Sunday, 3 April 2016

When Love Comes to Town l 1 - Where There's Smoke

The Promise still has three chapters and an epilogue to come. It's still on the way, I'm just taking a quick breather!


When Love Comes to Town
Xylophone

Cameron Rose stood with a bouquet of flowers in one hand and his luggage in the other, watching his girlfriend love someone that wasn't him.

He hadn’t thought anything of the other girl’s presence at first. She was a complete stranger to Cameron, sure, but that hadn’t been enough to set off any red flags. He was in a long distance relationship, there were plenty of people in Chantelle’s life he knew nothing about. The intruder was probably in her late 20s, and his first impression was simply contrast. Chantelle was a pale, bloodless spectre, and this girl was a splash of technicolour. Her face was crowned by a tidy crop of hair the colour of dry blood, and faux jewels glittered every colour of the rainbow amidst her jangling earrings. They were complimented by a number of gaudy rings on her hands and chains around her neck, all adorned with what seemed to be bizarre, occult symbols. Chantelle seemed almost offensively plain in just her hospital gown seated beside such flamboyancy, her face white and delicate behind her glasses. 

Chances were good that she was nothing more than a close friend Cameron had never become acquainted with. It wasn't even really worth thinking about, beyond figuring out if he knew her name or not before he said hello...

...and as it turned out, he didn't know her name, but what did that really mean anyway? He’d be lucky to name even ten percent of the people Chantelle interacted with on a daily basis. That was the reality of their relationship. He had shrugged and stepped into the room all the same…

…and then the colourful stranger kissed his girlfriend. 

Lip to lip. 

He’d frozen then, and after a moment’s consideration stepped back out of the doorway and around the corner. Neither girl saw him. 

In retrospect, it probably shouldn't have been come as such a surprise. Chantelle had always laughed off how much time she spent in front of her computer Skyping her boyfriend, but that had been gradually changing over the last few months. Her increasingly long hours at work suddenly seemed more than slightly suspect, not to mention her new-found interest in friends and family. What had once been nightly conversations with her boyfriend had gradually dwindled to become weekly conversations. It had happened slowly enough that he hadn't really thought much about it. The signs had all been there, but he’d been either too dumb or too in love to take any notice of them...

...but on the other hand, when you're willing to immediately follow nine hours on a plane with another ninety minutes in a taxi just to surprise your sick girlfriend, your relationship is generally in a healthy enough place that you don't have those sort of doubts.

That first kiss had been only the start. As he watched through the window, the colourful woman climbed into his girlfriend's hospital bed, and the two began to make out in earnest. When they came up for air, it was complimented with hushed, intimate whispering that Cameron couldn't quite decipher from outside. At some point, they became tangled in each other's arms, too, and the interloper ran her hands through Chantelle's hair. It cascaded through her fingers like silk, and though he stood some distance away, Cameron could attest that it felt like silk, too. He was well accustomed with that head of hair. Chantelle loved the way he played with her hair...or she had used to, at least.  

Telly, he thought to himself, horrified, as he watched his girlfriend’s mistress wriggle in even closer to his (her) lover. To her credit, Chantelle had the sense to look at least slightly embarrassed at the treatment, and a rosy splash of blood rose to her white cheeks as she squirmed slightly in the embrace, but she never shrugged it off. He found himself unable to look away, as much as he might want to. The last thing he wanted to see was the girl he loved sharing their special thing with someone else...but there he was, watching exactly that. Telly, Telly, Telly. 

Chantelle had been hit with a monster asthma attack three days ago and had been in hospital ever since, bed-bound and unhappy, and he had wanted to surprise her. She’d spent Wednesday night gasping ragged, breathless gasps alone on her apartment floor, and that was the entire reason he was standing here now. He'd wanted to make her happy. He thought that that was what hurt the most. This was the thanks he got? 

It was a pain quite like no other. Cameron's internal organs liquified and sloshed around his abdomen in a molten, visceral slush that burnt worse than anything he’d ever felt. He’d always thought that nothing could hurt more than that time he accidentally set the sleeve of his school blazer on fire with the Bunsen burner way back when, but this made that experience seem trivial and unimportant in comparison. A paper cut to a beheading.    

