—She’s a wonderful daughter.
Jo’s mum: Rebecca. An accountant, it turns out. Insists on sharing the pavlova cupcakes with Vita.
—She thinks we’d like her Polish cooking. And we do. Of course. But these pavlova cupcakes, they’re something else again. And these whitebait rolls.
She holds out the dish of whitebait rolls. Garnished with the lemon slices and dill Jo tucked next to them in the cardboard box.
—Look, not fritters. Pancakes. Who’d have thought that whitebait’d be even better if you twirl them in a sharp and sweet wee sauce and then roll them inside tiny pancakes? Here– Try one?
Rebecca can’t believe it when Vita shakes her head. And, get this, she puts down the whitebait rolls and gives Vita a hug. No-one’s hugged Vita for a while. No-one would dare. And now here she is, a little awkward, hugging Rebecca back. And there they are, two elegant strangers, embracing. And Rebecca, understanding something in Vita’s awkwardness, steps back. Reaches out, and smoothes Vita’s hair. On both sides. One. Two. Then picks up the whitebait-roll plate, and turns towards her broadcasting mates.
And that explains, I think, why Vita, who’d had no intention of accepting Jo’s invitation, turns up at Hemingway’s late that Saturday night. She doesn’t like whitebait, that’s true. But the pavlova cupcake seduced her. Where that box of food came from, there’ll be more food she’ll enjoy. Doesn’t need to worry about economising on the set menu, early in the evening. Plenty of cash.
She’s got lonely, after Rebecca’s hug. And soothed a little by Rebecca’s grooming. Lonely and soothed enough to try something more than Something on Toast in the building. Something more than a coffee in a little café.
So she finds Hemingway’s. On its quiet corner in narrow Cuba Street, well away from the bars further down. Across the road from Ziggurat, hmmm, vintage clothes, she’ll be back. She admires Hemingway’s big neon, a little at odds with its classy interior, lots of wood and mirrors, a big bar, some tables, some booths. Comfortable.
It’s Gracie’s fifth day without a smoke (she had to start again from zero). She’s had a good night. Kitchen cranking it out beautifully. Some laughter. Tips rolling in.
So when she sees this quietly stylish woman walk in the door, alone, she has energy left to look after her efficiently—always—and with genuine interest and warmth. Finds her a quiet and cosy corner, that special two-seater-in-the-window-and-often-for-lovers. Where Vita chooses to sit with her back to the wall. Where on her left she can see Cuba Street and everyone who passes the window. And where she can see most people in Hemingway’s directly, or reflected in the big mirror on the opposite wall.
Gracie asks about an apertif.
—No thanks. Just water, please.
Gracie brings some water, hands Vita a menu, and leaves her to it.
Vita chooses quickly. Soup. Two puddings. Fuck it. Sophisticated comfort food.
And sits there, watching people out on the street. Sees Tai and a friend hovering, looking at someone in Hemingway’s. Turns her head and looks where they look. Sees a familiar face she can’t place. Sees the familiar face see Tai, turn quickly away to his companion.
Sees Tai’s friend laugh and roll his eyes at Tai. Sees the man with the face she can’t place speak urgently to his companion, as the companion lifts a fork to his mouth. And as the companion turns his head, very slightly, to glance out the window from the corner of his eye, Vita recognises him. And is shocked. She looks back quickly, at Tai and his friend. They’re gone.
The familiar guy reads an incoming text. Replies with a two-letter word. His companion, whose presence shocks Vita, watches the texting. Gives a little inward smile.
Gracie approaches to take Vita’s order. Sees the tail end of her shock. Gracie waits, and watches Vita quietly swap chairs, so the two men can’t see her.
What’s that about? Gracie has an enormous soft spot for Firefly Jones, the great big forward with the shattered shoulder, with his easy grin, his sharp mind and his business head. He’s OK without his other mates (including that fuckwit-with-the-elbow). And this mate, some English guy, really knows about food.
Vita’s nauseous again. She doesn’t want reminders of that ‘home’; she’s escaped: seven hours to Dubai, eighteen hours to Sydney, three hours to Auckland, one hour to Wellington. Why would HE make this long trip? What’s HE doing here, in a little restaurant on Cuba Street? Hemingway’s is good, but no better than he’s used to, he hasn’t come all this way for the food. And who’s that other guy? Why’s he familiar?
