“You made me a Charlie… Thank you!” As smooth as she’d practised, and velvety too, Gia’s voice sailed through the hush to the man opposite her.
Reaching over, she hovered her palms above the surface for a moment. Then, pulling her hands back into her body, she conjured a package underneath her palms… Like a magic trick.
She waited for a reaction.
Meanwhile, the package in gold wrapping lay in a spot upon the table, bisecting the distance between them.
He seemed indifferent. His head turned away towards the muffled conversations from elsewhere; the arrogance clear in his tilted head.
She interlocked and unloosed her fingers, but quickly squeezed her hands together to conceal her quirky behaviour. She wondered if she featured in his thoughts. Then, what malice might he be wishing upon her, for there appeared no instance when he showed her kindness and compassion?
“Well, what’s this about then?” His growl reverberated off the many vacant tables. “Come on now, let’s get this over with.”
She shook in her seat; a grab at the table ledge prevented her from slipping off, and she quickly snugged back in. Although years had passed since they saw each other last, his voice had not slackened its dreadful grip over her.
Strange, in the years of their association, she hadn’t seen the whole of his face, just silhouettes some time ago, and a profile now. But when he turned… his eyes, ablaze with raging flames, riveted her. And his face remained a mere glimpse.
She’d requested this meeting some time ago, but he delayed accepting, not citing a reason for doing so. He finally acceded to her choice of location, but not before an insistence of his own.
It felt surreal, the quietness, the hissing draught through spaces in the doors and windows, the eternal humming from a wall nearby, and the dark aura surrounding the presence before her.
“You’d better make it quick, girl… Before I finish—” He shook his head from side to side, tsked, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. His rough, rude behaviour was no different from the first time they’d met all those years ago.
Ages ago when he first saw her, he’d asked, “Who the hell are you?”
She feared him as much then, as thereafter.
“Sir, I’m… I’m—” The words had taken an age to be expelled, but didn’t prevent her faltering.
Having just gotten off the bus, but unable to move any further, she shivered on the sidewalk, though the sun had shone gloriously. Her eyes followed the serpentine cracks on the pavement, but she felt his eyes train down on her, from head to toe, making her feel dirty: a dirty girl, with a dirty face, dirty hands, dirty clothes.
“You? What can you do?” His laugh roared over the thunder of his clap, and he jigged on the spot. “Well come on then, we’d better put those bones to good use. Clean yourself up and get to work… And I’m only paying you for half the day. Your mother better be here tomorrow, or else—”
The glass had rattled as he barged through the sliding doors.
Back at the table, she wriggled in her seat seeking the most relaxed position. “You never asked about my mom… I guess it’s okay if you didn’t.”
He appeared absorbed in the notice in front of him, but his movements told otherwise.
Peering over the top of his bottle, his forehead wrinkling, and eyes narrowing, he’d heard every word spoken.
But he was silent.
Her gaze strayed to the corner of the table and fixed on it. Her face pulled taut, and became heavy with melancholy. She blinked and a wet trail burned from her eyes down to her lips. As the sounds in the room faded, her mind soared, to be carried away in a whirl.
Her memories… they lingered just below the surface. Always, the same thoughts of her pained psyche summoned themselves; of her alone in the driving rain, when the sun had disappeared; of her refuge in the darkness, when the light so near yet dimming, dimmed to be a fleck in the beyond; and of her face flayed by salty tears. Her memories…
* * *
She was thirteen.
Late one night with pleasant weather, when the moonlight wasn’t the brightest, and the night not the coldest, her mom had wrapped herself in the sheets, duvet, blanket, and the cloth used to cover the holes in the sofa. Her face appeared smaller, so her smile was the widest ever seen.
Gia was at the bedside. Her mom’s limp, veiny arms reached out from the depths of the bed, snatched her, and pulled her close. Her mom squeezed, and squeezed, but her feeble grip never strengthened.
In her relentless embrace, her mom’s face was sallow and yellow, no longer a sparkling glow. Imprinted on its smoothness, wrinkles like deep scores across her face, gave her the look of an old person, as if a much older woman had replaced her presence. The large greyish streaks snaking through yesterday’s shiny hair, intertwined with the few darker strands.
Gone the gloss, gone the glisten.
