Forget the corny décor. Of all the beachside cafes, Nick’s Mermaid Café, his old-fashioned regular, still serves the best cooked English breakfast south of the city. He finishes the last of his poached egg, sips his sanctioned poison. Nick’s coffee is to die for. The caffeine laces his blood, drums his veins, couples to his DNA.
Down on the beach the world is sweet as a nut. The lazy waves swell no higher than the torsos of the toddlers; the shore break, coloured like his coffee, creams over the sand. The air is mellow as a single malt whisky. The April sun in Sydney.
An Airbus 380 silently looms over the dunes, her twin jets thrusting beneath her heavy wings. Her ponderous climb belies the elegant kangaroo on her tail. Only now does he pick up the gargle in her throat, the echoing power reverberating over the bay. She’ll turn right for the South Pole, left for America.
From the murmuring air, at a distance, a woman whose aspect he recognises, seems to emerge from the tidal pool --- a well-known illusion on the coastal walk. He senses her streaming hair, coral-red and wavy, as if the ocean’s swells had set in them. Her eyes flecked blue and green, droplets from the Pacific turned to gems. She raises an indistinct limb as if greeting her mate, the plane. Perhaps she’s bringing that advertising brief he’d left at the unit? She’ll be along shortly.
He turns his attention to Nick’s outmoded décor, the two garish mermaids swimming the fishnet ceiling, replete with plastic lobsters, crabs and prawns. The undersea caves with lurking octopi; ink spitting squids painted on the blue walls. Another mural shows a colony of fish-tailed, bare-breasted women perched on a rocky outcrop in the ocean. Either side of the entrance, two more, curvaceous marine creatures, their stretching fingers almost touching, form an archway through which the patrons pass. Outside, on a wide landing where the broad stairs tumble to the beach, a concerned, weather-beaten Neptune holds his peeling trident aloft and stares out to sea.
He has often suggested a slick advertising campaign for Nick. Of course, it would need a change of name and décor for The Mermaid. Clean lines and something subtly themed, “Flights.” The café being a comfortable distance from the easily seen flight path. Yes, “Flights,” with just a small chrome plane stylised into a logo on the outside wall. And a retiring little art deco plane up at the desk, but maybe not even that.
Of course, Nick is one obstinate, cautious Greek. “Whadda ama gonna do without my ladies,” he says; “Nobody know me without my ladies. Everybody know my ladies.” He’s had some of his best advertising ideas at The Mermaid. In the relaxed atmosphere, away from the tension of his agency, he is apt to lose himself in campaign scenarios. Coming out of this creative state, it’s always later than he thinks. As if he’d entered a time warp. But today there’s no need to check his watch. The apparition he saw emerging from the mirage of the pool is far too early.
She sweeps up the stairs three at a time in three strides, sending the scavenging seagulls wheeling into the air. Ignoring Nick’s greeting and ushering hand, she comes fishtailing between the customers towards him. Did he see a hint of a tear, a touch of salty brine, in those eyes of ocean blue and green, a tremble from her chin? She shimmies to a stop and slams some car keys on his table, “Bastard.”
Heads turn at The Mermaid, eyes slide sideways. Nick cringes behind the coffee machine, folds his arms, hugs his shoulders. The patrons ostensibly return to their conversations.
He sees the pink nail polish on the silver medallion attached to the key ring. His wife’s keys, “So you met her.”
He puts out his palms in placation. “Not so loud,” he whispers.
“As loud as I please,” she retorts but drops her tone all the same.
He lifts his brow. This isn’t going to be about a forgotten advertising portfolio, “Okay, what happened?”
“You said you were divorced.”
“But you’re not.”
“I am, spiritually.”
“But you’ve always known that.”
“Lame bastard;” Her mouth twists; those fine teeth looking sharklike.
“She let herself in?” he asks.
“I thought it was you.”
“I’m sorry. She had no right.”
“She had every right. Her mother left the unit to her. It’s her unit.”
“She told you that?”
“And half the house is hers.”
“I’m so dreadfully sorry. You must have felt at a disadvantage.”
“Not really, just swanning around in my see-through nightie.” She smooths the imaginary garment, her lithe arms and hands rippling over her sinuous form.
“You should have said I wasn’t there and sent her packing.”
“Don’t tell me what I should have done. She was hovering on the landing in her business suit and staring through those silver glasses at the fresh meat. She comically imitates his stocky wife’s pose. She is a dead-on mimic. So much of her contrasts with the stereotype heaped on beauties.
“That’s so hurtful on yourself. Don’t say that. I don’t want to hear it.”
