It was the most perplexing thing. Cherie had done this before, as many of us do. She walked along the footpath outside the multilevel car park, trying to retrace her steps.
“Idiot,” she muttered.
The trick did not work. She walked back to the car park entrance ramp, walked in, and stared at the spot where her car was supposed to be.
“Are you sure, Jack?” she called to the pimply lad in the cashier’s booth.
“Definitely, Mrs Doughty. It’s been a really quiet day, I swear it.”
The boy was so earnest and Cherie had no reason to doubt him. She had known him for years. Jack lived in her neighbourhood and was the type to help little old ladies across the street, return lost wallets in tact; even let you know if you left your car lights on in the driveway.
She had no doubt. The car had not been stolen.
She saw the flashing light of the seedy looking café. A dusty cardboard sign in the window announced a bottomless cuppa for $1.95. That seemed like a good deal. She wondered if milk and sugar were thrown in.
The door featured sickly-green, peeling paint, greasy looking window panes, and what could have been lace curtains although they looked more like spider webs. A shadow of doubt passed through her mind, but the bell that tinkled when she pushed the door was so welcoming.
The café was almost full. Every head turned in her direction although strangely she did not find that at all intimidating but instead somehow reassuring. Even so, no one smiled at her as she entered.
The clock on the wall behind the counter said half past three.
“Can’t be,” she muttered. “I left work at five. Must have stopped.” She could see the second hand ticking its way around the face smoothly, jolting at certain points as though emphasising a person coughing, a buzzer sounding in the next room, or a cup being stirred.
In one corner was a table set for two. One chair was occupied by a handsome, middle-aged man and the other appeared to be the only empty chair left in the place.
“Could be worse,” she muttered and thought about the countless inane conversations on the train with people that held no attraction for her at all. The most recent, she remembered, was described by a friend as ‘a garden gnome with a shiny dome, and an intellect showing nobody’s home’. Cherie had laughed at the time although a little nagging voice chided her for being unkind.
She stood by the table and asked a little coyly if she could sit.
“By all means, if you’re sure you want to stay,” he answered both charmingly and cryptically.
“Jeremy,” he said and held out his hand.
“Cherie,” she responded in kind and tentatively held out hers.
“Pleased to meet you. Could have been better circumstances though.”
There was an arch in the wall adjoining a laundrette next door. Cherie supposed most of the patrons were passing time with a cup of coffee and a chat with other wardrobe-challenged strangers. The washing machines and dryers chugged away, flipping and tossing knickers and jocks, socks and windcheaters in myriad colours. The sound had something about it, almost a hypnotic, tidal effect.
“Have you noticed there’s always at least one chair spare?” the waitress said. It was something she habitually asked the last bar one customer. “It’s not always that one over there by the door, the tatty, green one. Sometimes it’s this one here, the red striped canvas chair, or the rattan one over there. But there’s always room for one more here in our place.”
She smiled, poured another cup of coffee for Jeremy, then winked at Cherie.
“We’re all out of everything but coffee today,” she said apologetically. “Just the usual stuff. Can I get you a cup?”
Cherie nodded shyly. She was not quite sure what it was about the woman but she did feel intimidated, as though she was interacting with someone terribly important. The waitress smiled acknowledgement, then moved to the next table.
“I lost my car,” she suddenly blurted out.
“Do you remember which floor it was on?” Jeremy asked absently, watching the waitress as she moved from table to table.
Cherie shook here head, bewildered, but the panic was starting to abate.
“I could have sworn I left it on the ground floor. There was a lucky spot just inside the door. Never happens, but this morning, there it was,” she answered.
Jeremy put his cup down suddenly.
“What a coincidence. That’s where I parked my car.” His tone was sardonic. His eyes glimmered, amused and puzzling.
Cherie stared at him in disbelief.
“Well, you couldn’t have. That’s where my car was this morning … I thought.” She wondered if he was teasing her. A nagging feeling crept in, growing by the second.
Maybe that’s why she could not find it. She must have had a brain freeze and parked it there the day before instead. Perhaps today it was on the second, third or fourth floor in a similar spot.
“Nope. That’s where mine is.”
She shook her head.
“Well, when I checked just five minutes ago, the bay was empty.”
He looked at her knowingly.
