It has been hard for me to concentrate lately because I keep thinking about her. In my quiet moments, before sleep claims me at night, or when I'm drifting toward fully awake in the morning, in idle moments during the day, or most annoyingly when I'm trying to focus on something important, I'll remember and wish I could have done something differently, though I know it was always out of my hands. I know I should count myself as lucky for the experience... but it doesn't feel that way.
I'd been commissioned to write for a short science video on quantum portals, a topic I found a little hard to swallow, so I contacted a physicist friend and he suggested I visit him in suburban Caloundra where he'd give me a demo in his workshop.
The afternoon was fiercely hot and it was a long walk from the bus stop. The streets were empty; I seemed to be the only one silly enough to be out in the heat. I'm unfamiliar with that area and several of the streets were badly signposted. When I thought I'd finally found the place, I knocked and the front door was opened by a drunken woman squinting into the daylight, laughter and music spilling out from behind her. A party was in progress. Clearly I'd made a mistake, but before I could ask for directions she grabbed my hand and tugged me into the house, closing the door behind me. Inside was pleasantly cool and dark after the oppressive heat and bright sunlight outside. Hardly able to see in the dimness I tried to ask her for the address and directions, but before I could finish my request she was pulled away by an inebriated, laughing young man.
Gradually my eyes adjusted and revealed an interior that seemed larger than expected which I attributed to the dimness, lavish use of mirrors, and the open-plan architecture. Intricate, rhythmic music filled the air, though not uncomfortably loudly, and many of the people were lazily dancing to it. Others were sitting and lounging, and a few were swimming in a large indoor pool while some birds fluttered overhead. Many colored, shifting lights confused, rather than illuminated, the scene. I should have left and tried to keep my appointment, but I was hoping someone here could give me directions. Also it was very hot outside, and I was thirsty.
While I was taking in this scene a slender young man holding a tray of drinks and clad only in tight, red shorts approached me. He offered me a drink. I licked my dry lips, "Water?" But he chuckled and shook his head, and wandered away distributing drinks to other people. I was still standing there awkwardly, wondering what to do next when a lovely young woman in similar tight red shorts and thankfully also a short red t-shirt came up to me holding a very large glass. "Water," she said.
I thanked her and took a few heavenly gulps. But when I began to ask directions a group of dancing partiers enveloped her and took her away. She threw me an apologetic look as she disappeared with the crowd to another part of the house.
After draining the glass I set it down on a table and tried several times to ask people the address of this place. Perhaps they didn't speak English. They merely smiled or laughed and turned back to their friends. They weren't rude, but I wasn't making any headway. I've never been a party animal and was feeling that familiar discomfort when surrounded by revellers.
I'd decided to leave when some people on the far side of the pool backed too close to it and accidentally pushed a couple of large wolf-like dogs in. One man who'd also fallen in scrambled back out amid general laughter from his friends, but the dogs were obviously unable to lift themselves out. I hurried to the edge of the pool, kneeled and held out my arm, calling the dogs. They were already swimming in my direction and I intended to grab one, haul it out, then do the same for the other, but when the dogs neared this side of the pool the edge dropped down into the water making a step for them and saturating my shoes and jeans. I jumped up and back onto the dry edge. The dogs pulled themselves out of the pool and as one of them passed it turned a big shaggy head to me. "Thank you." I was stunned.
There was a touch at my elbow and the woman who'd brought me the glass of water was there. I asked her, "Did you hear that?"
She tilted her head, "Hear what?"
But I realised the thanks must have come from a man who was standing close nearby, looking at me, so shook my head. "Uh, sorry. Nothing," I told her. "Look, I wanted to ask you before—"
"You're all wet. Come with me and we'll fix that." Holding my hand she led me through the crowd toward a service area where she used a hand-towel to take up the excess water from my jeans, knees to cuffs. "Take your shoes and socks off."
She wrung out the socks and put them in what might have been a microwave oven along with my shoes. In a few seconds she retrieved them, warm and dry. She put her hand out for the pants too, but I blushed and declined. There was no way I was going to stand there semi-naked.
I tried again to ask her of my whereabouts and was again interrupted. An older, quite drunk woman in a long black dress put an arm around her insisting that my young host drink some vile-looking blue liquid. I gently unwrapped the older woman's arm and politely redirected her to a similarly inebriated bystander who happily accepted the drink. They wandered away together.
My friend in red beamed at me. "Well, thank you. I don't drink, and intoxicated people can be a little awkward sometimes."
I smiled back, "Neither do I, and yes, I know exactly what you mean." Suddenly I realised how captivating she was. She wore no makeup, allowing the charm of her freckles to show. Her short hair was a soft brown. Her smile was luminous. I had initially thought her quite young, but seeing her more clearly now I noticed the small wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth which put her age closer to my own, making me feel more relaxed in her presence.
She suddenly looked puzzled. "If you don't get intoxicated, why are you at the party?"
"Ah, yes. That's what I've been trying to talk to you about—" But once again a mass of people separated us. They flooded into the serving area, dancing and laughing and I lost sight of her as the surge of people shifted and pushed.
I found her again several times during the evening, and chatted more with her. Her name was Cora. I had gradually given up on the idea of finding out where I was, or of meeting with my physicist friend today. I simply enjoyed her company. Each time I met her I was struck even more by how she was an island of calm in this addled rabble.
