The Afternoon light was harsh on the eyes. It streamed in the cafe’s windows with an unforgiving intensity that was sandpaper to Erika’s headache. The air was tepid except for the occasional blast from the air-con, which instead of bringing a cool relief only served to further irritate sinuses that were already raw from the sweet chemical sterility that permeated the wards of the floors below. The sole relief was the sharp, bitter scent of coffee that drifted inviting through the cafe bringing the promise of invigoration. Erika pushed her blonde bangs out her eyes wearily, hoping the coffee was as energising as it smelled. She had caught a glance of herself in the mirror when she had gone to splash water on her face in the toilet. Black puffy bags made a stark contrast with pale gray eyes and her complextion was paler then usual. I have hit my limit for stress this year she thought to herself as she placed the cheap but sorely need mug of coffee down on the cheap, but functional, table. Absent-mindedly she dropped her handbag down in the chair, gazing worriedly towards the elevators that were clearly visible. Guess no one decided to follow me after all, she realised, noticing that the only other person around was a patient who was making his way in slow, unsteady fashion to the cafe kiosk with an IV drip unit in tow. Should he be up here? Erika wondered as he trudged towards her. His breathing was clearly raggard, and the man walked with a slouch as though he was relying on his drip for support. There was an unhealthy sheen to his olive complexion and mousy hair that did not sit well with the unfocused, feverish expression on his pleasant face. Then, as if in answer to her unspoken foreshadowing, the man stumble slightly as he past her. The man went forward in a whirl, iron grip on the IV unit forcing to skate sideways. Erika lurched forward, grasping his waist as he landed on her shoulder. The pair let out identical relieved sighs.
With a rueful smile, and warm brown eyes that locked onto hers with an embarrassed expression, the errant patient recovered his balance with a smooth straightening of his posture. “That was close. Thanks,” He said in raspy voice that despite the saw-like edge was warm with gratitude. Erika snapped he hands back self-consciously. “Are you alright?” She asked with tired concern. The residual warmth on her palms told her that this man was fighting a heavy fever. He was keenly aware of it too because his hand moved to cover the drip needle that was sticking out of his hand like a burr. “I’m fine,” he said with a warm, expressive smile that was completely contradicted by the weak cough that followed. Erika’s eyes rested on the IV unit before answering his statement with a straight forward question. “Are you sure? That’s not an accessory you’re dragging around.” The warm smile took on a slight abashed twist. “It’s part of a new summer line in patients sports wear. What do you think?” He said with a hacking chuckle, “I guess I should sit down, after all,” He continued as an obvious wave of dizziness swept over him.
“That would be a good idea,” Erika responded, motioning to the table she had been about to occupy, “Cause you don’t look so hot in your ‘sports’ robe.” With an air of forced compliance, the ill man pulled the IV stand with him as he sunk into the rigid chair.
“Thanks again, it seems I’m invading your coffee break,” he said with a tone of genuine gratitude. He propped his elbow on the table and rested cheek to palm, cocking his head up in her direction. “Don’t be taken in by the fever-induced flush fool you, I not nearly at my most attractive.” There, again was that warm smile. Erika suppressed a chuckle at the amusing flirtatiousness coming from the near comatose man in front of her. With his fever considered she wondered if he was even fully aware of his behaviour. “If you can talk like that, I doubt you’re dying,” She said with a poker face.
“Damn well feels like it, though. I’m Harry, by the way,” Harry said as a causal introduction, as though they had met at a party.
“I’m Erika. What’s keeping you in this sterile place during the festive season? That is, if you don’t mind my asking,” She queried, more to have something to tell the nursing staff if necessary. Harry was still swaying slightly as he smirked at her. “Run of the mill chest infection. Nothing to worry about. Should be good once my fever breaks.” His voice sounded quite course, despite his obvious attempt at humour. “Want me to go get a drink for you? Sound like your throat is raw,” Erika asked with concern. Harry looked quite pleased at her offer. “But would that put you out? You already have your own drink,” he replied. Erika pushed her bangs away from her face composedly. “It’s fine. In fact I will feel more uncomfortable listening to that cough of yours,” Erika stated in a firm tone. Harry lifted his head up, sitting straighter as he lay his hand across the table. “You’re kind. I feel like I’m imposing on you,” he said.