Cameron reached for his pocket as if in a dream, unsure if there was any point to what he was about to do but powerless to stop himself. The sight before him was pretty damning, but perhaps it was more misleading than it appeared - maybe he was overreacting, somehow. Well, he was going to text her and see just how she excited she was to see his name pop up on her phone. Chantelle didn’t have the slightest inkling that he was even in the country, let alone not ten meters away, so if he told her he was coming to see her...well, it should come as a genuinely pleasant surprise, if she still loved him. Her face would light up as she read his message, the colourful stranger would pull away and ask what the big deal was, Chantelle would laugh and tell her cousin that the man she loved was on the way to save her from the drudging boredom of hospital life, and...and...

Telly, he typed with shaking, sweaty fingers. What would you say if I told you I’ll be in the country by tomorrow morning? 

He pressed send. 

5 bytes of information fluttered through the vast, invisible tunnels of cyberspace in the blink of an eye. Chantelle’s phone buzzed from her bedside table across the room. 

It was ignored in favour of staring into another girl’s eyes like they were the doorway to heaven itself. 

“Telly,” he repeated out loud. It was more a sigh than anything else.

After a time, he at last managed to tear his gaze from the two girls cuddling in bed, turned, and left. 

*

There was a bin just beside the hospital's entrance as if placed there just for him, and he dumped the bouquet in without a backwards glance. His luggage rolled along behind him on an arm that felt like led. An off-duty paramedic was standing by the drop-off lane smoking her way to an early grave, and she offered Cameron a sympathetic smile as he trudged his way towards her. He couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge it with anything more than a strained grimace. Smiling wasn’t on the cards right now. 

“Didn’t go to plan, huh?” Her voice was like sandpaper.

“You could say that,” he agreed grimly. 

She exhaled a cloud of chemicals into the afternoon breeze. It floated down the road and vanished into the azure expanses overhead. “You’re not the first,” she said in a voice that suggested she was trying to reassure him. “Today, I mean. Believe it or not, another guy came out earlier this morning and did exactly the same thing you just did. The flower store is making a fortune off that there bin.” 

Okay? “Must be something in the air,” he agreed skeptically, eyeing the puff of smoke that emerged from between her yellowing teeth. It flitted away to join its ancestors in the Great Cancerous Lung in the Sky. “Aren’t people in the health industry meant to know that smoking kills you?"

She grinned, displaying her golden canines in all their glory. He tried to ignore them and promptly failed, which earned him an even better view of them when she noticed him noticing and grinned all the wider. “I’ve been smoking for a lot longer than I’ve been saving lives,” was the amused response. “And after that…well, I guess I’ve been at it so long that giving it up doesn’t seem like something I’d do. I mean, you're right, a paramedic should know better, but...” She sighed and flicked what was left of her cigarette onto the road. It smouldered forlornly on the asphalt. “It’s hard to give up the things you love."  

He forced a polite smile. “Fair enough.”

"I’d rather not remember that my lungs probably resemble the inside of a dirty old boot,” she went on with a shrug. “I’ll cross that bridge when I have to, you know? No point stressing over something that isn’t a problem just yet.” 

“Right.”

Her amusement petered out then, and she only looked guilty. “Say, I’m sorry,” she offered sincerely. "I’m gonna hazard a guess that the inside of my lungs is the last thing you want to be talking about right now. Wanna talk about those flowers?"

That’s about as likely as I am to circumcise myself with a wooden spoon. “I’ll pass,” he said. The last thing he wanted right now was a deep and meaningful with a total stranger. “Besides, I don’t think there’s anything to talk about. Not anymore. Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I need to - “

She waved him off. “My break’s just about up as it is, don’t mind me. Can’t say I don’t try to be a nice person.” 

He managed a weak smile. “I don’t believe I did.” 

She matched his smile.

He ended the conversation there, and without further hesitation dragged himself down the path and around the side of building. A moment later, he was standing beside the taxi bay he’d left not twenty minutes before, and a moment after that he was in his second cab of the day. The driver, an ugly man with a bulging nose and greasy moustache, regaled him with what could only be his life story the moment they were on their course, totally oblivious to his passenger’s disinterest. Cameron simply nodded in the right places and agreed when the conversation called for it, but contributed nothing himself. He’d told his chauffeur to take him into town itself (the hospital was on the very fringe of civilisation), as he intended to plant himself in the local caffeine haunt and brood over a cup of coffee and something tasty. It was late afternoon now, and the only thing he’d eaten that day was airplane food. He could use a decent feed, and if that gave him time to ruminate over the fact his girlfriend was apparently seeing another woman…well, that was all the better, wasn’t it? 

