It was her font Kent noticed first, then her fingers.
They were gripping the corners of the sign she held, and on each fingertip he could see dark smears of ink spilling under the nails. The letters on the sign sat firmly on the rectangle of cardboard, staring up at him with their austere simplicity; Baskerville Old Face was his favourite font, and he gave an involuntary nod of approval before he realised what the words said.
He stumbled on the steps of City Library, and turned to look again. She was standing on the corner of the laneway, immobile in the midst of the afternoon coffee crowd, the sign held at waist level with dark wavy hair tumbling down to its edges.
WILL WRITE FOR FOOD.
The sign was the most remarkable thing about her. Without it, she would have blended into the black-clad winter-booted Melbourne crowd without a second glance, and you wouldn’t have thought twice about her. If you’d looked closely, however, you would’ve noticed her smile, a tiny tug at the corner of her mouth as Degraves Street swarmed around her and he stood on the steps of the library, staring.
Kent noticed her smile. He knew to peer for stories in the lines of each face that passed him, and every eavesdropped word that rolled down the aisle of a cafe or tram, coming to a stop under his sly boot. He noticed her smile, and her fingertips, and her font. Thank god she’s not a verdana kind of woman, he thought, turning around and reaching for the library door.
He found his usual cubicle on the third floor, and tried to shake her from his mind. He’d start with a handful of Raymond Carver short stories, he decided, and then several acts of a Tennessee Williams play before he’d allow himself to open his notebook. If that didn’t get the words flowing, nothing would.
An hour later his pen was gripped so tightly his knuckles paled. All around him scribes and students bent over notebooks with pens moving so quickly he wanted to snatch them from eager hands and snap them in half, and he knew he was scowling. He was so close to finishing his story but this time the writer’s block had set up camp, unfurled its sleeping bag and set its alarm clock for god knows when, and his page was ever empty.
Coffee would help; a long black, extra sugar. Maybe he should take another lead from the classics and pour some whiskey in, see if that got the words moving. His steps were a shuffle as he headed out to Flinders Lane. When he saw the girl still there, his head tilted and the decision was made so quickly it took him by surprise.
She gazed at him as he ducked around a tourist and came to a stop in front of her. He nodded at her sign, cleared his throat, and nodded again.
‘I like your font.’
She smiled wider, but said nothing.
I like your font…for god’s sake. Kent took a breath, and tried again.
‘I’m just wondering…what exactly do you mean, WILL WRITE FOR FOOD?’
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, and lifted an eyebrow.
‘Exactly what it says. I’m a writer, I’m unemployed, and hungry. If you buy me something to eat, I’ll write something for you.’
He glanced down at the cardboard, and frowned.
‘I don’t need someone to write for me, exactly, just…well, I need help writing myself. I’m stuck in a story, you see. Can you help, do you think?’
She wedged the sign under her arm and extended her hand. ‘Eve; the answer to your prayers.’ The handshake was brisk, and left him wincing. ‘Now buy me a doughnut and let’s go.’
He’d never had a conversation quite like it. She listened to him describe his story as she tore off chunks of pastry and dunked them into a coffee cup, nodding solemnly when he paused, adding the odd ‘Uh huh’ and ‘I see.’ When his words rolled to a stop she gazed up at the ceiling and thought for a moment, then snapped her fingers for a pen. He handed one over and slid his notebook across the table towards her. She wrote two words, then wedged the lid back on and stood up.
‘That’s what you need today. Cheers for the doughnut.’
And she was gone before he could reply, swept up into the surge of people rushing along the laneway.
Kent pulled the book towards him, and read.
He frowned, looked up at the crowd, and read again.
Lola Day. A character’s name, in thick spiky writing. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? He slammed the book closed. Quite a scam she’s got there. The barista watched him shove the book into his bag and push his way out of the cafe with a heavy step, and wondered if it was a date gone wrong.
When they both returned the next day and slid into the same booth, the only one not particularly surprised was Eve.
‘How did your new character go?’ Her smile gave nothing away, but his breathless answer spoke volumes.
‘The strangest thing happened! I was convinced you were ripping me off, but on the tram home the character you named just started forming – I couldn’t stop it! I went home and I wrote her way into the story…so amazing what came out of my pen.’
Eve nodded, and opened the menu. ‘Think I’ll have a BLT today, extra mayo.’
That afternoon she gave him a whole sentence as a prompt: Lola Day gets a phone call at 3:41am: what happens when she answers it? He drew his breath in sharply and went to speak, but Eve cut him off with a hand held up, palm facing him.
‘I’ve finished eating; you’ve got all you need today.’
