This story is by Tony Hawley and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The Cafe de Flore was at street level, next to the staircase that rose to the lobby of the Grande Cremona Hotel. Darcy and Jess Gray sat in the back, near the small bar, happy to be out of the midday sun. Darcy liked the cafe’s Paris bistro decor and the town’s village charm. It still remained for him to convince Jess. Would she agree to a move this far North? He was counting on it – he had already accepted the promotion that would see him made manager; Great Northern Trading Company Pilbarra Depot; Cremona.
“Cheers, Jess,” they lightly touched glasses. “What do you think? Isn’t it … I don’t know … charming?”
“A short drive isn’t enough to decide this, Darcy. I really think we should put it off, at least until the children are older, we can look at it again then.” There was no mistaking the tone of finality in her voice, as if the matter was closed.
“We can’t pick and choose, Jess. Either I accept the promotion, or kiss it goodbye, probably forever. We could do with the extra money.”
“I know that. We’re happy enough aren’t we? And dragging the children 2,000 km from home … it’s a mining town, for goodness sake. What about me? It’s alright for you at work all day. What am I supposed to do up here, miles from anywhere? Really Darcy … it’s too far – I’d never see my family.” Jess’s eyes had begun to moisten, a warning of the tears to come.
And there we have it! Game, set and match ladies and gentlemen, Darcy thought. Family, work and tears – the unplayable endgame he had dreaded. The rebuttal he had worked on for this moment seemed unconvincing now so, he shelved it and paused to think. Nearly twenty years at Great Northern and this, his first decent break. His chance to make something of his life, as his father would frequently cajole. A chance for him to make a better life for his family. The look of despondency on his father’s face when he walked in the front door after a day’s work was still fresh in his mind. He had spent his whole work-life in the same warehouse, waiting for pay day so he could put some cash into mother’s housekeeping jar.
Darcy knew life didn’t owe him a thing but, he had hoped, this once, Providence would smile on him. So much for Providence! He’s probably too busy looking after the wealthy, He doesn’t seem focused on the rest of the world. Why would He help me?
“Two Riesling – on the house.” The barman placed three glasses of wine on the table and sat, uninvited.
“I hear you’re joining us – with GNT? I’m Sam Mangano, manager of this fine establishment, where the food is bellissimo and everyone is welcome. If you want to know what’s happening in Cremona – I am the man to see.”
“Hello, Sam, thanks. I am Darcy Gray. And my wife, Jessica. We’re only here for the weekend. We were just talking about moving … Jess doesn’t think this is the right time.” There was something about this exuberant Italian gentleman that made him your friend, whether you liked it or not.
“Darcy! I’m sure Mr Mangano isn’t interested in our personal affairs.” Jess was already annoyed with herself over the argument with her husband, she didn’t like to argue, and now Darcy’s candor with even the most casual of acquaintances made her fume.
“Al contrario, my friend,” Sam bowed with a theatrical flourish. “Peoples’ personal business seeks me out, like the beagle finds the hare. When there’s a problem, I am indeed the person you should be talking to. If I don’t have the answer, I’m sure to know someone who will.”
Jess smiled and relaxed a little. Sam was so corny it was hard not to feel at ease around him.
“I don’t know, Sam. Darcy wants to move here and I don’t. It’s as simple as that,” she explained. “Don’t get me wrong. I want him to get his promotion – Lord knows he deserves it. But, a remote mining town? Really? Is that the best place to bring up a young family?” Moisture gathered in her eyes again.
“I’ve had three wives, who have all taken the children, so what would I know, dear lady?” Sam’s face had become a picture of self-reproach. “We are fortunate at this very moment to be graced with the presence of the wisest, most trusted man in this shire. Let me introduce you … Mack.” He called to a middle aged man at the end of the bar and summoned him with a wave. “Come join us, Mack. We’re in need of an erudite mind. I’ll order some drinks.”
Darcy had noticed the man earlier; alone, quietly writing what might have been Sunday’s sermon, for he had judged him to be a clergyman. The burly stature and pale complexion marked a life spent indoors, with little physical exertion. While the faded black suit, so well-worn even Vinnies wouldn’t want it, marked an austere disposition. “Father Patrick Mackinlay … meet my good friends Darcy and Jessica Gray,” Sam’s introductions were made with his apparently usual flair. “Mack, my friends are in a quandary and have reached an impasse. I’ve assured them no one in the North West is a more astute oracle than you.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Father but, I must warn you, we are Church of England not Catholic. I’m afraid we fall outside your jurisdiction, if that’s the right term for it.”
“Darcy!!” Jess scolded sharply. “Please excuse my husband, Father. He means no disrespect, he just has an under-developed awareness of the occasion.”
Darcy opened his mouth to enter a defence, then decided silence was the better option. He needed Jess in a less confrontational mood if he was to have any chance of changing her mind.
“No offence taken, my dear. Darcy is right to question my mandate which, in this case, is sound. Fortunately, Cremona is distant enough from Rome to avoid its meddling bureaucracy, which has allowed us to trial a ground-breaking, non-sectarian, Spiritual Learning Center. All beliefs are welcome. We provide the place, resources, and whatever help we can. Members….our flock….can occupy themselves in a variety of activities and children too. Unfortunately, we’ve just lost our child care leader so they are without their shepherd at the moment. We don’t allow the clergy to work directly with the children, for their own protection you understand.” Father Mackinlay was clearly proud of their enlightened approach and took every opportunity to talk about it.
“Rumor has it she left town because her husband was having an affair with his boss – Trevor,” Sam added quite matter of factly. It was received with obvious displeasure by Father Mackinlay, which caused Sam to excuse himself to deal with something behind the bar needing his personal attention.
Had Darcy and Jess not been together for so long he might have missed the signs of her heightened interest in Father Mackinlay’s story. Of course, he thought. Her work at the library had stirred her interest in all sorts of social issues, mostly not issues he shared an interest in. And, he felt sure she could easily run a child care program, especially one where the curriculum was … alternative. Would it be enough though, to change her mind about the move? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, he thought. He didn’t have anything else to offer, he may as well give it a try.
“Jess, I wondered whether you might be interested in helping Father Mackinlay? You’re experience with children at the Library would be handy, and it would give you an interest in Cremona, and people to meet. Father Mackinlay?”
“Well, the Management Council ultimately decides on any appointments but, we would welcome your help, Jess. We’re well funded by the local Mining Companies so the position carries a small salary. It’s not a lot, mind.”
“You know, your Learning Center does sound like a really interesting project, Father. I think it would be fulfilling to be part of, and to help the children too. I would need more details though.”
There it was, Darcy thought, the first crack had appeared in Jess’s resolve. All he need do now was to coax things along and, barring any unforeseen obstacles, his job would be done. They were as good as moved and his promotion resurrected. Excuse the pun, Father.
Sam had returned to the table with another bottle of the excellent Riesling they were drinking and a brandy for Mack. “I put it on your tab, Mack,” he winked at Darcy. “Have you found a solution for our problem yet?”
“Oh yes, I am sorry my friends. I got so carried away talking about the Learning Center, I forgot you needed guidance. Tell me, what problem are you wrestling with?”
Darcy and Jess looked at each other, questioningly. He placed a hand over hers, letting her answer in whatever way she was comfortable with.
“Sam, Father Mackinlay, I think Providence has already given us the answer. She smiled at Father Mackinlay.
“Amen to that, my dear. And Jessica, all my friends call me Mack, please.”