Beneath the Surface


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A Mysterious Stranger

Tonight is full of music; it is thick in the air, traipsing 'cross the sky. It surrounds us in this place.

The hour hand is half past eight, and tall man in a crude, pitch black coat stalks down Windsor Ave. Street lights cascade fluorescent light into shallow pools, the phantom shadows of twilight distorting gaunt street buildings. Snow furls and dances effortlessly, like sea mist rising from the breakers. The black mortar silhouettes of trees scrape a bruised plane of sky, the tops of city buildings barely visable through a haze of ethereal snowflakes. 

An old heritage building is spied amoungst the ancient buildings that line the street, solid walls erected in clay-red  brick. And tucked beneath it's blazing vermilion awning, a spotless window omits a soft, welcoming glow. This place is Corner Cafe.

Through the ice-kissed panes, a large dining-room is seen, oak tables and chairs huddled in clusters. And in the back of the room, dusty and forgotten, is a dark, wood structure; a relic of the past. The stranger halts in his tracks, nostalgia flooding through him as he stares there, his breath exhaling in small, billowing puffs that dissipate in the chilly air. 

Gliding swiftly through the transparent veil of snow, the demure man pushes through the front door.

The lethargic, rich aroma of coffee greets him with a warm rush of air, shutting out the wind's vindictive howls. A tiller stares at this conspicuous character from behind the oak counter. He moves faster, under the white, arched doorway and into the dining-room, archiac floorboards groaning in protest under each step.

 Holiday decor boughs the room, the fern greens and maraschino-cherry reds glaring from the walls. No one speaks, but newspapers rustle as shaken open, and slight clicks are heard as china hits tabletop. The grandfather clock chimes the hour. Eyes probe with curiosity at the new arrival.

However he pays no heed, his heart, soul, and mind trained for that dark, redolent pianoforte, all it's grandeur and magnificence exciting something in him that had long been believed dead.  Each perfect curve and exacting detail of woodwork intensifies his admiration. 

Placid, untouched keys shine opal in the flickering candlelight. The hands that reach out for them are quivering. He can still see the admiration in their eyes, how the applause rang in his ears... 

The stranger slides onto the piano bench, pausing to look wistfully out at the pale organdy moon suspended from the diamond studded sky. A quiet murmur as the wind rushes through the foliage, the hush in the dining-room, and the padding of velvet feline paws on the cold wood floor... his torso sways with the rhythm. 

Crystal tinkling of china. A low call issued from the streets.  The music floods through him, his eyes dropping closed. 

The stranger's fingertips tap the keys, building momentum as passionate staccato notes resolve first doubts. Base notes combating small, pianissimo voices and singing with the tranquility of children.

It has become a dance. 

Up and down the central keys fluidly, like birds freed from cage and let to the sky. Traipsing 'cross the keyboard legato, the harmonious notes full of passion. Smooth strokes; incarnate tones chiming together... the stranger breaths life into the keys, the room anticipating each transcendental peal. 

His left hand returns to base, crescendo, tone terracing tone, growing, strengthening, expanding-- a forte chord resonates through the cafe, the rich, masculine tones unwavering. Decrescendo. 

The dance is concluded. 

A lapse of complete silence.

The grandfather clock ticks complacently. An old man mumbles as he drifts in and out of sleep.The wind moans, and a Siberian cat leaps up onto the window seat, blinking jaundice eyes behind dusky wisps of fur.

It's almost as if nothing had ever passed, as if the magic had never happened. Has no one heard? Has no one seen? A secret long hidden beneath the surface is left yet undetected, base humanity unable to see past the visors of a coat. And why? Because there is none who wish to see, none who care. 

Floorboards creak. A thin shadow stretches, growing rapidly nearer. Three strides and the stranger has  crossed the room. The front door is thrown open, he steps 'cross the threshold. A white clad figure steps into direct light, reaching out her ivory hand. But the stranger has receded into the dark hiding places of the city, fedora tipped low over his face. 

The lady's fair brow furrows as she curls up on the window seat, scooping the Siberian up in her arms. Her mahogany hair is looped loosely at the nape of her neck, and a shawl clings 'round her shoulders. This is the owner of Corner Cafe, Ivy Perdita Berlin.

Who is he? she wonders, ruminating over the stranger and his introspective music.