Cameron sank into his seat, barely noticing the drone of the driver’s spiel, and attempted to dislodge his heart from his throat. 


Telly.   


*


He lost his appetite long before he reached the cafe. By the time they had made it onto the main road, Chantelle had dragged herself away from his replacement long enough to answer his message, and the bubbling enthusiasm he found in his inbox made him feel physically ill. If you were to believe the ecstatic emoticons and plethora of cartoon hearts, you’d think he was her favourite person in the world. She’d gone as far as to use the L word. It was a stupid thing to get upset about, but just staring at those four letters made Cameron feel like tossing his phone through the open window. How stupid he’d been to fall for their allure. How blind. Favourite person indeed. 

Don't be stupid, of course you're her favourite person. You’re on another continent 99% off the time; who else could she date that would make fucking a third party so simple? 

He hadn’t brought himself to answer her simpering yet.

The journey into town was only short, and before long at all Cameron found himself unloading his suitcase and handing a handful of bills through the half-drawn window to his driver. He earned himself a cheerful "Have a nice day, mister!" for his efforts, and then suddenly he was all by himself, watching the cab speed away on its way back to the Great Ocean Road, and beyond it, Melbourne. He was alone on the sidewalk with nothing but his thoughts and the gulls for company, for better or for worse. 

Just as it always was on day one in Australia, Cameron found his attention captivated by the aesthetic of town itself, and he drank in the eye candy for a long moment. Angel Bay, the place was called, and you'd be hard pressed to find a town with a more fitting name. It was a small, secluded hub of fancy modern architecture and promenades away from the main cities on the Victorian coast, set in a sunken, crescent-shaped cove that was surrounded on all sides by towering, moss-eaten cliff faces. It was a touristy sort of town that filled to the point of excess during Summer, but right now there was no one to be seen but an elderly guy walking his dog along the storefront to Cameron's left and a mother with her toddler building a sandcastle on the beach to his right. The road he'd come in on divided the waterfront from the town itself, sloping around the Bay's curve before disappearing around the rocky tip in the distance. Sculptured trees and greenery graced the central nature strip like the ridges of some underground giant's spine, the colour palette working in tandem with the azure waters and the whites and silvers of the town itself. 

It was, in a word, beautiful.

The breeze coming off the bay was as cool as one might expect for a day in early April, racing across the post-card waters to welcome Cameron with the kiss he never got from Chantelle. It ruffled his short crop of hair affectionately before going wherever it is the wind goes, and as sweet as it was to be immersed in this town so very far from his own, it was enough to make him shiver and lead him on his way. Drawing his coat a little tighter around him and his luggage close behind, Cameron trudged his way onto the deserted footpath and began his walk. There was a cafe not far from here that he and Chantelle frequented whenever he was in the country, a hipster-y business by the simple name of 'the Bayside Bakery.' It wasn't actually a bakery, as such, but a generic coffee-and-cake-and-other-sugary-treats joint - it's owner was the elderly lady Cameron knew only as Betty, who he and Chantelle used to tease about living vicariously through her cafe. On many occasions the two of them had stocked up on coffee and cake and then made the short walk across the road to sit on the beach, whether it be in one of the family BBQ areas or on the sand itself. There they would talk and eat and drink and laugh and...and... 

Do you want to set yourself off again?

He banished the memories. 

The Bayside Bakery opened with its familiar jingle, and before that too could send him down memory lane Cameron forced himself across the room to the counter. The woman who greeted him was totally unfamiliar to him, certainly not kind old Betty who knew both him and Chantelle by name. 

Strange women I don't recognise seems to be the running gag today,
 he mused to himself as he ran his eye over her. The woman that was not Betty was young, blonde and boasted a set of bored, disinterested eyes above a spotless apron. He couldn't help but notice that her iPad was open with Candy Crush beside the till. Hilarious.

Cameron smiled politely. "Slow day?"

She shrugged, following his gaze to her iPad with a bashful grin. "It's a slow everything at the moment," she answered. "It's the middle of Autumn, this place is a ghost town. Give it another few months and you won't get near the place." 

