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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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4 down

Sorry, what was that?

Lewsby's running late, and it's hard for him to piece the world together. The grass behind the museum is cut along sharp-edged curves of light and shade, and they're like mismatched pieces of jigsaw, sitting loosely together and ready to collapse at the smallest bump. He breaks stride for a moment to dodge, careful not to fall through, and checks that the papers are still in his pocket.

In front of the museum he has to dodge again when eskies and stacked bread close in on either side. A fundraiser. He's almost made it out when someone waves and offers him a sausage.

"Je suis francais," he lies in sudden panic. "I'm desolée, sorry, I'm, I am late. I have to find my appointment."

The man with the sausage holds it out towards him, speared on a fork: un saucisson. Lewsby gives in and takes it, digging change out of his pocket, and backs away, but a girl follows to help him find his way to Pirie Street. She makes a face at the sausage man when he turns away, then smiles.

"This direction, I believe," Lewsby says, pronouncing "direction" with four syllables, immediately convinced he's overdone it.

"Yeah, it's only a few blocks, but I'll wander up with you if that's okay. It'll give me an excuse to get away from Chris." She tilts her head back towards the barbecue. "Sorry about that, he's usually all right but he gets a bit overbearing when he's enjoying himself. We don't let him guide the school tours any more."

Wander up with him. Lewsby doesn't want to be wandered up with. He doesn't want to eat this sausage either, but it'll look suspicious if he throws it away, and he can't afford that. "I'm, I am fine," he says. "Please."

"It's no trouble." She smiles. "Really."

He takes a bite of the sausage and tries to think. Sauce wells out at the edges of the bread, onto his fingers. "Merci," he says reluctantly. "Though I must stop at the mall of Rundle," maybe he's overdoing it again, "to, to buyez des fleurs."

The girl frowns. "Sorry, what was that?"

Mm, overdoing it. Gah. "Some flowers," he says. "From Rundle Mall. I heard you could buy them there," he adds hurriedly. "In a tourist guide. That I read."

"Oh, yes, definitely," she says. "Just up to the left here. I'm Leah, by the way."

"Francois." Francois.

He eats the sausage, biting into it whenever Leah breaks off to ask him a question, staving off conversation, and she's so friendly and so nice, and he just wants her to go away. He's finished eating when she points him at a stall. It's the one he's been buying his water from for months.

"They for your wife?" the woman from the stall asks. He hadn't noticed her there.

"Um, yes," he says, conscious of Leah standing behind him, surely within hearing range: more than a few words and she'll hear that he's dropped the accent, or else the woman from the flower stall will hear that he's putting one on.

"They're pretty," the woman says, "but they've been sitting around for a few days. They won't last long, not in this heat. You'd be better off with something like these," and she pulls a bundle of something pink from a bucket. "Tell her to trim the ends when she puts them in water and they'll look just as good in a week, easy."

He needs roses, one would be enough, but the woman takes his panicked silence as acquiescence, "I'll wrap them up for you, yeah?", and he can't argue: Leah would hear. He nods. He'll come back later, he'll find a rose somewhere else. Maybe they've planted flowerbeds in Pirie Street since the last time he was there. It's been a couple of years.

"So are you here for long?" Leah says as they walk on. Roses catch his eye: embroidered along the edge of a woman's dress, folded from napkins in a restaurant window. He tries to ignore them, tries not to look at people's watches as they pass.

"Only until my appointment is completing." He doesn't even speak French, but he's stuck with it now.

"I mean, in Adelaide."

Oh. Yes. "Um, no," he says. "I don't know." They pass a travel agency and he thinks about buying a ticket to France, to anywhere: he's still got contacts, he could get a counterfeit passport, couldn't he? "Perhaps." The streets are so hot, the sun is so bright. The passphrase and counter loop through his head again.

"There's a lot to see here," Leah says, her voice blurring in his ears. "We've got some evening talks on at the museum next week." He wants to nod and ask what they're about, maybe turn up to listen, say hello to her again, leave early if they're boring. Maybe she'd leave with him and show him through the closed museum, and they'd laugh at skeletons in the dark. He could borrow her life of early morning barbecues and slightly annoying workmates. "I fear my English would be too poor." He stares at spiralled cracks in the footpath, curving outward like petals. "I can understand even you only because, because you speak so clearly."

"Your English is really good," she says, more slowly. "My aunt got married to this French bloke and when they visited over Christmas I could hardly understand him. He was really nice though. He's a baker, he made wonderful bread. He's from, oh, I can't remember actually. Somewhere in the north?"

"Ah, yes, the north," Lewsby says. "I have been there not often. I understand it is very beautiful, with many bakeries. I am from the south." They walk past shop windows and he looks through his reflection into a hairdresser's. Perhaps that's what he needs. Half an hour to change from light hair to dark, and come out and disappear. He clutches his flowers, crumpling their stems; maybe he could pull their heads loose, and throw them into the air in handfuls, and hide behind a cloud of petals.

He stops abruptly outside an arbitrary glass-fronted building in Pirie Street. "I am here," he says. "Thank you. To meet you was very nice." Might have been very nice, if he hadn't been trying to get rid of her.

"Yes, and you," Leah says, and smiles. "I hope the appointment goes well." She steps over a sheet of newspaper; maybe he could origami it into a rose.

"Merci," he says. "Au revoir. Goodbye." Is he going to have to walk into the building? He's got no idea what it is. No, she's turned around. Her hair bounces as she walks away. He forces himself to wait until she's out of sight before moving, stamping on the paper just as it starts to blow toward the street. It's grubby and it tears, and after thirty seconds of folding he stuffs it in a bin.

No rosebeds nearby either, of course. There's the market, not too far away: he could get something in there, and hope he's not too late (it'd take another ten minutes at least, it might be too late already). Or there's a newsagent across the road: he could buy some chalk and draw a rose on the footpath. He could sing. He could look for a pen, and scrawl "white rose" across a piece of rubbish and hold that. It's all no good, everything would take too long or catch too much attention, the wrong attention. He pulls a petal from one of the pink flowers, and shuts his eyes. They'll turn me in, they'll turn me in not.

He opens his eyes again, and there's a woman: short, blonde, carrying a briefcase. She's walking towards him. He forgets he isn't carrying a rose, he forgets he doesn't want to be here anyway, that he just wants to go home, and watches. Is it her? It must be. Her hair's the right colour, she's still walking towards him. She's stopping, and opening her mouth, and he breathes in huge mouthfuls of relief.

"Hello. Are you Jake?", she says, and she's smiling, and it's not the passphrase.

"No," he says. "Sorry."

The woman makes a face, like Leah at the barbecue. "I'm too late, then," she says.

"Mm," Lewsby says. "I think I am too." He looks around. It's not that bad. He's not trying to remember his Year 8 French any more. And it'll be a few hours or a few days before the repercussions really kick in.

"Nothing too important?"

"No, not really. You?"

She shrugs. "Meeting someone for coffee. I've got a voucher for a free second cup if you want one."

He should wait, just in case he's in time after all; he should get a rose. He should stand where he is for hours, getting more and more desperate.

"That'd be good," he says. "I didn't have time for coffee this morning."

"The anemones are nice," the woman says.

"Is that what they are?" He reaches out and drops them in a bin as he passes, not caring whether it looks strange. "I don't really like them."