It was early evening now, and the late seasonal sun cast a warm glow over Eva’s face, bathing her in a light that didn’t suit her. Haloed unnaturally by the last pale rays drifting from a steadily darkening sky, she gave the impression that she didn’t quite fit into the normal world, though by all accounts she seemed to operate perfectly well in it. Maybe it was just that her dark, earthy features aligned better with cooler weather. Eva was attractive, no doubt about that, but she had looked better, I thought, in the pallor of our crypt.
She was leaning casually against the doorway, her body casting a shadow over the front porch, where Katherine, her mother, now stood, one step below her.
‘How’s Ali?’ asked Katherine.
‘He’s… uhm… He’s OK.’
‘Have you seen him yet?’
‘Of course not, mum. Where could’ve I possibly seen him?’ Eva swiftly answered.
She knew her mother was going to drown her with questions, and figured it was definitely not the correct time to ignite any wrangles with her, so she settled for responding with just what should suffice Katherine’s irritating inquisitiveness.
The moment Katherine fetched back the idea of Eva meeting Ali, flashbacks of the very first time he invited her to stay over hit her wall of consciousness.
She remembered the soft breeze which blew across the lawn as she walked into his front yard, and how with each gust of wind she smelled the faint scent of books that lined his room, and the rest of the house. They seemed so much a part of him that she imagined his skin might feel like parchment, but of course it felt just like the skin of every other man.
The books, though they did suit him, weren’t what she expected the former time she paid him a visit. She had always associated book collections with messy people, with mad lecturers and more obviously academic types.
At first, she thought he must have a cat too, which was likely curled up, observing her presence from the safety of the shelves, but she deduced shortly after her arrival that Ali was not a pet person. He wouldn’t be able to put with an animal, uncontrolled, winding its way round his legs, even a creature as independent as a feline.
He wasn’t unduly secretive, didn’t seem to be consciously hiding anything, but nonetheless had offered very few details about his life, the day-to-day routine of his existence outside their meetings.
He liked his privacy, she supposed, and she could understand that, reticent as she was to invite anyone to her own home.
She was surprised how he had taken her there. Though his books gave him more humanity, somehow. At least, if he didn’t have a story of his own, he seemed to enjoy collecting stories of others.
The thought made her like him more. They weren’t so different, this man and her, though they might seem so to any casual observer.
Later that evening, Eva was told by her mother that they would be expecting some visitor the next day.
She hadn’t given the matter any further notice, but was content with persuading her ego that it was just a neighbour, or perhaps some far cousin.
All that strolled her mind was her concern about Ali’s reaction to that text, seeing that he hadn’t replied to her yet.
The next morning, to take her mind off the text, Eva went for a furious jog at the local park, powered by her headphones, playing Ed Sheeran on repeat, then went window shopping on Swiss Road, stopping for a coffee and breakfast at her favourite café in this part of town, on the aptly known Brick Street. The café doubles as a vintage clothing store, with racks of outfits inside dating back to the 1900s, and consequently, has the sweet, almost dusty smell of old things, a little like the scent of Ali’s books.
It was still fairly early, much earlier than she usually got up, but the street outside was packed already, each side jammed with racks of clothes, antiques, and bric-a-brac laid out on blankets on the pavement, leopard-print chaises longues perched next to office furniture, food stands selling everything from barbecue ribs to fruit smoothies served in coconut shells, the air fairly crackling with the eager energy of market traders and excited tourists visiting for the first time.
She sat in the café most of the day, observing the ebb and flow of the other diners, wondering which of them, if any, were also going through the same mental stress she was dealing with.
Right in the heart of her attentive scrutiny, her phone beeped. It was a text. With all her wits and senses, she wished it was Ali.
She looked down at her phone to read:
‘Where on earth are you?
Your cousin who wanted to propose is here.
Come home. Right now.
Her heart skipped a beat.