Despite the vague description of the message, Dr Thomas Wang thought that he had reached the right place. The café was a small independent building out of red bricks, with all the frames of its windows and doors painted white. A small blackboard hanging on the wall had been wiped out of content, although obviously not with much care, for remnants of white chalk still left on it, having yet replaced by any of today’s daily specials. Before it stood a young waiter, who was checking a little notebook in his hand while whistling a lively tune with pursed lips. And he seemed delighted to see, in all likelihood, his first customer of the day.
‘Good morning,’ said the doctor in a low voice, adding little more to reciprocate the waiter’s warm and lengthy morning greetings. Thomas quickly ordered his coffee, grabbed a number plate, and went to sit at one of the outside tables. The winter’s cool morning air chilled him. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and heavy fog surrounded the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the other side of the bay. He had thought about taking a walk around the Opera House first, but the possibility of missing the woman he meant to see deterred him. So he stayed where he was, wrapping his coat more tightly around himself, and refused to get inside as kindly suggested by the waiter when he brought him his coffee.
Halfway through his second cup, Thomas made out the young woman he was waiting for from a distance. She seemed to have caught sight of him too and was approaching him with steady steps.
But who was she indeed? Thomas was unable to confirm her identity until she was closer. He raised one arm and waved, at which she only nodded as a way of acknowledgement. Or was it a nodding at all? Could it have actually been an illusion of his mind, given the long distance, the fog, and the slight up-and-downs in her gait? He didn’t know. The distance between them was still too long for him to stand up and greet her, so he decided to pass the awkward time in between by lowering his head and sipping some coffee. However, to his own disappointment, he stood up too soon all the same, at a point where the immediate thought of sitting down again struck him as hardly more ridiculous.
The young woman didn’t order anything and sat straight before him across the table. Her pale-blue eye shadow was now recognisable, maybe even more conspicuous than he had seen before, and her direct gaze aggravated his uneasiness. Thomas sat back down, they exchanged some wordless greetings, and, reassured of the futility of trying to order something for her, he brought up the main point of this meeting, in a more or less quivering voice:
‘So,’ he said, ‘it’s you? You’re behind all this, aren’t you?’
‘I wouldn’t put it like that myself,’ said the young woman.
‘So you’re not denying it. Where is she, then?’
The young woman didn’t say anything to the doctor’s question. Instead she looked at him in a strange way, as if, with her big, green eyes, she was actually trying to convey rather than hide something there.
‘Why’re you looking at me like that?’ asked Thomas. ‘Haven’t you promised to explain everything?’
‘Well,’ she said, pulling a pack of cigarettes from her handbag, took one out, and lit it.
‘What is there to explain,’ she finally said, blowing a mouthful of smoke to her side, ‘except what you’ve already known?’
‘There’s everything to explain. I know nothing about you. I didn’t even know you smoked.’
‘Oh Thomas,’ said the young woman, shaking her head a little, ‘naturally there must be many things you still don’t know about me, but whether I smoke or not is probably the least important one among them. Now tell me, Doctor, what do you intend to achieve out of this little conversation? Well, you needn’t answer that. I know. A great love is lost, in fact many other things are on the verge of being lost as well, and you want to know the reason behind it, an answer to all the questions. But you want it too hard, my dear, that, gradually, before you know it, you become obsessed with it, you lose control of yourself, and your curiosity now has become your worst enemy. That I can imagine, and perhaps, well sympathise. But the truth,’ she paused here to blow some smoke. ‘The truth, sometimes, is much less complicated or mysterious than you think, and more, how should I put it, tasteless. That’s right, plain and tasteless, not worth telling, or that one would even feel ashamed to reveal it to another person, not because there’s something shameful in it, but simply for its foolishness, lack of artistry, and worthlessness. So, Thomas, you would be very disappointed if I were to tell you the whole truth. However, it’s not for your sake at all that I must refrain from giving you any answer; it is entirely for the consideration of myself, out of my own selfishness, although the fundamental reason for not telling is the same. And for that you must forgive me.’
‘Why are you telling me all this?’ asked Thomas, more confused than ever, ‘what could it possibly mean? Can’t you simply tell me: Who are you?’
‘In fact,’ she said, ‘I think you’ve already known the answer. You are looking at it now.’
‘I don’t really understand.’
‘Perhaps you will, eventually.’ And at this, she rose and made her way to leave.
‘But you promised!’ shouted Thomas, failing to keep his excited voice under control. The waiter, too, was startled by such a loud cry, nearly dropped a glass he had been polishing, and was drawn to look in his way. Much agitated and standing up, Thomas fixed his eyes on the young woman’s retreating back, who paused for a moment at the doctor’s exasperation, flicked some ash off her cigarette, and then went on her way without so much as a slight turn of her head.
Step after step, the young woman went away and disappeared, either into the distance or the fog. Greatly disappointed, Thomas remained at his table, now and then taking a glance at the fog-shrouded Harbour Bridge, and was lost in thought. What did she really want? The question still perplexed him. His memories about her, for some reason or another, appeared vaguer and more scattered than he would wish to admit. Countless images were flashing through his mind in a chaotic order, as if the sole purpose of their existence was to show their very lack of meaning. And yet, out of these memories something did emerge, a thread that was intangible, out of reach, but leading somewhere, or rather a charming voice, chanting and murmuring, telling him that he was almost there, and all he should do was to keep on searching, even at the cost of losing himself further in the process.