That was true enough. Summer in Angel Bay with Chantelle was always good fun, but it was also incredibly claustrophobic. Scoring a place on the beach over the Christmas break normally entailed a fight to the death with a teen who had a stubby in one hand and a half-dressed girl in the other. Angel Bay was schoolies paradise.

"What can I get for you?" her voice was bored but kind.

He let her know, and after swiping his traveller's card across the EFTPOS machine he took a seat by the window to wait for his coffee and cake. He couldn't bring himself to think of anything at all for a short while - sitting there looking out onto the beach again after so long (for it had been almost a year since he last had the finances and time to visit Chantelle), he was quite content to simply savour the peace and quiet. All the negativity would come crashing down without provocation within minutes, he was sure of that...but right now, he found it surprisingly relaxing to watch the mother and daughter duo on the beach construct crude ramparts and merlons around their sandcastle. It was turning out to be quite a sight.  

The provocation he knew was coming arrived right on schedule, and it arrived alongside his cappucino and blueberry muffin. 

"Hey," he began as the serving girl carefully sat his afternoon tea down before him. "There was an old lady who used to work here, Betty. I don't know her last name. Is she still around, or is this place under new owners, or..."

His voice trailed off as the waitress shook her head sadly. "Betty passed away in February," she answered regretfully. "She had a stroke, the poor thing. It wasn't totally unexpected, though...she was what, sixty? Seventy?"

His heart sank. "Seventy-four," Cameron answered glumly. He could still remember the woman bragging that she was the only seventy-four year old in town who could boast an establishment that was such a huge hit with the kids. She'd known as well as anyone else within earshot that that was entirely due to the beachfront being within spitting distance, but she wasn't one to let that get in the way of a good story.  

"Yeah, exactly," the girl agreed. "And I think she had some health complications even before that, too. I started here not long before she passed, so I never knew her well enough to ask, but...she seemed like such a nice lady."

You have no idea, Cameron thought sadly to himself. His girlfriend was cheating on him, Old Betty was gone...he really had been away too long. "She was," he said out loud. He forced a smile to his face to hide the fact his world was shattering around him yet again. Chantelle, sure...but Betty too? "And it is, we...we were good friends."

The waitress shook her head. "I'm sorry to hear that," she offered. 

Moment of awkward silence. 

"Can I get you - "

"No, that's fine," he said, perhaps a little too abruptly. He tried a smile on for size. "Thank you."

The girl smiled sympathetically, then returned to match-making her colourful candies. 

How could she have possibly decided it was a good idea to not tell me about this?

For a moment, he simply spooned sugar into his coffee, his mind blank as he absorbed and comprehended the latest bombshell...

...and then suddenly he was angrier than he could ever remember being.

Cameron reached for his phone. 

At first, he didn't think she'd pick up - the dial tone beeped morosely once...twice...three times. He was about to hang up, disgusted, when Chantelle finally picked up on the fifth ring. She sounded breathless with excitement, although whether that was because of his call or a certain red head, he couldn't say. The enthusiasm in her voice made him want to scream. "Cam! Oh my God, are you really coming to - " 

"Betty died months ago," he growled down the line, glaring at his coffee all the while. From the corner of his eye he saw the waitress abruptly look up from Candy Crush, startled by the sudden shift in his tone. He ignored her. "And you didn't once think to let me know?" 

Stunned silence. 

"I...yes, she did," his girlfriend spluttered after a moment'. "But how do you - "

"Why didn't you tell me?" 

"How do you know that?" 

He barked a short, irritated laugh. "I have my ways, Telly. Answer me." 

Any cheer that might have graced Chantelle's voice was long gone when she finally answered. "I...I don't know why," she carefully responded after a pregnant pause. "I guess it slipped my mind. It was the end of February, around the time of my exams. I had more stressful things to worry about...you know, like making sure I didn't fail my papers. How many doctors do you know that failed their papers?"

She hesitated, then softly added, "I'm sorry, Cam. I know you liked her." 

"How do you just forget to mention something like that?" 

This time her tone was more curt. "I just told you how. I was busy." 

Logic told him that now was not the time to push the issue. Logic, however, has always been something that is powerless to the whims of a spurned lover. "Busy with your papers, Telly?" 

"Yes?" The question mark was tauntingly audible. 

