First Chapter: The Red Man Turns to Green by Dickson Telfer

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The barman gives James a wooden spoon with 36 printed on it. He walks up and down the bar but can’t find an available table. Rays of sunshine pierce the front windows and everyone looks round as if a show has started. Outside there are four high tables under a brown and cream stripy canopy, each with two raised stools. James opens the door to feel the temperature has increased. He sits on one of the stools and slots the wooden spoon into the bottle in the centre of the table. The stool reminds him of when he used to play acoustic sets in cafes and bars across the city, before he got promoted. He removes his overcoat, which he carefully folds and places on the other stool. He takes his tie off and puts it in his bag, pulls out his sunglasses and watches people.

Everyone’s in a hurry. Most don’t wait for the green man, opting to trim seconds off their journey over safety. People fiddle with smart phones, not looking where they’re going, relying on a sixth sense to prevent them from walking into danger. Watches are checked. Cars and buses sound horns. Cyclists alternate between roads and pavements to prevent the need to stop. High heels clip-clop into offices, bars, shops. Faces look agitated at the sudden spike in temperature. James is happy he’s done for the week and is looking forward to his weekend by the water.

“Two lattes?” says the waiter.

“Ah, yes, thanks.” The waiter places one latte in front of James and the other in front of the stool with his coat on it.

“Will you be having lunch today?” the waiter asks.

“Yes. If you could bring out a couple of menus, that’d be great, thanks.”

“Certainly.”

James clocks Darcy across the street. She’s gliding towards the pelican crossing, sunglasses on, jacket over her right shoulder. She presses the button and waits. A handful of people totter over in the face of the red man. A taxi blares its horn at a teenager cutting it fine. When the red man turns to green, Darcy floats across as others race by her. She notices James

when she’s about half way across. He waves. She waves back.

“Hi.” James hops off his stool. He kisses her on the lips and gently runs his hand down her wavy hair. She giggles, coyly.

“Hi.”

James tosses his overcoat onto the decking and holds Darcy’s hand as she mounts the stool.

“Here are your menus.” the waiter says, placing them on the table.

“Thanks,” James and Darcy say together. They look at each other and laugh.

Darcy places her sunglasses on the table and gives James her jacket, which he places on top of his.

“So, no problems getting the half day, then?” Darcy asks, flicking through the menu.

“Meredith wasn’t too chuffed to be honest, but she approved it based on how well I’ve performed since my promotion.”

“Aw, that’s good, honey. I know it was last minute but I just thought it’d be nice to get away for the weekend. It means we’ll arrive around five instead of half nine, and if the weather stays like this, it’ll be nice to go for a walk on the beach.”

“Yeah, totally. I’m really looking forward to it, babe.” James snaps shut his menu.

“What are you having?”

“Chilli. What about you? What takes your fancy?”

Darcy reaches over and removes his sunglasses.

“I fancy a repeat of last night.”

He blushes. He runs his hands through his hair and they look at each other, smiling.

“I’m not sure that’s possible.”

Her disappointment is instant.

“No, no, I don’t mean that I don’t want it to happen again . . . I’d love it to . . . All I mean is that it would be difficult to create such . . . such . . .”

“Perfection?”

“Yeah . . . perfection.”

A blush rises.

“The sounds you made . . . I didn’t think it was possible for someone to experience such pleasure.”

James rubs his face. He sips his latte and wipes the froth off his lip. He looks at the table and fiddles with the leg of his sunglasses.

“Neither did I.”

They look at each other, grinning. Darcy leans over and pecks him on the cheek.

“Are you ready to order?” asks the waiter, poised with pad and pen.

“Yes,” says Darcy, “I’ll have the salmon and avocado salad please.”

“And the chilli for me, thanks,” says James.

“Standard strength or super-hot?”

“I’ll try super-hot I think. But can I have it with a side order of sour cream and a pint of water?”

“Certainly,” the waiter says, scribbling on his pad.

“Tell me,” says James, “don’t you use those electronic order pads here?”

“No, and I don’t think we ever will. The boss says paper and ink can’t crash or run out of power – and that these days, people spend too much time looking at screens. I have to say, I agree. Not everything has to be a computer.”

“Fair enough,” says James, lifting his latte to his lips.

“Would you like anything else to drink with your meal?” he asks Darcy.

“No thanks, I’m fine with my coffee,” she says, taking her first sip.

The waiter slips his pen and pad into the pocket of his apron and walks back into the bar. James notices a young couple sitting at the other side of the entrance. Both are fiddling with iPhones.

“How about we have a screen-free weekend?” says James. “Just me and you. And the beach. Keep everything natural. I don’t want to end up like them over there.”

Darcy looks over at the young couple. Heads down, thumbs a blur.

“You know,” continues James, “I haven’t looked at my iPhone much today. While I was waiting for you earlier, I sat and watched the world go by. Usually I’d be on facebook, rubbing my half day in the faces of those working till six.”

“Okay,” says Darcy, nodding her head, “I’m up for it.”

She reaches into her bag, pulls out her phone and turns it off. “That feels quite good, actually.”

James takes his from his pocket and does the same. “It does feel good, doesn’t it?”

