This featured short story by Maria Savva first appeared in Tales from the Cacao Tree, which is part of the Mind’s Eye Series. Maria’s task was to write a story based on the photo below, taken by Kim Stapf.
The Great Painter
Julie spun around quickly, realising too late that someone was standing directly behind her in the queue waiting to be served. Her cup of hot chocolate flew out of her hand and onto the floor, creating a large puddle that looked a bit like a chocolate-coloured inkblot test.
Mouth wide open, Julie raised her eyes from the spilt drink and came face to face with the man who’d been standing behind her.
‘Sorry,’ they both said at once.
‘No, it’s my fault,’ said the man, waving a hand to dismiss her apology. ‘I was standing too close, wasn’t looking, too busy with my phone.’ He rolled his eyes to suggest he felt embarrassed. ‘Let me buy you another, uh—’ He squinted at the mess on the floor, ‘Hot chocolate, was it?’
‘Um… I—’ Julie watched as a member of the café staff arrived with a mop and set about cleaning the floor.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Julie to the man, ‘I’d better get to work.’ She felt flustered and not in the mood to talk to this stranger. He was very handsome, but that made her feel sad for some reason, so she had to hold back tears.
The young man shrugged and turned around to order his drink.
Julie hesitated slightly, kicking herself for letting the moment slip by. This man might be a godsend, someone to take her mind off the past and everything that had gone wrong. Louis had left her six months ago and she’d spent most of those months feeling lonely but not wanting to talk to anyone. She’d found herself constantly making up excuses as to why she couldn’t go out with friends; that behaviour had driven most of them away.
It was too late, though; what could she do? Tap him on the shoulder and say ‘Actually, I will have that hot chocolate,’ in a flirty manner? How desperate would that seem? And besides, her self-esteem had sunk to an all-time low. She doubted this young good-looking man would be interested in her.
Julie reluctantly walked away towards the door.
She heard a voice, a familiar one: the young man’s voice.
‘Here you go,’ he said as she turned to face him. ‘I asked the barista to make it just the same way for you.’
He had a contagious smile.
It had been, she realised, a long time since she’d really smiled.
‘I’m going to sit over there. Would you like to join me?’ he asked, pointing to a couple of bar stools next to the window.
Julie didn’t really have to go to work. She’d been sacked from her job quite soon after Louis left her. They’d been married for ten years, were childhood sweethearts. One day, quite unexpectedly, he told her that he’d met someone else. His new girlfriend was much younger than her. Louis announced that he wanted a divorce because his mistress had become pregnant and he “wanted to do the right thing”.
‘Really? Really?’ she’d blurted. ‘It’s doing the “right thing” to have an affair, is it? What planet do you live on?’
‘You’re just bitter, Julie!’ he retorted, snarling. ‘You can’t have kids and now you’re jealous.’
Speechless, Julie watched him leave and wondered if she’d ever really known him.
She hardly slept for weeks afterwards as she tried to make sense of it all. She’d arrive late for work, always trying to find a good reason, but she worked for a large corporation: they had no loyalty towards staff. If she couldn’t get to work on time they’d find someone who could.
When she lost her job, she stayed at home, locked herself away for months, only venturing out of the house to sign on at the job centre. She’d not yet been able to secure any job interviews. Everything seemed to be spiralling downwards.
‘Um… I can probably spare half an hour or so,’ she said to the kind young man.
‘Great! I’m Rupert,’ he said, extending an arm to shake her hand.
‘Um… Julie,’ she said, shaking his hand.
They sat in awkward silence for a minute or two; he sipped his coffee and she stared at the hot chocolate he’d bought her, wondering what to say.
‘Er… thank you for buying me this drink,’ she finally said.
‘Not at all. It was my fault. And anyway, it’s nice to meet you.’
His expression was warm and sincere. She noticed his blue eyes and became lost in them for a moment. ‘Nice to meet you too,’ she said, blushing when she realised she’d been staring at him. She felt silly getting ideas about this man. He appeared to be in his twenties, whereas she’d soon be forty.
‘I believe in fate, you know, things happening for a reason,’ said Rupert. ‘I think we were meant to meet.’
‘Or I was being clumsy,’ said Julie, a joke to cover up her nerves.
‘No. I was staring at my phone. I have officially become part of the zombie generation who stare at their phones, oblivious to the world around them. I always swore I’d never turn into one of them.’
Julie giggled. ‘I don’t own a smartphone for precisely that reason. I don’t want to get obsessed with it.’
‘It’s easy to get carried away on these things,’ he said, twirling his phone around in his hand as he spoke. ‘But if I hadn’t of been staring at it, I’d never have met you.’
That smile again, and she couldn’t help smiling back.
They chatted for a while and Julie ended up telling him all about her failed marriage; somehow it was easy to talk to him; maybe because he was so far removed from the situation. He revealed that he’d also recently come out of a long-term relationship that hadn’t worked out.
They agreed to meet again that evening for a drink at the local pub.
As they exited the café, Rupert glanced at her and then looked around him.
‘It’s lovely weather today,’ commented Julie.
‘The Great Painter at work,’ he said in reply.
She frowned and he noticed her confusion.
Grinning, he said, ‘I believe there is something bigger than us: a force that more or less steers our lives in certain directions.’
‘Ah, yes, you said you believe in fate.’
‘I call it The Great Painter.’
‘That’s an interesting way to look at it,’ said Julie.
‘I think The Painter did a wonderful job today, bringing us together with the spilt hot chocolate. That was one of his better masterpieces.’ Rupert kissed her on the cheek.
‘See you tonight.’ He waved as he walked away.
Julie made her way home, her mind full of memories of Rupert and dreams of what could be.
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