The sun hung low in the sky, hitting the hard surfaces of the city as a bright, lonesome glare. The trees stood limply, not a breeze to stir them but the hot exhaust of traffic. Edging his car through the six o’clock crawl, Kurt Leontes no longer took in the familiar lights and sounds. He’d retired today, or resigned, it didn’t make much difference; after forty years in the force, he felt they were glad to see the end of him. Forty years and he’d loved it, once. As a young bud, fresh out of school, he couldn’t wait to use the badge. Then the long nights working all the way up the ladder, he thought he was saving the world. But now here he was, Deputy Commissioner Leontes, a worn leather briefcase beside him the only sign of his working days.
At home, the rooms were dark and silent. He opened the fridge, illuminating the kitchen with a blue haze. As he microwaved the box of leftover spaghetti, he let his mind slip into what could have been. Her warm hands resting on his wrist, standing at this same bench. The backyard, green with the heady smell of lawn clippings. The roundedness of her body in those last few days, and then the sweep of heat that came to his face. He’d never known such a feeling until then. The microwave beeped harshly. Jealousy.
He sat, sprawled on the lumpy sofa still wearing his suit. He hadn’t bothered to turn any lights on. Instead the dark house was filled with a grey light, filtered in from the city beyond. He quite liked that, letting the city absorb the house, pretending he wasn’t there. What was he going to do? The days would struggle along like the field irrigators of his youth. He hadn’t been back there in years, not since before Hermione. She’d loved the open air and the smell of dusty straw – he hadn’t dared return. Maybe it was time. Going back to the farm could do him good, clear his head, stay a few weeks or so. He got up and shuffled over to an old teak dresser by the window. The top drawer was filled with a shamble of knick-knacks. Beneath a dog-eared address book was a bunch of keys – a mix of large and small and rusty, a key-ring bottle opener. Leontes placed the keys on top of the dresser and spread the address book open. A lamp was needed if he was going to be able to read. Under the yellow beam he flipped through the pages until he came to P. In the curled script of Hermione’s hand, was the address of Paulina.
“Yes,” Leontes breathed, his breath still hot from the spaghetti.
He remembered the young summers the four of them had spent together – he and Hermione, Paulina and Anthony. Down from the city, they’d all stay together in that big barn of a place where Paulina tended her vegetables and the house had the sweet smell of baking and cow manure. That was a long time ago, but he knew Paulina still lived out there. Started a proper eco farm, he’d heard. That would cheer him up – country air, watching the cows, and Paulina.
People never asked him directly. They never said, Did you do it? But you could see the way they looked at him, turning away ever so slightly if he came close. Honestly, he was quite glad they were scared of him, because he wouldn’t have known what to say otherwise. People assumed things, things that were not always right, although sometimes they were.
At the muddy gate, Leontes pulled the Camry in and at the sight of the timber barn, instantly the memories came back. The hot sun, all of them on the deck. The talking they did – kids, work, all sorts of rubbish, laughing on and on. Hermione would throw her head back, smiling into the warm sky, that round belly getting bigger by the day. He didn’t think there could be anything better. He hadn’t been back since then.
The garden rose out of the earth like an oasis in a desert. He parked on the driveway beneath a giant red gum, its bark gnarled and seeped. As he opened the car door, Leontes breathed the rich scents of soil and pollen. A tender smile spread across his face at the comfort he felt. The garden, full of roses, perennials and patches of shaggy Australian grasses, sprawled its way either side of the drive and up to the house. The house was the same – a large square formation, clad in a dark wood not at all appropriate in the fire season. Beyond the house and the large gum trees behind, he could just see the fields where Paulina grew her produce.
Just at that moment he heard the clang of a shovel being dropped to the ground and Paulina emerged from the thickets of her garden.
She was still the same, as slim as the shovel at her feet, her blazing hair a pile atop her head.
“Yes. I’ve come back,” Leontes began. “Well, to stay a little while. A break, a respite you might say. I’ve retired.”
“Oh,” was all she said. Her expression frozen in a half frown. “Oh, I see.”
