Bare Dealings

[I wrote this story after getting some cards out of a “Storymatic” box: I got two gold cards-nudist, thief and two bronze cards “knock on the door at two in the morning” and “pet behaving strangely”. Working Draft- tentatively titled Beyond Plant Life!?? Documentary anyone?]

Piper Franzman glanced across her driveway. And sighed. There goes that sweet hunk of man. How can I organise a meeting with him? It was too bad she did not have all day to plan the perfect outfit and the best strategy for a real meeting with her new neighbour.

Piper Franzman sighed again, as she combed her auburn hair and straightened her navy blazer.  After nine months of casual awareness and three months of observation, she had decided that he was respectably employed, mostly from home, and was single. He went jogging every morning at eight, drove an expensive car and took many phone calls. Some days he went out in a very smart suit, carrying a briefcase; Friday nights he would leave around 7 pm and get home late, but alone (she hadn’t seen anyone yet); and almost every Saturday morning two or three guys turned up and he met them in sporting gear with a squash racquet. Whoo, did he look good in those stretchy t-shirts too!She hoped her efforts at the gym were improving her appearance. She had lost twelve kilos and rewarded herself with some new outfits. Piper was grateful for the female staff from the school where she taught for encouraging her, but all this effort wasn’t helping her love life as well as her health. It was a long time since she had desired an introduction to an interesting, attractive and eligible male. I want to tick the three boxes, and avoid meeting any more mummy-boy cast offs vetted by my mother!

She wondered if her interest in her neighbour smacked of desperation. Her intense observation of him, which she hoped had gone unnoticed, could be considered stalking if she took it any further. She had started collecting her mail about five in the afternoon so that they met at the mailbox. They had exchanged smiles and waves. She was pleased to see that his was a grin hinting of boyishness, a sense of humour. He had wide eyes with thick lashes around them, and he had looked directly at her when he waved. Of course, she had not been close enough to see the colour of his eyes.Time to get back to the real world and stop acting like a schoolgirl with a crush!

On her way to work, she noticed  a sign outside the newsagent: Police chief  warns singles about local nudist thief..  She knew that the local newspaper would be available in the staff room on her break, and that she could catch up on that particular news.Thank God, I’m not on yard duty today!The nudist thief was the topic of discussion in the staff room during the morning recess. Francine Newton the fourth year teacher addressed Piper,        “Sweetheart, apparently you’d better look out for this guy, being single and all”

“Why? What does the paper say——”

” The paper quotes the local police chief who says that this guy’s modus operandi is to enter the premises of singles who appear to be well-to-do and live alone, apparently his methods of entry are quite professional, and he picks random times of the day or night. If he hears someone enter the premises, he then strips naked and escapes even if confronted. Listen to this: “This strategy appears to have distracted his victims, and to date we have no  specific physical description of this thief who has robbed thirty premises in the area over the last nine months, and escaped with an estimated 60,000 dollars worth of cash and jewelry. We are alerting locals in the hope that someone will have the presence of mind to get a description of the man and assist us with our enquiries. Apparently, he has an excellent physique.  This thief’s ability to disarm alarm systems, and sell stolen jewelry, create genuine concern that he will continue to commit these thefts. Any sightings of naked men acing suspiciously should be reported.” Samantha Pope nearly spat out her coffee before quipping, “I’ve got a naked man acting suspiciously at my place. Maybe I could turn him in.”

Jane Nelson smiled before saying, “I ‘ve got one of them too but I’ve known him for twenty years and his physique isn’t quite excellent.” There was general laughter before the bell and the crash of coffee cups into the sudsy sink. The door slammed in Piper’s face as she lingered a minute. She thought: I am the only single woman in this school. She yanked the door open and headed back to the class of Prep A.

Five pm that evening Piper was at her mailbox. Her attractive neighbour was not there. She weeded the front garden bed and swept the step. She finished, and went inside to get some shears before beginning to work on the front hedge. It was then that she noticed that sweet hunk of a man coming right towards her.

I really need to find out his name.

He was walking toward her from her left,  and she popped up from behind  the hedge ,saying loudly, “Hi”. A muttered expletive, accompanied by a thud, preceded the hunk’s disappearance from sight.Oh no, she thought as she raced around the hedge and approached him as he sat up on the nature strip.”…You frightened me, and then I tripped on the edge of the footpath”. He looked her up and down before he gave a half smile and said,” I hope you’re not going to kill me now.”

“What?” Piper gasped before she realised she was waving the shears toward him and began to laugh. The boyish grin appeared and he joined in laughter.They both went quiet at the same time, and he began to stand up. Before she could lose her nerve Piper quickly said, “I’m Piper. What’s your name?”

