This week, we invite you into The Village. It's a place where people offer advice, people like Joan of Arc, Richard the Third, and Anne Boleyn. It's a place where you can relive painful, telling, moments in relationships and get the chance to say I'm sorry, and I love you. "Tallis' Third Tune" - the first book in the Midwinter Sonata Series.
From "Tallis' Third Tune:"
My storybegan much in the same way as any other, say for example, David Copperfield.
I was born.
Where it concerns this story, however, it was a different kind of birth; one that began with death.
I heard the conversation and they called it around twelve oh-two in the morning – at exactly the same time as my birth, strangely enough. Even so, I’d like to respectfully disagree with those who assumed things they should not: that I died.
I did not die; I am not dead. Not yet at least.
At least I hope not.
I didn’t remember the exact moment of my demise nor did I remember pain. I remembered minutia, like ordering breakfast, or waiting for transit, or falling to sleep clearly as if it were a second ago – but then, I knew somehow that I existed in kairos rather than kronos, and a second in kairos is a thousand years on Earth.
Objects and places, people, appeared out of the ether like rainbows – there wasn’t a bright light to herald comings and goings, but soft flows of color that became shapes, then objects, then people, and places. For example, when I wrote this I was sitting in what looked like a See’s Candy Store, the one at the convergence of Market, Sutter and Sansome in San Francisco but it was set in a picturesque English village, perhaps somewhere in the Cotswolds or Dorset, somewhere in Thomas Hardy’s imagination – or mine. There were yellow daffodils and freesias in vases on every counter; the display case wasn’t stocked with caramels or almond bark, or Bordeaux creams, but with books. Little leather volumes that had straps across the front cover – like a child’s diary, the one you had to open with a key that usually hung around your neck along with a skate key to keep one’s secrets safe from a brother’s or parents’ inquiring eyes.
On the shelves where heart-shaped boxes of nut chews and creams usually sat were small casks of parquetry wood. There was a coffee bar with an espresso machine and a display case full of cheesecakes of every kind. There were round café tables with heart-backed, cushioned chairs to match, and yellow gingham curtains on the mullioned windows. It was as if I had stepped into one of those faux Victorian shops at Disneyland.
Over the counter was a medieval sign with the word “CURIOS?” in great purple letters – “Curious?” in English. I called my home away from home, my way station on the way to wherever I was going the “Curiosity Shop.”
Yet I was the only one in the Shop who was curious.
No one seemed to mind that I was sitting in the corner farthest from the door with my laptop. My Starbucks coffee travel mug, the one with the strawberries on it, was never drained of its cappuccino: small, skim milk, no cinnamon. I had a bottle of Diet Pepsi, too, and that was always cold, never lost its fizz. A messenger bag crammed with notebooks and a Prada bag were slung over the back of the chair.
People came and went quietly. Many of them were strangers to me; most were historical persons I studied and wrote about, even idolized. A few approached The Proprietress, a stern, beautiful woman who resembled Helen Mirren, but Mirren as she portrayed Queen Elizabeth II. Her hair was coiffed in a 1950s bob, and around her neck was an opera-length strand of exquisite pearls. She wore an ill-fitting, severe blue suit and carried a Princess Grace-style handbag in the crook of her arm. I looked down at her feet and nodded in approval; at least she wore Vivien Westwood pumps – Anglomania – Lady Dragon, to be precise. Customers’ needs were met efficiently and with an economy of motion and conversation. Once in a while a cask came down from the shelf. Sometimes the book in burgundy leather with gold tooled arabesques came out of the case, sometimes the vermillion with silver findings, but never the book in lapis lazuli suede with silver clasp and decoration. I wanted more than anything to see what was in that book, gaze down at the mysterious trinkets in casks that were unlocked, opened and locked up quickly and replaced on a shelf.
One thing was certain: I must have been dreaming.
Or…I really was dead.
For I looked up from my writing one day and standing out on the sidewalk looking in was my brother Dennis, who died at the age of thirty-one. When our eyes met I felt the breath go out of me, then a surge of adrenalin coursed through me like an electrical current. He smiled, every dimple increasing, and turned away, walking into a hat shop across the street.
This occurred several times, perhaps seven in as many days, until I couldn’t stand it. “Dennis!” I shouted after him. “Denny!”
I was out the door and in the high street dodged the traffic, though when a taxi came at me I froze and waited for my imminent demise – which didn’t happen. The taxi went through me and sped around the corner to the bridge. Yes, it was one of those cinematic moments when all I could do was stare at my hands and torso while other vehicles and people collided with me and yet nothing happened to them or me, and nothing had changed. I didn’t look transparent or ethereal, nor did I wear gossamer or wings. I looked the same as I did – when I was sixteen.
When I fell asleep, or the last time I remembered falling asleep, I had been fifty-seven.
