“Look at him, he is so boring, even his table looks boring and his coffee mug is even more boring!” Lisa whispered to Alice.
“You’re saying that about every man whom I decide to pick up.” Alice muttered.
“You will not pick him up, that’s a silly idea. I haven’t seen anyone more boring than this guy. He is so… ordinary! He is just an accountant in a middling company.”
“Hey, hey, we also work here!”
“Don’t pretend you like this place. I know you don’t. And this guy – what’s his name? Jack? John? I don’t even know his name. He will always buy you flowers and never hide a small present in the bouquet, he will always take you out to dinner, and never cook something other than a sandwich, he will always take you out to watch new movies but will never touch you in the theatre because it’s considered to be impolite, rude or vulgar. Even if he marries you, forget about dying on the same day!” Lisa wrinkled her eyebrows.
“How do you know that?” Alice asked.
“Alice, it’s so simple. Look at him. His knitted grayish sweater is definitely second-hand. It looks weird. He always leaves his place exactly at 5 pm and not a minute earlier or minute later. Since he is single, it means he wants to get home as soon as possible to watch TV probably with a beer in his hand. Seriously, do you want such a dull monotonous life? Tomorrow night I will take you somewhere. That’s the best place for menhunting. Forget about this one. Definitely not your type.”
A long hand of warm half-yellow, half-orange light, created by a hand-made projector, was illuminating the wall full of funny paper elephants, frogs and koalas – her favorite animals, though she has never seen them in real life; not yet, maybe, not ever. Creamish blinds didn’t let the sun rays touch her soft baby skin and hided the busy street from the tiny and amazingly young lady that was covered by tons of quilts.
She was so pale, her freckles seemed to disappear at all, or maybe they have just jumped out of her face and were exploring the room full of surprises, books and toys, like a small secure palace. Anna, her sick- nurse, was already in the hall ready to leave for her own warm house, where a bunch of kids were waiting for their mum, who spent her days with another child. They couldn’t understand, why did she prefer Elizabeth to them, but would never dare to ask. After all, they had a babysitter of their own – a young girl, who allowed the kids eat as many candies as they want, and that’s why diathesis kept coming back to their house every single day, like an uninvited guest.
Elizabeth blinked and looked in the door mirror: Anna was waiting patiently for the time she could leave this house. The girl sighed and turned her head to the hidden under blinds window: better not to watch as the person you love is waiting to leave you. Unfair.
There was an unfinished knitted scarf on the table. Sharp knitting needles were sleeping safely inside the woolen nest. This type of wool she chose herself a couple of months ago when winter was coming: she wanted to knit one more scarf for her dear father, but she was late, too exhausted to knit, too weak to hold the needles. She always knew there would be an end, but she hoped to finish this scarf, at least this scarf, and nothing more she wanted.
The door-bell rang and the door opened, Elizabeth’s blushed – delicately, in a lady-manner, and smiled – happily, though shyly. She heard muffled voices: the first voice said “Thank you, Anna”, the second one answered: “She’s getting worse”.
Still rubicund, Elizabeth closed her eyes, wearily, and sighed again. There were steps on the floor in the hall and silence afterwards: carpet in her room stole all the sounds and she felt how fluffy ivy was tickling dad’s feet. He sat on a chair, drawn up to a big white bed, and softly touched her forehead. Fingers were icy. He needed new mittens.
“Hello, Snow White. The projector is on, why?”
“Dad, I asked Anna to turn it on, my animals look better in the light. I hope you don’t mind.”
“It’s all good, princess!” – He kissed her forehead. – “How many princes proposed today and how many of them did you refuse?”
She opened her eyes quickly and smiled quickly and answered even quicker:
“Today I’ve met five new admirers: one from the Bell-Tower, I said “Goodbye” immediately – he was bald, that was horrible. The second one appeared to be somewhere from across the country from a place with such a terrifying name, I didn’t want to marry a guy from there – something like Horrify- Morrify Land or something like that, too difficult to remember it was! Two more princes looked fantastically alike: twins, I would say, and both wore camisoles and looked younger than me. The last one, unfortunately, changed his mind after he listened to my vehement speech about the King. I think he disagreed with me. So in a blink of an eye he vanished!” And she coughed. That’s why she was speaking so quickly: the first reason was love. Love towards her father and their little secrets, towards their ideas and their – intelligent – conversations. The second reason was cough. She knew if she doesn’t tell him everything in a minute, he won’t know the end of the story.
He tossed her a shining glass of water with some dissolved pills in it that Anna added every day in Elizabeth’s drinks. Elizabeth looked grateful though weak: when it all started, she asked dad never to mention the name of the pills aloud. Keeping the promise he has made that day, Alex started to forget all the names of the pills. Indeed.
Alex looked around the childish and amazing room they have created together. He pointed to a projector, looked at his daughter – she shook her head “No”.
“Our book?” He asked. She shook her head. “No”.
“A random book then?”
She gulped and coughed again, the cough attack was long and devastating; it was sucking out her energy, her oxygen, her inside. Pills stopped working properly several months ago; the only hope was that her young body would be able to control itself and never let the cough or other sores take the leading role.
