Rachel’s arrival was unwelcome, or so she thought. No one greeted her at the airport. Convinced the cabbie took the extra long route to her temporary place of residence, she tipped to insult. There was no one waiting outside to help her with her bags, nor was a light even left on so the dark would not be shrewd. She found the key tucked in a flower pot by the door.
The flat was small and sparse: a single wing-back chair, a round red cafe table with glass top, both likely scrounged from dumpsters, and an empty mantle. It was as if no one had ever lived here. She dropped her bags and explored the remaining sections of her ‘new place.’
Fortunately, the galley kitchen accepted the width of her hips, although she did have to pivot a bit when opening the oven door; it didn’t matter as she never planned to cook or bake while there. The bathroom was a claw-foot tub, toilet and sink. Everything was basic. The bedroom held a twin bed with no bedding or pillow and there was no closet to possess her clothes. Her room was a box without windows, and had odd angles as though it did not quite fit geometrically with the rest of the apartment. Although it must. A trick of the eye she supposed. Regardless, she would feel better tomorrow. Begin her time writing, and explore the area.
* * *
She didn’t sleep. Jet lag perhaps, or maybe just the act of her mind racing to quickly with ideas, thoughts and misfirings. Carefully she moved the glass table over to a window, then positioned the chair so she could look outside while typing away. The ability to see the outside world was important for a writer, so a professor once told her. She took out her portable typewriter already set with bond paper and set it upon the glass table. Rachel came here to finish a story. The story itself had nothing to do with England, but in her fellowship application she stated that England was where she needed to be, that London and surrounding areas would fulfill the needs of her story. Without coffee or food she began to write. Her brain picked up where the story left off a day and half ago before she flew out of Boston, Massachusetts and landed here, in this small septic apartment ‘across the pond.’
* * *
By noon she was hungry and it was time for a break. She dressed, pocketed her key and wallet, and skipped stairs to get outside. The air was cold, sky blue and little precipitation touched the ground. England in March, she thought. A surprisingly bright morning for the country’s gloomiest month. As she set off she made mental notes of each turn. Upon reaching Mulligan Street she found a coffee shop.
The shop was tiny — was everything small here, she wondered. Narrow with tables for one, her hips were two. Rachel soon realized that this was not going to be her place. Plus it had a odd smell of shoe polish and blueberry scones. She stepped out and continued walking around the square and spotted a little corner market.
Now here, this smelled of her grandmother’s kitchen. She could not explain it. She stepped further into the market, passing rows of chocolates and sweets, but could only smell the carbon crusted scent of her grandmother’s oven and the light odor of angel food cake. This combination struck her as lovely and odd all at once. Immediately she approached the clerk behind the counter.
“Are you baking angel food cake? I can smell angel food cake. My grandmother’s house often smelled this way. I can almost feel the soft spongy texture with the light taste of sugar... you are baking something aren’t you?”
The clerk just smiled. He punched a few keys on the register and the drawer popped open. He handed her what appeared to be a wrapped hard candy.
“What is this?” said Rachel. How ludicrous she thought. I am asking serious questions. She gave him a puzzled look and he only smiled in return. “Can’t you tell me, are you baking angel food cake?”
He looked away through the shop window. His eyes softened but for a moment.
“We don’t do that here, mum. Thank you for stopping by. Please come again.”
Rachel looked down at the wrapped candy in her hand. In some ways her heart skipped beats, but not due to love, due to a palpitation she didn’t know she had. She stepped back outside and stood on the corner for an hour, debating whether to go back in. The clerk stood behind the counter, continuing to smile.
* * *
The wrapped candy sat on her typewriter, balanced on the letter a. She paced back and forth, sat and stood. Unable to concentrate on her story she finally decided that she must unwrap the piece of candy so she could let go of this morning’s excursion and shift her focus back to the story. She untwisted the candy by the ends, and a little gold humbug fell to the floor. She stared at the candy as it almost seemed to shimmer like a gem in the sunlight streaming through the glass table top. She picked the candy up from the floor and placed it on the table, keeping it lit by the sun. Rachel smoothed the wrapper, accepting the tiny wrinkles. A message. There was a message. With child-like glee Rachel thought she would find a puzzle, like the rebus’s she would find beneath beer bottle caps at family cookouts. But it wasn’t a puzzle. In very small print she read, “Your grandmother always loved you. Do not feel bad. She knows you loved her, too.”
Rachel was never one for tears as crying was not a practical act. But now, her eyes welled a little as she placed the candy on her tongue; it was not the distinct flavor of a humbug, but the sweet taste of angel food cake.
* * *
The next day, Rachel went back to the market, but the shop was closed. She sat across the way on a park bench waiting for someone to come along and open the shop, but no one ever did. Night fell, and it was time to go back.
