Annie can’t show her true colours – she’s too afraid – until he finds her and sees her with different eyes, loving eyes…
“Going to be a slow day today,” Gaby says, looking outside.
Rain slaps the shop window, making everything outside blurred. The pavement, the wide stretch of prom that greets the beach, they’re lost among the horizontal rain and gusts of wind.
“My mum used to call days like this squelchers… rain in your hair, rain in your shoes… squelchers…” On the last word my voice catches. I cough.
Grief is a funny thing, isn’t it?
It didn’t matter that it had been nearly a year since she died; the feeling of Mum could still catch me unawares, hook me like a fish on a line, pull me into the air gasping at the fresh rawness of it all.
I was over the initial grief; that see-sawing emotion, but this… I think this will always be there. This sudden feeling that comes from nowhere.
This realisation that Mum – my mum, – isn’t here any more.
Gaby stares at her tights. They’re expensive ones, all sheeny-shine with black polka dots on the surface. “There’s a tiny flaw, you know,” she says, carefully, looking at me from the corner of her eye. “All that money and they’re still not perfect.”
“How do you know you didn’t do it?” I say, smiling, because we both know her tights are a distraction, a way to smooth over that catch in my voice.
She smirks. “Don’t you know, Anna? I never snag my tights.” She’s put on her posh voice, accurately mimicking her mother-in-law.
“Look,” Gaby suddenly hisses. “There’s someone staring in.” She ducks behind the counter. ‘He looks a bit… weird. Hide!”
“Get up… your tights. If they aren’t snagged already, they will be now.”
I look up at the window, and there you are…
Through the blur of the mizzle-drizzle, I can see you. Only half of you because the bird table in the window display is blocking your face.
But I know it’s you.
The loveable man.
That’s what I used to call you: the loveable man.
What makes someone loveable? When we were together I wondered that a lot. I soon came to the conclusion that it wasn’t one big thing, like he’s a hero, or handsome, or strong… No, lovability is a strange mix of small things that in any other combination, on any other person, wouldn’t cut the mustard.
I used to lie there, listening to you breathe – you did that strange pff-pff thing when you were going into a deep sleep – and I’d list them all in my head: all the things I love about Liam.
One thing was the way you cut bread. Those big hands gently pressing the loaf down, the knife slowly breaking over the crust then the soft pillowy bread.
I remember thinking if you would take so much care over that, how much care would you take over me?
Next, the way you navigate in your head. You’d screw your eyes up as we drove, imagining, all those neurons zip-zapping, the memory cells firing…
But I don’t get to the next one because you’re tapping at the door.
“Ohh, I’m scared. What if…”
“I know him, Gabs.”
You push open the door…
Your head nearly reaches the ceiling, and there are water droplets in your hair, sitting on the dark blonde spiky bits.
“So this,” you say, looking round, “is the famous black and white shop.”
“We specialise in black and white gifts for the home. Everything is black and white,” I say, trying to say it proudly, like I do to other customers.
But I know you’re reading into it.
Because you of all people know how I used to feel about colour. It’s one of the things that attracted me to you after all. When we met in Australia in that dodgy beach bar with the beer bottle lids embedded in the wall, I saw so many colours in you. Not just your brown face and white teeth, but the amber of your eyes, ringed with greeny-blue, the dark brown smudges of your freckles.
olour – colour everywhere.
“I photograph surfers,” you said on our first date, and you started talking about light, movement, and I was moved by your passion.
All of a sudden I knew why I felt so comfortable around you. You saw the world in pictures, like I did.
Ever since Dad, and his yelling and bullying, I was scared of words, of their power. So I chose to see the world in pictures, through views, colour, beauty.
I travelled, working in bars and shops, chasing colour.
You did too, and we spent our relationship like that, didn’t we?
We hunted out perfect pictures, awash with colour. Tiny beach bars, Byron Bay, sunsets in Manly, standing on Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Squashy bright coloured fruit that made juice drip down our hands. Tasmania where the wide sweeping views made the world seem like it went on forever.
We were happy, and I thought those dark places made from those horrible words Dad shouted had gone, that you’d pushed it out with your colour and your vibrancy.
Then Mum died…
Mum who’d been everything to me. Well, your mum becomes everything to you when you have a dad like mine.