After these moments of revelation I bolted after Dennis into the hat shop.
The doorbell sang sweetly when I pushed the latch and entered a nineteenth century establishment. No one seemed to pay attention to me, certainly not The Proprietress – again, the woman resembling Helen Mirren in a severe blue suit. Customers were trying on hats and whispering as if it were a library or they were in the middle of a church service. In fact, over the door was a placard demanding “SILENCE, PLEASE!”
A shop assistant in a Regency gown thrust a cloche at me: it was pale blue with white, mauve and yellow roses tucked into the crown band. It went well with the Laura Ashley dress I found myself suddenly wearing. When I turned to admire myself in the full-length mirror behind me, I was face to face with Dennis.
“Hello, Alice.” He kissed my cheek and it felt like the sun warming me after clouds had parted. “You’ve always had a face for hats.”
“Hello,” I managed to whisper. Dennis smiled gently as if to cue my thoughts and I asked timidly, “Am I asleep?”
Dennis’ smile was a bit more sympathetic now and he shrugged indifferently.
“Oh! Ohhh…geez, well, in that case, I suppose this will be where you tell me an angel named Clarence or Phillip will visit and tell me I have three tasks to accomplish before I can meet Saint Peter at the gate.”
Dennis raised his brows as he always did to either mock me or get a better answer. “Phillip?”
He waved a hand at the costume jewelry laid out on a velvet-covered counter top. Fingering a string of creamy, ivory pearls, he shook his head. “You know me better than anyone, Alice; when did I ever fall for the Kapra way? Yes, I think the pearls – or do you prefer the silver cross with garnets? The cross, it is. It’s medieval – and it’s you. What do you think?”
I was wearing a heavy Byzantine cross set with garnets on a silver filigree chain around my neck. “It’s gorgeous, but I think the pearls go better with this Laura Ashley country frock – what the hell?!!”
Looking down, I was wearing a pale blue-gray dress of soft wool now, and the hat changed with it, matching color and fabric.
“Perfect! A perfect faery princess,” Dennis murmured. “Denny, I’m not understanding anything right now.”
“Well that’s the way it’s supposed to be – takes some getting used to, though.”
“When did I die?” I asked.
“August of 1978.”
“August, 1978. I think you know what I’m talking about.”
“I got married, had a child, I didn’t die!”
“Oh hell, I’m supposed to figure this out, aren’t I?”
“Alice, you’re not expected to do anything like save kittens up in trees or go back home and save the town from bankruptcy. Angels won’t earn their wings by anything you do now. No bells or Buffalo Gals. You’re expected to do what you want.”
“There are caveats and conditions, however. You get do-overs, if you want. It’s entirely up to you. And the situation, of course.”
“Do-overs? Like jacks or hopscotch?”
“Certain things have to be played through – you’ll figure it out.”
“Oh, and it’s more about changing you than anything or anyone else. That was a hard one to catch.”
Another kiss was planted on my cheek and I caught a scent of Number Six as he waved and went on his way. Though, what his way was, I didn’t know.
Not yet, at least.
The Proprietress at the Curiosity Shop nodded when I appeared at my table. I didn’t remember returning to the Shop; I didn’t remember sleeping, nor having a place to sleep, but I felt rested and my stomach was full, as if I had a breakfast of sausages and waffles with a Starbucks cappuccino on the side.
“You’ll want to choose now,” The Proprietress announced all of a sudden.
I looked up from my typing. “Pardon?” I asked.
“Your book – you’ll want to choose. Come along!”
I glanced about; there was no one else in the Shop and so I pushed my chair back and went to the display cases. The lapis book held my attention.
After a moment during which The Proprietress scrutinized my face down to the last freckle on the bridge of my nose, the book came out of the case and was set before me on a brocaded cushion.
It was magnificent. Between the latticed vines decorating the leather suede cover were stars tooled in silver gilt. The clasp was a sapphire set in a silver finding. I ran my fingers over the book, tracing the outlines of vines and stars, my hands trembling. I had to have this book. I wanted to tuck it into my faux Prada bag and let it stay there forever…
“Some people think they know what they want before they understand why they want it!” The Proprietress sniffed.
I ignored the comment and fumbled with the clasp on the book. Looking around, I didn’t see a key attached to the book or dangling somewhere in the case. “Is there some way…?” I muttered, and The Proprietress snatched the book away to be locked up once again.
“Some people seem to think!” she hissed.
“Well, that was rude…”
The Proprietress was pointing at a rack behind me, one of those carousels holding postcards. No postcards of a quaint English village here, but what looked like train timetables. Unfolding one, I discovered it was a time line – of my life. Turning it over in my hands, a name stood out among the others placed neatly under tick-marks.
“The train station is down the road. You don’t have much time,” The Proprietress ordered.
