Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
- But who is that on the other side of you?
T. S. Eliot
Helen breathed. Even just for a weekend, it was bloody good to get out of the City.
She grins across the little formica table at Mack. Like clockwork, he responds, "Bloody good to get out of town for the weekend." He is a big man. Very big with an Aussie accent as expansive as the span of his great hands or as broad as his muscled shoulders. He grins a ginger-whiskered, bright-white-toothed grin right back at Helen. Solid as the earth, Mack.
From the window of the train they can see the gradual swerve of the shore, eliding into headlands before them and abaft they can see the glittering 'scrapers of Downtown receding and the increase of the longed-for farther bank, peopled with tiny white clinker-timbered cottages. For a while, Mack turns away, looks out the window, looks out at the train's destination. He's smiling with a kind of innocent eagerness. He is a small boy going to the seaside. Helen feels a sudden, inexplicable sadness at that desire for the pebbles, for the surf, the smell of salt and the keening gulls.
He turns back, suddenly serious. Helen sees there is a question on his lips, something profound, but being a big practical Australian, he is shy to ask. She laughs not because it is funny but it is funny that she knows him so well. "What's up, Mack?"
"You ever get that feeling, Nell..." He stops and colours.
"What feeling and if you call me Nell again I'll do you some damage, savvy?" But he's always called her Nell.
He responds only to the first, "That feeling," he considers, feels ahead for the path. "That feeling that there's another person with you? That there's one more person than you can account for?"
"No, Mack. You're barmy." But she does know what he's talking about. She just doesn't feel it right then because there's exactly the right number. Her and Mack. Off to the beach to catch some waves. Exactly right.
"Yeah well," he says, "we've known that for a time." And then, like he's psychic, "But you know what I mean." It's a statement not a question.
Helen - "Yeah, I think so. Like buying a round ain't it. You're sure you've forgotten someone."
"That is bloody typical," snorts the Aussie. "Here I am trying to put my finger on something deep and all you can think of is booze." But the playful indignation has set his mien free of gravity.
"Priorities, Mack. Priorities."
So they talk of the missing third party. They hypothesise and rebut. They head off on wild tangents. Anecdotes, shared anecdotes, are invoked, a skein to a history that belongs to both of them, that binds them together, that makes them friends. They remember the old faces, the old names, the ones who might be unaccounted for. "No, no... not him! I'd never let him within five miles of me in my cossie."
"Awww Nell... you just got wet knickers for him."
"Fuck off, Mack. And call me Nell again..."
Mack talks of people whom Helen has not seen or heard of in months, in years. People whom Helen would have forgotten if she had not promised to remember. Helen talks of people Mack is anxious to hear about. How they are doing? What they are doing? Is he still the flatulent drongo that he always was? Yes, yes. His digestion has not improved.
Outside the world passes. The City, the oppressive City, recedes and although briefly belongs to another context. The little towns across the bay are waxing. It is good to get out of the City. It is good to be here. It is good to talk and to remember and to celebrate that one is not alone in the world, that one's life is tangled up irrevocably in the lives of others. In that binding, that entanglement, that being conjoined there is, paradoxically, a sense of freedom. It is good.
Out of the window, the sea is calm. The great freighters that ply its waves are distant and stately and unequal to the great tranquility of the waters. And above the sun shines a clear light on the glass of the window through wisps of cloud. And the farther shore grows closer with its promise of a beatitude that is as eternal as it is momentary.
To be here, going there, to be laughing, to be laughing with Mack, to be talking and teasing and catching up and making plans and wondering why they hadn't done this so much sooner and remarking how good it is - just how damn good - to have fled the City with its narrow skies and sour people, its eternal clamour, its dust, its soulless days and nights of falling asleep alone to hissed forgotten hits on the radio. Why don't they do this? "Why don't we do it all the time, Mack?"
"Ha! You love waitressing too much, You couldn't spare the time, Nell girl."
She grins and stabs at him with her index finger. "I'm gonna kill you. You 'ave been warned."
And he smiles angelically as if he's been waiting for her to say it forever. "Yeah," he says. "And I'd forgive you."
* * *
The train rolled into the station. It was the penultimate stop but a small one. Helen slung her rucksack across her left shoulder and walked swiftly, purposefully down the aisle to the door. It was an old train and she had to crane her arm out of the window to get the handle before stepping down onto the platform.
It had once been a fishing village but the shipping lanes that brought the riches of the world to the City had done for that. Now the few locals that remained eked out an existence from the tourists and holiday-homers. Before she checked in at the bed-and-breakfast, Helen made for the beach. She crunched down over the pebbles to the edge of the wash. A throng of disconsolate gulls wheeled about her against the grey sky, the air a-thrum with their piercing shrieks. Helen stood and watched the dolorous heaves of the dark grey water and looked out across to the burning lights of the City on the farther limb of the bay. After a time she forgot the cry of gulls and heard only the rush and hiss of waves rising up the shore and retiring once again.
Jack "the Mack" MacNamara and "Rakehell Nell" Barnworth had been two of the very best mercenaries hard currency could buy: highly trained, highly disciplined and entirely deadly. When the job absolutely had to be done right they both proved worth the considerable premium they demanded for their services. They apprenticed together with the elite Yon Ju Shichi. When that company was dissolved they had fought on occasion for the same side and as often for antagonistic employers. They had concluded their relationship professionally. Mack had said "Bugger!" upon realising he was outdrawn. Nell had put two nine millimetre bullets into his cranium without saying a word.