“Of course it’s empty now. For awhile at least. And so is that green chair, but shortly you’ll see someone sit down in it and they’ll complain they can’t find their car.”
They sat in silence as the waitress placed a large orange mug in front of Cherie, then poured black coffee in with practiced enthusiasm. Cherie was about to ask for milk when she noticed the liquid in her cup was indeed white.
“Do you realise, there are places and times throughout all we know that are quite simply one-way streets. There is no way out of them and we wouldn’t necessarily want to get out anyway. We’d be just backtracking and sometimes who wants to travel the same road twice, regardless of the direction we’re moving?”
“It’s an interesting idea, Jeremy. Do you have an example?”
Cherie was not entirely comfortable with this train of thought which was feeding her anxiety much more than she cared to admit. But she was drawn in.
“Well, the most common one that springs to mind is time. We are forever trapped in chronology. Our whole existence is tied to it; mortality, regret, history. There are countless literary works dealing with the idea of ‘what if we could go back in time?’ or ‘what if I made a different choice?
Haplessly, Cherie pondered choosing the easy car park instead of going to her usual spot.
“There are television programs like Doctor Who, futuristic ones like Star Trek that often go back in time, that film … er … Sliding Door ! Ah, and Mr Destiny and, oh here’s a goody … Groundhog Day ”.
“Where have you gone, Cherie?” Jeremy suddenly asked.
“Well, up a trivial cul-de-sac I think. I was just wondering if we’d be talking about all of this if I drove past that parking space this morning and went to my usual spot.”
“Exactly,” he almost yelled triumphantly. “Now you’re getting the idea.”
“A refill, Miss?” the waitress asked.
“Thank you,” she responded but the waitress had poured and gone in a blink.
A lass at the next table, a scar on one cheek, stood up. She pushed her chair back noisily in the process. She wandered through the arch that separated the café from the laundrette, picked up a plastic washing basket from a stack of variously coloured baskets, and proceeded to unload a dryer full of clothes.
Cherie watched absently for a few seconds. She spotted a purple, pleated , skirt the young woman had pulled out of the dryer’s gaping maw and was folding neatly. It was the skirt she got out of her wardrobe that morning! The skirt she was wearing when she climbed into her car, when she parked it, went to work, and came back only to find an empty car park.
Dispassionately, the young woman closed the dryer door and picked up the basket of clothes. She stood on the spot stiffly, and right before Cherie’s eyes, she faded, disappeared; somehow like an old television being turned off, with only a small white spot left in the middle of where she had stood. Then, with a pop, that little white dot was gone.
The café door opened with a jingle of its bell. A rather confused looking, elderly man walked in. He sat on the green chair, then waved to catch the waitress’ eye.
“I seem to have misplaced my car,” he told Cherie when he realised she was watching him. “Darndest thing. Left it in a spot right near the entrance of the car park next door. You’d think I wouldn’t forget where I put it. Jack, the cashier swears no cars other than mine have entered or left. I just can’t figure it out.”
He scratched his head, perplexed, then turned to the waitress.
“Better make it a tall black,” he said to her with a polite smile. “Clearly, I’ve fallen asleep and I need something to jolt the old grey cells into action.”
Anxiety-ridden, Cherie turned back to Jeremy.
“Jeremy, where are we? Who are you?”
She asked it without wanting an answer. But there it was, out there and of course he responded.
“You mean ‘who was I?’ That’s not really relevant any more. Not really for me or for you. Your curiousity will get in the way of the journey though so I guess there’s no harm in telling you. I was a professor of philosophy. Sounds heavy or grand I suppose. I dealt mostly with concepts in popular culture, literature, television and that sort of thing. But none of it ever really meant anything more to me than theories until I parked my car in that space!”
“When did you say you left your car in that car park?” she asked him.
“Actually I didn’t say. But since you asked, it was three months ago,” he answered as though it was the most normal thing in the world. “I’ve been waiting here for my turn ever since.”
He swigged the last of his coffee, then pushed his chair back and stood. The chair was one of those old fashioned wire legged kitchen chairs with blue vinyl and black plastic piping trimming the edges.
“Well, it’s my turn now. I’d better take those clothes out of the dryer and head off,” he said. “Nice meeting you Cherie.”