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Book, Cover

bymelbclayman©

Dave was sweating. The sun was warm but not uncomfortably so - it felt considerably milder than the sun back in Orange - but dragging the bag along the street probably hadn't been the best idea. It was well-suited to the task but the route he had decided to take to the hostel he was booked into was rather longer in person than it had seemed on paper. As he trundled down 33rd Avenue, he espied some shady greenery which turned out to be a park. Families were parked hither and yon; people were sitting on benches, watching kids frolicking or ignoring them completely, absorbed in a newspaper or book.

Dave found a seat occupied by only one person, a woman who looked to be in her fifties. She wore sandals, denim cut-offs, and a white t-shirt under a loose olive shirt and a floppy, broad-brimmed hat. Sunglasses sat on top of the bag beside her on the bench and as Dave sat down they were smoothly transferred to the woman's other side with one hand while the hand holding the book she was reading barely wobbled.

Dave set his bag in front of the bench and set his feet up on top, then stretched his arms out in an ecstatically wide yawn. He rubbed his eyes and looked around blearily.

"You always carry that much baggage around with you?" came the woman's voice, everything else about her still focussed on what she was reading.

"We all have some baggage," Dave replied, smiling. "Do I earn any points for being open about mine?"

The woman laughed. "Perhaps. At least it sounds like you've got a sense of humour about it," she said.

"I'm an Australian," Dave said. "It comes with the territory. We have a sense of humour about everything."

"Really?" remarked the woman, her hat rising along with her eyebrows.

"Oh, yes. And the more serious something is, the more likely we'll joke about it."

"Politics?"

"We had a Prime Minister who held the Guinness world record for drinking a yard-glass of beer."

"Religion?"

"The only thing sacred about a cow is how you cook it."

She laughed out loud. "Don't say that kind of thing too loud around her, my dear. Portland is full of crunchy granola, vegan, animal liberation types and it's not always easy to tell us apart from other people."

"I'll try to remember that," Dave said. He turned to look at her, finally. "Crunchy granola?"

"Healthy living, green, vegetarian, supports Greenpeace, anti-war... you know? Someone who's into all that natural crap and eats tofu and does yoga and hugs trees..."

Dave nodded and asked, "So when did we stop calling them hippies?"

The woman turned finally to look at Dave. "Not long before I retired."

"You're retired?" returned Dave, surprised.

"Yes. Three years this summer."

"I thought maybe you had... relatives running around here somewhere."

She smiled. "Oh you're sweet, aren't you? No, my children moved away some time ago. I just like to come here and read old books from time to time. Old librarians never die..."

"... they just get renewed?"

The woman laughed. "I was going to say they just end up overdue and lose their circulation, but I think I like yours more."

Dave smiled. "You're welcome to use it but I want a nickel every time you say it."

"It might be worth it," the woman said. "I'm Evelyn," reaching out to shake Dave's hand.

"David," he replied, wiping his hand on his shorts before he accepted her hand and shook it gently. "You can call me Dave."

"And you can call me Evie," she said.

"It's good to meet you, Evie."

"Likewise, Dave." She slipped a bookmark into her book and laid it down on the bench between them.

"So what are you reading there, Evie?"

She glanced down at the book. "An old children's story. The author used to live around here and she set some of her stories in a street just up the avenue there."

Dave leaned back and looked up the street to where he'd walked down from. "Up there?" he asked, pointing up the hill.

Evie nodded. "Yes. Klickitat Street."

"Why does that sound familiar to me?" Dave wondered aloud.

"Do you know Beverly Cleary?" Evie asked.

"Not personally," quipped Dave, "but the name sounds familiar. Why is that?"

"You might have read her in grade school," Evie said. "She wrote about a boy named Henry Huggins, his dog Ribsy, and friend Beatrice. Beatrice had a little sister - "

"Called Ramona!" finished Dave. "I remember those at school, yes!" Dave leaned forward, taking it all in. "I thought the name sounded familiar. I cross the street there at Klickitat Street to come sit down here."

Evie pointed to the children playing in a fountain further down the park. "The statue there is Ramona, and off to the right there is Henry Huggins and Ribsy."

Dave smiled. "Awesome. That's such a surprise - I wouldn't have expected to be connected to here like that. After I visited Austin a few years ago, I was told I'd love Portland but I didn't expect to make connections so quickly!"