“Eitan Frame” As he reached his full height, he stretched out his hand, “How do you do?” She clasped his warm, lightly tanned hand and gazed into his eyes. He looked down at his hand and said, “Sorry about the mess.” She laughed and said,” Did you put a dint in my lawn?” He laughed again.

“Really your hands can’t be any worse than mine. I’ve been weeding and I did frighten you.” The words tumbled out of her mouth. He said, “Weeding with shears? If I was a weed or a prickle I’d be truly frightened.” He smiled, and then the loud buzz of his phone made him go still.”I’m sorry. This is an important call.” He jogged to his porch and began to speak into his mobile phone; She could hear him talking but could not make out the words. Go inside, you snoop. Inside she sat down at the kitchen table and gazed out onto the back courtyard. Her cockatiel Mindy wolf whistled at her . She got up, removed the feed box from her cage, and filled it with seed.

As she flicked on the kettle to make a cup of tea, she pronounced his name: Ay-tan. I’ll call him Eitan Jewel-eyes. What gorgeous dark jade eyes, with bronze flecked irises, hmm … and I sound like  I have a crush. She shrugged her shoulders. After a quick cup of tea and some nuts, she headed out to the gym. When she returned she found a business card tucked into her screen door: Eitan Frame; Jewelry Designer and Valuer, on the back in slanting capitals : ” Let’s meet in style next time. You owe me, so call me.” She laughed to herself: he did have a sense of humour.

Saturday afternoon and Piper had changed three times, Finally she settled on a royal blue cotton knit and stone-colored jeans. Platform peep-toe heels and diamond shaped blue glass earrings were her only accessories.  A little make-up and her fingers fluffed her soft ringlets.Mandy did do a great job on my hair. She had not been able to resist booking a hair appointment after Eitan had responded to her invitation. She had waited two days to send him an SMS, trying to appear casual. Even though it had been three years since her break-up with Bryant, she wanted to take it slowly for the sake of her mending heart.  During the last six months, the memory of Bryant’s kisses, and his hard words had disappeared into a kind of fog. Sometimes she heard him in her dreams but the words were whispers.

She and Eitan were literally meeting in style—Cafe In Style: Mandy’s sister’s coffee house next door to where the hairdresser plied her trade. The sisters were inseparable and had put their respective talents to use in business premises that were side by side, on the riverside business strip. It was a lovely afternoon and Eitan had laughed at her play on the words: in style. She tried to quash her rising expectations.

Eitan had a sweet tooth. Although he had eaten lunch, he ordered two desserts and insisted she taste them. He picked a table on the far end of the patio near the river. The sticky date was moist and the lemon meringue perfect. The pastry was sweet and crumbly enough to counteract the creamy tang of the lemon filling. The breeze from the river was fresh but not chilling. Eitan leaned toward her, as she casually chatted while admiring his marvellous eyes. After a while, he began to talk about his move to Wilhelm.

“I’ve lived n Wilhelm for fourteen months now and I feel it has everything I want”, he said. “It has the river environs, vibrant business and tourist trade, and it’s not so big that the real estate is priced over the moon.”

” I’ve lived in Wilhelm all my life and I guess familiarity should breed contempt but it hasn’t. I’ve visited other places but I always come back. ”

“Ah, a hometown girl”, he sighed, and smiled.

“What do you mean—a home town girl?”

” It’s an expression where I come from for a girl whose warm-hearted and loyal——”

“And naive, perhaps?” She blushed and half-whispered the words but he caught the underlying irritation, and leaned away.

Why was she so defensive still?  Damn Bryant. Overly loudly he spoke,” So, what’s your favourite thing about Wilhelm?” The awkwardness lingered despite their efforts until he dropped her home two hours later.

Once inside, she took Mindy’s cage out into the sunny courtyard. She heard Eitan’s screen door slam and the sound of his running shoes fading into the distance. The distant sound of a lawn mower, and a ball slamming against a wall filled the space left by his absence. His gorgeous eyes said he was sincere but could she trust him?

Days went by and the other teachers noticed her silence.On Friday at lunchtime, Francine approached her just before the bell. “Are you ok? Madeleine says you’ve been’ off the air’ a bit this week. She said the preppies are getting restless.” Usually, Piper appreciated the observant sensitivity of her assistant but now she inwardly resented it.”No, no, honestly I’m ok.”

” Well, I suggest you give the job your full attention. You make a rod for your own back if you allow a prep class to get restless. Don’t let distractions undo all your great work.” She patted Piper’s arm.Piper smiled at her. Francine always means well.

 On Saturday morning there was a knock at the door. She was surprised to see a middle-aged man holding a large flower arrangement in front of him.

“Ms Piper Franzman?”

