Playing Stories — Prologue: La valse d’Amelie

Prologue: La Valse d’Amelie
from the 2001 film “Amelie”, by Yann Tiersen
28 December 2018

A heady brew of warmth greeted me as I stepped into the café. It was a relief from the chill of December, and scents of a dozen different spices hung in the air: cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla. The glasses tinkled in the slight draft that I’d let into the room, ringing like the music of the spheres. I’d stepped off the pier and into what seemed a whole new world, one that was fragile, one that would immediately shatter if I dared so much as to knock over a sign or breathe out too hard. Or allowed the door to slam, as I did now.

Quentin looked up from the bar as the illusion crumpled. “Hey Emily!” His face broke into one of his trademark big grins. “Make yourself at home, I’m about to finish up here…”

I collapsed onto the nearest table, the wind out of my sails. I’m not that out of shape, but even the fittest of people would be defeated by a long trek up a shaky boardwalk — ESPECIALLY when you have to combat the sea wind, constantly whipping at your face. Over at the counter, Quentin was busy counting the receipts for the day. His hands shook a little. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, having to stay here, operating so late into the night.

Tucking away his pieces of paper at long last, Quentin vaulted over the top of the counter and sauntered towards me. A whoop came from some dim corner of the café, and I jumped. A middle-aged couple emerged from the shadows, nodding at me as they grabbed the only two jackets from the coat-rack — or more accurately, looked down at me from over their glasses.

“Same time next week, then?” said Quentin, handing over a wad of paper.

“Yeah, sure… I’ll bring the books around next time, time for the yearly stocktake…” said the woman. “Goodnight, Quentin.” They hugged before leaving.

As soon as the couple had disappeared out the door, his face sank. Rolling his eyes, he turned back towards me and started stacking chairs up. “Sorry you had to bump into Clare and Richard… they’re nice, of course, but their interest in the café is just…” He sighed.

“Perhaps they’re hungry capitalists on the prowl.” I suggested.

Quentin smirked. ““They kind of are… they own the place, that’s how I ended up here. Friends of my parents. Would be so nice if they didn’t drop by all the time though, I know how to run a bloody restaurant.” He blew his cheeks out and walked over to the counter. “Anything to drink? Must’ve been a long walk down here…”

“Hot chocolate if you’ve got it, thanks…” I laid back and sighed. “God, how the HELL do you even get visitors down here? I mean, how long IS that pier?”

“You’d be surprised how many people come down to visit us.” He stopped his mixing to wave at the dark void behind him. “The views over Richmond Bay are spectacular — I see it every day, and I don’t get tired of it, so imagine what it’s like if it’s your first visit… this?” he said, holding up a bottle of whipped cream. I shrugged and walked over to the window. The waves gently lapped the beams beneath the pier, creating a rhythm that echoed through the glass and around the café. Jagged rocks beneath reached far to the east, where a bright light swept the horizon.

“Is that the lighthouse over there?”

Quentin looked up from the counter. “Oh yeah, that one’s Aurora… is that the one you’re looking after?” I nodded. “Awesome… you’ll make a delightful neighbour.”

“Not if university was anything to go by,” I grinned.

He looked towards the heavens and sighed. “I SAID IT WAS AN ACCIDENT how do you even remember —”

“Yeah, tell that to Valerie.”

“She’s still pissed at me, isn’t she?”

“I mean, I would’ve gotten mad if I’d had a tomato right in my face.”

“You enjoyed it too, come on,” he said, flashing a smile at me.

“AHA! So it WAS deliberate!”

“Just shut up and drink,” he said, handing me the mug. I took a sniff, and all the spices I’d been smelling for the last fifteen minutes suddenly converged in that mug, all the scents jostling for my attention. Before I knew it, half of it was down my throat. “Good?” he said, looking at me intently like a little boy waiting for approval. He had really piercing blue eyes. Even if you’d seen them a thousand times before, you always looked away when his eyes met yours. I was still getting used to it. “If you need any of this at the lighthouse feel free to send me a flask and I’ll send a thermos down the line.”

