by Michael E. Lloyd
Chapter 28: Society’s Child
part 1 of 2
Maelene and Toni had started out very late that morning, after the revelries of the night before. But the short drive up the Atlantic coast, and their long solo sessions of swimming and sun-tanning on another glorious Miami beach, had gone just as they had hoped. And their very first little picnic together had been another new delight.
Toni chose an apple from the lunch bag, took a bite, and frowned ever so slightly.
‘When I told you they’d arrested that guy yesterday, you said “Oh, we’re safe again!” didn’t you?’
‘Yes. Funny thing to say. Surely we were completely safe a lot earlier? As soon as we were inside the hotel, I’d say ...’
‘I was in shock.’
‘I know, but ...’
‘Toni Murano, you do sometimes have a very keen insight into things.’
‘Aha! So ...?’
‘So, when I was a lot younger, I was singing a song about truth one evening, and a guy in the crowd obviously didn’t like what he was hearing. And he gave me a long dirty look, the sort of look that says “I’m gonna get you some day.” I’ve worried about him turning up again ever since. Yesterday, I saw the same look in that gunman’s face ...’
‘Oh, that’s awful, honey. I’m so sorry for you. But, you know, it means there’s nothing to worry about now!’
‘Because the first guy never did come after you, so you must have misread his look. And this one certainly won’t, so you misread that too.’ He grinned. ‘Doubly poor judgement, but it proves your problem’s now gone for ever.’
Maelene shook her head incredulously.
‘All this time and I’ve never thought it through like that. You’re right. I finally am safe again. Thank you, baby!’
Toni accepted another big kiss, then munched on his apple and smiled ruefully.
‘We’ve had a lot of arguments over the past few weeks, haven’t we?’
‘Not really arguments, Toni. Not even big differences of opinion. We both care about important things. We both have a good perspective on history and morality. I think it’s more to do with frustration at each other’s level of preoccupation with some of the big issues ...’
‘That’s a very sharp analysis.’
‘Oh, I don’t have the full picture yet! That is ... I reckon you must know by now what really gets my hackles up — and what turns me on ...’
‘I think so. You’d like to save the world, and you’re going to have a very good try, but you don’t want to do it single-handed.’
‘Close enough. And I do know how important music and architecture are for you, and how you feel about the media and stuff like that. But most of the time you’re pretty easy-going and rather reserved, aren’t you? — and that’s very nice! But I haven’t fathomed out what you really value most, Mr Murano ...’
‘Me? Oh, you’ve probably hit on it already, with what you just said ...’
‘I think I love to see passion and quiet perfection in action. Performers who are working so hard, to the very limits of their immense ability, and yet make it look so utterly easy. Like the ugly ducking paddling madly away below the surface, but appearing to everyone who sees her simply as the most wonderful, self-assured, gliding swan ...’
‘Oh, that’s just beautiful, Toni — and it answers a lot! Wanna write some songs with me one day?’
‘Thought you’d never ask.’
Maelene lay back down, closed her eyes, and set to thinking hard, as always.
Toni lay back down, closed his eyes, and went quickly off to sleep.
* * *
‘Hello, you two!’
They awoke from their sun-drenched dreams to find Carla kneeling behind them and smiling reassuringly.
‘Oh, hi! Didn’t expect to see you today ...’
‘Well, here I am, Toni. I hope it makes a nice change from Lucia — and let’s all hope no-one notices the lack of footprints in the sand!’
‘Something tells me you have special news.’
‘Most adroit, Maelene,’ said Carla’s lips, but the voice behind them was now Quo’s.
‘Special news, indeed. And I shall not beat about the bush. We have received clear instructions to terminate our mission here, and return as soon as possible to Dome. The natural consequence, of course, is that both of you, and Raymond too, can now be released from our service and allowed to resume your own challenging lives.’
‘Just like that, Quo?’
‘Indeed, Maelene. But let me assure you that our orders come as a very mixed blessing.
‘The good news is that very satisfactory arrangements for trade, apparently meeting all our crucial needs and on a New World far closer to Dome, have now been concluded by one of our sister missions. The Mater must of course add its weight to the major new survival effort that will begin at once.
‘Conversely, it means that we must all soon say farewell. Whatever your own feelings may prove to be, after you have properly digested this news, we wish you to know, straight away, that every member of the Mater’s crew will feel great sorrow at our parting. We have come to know and love and respect the two of you, and many of your fellow men and women, beyond your imagination.’
Silence reigned for very long seconds.
‘Yes, as I suspected, it will take some time for my news to sink in. We shall talk at length, and more than once I am sure, before it is finally time for us to leave. You will have marshalled your own reactions well by then.
