by Phil Arnold
I was sitting at my favourite café, watching the passing parade and enjoying some time to myself. It was a crisp, June, Sunday morning. The combination of mid-morning sun and outdoor heaters was only just beginning to take the chill from the air, but the hum of conversation and the occasional burst of laughter provided an inner warmth of sorts.
My coffee had grown tepid and unpleasant and I was about to abandon it when I noticed an older lady glancing around her, apparently looking for an available table. She seemed out-of-place in those casual surroundings, dressed in a black, obviously-tailored, mid-length coat with a violet scarf nestled at her throat, her matching hat secured against the breeze by an ornamented pin. She looked unused to finding a table for herself, so I stood and gestured towards mine.
“I’m leaving now,” I said, “You’re welcome to this one.”
She sent a beatific smile in my direction, and proceeded towards me in a stately manner.
“Thank you,” she said, as she arrived, “It’s much busier than I anticipated,” and I detected a slight European accent in the precision with which she said it. She took the seat opposite me as I gathered my things.
“You’ve not finished your coffee?” she said.
“Cold,” I said. “I’ve only got myself to blame. I took too long over it.”
“Stay then,” she said, suddenly, “Stay, and let me buy you another.”
My first thought was to decline, though I’m not sure why. I looked at my watch and was about to make an excuse when she pre-empted me.
“Please,” she insisted, and there was something in the tone of her voice that caused me to hesitate.
“You would be doing me a favour,” she added before I had time to decline.
“Well, in that case,” I said, and sat back down. “It’s generous of you to offer.”
“Not at all,” she said, and gestured to the waiter.
“Do you serve leaf tea?” she asked, when he arrived.
“I’m sorry Madam?” he frowned.
“Leaf tea,” she said again, enunciating each word precisely as if speaking to a child. “Do you serve leaf tea?” The waitress at an adjacent table intervened.
“We only serve tea bags, Madam,” she said in a voice that suggested she could take it or leave it. The woman raised an eyebrow and forced a smile.
“Then I shall have a pot of Earl Grey tea with two tea bags, and an accompanying pot of hot water, please. And my friend’s coffee is cold. Kindly replace it with a freshly brewed espresso.”
“Certainly Madam,” said the waiter, and I thought I saw him and the waitress exchange meaningful glances as they walked away.
“Thank you Mrs…?” I began.
“Dombrovska,” she said. “Violetta Dombrovska. It’s a bit of a mouthful I’m afraid. You’re welcome to call me Mrs D if you’d rather – lots of people do. And you are…?”
“Steve,” I said. “Steve Thomas.”
“Ah,” she said, “then I shall call you Steven if you don’t mind. It’s such a nice name, it seems a shame to shorten it.”
The waiter returned with my espresso and Mrs D’s pot of Earl Grey. She looked down at it appraisingly.
“Milk?” she said, and raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry, Madam?” the waiter frowned.
“There is no milk,” she said.
“I don’t recall…,” he began, and then: “Of course Madam,” he said. “My apologies. I’ll get it straight away.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and, having dealt with the stress of coping with mere mortals, opened them again and smiled.
“Now Steven,” she said, “it’s not often I find myself sharing a table with such a handsome young man. Tell me about yourself.”
I was a bit taken aback and I think it must have showed.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t mean to pry but, at my age, there’s little time for beating around the bush. And, I’ll be honest, there is a purpose behind my asking.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “let me see. I’m twenty five. I grew up not far from here. I work for a law firm in the city and I’m studying for my post grad degree on-line… there’s not much else to tell really.”
“There’s no one in your life then?” she said, clearly sceptical. “No partner?”
“Well, I have a girlfriend, if that’s what you mean,” I said. “She’s at the gym right now, actually. I’m meeting her after this.”
She nodded and poured a cup of tea, pursing her lips and shaking her head as she did.
“Not to your liking?” I said.
She smiled ruefully.
“At my age, Steven,” she said, “there’s very little that is to my liking. Society has abandoned most of the niceties I grew up with. They have disappeared, along with my closest friends. It’s the price one pays for longevity.”
