George and Merlo sit at their regular window side table, the chessboard the centrepiece and a draw to my eye for the last fifteen minutes. The waiter Henry (said with a French accent) drops another large espresso at my table, efficiently swapping the dirty ashtray for a clean one; he turns without comment and returns to lovingly polishing the chrome mechanics of his coffee machine. I glance at my watch, slightly annoyed that Rosina is late again, then return to watching the chess game.
Merlo is looking smug, he chuckles at George as he is on the point of moving his queen, and says, "Do that if you think my old friend, please do."
George studies his friend with a thoughtful look, a sly smile cracks across his face, "You do this every time Merlo, you try and psyche me out. You know what that tells me?"
Merlo adopts an innocent lost school boy face.
"It tells me that your panicking and your about to lose."
Merlo laughs out loud at George. "And you, my friend, fall for my games every time, you think I'm on the run when really your falling into my trap."
They go through this ritual every time they play chess. Both men look ancient, I'm not even sure which century they were born in. I think George may be one of those unlucky people who has spent more of his life being a pensioner than anything else. He comes here every day, and when Merlo is visiting his sick daughter at St George's, he philosophises about the 'good old days.' The strange thing is that he was in Auschwitz, according to Henry, so I can't see why he would want to reflect positively on the past.
Fixating on the odd couples chess game is just my way of killing time. I keep glancing at my watch because Rosina still hasn't turned up; she is twenty minutes late now. I would be willing to forgive her but I know she's at the Synagogue, which is right around the corner. Since we became engaged she seems to have developed an unhealthy obsession with praying. I know she is hanging around gossiping with the old women rather than meeting me. She knows how much lateness winds me up and that's why she does it, she's a woman of passion and loves nothing more than a good argument as a precursor to love making. She knows exactly which buttons to press to get the required response from me, I know this about myself and it annoys me. Rosina knows this too and it delights her.
Twenty minutes and two espressos later I get up to buy some more cigarettes. The heavens have awakened now with the mother of all downpours. The odd couple and Henry are staring reflectively out of the window, the drumming of the raindrops on the window hypnotising them and opening some secret inner window in which they peer, faces blank and unfocussed. Henry's cigarette machine is empty; I am going to have to brave the storm, I think, when I see someone running from around the corner. Rosina?
Instead of running into the café she speeds past the window and continues down the road. I dash outside, all thoughts of the weather evaporated. "Rosina! Stop!" The woman I think is Rosina carries on running without looking back. The rain is falling pretty quickly now and puddles are forming quickly, the road looks like it is a boiling river of black lava. I run down the street, chasing after her.
She turns another corner and I lose sight of her as I give chase. The rain is falling so heavily that my leather jacket is beginning to leak. I'm soaked through in under three minutes. If I were running with Rosina, hurrying to get dry, I would probably be enjoying myself. The anticipation of stripping off and warming up with her in front of the fire would be getting me aroused even as we ran. Right now I am feeling frustrated because I am wet and chasing a woman who might not even be Rosina, instead of thinking of the warmth to come my thoughts as forced uncomfortably on the fact that I am soaking wet and running after someone who I've just lost sight of. I turn the corner and think I catch sight of her going into a doorway a little way up the street. Lightning flashes, then the thunder rolls across the sky a few dramatic seconds later as I slow down out of breath. I reach the door, which turns out to be a pawnshop. The window displays a range of curiosities from unplayable guitars to a bicycle with a flat tyre. The doorbell rings almost inaudibly as I enter. The lightning and thunder arrive almost instantaneously this time, telling me the storm is directly overhead.
There are no lights on in the shop and it's gone suddenly dark in the gloom of the storm. The roar of the wind outside is assaulting my senses, as my eyes struggle to make sense of my new surroundings. I can't see anyone at first.
"Hello? Is there anyone here?" I hear a shuffling noise from the back of the room and a light suddenly filters through from a door I hadn't noticed.
"Can I help you?" As my eyes adjust I realise the woman who is speaking to me isn't Rosina at all. She is wearing a white top, which is soaked through; my eyes linger on the dark nipples standing sharply erect. I look guiltily away.
"I'm sorry, I've made a mistake, I think I'm in the wrong place." I can see more clearly now that my eyes have adjusted and I notice that the shop seems more like a book shop than a pawn shop, the walls are filled with shelves of old books. The woman has an uncanny likeness to Rosina except she looks ten years older.