“Yes, that’s me”

“Sign here, please.”Piper just stood in the open screen door holding the flowers. She didn’t need to read the card. She knew he’d sent them. Why now?

She stared at the bouquet of purple Hyacinth and white and pink Broom. It was unusual and Piper imagined the florist would have been surprised at the request to make a large bouquet of these particular flowers. Her first reaction was to throw the lot, heads down, into the garbage bin but she had loved him, how she had loved Bryant; the companion of her childhood, the friend of her worst years and then her precious lover.  It had made the hurt all the more devastating.He of all people should have understood her decision to leave University and come home to nurse her dying father. Anybody would have expected Bryant’s loyalty, especially if they knew the couple’s history. Now he was back, sending her a message in a language most people did not use in the 21st century. She had thrown away many of his presents but not her hardback copy of “The Victorian Language of Flowers”: his present at the end of their first year of University. It had been delivered to their bedsitter, along with a bunch of coral-coloured honeysuckle. It was huge ,and he had been saying, in Victorian flower language: I love you. She remembered how joyful she had been at his thoughtfulness; honouring her love of Victorian literature (which he believed she should teach) and his love expressed in a language that most of their friends did not understand. It was a declaration that spoke so much more poignantly through symbolism. Now the message he was sending her today became clear: Broom was for humility, Purple hyacinth: I am sorry, please forgive me.She picked up the phone and dialed.

“Hi Mum. How are you?

” I’m well dear. I was just about to call and invite you to dinner.”

“Are other people coming to dinner too?”

“Yes.”

” You wouldn’t have happened to invite Bryant?”

“Well, yes dear. It was the strangest thing. I was out to lunch on Thursday with Cynthia. You know Cynthia? Anyway, we were sitting in Cafe In Style and in walks Bryant. Well he was most chatty, said he wanted to catch up. I thought you wouldn’t mind.”

Thought I wouldn’t mind. How clueless! Dad always did understand me better, she thought.

“What time?”

“The usual. 7.30 for 8, dear.”

“See you then, Mum.”

Well, she thought, I’m going to look my best and take Bryant a message.

Piper had gone to a lot of trouble with her appearance. She had rung Mandy for make-up suggestions, bought new make-up products and a special top that matched her best skirt. She was dressed and made-up when the doorbell rang. She had been so preoccupied that she had not given the time a thought but she was ready half an hour early. She took one more satisfied look at her appearance. The blue chiffon and jersey outfit complimented her eyes, and accentuated her waist. Mandy had helped her choose the perfect shade of lipstick and for once, her hair had not frizzed.

When she opened the door, Eitan stood on the doorstep with a bouquet of Gladioli. Gladioli, she thought, they mean, generosity and I’m sincere.“Hi”, he said.” I hope you like these. I’ve just been to visit my mum and she’s a keen gardener, used to have a florist shop too.”

“And you always bring home bunches of Gladioli?”

“Glad you know what they are. I do bring them home reasonably often, I can buy them wholesale, and the guys at work like them for their wives. Most of them are married. They have wives most of them…” He trailed off, looking embarrassed, a half smile on his face.

She changed the subject, “Where does your mother live?”

“Allenstown. It’s about four hours away by car.”

” Yes, I know it. I attended University there for a couple of years.”

” You’re all dressed up. You look great. Going on a date?”

” I wish,” She gave him a smile. “Obligatory dinner party at my mother’s, and I’m delivering some flowers too. Excuse me while I just grab them. Won’t be long.”

She went to fetch a bunch of striped Carnations and a Hydrangea that she had left in water in the laundry. She carried them back out into the front foyer and saw Eitan inspecting the photo collection, which hung next to the living room door. He seemed startled when she appeared beside him. When he saw the potted hydrangea and large bunch of carnations, he said, “I’ll carry those for you.” He reached for the Hydrangea first and the pot tilted, moist dirt hit his shirt and dropped down onto his shoes; the pot began to fall. They both bent and grabbed at the pot together. Piper was a split second slower, and her forehead connected with his cheekbone.”Ow!” He had managed to slow the pot’s fall, but now he completely lost his grip on it. It hit the floor and rolled against the wall. Piper gasped out, “I’m sorry.”  Still clutching the carnations in her left hand, she reached up with her right to his reddened cheek. His hand came up over hers, and they stood for seconds gazing at each other. Piper broke the silence, “I hope it doesn’t bruise.”

” I think I’ll be ok. Some ice would help though.”

She nodded. “I’ll grab some while you take a seat in the living room. It’s just behind you.”

“O.K, I’ll just grab the hydrangea. It looks o.k.” When Piper came back with the icepack, he sat on the couch with his head leaning back on the cushion top. His button up shirt stretched across his chest. She sat a bit closer than arms length, and asked him if she could apply the pack. His mouth went up at the corners as he said,” If you promise not to hit me.”