Shafts of white-gold moonlight strain through the delicate lace curtains and stipple the floor. Ivy's fair, freckled nose presses against the ice-cold window pane, staring out at the great illuminated city. Pensive, quiet. Pillars of exhaust rise drowsily, columning the immovable, black sky. Something like a sigh goes through the old primitive building, the wind shaking it before slipping into a coma-like still.

The world is going to sleep. 

Yet the lady sits there still, all alone now, save for the company of her cat. Life seems vague, lonely... like a blank canvas and despondent paintbrush laying on the floor. Ivy closes her eyes. Mr. Berlin had been a wealthy man, grown rich from stocks laid by. And all that once was his, now is hers. She has everything she could possibly want, everything that money can buy... But alas! A life alone is none at all. 

Ivy pulls the Siberian cat close, wispy tufts of fur brushing against her neck. Fingering a blue enamel heart, she draws the silver chain around her neck taut. The wind plays tricks in the rooftops, queer sounds uttered there. Stately and tall, the grandfather clock strikes eleven o'clock. The plaintive cry of a bird...

The empty silence is broken by the distinctive sound of something fumbling in the darkness.

Ivy sweeps the room with her probing gaze, sensing a presence. The pale eggnog walls are darkened by muddy grey shadows. Scratches along the floorboards acquired by unknown means. Above, the chandelier sways slightly, as if there's movement on the second floor. Her hand grapples the cushion. The Siberian cat bounds across the room as floorboards creak overheard.

'Cross the room and up the stairs in quick, soundless steps. Ice blue walls flitting past, a mounted candlesticks with broken wicks. Ivy glides down the vacant hall, pausing, listening... The qualm of silence is broken by the sound of violent fluttering, like a ghastly sheet suspended from a clothesline, committed to the wind.  

 Ivy throws open the farthest door. Sliding along the wall, past misused chairs, a hearth scattered with ash, and a cabinet whose shelves are lined with faded sea shells. 

The window is wide open. Two phantasmal chiffon curtains shuddering in the wind. But the room is otherwise motionless, bereft of any life.

She leans over the window sill, craning her neck to look down at the lifeless street. The pocked, opaque moon showers diaphanous light on the swollen heaps of snow, glistening like so-many diamonds. The balcony is undisturbed, save for a flock of multitudinous pigeons, pecking stupidly at the dry planking. Several mount in the air in an agitated stupor as her white face is spied peering down at them. 

Ivy laughs at herself, hands dragging down pale cheeks as she catches her breath, a gale of wind playing with her hair.

"It's nothing, nothing but an old house full of character, whispers and sprites passing through the rooms..." she shuts the window, drawing the curtains closed. Her lips twitch, "...and pigeons." 

She trails her fingers across the warped, chipped walls, a hesitant smile on her ripe mouth. Ivy tip toes to her bedroom, careful lest she awaken the intruder of her own invention. And while the household's mistress sleeps undisturbed, a lawless shadow creeps through the rooms.

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The Letter

It is early morning.

Traffic moves at a sedative slowness, docile locomotives purring complacently. Pedestrians stumble down plowed sidewalks, clustered together against the biting ice-cold wind, yielding to the ebb and flow of the city. 

Corner Cafe has just awoken, and it's young owner flicks 'round a sign, bright red print spelling "open" through the window. The staff slam the backdoor shut behind them, dazed by the formidable rage of winter. Chatter follows them into the kitchen, the drowsy hum of coffee brewing and the tinkle of china heard from there. 

The young  restaurateur has sat near the front of the dining-room, bent over the fiction novel balanced on her knee, fingering the pages with an animated expression. A Siberian cat lays across her shoulders in calm repose, wearing that feline satire smile on her whiskered mouth. 

The time ticks by slowly, yet nothing stirs, for who would dare disturb fate? And as matutinal snow flits down from heaven, boughing spindly branches, a man in black attire stalks down Windsor Ave, fingers twitching in two patched pockets. 

The lady stands, reluctance marked on her face. She watches the stranger approach . Her furry friend dismounts, landing with a soft thud on all fours before trotting to the door, looking up expectantly. Across the dining-room is a mint green door, with a cat face scratched into the bottommost corner. The lady steps back, hesitant, glancing at the green door between stares at the stranger. She hears the front door open. The stomp and shuffle of boots. She crosses the room, unnoticed and silent as the pale green door clicks locked behind her.  



