Part 1- Sam
As much as I despise looking at myself in the mirror, on this occasion, I force myself to. Not for long. But long enough. In the interest of making sure I am immaculate. As silly as it may sound to some, I'd really like to impress Ella here. After all, it is as Dr. Murray said, she may be able to help me.
Begrudgingly, I look myself up and down, frowning as I make a few adjustments, tugging at the end of my mid length dress so it sits straight on both sides. Then I reach to pull at the sleeves, making sure they sit equally on both arms, finishing just below the elbow. Again, I take a quick look up and down. I nod and a small smile replaces the earlier frown. I even let out a laugh as my eyes reach their reflection in the mirror and I realise the irony of my outfit's colouring. My dress is an earthy lime green with white detailing. I bend down, somewhat gracefully and run the tassels hanging from my long, brown coloured, American Indian inspired flat boots, through my fingers. I straighten and wince as I take one last, quick look at myself in the mirror. My long, shiny jet black hair is set in place with a clip pinning it up a little on one side, but otherwise loose. My smile widens as I close the wardrobe door, hiding the mirror once more, before turning on my heel to leave.
A smile stuck across my lips, I walk slowly up the gravel strewn path to the coffeehouse, taking everything in as I go. I didn't notice the last time I came in that the pedestrian's path leading up to the coffeehouse entrance is lined with trees on both sides. You can faintly see the vast rainbow of flowers of the coffeehouse grounds from here, though it just looks like a blur of colour from where I stand.
After taking a breath, I step inside. A warm gust of air rushes over me and envelopes me in it's embrace.
"Hello Dear," says the older woman I remember from the last time I was here. Her short dark hair is speckled with hints of silvery grey and her eyes are a bright, glittering lime green. My gaze immediately falls to the ground. "Dear," she says again, and I look up at her from beneath my eyelashes.
"Hello," I say at last, my voice so quiet the lady leans in close to hear.
I straighten up, forcing myself to look her in the eye as she speaks. "Just yourself today, Dear?" she asks.
"No," I say quickly, "no, no. I'm meeting someone here."
"Oh alright dear."
"I'm probably early."
"Not at all!" comes a high, bright voice. I turn around to see Ella walking toward us in a long, flowing midnight blue dress, arms spread wide. "You're right on time! I'm glad you made it!" She closes the gap between us quickly and hugs me in greeting. "Hello," she says with a beaming smile, nodding at the older woman.
"Alright, I'll get you two lovely ladies a table," The woman bustles around, expertly grabbing a couple of menus from their holder with practiced ease. "Follow me please," she says, brushing past us as she leads the way into the restaurant. We follow her through a maze of tables before we reach ours, at the front of the room, near the stage.
"Where's John?" I ask when we are seated and the old woman has wandered away to attend to other people, not used to seeing Ella by herself.
"He won't be far away," says Ella, beginning to look around a little. "He handles my gear for me."
"I like to play acoustic here, so, there's a bit of stuff I need to bring with me. John's being kind enough to take care of it for me," she says.
The old lady returns, a worried expression on her face. "Were you expecting someone else, Ella?" she asks. Ella is looking around the crowded coffeehouse again. Her eyes darting left, right, back and forth. Finally, she focuses on the lady in front of us. "Yes," she says, "my partner."
"Of course," says the woman and hurries away. Ten minutes later she returns, proffering an extra chair. "Oh, it's ok, Ma," she says. "When I go up for my set, John can take my chair."
"Ma?" I ask in a whisper. Ella glances at me and lets out a laugh. "Oh, Samantha! I'm sorry! How inconsiderate of me. Ma, I'd like you to meet Samantha,"
"Sam," I say with a smile, nodding at the woman.
"Sam," Ella corrects herself with her usual smile in place, "this is my mother."
I rise from my chair and offer my hand to the old woman. "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Winslow." Her cheeks turn a very bright shade of pink.
"Please," she says, "You can call me Annie." I nod, returning to my seat.
Ella's mother takes our order before disappearing once more. When she's gone, I lean closer to Ella across the table. "Your mother owns this place?" I ask breathlessly.
Ella nods. "My mother has always loved cooking and Papa loves the garden."
"Your mother is out here though."