Suddenly there was none of the haughty matriarch about her. She was a vulnerable old lady and, I must admit, I felt a bit sorry for her. I sipped at my coffee and we lapsed into an uncomfortable silence that I felt compelled to fill.
“You said there was a purpose behind your question – before, when you asked about me,” I said.
She placed her cup in its saucer, deliberately.
“Yes,” she said, “I haven’t forgotten,” and there was a slight testiness in her response. She poured hot water into the pot – more, I think, to give herself time to consider her reply than out of a desire for more tea; most of her first cup remained.
“I have tickets to the Opera for next Saturday evening’s performance,” she said at last. “Two tickets. My friend, Dulcie, and I subscribe. But Dulcie has been taken ill. She’s in hospital, and I suspect she will not recover in time to accompany me. I wonder…it might seem an odd request given that I’ve only just met you, but would you consider joining me? It’s Rigoletto,” she added, as if that might be an incentive.
“I…I’m afraid I know nothing about opera,” I confessed. “I always thought it was for er…”
“Highbrows and toffs?” she finished for me.
“Perhaps,” I said. “Does that sound a bit intolerant? A sort of inverted snobbery?”
“A little,” she said, “But it’s not an uncommon view – here in Australia. Now, at home, in Europe, opera is considered musical theatre for everyone.”
“How long have you lived in Australia, then?” I asked, thinking, from what she said, that she must be a recent migrant, but surprised because her English was so fluent.
“Oh, since I was five,” she said. “I came here with my parents. We were refugees during the war. It was a horrible time, and Australia took us in.”
“And you still think of Europe as home?” I said.
“Well Poland, actually,” she said. “And yes. I love Australia, but I think Poland will always be ‘home’ to me. I have a great fondness for it, in spite of the terrible circumstances under which we left. I imagine that sounds strange to you, yes?”
I felt a wry smile crease my face.
“A little,” I said, “but it’s not an uncommon view among migrants – here in Australia, that is.”
She laughed, and revealed a flash of gold among her front teeth.
“Touché,” she said. “I didn’t think I could have been wrong about you.”
“Wrong about me?” I said.
“Oh,” she said, “I just meant that there was something about you that seemed a little different, that’s all. Something in the way you dress perhaps, or just the expression on your face when you were sitting here alone.”
“And were you looking for someone who fitted that bill?” I said.
“Not looking, exactly,” she said, “not consciously at any rate. But, when the opportunity presented itself…”
There was a thoughtful silence as we sipped from our cups. I don’t know what Mrs D was thinking, but the idea that she might have somehow engineered our meeting was a bit disturbing.
“Well?” she said, after a time, “Are you interested? Assuming you’re free, that is.”
“Well, I’d have to ask Nerida – my girlfriend,” I said. “She tends to make the plans. She might have arranged something already; something I don’t know about.”
“But you’re not averse to the idea?” she said.
I didn’t respond straight away. I thought about it, still wondering if she had an ulterior motive.
“I guess not,” I said, eventually. “It sounds harmless enough, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt me to experience something new.”
She reached into her handbag and took out a business card. It was very classy; gold lettering on burgundy.
“I’m not given to handing out my card indiscriminately,” she said. “I hope I haven’t misjudged you?”
“Well, I’m no axe murderer, if that’s what you mean,” I chuckled.
“I’m glad of that,” she smiled. “Let me know once you’ve spoken to…?”
“Nerida,” I said.
“Yes. Nerida,” she said. “Pretty name. Is she pretty?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Good,” she said, and stood up. “I’ll attend to this,” and she picked up the bill in a manner that forestalled argument, and began to walk away. She’d only gone a couple of steps when she turned back.
“One more thing before I go, Steven. I hope you don’t think me presumptuous but your girlfriend, Nerida, do you … do you love her?”
It caught me off guard.
“Well…” I said, searching for an answer.
“Thank you,” she smiled, “That’s all I wanted to know. I’ll wait to hear from you.”
And then she was gone.