When she was not nearby I watched the party. I'd never seen a party like this before. There were peacocks strutting about and the parrots I'd seen earlier would fly down to raid the food plates and return to the chandeliers. There were also two baby elephants who I felt sorry for, as they seemed quite bewildered and stayed close to each other the whole time. Some small monkeys appeared to be having a better time. A couple of young wombats spent most of the time gleefully playing with anybody who would notice them, running in wide circles like small, fast bulldozers. More than one person tripped over them during the night. And there were the two large dogs who drifted like regal ghosts through the crowd. Of all the people there, only Cora spoke to me. Most were scantily dressed, but that wasn't unusual in a hot climate with a pool nearby. Their clothes had an odd style and many bore decorative patterns that diffracted light into colors the way CDs or the feathers of some birds do.
I woke up the next morning seated at a picnic table with my head on my arms in the Caloundra botanic gardens. I had no memory of how I got there, and figured that someone must have spiked my water during the evening. I was stiff, damp with dew, cold, and hungry. The early morning mist had begun to lift and the birds were doing their dawn chorus thing. I checked my pockets and sighed with relief. I hadn't been robbed.
Stretching, I took my bearings and creakingly made my way to a bus stop. It returned along the same route as yesterday, and as we neared the stop where I'd previously disembarked, the memory of Cora at the party flooded my mind. On impulse I got off and hurried away to find the party again.
At the house I knocked on the door, but nobody answered. I waited around for several minutes knocking some more, but it was silent. Eventually, discouraged, I left to go home.
Near the bus stop I bought myself a bottle of water and some junk food for breakfast. I probably should have tried to find my friend's place and apologise for not keeping my appointment with him yesterday, but I couldn't get Cora out of my mind. It confounded me. I'm not normally like this.
I caught the next bus and I was trying to turn my mind back to work and the article I was supposed to be writing. The bus was winding its way through the backstreets of Buderim when I glimpsed, down an adjoining street, a small group of people dressed the same way as the partiers from last night. My heart leapt and without considering it I pressed the button for the next stop.
After exiting the bus I ran back to where I'd seen them, and was relieved to see they were not far away, still laughing and singing their way past the homes. I paused to catch my breath then thought, So, what now? What could I say to them? Do you know Cora? I didn't even know her last name. It was all starting to seem a bit ridiculous to me, when the group veered, crossed a lawn to a house, and entered it. I froze. I knew that if I didn't ask I would regret it. And how could it hurt? If they didn't know her then nothing was lost and I could relax, knowing I'd at least tried.
When I knocked, the door opened to what looked like exactly the same party — the same parrots and peacocks, the same baby elephants, the same indoor pool. And I'm sure I recognised a number of the people from last night. I looked around excitedly, hope rising in me. I worked my way through the crowd. Even the layout of the house was the same. And there she was, in the server area. She looked surprised but pleased to see me. She gave me a brief hug and a kiss on the cheek and my insides turned to jelly. My face was hot and I just knew I was blushing dreadfully. She laughed.
Now that I had fluked this second chance I wasn't going to blow it. The first thing I asked was her surname and phone number or email address. She seemed reluctant and avoided looking at me so I reassured her, "Don't worry, I'm not going to go all stalker on you. It's just that I want to continue the friendship. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed someone's company this much."
"It's not that. I'd like to continue to be friends too, but a strict condition of my employment here is that I don't have relationships with the clients."
I laughed and shrugged, "No problem. I'm not a client. I... uh... gatecrashed the party... last night accidentally, today accidentally on purpose... well, I found it again in an unbelievable stroke of accidental good luck, but then I came to find you."
She sighed, "You don't understand. This is a amazing job — I work three days a week and travel the world. But I can have no outside ties. We never spend two nights in the same location. I don't know where we'll be tomorrow. You'll probably never see me again."
I didn't have anything to say to that, so I shook my head, grinned, and said, "Oh well, there's now, at least. Lets enjoy the day while it lasts."
So I helped her with her waitressing. It certainly wasn't boring and I enjoyed her company. One time someone staggered past and tipped his icy drink down her back. Her shriek caused him to jump sideways into a group of people felling them like bowling skittles. We laughed about it as I used her handkerchief to clean the pungent stuff from her beautiful back. Another time a mischievous young wombat plowed along a row of people standing at the pool edge tipping them all into the water. Cora and I jumped in and assisted them amid hoots of laughter. While preparing dishes she told me about the places she'd visited and the fantastic things she'd seen.
Toward mid-afternoon I began considering an idea. I put it to Cora, "What if I got a job here with you? Then I could still see you."
"But your writing?"
I shrugged. "Perhaps it's time for a change."
She considered it and nodded, "I'll ask, but don't get your hopes up."
Later she returned from taking drinks and snacks to one of the other rooms. "If they decide to hire you you'll know before the end of the evening."
I smiled back and held up my crossed fingers.
We spent the rest of the day and into the evening enjoying her duties, dancing and clowning around while delivering to the patrons. We helped drunken clients out of the pool when they fell in, and cleaned up animal poop, and mopped up spilled drinks, and we had a wonderful time doing it. Time slipped away.
I woke at daybreak on the beach below Alexandra Headland, with no memory of going there from the party.
In my pocket I found her handkerchief, beautifully decorated with butterflies and flowers that move and change colors when viewed from different angles. I've never seen anything like it. It's all I have.
I'll never forget her.