“Sorry, send you what?”

“Oh, William hasn’t told you about this?” I followed him behind the counter. He opened a cabinet and took out a metal cylinder. “There’s a chain of pneumatic tubes from when they built the entire pier. It’s pretty neat, actually: you simply pop a message into a flask, put it in the right tube and it’s sucked to wherever you need it to go. There’s one between the café and Aurora Light, so feel free to write me and ask for stuff — William does that all the time. Which reminds me, he told me to write when you’d arrived…”

He scribbled a few words on a sheet of paper and stuffed it inside the cylinder. There was a whoosh as the vacuum sprang to life, and I imagined the flask shooting straight through the ocean floor and into some hidden alcove in the lighthouse.

“That’s a lovely system… I should work it out when I move in, I’ve got plenty of time.” Quentin looked quizzical. ““There’s not much to do… I just sit under the light and make sure that any ships coming into the bay know where they’re going. But not much traffic comes in at night — about two or three, William said. Maybe I’ll write something — it’s a quiet place, nobody checks up on me anyway.”

“Haven’t you got somebody else at the lighthouse?” I shook my head, and Quentin’s eyes widened. “William never told me, I always thought it was a two-man crew… but don’t you need to have someone there?”

“Nope. It’s just me and my books over there.”

“Oh poor you… you must be pretty lonely over there, nobody to talk to…”

“Are you kidding? I took the job to get away from people. It’ll be a relief to not hear them all shouting at each other for once.”

“Well, if it ever gets too quiet you can still ask me for records and things like that.” He went over to a shelf stacked with vinyl LPs. “I know I don’t have the widest range of music, but it’s there… wait a sec.” He stopped and turned. He had this way of rolling his eyes slowly when he was thinking hard, a look I’d seen dozens of times back in uni while he cooked up his latest hairbrained scheme, a look that was on his face once more. “Just had an idea: why don’t we write each other letters? Like I can lend you some albums, and when you’re not talking to ships or whatever it is that you do there you can write down a short story or whatever based on a particular song and send it to me through the tubes.”

Normally I’d snort and declare myself out, but for once there was a certain charm to the idea. “Make it a quid pro quo: you write me one, I write back with another one, and we can work something out.”

“Deal.” He went to a shelf stacked full of vinyls and discs. “You got a CD player or something at the lighthouse?”

“Better than that. William’s got a gramophone. Sort of a handover gift.”

“Which I gave him myself… bastard,” he muttered, pulling out discs left and right. “Jimi Hendrix… Beach Boys… couple of weird ones…” He brought over a stack of records and started writing down their names, circling tracks on the records as he did so. “Here are some songs that you might like to start out with… maybe we can chat when you’ve done ten or so and then we can try to keep it up over the next couple of months. No pressure, just write when you have the time. It should only take you a couple of hours anyway, you write so much already…”

“It’s something we can try, I guess…” What the hell, it was something to pass the time away with. Both of us were going to get bored with it soon, anyway.

Right, so this is how it’s gonna work: 1500 words or so on this blog, new chapters every Monday. Song titles were chosen at random throughout the summer last year based on songs that were on my phone, so please don’t ask me if I can add your favourite song on. And yes, almost all of them are from A. the Western world and B. pre-1985: as anyone who is familiar with me will know, my taste in music is shamelessly dated.

I’ll explain more IF I manage to make it all the way to Chapter 50 in December; for now, see you all next Monday for the next story/song! (Also: I have not written fiction for almost two years. Apologies if skills are a little rusty, but then that’s the whole point of this exercise.)

UPDATE from March: I’ve just realized that adding songs to my work MIGHT constitute copyright infringement, so this is what I’ll be doing: the URL to the song is on the second line of the introductory materials. You’ll have to click on it to listen to the original work, but at least I think I can avoid that particular accusation…

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