Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

28 November 2013

Sandalwood. A Short Story

The Diamond Wing lounge was almost empty as Perry Durham sank into one of its soft, enveloping armchairs. He looked about him. He could be anywhere in the world, these waiting rooms all had an international look. There were the magazine racks with the latest issues of Time, National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and various glossy inconsequentialities that always seemed to carry the same advertisements for Swiss watches and high end cars - BMW, Audi, Lexus, Range Rover. There were the same potted palms, the computer stations, the tea, coffee and snacks buffets and a small bar, seductively lighted, that would politely offer complimentary drinks to the premium traveller.

Perry guessed that, as with some worldwide hotel chains, the familiarity of the lounge's appointments gave comfort to the frequent traveler - never far from home however far that might be.

He went to the coffee maker, poured a slightly stewed brew and returned, nodding to an elderly banker? lawyer? arms dealer? who acknowledged him fleetingly over half-moon spectacles.

Perry checked his watch. Two and a half hours until his connecting flight. He started to read Time magazine. The world was as it always was and always would be. God - at thirty he was becoming the world's great cynic!

She arrived with energy and almost fell into the armchair alongside his, her shoulder bag going to one side, a topcoat to the other. 'What a mad rush' she laughed, 'and now an hour to wait.'

Perry smiled at her. 'Going far?'

'Paris. Almost a regular trip. UNESCO. You?

'London but I have a longer wait than you'.

They lapsed into silence almost as abruptly as she had arrived. He returned to Time while she fished a paperback from her bag, pulled out its bookmark and settled to read. 

Paul looked at her covertly, having read the same paragraph several times without absorption. She was an attractive woman indeed. He judged her to be somewhat older than he; perhaps in her early forties, with a clear, almost unblemished, face adorned with small laughter lines radiating from the outside corners of her eyes. She had a full, generous mouth and bouncy blonde hair. Dressed in a tailored suit of navy blue, her only adornments appeared to be a tiny, Longines gold watch and a single rope of small pearls about a neck that was not greatly lined.

She caught his eye and smiled. She reminded him of somebody from his distant past and the atmosphere around her, as an invisible aura, reinforced the impression. He could just capture a hint of what he had come to know as sandalwood, it was a perfume that had long struck with him and the memory she had evoked took him back to when he had first been aware of it. Then, he had been a boy of eight years and could not have put a name to it but once or twice over the years the scent had been on the air and he had been able to identify it through a friend in the perfume business.

Now, here it was again with this intriguing woman.

'I've caught you in a reverie'. She smiled, one eyebrow lifting as a question.

'Was it that obvious?' He replied, 'You've sent me back a year or two.'

Then, with that intimacy of strangers who do not expect to meet again, he opened his mind to her.

'Something in you has taken me back to my school years. I was eight, away from home, lonely but madly in love...'

'In love? At eight.' She chuckled, 'The little girl in the next row, I suppose.'

'No. With Miss Kingcombe. She was my teacher. I adored her. I would do anything for her.'

'How long ago? What was she like? Can you remember her?'

'I am thirty now. Twenty-two years ago. I can't remember much from then but some little things stay in the mind for ever and I think she had quite an effect on me. I've no idea how old she was. To a small boy all adults are grown-ups, but I have a feeling that she might have been perhaps eighteen or twenty because I do recall that I had heard her referred to as a student teacher. She was tall - well seemed so - and willowy; I have an impression of her hair drawn back into a practical bun, I can't see her clothes but, oddly, I remember that she wore sandals and that her legs were suntanned with fine, blonde hairs and she had long, straight toes, the big ones turned up as if they were being jolly.'   

He grinned almost sheepishly at her, 'That must sound awfully silly!'

They were interrupted by the barman standing over them. 'Hello again, madam' he addressed the woman, 'Can I get you something?'

'Yes, thank you, I'll have...'

'...don't tell me; your usual chablis? And you sir?'

'Well I'll have the chablis too, thank you.'

As the barman walked away Parry remarked, 'You are a regular, aren't you. How long have you been doing this journey?'