“But you will. The whole box and dice, friend, the whole sorry saga.” She’s never ever called him friend before. “You’re reverting to your prayer position,” she murmurs through her clenched teeth.
“I am?” That’s exactly what his wife would say.
“Yes, you’re steepling your hands and kissing them.”
“Listen, let’s just breathe a second. Would you like a coffee? Should we go for a walk?”
“C’mon, this is hardly the place for this conversation. We’ll walk along the beach. Gain a little perspective. The waves are so gentle today.”
“Beaches, waves, perspective,” she blurts getting loud again; “This isn’t one of your storyboards.”
He puts just one finger to his lips, not his prayer position. Her soft chin trembles, her sculptured lips pucker, then tighten in resolve. As an excuse not to look, his eyes range over the wide beach. A toddler is flattened by a shore break. The mother picks her up, comforts her silent histrionics. He throws up his arms in surrender, “Alright, so let’s hear the whole sorry saga.”
“First, you are a liar on another front.”
“Yes, she said she was turning forty this year.”
“That makes you forty-four, Buddy. Four years older than her.”
“Three years younger. I’m thirty-seven. She’s always been sensitive about cradle snatching. That’s the maths.”
“She said it’s your midlife crisis. Forty-four is classic midlife.”
“Look at me. Do I look forty-four?”
“This isn’t about age. It’s about us. What’s the difference, anyway,” she says suddenly dejected.
“The difference is thirty-seven to twenty-nine is not too bad; forty-four to twenty-nine, that’s midlife crisis.” He isn’t convincing her. She’s planted elbows on the table, her high cheekbones cupped in fanlike hands. Her aquamarine nails sparkle. He’s getting the thousand-yard stare. He waits fearful of her calculations. He notices her tight jeans, her blouse shimmering with sequins like scales sewn over her chest.
“She didn’t say it was your midlife crisis, she said I was your midlife crisis, “Don’t you think that’s telling, like I’m to blame.”
“She said that?”
“No, but she implied it.”
“You’re reading too much into this.” He slinks the keys off the table, slips them into his pocket.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “She told me the car belongs to you.”
“What else did she tell you about, beside the house and the unit and the car?”
“You have a very lucrative business, better than you let on.”
He speculates on how long it takes to hand over a set of keys, even the excuse of handing over a set of keys?
“I asked her in for a coffee.”
“Oh, come off it, she was already in. What was I to do? Scratch her eyes out?” That chin wobble again, “Although I surprised myself when I did it.” She’s staring down at the grooved table cut in the shape of a shell. She seems shaken by her involuntary invite, despite his suspicion of ulterior motives.
“Oh, sure. Just a cosy chat between the girls. No sussing the scene, no probing the battlefield.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Well, I see the two of you sitting there, having a lovely tête-à-tête. Did you at least put a gown on?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I got dressed at once. But it didn’t stop her ogling for where the fresh meat had been touched. She’s got laser eyes behind those silver glasses. My skin was burning.” Two briny tears blot the table, spread their ignominy.
“Yes, we had a chat and the worst is she’s really nice. I actually liked her.”
“So did I, for a while.”
“Oh, come on, you don’t spend a decade with a person without feeling something for them.”
“Okay, slow erosion, I guess.”
Teardrops in a steady stream roll onto the table and pool about, then run down the grooves of the fake shell. He recoils. She wipes at the wet impatiently with her fist. He takes some paper serviettes and mops the greasy smears. She cries outright now but softly, under the cover of a passing prop plane, its bassoon voice rendering her misery to silence. Only The Mermaid’s patrons confirm her plight. He waits, his hands interlocked trying desperately not to assume his prayer position. She stops, dabs at the tears that filter through her blinking lashes. The prop’s baritone fades on the horizon.
A glimmer of a smile, “She’s funny.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“She’s very --- poised.”
“She can be sympathetic.”
“She’s still very pretty, very attractive. I can see why you fell for her.”
“All that glitters is not gold.”
Her pink mouth wavers like a sea anemone, then fixes on self-recognition. Her stifled laugh, “She has more presence than me.”
“For God’s sake stop comparing yourself; stop beating yourself up, that’s exactly what she wants. She could have left those keys outside the door. It was just a jumped-up excuse to meet you, to get at you. She had the whole damn thing rehearsed.”
