This story was written a few years ago while I was participating in a writing group in Bellevue. The assignment was to write a short story about a luncheon featuring characters from another writer’s manuscript. Warren was working on a manuscript about the early days of Australia. I found his characters endearing, and decided to use them and change the luncheon to a dinner meal prepared by two other characters in his story. Thanks, Warren, for the use of your characters.
The day had begun overcast, and the sun valiantly broke through by mid-morning. Thomas felt the heat as he walked down George Street on his way to meet his client, whose financial situation seemed hopeless. Even so, he was determined to advise him in helpful ways.
His mind turned to thoughts of this evening. The mugginess of the morning did not make him as uncomfortable as the prospect of dinner tonight with Eliza and Edward. Although the wedding date had not been set, you could bank on that relationship, Thomas thought. He knew he should get over his feelings for her, and he had grown uneasy around them. He hoped she couldn’t detect this discomfort. He remembered their first meeting aboard the ship four years ago. In all that time, things had not worked out between them.
He shook his head, remembering his “sweetheart’ back home. The woman had promised to follow him to the ends of the earth when she agreed to marry him. She had determined, however, that Australia was too far of an end to follow. Instead, she had stayed home in London and had fallen in love with his brother. They had married and sent letters detailing their growing family. Nephews, not sons. He could picture her in the foggy streets of London, but never in the sunlight along the Quay.
As he had talked to Eliza on board the ship, he had still hoped his fiancée would join him. Perhaps that had placed limitations on their friendship, knowing there was someone he had left behind. In truth, by the time they reached Sydney, he had been more comfortable with Eliza, knew and understood her better than anyone else. But, respect, admiration and a quest for knowledge of their new country had not been enough for Eliza. She had maintained their friendship, and regarded him with a warmth as toward a brother. Perhaps he had made her parting with Joseph, her real brother, not as painful. He would have liked … but that was not to be. She had met Edward, and you could see it in their eyes how they adored each other.
Thomas could not comprehend that feeling. Even with Eliza, the specialness he felt was still called friendship. Treasured, but still a friend.
The invitation for dinner tonight had arrived yesterday afternoon, and he’d responded right away. Assuring Edward that he would be there, but not knowing why. As he had begun to ask, Edward hadn’t met his eyes, just mumbled something about court and walked quickly away. This was not like Edward, and Thomas felt at a loss to understand. His day would probably continue in this hazy, distracted way until the infernal meal was over. The last thing he wanted, was to watch the happiness emanating off these two. Although he was happy for them, it made his own loneness harder to bear. Why couldn’t they see this?
Australia was attracting more and more new settlers. He was bound to meet someone, but so far the women he met were all meant for someone else.
He stopped into the market on a whim. He was suddenly starving for an orange as a mid-morning snack. A huge pyramid of ripe oranges were on display, and he began searching for the right one. Suddenly, a boy of about 13, in a fit of mischief, pulled two or three oranges from the bottom of the display, causing oranges to roll off the table and around the feet of other shoppers. As he stepped back, he collided with a lady who had come up behind him to gather some oranges for her own table. This had jostled her in such a way that the comb had fallen out of her hair. Unfortunately, in an attempt to avoid stepping on her, his clumsy foot had landed directly on the fragile bone comb, leaving it hopelessly crushed. He quietly bent down, and gathered the shards together.
As he raised up, and turned to face her, he could see the hurt in her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he began.
A store clerk was busy picking up the oranges around their feet, and re-piling them neatly on the counter. His glare, aimed at Thomas, made it clear who he had identified as the culprit.
Thomas opened his mouth to explain, but was interrupted by the lady he had rudely bumped. Her hair, unheeded by the broken comb, had fallen around her shoulders. She was busy with one hand trying to pull all of it back and up. It was disgraceful for a woman to be seen with her hair down. With her free hand, she reached for the broken comb. When she saw the extent of the damage, tears filled her eyes.
“Grandmother’s comb!” she cried. “Grandfather bought it for her in France. Now it’s broken! You stepped on it like it was nothing, not important at all! You are a selfish man—reaching for the best oranges at the bottom of the pile. Look at all the damage you have done. And now this beautiful trinket is gone forever, a token of the love my Grandfather had for my Grandmother.” She stomped her foot, and ran from the market, her long black hair falling down beyond her shoulders.
Thomas was shaking. In truth, he had been afraid she would strike him. Most of all, however, he felt sadness that penetrated deep into his soul. This was how it was with women. At least his brother’s wife was too far away for his clumsiness to reach her. Eliza had distanced herself from him, holding him as close as friendship would allow.
