I lifted the basket out of the fryer and gave it a shake. The hot fat spattered my arms, singeing the hairs on my arm, and added to the night’s catalogue of burns. My forearms were covered in them: little white blisters like cataract-riddled eyes staring up at me. I knew by morning they’d be all but healed.
In the corner of my eye I saw Mehmet lounging on the caravan counter, top lip working his thick black moustache. “We’s goin’ down to kick them Greek boys after this, you wanna come?”
“Nah, mate,” I dumped the chips and wrapped them up, the grease seeping through Jimmy Carter’s triumphant face on the front page of the Advertiser, “I’ve got to go find someone. You boys stay safe, yeah?” Mehmet wiped his nose with the back of his hand, giving me a “suit yourself” shrug. I passed him the chips and stepped out the back for a smoke, checking eagerly for the first sign of daylight.
I’d been fighting the urge to just walk out all shift – the pull was so strong I couldn’t concentrate. I could feel her so close I felt like I was going to burst out of my skin, but sixty years of this had taught me that impatience never pays off.
Sixty years of following her around, waiting for a sign. It was enough to drive a man mad but I’d long gone past that point. I’d been crazy since I first set eyes on her, then young lad walking through the woods near my Nan’s village up in Scotland just before I enlisted in 1916: she was naked and more beautiful than anything I’d ever imagined, smiling sweetly with her chestnut locks cascading down to her waste, and she took me by the hand, pulling me close . . . Sure, I was a young man back then, eager and naïve, but something happened that day, something changed within me the moment she kissed me, something that kept me alive through two World Wars – and so many other wars, civil, guerrilla and turf, since – and I haven’t aged a bit since I was twenty-three.
I remember afterwards lighting a cigarette as we lay amongst the moss and the tree roots. I struck the match and she sprang up quick as a hare and transfixed with fear at the flame: shaking her head and hissing, she fled through the trees leaving me naked and bewildered, transformed and alone.
And I never saw her again after that moment. I returned to my Nan’s village after I came home from the trenches with a swag of bravery medals pinned to my chest but the woods were as good as a desert to me. She wasn’t to be seen and yet she plagued my dreams ever since, pulling at me with a force I can neither explain nor understand. All I know is she calls and I follow and one day – as long as I breath, of this I am certain – one day I’ll find her.
Sure, I tried to fight it: tired of feeling like nothing but a pawn thrust into one conflict to the next, I went and found a nice girl, tried to settle down and play husband when I was down in Reno sometime in the late 40’s but it didn’t work out. Just one dream, one tug on my soul and the longing took hold and I was off again. Off to Oslo, then Tenerife, then to Bombay for more years than I care to remember, trapped in the humid crush of people, waiting for another sign . . . then it was off down to Thailand, down through the powder-keg jungles of Indonesia with a Kalashnikov strapped on my back before she pulled me down further south to Adelaide, trapped in a caravan frying burgers and kebabs for a steady stream of drunks and long-haired junkies in paisley shirts while Mehmet and Ergun battled Stavros and his boys from the gyros shop down the road.
It mightn’t sound like much of a life, but at least I could feel I was close.
As the sun rose two cars pulled up, spilling out Turks and bravado. I watched them from the back of the van, and I could feel her so close it was almost like she was right beside me, her small hands on my skin.
“You pack up for us, bro. We’s gonna be back later, ok?” Ergun called out to me as he jumped in the driver’s seat of one of the cars. Once left alone it didn’t take long to tidy up but the ten minutes it took seemed an eternity. I could hear her voice in my ears, feel the soft brushing of her lips on my skin and I felt like I was going to finally die . . .
I heard a whoosh behind me and the world exploded. Flames burst around me, setting the van alight and I spun around to see balaclava-clad men hurling another Molotov in my direction. They ran as the fat and the gas bottles ignited, throwing me to the ground and swallowing me in flame. The agony condensed and sharpened, tearing at my heart as through the heat haze and I could see her face, screaming silently in pain, contorting, twisting, dissolving in the fire and everything went black . . .
The doctors can’t believe it. They say I should have died, that no one can survive burns like that, but I have and I’m healing well. The papers are calling me the ‘miracle man’ or ‘the luckiest man alive’. All I know is that I feel dead inside.
Written for a short story competition where the topic was immortality. I had to cut some key points to fit the word limit at the time, but hopefully with them back in the ending makes more sense than it did initially.