Another yarn from The Out of Time Cafe
For four hours they had sat in the cafe, an old man and an old woman, dressed in the dark shapeless clothes of the poor, sharing a single cup of chilled mint tea, their few possessions bundled into a couple of plastic carrier bags which they kept close beside their chairs, afraid that someone would steal them.
They hardly ever spoke to one another, but sat, staring out of the window watching the bright limousines which pulled into the gas station opposite or drew up in the parking lot outside the Out of Time Cafe. They watched everything and everyone: the families who chattered; the men and women who stood beside their cars with cell phones at their ears; the angry business man who was rude to the petrol—pump boy; the sad woman dressed in expensive clothes: the lonely middle—aged man with a girl on a date; the couples not speaking and the couples newly wed.
Then, at about the time when evening was beginning to take over from the day, the old woman stood up and signalled to Herb who was lounging at a table near the bar.
Herb had been lost in his own sad fantasy of being young again: of being supple and strong. He imagined how he would do everything different. He’d show the Colonel the door with a kick up the butt. He’d sing for charity. Hell, he might even run for congress and who knows… he was the king, why not the pres—i —dent too. Why, for a good American boy…
The old woman called to him. Her voice was high and harsh — a voice for haggling at the market or berating a stubborn mule. It shattered Herb’s dreams. He could not understand the words she was saying but the meaning was clear enough. She wanted to pay. The old man sat unmoving, staring out of the window, heedless.
Herb scribbled the price of the mint tea on his waiter’s note pad and crossed the cafe to the woman. He tried to avoid breathing through his nose, for when he had served them he had almost gagged on the odour of unwashed skin, sour sweat and stale urine. He would have been happy if they had simply got up and left without paying — God knows, the day had been busy enough. But no. The woman wanted to pay. She studied the bill and then carefully counted the money from an old bead purse. She held the coins out to him and dropped them into his palm. She muttered something under her breath and laughed. Herb looked at her directly. He found himself staring into a pair of bright dark eyes which were both bold and merry. Was she making a joke? He smiled, and shrugged and gave her the famous sultry enigmatic look from under hooded lids. At that the old man joined in the laughter and Herb withdrew. His charm was not working. And indeed, he felt that any charm he might have mustered was neutralized by the woman’s bright, bird like gaze. She seemed to see into him, and perhaps through him, and beyond.
This old couple, so different to the normal clientele at the cafe, had arrived some time after noon. Bob, manifesting herself as a Mafioso Godfather with grey temples and wicked eyes, had watched them approach. They came directly towards the cafe down the long dusty road, walking in single file, the man leading and the woman trudging behind. In the heat of the day their figures wavered, like mirage shapes. If they disappeared down a dip in the road, they always re—appeared, minutes later, still walking with the slow measured pace of people for whom walking is the only mode of transport. They paid no attention to the cars and buses which swept past them, blowing up a storm of dust. There was something timeless about them: two figures walking into the present from Earth’s mysterious pre-history.
Arriving outside the cafe, the couple had paused, peering in through the windows like visitors at an aquarium, much to the embarrassment of the casual diners. This had however given Bob a chance to observe them closely. Both were very old. The man wore a stained trilby hat which drooped down nearly to his shoulders. His face was dark brown, wrinkled and tattooed. The stubble on his chin was grey, except where it was stained by nicotine. The woman matched the man for age and her face was covered with a fine network of lines. On her head she wore a woven straw hat and her hair was plaited into two long ropes behind her head. They could have been eighty years old, or a hundred, or two hundred, for they had reached an age when the years had ceased to make a difference.
Having stared their fill into the cafe, the man un-slung an old guitar from his back and tuned it expertly. The woman produced a small drum and a strangely shaped trumpet from one of her bags. The old man tapped his foot on the ground and they began to play and sing. This was not the popular music of buskers but a droning hypnotic monotone driven by strong rhythms and sudden changes of pitch. They sang about animals and performed short shuffling dances round one another, imitating beasts such as buffalo and snakes. The words were in a language that no one could understand, but still the urgency of the songs made people pause in their eating. The sound of the trumpet when it took up the melody was not loud or raucous but rather muted and sad. And it was with this instrument that they finished their performance. Patrons entering and leaving the cafe, dropped coins into the woman’s straw hat, strategically placed on the ground in front of her. But neither she nor the old man gave any indications that they had seen the donati0ns. Business being brisk this day at the cafe, there was soon a small mound of copper and silver in the hat.
