Nathaniel Jones approached with short, longing steps what no longer was or wasn’t his favourite bar, when from across the room a hazel lightning dissipated the doubt harboured in his heart. Sheila Rawlingson shared a table with three local men. Lunch had already been eaten, the party engaged in the final arrangements before leaving. Yah glasses; no, no: dem my keys. When the eyes of the only two people that mattered in the world locked, a sparkle of happiness shone in each of their four eyes. Sheila, yah glasses, nah! Hand outstretched. Glasses repeatedly tapping Sheila’s hand. Eyes lost in foreign latitudes. Not a word spoken. Sheila Rawlingson restrained her smile, blinked, turned away from bliss, headed in the opposite direction. Only she heard the whisper calling from Nathaniel’s mouth. She knew exactly what he had said but she did not hesitate: she opened the door of her SUV, got inside, turned the key, drove away, left no acknowledging sign.
Nathaniel Jones walked to the last table by the far corner of the deck, sat, taciturn, asked for a beer. By the time the sun set, his beer was still half-full. Come dinner-time he asked for another. He did not eat. It was not a particularly busy night: he was not disturbed until closing time. His tap came up to six dollars. Nathaniel Jones was there, all right, when the employees of the place showed up late the following morning to open the restaurant for lunch. He was their first customer, at 10.54, sixty-six minutes before opening time. He sat on the last table, by the far corner of the deck, had a beer, no lunch. He gazed blankly into the establishment; eyes wide open; mouth cracked, dry; skin burned, wrinkled; hand loosely holding a warm plastic cup. Sheila did not show up. He remained unfazed. As the sun set anew, the waitress brought him another beer; he had not finished his first yet but no human being could conceive of drinking that stale old broth. Is on de house, dis one.
A drink on the house is a drink you cannot refuse but by dinner-time Nathaniel’s second beer of the day still lingered high up the neck of the bottle. What would you have if you were me? Nathaniel did not touch a thing, not even the cutlery. Take it home. Feed it to your children, your husband, your dog. He had not meant to be patronising, but he did not really care. Three quarters of a beer later, the restaurant was barren, ready to shut. Only one table, by the edge of the deck, remained to be put away. The tall, dark figure of the manager approached Nathaniel, whose eyes, though still wide open, no longer registered anything. Yah wan’ stay dere alnight? Nathaniel might or might not have nodded. See yah in de mahning.
Another day went by and this time Nathaniel was simply regarded as one more piece of furniture. He barely moved; he did not talk at all. No one even offered him a beer. He did not care to ask. The sun, risen from the east, hugged the kerb of the sky until it emerged from behind the structure of the restaurant, began its slow descent into its shelter of water. Nathaniel’s lips harboured two visible wounds, botched up with the clumsy protection of dried up blood and saliva. The maze of bloodshot capillaries that surrounded his pale blue eyes attested to three sleepless nights. The dark rings around his sockets were highlighted by the clashing contrast of the indigo blue with the carmine red of his sunburnt skin.
The sun shone for four and a half hours every day on the particular corner of the deck where Nathaniel Jones had built his nest to wait for Sheila’s love, or rage, or sense, or curiosity to hatch. The sun shone for four hours too long on the particular corner of the deck where Nathaniel Jones’ tender white skin got scorched beyond pain. Only the coat of half grown (over three days) white facial hair disguised the alarmingly bright hue of a complexion that – no matter how long it roasted – would never tan, with innumerable reflections of the sun, mirroring the effect of twinkling ripples in Nathaniel’s Red Sea.
Nathaniel’s throat was dry as a desert; his every breath ached. Every instinctive motion of his larynx to lubricate his windpipe carved a trail of agony in his consciousness. His eyes, even though wide open, could hardly see. His weakened body had resorted to its fat to produce the energy that was not coming from external ailment. Blisters crowded his arms and legs, where the relentless sun had punished him most. His muscles stung; his stomach burned. The sun was setting one more time.
Reds, yellows, blues meant nothing, when the silhouette of his dreams irrupted into an otherwise empty scene. Nathaniel’s delirious mind found no strength to gather. His knees shook, his skin burned, his head whirled. Still waiting? Did she speak? Was it her? Whose, the words I don’t want to transcribe? Whose the face?
We need to talk.
No. Of all the things they might have needed to do, talk was certainly not one of them. Just take me to your place.
Read about the making of On the Way Back, go back to EXCERPTS, or straight to TAKE 1, TAKE 3, and TAKE 4.