The coffee maker

He’s intent on the coffee maker. He’s laid out all the parts on a dishcloth on the kitchen counter. She’s given up on it and is in the little adjoining lounge. Kindle propped up on her knee. She’s not reading; she’s watching him. Every now and then he puts out his hand to hover over a piece, and then folds his arms back across his chest as he rearranges and rotates the parts in his head. She can hear the waves from the open balcony. It would be a perfect view to enjoy with hot coffee.

The night has left a layer of cold over everything – just a tingle across her skin as she sits – and the sun is warming the world gently, unhurried. She wants to make breakfast on the black-iron gas hob, to share it and eat it on the balcony overlooking the bay. But the kitchen is his now. The coffee maker must be fifty years old. Probably every native to Portugal knows how it works, but to these travellers it’s a puzzle.

She would be content to boil the grounds on the stove and pour it through the sieve, but he has to solve it. It’s a challenge. So he frowns over the obsolete parts trying to parse their purpose and make them fit, while she stares out at the foreign country they’re visiting to celebrate getting married.

Splinters

We were young, and that is no excuse for it. We were also twice blinded. The first was by our skin, which made so much invisible to us. The second was by the beer. And the cheapest vodka and wine we could find. We took pride in how fucked up we could get for so little money. Took pride in the pain the next day, and sharing fragmented memories of what we had made ourselves into the night before. Some of those fragments are still with me. I once broke into my own car window while drunk and high, my hand went into the shattered glass. Tiny splinters were working their way out of the numb scar tissue years later. That’s what it’s like. Remembering. This night in particular has stayed clear because I thought I might die.

We were staggering along the main road toward a club; a long walk from our res but we were propelled by lust and fueled by alcohol. We were a pack of young men eager in our exaggerated machismo to score. But the walk was long and the booze was straining our bladders. The others ducked down an alley to piss against a wall. I stood on the street, bladder tight but I have never been easy about public urination and the club was close enough for me. That small act of restraint was why I was the face of the group.

By an act of something like justice, people started leaving the building abutting the alley. My friends were pissing on the side of a mosque on Friday night. The crowd noticed and started shouting. I was slow and front and centre. My friends fled as the crowd became mob and surrounded me. Enraged men screaming in my face. I didn’t disown my friends, I didn’t feel innocent. I was terrified and ashamed. A man struck me, a backhand slap through the face that staggered me. I fell to one knee. One person against a mob is helpless. That’s what I thought. And whether getting up would be worse than staying down.

The man who had struck me raised his hand, clenched into a fist. And someone stood between us. Another man, his beard grey, his upper lip shaved. He pulled me up by the arm and hustled me through the crowd, waving their anger back. He took me to the edge of the mob, pushed me and said, “just leave.” One man is helpless against the mob. But one man carried me to safety. He hated me I’m sure, but he did not want me to be hurt.

There are memories like splinters, able to pierce right through your skin and leave it marked and changed.

Tortoise shell

The cat was a large and handsome animal, its fur thick and deep, brindle. Or tortoise shell? When was the last time Shay had seen something made out of tortoise shell? Her grandmother’s set of combs? Her fingers rub the cat’s warm belly. Her grandmother’s house had been her model of fantasy worlds. Rich and dark textures. Every piece of furniture was arcane and specific to a purpose, from the roll-top writing desk with its hundred tiny draws, to the cutlery caddy that opened up a green felt chamber in which all the ivory handled silverware waited in their precisely fitted positions. Even the wood of these wonders wasn’t the wood of the rest of the world. A thousand dark shades, a thousand patterns of grain and knot, arranged as inlays or in a symmetry that seemed magical – like the far edge of a lake, where the land meets its mirror.

Shay was twenty when they moved her grandmother out of her old house and into a care home. Twenty when they sold the treasures. The only thing that went with her grandmother to the place that could never be her home was a little vanity table. Her tortoise shell combs in their silver case in one of the secret drawers. Thirty-three now, Shay wonders what happened to the table and to the combs. The cat purrs, its ear flicks.

Flashback

“Tell it from the beginning. Where ever that is. Where ever the story starts, that where you start telling it.” He was pacing in front of the whiteboard, holding forth on the failings of screenwriters. “Withholding information for effect is a cheap technique. But revealing it in flashback doubles down on the offence.”

“What about ‘Rashomon’? That’s a classic.” It was a small class and informal, Sara hadn’t raised a hand to speak out.

“If you think ‘Rashomon’ is an example of flashback then you have fundamentally misunderstood the film and the concept. ‘Rashomon’ is a tale retold from different perspectives. There’s no truth revealed by the stories. A flashback changes our perception of the present, immediate action by revealing new information, the viewer has no choice but to believe it.”

Sara blushes. He doesn’t notice.

“Here is your assignment for the weekend: Take a film with a lot of flashbacks and put them into chronological order. What does that do to the story? What’s missing? Where is the tension now? Where is the climax? Where is the inciting incident?”

The class gathers up notes and laptops snap shut as they exit with mutters and murmur.

“Sara.” He says. “Hang back a moment.”

She stays seated in the front row as the lecture room empties and she’s alone with him. The wooden desk is a barrier between them. He sits on it. Perches. So she has to look up at him.

“Sara, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t interrupt me during the lecture.”

She doesn’t know what to say, so she nods.

He puts a hand on her shoulder.

“You’re a very bright girl, I’m interested in your opinions – so if you want feel free to visit me in my office. Anytime.”

“Sure. Thanks.” She says.

He smiles and lifts his hand from her shoulder to give her a little pat on the cheek. Then he gets up, grabs his satchel and heads out the double doors of the lecture room.

Sara can feel his touch lingering on her cheek, and the weight of his hand still on her shoulder. It stays there for the rest of the day.