Her icy fingers flicked away at nose drips streaming towards her lips. She choked for air through her half-opened mouth, also half-closed to keep her bad breath in after her earlier vomiting. And in her cavernous eyes, not just the overpowering pain inside her, but deep within, in the far-off distance, a star twinkled.
“Please my child, you’ve got to save this job for me,” were her mom’s last words wheezed through barely parted lips. Her last touch, a loosening clasp.
Gia stood alongside the bed… and then it came to her, from a part of her she didn’t know was present.
She lay rocking in her crib, bathing in wisps of perfume. The scents of flowers red, flowers pink; roses, gardenias; and the crisp air of seas and mountains, infused her senses. She didn’t know these things back then. But every moment her mom was near, she felt them, saw them, breathed them. And every moment she was close, the soothing hums dancing around the room loudened.
These things she didn’t know, had been with her all the while.
Her mom’s weakening hand returned her from her muse. She felt the inevitable happening. It happened so quickly, it was an inevitability she could neither resist nor accept. A melancholic mood set in, and would endure with her for the rest of her life.
She lurched sideways, slumping over her mom, and nestled in the warmth and smells she’d known all her life.
Although drawn down by faltering steps, Gia continued to the funeral, which was an unexpected and rushed affair. The two cemetery staff flung a few clods onto the casket, their eagerness to cover the grave determined by events elsewhere. Their attention veered to the other end of the cemetery where a cortege of shiny, black cars had slinked into view. The glistening logos on their hoods as prominent as their darkened windows.
Throwing down his shovel, one of the cemetery staff said, “Here girlie, all yours now. Just pick and throw,” whereupon he and his mate rushed over to the cortege, stumbling over each other to be the first one there.
Forlorn, she squatted next to the sunken casket. She tossed the clutches of soil mingling between her fingers, into the recessed earth. And when finished, she patted the rise that her gushing tears had softened.
Afterwards, amidst the swirling leaves and dust rising about her, and engulfed by a yearning to remain, she tearfully went off to her mom's workplace and encountered him for the first time. The first of many encounters, as she soon thereafter left school to work full time.
One day a few years later, he screamed for her from a back room. He gestured to a wedge under a lopsided shelf he was trying to straighten. “Get there and take that out.”
She crouched on the dirty floor, and heaved the shelf, clutching a book from underneath. There for ages, and smothered in dust, barely a cover survived. She strained her eyes to make out the partial title: “… Twist.”
“You can read it if you want… if you can read at all.” He laughed loudly, before yelling, “But bring it back!”
She didn’t intend to take the book, but her mom’s voice echoed inside her head, “You must read… Read my child. It’s all there in books.”
When her mom read to her, the words raised off the books, whirled around the room and carried her off to a faraway place of princes and maidens, carriages, and castles, and long flowing dresses. The dreams and magic were alive, but when the book was closed, she was where she’d always been. Her deficient reality had not departed.
Those were wonderful stories; none like hers.
She put the book in her pocket, imagining the peculiar tales within its pages would be like the ones her mom had read to her. Perhaps she could have a read during her lunch interval. But, even with her solitary slice of bread, there wasn’t much time for lunching, let alone reading.
Still, she carried the book to work every day for the next few weeks.
On the strangest day, Gia found herself alone. He’d closed the shop early—a first for him. The other employees gleefully rushed off home, or wherever else they needed to be. She sat on a crate at the back of the building, away from everybody, away from everything.
Alongside her, a black river swishing to an unknown end, absorbed its colour from the leaden clouds. The clouds hung so low, they shrouded the building rooftops. Her life’s pictorial depiction, she thought. In a dreary, never-ending wind, she suffocated in her hopelessness.
She squirmed to get herself into a better position on the crate but caught her jeans pocket in a corner. Not freeing herself with a little tug, she jerked and tore her pocket, catapulting the book from inside. It somersaulted to rest on the ground, pages fluttering in the wind, spreading open between the covers, and settling back in when the covers closed; like an accordion.
One page; however, remained open long enough for the words to wrench at her chest, deep inside, where even the flutter had stopped a long time ago. It seemed like she was being spoken to—“… despised by all and pitied by none …”—or spoken about.
The book was so much like her; she thought. Outside in the gloomy cold, alone, a load over it for so long. It didn’t have a full name. If she didn’t hear hers soon, she would have to believe she didn’t have one either.
Propped up against the wall, she buried her face, body, and mind into the book. She didn’t notice the passing of time and the evanescent daylight.