“I…I thought, seeing as I was down here, it would be good to visit you. It’s been a long time, I know.” He tried to smile, his face feeling stiff all of a sudden.
Paulina must have realised her reaction was gruff, because she smiled now and stepped towards him.
“Yes. And what a surprise it is to see you. Retirement! Well, that will do you good… until you get bored, of course.”
“Yes,” Leontes chuckled. He felt calmer now, shuffling his feet. “Try to keep out of trouble.”
Paulina watched him, nodding vaguely. Her silver earrings flashed in the sunlight. She glanced over his shoulder, looking at the house.
“Well, I just drove down today,” Leontes continued. “Could we have a cup of tea or something? Catch up?”
“If you have a moment,” Leontes was getting the feeling he’d caught her while she was busy.
“No. No, it’s fine. Ah, come on in,” And she started off towards the house, her pace quick.
Inside, the house seemed more cramped than Leontes remembered. On every surface there was a jumble of books, mugs, dry flowers, knitted rugs and torn envelopes.
“Excuse the mess,” Paulina muttered as she noisily moved some items on the mantelpiece. “I’ll make us some tea.”
“Thanks,” Leontes stood idly in the sitting room, observing the space around him.
His gaze travelled along the collection of items on the mantle. There was an assembly of birds’ feathers in a jar, a painting of hay fields at sunrise, but what caught his eye was a photograph. A girl, about ten or so, sat on an old fallen tree, the sun shining down across her face. She grinned at the camera, happiness plain in her eyes, and yet something about her made Leontes’ heart judder.
“You have a daughter?” he called out to Paulina. “She’s beautiful.”
Paulina appeared at the doorway, tea pot in hand.
“Yes. She’s grown up now,” Her voice was quiet.
“What’s her name?”
“Perdita, after my mother. We call her Pia,” She smiled, staring at Leontes.
He looked back at the photograph, and then at the one beside it. Hermione – his wife, Paulina’s childhood friend. Her face and torso filled the frame, turned slightly to the left, a wistful expression on her lips. Her dusky hair fell over her shoulders, the cool sun lighting her from behind. Leontes stared at her, into those eyes he had missed every day for the past sixteen years. Hermione. He remembered her every detail. The way she tucked one side of her hair behind an ear, folded her shirt collar over her jacket, tilted one eyebrow slightly above the other. Her perfume, like the coming of summer rain. But those wrinkles either side of her mouth, he did not remember those.
“She looks different, Paulina,” he whispered without turning from Hermione.
They were both silent, transfixed by the photograph.
“No.” She said a little too quickly. “Sometimes, as time goes by, it’s hard to remember her exactly.”
Leontes looked over at Paulina, still holding the teapot. She appeared pale in the late afternoon light.
“No. I can try to forget things, but Hermione I will always remember, even after all this time,” his throat felt dry unexpectedly. “Hermione was my wife. Things may have gone wrong. So horribly wrong. But to this day, I love my wife.”
Paulina remained motionless. “I know.”
“She looks different here, Paulina. Hermione, she looks…. she looks older. She didn’t have those wrinkles.”
“She is just the same. We took that photo by the Harbour. You remember that day, it was cold, we… we took a boat out to Green Isle.”
“I remember that day. Hermione lent you her coat, it was August,” He picked up the photo, “But this is not that day!”
Just then a rustling came from the front door.
“That’s my farmhand,” Paulina hurriedly put down the tea pot. “I better make sure she doesn’t come in with muddy boots.”
But too late. Through the front door and into the dull sitting room, a woman and her daughter stepped. They both wore woollen socks, their boot removed, and their windblown hair fell messily around their flushed faces. As their gaze stopped on Leontes, they both froze.
“Leon,” The woman’s voice was barely a whisper but it struck the turbid air with certainty.
Leontes felt the world around him crumble, darkening, and as he collapsed, his hand reached out to his daughter, the girl he’d never met, and he knew.
Words by Christina Moore
Illustration by Maria Dizazzo