Marie-Claire slipped into her short black evening dress. Its cunning cut flattered her tall slender figure and showed off her shapely legs. The V-neck of the bodice was enhanced by a pearl and aquamarine cross, attached to a string of pearls, the gift of her maternal Grandmother. She decided to pair the cross with the blue Tahitian pearl studs that once belonged to her father’s Aunt. They were a prized gift on her 18th birthday, a little over 17 years before.
She remembered Cousin Michelle had whispered to her as she opened the box containing the ear studs, “I’m sure my Mum would have wanted you to have these.”
She’d been thrilled with the gift of the unusually coloured pearls. She modelled them for her father. He patted her shoulder as she stood in front of him saying “Dad, what do you think?”
“They’re lovely,” he said, his eyes and smile stayed on her. She knew he was proud of her all together.The thought of her father gave a pain that seemed to sit behind her sternum. She blinked away tears.
His photo stood on a tallboy near her bedroom door. It was taken a few years before he had died; photographed on the night of her 25th birthday. He looked so happy, like they both did before her mother’s death. His cropped black hair bore two silver streaks along the hairline, passing back from his forehead and above his ears. His blue eyes were bright. His high cheekbones, which she had inherited, cast a slight shadow above his square jawline. His bow-shaped mouth had a full lower lip. With his gentle smile it softened the sculptured lines of his face. His was a distinguished, attractive face, and beloved by her. She hummed Dad’s favourite The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies as she waltzed back to the mirror and looked at herself.
She had inherited his midnight hair, high cheek bones and full bottom lip, but she had her mother’s softer jawline , rounded nose, and deep brown eyes. She liked to think she was the perfect mix of both parents, especially tonight. She was going to a performance of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; this ritual was in honour of her mother. She had performed it every year since her mother had passed ten years before. This sad event was followed, three years later, by her father’s passing.
Facing her mid-thirties she knew that even with her personal success as a musician in theater orchestras there was a void left by a lack of family. Marie-Claire felt the aloneness as a burden she would love to cast off. She began humming The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies again; her father had loved every bar of The Nutcracker, by Tchaikovsky. She wondered why she wasn’t humming Beethoven’s Fifth which was her mother’s favourite since the evening’s outing was in memory of her. She glanced at her antique watch, and decided not to put her mother’s old vinyl recording on the player.
It was a November evening and the frequent rain had lessened.
I’ll walk to the Opera house, she thought as she reached for her coat. As she did so she felt the pearls at her neck give way.
“Frig,” she said as she tried, in vanity, to catch the pearls in her hand. They bounced against the architraves and the pendant fell to the ground. She felt a pearl half way down the back of her dress. She wriggled to dislodge it, and it became the caboose of the train of pearls resting at the base of the wall. She scooped as many as she could into a bowl that sat on the sideboard. Seeing the time on her watch, she hurried out the door, a tear in her eye.
Liam seated himself in the concert hall at the Opera house twenty minutes before the concert of Bruch and Mahler’s music was to begin. He was the first person to arrive, and when most of the attendees arrived about eight minutes before the curtain, he noticed Marie-Claire finding her seat from where he was seated: two seats behind her, and to the left.
What a stunning woman, he thought observing her graceful figure. Her elegant neck was enhanced by a simple up-do formed out of shining black hair. The dip in the back of her dress showed flawless ivory skin. She turned her head as she stood to allow a patron to pass into a seat to her right, and he got a glimpse of one brown eye framed by sooty lashes, a sculptured cheek and generous mouth.
The lights dimmed, and his enjoyment of the first strains of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 softened his disappointment at being distracted from the woman’s beauty. He listened, losing himself in the music. Already Ashkenazy was conducting a piece that lived up to its’ reputation as a dramatically varied piece of music. He settled as he heard and felt the strains of the music change from the plaintive tears and storms of its’ opening phrases, into a sweet melodious passage, seemingly answered by the next passage with folksy cheerfulness. After 50 minutes, the orchestra had also finished the first two movements of Mahler’s Symphony in C Sharp Minor. The third movement was Liam’s favourite but it would start after the intermission.
