me as the butler, just a role he was playing for the afternoon.
I took a few tentative steps forward and then stopped to allow him to lead, which he did.
It was turning into a strange afternoon. The courtyard was large and Spartan with a covered veranda to the right and a well maintained small garden to the left with a sparkling swimming pool beyond that.
He guided me to the veranda and I took a seat on a cushioned wrought iron chair which was beside a matching table. Upon the table sat a steel tray holding a tea set, beside that was the day’s folded up newspaper. It made me feel like he, or they had anticipated I’d acquiesce to the invitation, part of some plan I was unaware of – what if I’d said no?
“May I?” He said holding the handle to the teapot.
I nodded, “You wouldn’t happen to have anything to eat, it’s been a long drive and I feel a tad peckish.”
He nodded, and half bowed before receding to the adobe styled villa. I picked up the newspaper and opened it up. Being where we were, it was not surprising that the headlines still led with the Pope hospitalization, recovering after being shot, he’d now asked people to pray for his would-be assassin, whom he’d already forgiven. The Pope had called his attacker ‘my brother’. I remember lingering on that for a while. Still nursing his bullet wounds, still in pain he was.
I’d finished my pastry and two cups of tea and was strolling in the small garden making my way to the pool, and even though the well dressed host had once again let me alone, I never felt like I actually was. There was a feeling that I was being watched constantly. I came to the edge of the pool, staring into the water which looked ever more inviting. I contemplated diving in. I looked around but saw no sign of a towel, but for some unknown reason, I took the watch off my wrist and looked down at it in my hand, watching the second hand tick. It was then that I heard the now familiar voice of my host.
“Sir, if you’ll come this way please, I believe our time together has reached an end.”
I squinted in the sparkling sunlight reflecting off the pool water, wondering to myself - ‘our time is almost at an end’- who speaks like that?
“Your wife will join you shortly.” He said as he moved toward the gate.
As we got back to the main path heading for the gate, I heard footsteps in the villa foyer behind us, the door had opened slightly and I thought I caught a glimpse of her dress as I looked over my shoulder.
“Sir.” The well dressed man was keen to have me leave it seemed. As I neared him I felt my watch still in my hand. It was as if my body was acting on its own whim. My fingers released their grip. My foot lingered in its step for a moment longer before moving to take the brunt of the falling watch so it would not fall flat on the stone walkway.
I stopped and looked down as the man was about to alert my attention. As I knelt down to retrieve it, I stole a longer glance at the front doorway. My wife was greeting another woman, embracing her. I caught sight of her face over my wife’s shoulder, but not for long.
And that was it.
That was my memory of that place, that man, that woman, that moment.
I would never see either of them again.
And my wife would never mention them, not for thirty years anyway.
That was late spring of 1981.
Thirty odd years of marriage down the line, my wife, with our kids at university, came to me one day and said she’d like to go back to Trieste. That was the beginning, the city that was more like a codeword to some past mystery. The start point for a short journey into the countryside – that was a long journey back in time and memory and many strange feelings.
That summer we paid the old Italian city another visited, the second and last time in our lives, playing the role of two old tourists seeking the famous coffees. It was beautiful, and modern, like every time I looked around I’d see what I remembered all those years ago, and then it would change ever so subtly before my eyes into what it was that very moment, with new cars, people talking on smartphones… it was almost an overwhelming distraction, until the second to last night, when at dinner, as she took up her knife and fork she said “Tomorrow morning we’ll go.” I noticed her taking a deep breath after her declaration. I nodded, pretending I had some say in the matter.
And so we went.
And as we drove deeper into the country, ever nearer to the border, the old memories began playing tricks on me again, making me think things were familiar when they weren’t.
We came to what used to be the remains of that old farm, now long since demolished and turned into storage facilities and a Bed ‘n Breakfast. I didn’t recognize of course, and at first I thought we were lost. The road we’d turned down had been obscured by the resurfaced and reconfigured interchange. One of the roads which had fed it, which had been tarmac those years back, was now a simple dirt road, half abandoned.
She found it though.
And together we eventually found the lane. The trees were still there, more lush than before, but the wire fence was gone, and the stone wall had crumbled to just a long row of piled rocks.
I think she just wanted to satisfy the itch that had been there gnawing at her all these years. I do not think she actually wanted to know what remained behind that wall and those gates. She wanted to know, had to, but was afraid of knowing. So she did it her own way, via a simple note left under a rock at the gate, the details of which she did not tell me, and I did not press to find out.
It was only six years later, staring up at me from her hospital bed that she cared to spill some of her secrets.
I was staring at the flowers in a vase at her bedside when she’d asked, out of nowhere “Do you want to know who she is?”
But after a deep pause and a moment to collect my thoughts, I shook my head and whispered. “I’ve known for a long time.”
There was a spark of something in her eyes.
“I’ve known about you too.” I continued.
I thought back, and my body did that thing it did sometimes, acting all on its own as my hand clutched her arm, then raised her left hand. I fingered the mark of where her wedding band had been, the ring cut off due to her swollen fingers.
A tear fell down her temple as she whispered, “I know you did not forget the scarf. It’s… it’s hidden.”
I glanced down at her and smiled a bitter smile with half a nod, before I leaned over to kiss her.
I smiled again when I left her room to visit the vending machine, and thinking of the selections on offer as I stared at the buttons. My memory played another trick, overlaying the image of some other buttons… of the elevator in that old hotel up on that mountain. And as I reached for the button to our floor, I remember seeing that scarf, there in my hand. It was there, with me.
But I didn’t have it when I got back to our room.
No I gave it to someone else. She was right of course. It was hidden with them, even now, in that forgotten place, forever.
I think back now to what the Pope said about his attacker. And then I hear the words echo, the quiet words that my wife said to me. Her last words… with closed eyes, dulled pain through medication filled veins, and with slightly parted lips…
she whispered these words to me,
“I know… what you are.”