My messenger bag and laptop were thrust at me; the Prada bag slung over a shoulder. I peeked inside, hoping…
“Nooo, Alice! The book isn’t there.”
“Can I just…?”
The Proprietress pointed out the door and to the north. She stamped her Westwood pump and roundly gestured to the street.
“Well, good bye then,” I said, trying to be friendly. “I get it now – you’re God.”
The Proprietress glared over the rim of her cat-eye glasses, my mother’s glasses. “Oh please, dear child! I’m much too busy for that! Hurry! It all must be done in a week!”
Colors flowed and bled into one another like a ‘60s light show and paisley patterns swirled around me until I was standing in the midst of Union Station. It was not the boutique-infested strip mall interrupted by Amtrak trains, life-size cutouts of the president and vice president, and racks of souvenir key chains shaped like the White House or the Capitol, but the station as it should be: a living organism of people and machinery, of purpose. Before me were the boarding gates. A sign flashed arrivals and departures. It didn’t surprise me that a non-stop train for Berkeley, California was ready to depart. I knew that was my destination and I sprinted for the train, amazed at my energy and the lack of pain in my back and knees.
But then, I was sixteen again, wasn’t I?
There was one empty compartment on the train and I slid in, throwing my bags on one bench, myself on the other. The train eased out of the station, the famous and familiar buildings of Washington starting to disappear. I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them, a man was smiling at me – Jack Lemmon, I thought at once. He wore an Amtrak uniform and held a ticket punch in his right hand.
“Good afternoon, Alice. Your ticket?”
I hadn’t purchased a ticket!
“The outside pocket of the book bag, Miss,” he said in a friendly, comforting voice.
Reaching into the messenger bag as instructed, and never diverting my glance from his, I pulled out a book of tickets: rectangles of brightly colored stock paper like the old ticket books for rides at Disneyland. Each ticket had a letter printed on its face, A to E. I thumbed through the book and asked, “Which ride is this?”
“This would be an ‘A’ ride, Miss.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“The ‘A’ rides are the least exciting. I don’t suppose we’re going to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle?”
The ticket was punched. “See you in a while, Miss. The café car is the next one over – to your left as you go out,” he said. “Do you want me to close this?”
I nodded and he closed the compartment door as he went, humming A Time for Us.
Curiosity compelled me after a few moments to go out into the corridor. The smell of a roast turkey dinner was even more compelling. I turned right and found myself in the café car of the Orient Express circa 1910, but the passengers were more eclectic: Albert Einstein, Richard the Third and Thomas Cranmer were engaged in a spirited debate about Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple’s legacy while Boadicea and C. S. Lewis were sharing tea and scones; the astronauts from the Challenger Space Shuttle were playing poker with Thomas Hardy, Marilyn Monroe, President Kennedy and Joan of Arc. Eleanor of Aquitaine was trying to show George Eliot how to knit, while Jane Austen scribbled furiously in a notebook and Agatha Christie kept slapping her hand and growling, “Mind how you write, Girl! Mind how you write!” Off at a table by himself was a seventeen-year old boy faced with a bacon double cheeseburger and fries.
My stomach lurched and I broke into a sweat, and then began to tremble.
Jack Lemmon approached, this time dressed in an impeccably tailored tuxedo. He offered a menu and extended a hand. “I suppose you’ll want to sit with him?” he asked, jerking his chin towards the boy. I wanted a table near the door, to eavesdrop on the Einstein-Ricardian-Cranmer conversation, but the tables were suddenly full of more historical personalities. The only spare seat was at the table in the corner.
“You have a guest, sir – dinner for two,” Jack Lemmon announced as he seated me opposite the boy.
It made sense, looking at him. If I appeared as I did at sixteen, it only stood to reason that he would be the same age as when we went on our first date. He was struggling to fit the cheeseburger into his mouth when he noticed me.
“Hello!” The exclamation was of genuine delight. He put down the burger and poured a glass of Diet Pepsi, shoving it towards me.
“Thanks! You remembered. So…I guess you’re…”
“Glad to see you? What do you think?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I murmured, looking around.
“Going to Berkeley?”
“I don’t know…”
He reached out and brushed the hair out of my eyes. “There. I like to look at your eyes – the smile’s not bad, either. Mighty fine, Miss Alice!”
Quinn started in on the burger and after a few bites, looked up and smiled – that knee-disintegrating smile I remembered as years came and went – and said, “You’re not hungry?”
Looking down, I saw that a plate of fish and chips was before me, a bottle of malt vinegar close at hand. “Wow! I was just thinking…I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, should I?”
“Remember our dinners out?”
“We didn’t go out much – a movie once in a while.”
“I didn’t have an allowance, remember? I just liked being with you. You were the only girl who really listened, Alice, like you were interested. You were patient and kind, especially loving.”