After the trumpet solo, the couple packed up their plastic bags, counted their takings and moved into the cafe. They found a window table and ordered the single mint tea which lasted them the entire afternoon until the shadows outside began to lengthen. As the day waned, the number of visitors to the cafe dwindled until only the old man and woman remained. They sat, completely at their ease; self contained, unmoving as statues carved of wood except for when the woman picked up the glass of mint tea or the man rolled a thin cigarette. Finally the woman sighed and stood up and called to Herb for the bill.
Herb counted the coins in his hand and found they were exactly the price for the drink: no less, and no tip. He cleared the glass which had contained the mint tea and the ashtray which was filled with the brown stubs of the numerous cigarettes which the old man had smoked. Herb was just depositing these at the servery hatch when he heard Bob give a shout. “Come here. Everyone. Don’t miss this. Its bloody unbelievable.” Bob was pointing through the window.
Amelia came running in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an oven cloth. “What’s all the fuss ab..?” she said but didn’t finish her sentence when she looked outside. Manny arrived from the conservatory. He was coughing badly and hit his chest with his small hand as though to relieve the congestion. These were the only regular inmates still at the Cafe. Beano had stepped outside the cafe some three moves earlier, and failed to return before the cafe moved on.
“LOOK,” shouted Bob. In his excitement, the Godfather had grown a spiky cactus arm.
They looked. Above the parking lot directly outside the cafe, a giant flying saucer with flashing red and green lights was lowering its under- belly towards the ground. Beams of lights stabbed down. One touched a car and it instantly became a puddle of molten metal. Where another touched the parking lot, the asphalt glowed a muddy red. “It’s shedding energy,” said Amelia, nodding. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
A ladder appeared from the bottom of the craft and extended to the ground. When it was secure, the old man and woman climbed slowly up into the body of the space ship. No hurry. The contrast could not have been more extreme: ancient and modern, timeless and contemporary, human and alien.
Beneath the giant space ship, the petrol station burst into flame as one of the beams of light raked across it. “Burn baby burn,” yelled Manny as the plumes of flame exploded towards the sky, but then he was wracked with fierce coughing.
The ladder retracted. The space ship closed. A sudden high pitched noise made the windows rattle. The inmates of the cafe covered their ears and all except Bob crouched down behind the bar. Bob watched as the flashing lights became a ring of brilliance and the giant flying saucer accelerated away into the evening sky leaving a white trail of vapour.
“But who were they, those two?” said Amelia, standing up. ‘What did they want? Why were they here? Were they waiting for that flying thing? And why were we here? I can’t believe all this was just coincidence.”
Outside the cafe, the sight of the burning petrol station suddenly began to fade as the windows filled with static like wheeling flakes of snow.
“Were moving again,” said Bob, stating the obvious.
She still held the form of the Godfather as she looked round the cafe. It was smelly with cold food. The floor was covered with litter, the results of a busy day. Tables were piled with used cups, sticky plates, old newspapers, straws and bottles. “Hey Elvis,” said Bob. “You’d better get your A into G and start cleaning. Manny’ll give you a hand if his lungs hold out. And you’d better give that table where that couple were sitting a special wipe down.”
It was while Manny was wiping the table in the window where the old couple had sat, that he chanced to kick something under the table. It fell with a clatter. Nanny reached down and groped about and when he stood up he was holding the small battered trumpet that the woman had been playing.
“Don’t blow that thing,” called Amelia from the servery. “You don’t know what diseases are in it. And your coughs bad enough as it is.”
