Photo by Marvin Chandiary, Pexels
Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Quadrivium‘s direct translation from Latin is ‘the intersection of 4 roads’ – or simply ‘crossroads’. However, these days quadrivium is often used to refer to a specific place where 4 travellers all come together and meet – either by accident or intention. Write a story or a poem using either the original or the modern meaning of quadrivium.
By Eithne Bradley
The indoor waterfall roared. The sound bounced back and multiplied off the glass dome above, and the shuttered shops, and the marble floor, caging it like a wild animal. Perhaps the waterfall dreamt of a savage drop over jungle falls. Perhaps it dreamt of surging in a cathedral of water that deafened tiny humans at its foot. Perhaps it wanted to form a mist that blinded and disoriented. Here it was desalinated, neutered, performing for the mild distraction of travellers.
Peter took a sip of his beer as he stared through the water feature. Dubai airport was never exactly quiet; there were flights through the night, although they were more spaced out. Around him passengers slept in corners, wrapped in hoodies like refugees. Have some self respect, he thought, putting the beer down again. It was Euro fizz, but the best you could expect in the middle of the night in this sort of country. Not racist to say that. They weren’t drinkers. Everyone knew that. A cleaner rode past on his floor-polishing machine. All from the sub-continent, weren’t they? Ten a penny, the labourers there. People said it was exploitation, but he was an economist, after all, and he understood it better than most. No, it was supply and demand. Simple. Everyone was happy. Or at least occupied. Which, economically speaking, was the same thing.
He took another sip, gazing at the Guinness sign overhead. Strange that the Irish had cornered the market in pubs and bars abroad. You had to hand it to them, they had a good brand. But it was depressing. Everything was wrong, as if he’d put his clothes on inside out. Every part of this journey had felt like the wrong decision. From agreeing to fly, to dropping his bag in Melbourne, to sitting here with this stale beer in this dead place, at every point he had fought himself not to turn around. Duty was stronger, it seemed, than true feelings.
Had he hated the old man? He’d certainly said he did, before he left. He was young then, and everything seemed so simple. But absence has a way of blurring the edges, and now all he was left with was a vague aversion to ending up like his father, mouldering in his floral armchair while daytime television played two notches too high. There had been phone calls, cautious conversations about neutral subjects. They had never said a single meaningful thing to one another. And now he was gone, and the chance was gone with it too, and that felt all wrong as well.
You expect your parents to always be there, since they always have been.
That creeping feeling, that desire to talk to someone, anyone – he hated it. He knew what it was now, of course. His girlfriend had told him so very clearly before she left him. It was loneliness.
There was a woman coming into the bar, sneakers on the dark wooden floor. She stopped to look up at the overhead screens. She had thick dark hair streaked with grey, and one of those forgettable faces, like a maid. Her face contorted in anger.
“London delayed! Shit!” she spat.
With a lurch of dismay, he got up and went to stand beside her. There it was, his flight, delayed by two hours. On top of the three he had already spent. He felt utterly exhausted.
She must have been watching him, because she asked,
“Yeah, that’s my flight.”
She seemed to be sizing him up. Close to, she gave the impression of compact strength. Her words had the same quality – those clipped, accented syllables.
“I’ve been here hours,” he explained to her. She didn’t react. Her eyes just flicked over his face, as if searching for something there. “And the beer is terrible.”
She barked out a laugh.
“Stupid to drink beer in Dubai,” she replied.
Peter felt a little wash of relief. She wasn’t angry with him. He knew women got funny when you talked to them in public now. Or anywhere, really.
“Do you want to sit with me?” he asked. “Then we won’t miss any announcements.”
She nodded curtly. He pointed out the seat, and she went to get a drink from the drowsy barman. When she came back, she was holding a gin and tonic. Peter wondered briefly who had taught her to drink that. It wasn’t a woman’s drink. Or a Filipino one, for that matter.
They sat together for a moment in silence.
“So, London,” he said eventually. “Business or pleasure?”
“Family.” she said.
“Ah. Neither, then. Me too. I mean, I’m going for a funeral. My father.”
She should have said something then. Perhaps offered her condolences, or said she was sorry. But she didn’t. She sat there in silence, picking at her lemon.
“Good man, your father?” she asked, eventually. “You think he was kind?”
What an odd question, he thought, but it was the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere and the usual rules did not apply. Strangers on a train and all that. And he wanted to tell her. Since nobody else had bothered to ask.
“No, he wasn’t really,” he said. He thought back. Was it the pettiness, or the casual racism, or the way he talked down to Peter’s mother? Was it the way he always thought he was right, even when he clearly wasn’t, could never be, but wouldn’t back down? “He was unkind. Very unkind.” Peter said, with some heat.
The woman nodded, as if she had expected that.
“What about you? What family are you visiting? You’re from the Philippines, right?”
“My family spent a while there, before I was born. In Manila. They had very happy memories. And dozens of papier-mache bits to put on the wall. You know, the sculptures made of newspaper and glue…”
“I know what is papier-mache.”
“Ah, right. Of course you would.”
“When I was young, I made those things,” she said. “After, I was a cleaner.”
“Where there’s muck there’s brass,” he said, and then felt embarrassed at her blank look. Far too colloquial. Right over her head.
“What you do?” she asked.
“I’m an economist. I live in Australia.”
“I chose it on purpose. As far away from London as I could.”
“Why? London so bad?”
“It was suffocating. Just the way the whole place is set up. You know, I could have followed in my father’s footsteps. Made lots of money, and had the wife and the house and the two children. But money’s not everything, you know? Sometimes you need your own space. To grow and develop.”
“You had money and your family was alive. Not so bad.” she said.
“Well, I couldn’t be who I wanted to be.”