He walked out of the market no longer hungry for oranges. He walked down to the water, and sat on an outcropping of rock. The time of the appointment had come and gone. Instead, he thought of many things. A gang of prisoners were working on a new roadbed close by. Their song, punctuated by pickaxes and mixed with the sounds of the water found it’s way into his mind. His body was free, but his heart? How can your heart be free when you don’t even know where it is, he thought. He leaned back in the sun. He willed himself to think of anything but dinner that night.
Eventually, he made his way back to the bank. The big fans suspended from the ceiling were all employed, moving the hot stifling air through the huge dark bank. He always felt pride as he entered. They had come a long way since he arrived to set up the bank here. The first building had been temporary, and they had moved into this showpiece two years ago. No expense had been spared to portray opulence, permanence and success. Money had to show before people felt confident to use a bank. He stood for a moment, and surveyed the room. For that moment, he thought he could smell the money. Bracing, that!
People stood in line on the dark black marble floor. It shone, reflecting the chandeliers and the turning fans above. The huge room was circular, with the teller ‘cages’ forming the center hub. All the wood in the room was callitris cypress, found along the east coast, harvested, milled and transported by readily available cheap labor: convicts. The country was being built on the backs of these people. Willingly enough, it must be said. Most of them must have viewed the opportunity as a second chance. Many of those, who had spent their time paying off their debt to society were now free, beginning their new lives. Indeed, many had accounts in this very bank.
He headed for the room he lovingly called his office. Small, but generous enough for his needs. Dark oak desk with several drawers, covered with a dark green leather blotter. A gold pen lay poised and ready. Two file cabinets stood by the window which looked out onto the busy street. His chair was of dark green leather. He sat down and began his day. He noticed a small note, partially hidden under the blotter. Mary, his secretary, must have placed it there. It read, “Mr Davidson regretted cancelling his appointment with you this morning. He hopes you can find time for him next week.”
Mercifully, Thomas kept busy throughout the day. A quiet, serious man at heart, today his coworkers noticed he was more pensive and contemplative than usual.
He left the bank at 5:30, stopping by his home to change into a clean shirt and comb his hair. The flower lady was still at the market as he passed, and he chose a bouquet of flowers. Glancing at them, he was amazed at how many Eliza had taught him to recognize: the Stuart Pea, which reminded him of orange parrots, the outrageous tropical Scarlet Bansia, and the soft, fuzzy pink Callistemon. There was so much he was thankful to Eliza for. He truly hoped that Edward knew the gem he now held in his arms. He was deep in thoughts like these as he mounted the steps of the Girl’s School that Eliza and her mother ran.
Edward met him at the door. Once again, his manner was different. Thomas studied the man Eliza loved, identifying the changes in his demeanor. Hesitant, ill at ease, embarrassed, Thomas thought.
Before he had a chance to say anything, Thomas heard voices from the kitchen, although one voice certainly did not sound happy. Where had he heard that voice before? He listened intently to what he did not want to hear.
“Not only did he step in front of me, but he pulled two oranges from the bottom of the stack! The oranges rolled off the display table, and were everywhere underfoot. He did nothing to help, but stepped back, onto my foot. In trying to get out of his way, I must have brushed against him, knocking my Grandmother’s bone comb from my hair. I’ve never been so embarrassed, standing in the middle of market with my hair as errant as the oranges! Then what does he do? He grinds that beautiful piece into the ground, breaking it into tiny shards!”
At the last sentence, her voice broke into a stifled sob. “I’m sorry, Eliza. I don’t know who he was, but I’ve never met a more infuriating, boorish man. I pity the woman who has to deal with him!”
He could hear Eliza muttering something, he supposed in an attempt to sooth the woman. Although he couldn’t make out the words, he could tell the women were coming through the kitchen and into the parlor where he stood. He wished fervently that he could disappear.
The color drained from his face as she walked into the room behind Eliza. Thomas knew he would never forget the expression on her face. Shock, betrayal and hatred took their turns playing with her eyes and mouth. He could see her clench her fists as she crossed her arms in front of her. Her eyes sparkled dangerously. If the fire shooting from them actually hit their mark, he might actually be able to disappear, he thought.
He remembered the flowers in his hand. Years of training at his mother’s knee of polite convention raced into his mind. Nothing quite fit the situation, so he took a step toward the two women. But instead of handing the flowers to his hostess, he handed them to the ‘Broken Comb Lady’ with the beautiful hair and eyes that wished to kill him.
“Please,” he said quietly. “Accept these with my deepest, heart-felt apology.” He couldn’t quite make eye contact, but looked down into Eliza’s welcoming warm face.