"You are soaked through. Come in and sit out the storm, while I make you a drink. Do you like coffee?"
It's a week later and I still haven't seen Rosina. I can't bear to after what happened in the pawnshop. I think something of nostalgia took over me, that feeling I love of arriving somewhere warm with someone so familiar, leading to the inevitable. Catalina was so like Rosina but without the negative side. She just seemed so calm and kind rather than deliberately argumentative. In the moment I forgot who I was with, it was only after the climax of the event when I looked down on her naked body and noticed the lines around the eyes and the first strands of grey hair that Rosina doesn't have that I felt the first wave of guilt begin to overwhelm me, crippling me. Catalina had given me her gentle smile again and attempted to caress me, I got up awkwardly, hastily put my clothes on and left mumbling my embarrassed regrets. I felt a strange sense of grief, not over what I had done but that I had ever met Catalina at all.
I have been putting off Rosina's phone calls all week. I have finally decided to stop hiding and meet her at Café Anselim. I am sitting outside today as the bright clear sunshine washes away my thoughts. Merlo must be visiting his daughter because George is sitting on his own at the bar smoking roll ups. When Henry isn't attending to the chrome mechanics he chats to George about the good old days and how morality seems to be a dirty word now.
I have failed to notice Rosina arriving because she is on time, which has thrown me off balance. I smile up at her sheepishly, trying not to let the guilt show too obviously.
"What's going on Nick, why haven't you answered my calls all week." A sudden horrible feeling that she can read thoughts crosses my mind, I struggle to put the image of Catalina's face as she orgasms out of my mind, soft and melting unlike Rosina's screwed up eyes and high pitched bark.
"Would you like a coffee Rosy?" She looks annoyed and sits down with a little sigh.
"You're a shit sometimes Nick. What's going on?" We talk for the rest of the afternoon, sitting at that table. I don't get around to telling her what is wrong and after her initial annoyance she stops asking. Eventually she gets back onto her favourite subject, wedding plans; I realise at this point I stop listening and start thinking about Catalina again. It is growing dark, Rosina is looking at me expectantly and I realised she has asked me a question,
"Well?" She said.
"What, sorry?" I think at this point I realise that the wedding isn't going to happen, Rosina isn't meant for me.
"I'm sorry Rosy, I've got to go." I stand up and walk off in the direction of the pawnshop before Rosina has a chance to object.
When I get to the pawnshop Catalina isn't there, instead an old man stand behind the counter. He looks even more ancient than George or Merlo. He eyes me suspiciously as I enter the shop. His hair is long and white framing a face that looks more like a skull with skin tightly stretched over it than a face.
"Is Catalina around?" He shuffles around the counter and doesn't respond, I think maybe he is deaf; I'm about to repeat my question when he beckons me to follow him into the back of the shop.
The backroom brings back familiar memories of Catalina sprawled on the carpet by the fire, naked, pulling me down inside her. The old man beckons me further and points to the table in the corner of the room. I sit down wondering what he wants to tell me. He goes to the old oak side cabinet and fishes something out of a drawer. He sits down opposite me and places a large leather bound book in front of me. He gestures me to open it.
The book is a photo album; the first picture is black and white and has turned yellow with age. It shows the front room of the shop with the old man standing by Catalina; the shop doesn't seem to have changed and neither do the people in it, which confuses me because the photo looks so old. I look down the page to see what is written about it, I can't read it because it seems to be written in a foreign script, it looks a bit like Hebrew. I notice the date though; I think there must be a mistake because it says 1906. I turn the page to see another photo of Catalina with the old man, this time in the back room, dated 1908 this time. I flick through the pages more quickly now and notice that the photos appear to get newer the further I get into the album. I realise that the woman cannot be Catalina because a few pages in she seems a lot older; the date says 1926. I carry on through the album and find that the woman disappears to be replaced by a child who, as the photos progress through the album, blossoms into an uncomfortably familiar looking woman. Another disturbing thought hits me suddenly, the old man in the pictures hasn't changed, doesn't seem to have aged. I pick pages at random, growing quite frantic now, 1976, a ten year old Catalina and the old man, unchanged, flick back, 1954, a middle aged Catalina and the old man, unchanged. I flick forward to the last picture in the album, 2002, Catalina looking about thirty five and wearing the same white top she was wearing last week and the old man, consistent as ever.
