by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
appeared in issue 228.
Chapter 8: Columbia, South Carolina
part 4 of 4
The cab dropped Salvatore off outside Maelene’s single-storey house just after eight-thirty. Newly showered, dressed in fresh clothes, and brimming with confidence and amore, he marched up the drive and rapped on the front door, four or five times.
Mild shouting could be heard inside. And two long minutes passed before the door was cautiously opened by a tired-looking white woman wearing a dressing-gown.
‘Where’s the fire, son?’
‘Oh ... I was expecting Maelene!’
‘She’s still in bed. Like we were! Does she know you?’
‘Oh yes! We were together all yesterday evening. I’ve come to take her out for the day.’
‘Sheesh! This early? You sure she’s expectin’ you?’
‘Well, not exactly ...’
‘Stay there, son.’ Keeping him in clear view, she backed off and tapped on one of the doors leading off the hallway. After hearing a muffled reply, she poked her head in, muttered a few words, then turned back to Salvatore, re-issued her command to “Stay there”, and retreated to the kitchen, almost closing its door behind her.
He did as he was told. He hadn’t expected this. Mind you, perhaps he should have. He’d only left home himself a few months ago ...
The bedroom door opened a little more, and the face of a bleary-eyed Maelene Bay peeked out.
‘Oh, it’s you, Sal! Whatever do you want at this hour?’
‘I told that other lady. I’ve come to ask you out.’
‘That other lady’s my Mom, Sal. And you can’t just turn up here like this. It’s not right.’
‘But Maelene ...’
‘No, Sal. Look — it’s kind of you to ask, and I appreciate it ... but no, thank you, I have to be honest, I’d rather not come out with you.’
‘Oh, Maelene ...’
‘No, you must let us be, now ... it’s early on a Saturday morning, and we all deserve our extra rest. I’ll see you on Monday at the office, OK?’
‘Well, if you insist ...’
‘I insist, Sal. And please pull the door firmly shut behind you.’
When he was gone, she gently closed her own door. She was annoyed and embarrassed and not far from tears. She thought briefly of going to talk with her Mom, who was obviously still in the kitchen and must be quite clear now on the situation with Sal. Then she decided against it, and slipped back into bed. But there was someone else she really would speak to about it, and soon ...
Maria Bay was indeed still sitting alone in her kitchen, and thinking back to that day in 1966 when Jacob Joshua had come knocking at her parents’ door.
And thinking about how her own Mom had treated him, there and then: the only black boy in Maria’s class at school, and he was daring to date her! And how she herself had soon been slowly but steadily overwhelmed by the pressures coming at her from every quarter. How she had finally felt obliged to ditch — and so abruptly! — the only boy she’d ever really loved. Simply to conform.
And how, eight full years later, in a subtly-changing world, she — now well-educated and independent, full of liberation’s promise, no longer just society’s child — had been able to return that gesture, renew that friendship, confirm that love, marry her oh-so-fine Mr Jacob Joshua Bay, and later give him a beautiful baby girl of their own.
Maria wept softly with her ever-present joy and a strange new uncertainty.
Salvatore too was thinking hard on his way back to the hotel. He needed to find a way to get Maelene much more interested in him, and fast ... he had no idea how long the Chief would need him here in Columbia. What could he do that would really impress her? Another dance didn’t seem like a good idea. Movies were boring. He couldn’t really take her sightseeing! What could he do?
And then he hit on it. He would take her flying! She’d just love that!
As soon as he got back to his room he grabbed the phone book and looked up the number of the airport: not Columbia Metropolitan, where he had arrived on that beautiful little jet plane on Thursday, but the smaller downtown field he’d seen signposted yesterday. Their training school was bound to have light aircraft for rent over the weekend, and he had unlimited funds ...
He was brought down to earth very rapidly.
‘Ya wanna fly a plane on a European licence, son? Sure thing. But since last summer ya gotta get it validated in advance by the FAA. Changing times, ya see. It’ll take ’em anything up to ninety days, now. Call me back after that, and I’ll take ya for a check ride or two. If I’m happy, then I’ll let ya go solo. Want the FAA’s number?’
