Posted in Pure Fiction, Shutterbug Blues

Short Fiction: Comfort Zone

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(Author’s Note:  The following story is part of a four-part tale called Glasgow Brownstone Blues which I originally posted as notes on Facebook and later via Tumblr and Scribd.  The stories are now being posted here in their proper reading order: Melody and Counterpoint, Comfort Zone, Comfort Food, and Sunday over the next few days.) 

I’d never seen snow except in pictures, cinematic scenes, or on TV.

                I was startled by the reality of it: delicate flakes fluttering on frosty breezes to settle in immense white banks on the sidewalks and streets, on rooftops and front steps.

                “You look like you’ve never seen snow before,” Aaron teased in his Aussie drawl.

                “Well, I’ve seen snow,” I said without turning from the window.  “But not this close; it was either in print or on the telly.”  I smiled ruefully to myself.  “Blame it on my tropical childhood.”

                I turned and saw that he was curled up in one of the armchairs, reading through a new English translation of Stanislavski’s My Life in Art.  I knew that it was required of the graduate students over at the Royal Conservatoire where he was enrolled.  I also knew that he hated Method Acting; but it was, alas, required reading.

                “Fancy a cup of hot chocolate, then?” I asked him, making my way to the kitchen.

                “Drop a slug of brandy in mine, thanks,” he replied.  He looked up, grinning like an imp.  “I see Professor McInerney’s rubbed off on you; you sound so Scottish!”

                “Aye,” I drawled in an imitation of my Creative Writing teacher’s Scots burr.  “Ye canna’ blame a lass for takin’ on a wee bit o’ the burr.  ‘Tis been five months since I came.”

                Five months since I moved to Scotland, away from the little archipelago where I was born.  Five months since the school-term began.

                Five months, I realized; five months since I set myself free.

                I was much calmer here in Glasgow, plus I hadn’t blown my stack at anyone since I arrived.  (Well, no one except that bloody cheese-faced Wicca wannabe hipster who tried to lord it over in Metaphysics class.  Rumour had it she was still afraid I would actually do an out-of-body experience and strangle her in her sleep.  People can be so damned gullible…)  I was more productive: writing more, actually publishing more – even if it was just recipes for the local paper.

                Plus, my health was much better.  I’d lost most of my excess poundage, thanks to all the walking I did.  My skin cleared up and my psoriasis hardly ever bothered me anymore.  I was sleeping better – and I was sleeping without my usual sedatives and pain-killers.

                And I was less insecure.  I don’t know if it was because writers were held in better esteem here in the United Kingdom as opposed to the shoddy treatment I’d get back at home, but I found myself taking the lead in class discussions, being invited to join one society or another, and there were even job offers.

                Job offers –  plural – and I was only here on a bloody student’s visa!

                I took out the gallon of milk from the fridge, measured out about a litre into a saucepan.  I whacked two dark chocolate bars against the side of the kitchen table to break them; I unwrapped the lot, and chucked them into the pan along with the milk.  I switched on the hob and rummaged in the drawers for a whisk.

                “You sure you want brandy in yours, mate?” I shouted towards the living room.  I spied bottles of crème de cassis and amaretto in one of the cupboards.  “We have blackberry liqueur and amaretto here.”

                “Oh, amaretto, please,” Aaron called back.  I heard the doorbell ring.  “That’s probably Carlisle; it’s almost four.”

                I watched over the pan vigilantly, stirring from time to time, waiting for the first bubbles to come to the surface.  As I began whisking the mixture, I heard voices and footsteps coming towards the kitchen.  I turned and smiled when I saw the boys coming in.

                “Hi, Aïda,” Carlisle greeted me as he opened one of the cupboards for the biscuit tin.

                “Hi, Carl,” I replied.  “How was class?”

                I turned and laughed when he made a face.  He and his classmates despised the pompous old barrister who handled their classes on Trade Law in the European Union.  They would have preferred someone more dynamic, but the man was said to be an expert in the field.

                “Thank God for the Marks-and-Sparks super assortment!” he exclaimed, clanging the tin onto the table.  He prised it open with a butter knife and groaned at what he saw.  “Aaron!” he declared.  “You’ve been at the chocolate-covered gingers again!”