Alex picked up the book from the shelf – with closed eyes, that’s how they agreed to do it. Joan G. Robinson, ‘When Marnie Was There’. Elizabeth was always happy to see this book in his hands, even though she has read it several times already.
He remembered the look on her face and her curious and sincere question that she asked when he finished reading the story about Marnie for the first time. “Can I meet her?” – “Marnie?” He asked uncertainly. “No, Joan G. Robinson!” Her seven-year-old voice was quite and gentle. “No, I’m sorry, but I think she died… Why, princess?” “She reminds me of my mum. Mum told me stories like this. Kind. I think Joan Robinson is also very kind.” He also remembered his reaction to her voice: he left the room and left his daughter alone; still refusing to accept the loss. That evening he understood that his daughter was braver than him. And stronger.
He turned to her bed, sat nearby. She stopped coughing, but her face was all covered with its prints: the cheeks became hollow, her eyes lost their incredible color: yellowish, and became ordinary brown. A drop of water was sparkling on her upper lip: still virgin. She was shivering a little, and he tucked the quilt.
Alex opened the book, looked at the daughter and started reading.
“I have two tickets, basketball match, tomorrow. Anyone want to come?”
“Sorry, George, my pregnant wife will definitely ask me to buy something like petite size watermelon stuffed with pasta or red ice cubes to put in her already-cold tea-because-it-was-made-yesterday, and I have to be with her, you know.”
“Yeah, daddy soon you will become, I remember. A couple of months left to wait, huh? Andrew, what about you? Your wife is not pregnant if I am not mistaken.”
“You are not mistaken, that’s right, my wife is perfectly okay, but I promised my daughter to help her to prepare for the midterm exam, she is worried about the result… Did you ask Jim?”
“Yes, he is going out of town with his family, celebrating his mum’s birthday.” Someone giggled. Someone laughed. Someone kept silence.
“George, it seems like you have to ask someone who has no family, no pregnant wife, no mum, no daughter…”
“Alex.” Someone said.
“That ghost? I have never even talked to him. He doesn’t speak with anyone. He just … works and… works.”
“Yeah, that guy is definitely out of place. He has no friends here. He doesn’t talk to us. I doubt that anyone knows at least something about his life! Is he married?”
“I don’t think so.” “Maybe he is gay?”
“This office is full of men, fantastic hunks, so why hasn’t he showed his true nature yet?” someone laughed. “I don’t think he is gay, though you never know. You can ask him out on a date, maybe he will come!”
“Oh, guys, stop it, I’d better ask a broom out than him. He is the most boring guy in this office and in the whole world.”
He turned on the hand-made projector and frowned on the pencil drawing he has made while lunch- break in his office. He was so deep into his thoughts, creating a miraculous town from her – not his – imagination, that he didn’t even notice the notification on his computer and missed all the fun: but who decided to send a notification about pizza-ordering-for-everyone to computers? When he saw it, too late, he just sniffed and went back to his drawing: she wanted art to be alive, he decided to make her wish come true. His table was covered with colored pencils and erasers – like he was a kid painting a present for his mum. For his daughter, actually, it was.
The painting: light-blue flows of wind, visible and thick, flapping flags and the wide road. A white gazebo with columns covered in carvings and patterns. An old man with a short beard and in a funny bowler was sitting inside: her creation, her desire. He must smell musky: that’s how magic smells. Wind is playing with his scarf, short hairs of his beard are still though, and a hardly noticeable smile makes him look like a happy grandfather, always ready to share a pretzel with his grandchild.
“Do you like it, princess?” Alex asked and looked at Elizabeth: she was chewing her hair. It meant she was a bit worried about the image of her imagination on the paper: she believed her dad, always, but wasn’t able to draw herself and so she had to rely on him. She always tried to give him the full picture she had in her mind with as many details as possible, but could words really be more obvious than a real drawing?
“Yes, dad, you are amazing, thank you! I like how the drawing meets my elephants and koalas. They complete it! My animals complete the picture! There is just one thing…”
“Tell me, princess.”
“Can you change his scarf?” “Change it? How?”
“I think it looks a little bit… gallant.”
“Okay, that’s unexpected.” He laughed. “How do you want it to be changed?”
“Can you please erase the end so it’s like not finished… I want him to have a knitted unfinished scarf.” She said in a trembling voice, suddenly nervous.
“A knitted unfinished scarf?” He repeated. “What… “ He looked at the unfinished knitted woolen scarf on her table and turned to his daughter. “Do you want this guy to be me?”
“Dad, he is not just a guy, I told you.” She laughed. He knew she didn’t like the word “guy” – it seemed ridiculous to her, that’s why he used it now: to make her smile. “He is the magician. The one who can make art live. Make it alive. He is the greatest man who will live in your mind till the end of this world.” She sighed. “I so hoped there would be other people who would know about him… He deserves that.”
“You think I am a magician? That I can be a magician?”
“You already are one, dad. So, please, I want his scarf to be knitted and unfinished. I know you can do it.”