They look out to the street. A mother and daughter walk by. The daughter is carrying a teddy bear that’s nearly the same size as her. She’s hugging it, giggling. Her mother is holding her hand to guide her along the busy street as her view is obscured by the size of her cuddly friend. James can feel Darcy looking at him. He turns to her and smiles.

“So, last night,” he says.

“Yeah, last night.”

“I don’t need to tell you how much I enjoyed what hap . . .”

“No, you don’t.”

“But what about you?”

“What about me?”

“Well,” he says, picking up his cup, “do you think it’s possible for me to, you know, get you to such a . . . place, by doing . . . you know, some technique you could tell me about. So like, if you . . . direct me the way I directed you last night, maybe we could turn the tables? And then we could maybe try . . . merging the two somehow?”

He gulps down a mouthful of coffee and places the cup back in its saucer. He looks at the fine hairs on Darcy’s arms standing on end.

“That would be amazing,” Darcy says, cheeks glowing.

“Do you think it’s possible?”

“Only one way to find out,” she replies with a wink.

They laugh out loud together, shared excitement in their eyes. Darcy rubs James’s forearm, ruffling his shirt a little.

“Salmon and avocado salad,” says the waiter, placing the plate in front of Darcy. “And the super-hot chilli with sour cream and a pint of water.”

He places cutlery wrapped in burgundy napkins in the centre of the table.

“Thank you,” says James.

They unravel the cutlery and begin to eat. James feels the burn instantly but keeps eating as the flavours are sensational.

“Mmmmm, this salmon is lovely. Cooked to perfection. We should come back here for dinner some time.”

“Yeah, it’s a good place this. Been here a couple of times with work.” James lifts his water to his swollen lips.

The waiter reappears with coffees for the young couple. The guy puts his phone on the table and thanks him, but the girl just swivels on her stool, head down, thumbs going 90 knots.

“So,” says Darcy, placing her cutlery on her plate, “what I did last night. Was that better than when you do it yourself?”

“Oh, yeah.” James gulps more water. “That’s what made it so good. When I do it myself, it requires a hell of a lot of self-control . . . and the touch . . . the amount of, eh . . . pressure and vigour . . . and the timing . . . are all incredibly important. If just one of them is out then it’s game over.

He uses his napkin to dab his forehead.

“And okay, I directed you, but you got it spot on. A big part of the thrill was that I had no control of the hand that was bringing me so much pleasure, and, eh . . . until last night, my hand had always been the best . . . ‘cos, well, I know what I like. So, because you got it spot on and . . . and that the hand was yours . . . you know, it was attached to a beautiful woman instead of my hairy arm . . . it just blew my mind. Is any of this making sense?”

“Yes, honey, it makes perfect sense,” she says, beaming.

“Good . . . good.” James lifts a generous forkful of chilli to his mouth.

Another horn blares at a jay walker. Darcy sips her coffee then cuts a piece of avocado in half.

“Can you describe it?” she asks?

“Bloody hot!”

“No, not the chilli,” Darcy laughs, “the . . . sensation.”

James rests his fork and drains the last of his water. He looks at the wooden spoon and takes a few moments to think. The young couple’s phones ping and bleep. The sun fades a little, a cloud taming its glow.

“Okay, imagine 300 million miners are trapped down a mine. They’ve been trapped for five days and see no way out. They’re hungry, thirsty and sleep deprived. Most have accepted they’re going to die. Some have set up groups to play games, the outcomes of which determine who eats who. Others are suffering from depression, claustrophobia, mental instability, that kind of thing. Okay?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Darcy says, intrigued. The sun fades further, a bigger cloud crossing its path.

“And then a light pierces into the darkness. A tiny, tiny hole. The miners cheer as they run towards it, ecstatic it could lead to escape. As they get closer, the hole gets bigger and bigger and the cheers louder and louder. And then, just as they’re about to burst into daylight, the hole closes and they smash their faces against rugged rock and tumble back into the mine.”

Darcy slides her plate to the side and rests her elbows on the table.

“So obviously, they’re all totally raging that it was a mirage. Fights break out and those at the back point fingers of blame at the leaders. The tension is fierce. Then five minutes later, the tiny light reappears. Everyone thinks it’s another mirage and pays no attention at first – but the light remains, no matter how often they rub their eyes. So they start running towards it again, although there’s no cheering this time because they’re preparing themselves for disappointment. As they get closer, the hole becomes bigger –not as big as the first time – but exactly the right size to dive through. There’s reluctance at first, but once the first few have shot into the light, the others rush at speed towards their freedom . . . Just imagine the party.”

“Oh my God,” Darcy says, her hands on her cheeks.

“That’s probably the closest to how good it felt,” James says, tipping the little bowl of sour cream over the remainder of his super-hot chilli.

Rain peppers the decking. Darcy reaches down, picks up her jacket and puts it on. James finishes his chilli and dabs his forehead again, with his napkin. The rain becomes heavy, the big drops drumming off the canvas. The young couple, their precious phones firmly in their grasp, move inside as the downpour gets heavier and heavier. The canopy begins to leak. James bends down and picks up his overcoat. He gets off his stool and puts it on.

“Do you want to go inside?”

“No. Let’s stay here.”

James sits back on his stool. Darcy picks up their mottled mobiles, wipes them and puts them in her bag. People are still hurrying . . . A taxi driving close to the kerb splashes up water that just misses the table. Darcy and James look at each other and laugh.

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