“What have you been up to?” said Nerida when I picked her up from the gym. “You look like the cat that stole the cream.”
“Nothing,” I said, “but I did have an unusual experience this morning,” and I told her all about it.
“She sounds creepy,” Nerida said, and made a face. “You’re not thinking of going are you? I mean, she might be looking for a toy boy or something. Some old women are like that you know.”
“That thought had crossed my mind,” I smiled, “but I’m pretty sure she’s on the level. Would you mind if I went? I mean, do we have anything lined up?”
“Nothing in particular,” she shrugged, and I could tell she was a bit put out, “But what am I supposed to do while you’re out? I don’t fancy spending Saturday night watching a DVD with the cat.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “I’ll tell her we’re busy that night. She’ll understand.”
The trip home was a bit tense but that didn’t surprise me. Nerida could be a bit possessive. It wasn’t something that normally worried me. In a way it was flattering.
When we arrived home she took a shower and I sat in the living room thumbing through a car magazine and going over the morning’s encounter. I thought about calling Mrs D but something made me put it off. I guess I didn’t want to disappoint her, but I didn’t want anything to upset the applecart at home either.
We didn’t have a lot in common, Nerida and I. We’d sort of drifted together, gone out for a while – just the occasional date – and then, when her flatmate moved out she suggested I move in with her. It seemed like a good idea; convenient, and nothing had happened to upset the arrangement so far. She came out of the bathroom, towelling her blonde hair dry.
“Have you rung that woman?” she said.
“Not yet,” I said. “I’ll ring her after lunch.”
“You’d like to go though, wouldn’t you?” she said, sitting beside me and continuing to dry her hair, “otherwise you’d have rung already.”
“Not if it causes problems,” I said, “Between you and me, that is.”
“Well I was thinking,” she said, “It’s been a while since Lucy and I had a girl’s night out. Maybe I could arrange something. That way I wouldn’t have to spend the night on my own, and you could take your ‘cougar friend’” and she made little speech marks in the air, “to the opera,” and she said ‘opera’ in a very grand way.
“You sure you wouldn’t mind?” I said.
“Nah,” she said, dismissively, “I’d be glad to get rid of you for the evening – just so long as it doesn’t become a habit,” she pouted, and she flicked the towel at me. I grabbed it and pulled her towards me.
“Hmmm. You smell nice,” I said, and kissed her – just lightly at first, and then deeper, and before I knew it we were on the couch together, making love right there in the living room with the afternoon sun streaming through the window onto our naked bodies.
Mrs D had suggested I bone up on the storyline.
“It’s in Italian,” she said. “There are English surtitles, but you’ll follow it more easily if you have an idea of the plot. It might help if you listen to the music as well. It’s always more enjoyable when you recognise the melodies.”
I Googled the story but didn’t get a chance to listen to any of the music so I was sort of half-prepared. What I wasn’t prepared for was the pure spectacle of the opera itself. Mrs D had great seats: just far enough back to be able to see all the action and close enough to see the fine detail. And the detail was something to behold. Magnificently lavish costumes, and scenery on a scale I’d never seen before. Right from the outset I realised why people got hooked on that sort of thing. I sat there, mesmerised, from the first chord of the orchestra to the dying notes of the soprano.
Mrs D went to the bathroom at interval, so I bought us each a glass of bubbly while she was gone and stood, waiting, immersed in the excited chatter. I looked around. They weren’t all Toffs. There was a scattering of students, dressed as only students do, and some other types that didn’t look like they lived on the affluent, north side of town. I began to wonder how they’d all become interested.
I felt Mrs D at my elbow.
“Is one of those for me?” she said, and there was a twinkle in her eye.
“Least I could do,” I said and we toasted the occasion.
“So, I take it you’re not about to leave then?” she said. “You’re not finding it boring?”
“Far from it,” I said. “I’m enjoying it – really. I even recognise a couple of the songs. I’m looking forward to the second half.”
“Good,” she said, and smiled up at me. “I’m glad I haven’t wasted your evening.”
“Coffee?” I suggested after the show was over, but she declined.