“I won’t hit you,” Piper replied,” and I can see exactly where it’s red. You may have a bruise just under your eye.” He turned towards her and gazed into her eyes. He lifted her wrist and she applied the icepack gently. Their heads were level as he slouched down. They sat silently. After a few minutes he spoke,”Your eyes are the colour of Sapphires.” She giggled.

He spoke again,” Did I say that out loud?”

She nodded. The phone rang. “Oh, no, that will be my mother. She hates tardiness.”

Eitan carried the Carnations and Hydrangea to the car for her. He dripped a little dirty water on what looked like expensive pants.”I’m sorry I didn’t wrap them better, Eitan.” It was the first time she had said his name and it felt good.

He grinned.” You said my name right. Most people call me atten.”

“I guess that means I’m no longer a real drip.”

He was still smiling as she pulled out of the driveway. The guy sure does love my dad’s kind of jokes, she thought.

Her mother greeted her with, “You’re late but you do look lovely. Are we looking forward to seeing a certain young man?” She could not help it; she rolled her eyes. She wanted to swat her mother like a pesky wasp at a Prep class picnic. Her mother looked wounded. ” What happens to your students, Piper Franzman when they make faces like that?”

“Not much these days, Mum.” The doorbell interrupted them.

” You check the table settings, while I get that.”

Her mother was very predictable during dinner. She asked Bryant questions and made many remarks that enabled him to make the most of his success as a chemical engineer, as a loving son and as a fine upstanding citizen. Piper reached an almost teenage level of angst (and a red haired teenager at that), as the heartless pair prattled on. The time between courses dragged and it was already nearing midnight. Piper made a point of highlighting the success of their other dinner guest, Mr Whitlow in the recent seniors tennis tournament.

“It was a wonderful coup, Stanley, Regional over 60, A Grade Champ. I was very glad when I read about it in the Chronicle.”

” I was very pleased myself, Piper. It’s been my aim for the last three years.” He continued and told a few stories about Piper’s late father, who had also been a local tennis champion. It was bittersweet. Mum talked so seldom about Dad these days.

After coffee, Bryant started making signals; little gestures that used to make her heart race; he wanted to be alone. Tired and fed up Piper stood to go. Bryant offered to walk her to the car and she nodded.As soon as they were in the dark, by the car, he laid a hand upon her arm. She looked up at him. He looked back, confident of admiration. He was tall, great bone structure, large dark eyes, with an excellent physique, bright intellectually, and yes even well endowed. Piper listed the attributes that had made her the envy of half the girls in the state, when she attended Allenstown University. Nevertheless, you turned out to be a heartless insincere thug. A sadness came over her as she remembered how he had tried to make her choose between him and her Father. Daddy was so ill and still he couldn’t control his jealous possessiveness. Her thoughts stirred her anger. He was stepping forward to embrace her when she turned and reached past him into the back seat of the car. As she threw the door open, the handle hit Bryant hard just below the waist. He grunted, and bent forward in pain, then straightened. Piper stared at him. ” I really didn’t mean that Bryant but I do mean this,” and she handed him the striped carnations and the Hydrangea. It’s really the perfect message, Piper thought.  Striped Carnations meant: No, Refusal, Sorry I can’t be with you, and Hydrangea: Thank-you for understanding, and also, heartlessness. I think in this context we’ll go with heartlessness. Even self-absorbed Bryant can work it out. “Actually perhaps you could give a cutting from the Hydrangea to my mother “, she said. As she pulled away, she threw out the copy of The Victorian Language of Flowers into the driveway. Her headlights illuminated Bryant as he bent to pick it up.

Piper’s unit back door was poorly lit but the full moon was risen , so she went to the rear door anyway.  She had been restless thinking about Bryant so she had decided to stop at the Supermarket, and get a few things. There did not seem much point trying to sleep.She arranged the two grocery bags so she could hold them with one hand. As she inserted the key into the lock, Mindy the Cockatiel, screamed then hissed. Was Mindy feeling threatened?

