California Bye-bye

Helvetian Creek is one of those towns that, despite itself, is well preserved and still marketable. If it were an actress, it would be Liv Ullman. It’s age gracefully and reinvented itself. It might not be what it used to be, but at least it hasn’t turned into some monstrosity like Ms Ciccone. The high street is well-kept, perhaps a bit too much so. The Gold Rush storefronts and the Victorian pavement might, by an uncharitable sod, be described “twee”, “chocolate box” even. Egads! Chocolate box, a veritable pox.

On the corner of Miller’s Road and the high street stands a deli. It’s always been a deli, at least as far as I can remember. It suffered something terrible for a time; indifferent management. Charming staff and a character property with oh-so-much potential that, unfortunately, had seen better days and some strange phenomenon known as “direction”. Phoenix-like, it was resurrected by an ambitious former employee who had long been harbouring dreams of running her own deli-cum-coffee-shop.

Anton sat alone at his regular table by the window facing Miller Street, across from the decrepit remains of a former Forty-niner hotel and saloon. “How long can that last” he asks himself, comme d’habitude. It’s not an unfairly catty question, although even the bitchiest wouldn’t miss the barbed tone in that thought. After all, the cracks along the pavement emit an eerily refreshing breeze from the high water table beneath. The constant, futile, battle against the peril that is dry rot can’t be fought forever. It’s like those Japanese soldiers in the Philippines and sundry locales in South East Asia post-1945. The war was over, but they refused to acknowledge the obvious to themselves. The Helvetian Creek Castle will just have to fall to the ravages of time and the elements, falling in on itself like a mildewed house of cards.


Anton’s right elbow is on the table, his hand propping up his head as he looks out the window. On the radio, Amália Rodriques sings ai, as gentes, ai, a vida  que amargos frutos me dão! Sonho uma árvore florida e apanho frutos no chão. Ai, as gentes, ai, a vida! Que amargos frutos me dão! Oh People in my life, what bitter fruits they give me! I dream of a flourishing tree and catch fruit from the ground. Of the people in my life, what bitter fruits they give me! It’s what he likes about this place, Anton, that is. It’s a personable coffee shop, one that offers each a bespoke experience. It’s what he misses most about this place. He said goodbye so long ago, only to find himself coming again and again, revisiting, visiting, rediscovering, discovering memories forgotten and manufactured that he thought he’d left behind.

“Anton” he hears behind him. He turns and sees Caleb. “I thought you weren’t coming” Anton said, a playful toxicity lacing his voice. “Ha. You should know I always show up, even if it’s two hours late” Caleb laughs at him, delicately mocking Anton’s grievances. Caleb was good at that. He was one of the few who could handle Anton at his most vicious. Then again, few could tolerate Caleb’s hauteur, his pride in disregarding the consideration of others. They agreed one night long ago that theirs was a relationship so volatile that the Devil himself would be loath to take pride in it. Still, however selfish, Caleb inevitably blessed those in his life with impromptu royal audiences, like a tomcat slinking in contemptuously after putting his servants through nine rings of hell worth of anguish. Not that Anton was an angel. Not that many could make sense of Anton. “What’s wrong”? People sometimes asked him, even in the most awkward, vulnerable moments. “Why do you ask”? He’d reply, puzzled, his discontented grimace fixed on his face like the most expensive tattoo.

“How was the flight”? Caleb asked him after ordering a coffee. They hadn’t seen each other in years, since Anton left California in a huff, returning to his native Konstantinsburg. He hated it there even more than California, but pride and finances kept him away, kept him in West Country shared accommodation. He was overqualified, overeducated and underemployed. Not that he cared. Anton hardly cared about much of anything anymore. He had become so used to disappointment and calamity that he was inured by it all, immune, even. Caleb remained sympathetic, a close ally and confidant. As temperamental as they were, they could count on that, they could count on each other and that was something to hold onto.

People wondered about the two lads. Caleb was an open book, someone whose foibles and escapades had become part of the local lore. Anton was a popular source of rumours, sometimes being unusually bold, risqué even before retreating behind an affected innocent, proper mask – one that rarely slipped. Anton feared that mask slipping, of being exposed in his self-imposed exile far from the Madding Crowd. He didn’t really help his case, sometimes making those around him disconcerted when his expression betrayed what they, with some justification, inferred to be a bitter discontentment and ill-ease, a desire to hide in the pleasant tedium of the Costa Geriatrica while longing to be the star of the show, to imbibe the heady, fickle atmosphere of the Golden coast. Even Caleb couldn’t understand Anton’s neurotic contradictions, much as he accepted them.

But is that really important? Are people ever that simple, that straight-forward? Ignore the obvious personality flaws, disorders if you will. Anton and Caleb remained friends, patient with and tolerant of each other. If you overlook the muddied, muddled relationship they were only old friends meeting after a long absence. With the assured reliability of his Seiko chronograph, Anton would fly back to Europe when his allotted two weeks in California came to an end. As always, Anton would assure those around him that life in Britain was really the best of all possible worlds for him, all the while wallowing in a macabre nostalgia for a time, a life, a place that he had left behind and that had changed beyond all recognition.


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