“It’s very tempting,” she said, “but I’m no night owl, and, at my age, I need all the beauty sleep I can get.”
So I saw her to a taxi, thanked her, and waved goodbye, thinking it would be the last I saw of her and, in a way, regretting it.
Nerida was still out when I arrived home. I sent her a text, but when there was no reply, I decided to go to bed. I was woken some hours later by sounds coming from the living room. I staggered out of the bedroom, bleary-eyed, only to see Nerida, obviously drunk, barely able to stand, and being supported by a man I didn’t recognise. I stood there, blinking, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. “Who the…?” I began.
“Craig,” she slurred, “meet St… Steve. Steve, meet…” and she staggered sideways and waved a hand in the direction of the man who had brought her in. He looked sheepish.
“Sorry mate,” he said, “I didn’t realise.”
Nerida suddenly clasped her hand over her mouth and stumbled towards the bathroom. Moments later she was retching and vomiting.
“I’ll be goin’ then,” said Craig, backing out of the door.
I didn’t reply. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
I opened the bathroom door. Nerida was lying on the cold floor, moaning. There seemed no point in saying anything. She was way past communicating, so I lifted her to her feet and sat her on the edge of the bath. I cleaned her up, helped her to bed and spent the rest of the night on the couch.
In the morning she claimed she had no memory of what had happened, but her friend, Lucy, rang me that day at work, sounding worried and pretty annoyed. She didn’t need any encouragement to tell all.
They’d gone, she and Nerida, from one club to another, getting progressively drunker. At the third club, Nerida had met Craig who turned out to be an ex boyfriend. When it became obvious that three was a crowd, Lucy left for home. That was at about 1 a.m., which left two hours unaccounted for – two hours that I confronted Nerida about when I got home that night.
She swore there’d been nothing going on with Craig, but given the state she’d been in and the look on Craig’s face, I found that difficult to believe. I let the matter rest, though. There seemed no point in turning it into a production, but things were never quite the same after that.
A month went by, and the incident gradually retreated. But there had been a change in our relationship; a coolness had developed between us, and I couldn’t help feeling that each of us was waiting for the other to call it a day.
It’d be easy to blame it on that episode, but there was more to it than that. I found myself thinking more and more about the evening I’d spent at the opera. For a boy from the burbs who’d never had any exposure to culture with a capital C, it had made an impact I couldn’t have predicted.
For a start it had introduced me to a different world – different, but exciting. But it wasn’t just the opera. Mrs D herself, had made an impact on me. She’d hinted at a pretty difficult personal history the day we’d met, and I found myself wanting to know more about the circumstances under which she and her family had come to Australia. I began to wonder what it was like for refugees – any refugees – to grow up in a foreign country, far from the things they loved.
From time to time I would take out her card and be on the point of phoning. And then I’d think better of it and put it away. Then one day, quite out of the blue, I had a call from a number I didn’t recognise.
“Steven Thomas?” came the young female voice at the other end. “My name is Greta. Greta Dombrovska. I think you know my Grandma, Violetta Dombrovska?”
“Yes,” I said, hesitatingly, “Yes. She and I…that is, Mrs Dombrovska invited me to the opera. She had a spare ticket. Why? Is something wrong?”
“No…well, yes, in a way that is. Babcia, that’s what we call Grandma, isn’t well and…look this is a terrible line. I wonder if we could catch up for coffee.”
“Ah…sure,” I said, uncertainly, “Why not?”
I hadn’t noticed that the line was so bad, but I was intrigued, so we arranged to meet the following Saturday morning at the same café where I’d met Mrs D.
The appointed time came and went without any sign of her, and I was on the point of ordering coffee for myself, assuming she’d changed her mind, when a striking girl walked in. I was instantly blown away. She was truly gorgeous – beautiful in a classical way, and instantly recognisable as Mrs D’s granddaughter. Her hair was darker, of course, but she had the same presence – the same strong European bone structure and northern hemisphere skin.
She glanced around the café and smiled in recognition the moment her eyes met mine. I stood up as she walked towards me with her hand outstretched.