“We had some pretty interesting conversations, didn’t we?”
“Let’s see; there were books – Lord of the Rings, music – Ralph Vaughan Williams and Jimi Hendrix.”
“There was love.” Quinn again brushed the hair out of my eyes, which I closed, sensing that his face was near, and waited for his kiss. When I opened them, I was no longer on the train, but sitting on the swing in the back yard of the house where I lived with my brother, Dennis.
I spun around, unbelieving at first. Calm set in as something deep within me told me it must be. It would be.
It was a particularly warm day. From the color of the grass and the blown roses, it must have been August, sometime in the early evening. Music drifted out of the house, Are You Sitting Comfortably– a favorite song of mine – as did the sound of dishes being taken from the cupboard, the sound of meat sizzling on a grill.
Dennis’ voice didn’t surprise me at all. I shoved myself off the swing and climbed up the stairs to the back room of our Mediterranean-style house and walked through to the kitchen where Dennis was scooping mashed potatoes on to plates and Harry, his college friend, was spearing steaks off the range for delivery to the table.
“Uh oh…” Harry hummed, and winked.
“No drama tonight, okay?” Dennis demanded, leveling the spoon in my direction so that globs of mashed potato fell onto the floor, to be lapped up by my Pomeranian puppy, Sammie.
“What?” My response was a bit forced and too high in pitch. “You’ve got that look – you’re not still moping over that jar-headed jock of a boyfriend, are you? It’s been months,” Dennis grumbled. “C’mon, eat. It takes food to mend a broken heart.”
I dug in to the mashed potatoes after spooning a bit of margarine on them. A bite and then another, and I said, “Will Parmenter was ages ago. And if you must know, I was thinking about someone else.”
“Great – more drama!” Harry chuckled.
“Not funny,” I sniped.
The telephone in the living room rang and Dennis glared at me, saying, “Dinner hour is for dinner – socializing is for after, with martinis – or in your case, a Shirley Temple,” before he got up to answer it. A moment later he came back and took up where he left off with the meal. “You know, I have to give Louie a call – these are the best steaks he’s had in the shop in a long while. What do you think, Alice? Should we get our Thanksgiving turkey from Louie’s Butcher Shop this year? That was Quinn on the phone, by the way…”
“…and I told him you were eating and that you’d call him back. Okay?”
The meal was consumed in the quickest time possible and made me wonder if I’d expired from a heart attack. As I got up from the table, Dennis took my hand gently and pulled me on to his lap.
“I didn’t say when you’d call him back,” Dennis continued. “Haven’t you used up your phone allowance for the week?”
“C’mon!” I whined. “Those were calls about the winter play and costume parades and fittings!”
“You’ve been using the phone way too much and the phone bill’s been too high – we can’t afford that while I’m trying to get the business off the ground and make some money.”
“Five minutes – c’mon Denny! It’s been all summer.”
“If he’s interested, he’ll wait until tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you get me a phone of my own for Christmas?” I hinted.
“Why don’t you learn to be patient?”
“You’re a stinker,” I grumbled, sliding off his lap and heading towards the door. “I’m going to finish the costumes for act two.”
“Dennis, you really have to stop doing that to the poor girl,” I heard Harry say as I left.
Once out of the kitchen, I darted as quietly as possible through the dining room that now served as Dennis’ office/studio, skirting past the stacks of books, portfolios, sketchbooks and art supplies both on the floor and on the table, almost knocking over our mother’s dressmaking dummy that now wore one of his suits and a tie. I set it back and stepped respectfully around my mother’s neglected sewing machine cabinet that had been idle for a year now, the pieces to a dress she was making for me still stacked neatly on the platform where she’d left them. Drawing tightly the lengths of tapestry that divided the office and the spacious mission revival living room, I carefully lifted the phone out of its box inside the roll-top desk, cradled the phone in my arms and gently pulled on the length of cord, letting it snake behind the sofa and end table, letting it trail behind me as I went out into the enclosed porch and eased the door shut, but not before grabbing a pillow off the sofa and throwing it into a corner by the potted palm. I sat knees drawn up to chest with the phone balanced on my stomach. Reaching for my purse on the coat rack, it took some time to find a slip of paper that had been tucked away in an inside pocket at the beginning of summer. I unfolded it carefully as if it were an archeological find and studied the neat, architectural handwriting. Moments passed before I picked up the phone receiver and started to dial. It was odd, watching the rotary disc spin around as each number was selected in turn, no less strange to me than the anticipation I was feeling, the dread and excitement, even though I’d dialed that number almost a thousand times…
I stretched out and held my breath, waiting for someone to pick up. “Uh, hi! Hello, this is Alice, Alice Martin; may I speak with Quinn?” Moments passed – dreadful, painful moments – until I heard the receiver click.