“To get at both of us. Why should we be happy?” He hands her some more serviettes. She blows her nose. The effort sets up the slightest tremor through her glittering red hair. She shakes now, a glistening shape, a sea nymph trying to make progress in turbulent waters. She collects herself and looks straight at him, her eyes no longer brimming with watery light, but hurting, burning coals. It scorches him. The Mermaid seems hushed, hovering on their next words. They are talking in undertones, minding their business, straining their ears, “Look,” she says, detached now, “This thing is far from cut and dried between you. You haven’t sorted the finances, let alone filed for divorce, let alone really talked to each other.”
“It’s cut and dried.”
“Then why aren’t you further along? You’ve had enough time. It’s not the courts delaying you. Neither of you have made a move.”
“I guess we’re not vindictive in that way. Neither of us cares who gets what.”
“Let’s cut to the chase. She wants you back and I think you want her back too.”
“You are so far off-beam.”
“I heard it in her every word. She’s too proud to say it straight out but she wants you back.”
“Okay, it’s a deal. When the pope turns protestant.”
She is drowned out by another plane, this one closer and lower than usual, skimming over the flattened bay, shouting at its frothy fringes. When he does hear her it’s just a continuation of what he is dreading but expecting, “You’ll have to make some progress. You’ll have to talk to her.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“I did talk to her.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“Well, I did.”
“But you didn’t make any progress.”
“There are certain no-go areas, between us.”
“What are they?”
“I can’t say.”
“For fear of hurting whom?”
“I can’t say.”
“Well, they’ll just have to be go areas. What am I supposed to do?” she says waving at the décor, “stand by forever like a shag on a rock, like those goddamn seal- women on the wall waiting for their sailor to arrive?” The teardrops, transparent before the blue-green eyes, flow again, “She’s upset you terribly.”
“I can’t go on like this, and believe me brother, you’re not the only fish in the sea. I’m clearing off.”
“You what? You can’t. Where will you go?”
“Down the coast to the beach house till I sort this out,” her voice defeated.
He pictures her in her beach coat ploughing through the sandy ridge laced with marram grass, gaining the deserted beach in front of the secluded beach house. She’ll peel off the towelled coat and stand unencumbered and butt-naked on that lonely beach, her long, coral-coloured hair streaming. Then she’ll plunge into the waves and glide swiftly towards the old, stranded wharf, her torso twisting with the high armed strokes of a strong ocean swimmer. The flashing limbs, the hair like seaweed dragging behind her. Days down there, making her decision to the timeless churning of the waves. He won’t try to stop her. She’s thought this over for a while. It’s her plan, “Alright, let’s all think it over,” he concedes. And meets her pleading eyes with their marine inflections.
“You could try to stop me.”
“But you just said---”
“Forget what I just said, alright, that’s it, I’m going down.”
There is a pause. He wants to kiss away the pained scowl on her smooth forehead. But under the circumstances he dare not, “Alright,” he says, fighting his own resignation, “can we put away the box and dice now? Would you like a coffee before you go, just to calm you down?”
“Did you have some breakfast?”
“She interrupted it.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Would you like a glass of water?
“No.” She stands up suddenly, knocking over her chair. Heads swivel in The Mermaid Café. He stands, stoops to put the chair right and she has already swished out the door, scattering the greedy, protesting gulls into low, hovering patterns. Like a fallen cloud, they settle again on the steps.
Nick catches his eye. He is waving, “I’ll put it on the tab.” He’s a mate, that Nick.
“No, no,” he says, “I’ll fix it up now.”
He is not going to chase after her, finish the scene for the stickybeaks; the die is cast. He goes over to the register, takes his time paying. Let the sensation-mongers calm down. He turns slowly and saunters out. He imagines he hears a rise in the chatter. Stuff them, anyway. He heads for a bench out of range of their speculation and sits down heavily, aware he’s taken up his prayer position. The gulls mill around him on their orange legs, ratcheting their discontent, but he is offering them nothing.
She is near the point. Even from the bench, he picks her graceful, floating gait.
With its swept-back wings and turned-up wing tips, a 737 descends over the bay. Its flight over a continent of canola and wheat, green and yellow inland seas, almost at an end. It seems to be following her as it drops towards the dunes, jets keening for the runway thrust into the water. The tail morphs to a crescent, a cross, a fin. The plane reaches the dunes; the woman, without turning, seems to offer it a half-hearted salute. Or a resigned goodbye. The fin dips behind the sand hills.
The woman attains the point and vanishes, in that coastal illusion, into the sea.
Born in South Africa, Alf Marks moved with his parents to Zimbabwe where he grew up. He earned a degree in Journalism in Canada and an M.A. in Education in the USA. He has worked in Australia as a reporter, a teacher, and an antiques dealer. His stories are published in magazines in Australia, South Africa, and the USA.