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Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula

Zero Sum

09 Possible and Probable 02

“Can I get you anything?” Pip was eager to make Bess comfortable. “I know you like a cuppa and a biscuit. I think we’ve got some of those “Morning Coffees” in a jar. I like them. I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?”

“Yes that would be lovely.” Bess dumped her back pack beside her usual chair and collapsed into the smooth studded leather. She watched the young man as he filled the kettle and got some cups and saucers ready, emptied and rinsed the pot in the small sink. 

“There’s a lot to be done tonight so a good strong cuppa is warranted; but we’ll have to wait until Eric gets back with…..” Pip paused, “Well, he’ll be back, in a minute.” He didn’t look to see if Bess had caught his almost slip. Pip put several biscuits on a plate and paused again before turning to Bess, his smile once again firmly affixed across his face.

It was niggling Bess that she couldn’t place him in her mind. Since he opened the door she’d had the growing feeling that she knew him, perhaps quite well. It was infuriating.

“Pip, have we ever met before?”

“I can say with my hand on my heart,” he put his hand on his heart, “that I have never met you before.” His eyes then sharpened a little, Bess noticed.

She smiled at him. “But you knew who I was when you opened the door…”, the smile still there.

“Oh no you don’t, Bess Stafford! You’re not going to catch me that easily!” Pip blustered, jumping and twisting on the spot to avoid Bess’ gaze, and that smile. Bess sat quietly watching him, wondering. She relaxed her smile. This was getting both serious and interesting.

“Relax Pip. I was just wondering.” but what Bess was wondering was, “Catch what, how?”

Pip turned slowly, ready to avert his face immediately he spied that smile; but Bess wasn’t smiling. She had a look of genuine interest, concern.

“I’m sorry, its just that; well the truth is that Eric….. I’m not to say. You’ll have to ask Eric.” Pip almost pouted like a infant. “I’m not the same as the rest of you.” he said with both disappointment and frustration. His face had become like that of a thwarted child.

Once again Bess was forced to wonder; who are “the rest of you” and in what way was Pip different; because it was obviously an important difference to Pip. 

Bess could see that Pip’s natural inclination was to garrulously roll out the entire mystery from the buff enveloped invitation to his own curious behaviour; and the shadows of things unseen, unsaid; but he couldn’t. Like a show jumper that baulks again and again at the jump both horse and rider know they can easily get over, Pip opened his mouth several times, obviously intending to speak; but each time he didn’t make the first sound.

Bess felt a warm empathy for the young man. He was definitely odd and he seemed a little emotionally fragile, yet he had a certain confidence; something strong and durable about him too. His presence said a great deal about him. That Eric would leave him to greet a stranger also meant something. Eric always had his reasons.

Bess tried to lighten the moment.

“So what’s Eric been up to lately? I haven’t dropped by for yonks. Are you on the QC course Pip?”

“No. I’m not up to all that apparently, and Eric…, well Eric follows his own path most of the time. He’s been very busy lately, working on something to do with big numbers. I’m not all that cluey on numbers so its all Greek to me.”

“Are you local?” It could have meant anything; local Glebe or Newtown; local Sydney, local NSW. 

“Yes, I’ve got a place in Glebe; actually, I had a place in Glebe….” Pip looked at Bess as if he’d let something slip again Bess noticed. Why couldn’t she resolve who Pip was?

“Moving’s a bugger. Got your eye on something?” This is such an ordinary conversation you won’t even realise you’re being interrogated.

“I may be able to go back to my old place. I’m just not sure about the timing.”

“Renovations?”

“You could say that.”

“What do you do Pip?”

The young man looked suddenly tense, a little afraid.

“Not much. You might say that I’m one of Eric’s assistants.” A cagey response absent any real information.

“He’s a fascinating man. Astonishing intellect.”

Now Pip was getting more agitated. “Yes I suppose he is, has. But I wouldn’t know!”

There was that almost pout again. Bess knew that Pip did know who and what Eric was, what he was up to. He just wasn’t saying, and the effort to keep his mouth shut was frustrating to him. Bess determined that Pip was a fundamentally honest person who became disconcerted when he had to lie or dissemble. Another thing that Bess was becoming fond of in him.

“Well not everyone is destined to look into the abyss; and even those that do remain themselves having done so. There’s a wonderful saying from Master Kong; “Before enlightenment; chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment; chopping wood and carrying water.” The burden of life is different for each of us but we still share our common responsibilities, to ourselves, to others.”

“Yes.” was all Pip said to that. A firm yes brooking no demur. Bess got the distinct impression that our common humanity and mutual obligation were things that Pip held high. She saw, for the first time, the hard edge in Pip. These were things he’d fight for.

Pip brought the tray with the tea things over and sat it all on a table between the two studded leather Queen Ann chairs. Bess was already occupying one of them and Pip dumped his bum in the other.

“Shall I be Mother?” Pip said as he poured the tea into Bess cup. “I know you don’t have milk or sugar.”

“How do you know Pip? How do you know so much about me?” Bess was smiling gently at the young man; and then she saw it all. It happened so quickly that Pip hadn’t even noticed.

Bess hand went to her mouth, smothering the silent “Oh my god!”, her eyes wide with disbelief and wonder. “Living dead people everywhere! No sting, no victorious grave. Life triumphant!” 

Bess couldn’t work out if that was more of the gobbledygook or whether her mind had finally taken leave of its senses. And then Eric appeared as if by magic from behind her chair.