After the funeral, I was teetering, this funny darkness hovering inside, but I coped because I still had my sister, Susie. Susie the traveller who’d followed me to Oz. Susie who laughed in the face of everything.
Then Susie suddenly left, too, stuck in her own grief. She ran, which she always did when the going got tough, and she followed her new boyfriend to America.
Those weeks after she went, I felt… strange, and I couldn’t explain it to you. I felt darker, somehow. I was worried what you’d make of me now that I wasn’t that happy-happy girl sipping frothy coffees by the beach.
“Well, you have some nice things here, in black and… white,” you say, pulling me back from the past. “Picture frames, jewellery… even a watering can…” you observe.
I nod, can’t stop myself from smirking, but it isn’t funny, really… what the black and white means.
To anyone else, I say that I just like black and white, which is not the truth, but that it’s all I can cope with now.
“Coffee?” you say. “I saw a nice place down the road.”
Gaby shrugs. “I’ll mind the shop. We’re hardly busy.”
We walk there in silence. I’ve pulled my new mac over my face and it works… sort of. I can’t see you unless I turn my head.
I can smell you though. That fresh aftershave, barely noticeable unless you’re close. Light, citrusy… summer.
Inside the cafe, music’s blaring from one of those iPod docking stations, a group of teenagers are shouting.
“So, why did you leave like that?” you ask, as you order our coffees. It’s so you. Straight to the point, no messing.
“Were you feeling…?” you look at me, awkward, as we sit at a table by the window, because we never had deep conversations, did we? We were like the surfers, always skimming the surface of any emotion. “Were you feeling down, about your mum?”
I look away, because you’re looking at me right in my eyes, and it makes me want to run.
“It’s taken me ages to find you,” you say, as the waitress brings our drinks, “I felt like a stalker, hunting out your friends on Facebook.”
“I saw the ad for the black and white shop online,” I shrug. “Mum used to take us there. I had the money from her after she died, you see, and I thought…”
“Why not?” You tap the side of the coffee mug with your finger, and smile. Except it isn’t a real smile, it’s a stretched, funny one I’d never seen before. “Why wouldn’t you just suddenly run off halfway around the world, apart from the fact you were leaving your long term boyfriend, your job, your shared flat with said boyfriend, and…”
You tail off, breathless.
I’ve never seen you like this. You’re usually unflappable…
But it was true, all of it. I ran, disappeared, scared to let you see the real me.
I stand up, and I do it again.
I run away from your words because they scare me, and because you’ve already seen too much. The Anna you knew in Australia – I want you to still believe in her as bright, happy, full of colour, not this woman who only lives in black and white.
The next day when I get to the shop there are flowers on the doorstep. Sunflowers.
Gaby squeals. “Anna, look!”
“Flowers,” I say in my best flat, unimpressed voice. But they’re lovely, and – yellow. Sunshine yellow, jelly baby yellow, Australia yellow. “We don’t have flowers in the shop though… do you want to take them home, Gabs?”
She unlocks the door, picks them up, smiles. “They’re beautiful.” She touches the petals. “Tell me why we don’t have flowers in the shop again?”
“Because it would look out of place with the black and white.” Yet I’m already imagining them on the counter, yellow faces smiling at the customers.
Gaby goes to the back of the shop. “How about here, behind the counter, so only we can see them?”
“Fine,” I say, and all day long I feel them smiling at me. Bright. Happy.
The next day you send nail varnish. I know what is before I unwrap it. It’s the hot summer pink of bougainvillea. I remember telling you the story, pointing the nail varnish out in our local mall in Oz, telling you that Mum always wore that colour on her toenails when she went on holiday.
She’d come back with brown toes and pink nails and she’d waggle them.
“See, Anna?” she’d say, “doesn’t the colour look glam with brown toes?”
I smile when I think of it, and I smile because you remembered the story.
The day after that there’s something huge with a note attached: Something for the shop. To sell or keep.
“A donation!” Gaby exclaims. “Or is it that guy again?”
“That guy?” I echo which is stupid because I know what she’s talking about. You. My loveable man.
The package is wrapped in smooth pale green paper and I haul it into the shop.
