Tuesday, 19 May 2015
He heard the crackle of fires surrounding him, felt the heat under his feet, the smoke stinging his eyes. He was yelling desperately, trying to force his body to move faster when the very air seemed to be holding him back. A crack under him and he was falling, hurtling into a fire that reached hungry arms up to claim him...
Barkus opened his eyes and found himself on the floor, wrapped so thoroughly in bedsheets that his only recourse was to wriggle, worm-like out the top of the cocoon. He was in the apartment above Mary's Cafe, and it was nearly dawn. The place was really very nice. It had been clearly designed for 2 people who liked to socialize. One permanent bedroom, a guest room/office, a compact but pleasantly functional kitchen and a sizeable, open-plan living area. Large bedroom windows showed the line of brightness that signified the coming sun and the birds outside were celebrating the new day.
Barkus stared around the simple, yet comfortably furnished room, his heart still pounding in his throat, the sweat cooling on his skin. He'd had nightmares before of course, but it was so vivid, so real. It was like he had really been in a house fire, but he had never been in one...
Well said a recently-awakened voice. You haven't, but your family has...
Barkus jumped at the slam of a door under his feet. In the Cafe below, the usual noises of opening up an establishment for the day began, including several voices raised in greeting. Barkus took a swift, scalding hot shower to chase away the demons, dressed hurriedly and clattered down the apartment steps, turning the corner to the entrance of Mary's just as Mary herself was turning the sign to 'Open'.
'Oh good morning Barkus,' she smiled as he walked in. 'Did you sleep well?'
'For the most part,' he replied, then he saw who else was there. 'Sol! Gus! How are you two doing?'
'Oh cant complain now Barkus,' Sol replied with a wide grin as Barkus made his way over to them. 'The sun's rising, everything else is a bonus.' Barkus paused in the act of pulling out a chair after an inviting gesture from Gus.
'That's a pretty good way of looking at it,' he admitted, sitting down. 'I have to say that I never thought of it that way.'
'It's a different approach, that's for sure.'
'So how's Barkus this morning?,' Gus rumbled. Barkus opened his mouth to deliver the usual inane answer, then shut it again. Instinctively, he felt again that Gus brooked no lies.
'In need of a working dreamcatcher,' he said instead. They waited politely, Mary quietly deposited a cup of coffee by his elbow, for a moment it seemed like there was a crossroads looming, then he shook his head and it passed. 'I don't know,' he mumbled. 'It's a funny thing, dreaming.'
'That it is,' Sol nodded as Barkus took refuge in his coffee. 'It used to be believed that a dream was always true, not even allegorical, just plain true. Then it was thought that they had to interpreted through standard texts and translators. At some point they were dismissed as nothing more than images and random leakages while the days events were being filed.' He shrugged, while Barkus stared right through a picture of a bespectacled Dave Brubeck at his piano. 'I'm sure tomorrow they'll find something else to reason them away.'
'You sound ever so slightly acerbic,' Barkus pointed out, dragging himself back into the here and now.
'Do I?' Sol seemed surprised, then he shrugged again. 'I suppose I prefer to see dreams as slightly more significant than the 'random filing' theory.'
'How so?' Sol pursed his lips and gazed at the ceiling, Barkus realized that the spot he was staring at corresponded to where his bed was upstairs, but shrugged it off as coincidence.
'Certain things weigh heavily on the human mind,' he said slowly. 'Unfulfilled expectations, unfinished goodbyes, regrets, pain of all kinds, they all pull on the subconscious regardless of whether or not a person is actually aware of it. Dreams are many things and one of the functions is to allow the unconscious mind to,' he waved his coffee cup. 'Leave a note on the door I guess. Though sometimes,' he laughed. 'It's more like breaking the door down, grabbing the conscious mind by the scruff of the neck and demanding it's attention.' Barkus laughed weakly, but he remembered the feeling of terror as the boards broke under his feet to pitch him into the flames. His hand began to shake.
At that moment, Gus rose to fetch a fresh jug of cream from where Mary was filling them for the day. As he did so, his shadow fell across Barkus and Barkus felt a moment of calm. He took a huge, shuddering breath, then snuck a look to see if either of the other two men had noticed his discomposure. Both appeared engrossed in their tasks, Gus almost replacing his coffee with cream and Sol scanning the breakfast menu on the wall.
'Would you guys like something to eat this morning?' Mary asked, bustling over. 'The grill's warmed up and the eggs are fresh, so what can I get you?'
'I'll have pancakes, please Mary,' Sol said. 'Just three, loaded with fruits and chocolate please.'
'That sounds pretty good actually;' Barkus mused. 'Make that 2 orders please Mary. And an orange juice.'
'And I'll have the melted cheese and ham on brown bread please,' said Gus. 'Thanks Mary.' And with another smile, she was off to the kitchen.
'So I hear you're almost ready to present to Council,' Sol said, matter of factly. Barkus grinned, what else did he expect?
'Nearly, I have to get to grips with the material first. When there are, entrenched interests there are entrenched ideas ,' he paused, Sol and Gus were both grinning at him as he tried to stay diplomatic. 'And those can be hard to...'