She left the groceries on the step as she went in to investigate. She approached Mindy’s cage and crooned to her pet but the bird continued to hiss. The hairs on her neck began to rise. She saw a figure out of the corner of her eye and reached for a heavy ceramic bowl that sat on the table. Still grasping her keys in her other hand she turned. The outline of a tall naked man showed in the moonlight from the sitting room window. He moved toward her and she threw the ceramic bowl. She charged him, keys pointing out between her fingers, screaming as she heard the ceramic bowl smash. He began to run back through the living room and out into the hall. She followed him as he ran back down the hall, through the kitchen and out through the rear door. She flicked on the light as he leapt across the step became entangled in the grocery bags and crashed to the ground, he moaned and then lay still under the courtyard clothesline.Hell, he looks like Bryant. I am so angry. She could hear herself breathing loudly. The man was lying still. She approached cautiously, keys at the ready. It wasn’t Bryant (no heart-shaped birthmark on his backside) and the man’s hair was brown not jet black, but he had an excellent physique. The nudist thief. Wow, the nudist thief. She took three deep breaths. Lock the back door so he can’t escape in a hurry through the house if he becomes conscious.  Hey are those his clothes by the fence. She inspected the clothing. One pair of Overalls: blue, she thought. To a passerby he’d look like a gas repairman. That would work in the daytime but the nighttime? Hmm.

She ran towards her car and grabbed her phone. Get Etian.  Call police. As she walked she dialed 000. “I have a naked intruder in my back yard.” She gave her name.

“Are you being threatened, Piper?”

“No, actually he’s unconscious, he was in my house and I chased him. He fell over the step and hit his head. I think he’s someone who is wanted by the police.”

“We’ll send a car straight away.” She pressed the button to end the call,as she pounded on Etian’s door with the other hand. After a minute, she heard.”Hey,I’m coming,I’m coming. It’s two o’clock in the morning. Is that you, Bro?” Sometimes his brother came by if he was too drunk to drive home and too broke to get a taxi.

“No, it’s Piper.”

“Piper?   What’s wrong? ”

She shouted, “I caught the nudist thief!” Two more houses lit up in the street.

The concussed man was half -dressed in his overalls by the time Piper and Etian arrived back in her courtyard. He was in no state to fight of Etian and two other neighbours, who placed him under citizen’s arrest. Etian caught her eye, and winking, said,” At least it wasn’t me you hit this time.”

When the police arrived and saw the egg-like swelling on the man’s forehead, they called an ambulance to take him to hospital. They asked Piper a few questions, and took down her details , said  they would be in touch, and left. Etian had explained who he was and that he was really glad the thief had been caught.  Etian was quiet and kept staring at the man. After the police had gone,  Piper asked him if he had recognised the man .

“Yes, he works at the same firm I work at, just casual though.”

Piper shook her head.

“I’ll talk to the police about that on Monday.”

Instead of going straight home he came back to the courtyard and helped her clean up the mess of broken eggs , salad leaves and  milk. He came inside for hot chocolate and when he’d finished he reached across the table and took her hand.

“You did really well, Piper”

“Thanks, Etian, I owe you.”

“I like to think so”, he said looking smug. “but I’ll consider it payment if you let me cook you breakfast.”

“Just what are you proposing, Atten”, she said, butchering his name. But her heart was pounding.

“No, no”, he said holding up his hands, “get some sleep and head over to my house about 9.”

At ten o’clock that morning, Piper sat at Etian’s table enjoying fresh croissants, scrambled eggs and espresso coffee. Finally, she pushed back her plate. “That was delicious.”

“No kidding”, he raised his eyebrows; “I’ve never seen a woman eat so appreciatively.”

She laughed self-consciously, and then looked down fidgeting with a fork. She saw his face go still.

” I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“No, no, there’s just something I need to ask you.”

“Well, ask away,” he said as he cleared the plates. She went and stood by him at the sink. He looked at her and waited.”When you were at my house earlier this morning, and I asked you what you were proposing about breakfast… did you mean “no, no” as in “I’ll only ever think of you as a friend.” She blushed as she continued,” or were you… What did you mean?” She forced herself to look at him.

He smiled a gentle, slow smile. Her thoughts seemed audible in the silence. Is he going to let me down gently? I’ m out on a limb here. Help.

“No, I didn’t mean I could ‘only ever think of you as a friend’. My feelings are more like; you’re too special to be casual about.” He reached for her hands as she gazed into his eyes. He lifted her hands to his mouth and gently kissed each finger.She breathed out and in slowly, and unwittingly her thoughts audible.”You have the most gorgeous eyes.”

He laughed. “Yours are better than sapphires.” He leaned toward her, “Don’t make any sudden moves, ok.” She giggled and puckered up.

     The End

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Rhydian Style and a few comments

On Friday 6 November I uploaded my last essay for my University degree, the essay was about poetry, and I thought of this story written in 2013.. I did a version of it for a competition entry but with thousands of good writers and a wonderful story as the winner, Rhydian didn’t get out there. Here he is. I am posting two stories this week, and my next blog post will be November 23rd.