* * *
She was hungry. She ate the last of her granola bars she had packed for the flight. The tap water had a metallic linger on her tongue. Her desperation for coffee grew, and her belly grumbled like a mumbling old man. Begrudgingly, she went back to the shoe-polish smelling coffee shop and purchased a large cup of chocolate flavored breakfast blend with a raspberry tea cake. With curiosity she wondered if the market would be open today. She crossed the square. No closed sign.
As she opened the door to the shop, she paused. Maybe I shouldn’t go in, she thought. But of course she did.
This time she didn’t smell angel food cake. She didn’t see the clerk behind the counter, and the rows of chocolates were gone. She walked up and down the narrow aisles only to find the shelves empty. Maybe I’m in the wrong place, she thought, but that can’t be true. She had in fact come back to the same location the day before. Maybe they went out of business.
“Hello?” she called. There was no response. She walked to the back of the store. A door led to what she presumed was a stock room, but this inside door required a key. Why leave the shop unlocked, but lock the inside door? Disappointed, Rachel collected herself and headed to the front of the store when something caught her eye. A little box, a matchbox, sitting alone on an empty shelf. Without hesitation she pocketed the item and left the store. No one was on the street, not a car drove by. It was as if she were the only person left in the world.
Around the corner she stopped and leaned against a tree. She knew there was something in the box. Not the shuffling of matchsticks, but a single object. Rachel held the box to her left ear, shook the container and listened carefully as whatever was inside slid around hitting the sides of the box. She ran to her flat, locking herself inside. This time she closed the drapes as not to be seen.
She slid the sheath from the box. Rachel stood, silent as always, and could not tear her eyes away from the item- a small dark brown owl figurine. Gently she raised the owl from the matchbox and placed it in the palm of her hand. And then it came to her, an immediate rush of past and present all at once. Her grandmother collected figurines, mostly animals; totems. This is another message but why? She could see the collection of figurines hanging in the display box of her grandmother’s hallway. She could see herself as a young child reach up to touch one of the figures while her grandmother, sitting at the kitchen table, back turned, drank tea. Rachel could feel the cool glaze of the figure in her hand, she could see the story. I am bitter, she thought. Like the taste of coffee, I am bitter like a wise owl waiting to eat a mouse. She perched the figurine on the mantel.
Rachel was sleepless. Her mind traveled, wandered. Her attempts to determine meaning in these messages, the why of them, baffled her. Another day of unrest would do her in, she thought. Exhaustion tackled her body with great force, and she lay on the sheetless twin bed for two days.
* * *
Her typewriter was still. The same sheet of bond paper remained. She walked barefoot across the floor, her clothes rumpled, hair disorganized. She did not care to fix herself, but decided to take a bath, then walk back to the shop.
* * *
There must be a misunderstanding, she thought. Why is this happening to me here? There is no connection between this place and where I came from.
When she reached the shop she stepped inside like it was her place. The clerk was back behind the counter, but stared out the window as she walked around. She could hear something beneath the silent din, a music she knew. A southern drawl, a man’s voice; the scratching needle against vinyl, picking dust from the grooves —
You never would admit you were mistaken
You didn’t even know the chances you were takin’
I knew you couldn’t win, I told you from the start
Go on and break your crazy heart.
Grandmother’s music; Hank Williams played from every room of her house, the kitchen, her bedroom, the upstairs. Rachel ran to the counter.
“Where is it? Where is that coming from? Why are you doing this to me? Why is this happening?”
The man looked at her, smiled. He looked under the counter and retrieved a key. He placed it on the counter. Rachel looked down, picked up the heavy weight by the bow and carried it to the back of the shop. The music was louder, the voice clear. She inserted the bit into the keyhole and without hesitation turned and pressed open the door.
She stands in the hallway of her grandmother’s house. Hank Williams sings from the bedroom stereo. Her grandmother sits at the kitchen table, sipping tea and smoking a cigarette. Her unruly hair like ruffled feathers. She wears a baby blue cardigan sweater too small to button in the front. Rachel knows this from living with her many years ago. Her grandmother stands, shuffles to the microwave and places her tea cup inside. While she waits for it warm up, she looks through the window adorned with a stain-glass flower, chipped in one petal. Mumbling, she takes back her tea and steps outside. Rachel knew what she was doing. Without reason, or thought of reality, Rachel follows her through the screen door and onto the stoop. Together they sit in the sun, listening to their hearts skip wildly, the record scratch. Rachel takes the owl figurine from her pocket, holds it in her open palm.
“This was never my story,” she says, and drops the owl into her grandmother’s teacup as the screen door behind them finally shuts.