My grandfather’s death had left me feeling alone. It had left me feeling as if I was truly the most alone person in the world. But at that time of my life, I also saw people around pull through for me. Romanoff had stood next to me as the doctor gave me the news. His wife Diana had come over in the next hour with enough food to last me a week. And when I broke down in tears, she held me tightly until I had cried myself to sleep. Over the years, Romanoff became the closest thing I had to a father figure. He was an invaluable person and in times of great difficulty, he was a source of desperately needed inspiration.
“Do you believe in the supernatural, Romanoff?”We were having a hot breakfast of tea and buttered bread, at a café near Romanoff’s bookstore. Last night’s storm had cleared, but there was still a cool wind blowing. I had woken up quite early the next day, and dropped in on him just as he was opening the doors to his shop. My black eye immediately got his attention. “Pfft, the law. I’m going to talk to Leonardt’s father and tell him to speed the process up. I used to tutor that boy.” I wasn’t sure if he was speaking about Leonardt or his father. Romanoff was at least seventy-years old. He had grey hair and a grey beard covering half of his round face. He had two loves- his wife and books. Very importantly, Romanoff was also a close friend of my grandfather, and that is how I knew him. His visits to the house cheered up the atmosphere. When Romanoff laughed, the world laughed with him. His smile was said to make even the depressing Hades momentarily lose his eternally present scowl. His hearty laugh could be heard a mile away and was instantly recognisable. His wife died a few months after my grandfather passed away, severely affecting his carefree demeanour, making his laughter disappear. Over the years, he regained his old, happy sort but sometimes I could see the sadness in his eyes.
“You mean ghosts and vampires?”
“Well, maybe not vampires. But yes, I suppose ghostly creatures,”
“Yes, I do. Did you ever feel an eerie sort of presence in your house?”
I thought about what he had said. I used to feel that way about my childhood home sometimes. Our house was an experiment and an attempt, grandfather called it, to retain the beauty of the original period before ideas changed, he said, and still have a most distinct-looking house by successfully blending different architecture style periods. It was modelled in the usual gothic fashion with alterations done by way of Romanesque architecture- by adding a round tower, placing an emphasis on pedimented windows and doors, and Palladian-styled balconies; giving the house quite a distinct and still, a foreboding look. But then again, the whole town had been strangely modelled after gothic style architecture. I had grown up in a strange household. Strange always seemed familiar.
“The whole house was strange. I often felt he made the atmosphere that way,” This was my anger speaking. It had been two years since he had died, but the memory of his death was still fresh in my mind. To my annoyance, Romanoff picked this immediately. “Robin, you need to accept what’s happened. Sometimes bad things happen.”
I didn’t want to make eye contact, so I concentrated on drawing imaginary lines on the saucer. “I know.”
“Until you resolve these feelings of anger and confusion, you will never be at peace with yourself. Your grandfather died, and it left you feeling abandoned for a very long time. It’s understandable. I saw it. And as your friend, it was heartbreaking to see that I couldn’t help you much. But now it kills me to see that you are still holding on to it so many years later”
“Grief doesn’t have a deadline,” I muttered, darkly. It was too early in the day to be discussing death.
“This isn’t grief. It’s anger. Anger stems from unmet expectations. And this anger of yours will hurt you and the people you meet along the way,” He sighed, “It will leave you feeling bitter for a very, very long time.” There was sadness and disappointment in the tone of his voice, and when I finally looked up, the look in his eyes confirmed them.
And he was right, of course, but affirming all that he had said meant having to face the past, and everything along with it. I wasn’t ready to have that discussion with myself yet, there was too many other things on my mind. “Let’s talk about my grandfather another time,” Why did he have to keep following me in every conversation?
“So, how’s your health?” I pumped up.
“Comme ci, comme ça,” He sighed, again. I wasn’t sure if it was because of my not so subtle change of subject or because of the subject itself. Either way, it was best not to ask.
“You know it would probably be better if you didn’t drown your bread in so much butter,”
“I have lived my life with no regrets, my friend, but having to experience your poor sense of sarcasm may very soon break my record.”
Romanoff could not tell me much about the supernatural world, but told me to meet him at his house later that day to “provide resources that could.” After my breakfast, I headed off to the Cotidiana. I had to face Marcus sometime. I didn’t know if anyone had informed Marcus about my ditching yesterday, all the same I decided it was best to stay low. Right at the entrance, I bumped into Lanvin. He almost had fits when he saw my swollen eye.
“Monsieur Robin, where were you- oh my goodness! Your eye! What happened?”
“It’s nothing. I just…” I trailed off. I was really bad at lying. I didn’t know how to lie. “I…ran into a wall.” Inward, I rolled my eyes at myself.
“Walls don’t give black eyes Monsieur Robin. People do,” Lanvin narrowed his eyes. He was at an innocent age but he was also observant and picked up on my hesitation quickly, “At the very least, you must allow my mother to have a look at it. Her medicine will make it heal quicker,”
Lanvin’s mother was a medicine woman. She was unarguably one of the most frequented in the town. Despite that, poverty was a frequent friend in their house. I had never met her.
“Okay, okay. I have to go now. Is Marcus around?” Lanvin replied in the negative and after some more deliberations on his part regarding the severity of my injury, he allowed me to leave and I was seated on my desk once again.
The Cotidiana was situated in a two-story building. The first floor was where I sat. This was where all the writing, copy-editing, arguments and ideas poured in. The entire floor was a single, shabby, large square room with at least thirty, brown desks and chairs. It smelled perpetually of stale coffee and cigarette smoke. Light poured in through stained windows filling the room with a golden tint. The ground floor consisted of Marcus’s office, almost half of the top floor, as well as a rest room, a small kitchen and an adjacent lunch room. Less than fifty people were actually employed by the newspaper agency. Gratia was small and somedays there was no new news.