"Yes, she often precooks when the coffeehouse is not open so that she can be up here with the people. She loves people, and she likes to oversee everything up here and how it's all run." Ella's smile spreads as she looks around at the coffeehouse. "It's just as they always wanted," she says dreamily, returning to meet my gaze. "Lots of happy people in a homely atmosphere." I smile along with Ella at the images that puts in my head, of family, all gathered together. A house that over the years has been made into a home…
"So," I say eventually. The both of us had been daydreaming a long while, only snapping from the trance when our meals arrive. "Why me?"
Ella looks up from her plate at me, wide eyed. "What do you mean, 'why me'?"
"Why did you want to meet up with me?"
"Does there have to be a reason Sam?" she asks, a little snappy.
"No," I say quietly, sinking a little lower in my chair as my gaze falls onto my plate. "I'm sorry Ella. It's just that I…" Suddenly I recall something Dr. Murray had once told me; think before you speak. "I don't go out much," I say, "with other people."
Sympathy floods Ella's face. "Well, you're more than welcome to come watch me more often," she says, "or come here. Wander the gardens, whatever you like."
I sigh. "I do quite like it here," I say. "It seems like some sort of paradise out in the grounds."
Ella's face lights up. "Have you been through the maze?" she asks animatedly.
"I'll take that as a no," says Ella, her face falling slightly.
"I didn't have much of a chance to explore last time I was here. I'd love to look around more though."
Ella's smile has returned. "Oh you'll love it!"
I jump as I notice John approaching and find myself tensing up
involuntarily as he places his hands on Ella's shoulders. She looks up at him, her smile widening. "Hey," she says in a whisper as he leans in to kiss her. "I was wondering where you'd got to!"
"I'd never go far," he says softly. "Besides, I could never pass up the opportunity to hear my beautiful nightingale sing." She laughs, perhaps embarrassed, perhaps relishing in the compliment, I'm not sure. As I watch the exchange, I feel the familiar green feeling slowly filling me within, though I smile at the two of them. So sweet, so in love.
"John, you remember Sam," says Ella, forcing me from my daydream.
"Hello Sam," says John gruffly, extending his hand and I jump at the sound of his voice. A shock, as I don't know that I've ever really heard him speak before, let alone more than one word Rising a little from my seat, I reach out to shake his hand before falling heavily back in to the chair.
"John will keep you company while I do my set," she says. "Right honey?" Ella turns to him and I roll my eyes a little behind her back as she bats her lashes at him. Luckily for me, the two of them seem only to have eyes for each other. From where he stands, John squeezes Ella's shoulders. She reaches up and touches a delicate, pale hand to his tanned one, her green eyes meeting his piercing blue. "Speaking of which," he says, "you'd probably best get sorted."
"Right." As she rises, she turns, meeting his lips. For them, the world around ceases to exist for a few minutes. I swear I hear her whisper, "be nice" in his ear before they break apart and she approaches me. She leans down and brushes my arm lightly with her icy fingertips, offering a smile. "Don't be afraid to sing along with me if you want to," she says, "I've always been fond of your voice." With that, she straightens, heading for the stage. I blush at her words. Opposite me, John has slipped easily into the seat Ella has vacated. He folds his arms, a frown seemingly plastered onto his otherwise handsome face. "You probably want to turn your chair round," he says in the same gruff tone as before.
"Right," I say and get up. I lean over, with my bottom sticking high up in the air as I take the chair and move it round to face the stage, upon which Ella is now making herself at home. Satisfied, I put the chair down with a thump before turning it a little on an angle, so I do not have my back to John completely.
As I look around, I see that the small coffeehouse is slowly filling to capacity. Annie is busily weaving around tables as she leads groups of people to their seats and bustles about taking orders. She is fairly short, I realise, turning my gaze back to Ella, though I suppose she is not often without high heels which makes her seem taller.
On the stage, Ella is settling into the stool. Gracefully, she leans over and picks up the big, sandy coloured acoustic guitar that had been propped up against the side of the stool for her. Straightening, she rests it gently on her lap and begins strumming it softly, making adjustments and tuning it where needed. Finally she settles. Her hazel eyes are searching, for us, I realise as she finds us and winks once, offering a smile, which I return. Her beautiful, long, flowing, wavy hair is a dark shade of brown, so deep a shade that it could almost be black.