He took the drawing in his hands and paper elephants on the wall became sad; they thought they were abandoned. The eraser was in his pocket. He erased the end of the scarf, added some curvy lines to make it look a knitted one, and showed the picture to Elizabeth.
“Good?” He asked. “Perfect!” She answered.
A gulp of wind knocked at the window and disappeared. Elizabeth looked at the wall in front of her. She wanted to remember every inch of it, her elephants and koalas, her dad’s picture, and how they met each other in a crazy street dance, making each other livelier and more interesting.
She swam back in her thoughts. Veneficus, the magician who can make art alive, came to her head several years ago, when she was still a kid. Elizabeth used to leave the window open for the night: she sincerely hoped he would come to her room, look at her knitted animals and revivify them, all of them, all the creations of her mind. Then she understood that Veneficus was a piece of art himself – he was born in her imagination and couldn’t come into the real world unless another Veneficus would do that for him.
The day she heard the doctor saying horrible words about her life, she decided to share her idea with her father. He listened to her stories. She was speaking abruptly, trying to tell Alex as many stories that she has created as possible. When she finished, her dad looked blankly at the window, then stood up and went out of the room. He came back with a hand-made notebook, rather big for a notebook, but pretty small for a book, and opened the first page.
“How will we call the story about Veneficus?” He asked.
“What does the statistic show?” “We are doing great, boss, we are.”
“Good. We are holding a dinner next Friday, you remember, right? I need five best accountants to present the company to our guests. Please, inform everyone, I will take a day off tomorrow.”
“Yes, I will. Lily, James, Candy, John and Peter?”
“I thought Alex was the most devoted person here.”
“Um. He rarely talks with anyone. I am not sure he will be a good choice to present the company… But, of course, boss, if you want him on Friday, you’ll get him on Friday.”
“No, no, it’s all good. Peter instead of Alex, deal.”
He looked in her happy yellow eye full of tears that she wanted to hide and sat on the pebbles – grey cold pebbles that she called “home”. Her skin was pallid and Alex knew it was coming – inevitably, since she was 7. At first slowly, then the pace grew faster and faster. For a couple of years he couldn’t believe that his young cute princess won’t become a queen, ever. But once Elizabeth told him something that changed his opinion towards everything what was going on in his world. She said: “Dad, you don’t have to worry. I mean, you don’t have to worry about me. I will be fine, I promise. Not here, but there. I have read somewhere that the universe, this fantastically amazing lady, reads our minds, listens to our conversations, and sees all the pictures we keep in our imagination…” She touched his head with her forefinger. “And in our hearts…” She touched his chest. “The universe is nice. I am sure we will become friends. You know… I am sure I will meet Veneficus after The Life.” She never used the word “death”. Never. “And we will make everything we can to come see you here. I will look after you. I will be in the wind playing with your hair. I will be in the water covering your skin when you swim… I will be in the air you breathe in. I will stay in your heart. Dad. I love you.”
He closed his eyes and tried to breath: slowly, very slowly, very slowly
Elizabeth breathed in the salted air and coughed. She loved the feeling of being near the sea, she loved looking at the sea, and she loved the spiky scream of seagulls above her head, behind her back, in front of her toes. She laughed, very quietly though, and blinked. Brighton breeze was rustling in her curls, making them jump up and down every second. Light colors from the Brighton Pier were far enough for her to notice them, but she thought she could hear a distant range of happy voices: male and female, young and old. A smell of cinnamon came to the beach right from the open doors of the nearest coffee shop: musky and warm, it made her breath deeply, so that crumbs of cinnamon could touch her lungs from inside.
She was covered in quilts, but at least she was near the sea. That was her birthday wish – the only thing she wanted. Anna helped her dad to move her here, but then left. She promised to come back in several hours, but now she let them be together – and alone. The doctor’s approval for a beach-day was already received. The rising cold mist unveiled the pebbles and came closer to La Manche.
Elizabeth noticed that her dad was laying on his back and staring up at the sea-colored sky, so innocent, so calming. He was holding his breath for a minute. Then he started breathing again. Cold flows of air danced in his nostrils and he sneezed. She laughed.
She felt a sudden stream of life filling her from inside. She felt her heart beating fast, she felt she was blushing. Like a princess.
“Dad?” She asked quietly. “Yes, dear.”
He drew himself up on the pebbles and looked at his daughter. “Open the book. Our book.” She said.
He opened the bag with some sandwiches he made at home, with sweets and a tart from a nearby café where Elizabeth liked to go as a kid. The hand-made book was covered in a hand-made fabric cover. He opened the first page – still blank, because they decided to prepare everything to make it perfect. That’s why they were reading books every day: to get deep inside the language and experience, that was brought to the pages by other people. That’s why he kept drawing pictures for her – he had to be sure he understood her perfectly well, in every single detail. What if he had to finish it alone?
A merry-go-round cracked somewhere far from them. A lonely seagull pecked the pebbles.
A strong furious wave stroke the seashore.
“Brighton fairytale…” She said, her lips light-pink and cracked. “Starts here.”
By Tatiana Samokhina from Russia