Rhydian Style

 It was late evening in April, and Rhydian had taken the underpass under the Torrens Bridge, on his way to the Flinders University Library to borrow a book.   He had borrowed from the library a couple of days before but he needed the book for an essay due in 24 hours. An essay with an extension on it. He groaned. He had been working long hours at the art shop.  He had relieved himself in the shadows of the bridge, and then his arm was gripped from behind and he found himself face down on the gravel.  He could not get the breath to yell “fire”, as his sister Kim had told him was wise when attacked. His left arm flailed in front of him. He had not finished zipping his fly before being thrown off balance.

Now with the smell of damp gravel an inch from his face, he heard a loud whisper, “Nina, he’s tapping out ,I think. He’s tapping out.” Memories assailed him from his brief experiences of Aikido class when he was ten. His artistically gifted mother had been desperate to please his Canadian regional hockey champion father. It seemed a good idea to encourage Rhydian in a masculine hobby.  The blood was rushing to his head from physical force now, making blushing at the memory of the ten weeks of Aikido humiliation superfluous. A familiar voice said,”You have been accosted because we’re sick to death of you guys pissin’ in the tunnel. It stinks! So quit it! ” She let him go. He kept his face to the ground, as she was backing away from him. He lifted his head a little and peeked.  The light from outside the tunnel shone on her face. Nina. It was Nina Martello.  She was only his major crush for the past twelve months.

Two mornings later, Rhydian was sitting on the bank of the Torrens River. The sun was low in the sky as the water parted before the ladies’ rowing team skiff. Nina bellowed the order: “ hold it down”. The change of direction brought them between the willows and they held still at the university pier. Rhydian watched Nina, as the team stowed the boat. A gentle breeze moved over the water, stirring the weeping willows, and the stray ringlets that brushed her forehead. She reached above her head in a stretch, and her curves were outlined by light reflected off the water. The strong lines of her thighs covered in tight black, and the curves of her bust outlined by a red t-shirt appeared on his sketchpad.  Her full mouth, definite brow and high flat cheekbones appeared in charcoal too. She laughed from her throat, the sound ending on a husky note, and a sigh. He watched her bold strides towards her bicycle. She removed the combination lock and chain.  She tugged at the tie in her dark hair until it contained only a third of her abundant hair.  She shoved on her helmet, and adjusted the strap with one dexterous hand.  The mountain bike was pushed up the rise to the road, and stepping across it she pedalled away.

He shuffled further into the shelter of the willows as the men’s rowing team appeared. The coxswain bellowed as he left the boat, “Blast those gym junkie first year girls!  That Nina Martello stirs them up. They beat us!” Nina, and the ladies team, was the subject of more conversation. The Bow seat rower said Nina had knocked him back last time he had invited her out. ”They’re our university’s rowing team too”, said the second rower “should we   think of them as opposition, coach?”

“ Anyone who shows that you’re losing your edge, or that Sydney U might be making better time, is a problem. You should beat the ladies times all the time, and cut them by at least 20 percent.” The team groaned, and the head coach lifted his hand.” Now No.2, how are you doing…” Rhydian smiled to himself. Nina must have given the rowing team captain short shift .  Maybe, just maybe jocks weren’t her type.  He had heard her talking in the library about how much she enjoyed rowing, but he’d seen her reading books on Renaissance literature, too.   A well-rounded girl in every way. Nina, he thought.

A month later, Rhydian had not worked up the courage to ask Nina on a date. In fact, he hadn’t spoken to her. His sister had taken him out twice to buy new shirts and trousers.  She had even talked him into wearing contact lenses to university. The girls at the art shop had given him advice on asking a girl out. Aware of his awkwardness, they told him to avoid trying to speak before he had rehearsed the line in his head.  “ Whatever you do,” Sally said,” don’t stand there with your mouth open. Remember you nearly didn’t get the job here because of that. It is not a good look.”

Now, he crouched between the library stacks, pretending to search for a quarto art book. He looked between the shelves at Nina, writing in her notebook.  The corner of Nina’s bottom lip was pinned between her teeth, and her head was tilted to one side. Her raven hair, loose this time, half hid her face and brushed the cover of a volume of John Donne’s poems. He smiled. He had seen her in the lecture theatre, but they were in different tutorials.

Just as well, I wouldn’t be able to answer the tutor. Perhaps she’s writing her essay on Donne, he thought. Could she  be as interested in poetry as I am? 

Rhydian thought back to that morning with his sister, Kim. She had given him an approving inspection at breakfast.  “Your hair looks cool Rhid, and that shirt matches your eyes. You know my friends have always said you’re cute.” Later, when they arrived outside the university, she said.” Tonight, I want to hear that you spoke to that girl you’re keen on. Give it a go.” If only she could see me now, he thought, spying, not talking.

