The late afternoon sun was creeping around its orbit splattering leaf shaped shadows all over the courtyard floor and walls, over Chef's delight herbs, full blooms, talevera planter pots.
Mixed with the summer air was a warble of conversation, ethereal shapes cast by sunlight through the greenhouse roof, people at the long table with sunglasses on, hanging baskets with ferns, perennials on sale. Eighteen seats nine on each side.
Greenhouse doors open to the sidewalk populated with tiled iron garden table and chair sets. An explosion of orchids laid out on the tops of old chests of drawers of various sizes. Herbs in multi level wire racks on coasters. Inventory clearance shed open with people ambulating through it looking for impulse bargains. Gigantic hanging baskets gracing the sidewalk wall.
Baby's cry echoes through the space and mingles with the droplets from the fountain splashing down onto the tumbled roman pavers covered with moss. The baby's mother walks around the solarium leaning the baby at her shoulders into the herbs for a soothing whiff.
The table in the center a continuous slab of ash coloured fir with matching wood chairs looks like the last supper. Two woman talking at one end, one a monologuing stream of words the other agreeing with occasional caw, 'hmm hmm'ing' in affirmation like a brooding pigeon. An attractive middle aged woman sitting on her own at mid-table having time away from something veiled by a thin expression of loneliness. Or was it grief. A man reading a book over an espresso and cookie, his eyes occasionally rolling around the tops of the pages to see who else has sat down at the long table. How is it filling up. Is it time to move, am I still comfortable enough.
North, as he stepped into the courtyard noted that everyone so far had been careful about their choice of spacing as they selected a seat, not too close, not too far, just enough. He always preferred the long table to the duces scattered about the courtyard or on the sidewalk. When he came to it he was the tie breaker, the wild card, the person that might sit beside a lone individual in a movie theatre, the roulette ball. Everyone watched his choice carefully through strained peripheral vision while pretending to stay in their conversation, thought, moment. A challenging double distraction for if you are with a companion you don't want to seem rude in breaking your attention.
He sat one over but opposite the lonely looking woman. She fixed her eyes on him, her body posture not adjusting a muscle, a genuinely soft and pleasant smile unfolding like a white chiffon curtain in a Lindos morning breeze. Sun escaped her face. North softly said 'hi', put down his cappuccino, carrot cake, and satchel. She watched intrigued perhaps wondering what would come out of his bag.
North dug for his sun glasses, then from a zippered pocket came a notebook, a fountain pen......ah the lady across from him considered, a flaneur, artiste? He smiled at her again and as he settled into his chair sitting back from the table and casually crossing his legs, sipped his coffee with one hand and began to disappear into his notebook with the other.
This was one of North's weekly rituals. This place, every week, time out of time hiding away from whomever he knew, the city, politicians and business people, the press....oh my god the press, responsibility, relationship and relating, purpose, parking tickets, doing taxes, bills and to-do lists. Much better than a book store cafe because it required no presupposed activity. It was a mix, multi coloured and multi specied like the flowers inside the shop, a riot of possibility like the jungle of plants. You could pretend, be a hunter, prey, or be high in the canopy watching.
He closed his eyes behind his sunglasses and his ears began to take in all the theatre of the space, the tone of those rollicking in conversation, cascade of sounds, city bus passing, car horn, people out on the sidewalk ambulating and their fleeting chatter as they passed, a mother yelling at her two young kids to stay on the sidewalk, a bird of some kind that had flown in and was up in the roof chirping, water cascading in different displays, lone people silent in squeaky chairs occasionally clanking down their China cup, others talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, actors playing parts unknowingly or knowingly, who's eyes of interest caught who's intriguing glance, peacocking. A cacophony only noticed when suspended in a transcendental moment of separateness while with others or alone.
This ritual moment of the week had become the nourishment, no, ravenous staple appetite of North's spirit, a quest of divination, and since discovering this place had been exulted to the stature of orthodox moment, monastic retreat of sorts.
A bearded young man, late thirties maybe, black hair and tallish, faded blue jeans, Vans sneakers, rose T-shirt under a mustard coloured 10 Tree sweat shirt casually strode into the courtyard. Flecks and spills of paint were peppered here and there on his jeans. A green tea in one hand and panini sandwich in the other with a bunch of letters, personal mail and bills probably, rolled in a weekend paper under one arm. He sat at the same side of the table but two chairs down from North.
He appeared to be detached or distracted from awareness of his surroundings, flopped his mail and paper on the table and organized his tea, sandwich and cutlery in a casual manner. From the spill of mail on top of his newspaper he opened three non personal letters, two were bills, one an announcement for a charity event. These he perused informally almost with a hint of disdain. The fourth item was a personal letter, the envelope's cream coloured face covered in beautiful sepia hand writing, unmistakably a female hand, scrolls and arabesques in order and proportionate font between address and sender, mottled with travel stains, broken and faded ink stamps from many postal offices through which it had travelled across the envelope and the faces of the intricate postage stamps. The postage stamps had they been wallet sized could be exotic money.
North noticed the envelope as the man tore it open taking out a letter of three thin airmail pages and setting the envelope aside slightly between them. At that moment there was a lull, the atmosphere stilled bereft of sound or movement of any kind, the man read maybe just the opening lines and set the pages down, picking up his tea. A gusting breeze blew in from the street rattling the plants, one or two paper napkins from guest tables blew around the courtyard. The man's mail blew off the newspaper. It skittishly slid along the table, the bills onto the courtyard floor, the first page of the letter slid into the saucer of North's cappuccino, pages of the newspaper flapped open scattering the other envelopes across the table.
While the young man was busy picking up the mail fallen to the floor, North put his fingers on the one loose page to stop it blowing further down the table and slowly slid it across the top back towards the young man. He got the edge of the page saying 'thank you' and put it back with the others.
The opening paragraph stuck in North's brain. He could feel it's conte expanding into life, a rapidly widening canyon of curiosity cleaving open in his head.
The letter started with "My love Estafan, how I miss you, miss your opal eyes, your heart, and your daily love. These past many days of my assignment here have been so difficult,intense and so difficult without you and your body."