“Okay, Dad, you can hang up now!” Quinn was shouting, then, into the receiver, “Alice, hi!”
“Hi! Welcome home,” I greeted.
“Just got back a couple of hours ago – Dad! Damn it, hang up the phone!”
I stifled a laugh.
“You okay?” he asked.
“No, I’m fine – a piece of celery in my throat, from dinner – you know, the threads.”
“Wow, you should be careful…”
“How are you, Quinn? It’s been a while.”
“Fine, fine – at least now…So, what did you do this summer?”
“Not much of anything really, just hung around the house – oh, I’ve been designing more costumes – they asked me to do the winter play.”
“Wow, how many does that make, three, four? What’s the drama club doing?”
“A Scottish play.”
“The one with three witches – you’re not supposed to say the name; bad luck.”
“Too bad it’s not Romeo and Juliet; you know your Italian Renaissance stuff.”
“Well, technically that’s medieval, the original story, that is.”
Quinn laughed. “Okay, you won that round. Still, everyone says you’re a great costume designer.”
“That would include me. Are you thinking about making a career of it? There are schools back east and there’s New York, Broadway.”
“I want to teach history at the college level – but I guess I could design on the side. My brother’s got connections.”
I listened, trying to figure out if there was a hidden meaning in the cadence. “Quinn? Are you alright?”
“Huh? Oh yeah, yeah. Hey, I finished Lord of the Rings.”
“The whole trilogy???”
“Wasn’t much to do most nights; lock downs after the auditions and concerts, and there wasn’t anyone to hang out with, so…y’know, when I got to the Return of the King I kept thinking of you – as Eowyn.”
“‘I am no man!’” I quoted from the battle of the Peleannor Fields.
“Exactly! Yeah! Yeah, great book…”
“I cried at the end.”
“You cried?” Quinn was incredulous.
I put my feet up on the door, wondering what my legs would look like in chain mail. “Well, it was romantic and so moving. I should get some chain mail, what do you think?” I said aloud and regretted it until he spoke up.
“Uhh…yeah! With a mini skirt! You’d look great with those legs, and, shit, that was really stupid. I don’t know why…”
“No worries! Okay, didn’t you think it was beautiful and moving? How Frodo and Sam saved Middle Earth? And how Aragorn and Arwen were meant to be together?”
“Well, yeah, but how many endings does a book need?”
“If I had written it – one.”
We laughed and were silent, though I could hear him on the other end of the receiver.
Tikka-tap, tikka-tap, tikka-tikka-tikka…it was a pencil being tapped on a surface like a drumstick.
He was on the end of the line – that’s all that mattered.
“I was wondering – do you want to go to a movie or something?” He asked all of a sudden.
“Uh, sure! When?”
“Yeah, okay. Do you want to meet downtown or…?”
“I’ll pick you up.”
He was silent for another long, tortuous moment, and then, “Okay, well, I’ll see you in an hour?”
“Okay…I’m looking forward to it, Quinn.”
Another pause. Why?
“Yeah, well, okay! See you soon.”
I slammed down the receiver and did a happy dance that was interrupted by Dennis.
“Gotcha!” he said, yanking the phone from me. “We can’t afford another fifty dollar phone bill, Alice!”
“I’ll work extra hours at the dress shop and I’ll take on some students for tutoring,” I giggled, dancing past him to the stairs and he played along, doing the Frug and the Chicken behind me up the stairs and down the hallway to my bedroom. “I’ve got a date tonight – with Quinn!” I pushed Denny back out into the hallway. “I’ll make it up to you – I always do, don’t I? Now go, I have to get ready.”
“Nothing sexy!” Dennis called over his shoulder as I slammed the bedroom door.
The closet was full of dresses – my one weakness was clothes – yet I frowned at everything that was taken out and inspected. My favorite, a sleeveless red velvet mini-dress with a high waist and gold brocaded bodice, was bought with three months’ allowance because Olivia Hussey had worn a red velvet dress in Romeo & Juliet, and I’d seen stills from the film in a Scholastic magazine feature earlier that year. I didn’t care that it was too hot for velvet, and slipped it over my head anyway, adjusting the bodice around the strapless bra I’d chosen to wear – the pink lace number I’d bought with lunch money, the one Dennis said I couldn’t have. For a moment I looked at the budding cleavage, and then at the tissue box. No. Boys could tell the difference. Next, I scuffed my feet into a pair of gold sandals. The dirty-dishwater blonde hair was unraveled from its perpetual braid and brushed out so that it was all waves and curls like a Pre-Raphaelite Madonna or angel. For added measure I sprayed a bit of Yardley’s O! De London on my neck.
“There!” I sighed, glancing into the mirror.
Still, the girl looking back wasn’t what I wanted.