Embarrassment motivated him to browse several rows. His hand brushed over the tooled leather spine of a large volume entitled: Poets of the 16th and 17th Centuries. He loved the feel of a print book. The edges of the pages were gold, and as he opened the aged paper, he glanced down .  Running his thumb along the lower edge of the page he gently turned the pages. His eyes fell on the words of a poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt: The long love that in my thought doth harbour. The poet described his Love as something that showed itself by blushes in his face, but reason and reverence grew angry at Love causing it to run back to his heart, and hide and no more show itself. It ended with the poet saying that he would hide his love until he died, and die loving well.  Rhydian felt both kinship for, and disrespect for Thomas Wyatt. As he cringed behind the metal frame of the bookshelf he knew he wanted to do more than die, with passion locked in his heart. He was replacing the book on the shelf when he heard a voice behind him.  “Excuse me”, a breathy voice spoke behind him. He turned and a red stain started up his neck as his eyes alighted on Nina. Her eyes swept over him and returned to his face, which was becoming redder by the second. She smiled and he stared.  I don’t think she saw who I was under the bridge. He let out his breath.  She returned his gaze and he clamped his lips together. Don’t look like a fish, he thought. He cleared his throat and smiled as she spoke. “Do you study Donne too?”

“This semester, yeah”. He spoke as he jammed one hand into the back pocket of his jeans. She nodded and her hair bounced on her shoulders. “Are you American?” Normally, he hated on people who mistook his Canadian accent for American, but she looked so sweet in this light. “ No, Canada. I’ve lived in Australia for a few years.” She smiled again and the space between the shelves seemed too small to him.  “I’m Nina”. She stretched out her hand. He grasped her fingers, surprised at how long they were. Her hands,  slenderer than he thought. He knew they were expressive, as he had watched her enliven her conversation with their sweeping gestures. “I’m Rhydian”. He felt his face relax but his mouth stayed closed. Phew. “That’s unusual, cool”. She spoke in a rush.

“My mother is Welsh. She chose it.”  She indicated his backpack, “Are you staying to study? I figure you must be doing Renaissance Literature too.”

“Yes, I’ve seen you in the lectures”.

She smiled.  “ My sister is picking me up in about twenty minutes,” he said,  “I’m just borrowing”. He waved his book at her. He noted she seemed shorter, at close quarters. Until this moment, she seemed larger than life. “ O.K. well, if you’re in the library tomorrow why don’t you come and say hi.”

“ Yeah, I might do that”. He walked away. Could I have sounded less enthusiastic? he thought. Lame. As he descended the library steps, it occurred to him that he would be able to tell Kim that he spoke to the girl.

Kim dropped him at work. He was early but he didn’t fancy a ride back into the city on his bike.  He could not afford a car, and he couldn’t save for one yet as  he wouldn’t give up sharing with Kim, and buying art materials.  He waved at Sally in the front of the store, indicating he was heading out the back. He settled at the table in the staff room, and retrieved his sketch book. He opened to a sketch of Nina and continued shading with a charcoal pencil. He loved life drawing, but Nina would not be a good model. She would want to move long before he finished drawing. She was full of energy. I’ve learned enough at my classes to capture her well, he thought. He thought of the prints of Ruben, and Titian he had in his bedroom.  I’d love to paint beautiful life figures like that.  The female body was wonderful, and curvaceous figures enjoyable to draw. He would love to paint Nina on her bicycle.  Yes, on her bicycle. Her hair blowing behind her, he mused to himself.

He became absorbed, unaware that Evie, a friend and work mate, had entered from the lane. She leaned against the rear doorway jamb, balancing her coffee cup on the opposite arm, and watched him. Her eyes followed the curve of his cheek to the open neck of his shirt, revealing the lean, muscled shoulder of the arm that brushed the edge of the sketchpad. His bronze-coloured fringe was swept to one side.  His forehead crumpled in concentration, as his eyes followed his sketching hand.

At least his tongue isn’t sticking out the corner of his mouth. She smiled to herself. He had a childlike earnestness, yet when they talked he seemed more mature than her other male friends. He’s special.

Evie spoke from behind him, ”Who’s that?” He was startled and turned to see her.  He flipped the page over. “Just some life studies I’m doing”. He ran his hand through his fringe and cleared his throat.

“Since when do you draw life models riding bicycles, in your class?”

“Ok, so I’m finding some subjects of my own. There’s no law against that.”

“No, but who is it? Come on. We’re buddies aren’t we?”

Evie stayed in the outside lane doorway, smiling and coaxing. “ Come on. It’s not that girl all the others say you’re keen on”.

‘” Maybe”, he said. “Are you working the late shift?”

“No, I’ve got Roller Derby.”

“Oh, how’s that going?’

“ Pretty good. We’ve won a couple of bouts lately. I’d love for you to come so you could draw a picture for the team’s Facebook page. It should be at least as interesting as drawing a girl on a bicycle.”