                “Guilty as charged, counsellor,” Aaron intoned soberly, but there was a mischievous glint in his eyes.  He jerked a thumb at the fridge.  “Keep your shirt on, Carl; I bought a packet on the way back from class at noon today.”

                “Oh, thanks!  Say, is that hot chocolate you’re making?”

                “Yes, it is,” I said, still vigorously whisking the chocolate.  “Better grab mugs, you two.  It’s just about ready.”

                “And it’s just gone four,” Carlisle informed me as he took the packet of biscuits out of the fridge along with the butter dish.

                “Would you guys believe it if I told you that my eating habits are so much different now than they were back home?” Aaron asked as he sat up at the table.

                “Yeah?” I said, pouring chocolate into mugs.  “In what way?”

                “You guys actually got me to eat my meals on time and I get a proper tea in the afternoons.”  He grimaced at a memory.  “My mum used to howl at me over the phone when she found out I was skipping meals.”

                “Short on cash, I suppose?” Carlisle asked.

                “Well, yeah – because I’d blow it on stuff like theatre tickets and guitar strings and things.”  Aaron managed to look sheepish.  “And, sometimes, I’d be so caught up with rehearsals that I’d end up forgetting to eat.”

                “Sounds familiar,” I murmured as I carefully measured a bit of amaretto into two of the mugs.

                “Tied to your desk in your case, I suppose?” Carlisle said with a sympathetic look.  “I know that too well.”

                “I can imagine – what with your old boss making you do all his research!”  I held up the bottle of amaretto.  “You want a slug of this in your cocoa?”

                “Nah, but thanks anyway.  I’m used to the cold at this time of year.”  He slyly grinned at Aaron.  “Not like our Antipodean buddy over here.”

                Aaron childishly stuck his tongue at him before taking a sip of chocolate; Carlisle simply grinned back.

                I’d balked at first when I found out that none of my housemates was going to be female, even more so when I also discovered I was the only Asian.  But the four of us who lived in that little Glasgow brownstone got along very well and, five months on, we’d become something of a family.  We pooled our money into a household budget, assigned chores to each and every one, and stood up for each other whenever something went wrong – which was, mercifully, quite rare.

                Since I was the eldest (alas!), the boys nominated me as housemother and they pretty much behaved themselves.  We were all supposed to be grown up, after all.

                I went to get my tablet and mobile phone from the living room.  When I returned, the boys were looking at a text they’d just received.

                “Check your phone,” Aaron advised me.  “Malachy’s invited us to open-mic night over at Plum-Cake.”

                I activated the screen and saw our Irish housemate’s message.  I sighed.  Much as I wanted to come along, I had a paper to write.

                “I’ll take a rain-check,” I said, as I replied to the text.  “I’ll give old Mal a heads-up and you boys can go over.”

                There was a cheerful sounding chime and Carlisle looked at his phone again.  “It’s Dylan,” he said, referring to our American housemate.  “He says he can stop by for us around seven after his last class.”  Dylan was the only one of us who had a set of wheels.

                “You boys have fun,” I said, after a sip of chocolate.

                “Will do,” Carlisle said, getting up.  “I’ll go write a couple briefs before I go.  Thanks for the hot chocolate, Aïda.”

                When Carlisle had gone, I noticed that Aaron had gone quiet and seemed to be staring into the open biscuit tin.

                “Penny for your thoughts,” I said.

                He looked up and smiled somewhat wearily.  “I used to enjoy things like that,” he said.  “Heading off to clubs after hours, karaoke, maybe play at a gig.”

                “You say you used to,” I reminded him.  “I thought you’d be into those things, seeing how you’re in theatre and all.”

                “Ah, but there comes a point when you have to leave those things behind,” he said, smiling enigmatically.  He intoned the Biblical verse with the air of the sorcerer Prospero in The Tempest by Shakespeare:

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun.

A time to be born and a time to die;

a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

a time to kill and a time to heal …

a time to weep and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn and a time to dance …

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to lose and a time to seek;

a time to rend and a time to sew;

a time to keep silent and a time to speak;

a time to love and a time to hate;

a time for war and a time for peace.