“It’s no imposition; actually the company would be preferable. Less time with my own thoughts that way,” she responded honestly.
“In that case, could you get me a fruit tea? Orange if they have it,” Harry said, insistently pushing a $5 note from his pocket into her hand. Erika accept the money with a smile. “Health choice,” she said before retracing her steps to the kiosk. She could feel Harry’s gaze following her, although by the time she returned with his tea he had taken to staring out the window. Erika felt he looked rather lonely in that moment.
“Here you go,” she said as she popped it down in front of him with his change. The smile quickly reappeared as he looked at Erika.
“Really, thanks for that. Are you normally this kind to absolute strangers?” He asked as he slipped his change into his pocket.
“Only the harmless looking ones. Are sure you shouldn’t be lying down?” Erika asked as she took her own seat.
“Harmless, huh? You’re the first to apply that particular description to me. I’d rather sit. I am to the point where I sincerely hope to never see a hospital bed again,” Harry muttered with a disgusted frown as he sipped his tea. “That’s soothing, should fend off the cough for a few minutes,” he continued in what sounded like an after thought. Erika sipped her coffee. Despite having cooled significantly, it was better then what she had expected for a hospital cafe. “You had better get yourself discharged then,” She said with a trace of a smile. “If only,” Harry said, crossing his arms on the table and leaning to rest his head in his arms as though exhausted, “I can’t think of a more depressing place to be at christmas!” Erika placed what was left of her coffee down on the table. “I could not agree with you more…” She said, letting the her words hang between them. Harry peered at her sideways from his arm pillow. “So, what’s your story? Why are you hanging around in a coffee shop on Christmas eve?” He asked. Erika turned her head to look out the window. She felt weariness creeping up. “Oh, just escaping.”
“Nice, vague answer. That’s fair enough. I guess that means you’re escaping family,” he continued. Erika could feel his gaze evenly assessing her body language. She wasn’t going to dragged any deeper into talking about her situation with a stranger; no matter how nice he seemed. “Something like that,” She said in a gentle dismissal of his line of questioning.
“Hmm, must be serious then. But then Christmas is always a time for family highs and lows,” he said in an intelligent acceptance of her rebuff. Erika just looked at him solemnly. “Sorry, I don’t mean to pry. It’s just something about your demeanour mad me remember my mother. We were forever rowing; usually over something stupid I had done,” Harry said lifting his head to look out the window, “I never thought there would be a day were I would miss those rows…” His voice drifted off. The lonely, faraway look had come back. Erika realised he must have been remembering something painful of his own. Erika sighed wearily. “I can’t imagine ever missing the family drama currently going on downstairs,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. Harry caught her gaze. “That bad? Well, I guess spending time with families can be difficult to begin with, without having to spending Christmas in hospital,” he said in a tone that was clearly sympathetic.
“Well, I guess no one plans to spend Christmas by a hospital bed with rowing family members and young, bored children. My Plan was much more fun,” she replied, with a tight-lipped smile. It felt as though Harry was gazing straight through her again. She should have felt uncomfortable, but there was something comforting about the warm smile he displayed. “In that case, what would you be doing if you weren’t here keeping me company?” He asked. Erika sensed he was trying to direct her into happier conversation; for which she was glad.
“You know, you phrase things in such a way which makes me suspect you’re not as sick as you seem,” Erika said pointedly. The was a hint of slyness in the sick man’s cheerful expression as he responded, “It’s really an elaborate plan to get close to you.” Erika searched his face for a hint of sincerity before she dismissed his words as a flirtatious joke. “Careful, with a face like that I might choose to believe you and run away from my stalker. In answer to your question, though, I guess I would be doing pretty much the same thing at home with the family as I’m doing here with the family. The big difference is I would have the option of leaving to visit friends,” she replied with a level look.