Eliza stood unsure of what to do when Martha handed her the flowers. What had just happened? Everything had gone as planned, she had been in total control of the evening until this moment. She grabbed at regaining control with a comment, “I’ll just go put these in water, shall I?” as she quickly left the room. Maybe she could pull everyone through the emotional maze this evening was becoming. Perhaps no one would die. She would certainly do her best.
She thought over her preparations for the meal. Edward had helped her set the table, and Martha had set the meal upon the side-board. They had used her best serving dishes, and the silver her mother was giving her as a wedding gift. She had given so much thought to this evening. She loved both Martha and Thomas so much, and they both held her in high regard. It only made sense that the two of them could find happiness together. She thought over this bit of logic, looking for a flaw. Yes, it still seemed right to her, regardless of what she had just witnessed.
She chose a cobalt blue vase, filled it with cold water and a tiny bit of lemon juice then carefully carried it through the door. Silence greeted her as she entered the dining room and placed the flowers in the middle of the large oak table the girls used at lunch time and as a study table. She and her mother had polished it well yesterday in preparation for this evening, and the old wood shone. In fact, they had worked so hard, the scratched areas hardly showed. Her only concern was that the polish may have made the table somewhat slippery. No matter. The blue vase reflected in the finish of the table, a perfect addition to the setting.
Her heart went out to Edward. He had tried to make small talk and had actually made the introductions. Martha was tucking stray strands of hair into the somewhat untidy style she had achieved earlier that evening. She stood staring at something intently out the window. Thomas was seemingly fascinated by some book he had picked up off the piano. Eliza shook her head. She recognized it as her book, the one with instructions on needlepoint. At far as she could see, he was holding the pattern upside down.
Edward played host, and led the quiet party to the table, pointing where each guest was to sit. Eliza and Martha were across from the two men. Eliza had explained that would be conducive to conversation. It felt strange, taking control over a table that was not yet his. Yet it felt right, somehow, and he enjoyed the feeling of it for the first time. Eliza, though perplexed, looked radiant tonight and he marveled at how she made him feel. He was the luckiest man in Australia. No, the World, he corrected himself. He glanced at Thomas, and hoped the man would survive the evening that Eliza had lovingly planned.
Edward and Eliza continued the small talk, which finally took the form of describing the merits and accomplishments of the two people at the table who didn’t seem to be listening. Disaster struck at exactly 7:30, when Eliza asked Thomas to please pass the pitcher of water.
The elegant crystal pitcher was almost full, as Thomas lifted it by it’s slender handle. Condensation had formed on the crystal, making the dainty handle somewhat unsure in his large hand. Halfway across the table, he felt it slip, and attempted to set it down. He was distracted for a moment by the look of horror on Martha’s face. A bad time for distraction, as the crystal pitcher rammed into the cobalt vase, unleashing a flood of fresh water, lemon water and assortment of flowers into the lap of a startled Martha.
She stood, sputtering, “Will this torture never end?” She made swiping motions on her dress in an ineffective attempt to mop up about two quarts of water deposited into the layers of fabric that made up her dress and petticoats. She threw her napkin across the table at Thomas and it landed in his plate still full of the food he’d been too nervous eat.
He pushed his plate away, and silently lowered his face into his hands. He would count to ten, then possibly die. He’d ruined everyone’s evening. No. Entire day. They had tried so hard to make this special for him. He realized that this whole evening was an attempt to find someone for him. An introduction. He groaned.
But he couldn’t hide forever. Eliza and Edward had both left the room to obtain towels and another vase to hold the blasted flowers. The cobalt vase lay in ruins in the middle of the table. He sadly stared at it in misery. They both noticed the Huntsman spider at the same time.
The Huntsman is a very large spider. They are usually very shy and reclusive when threatened. Their long legs take them quickly over very long distances. Although harmless, they can be shocking and strike fear in many people.
It must have been hiding in the blossoms of the bouquet, and had just now made it’s dash for a safe place. The safe place it chose, was Martha, and she grabbed Eliza’s napkin with which to do battle.
Unfortunately, it was an inefficient weapon, and after flicking it at the spider several times, she realized the spider had disappeared. She looked at Thomas pleadingly for help. Her eyes darted all around her, checking the folds of the napkin once more. The spider had been so large, she couldn’t imagine not seeing it.
Thomas had come around the table, and was intent on finding and exterminating the spider as quickly as possible. This brave act just might put him back in Eliza’s good graces, and make it possible for him to view his own reflection in the mirror once again. He was looking on her chair, and around her feet. How could it have just disappeared like that?