But, when she finished reading and wanted to go again, she noticed a brightening. A spotlight in the midst of the grounds, illuminating as far as her feet, cast a warm glow on her toes. And inside of her, a flame kindled in places cold caused a stirring and was warmer still.
She hadn’t been home all night, yet went into work the next morning.
He’d been shouting and insulting that day, more than usual. Undeterred by his cruelty, she went into his office at the break. He was in his leather chair, facing away from her, so she was uncertain if he was busy, or even awake, since he had a habit of dosing off.
“May I have some more, sir?” she asked. It was a case of her opening her mouth, and the words streaming out.
As the seat squeaked around, his visage edged into view, but her gaze had already lowered to the floor. “What? What the hell are you talking about?” he asked, and stamped his feet on the desk, one over the other, and in the process prevented the seat from swivelling round in a circle.
“I brought back your book. Do you have some more—” Gia shrugged, but her arms and legs crossed themselves as she cringed before him.
“Some more, what?”
“Books? What you want to do with books?”
“I want to read books like Oliver Twist.”
“Want, want, want. Always wanting, you people. See in the storeroom.” His voice boomed in the spacious office. “And bring them back, or I deduct your pay.”
The storeroom—avoided by the staff, dreaded, entered only to grab what was needed, and visits intended to be short. Its dusty and chaotic state, however; kept its visitors longer than they planned. Boxes were tossed about, empty, or not, and equipment not in use, heaped high to the ceiling. And discarded mops and brooms on the floor, made stepping unsafe.
It wasn’t as difficult a search as she’d expected, not with her technique of poking at the boxes and peeking at the contents through the holes. A few attempts later, she came upon a box with books inside. And other boxes with yet more.
She became happy she’d discovered so many; even thrilled at spotting a Dicken’s novel with a charming title.
She read it that same night and replaced it the next day; and borrowed another Dicken’s, beginning the cycle of borrowing and returning, until she’d read the other novels, too, and re-read them, repeatedly; each time, her back straightened further, her shoulders lifted higher, her feet steadier on the ground, her face rosier than the day before.
At last, desperate characters in hopeful tales projected out of the dusty pages into her own circumstances.
* * *
At the table, Gia was in intense thought. But clinking glasses pierced her ears, and returned her from her recollections. With a single motion, she wiped off the tears from her eyes and cheeks, using both her hands, one for each side of her face.
Ramparted behind a packet of crisps, and Coke, crunching and gulping, he appeared unperturbed. “I’m almost done. You’d better start talking.”
She sipped her water. As she lay the tumbler down, the girl in the glass stared back at her. In the glint, the person inside her finally shone through. Bright eyes, luminous twinkles in the water droplets, looked up, steady when the glass turned. A face, haloed by sheeny hair, bloomed with colour; absent dirt, absent blemish.
"You've always treated me with contempt and disgust. You've always hated me, why I don't know. But… I do not hate you. I pity you… but hatred… no. Life’s too short for that… right?” Her sweetly assertive voice wafted into his ears, flinching him.
“If you want an apology, you’re getting nothing, lassie.”
“No, I don’t want that. Actually… I want nothing from you. How strange, after all these years you still don’t know my name.”
“All right you, you’ve had your say. I’m leaving now.” He stuck out a foot into the aisle, twisting in his seat, preparing to leave when halted by her pleading.
“Wait… please. I have something for you.” She pointed to the package on the table.
He dragged the package to his end, and opened it slowly, glancing at her after untying each knot, after undoing each fold, until the wrapping revealed its secret. A tattered but clean book had emerged before his eyes. He squinted as if his mind toiled to surface a realisation.
“Do you remember…?” she asked.
“Do you remember lending me that? It changed me, changed my life. I am all that I am today because of that book… All that I’ve achieved, began with that book. Do you remember?”
He nodded faintly. Soon, a thin smile flashed across his face; above his shrivelled chin, it seemed more a twitch around his pursed lips than a smile. His eyelids flickered between upward glances.
She recognised the look, for a long time she sported it too—embarrassment.
“I invited you here to thank you,” she said. “You gave me Dickens… and made me a Charlie… Thank you.”
In the surrounding stillness that followed, he sat stiffly. She expected him to say something; but his rheumy eyes, like a dam, welled up until the tears burst out, and flooded his face, and sprinkled his shirt.