'It seems many years, but not really. I just think he fancies me a bit.' She laughed, 'I don't discourage him. Get well looked after that way. But,' and at that she leaned across to Perry and tapped his arm, 'I'm enjoying hearing about you. Tell me more about Miss - what was her name?'

'Kingcombe. Oh how I loved that woman, I wonder where she is today? I remember that she used to tell us all sorts of things that weren't about writing or sums. And she used to do wonderful colourful crayon drawings of the things she told us. For instance, have you head of a shadoof?'

'Well, it's something Egyptian...'

'Yes, ancient Egypt; and the word has stuck in my mind all these years because Miss Kingcombe told us about how the Egyptian farmers used to irrigate their land by using a bucket - a shadoof - on a pivoted pole to raise water from wells and pour it into drain channels. She drew the farmer using a shadoof and I can almost recall every detail of that drawing that hung on the classroom wall.

'I wanted so much to please her that I got two simple books from the school library, one about ants, the other bees, and I read them - devoured them - so that I could tell her what I had learned. You see, she used to have a session when she would ask the children what they had been reading and I, of course couldn't wait to put my hand up. "Ants, miss; and bees". Well now Perry, Miss Kingcombe had said, why don't you come to the front and tell us all about your discoveries?'
'Were you nervous?'

'No', said Parry, 'I was ecstatic. I stood up there on two occasions at least and told my classmates all that I had learned; the first time about bees, the drones, workers, queens; the hives; the nectar collection and the honeycombed nests. And then, on another day, of how ants, like the bees, were colony creatures, helping each other and so on and so on.'

'What do you think Miss Kingcombe thought of you, then?

'I don't really know from this distance. Perhaps she thought I was a precocious little prig. I don't know. But she filled what could have been a lonely life, she was with me at the time, and in anticipation, and in recollection.'

The chablis was cold, dry and flinty and he watched as she ran her carefully manicured finger down the frosting on the glass to send rivulets to its base. 

She look at Perry. 'And I remind you of her. How so?'

'I haven't worked that out yet. But there's a trigger there somewhere.'

'What happened to her?'

'I've no idea. At some stage I was taken from the school and restored to my parents. In fact I've no idea why I had been separated from them. Never asked. Never questioned happenings. I guess she grew older - well that's rather obvious - probably qualified and found another sea of faces to confront'

He sank into reverie again.

When he emerged he took a sip of the chablis, and said, 'Here's something interesting: I even drew a map of the world for Miss Kingcombe. I didn't copy it, I drew it from memory knowing that South America and Africa were sort of the same shape and separated by the Atlantic ocean and that Australia and the little islands of New Zealand were tucked away in the bottom right hand corner and that great lump of Europe and Asia dominated everything. I coloured it in. I gave it to her and I remember she smiled at me and thanked my very much for it and put it very carefully into the music case that she used to carry'.

The woman sat back in her armchair and crossed her legs. She looked at the watch. 'Not long now.' she said. 'Thank you for telling me your story. It's made the time go so quickly. I might just have a smoked salmon sandwich before I go, can I get you something?'

'On one condition.' he replied. 'That I get to hear your life story, too.'

'Wait.' She walked across to the buffet table and as she passed he caught that evanescent perfume again. Odd how evocative a scent could be.

As they settled to eat she started to tell him about herself but had gone no more that a few words when the PA announced 'Singapore Airlines wishes to announce that the Paris bound flight...'

'That's me.' She cried and gathering her shoulder bag and topcoat, stowing her book and retrieving her passport and boarding tickets made to leave. She pushed her hand into his, 'Sorry, you'll have to hear about me another time.' she said. 'Must go'.

Perry stood as she moved quickly to the door of the lounge. 'Go safely.' He waved and then frowned as that fleeting scent was carried on the air.

She stopped at the door and looked back. 'By the way, Perry Durham' she called, 'you left the whole of India off that map'.

And she was gone.

Perry frowned again and then, as the significance of her throwaway line dawned upon him he breathed, 'Of course. Miss Kingcombe. Sandalwood.'


© DON DONOVAN. donovan@ihug.co.nz 
www. don-donovan.blogspot.co.nz or donovan0001.blogspot.co.nz

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By Don Donovan