And again she was swallowed up by the crowd.
They met every day for a week, and each time the prompts were scribbled in his notebook with her spidery handwriting. By Thursday the plates took up the whole tabletop, a platter of eggs hollandaise next to thick pancakes with dark maple syrup, pooling in sticky spirals around wedges of bacon. He was so eager to get upstairs to the library he could barely wait for her to finish, but the meals he was buying were taking her longer and longer.
‘So…how long have you been doing this?’ He suddenly realised he knew nothing about her.
She munched on a crispy strand of bacon. ‘’Bout a month.’ She swallowed, and hooked her fork around more. ‘It’s been working a treat: I’ve got a screenwriter, two bloggers and a poet on my books, so to speak.’ She licked a bright splash of yolk from her finger, and leant forward to whisper to him. ‘It’s the bloggers who need the most help, bless them.’ And she chuckled as she reached for her orange juice.
Kent watched her eat. He noticed for the first time that she had the beginning of a double chin, a slight layer of flesh swelling around her jaw line.
‘Wouldn’t just one of us be enough then?’
Eve looked up at him. She pursed her lips together, and slid her knife and fork onto the plate, side by side. Neither of them spoke for a moment. She licked her lips.
‘I get more stories from you all than I give, you know.’
She lifted the napkin to her mouth, patted, and stood up. Not a skerrick of food was left on the plates as she squeezed her way out of the cafe, the sign tucked under her arm.
On Monday he finished the story. Ink had danced all over his notebook and woven itself into words that made him smile and sentences that made him proud; made him crack his knuckles, turn up the stereo and strut around the room singing Elvis to his cat until the startled creature took flight under his couch. He decided to give himself the day off from the library, and slid the stack of books onto the edge of his desk.
The next day, Kent rounded the corner of Flinders Lane with a bounce in his gait, looking left and right. She wasn’t on the corner, her customary black clothes standing out against the stencil art lining Degraves Street. He waited with notebook in hand, the bones of a new story ready to be covered with skin and stitched into being. He watched the sea of faces drifting down towards him for fifteen minutes, then headed to the cafe alone.
As soon as the barista had squeezed the lid onto a slew of cappuccinos, Kent placed his notebook on the counter.
‘Ah, excuse me? I just wondered if you’ve seen the woman I’ve been coming in here with lately – dark hair, black clothes, voracious appetite?’
The barista nodded. ‘Yep, she was in this morning.’
‘This morning?’ He was so taken aback he almost stammered. ‘She’s always waiting in the afternoon.’
The man shrugged, sliding a milk jug under the steam spout. ‘She said she wouldn’t be coming back either, and to let you know. Nothing else to tell you, I’m afraid.’ He went to turn his back, but Kent grabbed his arm.
‘But what am I meant to do now?! How am I meant to get story ideas?’
The barista looked at the hand on his arm and shrugged it off. ‘Don’t know mate, don’t care.’ He turned the knob on the coffee machine, and let it squeal for a split second before flipping it off.
‘Oh, hang on, there was one more thing.’
Kent placed both hands on the counter and leant forward eagerly.
‘She left you this.’
He reached under the counter and rummaged around with a slight frown, before lifting an object out and placing it in front of them. Kent stared in silence, then reached out and ran one fingertip along the Baskerville Old Face font darkening the cardboard.
‘She said you’d know what to do with it?’
Kent stood for a while in the shuffle of customers. He ordered a long black with extra sugar, to go, and walked out to the corner of Degraves Street and Flinders Lane. With the coffee cup in his left hand, he manoeuvred the sign into his right, holding it parallel with his waist.
Several pairs of eyes widened at the words, some people smiled, and two people stopped on the steps of City Library to glance back at him.
As he took another sip of his coffee, he wondered why Raymond Carver had never thought of it.
Story ideas come from the strangest places.
I trawl my net wide and catch misheard song lyrics (Learn How I Holler), obsessive compulsive disorders (Die Verwandlung and Thirteen Seconds), eavesdropped conversations (Mata Hari and Her Gingham Piglet), movie titles (Contempt and Santa Sangre), views from windowsills (Street of the Candlesticks), star signs (Scorpio), phobias (The Taste of Red), misheard conversations (Whisperflung) and even my father’s childhood imaginary friend (Linus Leads Sometimes).
Once, a new character woke me up at night and told me to write down her name. I tried to nestle back under the covers but she was an insistent little hussy, and I stumbled to my notebook to write down the words Lola Day.
I knew I’d write you into a story one day, Lola.
But I do wish I could turn the corner into Flinders Lane and find Eve waiting for me, sign in hand.
I’d buy her a feast.