“Can I help you?” spoke the waitress, sweat sticking a few strands of hair to her forehead.
“Uh, yes – I’m looking for somebody named Alan Carter. I was told he would be here?” replied the woman.
The waitress continued chewing her gum.
“Why do you want to see Alan?”
“I just want to ask him a few questions… I’m interested… I mean, I’ve heard… that he has some interesting stories and that hopefully… he might share them with me”
The waitress’ expression of purposeful interrogation relaxed as she rolled her eyes and switched her attention onto the coffee machine. This suggested that perhaps this wasn’t such an odd question to ask after all.
“Mr Carter will be in by 11. Do me a favour and sit in the corner, any issues and you’ll be out. I’m not having any more problems here”
Marina politely nodded to the now unobservant waitress and retreated to the corner table. She couldn’t understand the emotions she was feeling about meeting Alan. What sort of person was he and would he be willing to talk?
At 10:57 a gangly silhouette appeared by the cloudy windows, wisps of smoke dancing around it every few seconds. At exactly 11 o’clock the shape came to life and in stepped Alan Carter.
He was a slender man, taller than average with pale skin and a wrinkly face. He wore a blue cotton shirt tucked into a smart pair of grey trousers and a well-kept cream Panama hat rested firmly on his head.
“Maam… maam… maam” he said to each waitress, nodding and making clear eye contact. The last waitress tilted her head in the direction of Marina. Alan welcomed a soft smile as he slowly twisted his head towards her. Walking towards the corner, he appeared pleasantly surprised as if seeing an old friend whose name he could not quite remember.
“Alan Arthur Carter, how do you do?” – he spoke in a British accent on his approach.
“Marina – I’m well, thank you”
He was uncertain why she hadn’t offered her full name but didn’t think any more of it.
“And what is it I can do for you, Miss Marina?”
“I’m interested in your stories, Mr Carter. I would like to hear one - from you, in your words”
A distinctive grin ripped its way across Alan’s face – an offer he was occasionally used to receiving and one he thoroughly enjoyed.
“Ah well, that’s fantastic Miss Marina. But do you have the time?” he smiled peculiarly, his tone leaning dangerously towards being flirtatious and seedy.
“And which story are you looking to hear from me today? Let me guess! The Pirate Odyssey train journey in Northern India?... or perhaps the Tibetan monks and the glacial trekking in the early 60’s?... Ahhh, I think it’s the train journey you’re after though, right?”
Mr Carter let out a little cackle as he sat down in the corner chair. A waitress began pouring two cups of coffee as he settled into his surroundings.
“Did the two boys from Cranbrook tell you about me? They did, didn’t they! They listened for hours, they loved all of my stories”
Marina shifted in her seat.
“Mr Carter, I would like you to tell me a different story, one perhaps you’re not very used to telling.”
Alan held his smile.
“And exactly what story would that be, ma dear?”
Marina maintained eye contact with the man who had been with her mother the night she disappeared. He seemed, on first impression, to be an honest and caring man but what was really under the surface of Mr Carter. This had been years of researching, thousands of hours looking for answers in places that remained quiet and from people who remained silent. Marina had grown up an orphan, confused as to why her father was not around and tormented by the vanishing of her loving mother – the one person she had in this world.
“I want you to tell me about the frozen pond.” She said politely.
“I want you to tell me about what happened on the bicycles. I want you to talk me through that day and that night in 1973. I want you to tell me about the woman you met, in the thrift store, my mother”
Mr Carter suppressed the twinges in his facial expression to avoid displaying the shock he was feeling inside. The lingering silence made the corner of the diner a very uncomfortable place to be. He sat back, adjusted his shirt and crossed his legs.
“I was wondering if, when… I would ever meet you” Mr Carter softly replied.
“Marina… what a lovely name. Now that you mention it, I do see her in you. You tilt your head, just like she did, when listening to other people”
Marina felt the pinch in her nose as her eyes began to water. It was so rare to hear someone speak of her mother. Mr Carter turned to the waitress who had appeared to top up their drinks.
“Sarah, ma dear, would you be so kind as to escort me to my locker?” he said.
The waitress paused. She took a break from chewing her gum to look at Mr Carter, then to Marina, before nodding and ushering him to the back door. Mr Carter turned to Marina as he got up out of his seat. He was visibly moved by what was happening. Tears had started to gently trickle down his cheeks and he had somehow lost the energy he had paraded only a few minutes earlier.
“Excuse me, Marina… I’ll be right back”
The two of them vanished through the back door. Marina felt her emotions come to the surface but struggled to pinpoint exactly how she was feeling. Her presence had brought back memories to this man, memories he clearly had held back, locked away in his mind, and now they were swimming around freely to which he seemed very uncomfortable with. The locker, in the back room of a diner, puzzled her also. Why does this man have a locked compartment here? What was in it? Minutes had passed. Her mind raced as she tried to understand what was happening over the clattering of plates and monotonic chatter from late morning customers. But a new sound grew slowly from the faintest decibel to a dominating screech. Sirens.
A convoy of police vehicles skidded to a halt outside the building and in rushed several armed officers barking orders. Marina shot upright to the edge of her seat, clasping the sides of her chair. The back door opened once more and in stepped Mr Carter. He raised his hands and dropped to his knees, abiding by the calls around him. As the officers approached, he turned to Marina but she couldn’t read his expression. He wasn’t smiling anymore, but he didn’t seem sad or angry or scared, he just locked wide, piercing and intimidating eyes with her as long as he could, before being cuffed and dragged out of the diner and into a waiting police car.
The vehicles sped off leaving the customers and Marina in shock about what had just happened. Adrenalin pumped around the diner as loud voices tried to piece together what they had just seen. Through the open back door, Sarah, one of the waitresses, stepped forward. She looked scared and confused and held tightly to a letter. She walked over to the corner and held out her hand.
“He uh… he wanted… he wanted me to give this to you” she said
Marina took the sealed letter. It felt old and appeared dusty and yellowed. The writing on the front read ‘Dear… Marina’ however she could see that her name was in fresh ink. This had been a nameless letter for years until it found its recipient, a few moments ago. Her heart was thumping harder than ever and the years of locked tears began to slide down her cheek. She flipped over the letter to reveal one final clue to its contents, marked on the seal.
‘You have a right to know the truth – but it’s best I’m not around when you read it.’