"Stumptown's a bit like that," laughed Evie. "There are a lot of folk who've settled here because Portland snares them in her web. It's a very comfortable place to live, if you've got a job. If not, well, it's not a bad place to live, either."

Dave nodded. "Sounds like Austin. And a few places back home too."

Evie turned on the bench to face Dave more directly, re-crossing her legs for comfort. "So home is Australia somewhere?"

Dave nodded. "Orange. Do you know where that is?" Evie shook her head, no. "It's west of Sydney, west of the Blue Mountains. It's a great place but a lot of people find it a little boring. When Sydney's so close, Orange is the kind of place a lot of people grow up in and then leave as soon as they can."

Evie nodded. "Was that you?"

"Not exactly," he answered. "I trained at UTS in information systems design and it's a very portable skill set. I set myself up as a contractor and now I work from my bag, wherever I happen to be. I usually happen to be at home, in Orange. I made enough money to buy a house fairly early into my career and houses in Orange aren't terribly expensive. While I'm away there's a lovely neighbour of mine who feels absolutely compelled to watch the place for me."

"And who's that?"

"Charlotte. She's Persian, holds her age very well, and she doesn't mind sleeping with me from time to time, if I'm not doing anything out on the porch..."

Evie smiled. "Charlotte's a cat?"

"Got it in one. Her owner, Giulia, is Italian and about eighty years old. Charlotte keeps an eye on both of us, now. And we look out for one another as well."

Evie looked over at the families scattered around the tables in the park. "That sounds nice," she said. "I could probably do with someone like that around the place."

"Someone to sleep with you outdoors?"

"No!" she scoffed, slapping his arm gently. "Someone to look in on me from time to time. Make sure I'm not lying under a stack of books. Someone to leave the house to see."

Dave followed her gaze to the families and then looked back at her. "You're not married?" he asked.

She held up a hand, the gently tanned skin bearing a creamy mark on one finger. "He passed away a few years ago now," she said. "I only stopped wearing the ring this summer... I don't know why I left it on for so long." She turned and returned Dave's gaze for a long moment, then looked away again.

"Maybe you decided you're ready to not be alone anymore."

"Maybe." She drew a deep breath and sighed slowly. "So tell me about you, young man! Wife, children, prospects?"

Dave laughed. "I'm the runt of the litter," he said. "I'm just happy to be exploring the world, seeing what's around. Truth to tell, I bought the house to quieten my family more than anything else. I could quite comfortably just wander the world my whole life."

"Sounds nice."

"I'm lucky I can afford to. If i were a teacher, or a lawyer, or an accountant, or a farmer, like all the rest of my family, I definitely wouldn't be able to. Nowhere near enough time off and it's hard enough for them to get their ducks in a row for a family dinner, let alone a holiday overseas."

"Hold that thought." Evie stood up and stretched, and Dave took a moment to drink in her sleek body and relaxed aura. She re-arranged her belongings on the seat between them - book, bag, sunglasses - and then folded herself back onto the seat, nestled against the armrest at the end.

"Now," she said, staring into his face like a cat, "tell me all about your travels."

* * * * *

"... and that's about it. I decided to go a-wandering and I've been pretty relaxed about it. I was in North Carolina last week and I got off the plane at PDX all of" - Dave looked at his watch - "oh, five hours ago..." He did a double take and looked around at the now largely empty park. A couple of families were folding up picnic blankets and the children who had been frolicking around the grassy space were nowhere to be seen.

"I can't believe we've been yabbering for so long!" exclaimed Dave. "And it's still so light! What is it, 8 o'clock?"

"It can stay light for quite a while but when it turns dark you'll know about it," Evie said. "When do you have to check in to where you're staying?"

"I think the desk closes at 10pm." Dave looked around again. "I hadn't thought about it before," he said, "but I'm actually quite hungry."

Evie smiled. "It's my fault you're still sitting here. Let me make you dinner." Dave put his hands up to protest but Evie ran over his objections. "No, no, no, I insist. You can call from my phone if you like and then I can drive you to where you need to go in time for you to check in. How does that sound?" she beamed.

"Marvellous."

Evie clapped her hands together. "Then let's go. My house isn't far - just up there," she said, pointing up the hill.