He put the phone down in bitter disappointment, and turned to the mini-bar for inspiration.
* * *
Norman Crofton was deep in study of the company’s precious metals databases when his mobile phone broke the silence. He cursed mildly, hesitated, then answered it with clear irritation in his voice; but his mood changed as he realised it was Maelene and listened to her story.
She’d always been open with him, ever since she’d joined the firm, often quietly raising little office problems as soon as they threatened to turn into big ones. And he’d always sorted things out. “Father-figure”, that was the word, he’d often thought. “Sugar-daddy” would be a nice idea, too. But she’d never so much as hinted at that ...
‘OK, sweetie, I understand. I thought y’all were getting on real well, but I must say I wasn’t watching too closely. I’m sorry he’s upset ya. Maybe they do things a bit different in Italy?’ ... ‘Try to forget it, eh? Ain’t the end of the world. I’ll have a li’l word with him Monday, make sure he’s gotten the message. OK?’ ... ‘Good. Take it easy, and have a nice weekend.’ ... ‘Bye now.’
* * *
It was ten-thirty, and Salvatore was well into his second beer. And he’d cracked it this time! Maelene couldn’t possibly want to say no.
And Lucia had told him it would be all right to use the hotel phone now. So he dialled his new heart-throb’s mobile number.
‘Maelene? Hi — it’s Salvatore.’
‘What, again? Oh, Sal ...’
‘Listen, Maelene, I’ve had a great idea! Why don’t you bring your guitar down to the park, and sing me all the songs you’ve written? I’d love that! And you never know, someone in the music business might pass by and like them, and invite you to sign a contract ...’
‘Sal, are you crazy? Why don’t you listen? I’m not coming out with you — OK?’
‘But I thought you were really keen on me ...’
‘Oh, Sal ...’
‘But that song you sang me ...’
‘It was just a song, man. Just a few lines, actually. You pushed me to sing something for you. I’m in PR, remember?’
‘But it was so seductive ...’
‘Sure. That’s what lyrics and poems and stories are meant to be. Enchanting and mysterious. They draw you in, you lose your sense of what’s real. But it wasn’t me talking to you. It isn’t even a woman singing that song — or a man! It’s a songbook, inviting you in, willing you to perform its own songs ...’
‘Oh, wow, that’s incredible! I see it now! But it could have been a woman, Maelene. It could have been you ...’
‘Of course it could. That’s what I was trying to say just now. But it doesn’t mean you had to go and assume it was — and then take unilateral action!’
‘OK. But I don’t think you ought to go around just singing at people like that ...’
‘Oh, don’t be so silly! ... Hold on, please, Sal ... No, it’s OK, Mom — no, really, it’s fine, don’t worry ... Look Sal, I gotta go. Right now. I’ll see you Monday.’
She cut the call, then hit another button without a pause.
‘Norm, it’s Maelene.’ ... ‘Look, I’m really sorry to bother you again, but he’s still doing it.’ ... ‘Yes, he just called me and this time he wanted me to give him a freaking private concert! I already told him clear as day I wasn’t interested.’ ... ‘Yes, I know, Norm.’ ... ‘Yes, I can look after myself, better than most, I reckon — it’s not that, it’s the principle.’ ... ‘No, it just ain’t right ... and now it’s made my Mom really unhappy too ... and it was you who invited him along and introduced us last night. He was on his own, and I was just trying to be kind and polite and respectful to him, all evening. I did nothing to encourage him, Norm. You really need to know it’s still going on ...’
Crofton eventually cut this second call after giving his close colleague and friend another round of sympathy and some firm reassurances, and then cursed more strongly than before. He stared angrily at the wall for more than a minute. Then, torn between two strong drivers, and quite against his natural instincts, he did his best to forget about Maelene and the pesky “Salvatory” for the rest of the morning, and to re-apply himself to the huge task at hand ...