The waitperson—Gracie—brings the soup. Vita takes a sip: a sharpish seafood broth, with lots of little greens. Heaven. But her mind’s racing, and she slurps the soup at mind-speed; after that first mouthful she doesn’t taste a thing.
In the kitchen, all the main course orders are done. Jo’s on a breather. To distract herself from the tobacco at the back of her locker she watches young Finn put an early summer pudding on the pass and finish a crème brulée. A peaceful, satisfying moment, until Gracie rocks up.
—They just left. Another big tip. Firefly rules–
Vita, doodling in her diary (on this side of the world she’s reverted to paper) hears male footsteps behind her, hears the external door open and shut. Looks out the window (now on her right side), sees two backs, turns round (discreetly), checks their table, and confirms they’re gone.
Finn pushes the crème brulee across the pass. Gracie mouths to Jo.
—Soup-and-two-desserts. Passive-aggressive dieter? Though she ate the bread.
Jo comes round the pass. (It’s late, Norman’s out the back, and she’s curious.) And watches Gracie deliver the desserts. She sees Vita’s back, sees her turn her head and smile up at Gracie. It’s HER. She dashes back inside the kitchen and fumbles under the counter for a clean apron.
Vita thanks Gracie. Makes a decision.
—These look terrific. Can I ask you something?
—That really big guy, who just left. I’m not from here– But he looks familiar. Is he famous?
Well, get Gracie started.
—That’s Firefly. Firefly Jones. The All Black. Well, used to be.
She takes a deep breath, ready to tell everything she knows. Vita sighs inside, of course, of course.
And Jo arrives, stands herself directly opposite Vita. Vita with her untouched comfort puddings and her red Moleskine diary. Jo looks at Vita, so composed, so quietly elegant, and can’t find the casual words she intended. She blurts.
Gracie notes Jo’s clean apron. Her warm smile broadens. Now where has THIS come from?
—Wonderful soup. Yours? I was hoping for a pavlova cupcake to follow–
Gracie gets it. This is HER. Please, please, ask Jo to take a seat.
The external door opens. Maître d’bitch, well-fuelled from a quick trip down the road. Gracie scarpers to finish cleaning Firefly’s table.
Jo mistakes polite response for interest. For a moment.
—Not on the menu.
Jo hovers a little. Vita doesn’t notice Jo’s clean apron. Doesn’t really notice Jo. She wants Gracie’s information.
Jo backs away.
—Come back– Try…
She’s thinking of the whitebait. Whitebait and pavlova seem to go together. No, of course they don’t, except as ‘local delicacies’. But Rebecca said this woman doesn’t like whitebait. Even in her head she’s blurting. OK, fall back on the clichés.
—Try everything. Anything– You know us. Everything sourced here. The best of Aotearoa New Zealand. Perfectly prepared, with inspiration from around the globe.
All cleaned up in their sharpest gear, and nowhere better to go, Tai and his mate Sam take a break at Kenny’s. Kenny’s in Courtenay Place. The little worker café, with colourful stripper ads on the placemats. Warm. Cheap. And close to their places of business. They’re cleaning up plates of eggs and toast. Tea on the side. They’re glum.
Ivan*, in feral mode, slides onto a chair next to Sam.
—Thought you were out somewhere special?
—Fuck off. (A duet.)
—Now, now. Be nice. Where’d you be without me?
—Not here, that’s for sure. (Tai.)
—He SAID it’d be all good. Awesome, he said. And his friend said NO. (Sam.)
—He is my friend. I can stay there any time I like.
Ivan raises an eyebrow.
—I bet. And he shuffles you under the bed when his mates come round for a beer. Or the suits come over for a drink. Brings you out with the white powder, for special guests.
Tai pushes his chair back.
—Fuck you both.
And off he goes.
If you look for Kenny’s Cafe, you won’t find it. Gone now. Broke my heart, and I wrote about it here.
*(Ivan from the very first instalment, remember him?)