“Are you okay?” Martha asked while she fiddled with the corner of the plastic menu. Instead of answering Willem pushed back from the table. He walked over to the counter to order a portion of fried chicken. She had hoped for a meal at one of the many Lebanese cafes they’d passed on the way from his one-bedroom flat but he’d said he didn’t want to be out long, he wanted something quick and easy.
“What’s wrong?” she asked when he returned.
He didn’t reply. Instead he sat staring out the window, his blue eyes scanning the street. Not knowing what else to say she bent her head and noticed the corner of the menu had split. She picked at the sides so they separated even more and hoped for him to tell her he’d missed her, to tell her he couldn’t let her go just as he had during their nights together in Dubai. His intense kisses back then had touched a deep, empty spot inside her being. When they’d parted she’d pretended it was okay but her body had ached for weeks afterwards in London like it was going through a withdrawal process. Perhaps that’s how her father had felt when he’d tried to give up his addiction.
“I’m sorry,” Willem suddenly said.
She looked up, disorientated for a moment and wondered what she was doing here in Sydney with a man she hardly knew.
“I’m not myself at the moment,” he said.
She nodded. She’d told him in Dubai about her difficult relationship with her father, how bad it had been when he was drinking. How it had pulled her out of shape but now things were better. She was better. He’d listened quietly but she was sure she’d seen pain bound up behind his eyes.
“I’m in a bit of trouble,” he said.
She stared at the creases around his eyes and felt his leg twitch under the table. What did he want her to say? She was thankful that the waitress interrupted by dropping a box of chicken onto their table. Willem picked up a drumstick and started pulling the meat and gristle from a bone. I need you. The words he’d emailed weeks after they’d parted ran through her head. Wasn’t that why she’d booked an Emirates flight and travelled for 26-hours to be here? This wasn’t just a holiday fling. He needed her. Wasn’t it enough that she was here?
“Did you hear me?” he said touching her on the wrist. “I’ve got this debt that needs repaying but I’ve got nothing left.”
“Right,” she said. Her stomach groaned with hunger but she pushed the greasy chicken box away. She had money but he probably knew that. How else could she afford to travel, to constantly be jumping on and off planes? The constant movement soothed her anxiety, brought some relief from that gnawing sense of fracture within. When they’d first met, Willem had said she was lucky to have such freedom. She’d liked him saying that but it wasn’t really freedom. The truth was if she stayed in one place too long she was afraid the cracks might start to appear and then she would begin to break into too many pieces. There’d be no way back from that.
The cash till beeped and jolted her out of her thoughts. She glanced about and saw the restaurant was now empty of lunchtime diners, the tables cleared, the strip lighting flickering overhead. She turned back to face Willem.
“I don’t know what will happen to me if I don’t repay it.” His mess of dark hair fell over his eyes so she couldn’t read the expression on his face.
“Well, how much do you owe?” Her voice sounded brisk, business-like.
He smiled. “You know I love you.”
She clenched her teeth. There had been too many men over the years, too many casual romances. She knew she’d been fickle, played with men’s affections but she’d never really wanted love. Well, that would require staying in one place wouldn’t it? It would mean putting down roots, intimacy. She shuddered. The air conditioning whirred through the filters. She’d seen what love could do. It had crippled her mother and broken her soul.
A bus rattled past outside. Martha pulled her bag off the floor and took out her purse. She couldn’t love this man she’d flown across the world to see again. Didn’t want to. Kindness was all she had to offer. She might lose her money, lose her faith but to lose her heart, then she’d be in real trouble. The only way to be free again would be to move on, let him go.
“Come on,” she said. “There’s a bank across the road.”
He raked his hand through his hair. His blue eyes stared at her intently.
“You’ll help me?” She heard a note of disbelief in his voice.
She nodded silently.
The creases round his eyes softened, “Once I pay off this debt we could go travelling together, get away just the two of us,” he said. She saw his gratitude etched deeply across his face.
“I don’t think travelling is the answer,” she said standing up. She didn’t tell him that staying in Sydney with him wasn’t the answer either.
She crossed towards the open door but stopped as a child raced past outside. For a second she watched the child in her purple sunhat chasing the pigeons off the pavement and remembered herself at that age laughing freely at everything and nothing. How happy she’d been! In that moment she saw the truth of her present situation. All the travel and holiday romances meant nothing. She was lost not living. She was simply avoiding herself and needed to change. Now as she stepped out into the full glare of sunshine she hoped to fall in love, not with this man she hardly knew, but with life again.
(c) Kate MacWhannell
He stares at the clock. By maintaining a routine he is convinced he can control his life and shut out the ghostly voice that taunts him. “You don’t deserve happiness,” it whispers as he waits for the minutes to turn. “She discovered that you are bad, that’s why she left.”
(c) Kate MacWhannell