For some time, Manny’s cough had been getting worse. It had begun as a dry tickle but now it was so bad that it tore at his lungs and kept him awake at night. Manny held the trumpet at arms length while they all gathered round to look at it. Herb, who claimed to know more about music than the rest of them, said “That’s the darndest trumpet I’ve ever seen. Look, its only got two stops and its so small.”
“Small or not, she could certainly play it, that old woman,” said Bob.
“Wish I could play,” said Manny. “I always fancied myself in some smoky night club, playing the blues until dawn.”
They looked at him and Herb laughed. “With your lungs you wouldnt last five minutes.”
“This is just a cold,” wheezed Manny. “It’ll soon pass. I’ve had colds before.”
“None of us have ever got sick while we’ve been here,” said Bob thoughtfully. What she did not say but the others understood was that no one had died at the cafe either, despite the adventures.
“Anyway, what are we going to do with this?” asked Manny. Stick it up on the wall with all the paintings and stuffed animal heads and other bits and pieces?”
“Reckon that’s as good a place as any,” said Bob.
“But I’m going to clean it first,” said Amelia. “I dont want some little kid blowing on it and then getting sick. And that goes for you three as well.” She knew they were all dying to give the trumpet a blow — as indeed, secretly, was she.
Cleaned, polished, and sanitized, the trumpet was hung upon the wall near the Moose head.
During the time that the cafe dithered between times and places the inmates played cards. Manny was the champion at poker, Amelia excelled at whist, Bob preferred bridge and Herb enjoyed snap. But even the most varied of card games pall after a time.
Finally Bob threw her cards down. “I’m going to get that trumpet down and see if I can get a tune,” she said. To reach the trumpet she simply grew taller until she could lift it off the wall. Then,without waiting to shrink down to normal human size, she took a deep breath, applied her lips to the mouthpiece and blew. She produced a whishing sound but no note. She tried again, this time fiddling with the valves. Still no note came. She looked at the small trumpet in surprise and then she shrank down until she was the size of the old woman who had played so well. “Well we know it works,” she said, “because we saw that old woman playing it. She made it sing. I cant even make it squawk.”
“Here, give me a try,” said Herb taking the trumpet. He wiped the mouthpiece on his sleeve. “You’ve got to do this with your lips, see?” He puckered his lips. “Then you force the air out like this.” He blew and made a sound like a feeble raspberry or an elf with diarrhoea.
“OK. So come on Satchmo. Quit the commercial,” said Amelia. “Play!”
Herb took a deep breath, screwed up his lips and blew. Nothing. Not even a windy sigh. He tried pressing the valves and once got a squeak, but nothing that could be called a note.
“What about you Amelia?” said Manny.
Amelia shook her head. “No, not for me. I prefer keyboard,” she said. “Here, you have a go. I know you’re just dying to.”
“But what about my cough?”
“Ill clean it with steam over a kettle,” she replied. “Now give it a blow for heaven’s sake.”
Manny took the instrument gingerly. “I’ve never handled one before,’ he said. “I blow in here and press these up and down to change the note, right?”
“Right,” said Herb. “That is when you’ve got a note to change. So come on, play.”
The instrument was just the right size for Manny. He put it to his lips and cradled it as though playing blues in the Mississippi night. He pretended to improvise on the opening few notes of Basin Street Blues and mimed using a mute over the end.
‘Bravo maestro,” said Bob. ‘Now blow.”
And he did. He took a deep breath, coughed once, and blew. From the flared end of the trumpet came a pure high note like the tone of a bell sounding. The note lingered and then, when he touched one of the valves, it rose and shimmered and faded.
Manny was so surprised that he dropped the trumpet. He bent down to pick it up, but at that same moment the entire cafe lurched and they were all thrown half-way across the room and down onto the lino. The cafe lurched again as though being buffeted by a mighty wind and then it bumped as though it had been dropped. Miraculously, or so it seemed, nothing came crashing down from the shelves, but the room lightened and the sun poured in through the window.