“Visit friends, hmm? That sounds pleasant. In fact, if it went for my poor health that is precisely what I would be doing now. Do you know Jubilee park?” Harry asked, pushing forwards with a topic that seemed to pleasantly distract Erika. Erika looked out the window, following the busy city streets north until her gaze rested on a large park that was nestled between suburban buildings on one side and hills on another. Even from their distant vantage point on the top floor of the hospital building the two could see the evidence of the Christmas festival that was surely being held there. Erika pointed at the park as she responded, “Yeah, it’s that one there isn’t it?”
“That’s it, you can even see the annual festival form here. Ever been to it?” Harry asked, his own body language appearing slightly less lethargic as well. “It’s always been a favourite amongst my friends, even way back in our childhood years,” Erika replied, with a smile as a rush of fond memories surfaced. “Same here. It would be nice to go now. I was supposed to be meeting friends there today actually,” Harry said, staring out the window as though he needed no binoculars to she the festival workings. Erika watched his expressions, wondering momentarily when she had developed a fascination face, it certainly wasn’t very attractive to look at the moment. “Won’t they come to visit you instead?” She asked, aware of the touch of loneliness in his tone as he mentioned his friends. Harry met her gaze again. Was it longing she sure there? It was gone in a instant. “Nah,” he replied, “A bunch of us get together in Jubilee every year to celebrate with copious amounts of alcohol – they aren’t going to skip that just because one party member has fallen ill. Guess I’ll just have to make do with fond memories this year, and reminisce.” Erika uncrossed her arms, and stretched them out in front of her. “In that case, should we swap stories? It would be more fun for both of us that way, yes?” Erika asked in response to a subtle desire to see more of his smile. “I see the spirit of giving is alive at this table,” Harry responded, “So, you look like you were a trouble maker too. What kind of mischief did you get up to?” Erika pulled a face, then chuckled.
“Mischief-making? Well, I seem to remember sneaking into the pony rides, letting the ponies loose and ‘accidentally’ spooking the ponies into the stalls,” she replied, with a mirthful grin. Harry let out a laugh that quickly turned into a hacking couch.
“That was you? Those ponies cause chaos in the carni stalls. It took hours for the handlers to get them all rounded up. What possessed you to let them loose in the first place?” Harry asked as he forcible suppressed his coughing fit.
“A dare. My friends and I were playing Truth or dare. I thought it was safer to take the dare, though I no longer remember what truth they wanted. How about you, did you get into some troublesome situations?” Harry’s amused expression suddenly has an element of chagrin to it as he answered. “Got myself in trouble with the police once.”
“Oh,” Erika said with a whistle, “This sounds good. Do tell.”
“One year, this was way back in primary school, my friends and I decided to have a little competition. We decided to make the haunted house a little more interesting. The idea was to hide in the haunted house and scare as many of the customers as possible without getting scared ourselves. The one who managed to stay in there the longest was considered the winner. That was fun day, I can still remember the shrieks vividly,” Harry reminisced in a cheerful tone.
“So did you win?” Erika asked. Harry suddenly looked a little more flushed then his fever had previously caused.
“I did, but it was purely by default,” he replied, embarrassment creeping into his tone.
“How do you win a competition like that by default?” Erika asked curiously, interested by the embarrassment he was showing over a situation that sounded as though it should have been a proud moment for a young boy. “I kinda got to absorbed in mucking about that I stayed hidden to long. Eventually I realised it was too quiet and the exits were locked. Didn’t get out until morning. By that time Mum had had the police out searching for my body. I swear she near murdered me on the spot.” He answered, expression more chagrined then before. Erika let out a loud burst of laughter. “Sound to me that you were caught out by your own competitiveness,” she choked out. Harry nodded vigorously.
“I was completely. Do you think it slowed me down any though? Not in the least! I went on to make similar mistakes because I simply refused to lose. But it did make the festival memorable. Tell me, what are your favourite memories of the festival?” Erika propped her elbow on the table and leaned her head into her palm. “Well, If I had to narrow it down I guess it would be a toss up between carols by candlelight and the fireworks display,” she answered, slight trace of a blush forming in her cheeks.