'De-trench?' Gus suggested. 'You're not far wrong there, though the issue is more that while the Council would love a 'John Barkus Built' square, they'll want Paul Taylor to be in charge of the actual building.' Barkus thought about this. Up in the flat, there were sepia-toned pictures of the town over the last 100 or so years. When he was shown the flat yesterday, he had taken great care to memorize the section that contained the building where Paul Taylor's clothes shop was, then went back out again to look at the building as it was today. He was not struck by Mr Taylor's taste in building decoration, and said so. Both of the other men burst out laughing.
'You know,' Sol said, wiping at his eyes. 'I kinda had the feeling you'd feel that way.'
'Well, I really had better start studying then,' Barkus mused. 'Cos the best way to call someones ability into question is to catch them out in a question and never let them regain balance. And I don't feel like tottering in front of the Village Council.'
'Oh, you better be careful who hears you there Barkus,' came a new voice. Barkus twisted to see George accept a coffee from Mary and wander over to their table. He was out of uniform and as he sat down, Sol asked;
'Day off today George?'
'You know it,' George replied, putting his hat under his chair and sitting back with a sigh. 'Giving the wife a lie-in and came out for a guilty breakfast.'
'Her granola getting any better?' George put on a look of mock-offence.
'That's my wife you're talking about there buddy, her granola has always been amazing.' Pause, contemplation of coffee. 'It's the muesli that could do with some work.' Laughter.
'My wife used to put coconut flakes, nuts, berries, maple syrup and some ginger,' Barkus paused. 'And I think a pinch of salt too, all in a bowl and mix it up, put it into muffin tins, and pop them in the freezer. When they came out they were these sweet, nutty, hard snacks that went perfectly with a coffee.' Barkus paused, then glanced down at his left hand. 'Ex-wife, I mean,' he mumbled. The other men looked at him sympathetically, then George cleared his throat.
'You know,' he said thoughtfully. 'I don't like hard snacks, but a mix like that sounds like it would be really tasty along with muesli.' he paused and grimaced. 'I cant believe I just said that. She's wearing me down boys.' Mary came over with three plates and slid them in front of their owners.
'Having breakfast with Lisa today George?' George shook his head.
'Nope, giving her a break and letting her sleep in so I'll need some feeding.' Mary waited, eyebrow raised as George stared longingly at Gus's plate, then he sighed. 'You know what Lisa allows Mary, just do your best to make it interesting.'
'You know she only wants to make sure you live forever,' Mary commented, as she turned away.
'Well, if second prize is making it feel like forever, then she's certainly getting that medal.' George's smile robbed the words of sting and Barkus felt a wave of jealousy suddenly wash over him. He bent his head over his pancakes to hide it, and missed the look that flashed between Sol and Gus.
'Oh wow,' he said, mouth full. 'These pancakes are amazing!'
'Yeah,' George said morosely. 'They are. It's the high percentage of butter and cream.' Barkus paused.
'That's true' he admitted. 'But I think the nutmeg might also have something to do with it.'
'Shush there Barkus!' Mary called from the counter where she was polishing cutlery. 'Stop giving my secrets away!' George stared at Barkus.
'Nutmeg?' He twisted in his chair. 'Hey Mary, am I allowed nutmeg?'
'George, you know full well that you're allowed all flavourings except chillis and salt. It's not Lisa's fault that they're the only ones you think you like. Don't worry, Jamie's on the case and he's got taste-buds that are only half-atrophied.'
'How's Jamie working out for you?' Gus asked as Mary wandered over, the cutlery chore forgotten.
'You tell me,' she smiled. 'This morning he did everything himself from scratch.' Sol and Gus both stared down at their plates and back at her.
'So these aren't your pancakes?' Sol asked, sounding heartbroken.
'My recipe, my kitchen, Jamie's hands on the whisk.' Mary smiled. 'He learns fast that kid, he gets a recipe perfect after 2 tries and by the fourth he's bringing it home to see how far he can take it.'
'How's his Pop doing?'
'Better now that his son makes sure he's eating properly. But he's not walking as much as the doctors tell him and that's making him seize up.'
'Well, lets be honest here Mary,' Gus rumbled. 'Where they live there's nowhere to walk to, just out and back and James Hornet has never seen the point in that. He may have lost an arm, but it hasn't changed him that much.'
'And old men like James Hornet will never 'make himself a burden' as he puts it.' She sighed and turned as the door opened to admit 3 more customers. 'So unless there's a purpose for him to take walks besides his health, he's not going to take them.' With a last glance at the volumes of their coffee cups, she went to look after the 3 newcomers.
'Where do they live?' Barkus asked. A phrase from last nights study had popped up during the conversation.
'You know that road going between Jim's Place and the blue building? About 3 miles out that way,' George said.
'Huh.' Silence reigned for a few moments. 'How many people live out that way?' Sol, Gus and George regarded each other for a moment.