The eyes were too large and far apart; the hair could never make up its mind to be blonde or brown and settled mostly for taupe unless I was out in the sun, and then it went to the shade of dirty dishwater; the mouth was thin and wide. Someday I hoped I would develop more curves. At least I’d gone up a bra size over the summer, though no one would notice, not even in my low cut red velvet dress. I looked back at the tissue box and sighed. No. It would be too obvious. There was one saving grace to my adolescence: I’d been spared zits. Dennis said I was enchanting and pretty, but he lied. What did he know about girls, especially when all he seemed to attract were pretty boys? I wanted to be stunning, exotic in beauty, the kind that made boys and men walk into telephone poles or trees when I passed by with an air of confidence…
The doorbell buzzed.
“I’ll get it!” I shouted in a most unladylike manner and practically threw myself downstairs to get the door before Dennis or Harry. I was too late. Dennis was at the door and was chatting amiably with Quinn, who was dressed in a linen sports coat, a pair of slacks, shirt, and Sperry Topsiders. He was a “Hill Kid” from a family of wealth and privilege and always dressed like he came out of a prep school or Esquire magazine ad.
“Here she is,” Dennis announced and did a double take in my direction. “My, look at you!”
“Alice! Oh wow, my favorite dress!” Quinn blurted out and then recovered with a “Hi!” that was too forced and boisterous.
“Hi! You look great yourself.”
“I thought I was too dressed up, but seeing you…”
“Can’t wait for the prom! You’re taking her to the prom this year, aren’t you?” Dennis crowed at a clearly embarrassed Quinn. “Let me get the camera!”
“Shall we go?” I pleaded, desperate to get away.
“Behave!” Harry called as I slammed the screen door in his face and Quinn and I scrambled down the stairs to the street.
“I like Dennis,” Quinn laughed as we turned left up Rose Street and walked to Oxford.
“He’s annoying,” I grumbled.
“He’s your brother – aren’t brothers supposed to be annoying? My mother did the same thing when I left the house. Sometimes I wish I had a brother – at least you can sucker punch a brother.”
“Didn’t you say your father’s musical instruments have a room of their own?”
“Well, think of them as brothers and sisters.”
“So my guitar and cello would be their nephew and niece?”
“I guess,” I said, adding, “and that would definitely make your family as strange as mine – maybe stranger.”
We both laughed at this as we followed the perimeter of the university en route to the movie theater on Addison and talked about his “family” of musical instruments and the acoustic guitar his mother had given him for his birthday, the auditions for orchestra chairs and how he spent part of the summer with his grandmother in York, England. From there we discussed the costume designs I was working on, the collection of short stories I was writing, and what classes we were going to take in the fall.
The noise of a crowd made us stop short when we stopped at Oxford and Center.
A cadre of National Guardsmen had arrived in Jeeps and was taking up position near the entrance to the stadium. A band of protesters taunted them, waving anti-war signs. Someone was burning a flag. Police sirens started to wail as the Guardsmen moved into formation.
“Oh wow,” I sighed. “The last time this happened I almost wound up in the hospital…”
“Why?” Quinn’s voice had a sharp edge to it.
“The tear gas – I was walking home from school and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few of us were going to the library to study but we saw the protesters and wanted to join them. The Guardsmen threw canisters just as we walked past and the fumes burned my eyes and throat. I thought Dennis and my mother were going to kill me.”
“Why? It wasn’t your fault. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea – damn, tear gas! C’mon,” Quinn grabbed my hand and we took a sharp right towards Kittredge, pushing against the crowd coming at us from downtown to join the protest. “We can go over to the U.A. Theatre – it’s playing there,” he said, quickening the pace. A handkerchief came out of his pocket and he thrust it toward me. “Just in case – I don’t want our first date to be in the emergency room.”
I glanced up at Quinn and he winked.
We skirted by J.C. Penney’s, Hink’s and the public library and as we approached the box office he relaxed the death grip on my hand, but didn’t let go.
“Thanks,” I murmured, handing back the handkerchief. I craned to look up, hoping for a smile. Quinn had grown a foot taller over the summer. He looked older, and the grim set of his jaw and eyes made him look formidable, though it was hard to believe a boy as gentle as Quinn Radcliffe was someone to be reckoned with.
“Don’t they know it won’t do any good? They just keep sending people over there to die,” he muttered, shoving the handkerchief back in his pocket.
“I hope you don’t get drafted.”
“That makes two of us.” Quinn glanced down and smiled. “That really is my favorite dress.”
“Is it? Thanks.”
“You know what movie we’re seeing, don’t you?”
A line was forming at the box office and so I saved our places in line while Quinn went across the street to Edy’s Ice Cream Parlor. He came back breathlessly and handed off a strawberry cone. “My favorite!” I gushed.
“Yeah, the school cafeteria – you always seem to go for the strawberries,” he remarked.
“I thought you ate lunch in the band room with the orchestra kids.”