Dave couldn't hold back a groan. "Really?"

Evie slapped his shoulder with one hand as she gathered her things with the other, "Oh you! Anyone would think you hadn't been sitting down resting for the last five hours!"

Dave laughed and set off, baggage firmly in tow. Evie, startled by the vigour of his movement, quickly overtook him and led him up the avenue . In about five minutes - less time than Dave would have guessed to get to where they were going - they turned into Klickitat Street. Evie's house was a neat, narrow white house with blue trim and a spare, low-maintenance garden.

"Nice,' Dave commented, as Evie led the way up the stairs.

"It is," she said. "As far as the house was concerned my husband and I wanted something very low-maintenance. That being said, the inside is rather custom..." Her voice trailed off as she opened the front door and swept him past her into the entry.

Dave looked around and found himself surrounded on almost every available space by shelves. Most were filled with books, some on stands, some packed neatly, some awry, some behind glass doors. He could see into the lounge still more covering every wall and a line of shelves just above eye level hugging the stairs leading to the next floor.

"You weren't kidding when you said you were a librarian," Dave gasped. "Brought your work home a bit then, did you?"

Evie chuckled as she locked the front door. "Books became my life - after a while, after my husband died, they became what kept me alive." She indicated a table hidden beneath a stack of periodicals to their right at the foot of the stairs. "You can leave your things there if you like. Please excuse me for a moment - there's a telephone in the kitchen, through the back of the lounge. I'll be right back." Evie swept up the stairs, removing a pin from her hat that Dave had taken to be a flower and letting a surprising amount of hair fall down her back as she took off her hat and headed up to the second floor.

Dave moved through the lounge and noted Evie's movement upstairs where he could. A door at the back opened into an eating space, separated from the kitchen and sinks by a serving counter. The table was neat and clear but for a single paperback with a bookmark - "Watership Down", Dave saw - and the telephone was set on the wall at the left-hand end of the servery, with one of those ridiculously long cords so favoured by American sitcoms. He pulled out his wallet and fished out the details for the hostel.

When Evie entered the kitchen from the back, by the oven, Dave was deep in conversation with the staff at the hostel.

"How does it look?" Evie stage-whispered.

"Can you hang on a moment?" Dave said, then put his hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone.

"They're glad that I've called - they were about to give my bed away for the night."

"Really?"

"A rather desperate German tourist, apparently. It's not too late for me to go over, though, and they'll let me check in later."

Evie looked at the refrigerator. "You could stay here tonight if you like, check in tomorrow." She looked at him and smiled. "No good deed goes unpunished, you know!"

Dave frowned. "I wouldn't want to impose, you're already making me dinner."

"Nonsense," replied Evie firmly. "Maybe they'll comp you a night."

"I'll see." Dave removed his hand from the mouthpiece. "That's okay, I suppose," he said. "So you'll extend my booking by a night? - Fully booked? - Well, it'd be nice to be comped, good deeds and such... - Good-oh... I'll see you tomorrow then... Bye!"

Dave hung up the phone. "Good thinking, Charlie Brown," he said. "A penny saved is a penny earned and all that. I very rarely get that kind of consideration."

Evie smiled. "That's Portland for you. You should have visited here sooner."

Dave looked at Evie as she bustled around the kitchen. She had changed from the outfit she'd been wearing in the park and now wore a simple shift made from what looked like heavy cotton; she had left her feet bare. As she opened the fridge and bent in to pull vegetables from the crisper, the fabric settled neatly over her thighs, smooth and unmarked.

"Would you like a shower while I make dinner?" asked Evie from inside the fridge.

"As a matter of fact, that would be great," said Dave, admiring how her hair, now in a long, rough plait divided her strong back in two, almost to her waist.

"All right then," she said, standing up. She dumped two handfuls of vegetables on the counter and moved past him into the lounge. "This way."

Dave followed her up the stairs, slowly stepping on each step about four steps behind Evie, his eyes roughly level with the top of her hips. She turned as she stepped onto the landing and moved around the bannister to let Dave past.

The were four doors but only one was closed. Dave guessed it was a linen closet. Almost facing the top of the stairs was what appeared to be a guest bedroom; next to that, a bathroom; the linen press; finally, set over where the lounge was downstairs, what appeared to be a master bedroom, softly lit by lamps where Dave expected the bedhead to be.