'Over the whole road?' George shrugged. 'About 200 people, but spread out over 10 or 15 square miles. You know, clusters of related families, gap of couple miles, more clusters.'
'But they're not all on the road neither,' Gus added. 'Most are a half-mile and more further back. For some, half the way into town is getting off the driveway.'
'Huh,' Barkus said again, with a far-away look in his eye.
'Why, whatcha thinking about? Thanks Mary,' George added as Mary slid a bowl and small plate in front of him. 'Oh wow, what is this?'
'Muesli, fruit and yoghurt, with vanilla and maple syrup,' she told him. 'With a side of sliced pears and Jamie's special fruit cake.' George raised an eyebrow.
'”Special”?' Mary laughed, then lowered her voice.
'Gluten free, just don't blab cos no-one will want to try it and it's too good to be refused.'
'Well,' George sighed. 'Okay, I'll give it a try.'
'We appreciate you taking the risk,' she replied solemnly, before heading away again. George regarded the cake slice suspiciously, then turned his attention to the bowl.
'So what were you thinking about?' Sol asked Barkus, who was grinning at George's examination of his breakfast.
'Hmm? Oh, sorry. What was I thinking about when?' Gus chuckled, his melted sandwich had already disappeared, now his finger was chasing the last of the salad dressing.
'When you were asking about the road past Jim's Place?' Sol hinted.
'Oh my, this is good,' George enthused suddenly. He had finally taken the plunge and a spoonful from the bowl, now he was staring into it with the expression of a man on the verge of a revelation. He looked up into three bemused expressions. 'I'm sorry, please continue.'
Amidst chuckles, Barkus said; 'I want to ask Sheryl what she could come up with for that road.' The three other men looked him quizzically. 'Just out of interest,' he said, a shade defensively.
'Sheryl Monroe,' Sol mused, while Gus regarded Barkus with an unreadable expression. 'I been hearing some strange things regarding...'
George coughed and held his napkin to his mouth. He coughed again and this time managed to clear the problem. He looked up.
'Sorry, he said for the second time in a minute. 'It seems that tasty muesli is a dangerous thing, liable to choke you if eaten too fast.'
'I wonder is that the first time anyone's said that?' Barkus asked as he got up to re-fill his cup from the jug on the counter. Mary was at the other end of the restaurant, entertaining a small, hyperactive child while it's parents tried to doze over their coffee. There was a mirror here and Barkus saw George shoot Sol an annoyed, meaningful look, while Sol raised his shoulders in the universal “who, me?” gesture. When he got back to the table, all was normal, though Gus was regarding the ceiling with a repressed smile and folded arms.
'Well,' Barkus said as he sat down again. 'I've been reading the books she lent me and they're fascinating. I want to see some different applications though,' he paused, he had lost them. 'Do you guys have any idea what I'm talking about?'
About ten minutes later, Barkus realised that he had gotten himself into a hole, but was momentarily saved by Sol looking towards the door and breaking into a large smile.
'Sarah! Welcome back my dear, it's been far too long!' he boomed, standing to give the tall stranger a hug. She was so much taller than him in fact, that his face ended in her breasts, a fact that he did not seem to mind at all. She laughed a rich, warm laugh and wrapped her arms around the top of his head.
'With a welcome like that, is it any wonder I stay away so long?' Gus and George laughed as Sol emerged with a loopy grin, before standing for their hugs of welcome. Gus even lifted the woman off her feet momentarily, resulting in another thrill of laughter. Lynn, Barkus noticed, was grinning from ear to ear and her eyes sparkled as she drank in Sarah's every move. He put two and two together and was thankful that he had not embarressed himself. Then it was his turn to greet the newcomers.
Sarah turned a broadly smiling face and dark eyes on him, and he was momentarily tongue-tied. She was one of these rare people who almost created electricity with an arm gesture, who vibrated with inner purpose, and focused that energy on whoever was the subject of their attention. The fact that she was drop-dead gorgeous did not help at all. As he muttered an inane greeting to go with his handshake while Lynn introduced them, his eyes fell on a vivid red and black badge pinned low to one side of the scoop-neck top she was wearing. It had a slogan on it.
“ 'What does it mean?',” he echoed, not realising he spoke aloud until the sound of his voice hit his ears. Sarah regarded him with her head on one side, eyes sparkling. Barkus hoped he wasnt blushing as he stumbled on in embarresment. “Your badge, it says, “What does it m...?” So, what does it mean?”
“Are you completing the thought on the badge or are you asking me the meaning or purpose of the badge?” Barkus paused, the woman's face held the same expression as his younger sister's had when she was in a playful mood.
“I think I've guessed the purpose of the badge and so may have reached the meaning also.” The smallest change in her expression told him that he had won a prize so he plunged on. “I think people fill in words that they expect to see, that resonates with their frame of mind at that time. By dangling a badge like that where people are bound to look,” he was rewarded by a bark of laughter. “You have a sure-fire way of assessing a person in a short period of time.”
Sarah smiled ruefully and turned to Lynn.
“You're right,” she said to her. “I do like him despite myself.”