A small wisp of hair had dislodged from its pinnings, and slid down the nape of her neck. Martha, in sudden terror, reached out and grabbed Thomas by the arm.
“I … think it’s on me!” she whispered in an effort to not startle the spider. “Get it off me—it’s on the back of my neck,” she hissed. She turned, so he could see the spider that she felt crawling down her neck. She panicked, thinking of it’s hairy legs sneaking down inside the neckline of her dress. She had a nightmare vision of her ripping her dress off to rid herself of the spider in full view of this man.
“I don’t see it,” Thomas said doubtfully.
Martha no longer felt the spider on her neck, and surmised that it may have crawled up into her hair. Her fingers pointed frantically to her carefully coifed hair, afraid the spider might begin moving again. “Look for it! It’s got to be in my hair! Just find it!” She was terrified of spiders. Just let him rid her of this thing, and she would forgive him anything.
He looked carefully into her shiny black mass of curls, and could see no spider. Wait, he thought. There inside, he could see something shiny, something that looked like eyes. He hesitantly reached up to part her hair.
He had never taken the liberty to touch a woman’s hair before, and it had a strange impact on him. Soft. It was so soft. There was so much of it. What would it feel like in his hands, around his face, over his pillow? He took a deep breath. The shiny object was only a hairpin, nothing more.
Impatient, Martha turned her head to see what he was doing. A loop of her hair wrapped around his cufflink, and tugged. “Ouch!” she whimpered.
“Wait, wait!” Thomas begged. “Your hair is caught on something.”
“Well, free it! Find the spider! Where is it?” He could hear panic building in her voice and began praying that she wouldn’t begin crying.
“Turn around, so I can see what I’m doing,” he suggested.
When she turned, it was in the wrong direction, pulling his cufflink and arm around to the back of her as she faced him. This effectively wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close to his chest.
From time to time, most people experience moments that seem to slow down. Senses are heightened at such a time, and we are given extra time to understand our situations in such a way to help guide us in making decisions. These decisions may enhance our lives, in fact in some cases may actually save our lives.
Neither Thomas or Martha had ever experienced such an event until that moment when their eyes met. Thomas felt he was falling, deeper and deeper into those beautiful, brilliant brown eyes.
For a moment, the spider was forgotten. The comb, and the discomfort of her wet clothing were also shoved out of her mind. The thought that she might actually swoon in this man’s arms replaced those thoughts. Dizzy, with the feel of his breath on her hair, the smell of his soap, the concern in his blue eyes. Why had she not taken the time to see how attractive this man was?
They both could hear chatter coming from the kitchen, and realized at once the compromised position they would appear to be in if their friends found them this way. They set out at once to disconnect themselves from each other.
Thomas struggled to unwrap her hair from his cufflink. “Men have been horsewhipped for less,” he muttered helplessly.
Martha giggled, although why she couldn’t quite say. “Just pull!” she pleaded. They both heard the footsteps approaching the door.
As he pulled the cufflink free, with a few black hairs dangling from the offending link, a fit of hilarity came over him. What would Eliza say if she knew about this little drama? As the door opened, he looked down at Martha. Too close! He was standing too close! He hurriedly stepped aside and got a glimpse of her hair. It looked as though he’d taken serious liberties with her.
She quickly looked up at him when she sensed his movement, and saw him making frantic motions for her to smooth her hair. The door opened as she was finishing this task.
“I’m so sorry we were gone so long—you haven’t killed each other?” Eliza stood just inside the door. The climate inside the room had changed yet again. She looked at Thomas, expecting an answer.
“We haven’t killed each other, yet,” he said with a slow smile. “Although I believe she’s very capable, I suspect it may take years to accomplish, and I’m committed to sticking it out to the very end,” he added. He felt confident for the first time that day. He couldn’t understand what had just happened. He was sure, however, from the puzzled expression Martha wore, that she had experienced it as well. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, he reminded himself. Hell, he had just entered the woods. But what an adventure it was going to be. He wondered how many times in how many ways he would fall in love with her. Just her. Always her. He couldn’t wipe the grin off his face.
“What is the matter with the two of you?” Eliza demanded.
Just then, Edward stepped to the table, and slapped it hard. “Spider!” he said. He motioned to Eliza. “Help me in the kitchen a moment,” he said patiently.
“But, I …” Eliza stopped, then followed as Edward opened the kitchen door.
“Something’s wrong with those two,” she whispered.
Edward lovingly took her by the shoulders and gently planted a small kiss on her nose. “No, you marvelous woman,” he said warmly. “You’ve only achieved what you were wishing for.”