I smiled sadly at this and countered him with another verse out of Ecclesiastes, “Rejoice, o young man, in thy youth.”

“What’s there to rejoice about?” he muttered bitterly, lowering his gaze.  “My mum’s gone, I can’t be with my dad and brothers right now, and I’m all alone here.”

     Aaron’s mother died in an accident the month before he came to Scotland.  He was so broken up about it that he nearly opted out of studying at the Royal Conservatoire.  But his dad said his mother would have wanted him to go, so he went.  He’d been sullen and sulky when he first came, bound to lock himself up in his room and, like he said, skip meals.  He threw himself heart and soul into his acting classes even if the teachers annoyed him.  And then came the evening he saw the scars on my arms and he realised that there was one other person in the house who lived with pain…

     “Just tell Malachy you don’t feel like coming along,” I said, patting his arm sympathetically.  “He’ll understand.”

Aaron nodded morosely and gulped the last of his hot chocolate.  “I’m sorry I’ve been a blooming marplot,” he mumbled apologetically.

     “I know where you’re coming from,” I said quietly, keeping my hands on his.  “I know what it’s like to be so hurt.”

     He nodded and reached for a sugary shortbread biscuit.  “It’s summer back home,” he said.  “It was Mum’s favourite season.  We’d go to Bondi Beach and she and Dad would take strolls along the seashore and take pictures.  My brothers and I would go surfing, head to clubs at night, flirt with the girls, and have fun.  We’d get plastered and Mum would scold, but she’d laugh when we woke up with massive hangovers the next day and she’d feed us this vile hangover cure she claimed came from our great-granddad.

     “She’d make these totally tasty salads when the weather got too warm for meat and two veg meals and there’d be jelly for afters.  Then, we’d go into the garden and I would play the guitar while Dad played violin; and Mum would sing old songs well into the summer night.”  He sighed and I could see his eyes welling up with tears.  “Dumb-arse fucking drunken drivers.”

     I got up and put my arms around him as he cried.  I murmured words of comfort into his ear as he sobbed, finally allowing himself to break down after several months of trying to keep a brave front.

     I handed him a couple of paper towels off the roll that hung within reach and he blew his nose noisily.

     “You needed that,” I said quietly.

     “Thanks,” he said, managing a small, rather tear-sodden smile.  “You don’t have to tell the guys I had a break-down.”

     “Your secret’s safe with me,” I assured him.  “Now, go wash up or you’ll find yourself trying to explain why you’re all puffy-eyed.”

     “I could always say you gave me what Malachy calls a ‘fine bollixing’ for one thing or another,” he said cheekily.

     “Oh, cast me as the Devil in your drama now!” I exclaimed in mock-protest as he laughed and exited the kitchen.

()()()()

“Aïda, we’re leaving!” Carlisle called from the living room.

                “Lock the door behind you,” I shouted back.  “I’m back here in the kitchen.  Have fun!”

                I fancied myself alone and busied myself with the paper on Shakespearean literature as the basic foundation for modern screenwriting for both television and cinema.  I swore to God that WiFi-enabled tablets were a blessing from on high, cutting my research time down to just minutes as opposed to the days I spent hunting down books in one library or another, that godawful time when I had to write my relatives abroad for books because the local bookstores didn’t carry those titles.

                I was right in the thick of alluding to Romeo and Juliet as a premise for many a modern teen drama when I heard the faint strumming of a guitar coming from the front room.  This piqued my curiosity.  So Aaron didn’t go even if I told him to.

                I got up and, sure enough, found my Aussie housemate playing his battered old guitar in the living room, humming to himself as he made notes.

                “Composing?” I asked, leaning in the doorway.

                “Yeah,” he said, not turning.  “I didn’t feel like going with the guys, so I opted to stay home.”  He looked up.  “How’s your paper coming along?”

                “Oh, it’s fine,” I said.  “Do you feel any better?”

                “Much,” he said, looking up and smiling.  He budged up a little on the couch.  “Why don’t you come sit here, Aïda?”

                I went over and sat next to him as he began to play a soft, slow air on his guitar.