“Interesting choices. Why those in particular?” Harry queried. Their eyes met frequently now. The uncomfortable feeling of talking with a stranger had all but disappeared.
“With the carols it’s fairly straightforward,” Erika answered plainly, “My adorable little brother is one of the current soloists. Now that I’m bragging, mind you.”
“Of course not, merely being incredible proud of your brothers talent. What about the fireworks? Why those?”
“The fireworks are beautiful. I have many good memories involving fireworks. My first date happened under fireworks,” she said, with flushed cheeks that indicated that she was remembering the aforementioned date. Harry looked at her for the longest second, as though he had spotted an interesting puzzle and was trying to solve it. “Your first date? I’m a little jealous. The only first I had at the festival involved alcohol, bad judgement, and much embarrassment,” Harry said with a pained expression. Erika cringed on his behalf as she jump to a quick conclusion over his words. “Shit, you weren’t one of those who did it in the portaloos, were you?” She remember several occasions where the exertions of the couples inside had cause the loos to roll, spilling sewage all over the offending couple. Harry cringed at Erika’s words. “Thankfully, no! My judgement wasn’t that impaired. My girlfriend and I just thought it would be exciting to sneak into the theatre house. Unfortunately, she also had a bondage fetish, so I wound up tied to a prop backstage. Course, in an immensely stupid moment I said something she took the wrong way and she left me tied up, completely naked. I didn’t get free until I was found by one of the stage hands,” Harry explained, embarrassment ingrained in his expression. Erika laughed involuntarily, clapping a hand over her mouth to stop herself. “Sorry, you must have been so embarrassed. I bet you laid of alcohol for awhile after that,” she said with a voice full of chocked back laughter.
“Hell no, I still drank. Engaging in my girlfriend’s bondage fetish was off the table after that incident though, I tell you. Which was a relief to me anyway,” Harry replied with a rueful laugh, “Hey, Erika?”
“Yes?” she asked with a tilt of her head.
“I’m quite fond of the fireworks myself. There’s actually a really nice viewing spot on the hill opposite the park. You should watch it form there next time,” Harry said with a cheerful grin, his eyes suddenly unreadable. Erika returned his gaze questioningly.
“Really? I’ll remember to check it out next year then,” She replied distractedly. She thought she heard someone calling in the distance. She turned in the direction of the elevators. She could she a flush=faced nurse hurrying towards them. “Harry! There you are!” The nurse called over to them. Erika turned back towards harry with a disappointed smile.
“Looks like you are being called,” she stated. Harry turned to look for himself.
“Damn, you;re right. She’s found me. Here I was hoping to hide until dinner,” he said with a mournful expression. Seeing that she had his attention, the nurse waved vigorously. “Harry, I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
“She doesn’t sound happy,” Erika commented as she watched Harry wave back in a awkward fashion.
“She rarely is. I think I had better be off. It must be time for the next round of drugs,” He said with a dejected expression.
“In that case, rest up and get well soon. It’s been fun chatting with you,” Erika compliment him with a grateful smile. He had indeed cheered up her day. Harry pushed himself up from the table, still slightly unsteady. He flashed her a grateful smile of his own. “Thanks for the company, you have truly made my day,” Harry said with an open honesty that disarmed Erika completely.
“And you’ve made me relax completely, so I guess we are even. Bye!” She said, with a trace sadness in her tone. Harry flashed that warm smile again as bid her good bye while the nurse dragged him back to the ward. Erika watched him leave with mixed feelings. She wondered briefly if she would see him again. Doubts filled her thoughts and with a shake of her head she dismissed the thoughts entirely. If she had not the courage to ask him for his number then she would just have to rely on another chance meeting. And with that thought in mind Erika picked herself up and headed off to fight her battles with renewed vigour. “I wonder if they have calmed down now…” she asked the universe as she stepping through the elevator doors. As the last glimpse of the cafe disappeared behind the sliding doors, she thought maybe Harry will be there tomorrow.