“You have to be Steven,” she said. “Babcia described you perfectly. I’m so sorry I’m late. Saturday morning traffic. Babcia would be horrified that I kept you waiting.”
“No. Not at all,” I stammered, transported suddenly back to my tongue-tied adolescence. “Please sit down and I’ll order us coffee.”
I gestured to the waiter and sat down myself.
“You said your grandma wasn’t well,” I said. “Nothing serious I hope?”
She pulled a quizzical face.
“No. At least, I don’t think so. They’ve booked her into hospital for tests, but you can never tell with Babcia. She doesn’t really let on about these things. To tell you the truth, I think she might be putting it on a bit.”
The waiter arrived before she had time to elaborate.
“What will you have?” I said.
She turned to the waiter.
“Um…do you serve leaf tea?” she said, and I thought I saw the hint of a reaction in his eyes.
“I’m afraid not,” he said, “We only serve teabags.”
“A pot of Earl Grey then thank you,” she said, “with two tea bags, and a pot of hot water, if you don’t mind.”
I couldn’t help but smile as I ordered an espresso.
“Something amusing you?” she said.
“I’ll tell you later,” I said. “You were saying that you think your grandmother might be putting it on. What makes you think that? I wouldn’t have put her down as a malingerer.”
“No. Far from it,” she said, “But she can be a bit manipulative, our Babcia. It’s a Polish thing I think. She likes to play the grand matriarch; be in control of the family. She’s terrified of becoming old and dispensable.”
The waiter arrived with our order. He placed the tea and the pot of hot water in front of Greta. She opened her mouth to say something when he smiled and produced a small silver jug from the tray.
“Milk, Madam?” he said.
“Why, yes. Thank you,” she said.
He served my coffee and we sat in silence for a few moments while she poured her tea and I waited for my coffee to cool.
“Well,” I said, “This is very pleasant but I can’t help wondering what it’s all about.”
“Yes,” she said, “I imagine you must be curious. You see, I visited Babcia last week in hospital with the rest of the family. We didn’t stay for long. My nephews were getting bored and mischievous, so, after an appropriate time, we wished her well, kissed her goodbye and traipsed towards the door. We’d almost left the room, when she called me back. She waited until the others had disappeared before she spoke.
“‘Greta, darling,’ she said, and I could tell from the tone in her voice that she was up to something, ‘I wonder if you would do me the most enormous favour?’ Then she reached into her handbag and brought out two tickets.‘I have these two tickets to the opera – Traviata. I’d planned to ask a young friend of mine, Steven, but it looks like I won’t be able to go now. I was going to ask you to contact him and offer him both tickets, but then I had an inspiration. I thought that you might like to accompany him instead. I’m sure you’d enjoy his company. He’s a lovely young man.’
“‘Why, Babcia,’ I said to her, ‘You conniving old devil. You’re match making.’
“‘Oh well,’ she pouted, ‘if you’d rather not… I’ll leave it up to you. Here are the tickets and his contact details.’
“And so. Here I am,” she finished with a smile.
“Evidently,” I said. “But what made you go ahead? I’m not sure I’d do the same thing if our situations were reversed.”
“Curiosity, perhaps,” she said. “I wondered what kind of young man Babcia thought would appeal to me.”
“And now you’ve met me?” I said.
She paused for a moment and then she reached into her handbag.
“I have these two tickets to the opera on Friday week. I wonder if you’d like to accompany me? It’s Traviata,” she added, as if that might be an incentive.
For a second I almost said I’d have to check with Nerida. But only for a second.
“I’d love to,” I said. “Why don’t we meet after work? We could have dinner first.”
“Yes,” she said, “I’d like that. There’s a lovely little café not far from the Opera House.”
We made arrangements and finished our drinks, and were about to go our separate ways when she said, “Something amused you before. You said you’d tell me what it was.”
“Oh nothing really,” I said. “Just that you and your grandmother ordered the same thing in exactly the same way.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, and smiled. “We have very similar tastes, Babcia and I – very