"Feel free to leave your things downstairs," said Evie, as she pointed to the bathroom. "The bathroom's here, I'll get you a towel, and you can sleep through there," she continued, pointing to the guest room.

Dave nodded and turned to head back down the stairs. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Evie replied. "It's nice to have a man around the house, even if it's only for a night." She moved over to the linen press and Dave stole another glance at her back through the bannister as he headed downstairs.

Paranoia from past experiences kept him putting a change of clothes and sleepwear in his carry-on luggage, so he left his rolling case untouched and hoisted his carry-on bag over his shoulder. Evie was descending the staircase and he stood back until she drew level with him.

"The towel's on your bed," she said. "I'll have something ready when you're back downstairs."

"Thanks." Dave edged past her and climbed the stairs two at a time, and Evie watched until he reached the top, then slipped back into the lounge room.

The shower felt good and Dave revelled in the hot water. Even though the day had been quite warm, the house was cool - air conditioning, he assumed - so the hot water was energising and he felt the fatigue of travel sloughing off him like a second skin. When he had finished washing, he rinsed himself under a blast of cold water and the, turned off the water and dried off. He'd pulled out his pyjama pants and T-shirt - his usual sleeping attire when travelling - and slipped them on. He felt cool but not cold - he felt confident he would sleep well with a meal in his belly.

He hung his towel over the shower curtain rail and looked in on his carry-on bag before padding down the stairs. Instead of stepping through the lounge room to the kitchen, he turned a hairpin at the foot of the stairs and followed a passage towards the back of the house. He expected it to end near a laundry door or mud room, and the doors at the end of the corridor had glass insets that revealed both.

He turned to the left and stepped through the open door - a sliding door stood Evie had left open - and he stopped to watch he dancing silently to some only she could hear, a glass of wine in one hand, stirring a pot with the other. A green bottle and another glass stood on the servery, ready for him.

"Do you always dance while you're cooking?" Dave murmured. Evie turned as if it were the next sequence in her routine and smiled broadly.

"Life is too short to be without dancing," she laughed. "I dance as often as I can."

Dave stepped past her and stood on the other side of the servery, poured himself a glass of wine. It was a shiraz, Australian. "Nice choice," he nodded. Evie nodded back and raised her glass. "Salut."

Dinner consisted of steamed vegetables and broiled fish, simple and light - the wine was almost heavier than the meal. Evie and Dave draped themselves louchely on the dining chairs as they ate, lazily forking food as they talked. When the bottle ran empty, Evie brought out a matching bottle, along with some chocolate.

"Would you like some coffee?" she asked, as she tidied the plates away into the dishwasher.

Dave smiled. "No, thank you - I might not get to sleep. Although I'm wondering if that's not so bad. You seem to have been a bit starved for conversation!"

Evie laughed. "Like I said, it's nice to have a man around the house. I don't think I've had anyone here who wasn't family since Simon died." She wiped her hands on a paper towel and dropped into in a bin under the sink. "It makes me feel young again."

"You don't seem so old to me," Dave remarked, honestly. "When do people retire around these parts?"

Evie sat back down at the table and topped up her glass. "That all depends on why you're retiring..."

"Oh?" Dave raised an eyebrow.

"I didn't fall but I wasn't pushed either. I was given an early diagnosis for ovarian cancer."

Dave gasped. "Oh, Evie, I'm so sorry!"

She shook off his apologies. "No, no, that's fine. It was part of why this house is the way it is.

"When we got the diagnosis, Simon and I decided to make the house... maintenance-proof. We changed the garden, had fittings and plumbing replaced, all while I was having tests and meetings. We were all finished and the indications were that I would have to go into hospital for an extended run of tests and biopsies. Simon was glad to not have to do anything and I was glad to be well enough to enjoy my retirement party from the library. That was four years ago. I was only fifty-two."

She was looking off into the middle distance as she continued, her hands clasped around the base of her wineglass.

"I was only in hospital for about a week. The biopsy was keyhole surgery and took very little time to heal. The results were in about a month later. It took a while because they had to be sure.

"No cancer. There never was. You can't believe how relieved we were. We started making plans to buy an RV, let our daughter stay here while we toured the country - "

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