My coffee was cold. Five minutes of frantic signalling and I had still failed to attract the attention of any of the café’s staff. I was about to give up on my quest when the woman suddenly appeared. She slid herself into my booth, the red leather seat squealing as she sank down opposite me. We both looked at each other, and my initial shock quickly turned into puzzlement. I recognised her. I knew without a doubt that I knew her, but couldn’t remember how or why. In an attempt to save face, I decided to bluff it out.
She smiled. “It’s been a long time, Madge.”
She knew my name. I felt certain that, given enough time, I would be able to recall hers. If only I could shake off the peculiar fuzziness that seemed to be clouding my memory. She smiled at me again. The warmth and familiarity of the gesture was pleasant for the briefest of moments, but quickly, it began to unnerve me. Something about her was unsettling. I forced a grin, concerned that I appeared uncomfortable. The woman glanced around, as if to check for unwanted observers, then leaned in closer.
“You know,” she whispered, “I really didn’t think that I would ever see you again.”
All I could muster by way of a reply was a nervous cough. My mind was blank. Despite the overwhelming sense of recognition that I felt, I still couldn’t seem to place her face. The harder I tried, the more vague and insubstantial my thoughts became. It felt as if I was clutching at smoke.
Seemingly oblivious, the woman continued,“But then I saw you here, large as life, and I said to myself, Diane, there’s a reason familiar faces turn up.”
Diane. The name caused tiny sparks to fire in my brain. Strobing images, flashing briefly, dredged up from my sub-consciousness. A teddy bears picnic. A game of hide and seek. A secret shared at midnight. A child’s hushed voice from beneath the blankets. That, then nothing more.
“Things have been tough since back then,” she mumbled, as she curled her lank hair around her fingers. “You know, in and out of hospital.”
As she rotated her wrist, I caught a fleeting glimpse: a single puckered scar running across her skin.
“Stopped taking my meds. Thought I was better off without them. Wanted to try and face up to reality. Not that you would know much about that.”
“Listen, I’m sorry, but I think you might have mistaken me for somebody else…”
Diane slammed her fists down onto the table. I flinched as the salt and pepper pots were launched into the air, jumping like frightened mice.
“No! I know who you are, Madge.”
She stared at me, nostrils flaring as she sucked in air. I counted each breath, silently watching as her anger slowly faded.
“We’re not little children,” she continued. “Those games might have worked once, but you’re not in control of me anymore.”
I swallowed. Diane, regardless of how we knew each other, was obviously ill. I tried to speak, but nothing came out; my voice was as trapped as I suddenly felt. Diane stood up.
“Seeing you. Well, it’s a sign. Things have got to be pretty bad for you to make an appearance.”
I yearned to scream out a denial. To refute her allegations, but all I could do was sit and stare.
“I loved you as a kid. Needed you. Now…” she paused, her face a mask of sorrow, “Now, I know you’re nothing. Just a symptom of my sickness.”
Diane slowly began to turn away. I looked down at my hands. They were trembling. For the first time I noticed how old and wrinkled they really were.
“Wait! Stop,” I yelled, my voice muffled, sounding strange and distant. “What do you mean? Who are you?”
She spun around; her face twisted into a vicious sneer.
“You poor, pathetic creature. You really don’t know, do you? Answer me this, Madge. What is it that you do? Where is it that you come from?”
I shook my head, my aching brain filled with pure white noise, the terrible sound of a thousand starlings screeching. Diane bent down, her face inches away from my own.
“Who was the first person you ever kissed Madge, huh? Tell me, what does it feel like to fall asleep, wrapped up safe and tight in the arms of someone you love?”
I looked up at her, speechless.
“No answers, eh?”
She straightened herself up, glancing around one last time at the other patrons. Those that had been staring quickly averted their gaze, suddenly fascinated by their bacon and eggs.
“Goodbye, Madge,” said Diane, as she headed towards the exit. I watched as she stepped outside, joining the people on the street, disappearing forever as the bustling crowd swallowed her up.
Over to my left, running the length of the café wall, hung a mirror. Its glass was smeared and badly in need of a polish.
I didn’t recognise the terrified-looking stranger caught in its reflection.