Bess jumped as if electrified, her whole body trembling, “Hell’s bells, Eric, you frightened the life out of me! How did you do that….?” she said rising and twisting to look behind the chair

Eric gently grasped her arm and leant down to kiss her on the forehead. “Sorry Bess.” As he drew back up he gave Bess a thorough looking over.

He turned to Pip, “You’ve told her haven’t you?” His tone was stern.

Pip stood up out of the chair. “No, honestly Eric I haven’t said a word, honestly.”

“He didn’t have to. I saw it for myself,” Bess said firmly, her face a little stiff, wary. Bess was buzzing with curiosity, anticipation, a little fear, much perplexity; all mashing together, making competing demands on her adrenalin and neurochemical production. Her brain was on fire, she couldn’t think straight. She had just “seen” inside Pip, inside his mind and in a split second she had seen his day down to the smallest detail. Pip was more than odd; he was positively out of this world, figuratively and literally. 

“You two had better start talking because this has just entered the Twilight Zone and I’m beginning to feel a little out of the loop.” Pip looked pointedly at Eric and moved a little  way into the shadows.

“Well, we’re over step one.’ Eric said with a look like it had all happened too fast. “What did you see, Bess. In detail, please.”

“Well I saw the shambles of a day our young novelist here has had.” she turned to Pip “Escape Lawful Custody carries a hefty fine and possible gaol time, you’re lucky that bottle of Absinthe didn’t connect or it would be very much more serious;” she scolded Pip before turning back to Eric, “but that pales to nothing compared to how his day started.” Bess narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “I was there Eric, in the house in Glebe, earlier today. Held the hand of his grieving neighbour. In fact I have a back pack full of Pip. A dead Pip, who I can now see isn’t actually dead at all. Bess looked at Pip. “I knew I knew you.” she said, like she had just hooked a fish.

Pip was beginning to look queasy, “I’m sorry Bess, really I am but I couldn’t tell you. Eric wouldn’t let me.” He really did look sorry and Bess could tell it was genuine. Not surprising given that she had just seen how high Pip held her and the regard he had for her.

Bess turned to look at Pip directly. “….and what was all that business before breakfast this morning; The Dixie Cups in all their slightly out of tune glory doing “Chapel of Love”, and you faux crooning into your spoon, dancing with the straw broom…,” Bess paused, drew a long nasal breath, “while you fantasised about dancing with me! You just don’t strike me as the “Chapel of Love” type, so what was that about Pip?”

Pip went bright red and looked at the floor while Eric, looking away, stifled a laugh.

“…and what are you laughing at? What’s going on Eric?” Bess was now drawing on her hard nosed copper routine. 

Bess moved forward to sit on the edge of the chair. “You look like you did when I first met you. How’s that Eric?” But Bess was running out of emotional steam. The impossibilities were just piling one on top of the other and Bess wasn’t sure how long she could stay upright, fighting it all, pushing it back, trying to find a pattern, to make sense of it.

She collapsed back into the once familiar leather of the chair. Eric’s rooms, previously a kind of sanctuary, had begun to seem alien, threatening; and no amount of tea and biscuits was going to change that.

“Bloody Boudica on a bicycle; just tell me Eric!” Bess closed her eyes and ran her fingers through her thick curly hair.

“There’s no easy way to explain all this, and we need to get over the next hurdle, so I’m going to have to just push through. I’m sorry Bess but you’re going to have to prepare yourself for the shock of your life, quite literally.”

Bess looked up; a worried look on her face. Eric went round to stand beside Bess and put a hand on her shoulder, “You ready?”

“How the bloody hell should I know?” Bess was greatly upset and confused. She had hardly ever raised her voice to Eric. “Oh look, I’m sorry Eric but today has been nothing short of… well I don’t know what. Let’s just say I’m ready and we’ll see what happens.”

“OK.” Eric leant down and kissed Bess on the top of her head. She in turn gripped his hand on her shoulder.

“You can come out now.” Eric said to the door in the corner of the room. It was his private room, a sort of monk’s cell; bed, small wardrobe and writing desk. He used it on those nights when finding his way home in the small hours was too much trouble.

The door being behind her, Bess turned in the chair as Eric tightened his grip on her shoulder. Bess held his hand similarly.

A woman came slowly out of the room. Bess’ first impression was of a plumpish woman in her sixties, thick salt and pepper grey hair. She was dressed for summer in the bush and was wearing a pair of worn camouflage patterned trousers curiously covered in pockets. She seemed very apprehensive about entering the room.

She came slowly out of the shadows into the pool of light over the Queen Ann chairs and made her way around to a position in front of Bess and Eric. Pip was now standing back, almost motionless; his hands in front of himself as if in prayer, a huge smile on his face.

“Hello Bess.” the woman said. Her voice was soft, careful. She stepped in to the area immediately in front of Bess’ chair and squatted before Bess, looking deeply into her eyes. “This is as much a shock for me as it is for you. I’m just lost for words.” The woman smiled and shook her head. “I don’t know what to say. I can’t even say how I got here, but here we are.”

A shock of recognition jolted Bess like a charge of electricity had shot through her whole being. She began to tremble almost uncontrollably. She was looking at herself. An older Bess, but there was no mistaking it. It was her.

“Bess…..”

“Oh yes, Bess its me, you, us. Oh I don’t know, but here we are.” The older Bess leaned in and wrapped her arms around her younger self in a huge hug. Younger Bess just began to cry openly, unashamedly. It was all so overwhelming, and what could it mean, and how, what had just happened, how, how, how………