They were facing a wide street with high buildings on either side. Large cars with big grilles at the front and white walled tyres were cruising up and down. One such car pulled up outside the cafe. It was deep red, almost purple, and polished to brilliance. The silver fittings shone. Even the spokes on the wheels seemed to have been polished. The car door opened and out stepped a tall neatly dressed woman in her late twenties. She wore a black and white suit which had obviously been tailored for her. On her head was a wide brimmed hat. Her lips were red and her blue eyes had a surprised baby—like expression that could never be mistaken for innocence. She stood on high heels and, with one hand resting on the car to keep her balance, she checked to make sure that the seams on her nylons were straight. They were.
“Jeez—us,” breathed Manny, staring out through the cafe window. “What a doll.”
The woman glanced up and down the street. Men with broad shoulders and wearing snap brimmed hats and suits with wide lapels passed her in the street and looked at her admiringly. But she paid them not a glance. She was looking for someone else. Then she turned her gaze on the cafe and smiled.
“Jeez—us,” breathed Manny again. ‘She’s coming this way. She’s…” He never finished his sentence but doubled up coughing.
The door opened and the woman stood framed there, her outline and profile crisp in the sunlight. “I’m sorry,” she called. “I’m not allowed to come any further. I’m looking for Mr Manny Morris. Have any of you seen him?” Her voice was rich and golden and suited her perfectly.
Manny was still bent over coughing. He waved his arms, ‘I’m Manny M… I’m…” He couldn’t speak but was wracked with worse coughing than before. Amelia hurried to the kitchen and brought him a glass of water. Herb patted him on the back. Bob wiped his face.
“I’m Manny Morris,” said Manny finally, when he had recovered.
The woman looked at him and the smile which lit up her face would have dazzled an angel and melted an ice berg. “Hi stranger,” she said. “Remember me?’”
Manny gawped. The closest he had ever come to a woman like this was when he was standing by an advertising hording. “N… No.” he said. “I guess not.”
The beautiful woman pouted prettily. “Well you soon will, honey. Your car is waiting and I’ve booked us the penthouse apartment at the Waldorf Skyline… just for the two of us.’
Manny stood still for a few moments, frowning in concentration. It was as though he was making his mind up about something. “I think I do know you,” he said finally.”
“Of course you do Manny. Now come on, make a girl real happy. Come on out. We can’t keep talking like this. I’ve ordered a box of your favourite cigars and -” Manny held up his hand and the woman stopped speaking obediently.
Manny walked slowly towards the door but stopped well clear of its open partition. “Can I come back here and see my friends sometimes?” he asked.
The woman shrugged. “Perhaps. Who knows? Do you think you’ll want to?”
“Don’t know.” he said slowly.
Manny stood and gazed out through the window for a long time. He seemed to be studying the busy street and the shining car and the dazzling woman who stood smiling, one hand on her hips. Finally he took a deep breath. He began to cough, but suppressed it with an effort. He turned to look back into the cafe and gave a short wave. “Hey everyone. I guess here’s where I get off the roundabout,” he said. “I just wanna say thanks for everything. You’ve been real swell. The best buddies that a guy like me ever had.” A tear trickled down his face. “Bye Bob. Don’t forget to use that mulch I made.” Bob nodded. “So long Amelia. Thanks for all the food and everything. Hope you find… whatever it is you’re looking for.”
“I will,” said Amelia. “Now you wrap up well and protect your chest. I know it looks like summer out there but it can still be cold in the …” Her voice trailed away. “Good bye Manny love,” she said simply, ” And it’s been good to know you.” She turned away.
“So long Mr Presley, sir,” said Manny to Herb. “Keep singing. You’ll be as big as Bing Crosby one day.”
“No worries,” said Herb.
Suddenly Manny laughed. “Hell I nearly forgot” he said, and without pausing to explain, hurried to the back of the cafe and up the stairs. They heard him rummaging in his room. Moments later he was back and holding the stone mouse with the strand of gold thread round its neck. “Here,” he said, holding the stone mouse out to Bob. “This is for you and the cafe. Put it up on display in memory of me. OK?
“Sure will little buddy,” said Bob.