“Part of the time, but I mostly sit in the back of the cafeteria and work on compositions. The noise actually helps; it’s called white noise – like a TV when the station signs off and you get that static-like noise, it blocks out everything and helps me concentrate.”
“You watch me go for strawberries, huh?”
“I’m not a Peeping Tom or following you around or anything like that, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Quinn blurted out nervously. “I hope you don’t think…”
“I’m teasing you, Quinn!” I laughed. “It’s okay if I tease you? I’m the type of girl that if I don’t tease or try to make you laugh, you better worry.”
“You’re the only interesting girl in the school. That’s why I noticed you at first. Other guys did, too. I heard them talking. You don’t draw attention to yourself; there’s something about you, well…”
“Thank you,” I whispered, touching his arm and smiling up at him.
“And then there’s the smile,” he said now.
There wasn’t much more I could say. I brushed the hair off my face and glanced at Quinn from time to time as we moved slowly in the long queue that had snaked down Shattuck to Kittredge and around the corner, with more people arriving as the show times approached for this, the most talked-about movie of the year.
“Hey, is that…?”
I looked where Quinn was gesturing with his chin.
My ex-boyfriend Will had joined the line with his latest, my best friend – actually my ex best friend – Amber Lynne Smollers, the sister of Quinn’s rival in just about everything. I looked away but not soon enough. Will hailed me with a wave, a stupid grin.
“Don’t mind me,” Quinn murmured, and planted a kiss on my brow, another on my neck, pulled me closer, and shot Will a smile that could be interpreted as smug or victorious, or both. I didn’t mind that at all, especially when his arm stayed around my waist and I was close enough to inhale the scent he wore. The next day I went to Bill’s Drugs and bought a bottle of that same cologne; I kept it hidden in my vanity, taking it out every now and then to partake of what I thought was a guilty pleasure – to remember how he smelled and wished that he was beside me at night…
“It must be strange coming back here after spending so much time in England,” I commented.
“We have better food,” Quinn answered. “Truth be told, I didn’t want to go this year, but my grandmother expects me to, and after she closes up the shop at six, there’s nothing to do – I don’t know anyone. And I actually looked forward to music camp.”
“How was it?” I asked as we finally walked inside and Quinn passed our tickets to the kid at the door.
The kid glanced at me slack-mouthed, eyes darting up and down, and exclaimed, “Wow, didn’t know it was you, Alice!” He sat behind me in Social Studies and bore holes into the back of my skull with watery blue eyes when he wasn’t trying to get my attention or blow on my neck. Now he looked up at Quinn, looking down just as quickly when Quinn glared.
“Enjoy the show – they die in the end!”
Quinn spun about, glaring once more, and then recovered. “What was that all about?”
“He has a crush on me or something.”
“He should have moved faster,” Quinn said with a wink, and then held be back, saying, “There’s Will and Amber Lynne - let’s go this way.” We stepped in line behind a group of sophomores from the high school and followed them in, pausing just inside the threshold. “Wait a minute; my eyes haven’t adjusted to the dark – don’t want to trip and make a fool in front of you while I’m trying to be so cool and suave,” he quipped, but I saw that he was making careful note of where Will and Amber Lynne were going and he steered me in the opposite direction.
“Do you want to sit up close, or…” Quinn had paused near a back row.
We took seats in the back row away from other Berkeley High kids coming in. No sooner had Quinn settled in than he got up and handed me his coat, saying, “Don’t go anywhere.” Moments later he returned with a bag of popcorn and two drinks. He looked perturbed and glanced around before taking his seat.
“Something wrong?” I hinted.
“What? Oh, nothing – ran into Will.”
“I told him I was, if you get my meaning.”
The bag of popcorn between us, Quinn started to eat and I stole sideways glances at him. He was classically handsome, dark, with expressive, dark eyes and a dazzling smile that dimpled. Did I mention that it was knee-disintegrating? His father was English and his mother was of English and Italian parentage from an ancient family in Siena. His father taught music at the university and was head of the music department when he wasn’t singing the second lead with the San Francisco Opera. His mother stopped traffic on Shattuck Avenue when she glided into Hink’s Department Store, a tall, thin, woman with the glamorous dark beauty of an Ava Gardner or Vivien Leigh and Quinn, I thought, inherited all of their best qualities.
“You were asking about music camp,” Quinn murmured when the house lights dimmed.
“Yeah, was it the same as last year?”
“Same as always – same kids, same music, same fleas and mosquitoes,” Quinn said, laughing nervously. “Some of them had a search and destroy mission for me – the fleas and mosquitoes, that is, some of the kids . . .”
“I wish I could have gone to the chorus week at camp, but with everything that happened in April, Dennis and I couldn’t afford it.”
“Are you okay?”