I could feel my colleagues glare from across the room, but he himself was nowhere to found. All in all, it was an uneventful day at work which gave me time to think about the past few days’ events. Who were my attackers? Gratia was a small town, and everybody mostly knew each other. In that case, it should not take the police too long to track them down. What had they meant by “It’s not him”? Who were they looking for? What if they were professional assassins. A lump formed in my throat. I quickly dismissed the thought, they seemed too young for that. Why me? Was it random? I don’t exactly have the most coveted job, no family, and little prospects. Who had they been looking for? I didn’t want to raise suspicions by asking around town too much, so I just had to be a bit careful whom to ask.
My mind was overrun with so many thoughts. I wanted to meet Romanoff so he could give me the resources he had told me about. At the same time, I also wanted to forget the previous day’s happenings. I wanted to forget the attack. I wanted to forget the book that had landed in my hands. And most of all, I wanted to forget what Romanoff had said to me about the events following my grandfather’s death.
The misery has been overwhelming…
But I was also so impatient to know of the origins of the book. The acquiring of the book had been mysterious enough. I made a mental reminder to ask Romanoff about the origins of Gratia’s library.
As I sat in the dingy office, I couldn’t recall the last time I had ever been so conflicted. Actually, now that I think about it, I could. It had been at the lawyer’s office after he told me that my recently-deceased caregiver had left me, his only living relative, with almost no monetary support. The following months, I had struggled to come to terms with the fact that perhaps my grandfather had not hated me the entire time that I had lived with him.
Marcus’s colleagues took advantage of his absence by piling some of their work on me, which I welcomed. It distracted me from my gloomy thoughts. At the strike of five’o clock, I was headed out of the doorway when I noticed Lanvin standing on the pavement, watching Kinwa wistfully eyeing Meka’s emptier stall.
“Monsieur Robin, I was afraid you might have forgotten that we were to see my mother for your eye, so I decided to finish early and wait for you here,”
I felt a pang of guilt hitting me. I had been hoping he had forgotten so I could meet Romanoff earlier.
“I’m sorry. I had forgotten. Let’s go now.”
Lanvin led the way through the Square. He walked fast, skilfully dodging desperate vendors selling the day’s leftover stale produce. He took the turn past Vie des Amours, a flower shop, and stepped onto Vesuvius alley. I followed him through a maze of smaller passageways. At each turn, the path gradually inclined downward. The alleys got narrower and lesser sunlight seeped in from the edges of the walls. This was a reflection of the poorer part of Gratia that Lanvin lived in. Perhaps thirty minutes passed by- the most that had ever taken me to go from one place to another in the town- until Lanvin finally stopped and entered through a gothic, pointed arched, heavy iron door.
“Mama, I’m home,” Lanvin called out. There was no response. I looked around. We were standing in dimly lit room containing a large, tattered dark blue sofa, and a round, unfinished wooden table. The walls were painted in a dark brown colour, poorly, and black tiling ran throughout the room. Several other doors lined the room. All of them were unsophisticatedly designed, gothic arched heavy-looking iron doors- all except for one which was a plain, translucent cloth, leading to what looked like a kitchen. There were some paintings hung around the room, all seeming to belong to one artist, who may have lazily splattered different oil colours onto the canvas. Neatly organised piles of books on the floor covered one corner of the room.
A young woman suddenly emerged from under the cloth. She had long, dark, curly hair, and defined facial features giving her face a very angular look. She was dressed in a long, dark green gown, and was clutching a book in one hand, and crumpled pieces of paper in another.
“Darling! I was able to buy bread today- who’s this?” Ms. Monet gave me a warm smile as she approached me. I opened my mouth to introduce myself when she spoke again, “Oh, of course. You’re his grandson. How could I not recognise you. How are you, Robin?”
“Very well, thank you, Ma’am,” How did she know my name?
“I won’t agree, judging by the looks of your eye. Lanvin, could you please fetch me a jar of exstirpo and some doloremminuit,” She stared at me, expressionless, still holding onto her books and papers.
“Ma’am, that is hardly necessary-”
“Why would I allow a friend of my son’s to suffer unnecessary discomfort?” She set her books aside, and took the jars that Lanvin had retrieved from inside the room separated by the cloth. “Exstirpo will decrease the swelling, and the doloremminuit will lessen the pain. You can mix both the medicines if you wish,” She sat down on the sofa and wrapped them in brown paper and then motioned for me to take them from the table.
I fished around for money in my pockets. “How much do-”
Lanvin interrupted me immediately, “Oh, don’t be silly, Monsieur Robin. Do you think I brought you here to make a sale?”
“And I insist not. You are a guest, Robin,” Lanvin’s mother got up, and started heading back inside where she had come out from. “Now, why don’t you stay for some dinner? We haven’t got any meat but…” She stopped in her tracks as she trailed off; and turned around to face me again. I wondered if she was suddenly regretting inviting me for dinner. She had been only minutes ago talking about just having obtained bread for the day. I felt that was not a most frequent occurrence in the house. Above all, I had never experienced this sort of difficulty.
She was about to speak again, but I immediately interrupted her, “I beg your leave. I have a scheduled meeting with somebody else as of this hour,” Lanvin’s face fell, but his mother’s stayed expressionless. It wasn’t stone-cold, but it was expression-less. I spoke quickly again, “I would love to join you, at another time, of course!”
Lanvin burst out laughing, upon which his mother burst into a good-natured smile as she heard her young son laughing. We gathered to leave, and as I followed Lanvin out the door, I heard Ms. Monet softly say, “I couldn’t know if the stars looked down favourably upon your grandson,” Confused, I turned around to ask her what she was talking about, but the room was empty once more.