I look at the shards on the floor

And I wonder: “How’d they get there?”

When did my life go all haywire?

What am I doing here, in the middle of nowhere?

 

I’m broken and bleeding and lost and lonesome

And the snow flies and eddies around me

Like a rope, a noose tightening around me

And I wonder if I can find my way home.

 

I look at the shards on the floor

And I wonder: “Can I put them back together?”

And I look at you and I feel you slip your hand in mine

And I feel your strength pouring into me.

 

I was lost but I’ve wandered someplace warm

Someplace where I feel the pain grow less

A place where I can heal and rest

Someplace I can find peace.

 

I pick up the shards on the floor

And I start piecing them back together

Because I know now

Because I feel now

Because I care now

To keep believing

To go on living.

 

                “That was beautiful, Aaron,” I said admiringly.  “I think your mother would be so proud of you.”

                He smiled ruefully.  “Thanks,” he said quietly.  “I was thinking of collaborating with Dylan; use it for an interpretative dance piece or something.”  He tilted his head to one side and studied me.  “Do you dance?”

                I blinked at him, surprised.  I felt a blush rising into my face.  “How did you know?” I exclaimed.

                He grinned.  “I knew it,” he said.  “Considering how fat you were when you first came here, I could somehow tell that you must have been a dancer.  You move so gracefully.”

                “I was,” I admitted.  “I was with the National Ballet when I was in college.  I stopped when I graduated and went into advertising full time.  Besides: I always knew I would never make it as prima ballerina.”

                “But you still dance.”

                “I used to teach younger kids in my spare time.  Then I had a nasty little break-up and let myself go for a while.”

                Aaron frowned at this.  “He wasn’t worth it, whoever he was,” he grunted dismissively.

                “Oh, he definitely wasn’t.”  I sighed and smiled ruefully.  “I learned that the hard way.”

                “Will you go back to dancing when you go home?”

                I shrugged.  “I don’t know,” I replied honestly.  “I don’t even want to think about it right now.”

                He smiled and put an arm around my shoulders.  “I can’t blame you,” he said.

                I turned and smiled back.  He was such a sweet guy; some girl back home in Australia would be lucky to have him come home to her.  For some strange reason, I felt a pang of jealousy at the thought; but I shook it off.

                Outside, flurries of snow fluttered about.  I knew that it wasn’t ever going to be this cold back home, but it would be cold enough for people to go around in sweaters and jackets and closed-toe shoes.  (And I knew the beach-whores would be bitching about the weather, how it was too cold for them to don their bikinis, halter-tops, and strappy sandals.  But, meh…)  However, in the five months I’d been here, I never ever got homesick.  In fact, almost as soon as I’d arrived, I felt that I had finally come home.

                I did not know where I would go once I finished my degree or whether I would return to either dance or advertising by the school year’s end.  Perhaps I could take a cue from Aaron and go back to dancing, maybe consider a career in the flicks as a screenwriter or even – God help us! – a director.

                The clock in the hallway chimed half-past seven at that point and I sighed as I got up.

                “Where are you going?” Aaron asked.

                “Back to the kitchen,” I said.  “May as well get supper ready for the both of us.”

                He followed me in and gently steered me back to the kitchen table.  “Go work on your paper,” he said kindly.  “I’ll take care of supper.”

                The snow kept falling and the wind seemed to blow harder outside.  But it was warm in here.  I had a roof over my head, a well-stocked kitchen, a warm bed to snuggle into when bedtime rolled around.  I had my friends.  I had my work.  I enjoyed the acceptance of my peers here in this place where they said it was cold even at the height of summer.

                Honestly, I didn’t care.  I went back to my place at the table and continued writing while Aaron tried his hand at a pad Thai.

                I was happy where I was.

                I was home.

 

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Author:

Midge started her career in PR writing at seventeen when she began drafting documentaries for a government-run television station in the Philippines. Since then, she made a career in advertising and public relations which ended earlier this year. These days, she works for a corporate governance advocacy in Makati. Aside from what she does for a living and her poetry, she has turned her home kitchen into a personal culinary lab and is currently working on another novel.

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