“Me? I had two boys. No husband. Just me, cleaning every day from seven to seven. And what happened?”
“The boy died. So he couldn’t be who he wanted to be. Just like you.”
Peter could feel his cheeks growing hot. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What did he die of?”
“Police.” she said. The silence fell again. Her eyes were distant, no doubt remembering her son. Peter tried not to think of the pulped hands and burned feet he’d seen in a pamphlet once.
“I called his father. He lived very far away, this father. I asked him to help. He did not. He said it was not his son.”
“But you can prove that sort of thing now. With DNA.”
“He did not give a sample. Did not want. He said -” her eyes rolled upwards in recollection, “it was not his human rights.”
Peter sighed. He knew men of this generation, like his father, who had railed against DNA when testing first became mainstream. You could plant evidence against innocent men, he had raved at the television. Tramps from years ago could pin a child on anyone, when any Tom, Dick or Harry could have sired the brat.
“He should have helped. It would have been the right thing to do.” he said. She tilted her glass, chasing the ice round and round the rim.
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
She nodded once, as if in satisfaction.
“I’m sorry about your son, Camilla.”
She shrugged. “Not only me. Police…” She trailed off as a couple approached the table. The girl, dragging the boyfriend by the wrist, had obviously spotted them and, driven by safety in numbers, decided to approach.
“Are you on the London flight?” she demanded. Up close, she was about eighteen, with blonde hair in dreads. “It’s delayed, isn’t it? I did read that right?” She laughed, but there was a little edge of desperation in her voice. Clearly the trust fund had run out.
“You read it right,” said Peter. “We’re on that flight too, actually.”
“Oh, great! Can we join? We’ve been on a silent retreat for two weeks and to be honest I am dying to have a proper conversation again!”
The boyfriend stared off into the distance. Maybe he hadn’t realised the retreat was over.
Resigned to his fate, Peter drew up chairs for the newcomers. Camilla shifted round. She didn’t say a word, but Peter could see how she was watching them. Neither of them paid her any attention.
“Hi, I’m Cordelia, “ trilled the girl, stretching out a thin arm adorned with bangles. She did not greet Camilla. “And this is Ben.” Ben just nodded.
“Oh my God, it’s been such drama,” Cordelia launched into her story as if Peter or Camilla had asked for it. “We’ve got such a big job when we get back home. So, my mother, it turns out, read this article about Swedish death cleaning. You know, when you’re old and you realise you’re about to die, and you start clearing stuff up. Giving it to charity. Well, she’s gone a bit nuts you see, and she’s throwing out all sorts of valuable stuff. So we decided we’d come back and help her. Make sure she doesn’t throw away the family silver, ha ha ha!”
“How nice of you to care about your mother so much,” said Camilla. The criticism sailed right over Cordelia’s tufty head.
“Well, she is my little old mum, isn’t she? Crazy thing though. Some old boyfriend of hers died – you know, she’s really old now – and he left her a load of stuff in the will. So she says she’s going to the will reading and the funeral now. But I’m going with her. People can get really, you know, selfish around wills.” She frowned at the two adults, as if impressing them with her own seriousness. “Apparently he left me something?”
Camilla and Peter exchanged a look that said quite plainly, make it stop.
“Are you going to make it, with the delay?” Peter asked, to be polite.
“Oh yeah, the funeral’s not till Thursday.”
“Must be a run on at the cemeteries, mine’s on Thursday too.” Peter said, just to say something. Camilla got up and picked up the empties. A career as a cleaner had obviously left its mark. As she headed off to the bar, Cordelia said, “Oh my god, it would be so funny if we were going to the same funeral! Mine’s this guy called Charles Andrews, I think?”
“Is that – is that at Brompton Cemetery? At 2pm?”
“Yeah!” Cordelia broke into a wide smile, leaning over the table to him. “Is it the same guy? How totally crazy!”
Peter leant back in his chair. The room seemed to be sliding sideways, and it wasn’t just the beer. The old goat. Banging on about fidelity and a woman’s place.
“Was he your dad?” Peter asked her. “I’m being serious.”
“I dunno!” The girl was gleeful. “Are we, like, brother and sister?”
Disoriented, Peter looked round for Camilla. She’d been gone too long, he thought, with the rational part of his brain.
And as he did, he caught sight of her stocky little frame disappearing away down the concourse. In her hand, something shiny. She was struggling to cram it into her bag. His eyes focused, and he realised what it was.
It was an empty pint glass, still holding the imprint of his lips.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Although I grew up in Somerset in England, I come from a big Northern Irish family, which influences my writing. I studied Spanish and Russian at Oxford, and travelled a lot during my studies, living in Russia, Mexico and then Serbia for a while. After graduating into the Great Recession, I needed to find a way to use my languages as a career. Conference interpreting turned out to be the answer. I trained at Bath and moved on to working at the UN agencies in Geneva the following year. The job is demanding but fun; you have to think on your feet and are often in the middle of some quite tense situations. Having to pay attention to someone’s idiolect – that is, the way they speak and the vocabulary they personally use – is good training for making characters sound different on paper. And, of course, I got to see a lot more of the world, with conferences in far-flung locations I would never have dreamed of visiting. After eight years in Geneva, I decided to exercise the ‘free’ part of being a freelancer, and moved to Vienna. Sadly, I haven’t been able to really make use of all of Vienna’s opportunities due to the pandemic, but I did find Sunday Writers, which has become a big part of my week. Writing fills my spare time, the upshot of which being that I have written two novels destined ‘for the desk drawer’, as the Russians say. Hopefully my current project will enjoy a little more success!
That was brilliant!
Loved the clever ending! Thanks for sharing.
What a great read – leaves you wanting more!