by Ian C Smith

Awkwardly, he Googles, low in hope, forms a partial jigsaw of the past, her children, her father’s death. Modest success inspires him. He finds her ex-husband’s whereabouts, even her grandfather’s rates record, but no recent trace of her. He is wary of contacting the ex-husband. Then he lurches into luck, her brother still living in their childhood district, or somebody of his odd name and initial. He will not phone, only write with care, thoughts of her possible death hovering.

They were only sixteen, now she lodges in his mind, nightly. He read this happens when more past than future is left. He reasons the listing could be her nephew. This generational distancing suits him. What worries most are questions. Why? What do you want? Whatever for?

He has written a poem, using her as the model of a sensual girl long ago. Publication is due in a glossy book. He could say he wants her to have it. They shared music, their bodies, not poetry. He knows the book is an excuse. She might laugh, if she is alive, might be married again, probably is, to a coarse, suspicious, jealous man.

He has posted the letter, thinks of damning letters going astray in novels. Fool is his favourite word for himself. He wonders if he would like her again, remembers her wearing a cheong-sam, needs to know what she remembers of him, them, beyond photographs. It is as if he saw, long ago, half a film. What did her character do in later scenes? He must understand the entire script, knows he could not explain this.

For his address he used a P.O. Box. His marriage old, children gone a’roving, he considers postal inefficiency, calculates a different day each time. He likens himself to a spinning dog biting an itch at the base of its tail. When they broke up it wasn’t good. Well, it never is, is it?

His is a calmer sadness now. She lived in a bustling corner hotel near a station where he caught the train. On journeys he thinks of the two of them. He was excitable, lived alone in silence, except for his hours with her, which gleam in a retrospective wash of light. He strains to resist glossing the past.

Dropping the letter through that slot has dropped his mind into a war zone where tragedy and wan happiness co-exist, his messy mistakes, unreliable memory, directing a searchlight on vignettes, skerricks of history featuring himself. He blames, not only his foolishness, but also his marching-in-place existence. Like passing the scene of an old crime, disappointment and relief come and go when enough thought-drifting days vanish. He had been aghast at time’s winged arrow, all those great poems, plays, and stories. He does not mention his failed contact to his wife, but it is not a secret. The dark streets of his mind astound him.  

He comes across his old P.O. Box number looking through mementoes, a sheer fluke, remembers writing it without thinking on the self-addressed envelope he sent with the letter three months ago. He understands these small mistakes influence life’s slalom course, which seems steeper and faster now. Those nineteenth-century novels again, undelivered letters, declarations of love or guilt – life-changing stuff. Thinking of the information he sought fills him with trepidation. At first his hopes rose like a rocket, reaching an apex then plummeting, ignorant of his carelessness. Now they are all over the place again. A stranger might have received his news. Ancient memories disturbing him caused him to compose the letter, nerves, the obsolete return address. Memory, anxiety, followed by chance, the stunned realization of his mistake.

He sweats over another letter. He knows there probably never was a reply, but grasps the excuse to try once more. A golden morning beyond the window, light wind, trees surfing in air. Lonely people listen for the mailman, invent scenarios, believe in fate. They stare at nothing, strain to recall fragments of the past beyond recollection.

Lives reflect like fun-park mirrors, children, divorces, loving well, some storm, some calm, loving no longer. Days drain into the gulf of old age. He remembers curls on her nape, her head turned to blow smoke away. Tracking her, logic got ambushed, sure, his foolish assumptions, that wrong address. A postal worker, an obvious TV fan with an old-time attitude to service, places a newspaper ad., proving the Dead Letter Office still has a pulse. Her answering machine grants a reprieve but she had only just missed him. His phone, shrill, throbbing, stabs him. Bone-lonely, he is bereft of confidence. Longing for time lost, he picks up.

A lot can change over that many years. The rush hour trains shaking their floor should stir the blood under his scars. He presses fingers to his temples, ponders a decision about a haircut, willing himself to match her bravery as questions needing details line up.

In the rain walking with her again. How remote that bare room. In the beloved city he walks too fast like he did fifty years gone. His heartbeat in her underage womb while he, excluded, walked alone, ignorant, into his battling future. Now, two old people on this old street. Before she told him her lonely secret, her shy presentation of photographs. They walk, passing faces so young, sexy, like her black-and-white image. She strokes a lucky cat, auburn hair caressing her pale, slender neck as he slows down for her, at fault, her breath short, heart contracted. They agree with her parents’ decision, know they were too young in the past, that elusive time of smoke and sweat, its confounding catch-me-if-you-can. He would walk through a ball of fire if it took him back to what was. Although pleased to have traced her he grapples with the details, and grief. The tears he sheds are tears unshed then for the graceful girl he mourns, holding that cat to her warm belly, her smile which now he glimpses again. He calls her gently by her maiden name, its Italian curvaceousness changed twice, now slipped back into use, revived. They sit, rest, glad to have survived.

Feel my heart, she says, her voice veiled, guiding his fingertips to a place below her right collarbone, not where he believes their beating hearts lie. At first touch he thinks she has been hurt, then it feels like a box beneath her skin. He manages not to recoil like a boy when she says, It’s a pacemaker. He shows off by being self-deprecatory, hears more about her life’s potholes, the mistakes, the marriages, betrayals, says, I’ll help you stop smoking, concerned she could drop dead, her old nose frothy in her cappuccino, no longer in need of the facelift she’d buy if she won Tattslotto.

Fate and the years can combine like events in a nineteenth-century novel. His old black heart beats strongly, the comfort of books an indulgence. Each time she calls she sounds petulant, alone with love’s distant aftertaste. She tells him she is still young, claims he talks slant, that he mourns the past.

Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, cordite, Poetry New Zealand, Poetry Salzburg Review, Southerly, & Two-Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.