“I guess,” I nervously shoved the hair behind my right ear, and then the left. “I guess I’ll get used to Mom not being around.”
“I tried to call you back when it happened – I wasn’t home, you see; my dad took me to New York for an audition, then to England.”
“You did?” I asked, looking up at Quinn. His dimples increased when he smiled gently, sincerely, and I looked down at my lap, brushing the crumbs and kernels of popcorn off the velvet.
“Mother called when she read the obituary in the Chronicle, so I tried to call – man, I just said that, didn’t I? I thought maybe you’d want to hear from a friend.”
“That was thoughtful. I didn’t see you around and I didn’t know what to think – everyone else pretty much stayed away and I thought, well, it doesn’t matter now, does it?”
“You got the card and flowers, right?”
“Yeah, I did. It surprised me because, well, you know, like I said, I hadn’t seen you around and then I heard you’d gone out of town. So it meant a lot that someone like you would go to the trouble…”
I didn’t add that I had saved the card and pressed one of the flowers he’d sent.
“Someone like me?” he wondered, shifting to his right to look at me. I was glad the theater was dark – he wouldn’t have been able to see my blushes as he smiled at me.
“Everyone looks at you and smiles when you’re walking down the halls, and the girls practically melt – damn! I said that out loud.”
Quinn gently laughed, saying, “I don’t think my sex appeal is what they’re gossiping about; I’m just a freak to most of them.”
“How can you say that, Quinn? You’re talented, funny, good looking…”
“I like that. The way you said my name,” he replied softly. “If you want to know, I think you’re my only friend at school, and I sent the flowers and card because I wasn’t able to talk to you when your mom died, and honestly, I couldn’t imagine what you were going through.”
“I don’t think I properly thanked you.”
“Consider tonight payment in full – the date that is, I don’t mean to say – shit; I’m doing it again…”
“Quinn, you can relax,” I giggled, patting his shoulder.
He casually draped an arm around the back of my chair; his hand brushed up against my neck and shoulder and that sent a delightful shiver through me. Quinn offered his jacket, thinking I was cold and I took it because it smelled like him and held his warmth. I was so happy that I started to feel tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. He glanced over, concerned, and offered the handkerchief from his pocket. I was still holding that little square of fine linen when we left the theater two hours later and retraced our steps along Oxford.
“Sorry,” I said, blowing my nose. “I cry at everything! Good thing I didn’t put on mascara.”
“I like you without makeup. Good thing they haven’t made a movie of Lord of the Rings.”
My response was a loud honk. I was ready to give him back the handkerchief embroidered with a ‘Q’ but thought better and shoved it into my purse. Quinn laughed and playfully slung his arm around me. When he’d realized what he’d done, he moved away quickly, as if I was made of fire.
“No worries,” I whispered as we paused on the sidewalk. He reached out to brush the hair out of my eyes, and let his fingers glide along my cheek gently.
“I think,” he sighed, “I think you’re beautiful.”
As on the train, I sensed that he would kiss me and I closed my eyes, waiting. When I opened them again, I was kneeling in my bedroom before a cardboard box of baby clothes. I was holding the handkerchief.
I was startled, surprised more that I was in our brownstone in Providence, where we’d gone to live after the wedding, than the sound of his voice. He was crouched beside me, his chin on my shoulder, the two-day old beard scratching and irritating.
“Something from my mother’s funeral,” I lied. “My heart nearly broke – all that crying. I never thought…”
“You weep? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you shed a tear.”
“I’ve learned that crying doesn’t solve problems or find answers.” He watched me twist the fine linen square into knots.
“Don’t suppose they do, Angel.”
“No worries,” I replied, tucking the handkerchief into the pocket of my sweater.
“Do you need to keep it?” he asked as he headed out. “Look at all the stuff you’ve kept. Best to get rid of most of it – there’s no room and it won’t change anything. Doorbell!” he shouted on his way to the kitchen.
“Why don’t you get it?” I called back. I went to the door, nevertheless.
A postal carrier was on the doorstep. He smiled and handed off a square parcel that could not have fit in the box. I set it aside, not recognizing the hand in the address. Later that night as I was washing the dishes and settling down for a night of research and writing, I glanced at the parcel and carefully unwrapped what was an album, an LP of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
My heart stopped.
What if . . .
What if. . . you could go back and re-live those painful, telling, moments in a relationship and say the words you meant to say, perhaps take a different path to happiness? What if . . . you were given those opportunities and assisted by the most unlikely of mentors? What if . . . life was more like a dream, rather than a perfectly-ordered sequence in time, in that events blended one into another without reason at first, but suddenly made perfect sense?
What if there was a place that could make all this happen?
Welcome to the Village.
The MIDWINTER SONATA Series chronicles the lives and relationships of two Berkeley teenagers in the Sixties.
The Trade Paperback Cover