* * *
Well before noon, Lucia, blissfully ignorant of the events of the past few hours, stationed herself un-made behind the bushes near the bench in Finlay Park. And within minutes Salvatore, obeying her last set of orders to the unquestioned letter, approached from the southern entrance, newly re-tuned radio at the ready. As he plonked himself down onto the bench, she emerged in full view and sat down delicately by his side.
‘Hi Salvi! Nice evening?’
‘Yes, it was fine, thanks.’
‘Oh, right. OK, then. All ready with a Shag Music station?’
‘Affirm. 93.1 FM set and checked.’
‘Sorry, flying jargon! Yes, I’m ready, Lucia.’
‘Good. Here he comes. Switch it on, but not too loud ...’
Norman Crofton did not normally smile a great deal, and today he would certainly sustain his average. It was bad enough having to come and report poor progress to the Chief, but now the kid who had already caused him and Maelene so much grief was sitting straight in front of him, staring him in the face, and obviously trying to placate him with his own favourite radio station ...
‘Ya sure know how to charm folks, don’t ya, son!’ he blurted out, almost before slowing his pace.
Lucia the Handler took less than two seconds to register a big problem and begin the damage containment.
‘Hey, Norm, baby,’ oozed her radimote counterpart, jumping to her feet, smiling irresistibly and opening her arms as wide as she could, ‘I thought you were here to see me! Come and dance, honey ...’
And before he could utter any further complaints, she grabbed him and held him in a full and public embrace. This would have to be a quickstep ...
You seem to be in some distress, Norm.
‘Ya bet I am, Chief! I spend all my time trying to get the info ya need, and this guy keeps pestering my good friend Maelene, and she keeps calling me about it, and I ain’t done the job properly, and I just don’t like it ...’
Please be calm, Norm. I am very sorry to hear of this. I was not aware. I will take steps. And I appreciate you are not in a good state of mind for our Collection. I suspect it would help to allow you a little more time to complete the first stage of your work ...
‘Sure would. I need another coupla days to finish it!’
I think we would prefer a much earlier initial view, Norm. Could we meet here again at two o’clock? Perhaps you could delay your lunch today?
‘If that’s what ya really want, Chief. But I won’t have a proper picture by then. And ya gotta keep that guy off our backs, OK?’
Thank you, Norm. I shall ensure you are both left in peace. Now, please press on ...
Crofton turned on his heels and hurried back to his office, not even noticing that Lucia had already left.
A few weeks earlier, across the length and breadth of Europe, first Giuseppe Marco Terleone, and then Eva Dvořak, and finally Jean-Christophe Nallier had, in their own very different ways, been smitten beyond the Mater’s intent by the entrancing image of the radimote Carla (an image which poor Antonio Murano now knew to be that of his almost unimaginable rival Lisa). And once smitten, the behaviour of each, as the Domans had discovered to their considerable inconvenience or the repeated disruption of their plans, had become even more unpredictable than the human norm they were steadily attempting to establish.
Salvatore Pirone, too, was now operating in an ever-degrading mode, but the pull on him was less directly under their control. Lucia’s charms had not taken as intense a hold on him as the Mater had hoped. First he had tried to drag from the grave a long-dead fling with Marie-Anne Holden. Now he was still treating Lucia with quite inappropriate coolness, and was instead, in his childish infatuation with Maelene Bay, lobbing grenade after grenade into their latest field of operations.
Something would have to be done, and without further delay.
Lucia was un-made, but she had not lost her voice. ‘Time out, Salvi. Back to your room!’
* * *
She was already there when he arrived.
‘Salvi, this has to stop at once. You are not only upsetting Maelene, quite unfairly, but you are seriously aggravating Norman. It has already interfered with his work for us, and we suspect it is going to cause further frustrating delays.’
‘Sounds like you’re just jealous, Lucia.’
‘Don’t be so stupid! I’ve already said it must stop. We don’t want to force you on this, but we shall if we have to. Now ... are you going to co-operate or fight?’