‘And we now regard your safe and speedy return to normality as our highest priority. So please allow me the indulgence of a necessary private word with each of you in turn, here and now.’
Carla’s own familiar voice returned.
‘Hello again ...’
‘I’m going to be very brief — we can all talk properly later. Please telephone Raymond soon, to say all your farewells. And there are just two more small things for Quo to do right now. Forgive me, Maelene — I need to give him a little hug! Your turn soon ...’
Toni, I am going to set in motion, at once, the steady process of your rehabilitation. It will feel rather strange, over the days to come, but you need have no concerns.
‘Whatever you say, Quo. As always.’
And most importantly — many weeks ago, we established a little mechanism which should guarantee your safe departure from this country, whenever that may turn out to be. Let me now provide you with all the necessary details ...
Toni was fully back on the beach, and was mildly shocked to see Carla and Maelene now in their own apparently intimate embrace.
‘Here comes Quo again, Maelene. She has a short personal message from both of us ...’
My dear young lady, I promise you will receive our proper thanks, and rather more, a little later. For now, as the two of you begin the gentle return to your normal lives over the coming hours and days, with Carla watching constantly over you, she and I wish to say just one small thing.
‘And what might that be, Quo?’
Follow your heart, Maelene. Simply follow your heart.
* * *
‘So, Toni Murano’s free as a bird again!’
‘And so are you, honey.’
‘What d’you wanna do now?’
‘I just don’t know.’
‘Well, I wanna lie back down in what’s left of this sunshine, and have a good long think, and talk about it on the drive back to the hotel, and then get some dinner.’
‘Sounds like a good plan.’
* * *
‘I’ve suddenly realised how much I miss my parents, Maelene. I’ve hardly spoken to them since I left Spain. My father was still really annoyed that Mamá and I wanted to forget the whole business of my kidnapping — and I’ve been avoiding them ever since. But I can’t understand why I haven’t thought about it like this until just now ...’
‘I think it’s simply ’cos the Domans didn’t want you to, Toni. They needed you to focus all your attention on helping them. Now, I’m not defending that for one moment — you know I have real strong feelings about how presumptuous they’ve been with us — but I’m certain that’s the reason. Which means you must not blame yourself at all for ignoring your parents. You’ll soon work out a way to explain it to them, without bending the truth any more than you need to. And by the way, you also have a few things to square up with Paula, right?’
‘Maelene, you’re just wonderful. That all helps so much. I don’t know how you manage to see things so simply and clearly all the time.’
‘I’m a woman, Toni. Remember?’
‘Can I double-check?’
‘Hey, stop that! Not while I’m driving, you idiot!’
Toni smiled and fell silent again, but not for long.
‘So, I think I need to go back home ... very soon.’
Maelene swallowed hard and kept her eyes on the road.
‘I think I agree.’
‘Yeah. First off, you gotta see your parents again, and tell them how much you love them, and sort it all out with them. Fast. That’s number one priority, right? Next, there’s Paula — she’s less urgent, and I know you’re evading the issue, but she’s important too, OK? And I think there’s another real good reason. I’m convinced you shouldn’t stay in the U.S. any longer than necessary. There’ve been far too many scares with Homeland Security, and you still can’t be certain the records are all sorted out — or ever will be. And you have no proper job skills, so you really can’t expect to get a work permit here. Maybe you should never even think about coming back again, let alone trying to stay more permanently. It’s just all too risky for you, Toni.’
‘Sometimes I wish you didn’t think so clearly all the time ...’
‘You disagree with what I just said?’
‘No. It’s exactly what I’d already worked out for myself.’
* * *
They went straight into the hotel restaurant and ate their meals without a word, both lost in their turbulent parallel thoughts. Only when the coffee appeared did Toni break the silence.
‘So, what about us?’
‘Different worlds, Toni. I have a fine job back in Columbia. Right now you’re just a college drop-out — but they’re taking you back next fall, thank goodness. I live over here. You have to go back over there. You’re still a baby. I’m almost middle-aged ...’
‘You crease me up, honey!’
‘And your English is just brilliant! But don’t change the subject! That’s my answer to your question. Did you really hear it?’
Toni paused and lightly shook his head, still struggling with his thoughts, still completely unable to organise them. He gave up trying, and just sighed.
‘You’re right, of course. So many differences. It’s all so complicated ...’
Maelene Bay had always promised herself that there were certain rare situations in life where she would never take the lead and try to influence an outcome. So now she simply looked her beloved Toni straight in the eyes, and waited.
Toni just sighed deeply again.