When the stranger enters the dining room and discovers himself alone, he moves towards the pianoforte. His strong fingers grapple to the fall-board, lifting. A black, square envelope flies from beneath, skidding 'cross the floor. The stranger looks dubiously around, for surely this could not be meant for him? He picks up the envelope. Inside is a letter; he runs his fingers over the smooth, creamy folds. Words trip lightly over the pages, like a train of small, dancing footprints. The style is clean and flourished, as if a talented calligrapher had exercised his talent with a ballpoint pen. It reads as follows--


To the man with music,

Sir, my name is Ivy Berlin; I've been to a great many concerts. And I must and will say, that never in all my life have I heard anything that compared to your poignant solo! Your music lured me from the basement, and I listened as if entranced, hardly aware of the time that passed. Each trill evoked such feelings... it was so passionate, impacting, hopeful, incarnate, monumental--- I'm fain to describe it, but all in vain! I have hardly done it justice. 

I longed (and still do) to meet the magician who'd conjured such transcendental wonders, and so I stepped forth... but  I'm afraid I startled or alarmed you... why did you run away? 

In any case,  I entreat you to return here to Corner Cafe. Make use of that old, dirty pianoforte; thrill this droll place with your music! I have little time nor talent for it, and your playing has inspired great antipathy for my own. It will be waiting here for you, and so shall I, if you'd do us the favor of returning! 

May I ask where you've learnt to play so well? It cannot be doubted that you've spent a great deal of time in practice, as it seems nothing worthwhile can be gained otherwise. Or so I'm told. What is it that inspires your music? Is it all voluntary, as I've presumed? 

It seems I've digressed terribly and proven myself a stereotypal talkative female. I really  am a hopeless case, am I not? 

                                                                                 Without further ado, 

                                                                                           Ivy Berlin


The stranger heedlessly lets the letter slip to the floor. His mind wanders over the contents of Ivy's letter,  its bold yet guileless nature bringing a laughing light into his eyes. This girl had written to one of the least of men... but did she know it? he muses, hardly realizing the natural surmises his careless apparel evokes. The color rises to his cheeks, her praises running through his head. The stranger drags his hands down the careworn slope of his face, staring at the old pianoforte.

"Maybe it's time," he murmurs, gazing someplace where none can follow. His fingers twist the loose threads on his coat sleeve; lips slightly ajar. Enigmatic blue eyes glazed with ardor...

A soft purr distracts him, meeting the cordial gaze of the Siberian cat. She stretches, her fine hair illuminated like gold filigree in the direct sunlight. Her plumed tail whisks across his legs.  The stranger scoops her up into his arms, not immune to the fluffy feline goddess. Fingering her gold registration tag, he rubs the polished surface engraved with "Mitsu".  

The rush of traffic outside reminds him of the time that's past. Soon he must be gone, before the Cafe fills with people. But would he return? It's a question he'd asked himself since the day he first stepped foot here. It depends, he supposes, noticing the mauve taint of a vase.

The stranger swings the front door wide, unaware that a creature of gossamer fluff follows on tiny dancing feet. Two deep-set mustard eyes idolize the quiet, attentive human, devoid of any fear for the bustling city full of potential danger. 



The music man lingers beneath the white, arched doorway, sweeping the dining-room with his gaze. Craddled in his arms is a lump of grey-fur and red, woolen material. A grey speckled paw bats in protest, twitching aside a frayed loop of blanket. Caressing Mitsu's grey-capped ear, he whispers softly. His voice is seamless and calm, and the Siberian stills in his arms. Her wide yellow eyes peer up into his, full of fidelity and compliance. "Alright, but please hurry," they seem to say.

Half an hour earlier, the stranger had discovered Mitsu on his doorstep. He'd taken the bedraggled, wet kitty and dried her before returning. And now, among the fluster of afternoon rush-hour, he attempts to find Ivy. The music man steps backward as a man past his prime pushes by. Corner Cafe is bustling like an active hive of bees. Deliberating tendrils of fear work their way up the stranger's gut and clutches at his heart. He fiddles with a wad of paper in his pocket.

Once he'd been used to much bigger crowds than this, but that was seven years ago. He tips his fedora lower... his hands shaking, numb. Will they know who I am? he wonders. Searching desperately for the porcelain face framed with black hair, he hardly notices Mitsu wriggling from his arms. Thump. She scrambles to her feet, running 'cross the dining room in pursuit of her mistress, led by her senses.  Her dusky mottled tail whisks behind a door. A green door.

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