Ella begins to tap the microphone lightly with her long, perfectly manicured amethyst coloured nail in an effort to gain the attention of the room. On cue, the background music slowly dies down until the room is so quiet that you could hear a cricket chirping. One by one, people notice the change in atmosphere and turn to face Ella on the stage at the front of the room. We are greeted by one of those huge, bright smiles that I've come to know as customary. "Welcome," she says, leaning forward slightly, "and thank you for coming." I sneak a quick glance at John. His eyes are fixed on Ella, as if he's been hypnotised. He is not moving a single muscle. If it weren't for the tiny movement of his chest with his breath, he would be a statue. He's so still it's eerie. All his attention, all his focus, is on her, and I can't help but hope that one day, someone will look at me like that. That around us, the world will cease to exist.
I let out a small, awed sigh and turn my attention back to Ella. Just in time too, as she starts strumming the guitar, slowly, softly, to begin the first song of her set. I close my eyes as I listen. I seem to be able to hear her voice clearer this way and I'm able to pay closer attention to it. Though high pitched and a little nasally, Ella's voice is heavenly. It contains a power and strength within it that brings me up and fills me with hope, aided by the encouraging themes and empowering lyrics of the songs she sings. Each lyric, each word, each note is sung with a careful precision and the song could not be clearer. I am lost completely in another world, my only connection to reality being Ella's voice and the beautiful music it makes.
A smile spreads across my lips as the next song starts. Without even realising it, I start swaying along to the music. I open my eyes and watch Ella for a while as she sings, and before long, I am singing right along with her. I am quite content singing along, and Ella does not appear to be bothered by it, so I jump at the sound of a cough behind me.
His muscular frame is tensed tightly, his arms crossed firmly over his chest. One hand is reached up to cover his mouth as he coughs. Slowly, he lowers it as he clears his throat, sweeping his sandy coloured fringe from his eyes as he does so. "Is something wrong, John?" I ask, forcing the smile to remain on my face, even though my instincts all tell me to give him some sort of death glare. Other instincts, however, tell me that this would be a very unwise idea indeed.
John opens and closes his mouth several times. His blue-eyed, steely gaze is trained unnervingly on me. The only thing still hardened, it would seem. One last determined attempt to stand his ground and not crumble under my unexpected response.
"Yes?" I ask after a moment, annoyed at his persistent staring.
"Do you really think you should be doing that?" he asks finally in his usual gruff tone.
"Why not?" I ask. "Ella usually welcomes people singing along with her."
"Humph," says John grumpily after a short while of silence, his gaze shifting back to Ella. I stare at him for a minute longer before I too follow his gaze.
I continue to watch Ella uninterrupted, being sure to make a point of humming along quietly to myself.
"Alright," she says, smile wide after she's played another few songs, "I'm going to take a short break now, and I'll come back for more in a little while." Immediately, the room is filled with chatter as Ella sets the guitar gently back on the ground, settling it against the stool before rising and descending down the stairs, headed in the direction of John and I. Her fingers brush along my arm as she passes, eyes on John.
I turn to watch the exchange. His smile widens as she approaches, reaching his eyes and lighting them up. He extends his arms and she clasps her hands loosely around his neck. Smiling, she swirls around, sitting on his knee. He'd turned his chair a little outwards. They lean closer. Their foreheads are pressed together and they are both smiling at one another. For a few minutes, they sit like that, just looking at each other. He closes the gap and kisses her lips lightly before they completely pull apart.
Caught up in watching the lovebirds, I didn't notice Annie approaching, chair in hand. Carefully, she sets it down just as Ella stands and wanders away again without a word. As if on cue, Ella turns round after her, turning back a moment later, shaking her head. "Gee she's good!" she says, reaching for the glass of water John had set in front of her and settling back in the new chair. Allowing her head to fall back, she raises the glass to her lips and drains much of it before setting it down on the table again. "Ah," she says, dabbing at her mouth with a napkin. "That's better!"
Finally, she turns to me. "Enjoying it so far Sam?" she asks. John is edging closer in his chair, placing a protective arm around her shoulders. I want to raise an eyebrow at that. Really?
"Yes," I say, "you have a beautiful voice Ella." Ella blushes in response.
"She's right honey," says John softly. "You're a siren you know."
"I thought I was a nightingale," she says playfully, turning again to look at him.
"You're a siren and a nightingale," he says.
"Sam, I have a little proposition for you," says Ella, turning back to me.