Pirone the Illuminator struggled for several long moments with his urge for independence and the drive of his infatuation with Maelene. But his Doman press-ganging had been very effective, and his enforced loyalty to Lucia and the Mater won the day.
‘All right, Lucia. I’ll do it — for you. But it’s a real sacrifice.’
‘Bastanza, Salvi! That’s enough talk. Now you must act, and make a full apology to Maelene, at once. You must make certain she accepts it completely, and ask her to tell Norman it’s all resolved. Got that?’
‘Right. Do it now. While I’m still here.’
Picking up the phone again was probably the hardest thing Salvatore Pirone had ever done.
‘Maelene? It’s me again. No, listen — please don’t hang up. I’m calling to say I’m sorry.’ ... ‘Yes, I know — I was being thoughtless and selfish.’ ... ‘Yes, I promise.’ ... ‘Yes, it’s only because I like you so much.’ ... ‘OK, OK, I’m sorry again — this is very hard for me, Maelene.’ ... ‘Phew — thank you! Now, would you mind quickly calling Norm and telling him it’s all OK?’ ... ‘Oh, please, Maelene, this is really important.’ .... ‘Thank you!’ ... ‘Yes, I’ll hang up now — and maybe see you at the office on Monday?’ ... ‘OK — bye.’
‘Right, Salvi,’ said Lucia without further ado. ‘Get yourself some lunch, and be back here by two.’
* * *
The Mater had memorised enough of the earlier burst of pop music to allow Lucia to hum a lulling melody as Norman strode towards her for his postponed re-engagement. With no additional distractions, this time, he succumbed to her embrace without further ceremony.
Oh dear, Norm, you do not appear to have made much further progress ...
‘Damn right I ain’t. First the boss grabs me and wants to know why I wasn’t there to see the clients off from their hotel this morning. Then Maelene calls and says she’s had ya Lavatory pal on the phone again. Seems like he’s got the hint at last. About time — sheesh! And then I try and get back to ya research, and the frigging server goes down! No, I ain’t made much progress at all, Chief ...’
Not to worry, Norm. All in a day’s work here, I suspect. Just one moment, please ...
The Chief consulted briefly with Quo and the Handler. As they had each been fearing, the time had come for a major change of tack.
Norm, I feel we can relieve the pressure on you for a while. Please take the rest of the weekend off, and enjoy yourself with family and friends. Then return to the office refreshed, on Monday, and organise your time so that you can complete your work for us, without fail, by noon on Tuesday. We shall contact you again as soon as we are ready after that time.
And meanwhile we shall be taking our own steps to smooth the path of our future dialogue ...
Crofton came to, blinked, and saw nobody but himself standing by the famous park bench. Bemused, and suddenly at a loose end, he commandeered it for himself, and stretched out for a welcome nap and a bit of local damage limitation planning.
Lucia, on the other hand, simply flew back to Gervais Street.
‘Salvi, we need to change our immediate plans. I may not see you for some days.’
‘Yours is not to reason why, Salvi. You will amuse yourself in and around Columbia until further notice. You will keep your promise and not pursue Maelene.
‘Each morning, without fail, you will be in your hotel room at eight o’clock, and you will wait for me for a full thirty minutes before doing anything else. Then you will be free for the rest of that day.
‘If I have not met up with you again by Monday morning, you will spend several hours at Forretan Exploration, doing interesting things in line with your “story”. Go in again on Tuesday if necessary, and so on. And remember: do not pester Maelene. Just treat her politely, like any other member of staff. She may well be a pearl-in-waiting for us. You must not distress her further.
‘Is that all quite clear, Salvi?’
‘Yes, Lucia — but why ...?’
‘Bene — arrivederci!’
And she scurried off into the bathroom and the ether.
Salvatore dropped down onto his bed and lay there for almost an hour, feeling as bemused and pensive as Norman Crofton was, only a few blocks away to the north.
Then he went down to the reception desk and agreed an extension of his stay. Yes, he explained ... he now planned to be in Columbia for at least another three nights.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd