A short story
You could tell by the length of the bags under his eyes that this was a creature who had not slept overmuch.
You could tell by the colour of his beard that he was beyond his three score and ten. Not to mention the length.
You could tell by the dishevelled clothes – though cloths would be a better description – that this was a man haunted, possessed enough to go around unwashed, untidy and unaware of the smell.
I have never subscribed to the opinion that, given a long enough time unwashed, the hair eventually cleans itself. Perhaps this poor fellow was the exception that proves the rule.
Always ashamed of the many holes, cavities, crevasses, canyons, stalagmites and stalactites, reefs, peaks and caverns I dare to call my own teeth, I felt humbled by the endless tunnel of black and yellow which gave forth the toothless consonants and tongue-driven vowels as he turned on heels toughened by decades of such indignant revolutions, and disappeared down the grey corridor along which, just a few seconds earlier, he had so recently marched.
* * * * * *
Tired of the twisting and left-right-lefting of the cobbled streets of Piran, I had finally followed my perennially unreliable nose (which had landed me in trouble on more than one occasion), instead of my map and headed uphill climbing a road that promised straightness yet threatened an ever steepening incline. Soon the sounds of market and marina were lost as the clump-clump of my ill-equipped Clarks filled my ears. Soon the old church was lost as a landmark though the sea could be glimpsed through the occasional gap in a tree or a line of houses.
Vine-terraced cottages lessened as tree-lines proliferated and, though my path began to broaden into a pretty avenue of cypresses and some bushes unknown to my touristic curiosity, the gradient showed no signs of mercy and, if anything, steepened in response to my muted grumbles.
I pressed on … and on. Now there were only trees, houses replaced by fields, fence by bush, cobble by earth. An hour and several renditions of “Hi Ho” followed by a “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” I persevered until at last the incline hinted at an almost imperceptible decline, which grew until the gradient at last became tolerable, even pleasant and I slowly began to enjoy myself. I noticed the sun overhead, a drip on my brow, and realised how hot I had become. Still, the puffing transformed into a whistle, the whistle a hum, and I was mid-way through a fine chorus of “Singing in the Rain” when the road came to an abrupt halt at a large, iron, gate, draped in ivy and surrounded by tall bushes the like of which I had never seen before, so tall were they.
All roads lead to somewhere and here was a gate crying out to be pushed open ! This impediment to my progress proved no impediment at all as I lifted my stick, tentatively prodded, then assertively thrust forwards. The creak was loud enough to send a trio of finches squawking into the air out of nearby branches. I hesitated as I peered along the long, shadowy avenue indecisive as to whether to end my journey here. As usual, my incorrigible curiosity persuaded me onwards.
As I stepped through the gateway and discovered the avenue continued in the same direction though the cypresses were now the sole occupants of the avenue’s sides, I slowed my pace to a cautious amble.
A further quarter an hour of strolling and then, suddenly, there it was.
I consulted my map which was about as helpful as the tourist office which had generously provided me with it. My chart ran out at the top of the hill and I was now, as far as an Englishman Abroad is concerned, in uncharted territory.
Yet even without a map, the tourist office staff had made no mention of a castle in such close proximity to the little town below which was surprising considering its size and age.
I was pleased, even delighted. I have always loved castles, harking back to my days as Treasurer of the school Classics Society – a ‘front’ organisation for an excuse to indulge in day-trips during school hours. Yet while my peers had sneaked off to nearby towns to try their luck in off-licenses, to vandalise and to smoke John Player Specials with Mad Mr Griffin, I had filled my imagination with scenes of battle and siege as I had wandered along the ramparts of Caernarvon, Leeds, Windsor, Arundel, Dover, Deal and Walmer, Edinburgh and Harlech.
It was hard to tell much from the outside of this building which, at first glance, appeared to have been built of ivy, moss and lichen. Even the doorway, with portcullis up, was a riot of green.
Pressing on, I ducked through the gate and emerged into a cloistered courtyard of green and broken cobbles. Chaffinch chatter and the gentle sound of wind through the wood outside did little to disturb the peacefulness of this place. I ventured forth and came to an abrupt halt in the centre of the courtyard where, my preconceptions told me, a large fountain of an angel or a nymph should be. This, however, was not what I discovered as I lifted my gaze to the Huge statue of a dragon with the head of a young woman who cried tears of bright water into a fountain bowl of weeds and twisted vines. Such was the profusion of plants that the bowl was overflowing onto the cobbles beneath filling puddles of glistening water.
I gazed at the face of the marble stone visage and my reverie was interrupted only by the sound of shuffling feet at the north west end of the courtyard. I looked up and was immediately taken aback as a gaunt figure limped and lurched at breakneck speed across the yard, pausing only to gather up its filthy cloak about it and lingering on its way. After a few seconds this creature had almost reached my own frozen position beside the fountain. At that moment a curious onlooker would have been hard put to tell me apart from the statue to whom I was a temporary neighbour so still I was. It was only when realisation dawned that this old figure had not seen me and was bent on a direct collision course between it’s head and my stomach that I summoned up an assertive cough and uttered a local greeting:
The figure stopped, within inches of a crash, and raised its head to allow me enough of a view to determine that this was the face of a very old man, very old indeed, that this was the body of a tired soul, very tired indeed, and that these were the eyes of weary anger, very weary and, indeed, very angry.
“Dober Dan !” I repeated.
The quivering lips parted to reveal a single tooth, a shaking tongue and a quick breath, gasping for each extra moment of life, as the aged being before me transformed into a frowning universe and uttered his curt reply before turning on his heels and storming past me, disappearing through a low doorway to the south west of the court yard:
“Does ! Does ! DOES !”
Why did I linger, with a hotel pool waiting, and my full board at seven promising prosciutto and risotto with a torte to finish ? What impulse brought me up to that tower room of dusty books, ancient curtains and curious frescos ? How did the hours pass and why did I venture further into that castle to be greeted by the second suffering inhabitant with whom I began this account ?
It is easy to rationalise the irrational, post-experience. It wouldn’t be hard to suggest the heat of a long walk clouding one’s Sense of Time, or to present the honest curiosity of a straying tourist as a plausible explanation. Yet I feel the need to enunciate this tale as it truly occurred and, in doing so, I can only offer up the facts as I remember them.
Let me begin with the shufflings. A movement far distant in another tower, a movement so close by as to convince one that someone was about to enter. The sliding of worn leather soles on even more worn flagstones, the tramping on wooden boards, the brushing against whitewashed walls.
And then the pantings and puffings, varying in proximity and intensity, sometimes clearly from the lungs of an individual, sometimes obviously a pair and often echoing to suggest a group, a team, a crowd a herd of tired oxen.
Then, of course, the cursings and the mutterings. Always the same, a duet, or perhaps a duel, as the words, discernible amongst the other noises, reached my ears, sometimes echoing, sometimes crystal clear (if clear could even remotely capture a description of words issuing from those scant teeth and chattering lips):
“Does, does !”
An echo and three steps: “Doesn’t!”
A shuffle and a mutter: “Does!”
A stumble and a curse: “Does!”
A puff and a mumble: “Doesn’t!”
And then a silence, an interval, a pause, a quietus, the illusion of all-at-peace-in-the-world suddenly and rudely punctured by a bursting cacophony suggesting a physical coincidence of the two eternal shufflers:
“”Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” ”
“”Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !” “Does !” “Doesn’t !””
On. And on.
“Does !” “Doesn’t ! ”
Rising in volume.
Reducing in intensity.
Increasing in threat.
Until, finally, the breaths replaced the words, and the puffing and panting became the only sounds. A final pause giving birth to an image of eye-to-eye weary staring and an unspoken agreement speaking of stalemate and an appointment to fight another day. A shuffling of feet, a turning of bodies and a mutual retreat into unknown depths of the castle.
The ensuing silence was as hypnotic as the battle of words had been and it was only the distant chiming of the Piran church bells that jolted me into a realisation that I had been rooted to my perch in the high tower room for enough hours to welcome in the crimson light of early evening.
As twillight came to rest on the Adriatic horizon I sat at my table staring out to sea and gazing dreamily at the jewelled lights of Trieste, meditating over the absurdity of the experience the day had hatched.
A paradigm shift in the world of my own mind, I had remained for hours, unaware of the passage of day into evening, like a python raised up in a basket, swaying to and fro to the alluring tones of the musician, a slave to the toings and froings of two of the strangest persons I had ever encountered. It was only with the aid of a third glass of Merlot that my usual frowning attention returned and the questions came, suddenly and clumsily, like the bursting of a water pipe:
Who were these two ?
What were they doing in the castle ?
Why had I spent such an inordinately long amount of time in the tower room ?
Why did I feel a strange urge to return to the castle to confront at least one of those ancient creatures.
What was all this “does and doesnting” about ?
“You look like you had a hard day.”
The waiter filled my wine glass and smiled congenially.
“Hvala” I replied, ashamed at my lack of Slovene. “I took a long walk up to the castle.”
“Ah.” said Andrej, knowingly, replacing the almost empty bottle in the cooling jar.
“It was an interesting experience.”
“Then you met up with Does and Doesn’t ?”
“I beg your pardon ?” I found myself in mid-sip blurting out my response and gulping a mouthful of a vintage which deserved much better.
“The two old men.” he replied nonchalontly. “We call them Does and Doesn’t. If you met them, you know why. Anything for dessert ?”
My frown increased but the thought of a torte woke me a little from my reverie. An intake of sugar would no doubt improve the analytical process. “The usual, z smetano, prosim.”
“A chocoholic, as you say !” The waiter laughed.
The cocoa edifice was duly delivered up and dispatched post-haste, as the conversation continued.
“Tell me about ‘Does’ and ‘Doesn’t’.”
“They are English ..brothers… came here before the War … they’ve been here ever since.”
“They are …. an … an interesting pair…”
“Aha!” and to my dismay a large party of Italians entered and took the attention of my source of information for the rest of the evening.
I watched the boats for an hour heading around the Croatian coast, and finished the last of my wine. I called Andrej over and prepared to settle my bill, taking the opportunity to pursue our conversation for a few moments longer, before the poor overworked soul was hauled in by the Triesteres…
“So what is the story behind those two ?” I inquired.
“It’s a sad one … an argument … how you say, fisticuffs, a bataille.”
“What about ?”
The burdensome trill of an Italian wife once again took my confidante away from me once more.
As he expertly balanced an unreasonable number of plates on his hands, wrists and elbows he called:
“Why don’t you ask them ? Lahko Noch!”
And he was once more a whirling dervish of plates, cloths, Italian and smiles, as I made my way back along the rocky front to my hotel. It was well past two and I had a serious day of relaxing to be up early for in the morning.
The second was more of an amble than the trudge the day previous which had delivered me up to the tangle of ivy and gate of the old castle of the two English brothers.
Does and Doesn’t, I had ascertained, were the brothers Wordsworth: Ebeneezer and Charles. Of more than that, I could gain nothing from the Croat waitress
at my breakfast table. “And why do some call them Does and Doesn’t” I had asked.
Gathering her skirts she had laughed at what she thought to be my attempt at a joke in Slovene and had replied “Shinkenbrot Monsieur ! Mehr Jambon, bitte schon !” and had scurried away.
As on the previous day, the gates creaked open to reveal the patchy splendour within. The shadows of the morning sun danced in the breeze creating a frenzy of apparent movement in a stock-still courtyard. Nine bells and a simple melody reminded the tardy oversleepers of angry employers in bakeries, offices and fishmongers of Piran. I dallied a while on a decaying oak bench to the western side of the square and hummed festively, watching the progress of a tiny tit as she clambered up the stone work of the old fountain and took a wary drink, constantly turning her micro-head in the direction of myself and the ballet of dancing shadow.
The first signs of activity in the castle (beyond my own intrusion) was the sudden flight of the tit in the direction of the eastern end of the courtyard where a pair of hands had appeared through a doorway, then arms and veins, to be followed by a flurry of shaking limbs as a storm of breadcrumbs exploded onto the broken flagstones and overgrown lawn, a feast for the tit, and her rapidly arriving friends and family. The hands, then the arms, quickly withdrew into the doorway’s darkness and there was a definitely audible, but unclear mumble of a trio of English syllables, distinct only, to one like myself, who had heard them repeated several hundred times the evening before:
“Does ! Does ! Does !”
The words leapt into the courtyard, rebounded off the fountain and wended their way up to the highest tower in the north western corner where, in a magic of alchemy, they were caught, bottled, shaken then stirred mix with quicksilver, jiggled again, potentised, then transformed as they were returned to the sender, changed, rushing across courtyard and the lawn to angrily crash against the closing door, scattering the birds, rudely impeding their morning repast, as they scattered amongst rising feathers and slamming oak, and reached a crescendo, borne of the wings of the fuming and flaming reply:
“Doesn’t ! Doesn’t ! Doesn’t !”
* * * * * *
The entrance to theWest hall was a doorway at least two feet lower than my full height. I pulled back the iron knocker and a metal spike blunted by decades of use smashed mercilessly into the flattened nose of an iron bishop whose facial features had long seen better days. The clank of metal-on-metal echoed around the castle, a pause of several seconds, and I clunked (or clanked or clonked) once again feeling no shame or pity for the dented visage of the clergyman-knocker. A further pause, a distant shuffle, then those familiar footsteps rising in volume and deception as, one moment they appeared to emanate from the depths of the eastern tower, the next from the north, and then from straight up ahead. As I pondered this mystery of teleporting footsteps, the door was suddenly flung open and the atrophied features of Does (or was it Doesn’t?) stood, peering up at me.
“Prosim?” in a recognisable English-abroad accent.
“Good morning. ” I began. ” My name is Chambers, David Chambers.”
“Yes ?” He didn’t seem even in the slightest impressed by my English origins.
I began to regret the whole episode, and chided myself for accepting the advice of a waiter in a Fish restaurant. Go and ask them indeed ! Ask them what ? This half creature had no idea who I was, and seemed to have not the faintest wish to know either! And besides, what on earth did I wish to know anyway !
I gathered myself up. “Good morning. I had the good fortune of stumbling upon this wonderful castle on a stroll yesterday. I am afraid I must confess to the idle curiosity of a tourist straying as I did inside your gates and then into one of your towers – a curiosity kept me there for several hours and I do believe met your brother whose only words of greeting to me were ‘Doesn’t.'”
“Does !” snapped the old man as if the response were an automatically triggered mechanism.
“Anyway,” I continued, “I sincerely wish to know the nature of the obvious quarrel between the two of you, and if I might be so bold as to offer my services in the direction of a solution to your argument.” I drew a deep breath, impressed by my own forwardness and lucidity of monologue.
The reply was as unexpected as it was deflating:
I gathered up all of my resources:
“Why are you called Does and Doesn’t ?”
He looked at me through sad, yellow eyes, peering from skeletal sockets and tear ducts as full as salt mines.
“Come in. Drink some wine with me.” he said with a melancholic warmth that wrong-footed me completely. And then a sudden fire: “You’ll hear my side of the story before you’ll hear his !”
And, reaching out a skinless hand, he grabbed the lapel of my corduroy jacket and pulled me inside, along an almost totally dark corridor, through a second doorway (I had to duck hastily in order to avoid a perilous bump) and into a parlour furnished in wood and gray marble and wafting smells of sumptuous roasting turkey.
* * * * *
I was full-to-bursting and thanked heavens for the space which had developed over the years under the banner of a growing paunch. The wine – a Jerusalem – was exquisite and it seemed that the smells and practices of cookery made my strange colleague young again. Throughout the meal, which had proceeded in a silence of smiles punctuated only by gestures to take some more turkey or fried pumpkin and an over-abundance of “mmmms” and “ahhhs” to indicate delight at each mouthful of wine and poultry.
I waited for him to finish the last of his turkey and gulp down his wine before he sat back in his chair, opposite me at the far end of the table, his back to a window curtained by vine and twig, my back to the door. He sighed. I sighed. He sighed again. I waited. Eventually, after a long sigh, world-weary sigh he began:
“You must understand from the very start – otherwise there is no point in continuing, it used to be for me that I go on, but now it is for him.”
“Perhaps you had better begin at the beginning…” I suggested.
“The beginning ? This isn’t about beginnings. This is about ends !”
“I beg your pardon ?” I wished we could begin again.
“I’ll make him work for eternity if I have to ! This has gone far too far to go back to the beginning!”
Tap. Tap. Tap. Faint but clear.
“If I have to die a thousand deaths, I will ! I’ll roast a google of turkeys – that’s a lot of wish bones, but he’ll wish he’d never set eyes on me !”
Tap becomes thud and thud, thud, thud.
“Please, could you explain how this all started ?” I tried once more.
“Explain ?” he exploded, “Explain ? What is there to explain ?”
“Please” I interrupted, “remember, I have not yet heard your story.”
The thunder of thuds had grown in volume and proximity, and, with sudden conspicousness, halted.
The old man calmed, collecting himself together. “Forgive me. But I have been alone too long. Let me try to explain.”
If doors could quiver, that kitchen door did so then. I knew someone or something stood in wait behind it, prowling in the corridor; nevertheless, my companion proceeded.
“You see. He is unreasonable. Totally without reason. He refuses to see the side of objectivity, of sanity.”
“When did it begin ?”
He sighed, as if Life itself were a bag of heavy shopping and he its carrier, halfway up an ever-steepening hill.
“During the War. It was a Wednesday. The sun was shining…”
I thought of that short war of 1992; that eleven day stand-off between Slovene and Serb, one day neighbours, the next enemies. I almost spat out my false tooth when he continued:
“…and that bastard Mussolini had taken all of the young wine.”
Fifty years. The door shuddered as if it remembered how it had once stood as a fine tree in an avenue along which trudged the feet of refugee, soldier and partisan.
But it was also what stood behind the door that quaked to remember with its poor brother.
“What were you doing in Piran during the Second World War ?” I asked, still surprised.
“Grandfather was half-Italian. He left us the castle in 1931. It was an adventure. We stayed.”
“You and your brother ?”
He sighed. “Charlie.” The words seemed almost to surprise him as they limped from his cherry lips.
“So you must be Ebeneezer ?” I was bold.
“You know my name ?”
“I enquired in the town.”
“Ah.” He sighed again, tired of a game which had gone on for far too long.
The door creaked but I kept to my task. “So, he is your brother – Charles ?”
A pause. Ebeneezer frowned, assumed a visage dressed in a burning question, then frowned again. The frown became a deep glare as his thin neck craned towards the quivering door as gently as the post-meal peace had descended on our kitchen feast, it was banished as his croaking voice erupted and he simultaneously leapt out of his chair, like a boxing kangaroo and threw himself towards the door, snatching the wooden knob with his crony-hand and flinging it open; and there they stood – brother to anti-brother; an onlooker would be confused as to whether he stood in a doorway or in front of a distorted mirror for, twin-to-twin, biography-to-biography, Charles and Ebeneezer Wordsworth, expatriate filial enemies who had battled through Italian and Slovene dominion, stood and glared at each other, quivering in their synchronous duel-posture.
They began almost in whisper:
The whispers danced with emphatic statement:
Like a pot of Turkish coffee erupting on a neglected stove the to-ing and fro-ing in the doorway became an unbearable, persevering cacophony as Does shoved Doesn’t and Doesn’t shoved Does and they disappeared into the hall, then into the courtyard, then into the depths of a distant corridor and once again, as before, varying in volume and pitch, intonation and position, the war went on for hours and hours an hours.
* * * * *
So it was that the brothers Ebeneezer and Charles has battled down the corridors of years, eating well and sleeping badly, neglecting the upkeep of their beautiful castle (more a chateau than of any military worth), beginning each new day with a creaking stretch, a glass of milk (delivered along with all of their provisions from the local farm), a dip in the pond at behind the south wall (never together), a muttered curse, and then an hour’s painting, or an afternoon’s reading, or listening to the radio; and then, suddenly, at a time appointed by Intuition, one or the other would hurl a “does” out of a window to crash against a returning “doesn’t” (or vice versa) and, for perhaps an hour or more, all hell would break loose.
Over the coming days I met them both. Always separately.
Charles: “He won’t stop ? And why should he ? I won’t !”
Ebeneezer: “He began it. I will end it.”
Charles: “He knows he’s in the wrong, but he won’t admit, to himself let alone to me!”
Ebeneezer: “He has no sense of right and wrong!”
Five visits and I am still unsure why I visited them more than once. All my life I had avoided confrontation, witnessing far too much of it in Court. So unnecessary much of it now seemed. I was born for compromise, the middle way, the life of gentle balance. Yet there had always been something magnetic in those criminal eyes as I had ushered those condemned souls inside and outside, ushered in and out the decades of my life. Why could they not settle for less, where less was more than nothing at all ? And the magnetism I felt lay in the fact that they were driven, pulled to the extremes, to the perimeters of existence, explorers of the fringes, whilst I had always settled for the median of comfort.
Charles: He may be my brother, but he’s still in the wrong !”
Ebeneezer: I’ll never give in to that immovable object. He’ll move, one day, he’ll move!”
Charles: “Does !”
One evening I asked them both (separately) the same question: “What is the cause of your argument?”
Charles: “Eh ?”
Ebeneezer: “Eh ?”
“What is your quarrel about ?”
The knotted frowns silhouetted against the setting sun that flecked wisps of snow-hair with blood-coloured light pouring through the tower windows revealed that, over the course of a half-century of attack and counter-attack, both Ebeneezer and Charles had quite forgotten the source of their eternal argument.
What statement could have been so unacceptable, so outrageous, so appalling, that it required a cycle of rejoinder which would eat up the lives of two such wilful, and now dying, souls ?
Charles: “It matters no more. The source may be lost, but the river flows on.”
Ebeneezer: “It will be in my diary. I have always kept a meticulous diary. It will be in my attic… somewhere in my attic.”
At the west end of the courtyard, there was a bright reading room, belonging to Charles, piled with many books – novels and reference works in English, Slovene and Italian. The window was covered by a home-made paper sun-blind, now torn and yellowing with age. On the left part of the paper there was a mark, stretching downwards from a height of about five and a half feet to about five feet. I had been standing in the reading room, looking out of the window, a copy of an extremely out-of-date local travel guide in my hand when I had noticed it. The mark, it appeared, had been made by breath, the breath of Charles, who was the sole user of the room. Like the drip, drip, drip, of a drop of water against a rock, the breath had gradually and gently begun to erode the paper away. I stood in the exact position where Charles must have stood in 1951, 1964 and 1975, and all the days, the months, the years in between. I perceived in my mind’s-eye his face, his emotion as he gritted his teeth and shouted across the courtyard his simple word: Does.
Year on year, the breath had eroded the cartridge paper away, like paint on a canvas, the brush held by a meticulous artist as he took decade after decade to complete the work of genius which would crown his life. I saw Charles as a young man, tall and proud, defiant in battle, a screaming “Does!” his battle-cry. I saw Charles maturing with age, standing beside this paper-blind, his voice deeper, resonant, persistent. And I saw Charles turning the corner of his life, hair greying, muscles aching as he stood there, a perceptible creak in his voice, and his frame a few inches shorter as his breath-mark on the paper began to sink lower and lower, and lower.
I remember that late summer day so clearly, standing there, as my imaginations were suddenly punctured by the sounds of those two antique warriors bursting into the courtyard rushing towards the fountain, stationing themselves as they faced each other once again, one on each side of the crying statuette, growling at each other in the quivering shadows. Would she cease to cry if her two charges finally brought their conflict to and end. Would her stone tears dry and her tortured face transform into a grinning angel ?
“He said we’d forgotten the cause of all this.” Underneath the snarling, there was uncertainty in Charles’s voice.
“What does he know ?” Ebeneezer sneered back.
“It doesn’t matter if he knows nothing ! He wanted to know the reason ! He said we’d forgotten !”
“What does it matter now ? It doesn’t matter any more !” There was fire Ebeneezer’s eyes.
“It does !”
* * * * * * * *
The sounds of those two words, simple, yet potent enough to consume two entire, tragic lives, filled my head as I, once again, descended the hill and arrived at the bustling quay in desperate need of a kava and an intake of cocoa and sugar.
A large number of yachts were in their berths and the Duty Frees and restaurants overflowed with the sounds of Italian, German and Slovene – a bonanza for the proprietors at what was approaching end of season, I wondered what saint was being remembered or what festival was about to take place.
The evening horizon was full of yachts and the sounds of lazy engines and on-board music systems.
I sat and watched a couple meander past, both dark-haired Americans, both engaged in quiet conversation as they ambled along. It was only when they directly stood in my view of the sea that the man stopped and turned to the woman and raised his voice:
“Does!” he exclaimed.
I felt my pulse quicken.
“Doesn’t!” she replied with more force and projection than he.
He relented. “Alright” he said. “Maybe.” And they grasped hands and continued their trek towards the quay.
As I stared after them, rudely slurping my coffee, I realised with a certain amount of troubled surprise that I was mildly angry with the man for letting the matter drop so lightly. I had not the faintest inkling of what they were debating. Yet some part of me was decidedly annoyed with the man for not at least saying another “Does”. Why had he given up so easily ?
The sound of a boat horn woke me from my meditation and I swiftly dismissed the thoughts from my mind.
To my left, the seemingly inexhaustible Andrej was serving up a half-a-dozen dishes expertly with one hand. He winked in acknowledgement of my wave and called out: “You’d be advised to book this evening. We have a crowd for the regatta !”
“Thank you” I replied, “My usual table at nine!”
“No problem.” and he pirouetted and disappeared into the kitchen.
I say “usual” for usual it had become these past five weeks. This was now my last evening in Piran, before an Adria flight would swiftly and efficiently carry me back to London, to a life of retirement, a life of boredom and ease. I thought of Court Four and the barristers and ushers who had bidden me farewell. I thought of the judges, the robes and the tea room. I thought of the countless juries I had ushered this way and that, and the salubrious criminals who had met my gaze. I thought of my life behind and my life ahead. And I thought of Does and Doesn’t, the two insufferables, in their dance of eternal contradiction, their pointless quest for victory of one over the other. Perhaps this was what Salerio, the stealer of Degas and Monets, had meant when, before being taken down for a score, had said: “What I have done, I have done for Art. I have made my statement and, though you claim have exceeded limits which are unacceptable, I say to you all, that where True Art is concerned, there can be no limits, neither of time nor space, nor Law.”
The duel of Does and Doesn’t rose up before me as both a monstrous waste of life and energy, and also an incredible achievement, a triumph of perseverance, a work of Art in the highest sense, an accomplishment which, even as I forked up another lump of chocolate sponge, was continuing its development in the castle high on the hill above lazy Piran.
A pink blossom falls from a tree, slowly it drifts to the ground, rocking in the wind like a baby in a cradle. And between the moment it detaches from the branch high in the eves to the instant it splashes gently and silently into the puddle growing from the overflowing pool of water in the castle fountain, thirty three does’s and thirty three doesnt’s are born from the lips of the feuding twins.
“How many trees-worth of blooms and leaves and how many does-doesn’ts over so many years ?” I thought to myself as the enormity of their achievement struck me sitting at that sea-side table imbibing the last of my chocolate cream.
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