“Roller Derby is so fast though. I’d have to take photos and draw from those”.

She came over and sat in the chair opposite him.

“Rhydian, please come to a race. It’s fun and it would give you a feel for roller derby. Kim has photos, and could take more, but as an artist shouldn’t you get a feel for a subject? I’m more a naïve style painter , but even I like to do that.”

He stared at her. It was the most she’d ever said to him about sketching the Roller Derby. He felt complimented. She must be keen for the drawing. He wondered what it would be like to draw Evie on Roller Skates. It could be good practice for drawing Nina. Evie stood up to throw her coffee cup in the bin, and reached into the overhead cupboard for a biscuit. He studied her. “ If we ask Sally to give me Saturdays next month I could come along one  Friday to Roller Derby.”

On the Friday of Evie’s Roller Derby, he inspected Kim’s previous photos of Eve and her friends, and made a few sketches of the girls in blocking maneuvers and Evie as the Head Jammer.  He just outlined them in charcoal, to get his eye in.

When they got to the rink there was a  crowd of about a hundred people. He and Kim took seats in the second row by the rink. The teams were introduced in the resonant thunder of Smart Mike’s voice: “Tonight’s competing teams are the Rolling Queens and the Adelaide Jammers. In their last bout the Queens won, but I’ve heard the Jammers are Jamming for victory.”  The lights were bright, illuminating the matte scuffmarks on the floor.  The introduction of the teams’ members produced a wave of sound from the small crowd that made the back of his neck tingle. The smell of fries with gravy, and damp clothing, surrounded him.

He leaned forward as the whistle blew and five girls from each team began to roll forward. Evie edged out of the pack swiftly and became the jammer for the Queens. The blockers of her team managed to slow down the Jammers’ girl for what seemed like three heartbeats. One of the Queens’ girls got sent to the penalty box, and when Evie passed the Jammers’ pack the second time, she was knocked down by an unrestrained blocker from the Jammers.  There would be a tense silence, then a surge of sound when a Jammer broke away. The teams were evenly matched, and the bout became a blur of calls to Rhydian.  The match ended with the Queens ahead by two points.

When the  team  did their victory lap, Evie’s eyes found Rhydian, and she waved. Evie’s pony tail clung to her neck with moisture, and there was a dark patch between her breasts. Her cheeks were flushed, and her arms curved out with a dancer’s poise.  Her body below the waist was an engine, powering an elegant bust of her sporting pose. She circuited the rink three times; each circuit slower than the previous one, until she came to a stop. Her stopper left another scuff mark on the beleaguered floor.  She smiled at Rhydian, and he averted his eyes to a spot beyond her. He had two images trapped in his brain that he was determined to sketch: Evie, when she first pushed away from the pack, leaning forward with her head down, like a blunt nosed rocket on pistons, with the blockers in the background, one with her arm forward as if shoving Evie down. The other was an image of two of the Queens’ blockers their arms raised in triumph because they had stymied the opposing Jammers’ four blockers. Yes, shouted their pose: we stopped that Jammer girl‘s lead. 

He started when Kim grabbed his arm, and said, ”Come on, we’re going to have a drink with Evie and her friends. Kim ordered him a whisky and coke, and he sipped it at the corner of a large table where they were all seated . The music and conversation seemed to merge into each other, as he tired of the effort of distinguishing one from the other. Evie squeezed his arm as she got up to leave. “Thanks for coming, Rhydian”. He smiled into her eyes. They are pretty he thought. He had an image of two golden venetian glass bottles that decorated his mother’s art studio. He remembered his mother sitting with him by the window decorated with her glass collection. “ If you love beauty, beauty will find you”, she whispered. The desire to savour the vitality and beauty “deep in the bones of life”, as his mother had said filled him with a sense of exhilaration.

After they left the bar, Kim dropped off some of her friends, and Rhydian sat silently in the car’s back seat. He realized he loved women, loved the idea of being romantic. He wanted to get to know Nina and Evie. He could study with Nina, and discuss art with Evie. But dates required finesse, and implied expectations. He remembered the lost friendships of the past when you couldn’t just talk to the girls; suddenly you had to experiment with pairing off. Would he fall in love? The anticipation of the experience pleased him, but Nina and Evie seemed confident of what they wanted in life, while he was unsure. Maybe, Kim and I, could have a few people over to the apartment for drinks. He thought about inviting a few people from his art classes, and he could tell Evie and Nina to “bring a friend”. Kim could invite people too. They could gather on his home territory. He could still make pasta the way Mum taught him, and watch videos, share laughter. He looked up at their apartment window as Kim pulled into the carport. A v-shaped glow of light through the red curtains marked their space. Next Saturday would suit, he thought. He nodded to himself.

The End