Manny turned away. He coughed once, briefly – a harsh rattling cough – and then he entered the partition of the door. The revolving door eased round slowly and the beautiful woman took his arm affectionately.
When next those left inside the cafe saw Manny, he was standing in the sunlight, dressed in a brand new suit and and wearing shoes of tooled brown leather. He seemed taller somehow, and broader of shoulder. They saw him laugh, an easy confident laugh as he opened the car door for the woman. Briefly her lips brushed his and she whispered something before she stepped in. Then Manny gave one last wave to the cafe, touched the brim of his hat as a salute and walked round to his door. He climbed in, beeped the horn twice, revved the engine and pulled smoothly out into the traffic…
… and Manny was gone.
“And then there were three,” sighed Amelia. She stood silent for some moments staring out the window. “Here, give me that bloody thing,” she said reaching for the trumpet. Without any fancy preamble she put it to her lips and blew. Again a single note peeled out. “Brace yourselves,” she called as the cafe shifted. “Hold on.”
The cafe turned and tilted. This time cups and saucers did come crashing down. Bob anchored herself like ivy to a wall, but poor Herb went rolling over the floor until be banged his head on a table leg.
The cafe tipped and turned and shuddered. But then, after a few moments its movements became gentle, like the rocking of a cradle. The sound of the sea could be heard gently washing over the pebbles and tumbling up the beach.
Bob detached herself from the wall to become a middle aged man with a sad face and a wilting bow tie. Herb was unconscious and bleeding from a small cut. Amelia made him as comfortable as she could with a napkin under his head. Then she looked up. She recognized the sounds outside. She had expected them. She climbed to her feet and holding the trumpet loosely stared out through the cafe windows.
She saw an atoll with a white sandy beach. High on the beach stood a small aeroplane in perfect condition as though it had just landed. It was the Lady Lindy, as bright and freshly painted as the day she took off. Standing by the plane was a man who waved happily, his arm above his head. ‘Fred Noonan,” breathed Amelia. “So you didn’t survive either.”
Anchored in the bay was an American frigate. A small shore boat had put out from it and was nearing the surf. Standing in the stern was a tall man in a smart naval uniform. The boat dug into the shingle and rode a few yards up onto the beach . A seaman jumped out and placed a short ladder down to the white sand. The officer stepped ashore.
He wasted no time but hurried up the beach towards the cafe.
Herb groaned and sat up. ‘Where are we?’ he muttered as he climbed to his feet. He saw the sea and the warm sand and the tall trees waving in the sun. ‘Oh Boy,” he said, “This is for me. Just what I need for a hurting head.” He approached the revolving door but when he tried to make it turn it wouldn’t move. “What the hell … Just when I…”
“I think.” said Amelia, “that I’m the only one who can leave.”
Outside, on the beach, the officer approached the window of the cafe and removed his naval hat. He tapped on the glass and saluted briskly and formally. Then his sun-tanned face broke into a smile. His teeth were white and his eyes had that peculiar merriness that makes one want to smile in return. ‘Miss Earhart,” he called, “You can step out now. All is well. We have come to take you home. The frigate is waiting. The champagne is on ice.”
“George will join us later Now will you step out? See, Fred is already here and waiting.” Again the smile. The officer reached out and turned the door.
Amelia took a step towards it. In her hand she held the trumpet. She reached the door and entered one of its partitions. She pushed until she could just reach outside. The officer offered his hand and as he did so, Amelia hurled the trumpet from her. “Well if you want me, you’ll have to come and get me,” she shouted, and backed into the cafe quickly.
The officers face outside the window, registered nothing but a deep sadness.
But then, when the trumpet hit the sand the window of the cafe went black and a wind howled and the cafe lurched.
“What the hell,” said Herb as he fell over again. “What the hell is going on here? Where are we?”
“Nowhere,” said Amelia. “Everywhere.”
“And who was that navy guy? And that blond broad that Manny went off with? Who were they?”
“Don’t you know?” said Amelia suddenly weary, suddenly tired of everything but still prepared to fight. “You’ll meet them again one day, or someone like them,” she said. “That was Death.”