His eyes focused on the beautiful woman. He observed that she stood, stretched, and looked around. She moved out into the aisle and looked through the door at the queue winding its’ way to the bar. She stood for a few minutes, looked at her watch, and returned to her seat. He observed that she wore a pair of large smoky blue pearls in her earlobes.
The second part of the concert began, and he stood up, sat down and shifted his legs to allow those who had lingered by the entry doors to move into seats to his right. Liam relaxed as he heard the music begin again; he really couldn’t understand why so many of his friends labelled classical music as boring.
The conductor reminded the audience that the evening was meant to showcase the best of Bruch and Mahler. He assured them that he and the Orchestra had enjoyed their rehearsals for this special presentation.
“Now, we will continue with the next three movements of Mahler’s symphony. The third movement is a light-hearted movement, played Scherzo. Following it will be movements four and five, slow and forceful. Please sit back, relax and enjoy the music.”
The concert ended too soon for Liam. He stretched his arms as the audience members in his row left. He enjoyed the luxury of sitting thinking about the wonder of the music.
I must open my eyes to catch a glimpse of that gorgeous woman, he thought.
He was relieved she was still seated. She seemed a calm oasis, as the disarray of the concert hall swept past her. She stood for a moment when an audience member returned to secure a dropped pair of glasses from under a nearby seat. When the stranger had left, she stood for a few seconds before lifting her coat from the back of her chair, and he noticed that one of her earrings was missing. He looked again.
Nothing in the left ear.
He called, “Excuse me, you’ve lost one of your earrings.”
In the hub bub, she did not discern his voice. She was moving away now. He moved to her seat, and felt down the back of it. At the base the pearl was stuck, by its post, into the weave of the fabric. He glanced around for the back of the thing, but was unable to see it.
I must catch up with her.
He pushed his way past some stragglers and down the hall leading to the foyer.
She’s tall, he thought and paused.
He closed his eyes to avoid distractions, remembering other details. Opening his eyes again, he saw her. There she was to his far left, exiting the foyer. He bolted, from a stand still, yelling, “Excuse me.” He felt like an idiot as he slowed to a stroll, puffing and panting, about five metres behind her. He waited until they were under a light, and amongst other people. He gasped out the words.
“Excuse me, I believe you lost one of your earrings in the concert hall.”
Marie-Claire stared at him.
Could it possibly be? she blinked. it must be him she thought.
The thought made her shiver. He looked so familiar, and one eye was brownish and the other green, the way she remembered from her girlhood.
She shifted her clutch to high up under her right arm, felt her earlobes. He held out his right palm with the blue pearl in it, and gestured toward it with his left hand.
“I didn’t find the back, I’m sorry.”
She felt him watching her as she took the pearl and zipped it into an inside compartment of her purse. She tested the ear stud in her right earlobe, pushing against the back to check it was secure. She stared until she became aware he was folding his arms, continuing to look back at her.
She said, “I’d like to thank you for being so kind. Can I buy you a drink?” She felt her hands trembling as she adjusted her clutch again. He smiled broadly; as if reassuring her. Her face felt stiff with shock. It began to rain.She thought, what an odd meeting this is on the anniversary of mother’s death. She would not approve.
His voice was light-hearted,interrupting her thoughts, “That would be lovely.”
They walked down the block to a Café, in which half the tables were full. She walked ahead of him and asked for a table for two.
She didn’t say his name before he said, “By the way, I’m Liam.”
They waited in silence for the two Irish coffees they ordered. They touched hands awkwardly across the shiny surface of the table in the booth by the front window. Soon they were sipping the coffee,still in silence. She like a schoolgirl visiting the Principal’s office.
“The whisky in this is good,” she said and he nodded.
Another 60 seconds ticked away as they sipped.
“I can’t thank you enough for returning the pearl stud. The pair of studs belonged to my Aunt whom I only met a few times. Having them makes me feel more connected with my Dad’s family, now that he’s gone.”
Liam said, “Is your loss recent?”
“My Dad died seven years ago, but I still miss him. But it’s the anniversary of my mother’s death today.”
Liam hunched forward and the pressure of his thigh scrunched the folded handkerchief in his pocket. He said, “I have two half-sisters, one that I met once, and one in her teens. Anyway, I’m used to comforting sisters, if you want to cry.”