"How would you like to sing with me at the end of the next set?"
Immediately, I feel myself sink lower in my chair "Oh, I don't know about that Ella…" My cheeks grow warm.
Concern floods Ella's face. "Why not?" she asks, "are you nervous? Scared? Shy?"
"All of the above," I say in a whisper.
"I'd really like it if you would Sam," says Ella. "Please? Just one song? I can pick a short one. An easy one."
I say nothing for a time. "Oh, ok. But a short easy one. And just one." I say quickly.
"Deal," Ella says, her bright smile returned. I glance at John, sure I just heard him make some sort of disapproving noise. He looks back at me, his face emotionless.
Ella's next set seems to fly by, and soon, Ella stops. A hush falls over the room. "I have just one song left in me for today," she says, "and I have someone really special I'd like to join me for this one." Her eyes find me easily in the crowd and she smiles. "Sam, would you like to come up here with me?" It feels as if everyone's eyes have turned to me and I start to tremor. I sit motionlessly, wordlessly, for a few seconds before rising slowly to my feet. I take a deep breath before starting toward the stage. One foot in front of the other. I grab the rail for dear life, leaning on it heavily as I pull myself up the stairs.
Magically, a stool and microphone have been set up beside Ella on the stage. Forcing a smile onto my face, I walk the short distance to the vacant stool and sink onto it. I gulp as I look up and see the amount of people in this room, and begin tremoring again. I feel Ella's hand on my knee. I look over to meet her gaze, and she smiles warmly. I nod once. She turns to face the crowd again. I try to follow her lead, but cannot quite bring myself to do so. She opens her mouth and starts to sing. I try hard not to laugh as I realise what the song is. I search for John in the crowd and take a quick look at him. His gaze sails straight past me, fixed intently on Ella, who gives me a small nudge. I look back at her, wide eyed. She simply smiles and nods, not missing a single note as she does so.
"s.. s.. sing.." I try to join in, more speaking than singing. "s.. sw.. sweet… n.. n.. nightingale," I try again in a whisper. Luckily for me, Ella's voice is a lot stronger, a lot clearer and a lot more powerful than mine is, and thankfully drowns mine out a little. But not completely, I realise as I spot a few people sniggering, which only serves to worsen my shaking. In the end, I sit beside Ella silently, accompanying her on the easiest parts of the song.
As soon as she's completed her usual sign off, Ella turns to face me, giving my knee a few pats. "I'm proud of you Sam," she says, causing my cheeks to warm. "I could tell it was really hard for you. Thank you for pushing yourself."
"That's ok," I say, my voice shaking as I try to return her bright smile with a weak one of my own. "Ch… challenges are g.. good.. s.. sometimes." Ella simply nods. Climbing down from my stool, I help Ella get her guitar into her case. We are both leaning over it, positioned on the ground when the sound of footsteps makes me look up. Towering above us is John. He does not acknowledge me but looks straight at Ella, who is quickest to regain her composure. A faint smile spreads across his lips. He extends his hand, crouching down into a squat between us, in front of the closed guitar care. "Here Sweetie," he says, "let me get that." Ella rolls the guitar case easily onto it's side. John reaches out, dragging it toward him and rises steadily, the case's handle gripped firmly in his hand. He offers his free arm, and she loops an arm through his, allowing him to lead her from the stage. I follow along behind them, a lost puppy desperate to keep view of the one familiarity in the otherwise confusing place.
Ella turns to me once again as we reach the table. "Thanks for coming today, Sam," she says, John still right by her side. I allow my gaze to sweep over him. Couldn't you maybe… step back a few paces? Give her some space? You don't have to be joined at the hip all the time you know… "I really enjoyed your company," Ella says, bringing me back to Earth.
I offer a weak smile, "Yeah, I had fun. Even if there was a fair bit of bone rattling going on." We both laugh. John, meanwhile remains a statue. Eerily still and silent. "Thanks for having me Ella."
Her smile widens a little, if that's possible. "It was my pleasure," she says. "I hope to see you again soon." At this, John tugs on her arm and leads her away. I watch them as they go, folding my arms across my chest as my smile fades and the edges of my mouth turn downwards. There's something between them, I can tell, and she's definitely fond of him, but there's something else. Something that doesn't feel quite right. Something I can't quite put my finger on…