Hau Tree Green

Ocean Lane was dark; darker than the streets around it, darker than the sky or the time of day could account for. Too narrow for cars, it was just an alley, really, punctuated by stairways and hemmed by stucco walls that were hung with railings. The shop windows were all lit with electric bulbs, even in the daytime. Bougainvillea climbed and flowered here and there, as though it didn’t mind the gloom. It reminded me of somewhere else, probably a place I had gone to before the war. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I remembered it, just the same.

“I love cinnamon,” Annie said, from beside me. “I wonder if it’s possible to eat too much of it.”

As if she had conjured it, I caught the oven-sweet perfume of pastry. A man sat on a bench by a bakery door. A half-finished sandwich rested on a checked towel beside him. He was playing an accordion, bent over it and swaying as though it was trying to escape from him.

Three girls in matching school pinafores approached, arms linked at the elbows. They were singing. Their patent-leather shoes tapped the bricks under their feet, in time to the song. Their voices were young and sweet, and the echoes from the walls turned them into an abbreviated choir. They ignored me, and smiled at Annie as they passed.

Two dogs ran by, in a brown-and-white hurry to get somewhere. I looked back over my shoulder. They had stopped; the man on the bench had put aside his accordion and was dividing his sandwich between them. As if on invisible cue, a phonograph record began to play from a window above the street, dripping scratched saxophone notes down on us. I was startled. I took Annie’s arm and stopped us.

“Do you hear that?” I asked. “It’s all the same song.”

She stood very still, looking at me. She wore a half-smile, as though she knew things about me that I didn’t suspect. Every time I looked at her face it was a little different. I always felt like I was seeing her, infinitely familiar, for the first time, and that she would be even more beautiful when she was very old.

“The girls, the accordion, the record… it’s all the same song,” I repeated. “Do you hear it? It’s all ‘I Love You Madly’, but in different keys.”

“Of course you do,” she smiled, and leaned in to kiss my cheek. “I depend on it.”

We started to walk again. There was a shop that sold postcards, and another that sold spices. Some of them had strange names on their signs that gave no hint of what they were offering. One of them said “Bicycles” over the door, which was clear enough. Annie hesitated in front of it, and then made up her mind. An unseen bell jingled as we went inside.

The space was full of light. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, table lamps and sconces and pole lights. There were lamps made from jade statues, from woodcarvings, from clocks. The store was a riot of cut glass and silk shades, in every color there was. The walls shimmered and flickered, as golden as if they were on fire.

A very old woman appeared and tottered forward to greet us. She took both of Annie’s hands, and craned up to whisper in her ear. Annie bent down and listened intently. They seemed to know one another. When the woman had finished, they both turned to me and waited, as if they expected me to say something.

“You have a beautiful shop,” I offered. “You ought to change your sign, though. It says ‘Bicycles’… I don’t think most people would realize that you sold lamps.”

“We don’t sell lamps,” the old woman said, clearly mystified. “We sell bicycles.”

“I don’t see any bicycles in here for sale,” I said, puzzled. “Not one. I only see lamps.”

“Did you come here to buy a bicycle?” she asked.

I shook my head, no, and her expression cleared.

“That explains it,” she said, obviously satisfied. “If you had come here to buy a bicycle, there would be bicycles for you to look at, but you didn’t… so there aren’t.”

She shook her head at me as though I was daft, and turned to Annie.

“He’s very strange,” she said. “He doesn’t make a bit of sense. I don’t know how you deal with it.”

Annie took my hand. Her laugh was warm, straight from the silver screen.

“He has an eclectic mind,” she said. “You never know what he’ll blurt out, for no apparent reason. It’s what I like best about him."

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