He could feel a flush starting at the back of his neck.
Marie-Claire spoke, “You look almost exactly like my father at your age – around 30? You could be his 30s’ doppelganger.”
The left corner of her mouth went up, and her forehead creased. “This is awkward.”
She reached into her bag and opened her wallet. She extracted a photo and slid it across the table. It was a picture of a man.
He looked at it and said, “This man looks a lot like me I agree, in fact he might resemble my father.”
His hands began to sweat.
“I’m going to ask you a question. Don’t be shocked.”
He stared at her mouth.
“Did you ever live in the Blue Mountains? Is it possible that your mother was my father’s mistress? I believe I’m that half-sister you met once. The woman who gave me these pearl studs came with me and my father on a visit to your house all those years ago. Do you remember?”
His hands seemed to flutter on the table like the wings of an injured bird. His eyes began to water. He grabbed his drink and gulped noisily.
“Yes,” he breathed out. His voice grew louder, “I had hoped your mother would have changed her mind long before he died. When I heard nothing, I knew there was no point making a scene by turning up at the funeral. If I had gone to the funeral I would have known who you were tonight.”
He glanced sideways and saw the reflection of the bar tender, he was leaning across the bar looking at them.
Marie-Claire placed her hand over Liam’s wrist.
“My father told me about you a month after my 21st birthday. He said, that boy we visited is my son, to Mary Davies. He is your half-brother, Liam Souther Davies. I am so proud of him, but your mother can never know about him.”
She sighed. “My father and I were pretty close, but it took some time to digest the news. I never mentioned anything to my mother.”
Liam cleared his throat. He placed his fists on the edge of the table.
She went on, “About six months later he stopped making his fortnightly trips to the Blue Mountains. I got busy with my career as a musician. But I could have made inquiries. I am so sorry.”
Liam felt tears on his cheeks. She was rubbing his arm. He grappled for the handkerchief in his pocket, and grasping it turned his face to the wall, wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
When he was calmer, he said, “My Mum broke it off with Dad because he wouldn’t marry her. I went away to boarding school, then university.He never loved me enough to leave his wife, she told me. But he supported me through my entire education.”
“You became a Civil Engineer didn’t you?”
He nodded, and ran his finger around the base of his glass.
“Didn’t you travel overseas to work on developing world projects?”
He shrugged, ” I did a bit of work in Tibet and Burma. I went to Cambodia too. “
“Dad talked about you with so much pride. To him you were the epitome of intellectual prowess and kind heartedness combined. “
The words spilled out. She didn’t know whether they were to comfort him or make herself feel better.She reached for his arm again, and he shuffled it away toward his side of the table.
Liam shrugged, “I appreciate that he knew about what I did, but I don’t know how important those projects ended up being.”
She said, “Despite Dad’s failings, he had a sensitive, modest side. Always downplaying his success. You seem to have inherited more than my father’s looks.”
She smiled at him, partly in relief because the fact that her mother had died before her father wasn’t noted by him. Would he be upset that Dad had never sought Mary out? For a moment, she felt as if her mind and body separated as the strength of her longing for her parents surged through her. She thought, I don’t want to regret this chance. Her strength returned and she resisted the urge to rush away.
“I remember that meeting when we were young, you were about eleven.”
He nodded, and they sat in silence, musing.
He smirked,”I showed you my maps.”
“We both knew we would travel,” she said.
“And we did,” they said together.
Their mutual eruption of laughter surprised them.They returned to silence, and Liam began to look pensive.
“I can’t believe he is dead.”
Marie-Claire touched his hand. She extracted a card from her purse.
“This is enough for one night, but please don’t be a stranger.”
He took the card and read her name. Marie-Claire Blaxland Souther.
She said, “I’d love it if you kept in touch. Don’t hesitate to call or email.” She wondered if he would keep the card.
She felt his eyes on her back, as she walked away. She crossed the pavement with tiny steps, aware of the slippery soles of her patent leather heels. She approached a taxi parked outside the Café window. Leaning inside, she escaped the rain dampening the pavement. She could see Liam still seated in the booth. As the taxi pulled away, his solemn face appeared as if superimposed over the blurred reflections in the street’s slick surface.