He rose to the bait and went for the jugular. "Not busy with a girl, surely?" 

Silence. 

Not so smart now, are we Ms Doctor?
 "Red hair?" 

Silence. 

"Has a fetish for jewellery?" 

Silence.

He saw a red that had nothing to do with hair-dye. "Geez, Telly. Not even a denial?" 

Silence. Again.

"I didn't even know you batted for the other team. Why didn't you - "

"Stop it," she finally snapped. Her tone was sharp. "You know nothing, Cameron. Nothing."

"I know a lot more than I did this morning," he answered bluntly, forcing himself to remain calm. Ms Candy Crush was doing her best to appear occupied while listening to every word, and it wouldn't do to give her more of a show than he already was. Maybe he should have got his coffee to takeaway and have done this on the beach. "We wouldn't be having this conversation if I didn't, would we?"  

Yet again, his girlfriend answered him with silence, and in some ways that was worse than if she had outright come out and admitted her infidelity. She didn't even have the stones to deny it. He was on the verge of screaming, Ms Candy Crush or no Ms Candy Crush, when she finally asked in a quiet, broken voice, "How do you know all of this, Cameron?"

He took a breath to steady himself before continuing. "Because I'm sitting here, right now, in the Bayside Bakery," he said as evenly as possible. "I've come straight from the hospital, where I saw you with your...friend."

"Oh," was Chantelle's strained answer. Then, "I'm sorry you had to see that."

Sure you are. "That makes me feel so much better, Telly."

"I'm...I'm sorry."

Silence. 

"So are we breaking up?" she wasn't just strained now. She was genuinely upset, as if she were the victim in all of this. 

He might have just spent nine hours on a plane just to watch his girlfriend love someone that wasn't him, but he wasn't heartless enough to end his relationship of five years over a phone call. It would happen, but not now. "I don't know," he lied. "When are you getting out of the hospital?"

"Tomorrow afternoon, fingers crossed," was the answer. It was followed by a phlegmy snort. "I think I could have left today, to be honest. I feel fine. Wednesday was scary, but by last night I was more or less okay. If the doctors won't let me go tomorrow I'll talk my way out. I'm not staying stuck in bed another day." 

Any other day he could have smiled at that - Chantelle, bookworm and TV series enthusiast, was perfectly happy to spend hours and hours of her life in bed when it suited her. Game of Thrones season one to five wasn't going to rewatch itself for the hundredth time, after all. Not when both Tower of Joy and Cleganebowl were just around the corner to get hyped for. It wasn't like the last week was exceptionally unusual. Today, though, he'd run out of smiles. "Call me in the morning," he said instead. "Let me know how it goes, and we'll...sort things out over lunch." 

"Okay," she answered sullenly. She hesitated a moment, then added miserably, "I'm sorry, Cameron. I didn't mean for this to happen. I know that's hard to believe, and this is a shocking way for you to find out...but this was never meant to happen."

Sure it wasn't. The red head accidentally fell into your bed with her legs wide open. "I'll see you tomorrow," he finished flatly, and hung up before he thought to second guess himself and break up with her right there and then. He was better than that. He was better than her.

Fuck everything. Fuck it all to hell. 

Chantelle had beat him to exactly that. The thought coaxed a snort out of Cameron as he gave his coffee a tentative stir. He couldn't remember if he'd mixed his sugar in already. He felt numb, all of a sudden...and for what? Where had that thrilling conversation left him? 

"In need of a fucking good cup of coffee, that's where," he muttered out loud, removing his spoon and warming his hands around the cup in questi. He raised it to his lips and drank deeply, his eyes cast out the window. On the beach, a mighty sandcastle loomed over the strand, complete with not one but two outer walls, a moat and what might have been a drawbridge (with a little imagination) encircling the inner keep. For an amateur effort, it was pretty solid, although it was undoubtedly doomed as soon as the tide came in. On a top ten list of the best sandcastles Cameron had ever seen, it certainly numbered somewhere near the top. The totally irrelevant thought almost made him smile. 



The mother and child that had made it, however, were gone.

To be continued in Chapter 2: Behind Closed Doors

1 comment:

  1. So, you merged the first two chapters into one, hmm? Why not, it make for a nice intro to the chapters with actual changes. Still can't wait to see what you will do with this start. Wouldn't mind some clues. :P

    ReplyDelete