‘OK, honey. But I’ve often said I’d like to meet your Mom and Dad, haven’t I? Well, if we flew back to Columbia together tomorrow morning, I could do that, and stay the night in my old hotel, then go on to JFK on Wednesday and use my open return ticket for Dublin.’
Maelene quickly brushed a single disappointed tear from her eye.
‘Sure, Toni,’ she nodded, braving a tepid smile. ‘That’ll be real nice — for everybody.’
‘Right, then — let’s find the Internet area. And we need to phone Raymond ...’
‘Yeah. Dunno what I’m gonna say ...’
* * *
‘Hi Mom, it’s me.’ ... ‘Yeah, the job’s all finished, and I’m flying home tomorrow from Miami, via Charlotte.’ ... ‘No, everything’s fine.’ ... ‘Yeah, he’s fine too. He’s coming back with me — he really wants to meet you both, so I said OK. He’s booked a room downtown, and we’ll get him plugged in there first, then we’ll be with you early afternoon, right? Maybe Dad can take an hour off work?’ ... ‘No, I don’t wanna talk about that now, Mom. We’ll just see you tomorrow. Bye-eee!’
Maelene reached for the light switch, then turned towards her boy.
‘Still not called your parents yet?’
‘No. I haven’t decided what to say ...’
* * *
As the slender Regional Jet began its final approach into Columbia, Maelene’s thoughts were swinging back and forth between the familiar security of her home town and the new insecurities of the past few hours.
She was still determined not to pressure Toni into anything, even though there was suddenly so little time left for a change of heart. He was showing no sign of even thinking of something more ambitious than his simple return home, let alone preparing to suggest anything. Men!
Of course, she’d already narrowed it down to three clear options.
She could jet off with Toni to the bright lights of Europe for the summer. The Chief would probably be able to persuade Norm to hold her job open for a few more weeks — he was such a sweetie! — especially if she smiled real nice for him and promised to work extra hard when she got back. She had a valid passport, of course, but she’d only ever left the USA once — no, three times now. Wouldn’t it be fine to travel round Europe, just like lucky old Toni and Sal had been able to tour the States! And they could see how it all panned out. She spoke a little Spanish, so she should be able to get a temporary job or two, in a bar or an office maybe, or buy a cheap guitar and do a bit of street-busking — she’d always fancied that! And maybe even find a more skilled job, and later get a longer-term work permit, especially if ...
Or she could just go back to her desk at Forretan, sort of “half-promised” to Toni (‘What the heck does that mean, for heaven’s sake, girl?’), but with no idea of how or when or where they might ever meet up again. Thinking about that every minute of every day probably wouldn’t be too good for the quality of her work ...
Or she could deploy her usual good sense, bite the bullet, split with the kid, and return completely to her stable Norm. Hah!
She was not going to let Toni see her cry. But he was still looking out the window. Had been for the whole short flight from Charlotte. Probably thinking about lunch, and beer, and New York City, and Bilbao ... and Paula. So she managed a discreet little weep as the wheels touched down in South Carolina.
She hasn’t uttered a word throughout the flight. Hasn’t even looked at me. Just been staring into space. Must be something I said. No idea what. But they always play these games, don’t they?
Anyhow, if she really didn’t want me to leave tomorrow, she’d have said so.
I gave my heart to Paula, and that wasn’t enough. I’m not going to let that happen again. Women!
‘Welcome back to Columbia, Toni! See that temperature sign? Nearly 80 degrees outside, and it’s still only lunchtime! Now that’s what I call good weather!’
‘It’s certainly hotter than Bilbao will be ...’
‘OK. Right. So, when’s that suitcase of yours going to appear, Mr Darcy?’
* * *
Carla and Quo had, of course, continued to observe all that had happened since Maelene and Toni had received the news of their demobilisation.
Carla was now lost in a whirlwind of sympathy, jealousy, empathy and goodwill. And she knew it. But she was holding to her own self-promise, made back on that last night in April, and sensibly keeping well out of things.
Quo, always more finely detached, was simply feeling very frustrated. She had repeatedly been tempted (on the sole ground of ‘Illogical, Captain ...’) to jump in and directly influence the couple’s confused and inconclusive thinking. And now she was experiencing an irresistible urge to simply go ahead and do it!
Carla, being a sisterly Doman, naturally recognised all such thinking without even blinking. So she at once held a frank and thoughtful dialogue with her boss and — ‘with all due respect, ma’am’ — suggested she should do nothing of the sort!
Quo smiled and acknowledged the irony. She should definitely have made that particular decision herself! But why, oh why, were young people so insensible these days?
Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Lloyd