I look up dumfounded, unsure of what it all means. The old man stares at me; I wonder what he wants from me. In the background the bell from the front door rings. I hear someone enter the other room. The old man gets up, leaving me with my mystery, as he walks to the door. Another thought crosses my mind as a bizarre of possibilities speeds through my mind, who took all the photos?
I realise that someone is standing at the door, I turn to see the old man standing in the doorway with a woman, it takes me a moment to realise who it is,
"Nick? What's going on? Why did you just walk off like that and what are you doing here?" Rosina looks at me with a look of worry rather than annoyance.
"I don't know what to say Rosy, I really don't." At that moment the other door to the room opens and Catalina arrives. She stops for a moment to take stock of the situation then smiles in an assured way and sits opposite me at the table. Rosina's eyes widen in disbelief and she seems to suddenly realise something, she looks at me with an awful realisation in her eyes, she looks like she has just been stabbed. She turns and walks out of my life forever.
Catalina looks at me almost impassively, "Why did you come back Nick?"
"I wanted to see you, I needed to see you." She sighs at me and looks suddenly sad. She looks down and whispers,
"I'm sorry." The old man walks past her and goes up the stairs; I stare at her not knowing what to say, with too many questions to know where to start.
The old man comes back with two cups of coffee, which he places on the table next to us, then leaves silently to give us privacy. She glances at him as he leaves, giving him that warm smile I fell in love with a week ago, and a look of understanding seems to pass between them. As the door clicks shut the floodgates open and my questions begin. She answers me fully and honestly. Afterwards I leave with a cold stillness in my heart, I feel caught in an equilibrium of feelings, guilt and grief for what I have done and what I have lost, but at the same time a strange sense of release and rebirth at the new beginning I have been offered.
I am sitting at the counter of Café Anselim, five years after my meeting with Lazarus. I have never told anyone the true story of what happened to Rosina and me, I just explain that we grew apart, that we decided to end it before we went too far. I have never told anyone about Catalina or the old man Lazarus, never told anyone the story of the photo album and the awful truth to the questions Catalina answered for me, who would believe me anyway.
I still remember that afternoon in the pawnshop distinctly.
"The photos are only part of the story," she told me, "Records of my father go back two thousand years." She paused to let me take it in, but continued answering my questions before I could voice them,
"He is Lazarus. The same Lazarus in the bible story. Jesus resurrected him nearly two thousand years ago. I know it sounds unbelievable but it's true. There was a strange side effect to what happened though, he didn't die, he continued to age but he didn't die. My father has lived for thousands of years as an old man, he can barely walk barely see. His teeth rotted away hundred of years ago and his voice was taken away in the third century A.D."
I just stared at her silently through her monologue, letting her answer my mystery in her own time. She gave me an intuitive look, "Your wondering about the women in the pictures. Why do they all look like me? That's something I don't fully understand myself all I know is that every baby born in our family since the resurrection has been a girl, we have only ever been able to have one child, and it's always been a girl and she's always looked like me." I was about to speak when she pre-empted me again, "I'm not immortal like Lazarus, and I really am in my thirties."
"You call him your father?"
"Yes, he's not really my father, it's just a family expression, he is the father of our family. He spawned the first woman child in my line, no more. It's just another one of the bizarre things about us that the child always looks the same."
"What about the fathers?" That was the question I had been dreading to ask since she explained about the children. She looked suddenly very guilty and went to the sideboard to get something,
"This may explain that question." She put a bottle in front of me; it was small and made of brown glass. It appeared to be some sort of chemical; it turned it around to look at the label, Rohipnol.
"Oh." I said, with a sudden realisation, "you drugged me? Last week."
"You were wondering who took the photo's, the child's father."
"But why did you drug me?"
"You weren't supposed to come back Nick, you were supposed to stay with Rosina."
We didn't say much more that afternoon; I left with a realisation that I had been stupid; I had been used by an antiquated freak. The one question Catalina couldn't answer was why she resembled Rosina so much, she supposed that Rosina's looks must be a genetic throw back from one of Lazarus' other children, they had gone on to live and breed normally after the resurrection.
I never saw Catalina again, I'm sure it's the way she wanted it. The pawn shop soon moved on, the next Catalina will probably find another victim in thirty years or so to carry on the Lazarus line and give an old man some company. It worries me slightly that my daughter will call an ancient monstrosity father rather than me, but then I think that if immortality was a gift from god then this is probably the way it is meant to be.
Bio:Andrew Rough is a 25 year old primary school teacher living in southwest London.
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