Tearing open the paper, I stare, confused. It’s a huge circular mirror, with a white wooden frame.
“Beautiful!” Gabs sucks in her breath. “Is it hand carved?”
I touch the frame. Tiny waves are carved into the wood, barely fingernail high, and it reminds me of the view from your studio.
The waves were the beautiful backdrop to everything. The crash, pound, the thud. Was it that you were reminding me of – those times?
That afternoon, I hang it on the wall. Yet the more I look, the more I realise I was wrong. Your gift isn’t about waves at all, it’s about colour.
In fact, they’ve all been about colour, haven’t they? The sunflowers, the nail varnish, this.
In the mirror I can see the reflection of the sea, the blue-grey where it curves around the coast line. Blue-grey and green with white froth as they crash on top and against one another.
You’re bringing me colour.
Lovely, but still, you don’t understand all of me, my loveable man.
The next morning you’re waiting outside the shop. Your Aussie tan hasn’t faded completely, but it’s going. I can see the freckles on your nose, no longer masked by that familiar biscuity brown colour of your skin.
“Did you get them?”
“I wanted you to know I understand how you were feeling.”
“Yes, but it’s complicated. I can’t be like I was then. Something’s changed.”
“OK,” I take a deep breath. “After Mum died, Liam, I got… depressed. I’m still getting over it…”
“Depressed? But why…?” You stare at me, like I’ve said a bad word.
All I can think was, I was right
You don’t get it, can’t get. Not with your lovely, bright life.
“You’re asking me why?” I shake my head. “This is why I didn’t tell you because you can’t understand.”
I walk away and leave you standing there. As I walk I realise that one of the things I loved about you is the thing that split us apart. The fact you can only see what’s light and bright and happy.
My loveable man. You can’t see things in black and white. You never have been able to.
That night, Gaby rings, asks why I didn’t come to work.
“Is it him?” she says.
I make a funny noise into the phone; a half-yes, a half-gurgle.
She doesn’t ask any more questions, changes the subject.
That night, as I snuggle up under the duvet all I see is you, and the questions roll over in my head. Was I right to walk away? Am I right about you?
The next day, I’m still thinking about you. I picture you packing, or already on the plane, talking to some happy, laughing backpacker, breezing through life with the world at her feet.
As I round the corner past the post office to the shop, I can see Gabs is already inside.
“You OK?” she says, pushing a mug of steaming tea into my hands.
“This came.” She pulls a letter out of her cardie pocket.
“There’s no point opening it,” I say, pushing it back. “I know what’s inside.”
“OK, I will, then.” She opens it and passes a photograph to me.
I stare, remember.
You took it about a week after we’d got together. You’d caught me on your balcony, staring out to sea. You’d cooked linguine with a fresh basil and tomato sauce. We talked about visiting Italy together one day.
You went inside for more wine, and I was transfixed by the sea. It was so, so beautiful. I remember thinking this is one of those moments I had to hold in my head. Just like all those loveable things about you. You only ever get them so often, don’t you? Moments where you think that this… this is as good as it gets.
“Lovely…” Gabs whispers.
I nod, but as I stare at it, I realise there’s something different about it. Then I get it.
It’s in black and white.
“It looks nice in black and white, doesn’t it?”
I look up, suck in my breath. There you are. My loveable man.
“He begged me,” Gabs scoots towards the door.
“Black and white… colour… it’s nice to have both sometimes, isn’t it?” you say, smiling at me. “Nice to have the contrast sometimes.”
I look at you and all of a sudden, I remember it…
The last thing I used to list in my head about you – the last and the most important…
You never gave up on anything, not until you got it.
Waiting hours on the beach for the perfect barrel shot… spending forty dollars trying to win me that cuddly toy at the fair…
You never gave up.
I should have remembered, shouldn’t I?
“Yes,” I say. “Black and white, or colour. You can have both.”
And I mean it. I can see colour now, as well as black and white.
As I look at you, and you reach for my hand, I know you do too.
I know you see everything in me, my loveable man.
Every tiny bit of me.
All the colours.
We’re sharing another tender short story from our archives every Monday and Thursday during July. Look out for the next one – and remember, there’s exciting new fiction every week in My Weekly magazine. Sign up to get yours here!