I didn’t know what to choose. I’d never been to that café before, La Salamandra, never that far into the West End. I don’t think I’ve been back since.
Why did I say yes?
Joe’s smile, arms wide: ‘Grace! How are you? Where would you like to sit?’
I remember the café narrowing to a dimly lit corridor. Hangings and ornaments stuffed empty space between old lacquered chairs, the mutter of far-off windchimes taking up the air.
I said ‘right there’ was fine.
We sat down, went through how university was going, things I look forward to. When that felt like enough, Joe asked if I’d expected the café to be like this from outside; I hadn’t.
‘It’s lovely. The ambience is quite-‘
A rock sat on the window sill beside him.
‘Bohemian, I think you’re looking for. Wouldn’t be a bad spot for a date, hey?’
I agreed and tried to laugh.
Our orders arrived: two neatly identical plates of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs sat between us. ‘Great minds?’ offered Joe.
I just hadn’t wanted to stand at the till any longer.
‘I haven’t had salmon in a while,’ I said. I think I started naming types of vitamins in fish, protein composites in eggs. ‘Hope I’m not boring you with my nerdy science.’
Joe smirked. ‘Honestly, it’s a breath of fresh air. You have no idea how annoying arts students can be without trying. We’re all either awkward or narcissistic.’
‘So, which are you?’
‘I, uh-‘ He brought his mug up, going pink. ‘Too much information.’
‘Well, I still remember how last time you just had to correct me when I said Freud like it rhymes with food.’
Joe cleared his throat, set the mug down. ‘If I am going to act like writing fiction has any academic merits, beyond the controlled study of awkward narcissists, that is, then I must defend any and all of its psychoanalyst influences.’
I must’ve rolled my eyes.
‘Freud, Freud, such a prude,’ he went, pink tongue clicking on teeth.
‘Freud, Freud, such a prude,’ I copied. Click.
Our cups were empty but our plates looked picked over; I don’t think either of us had been that hungry.
‘Gimme a sec,’ Joe said. ‘Need to use the restroom.’
He got up, turned a corner, and disappeared.
I remember sitting by myself, taking a deep breath, looking through my phone, around that café corridor, thinking why did I finally say yes to whatever this was, what had I come here for, those windchimes muttering that you’re out of time and place, you should stand up, breathless, you can always leave.
Why did I say yes?
Because saying no is blowing out a candle, a spark you can’t see. You have to set your lips stiff in place, and ever so gently let all the air out your lungs until you’re pink in the face.
I stood up.
You can leave.
I was going to, until I saw the candle.
It was that rock, sitting by itself on that shuttered window sill, a dark, unlit candle nestled inside. It was a half-cut geode about half a foot tall, wick tailing from on top. White crystals brimmed with a column of pitch wax down the centre, like a mountain road leading you off into the snow.
Uneven ridges and bumps moulded to a lizard’s shape, coiling in on itself.
Bed of fine quartz, eyes about to open as if holding a long, waking breath.
On my shoulder, a hand.
‘Did I scare you?’ he laughed. ‘You should see the colour of your face.’
‘I was- you were taking so long, so I was inspecting this-‘
He stepped closer to me, to the geode. ‘That’s a shimlev. A talking candle.’
As we left La Salamandra, he wouldn’t stop going on about them. ‘I thought everyone knew about shimlev, about golemism. How could you not? It’s been getting way more popular than tarot.’
‘Like fortune-telling? Sorry, I’m not really into those sorts of things.’ I adjusted my bag strap over my top.
We were passing by a dozen or so men lounging on street benches, soles of their shoeless feet pink from afternoon asphalt. I saw the bottles they passed between each other, saw one nudge another, their eyes following me.
My breath. ‘I didn’t know West End had so many- you know.’
Joe patted me on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
He went back to talking about a political stunt with a shimlev candle and a piece of coal, how it screamed the national anthem backwards, jumped out the senator’s hands, and hopped across Parliament and into oncoming traffic. I remember a car passing by and sympathising.
‘They can do that too, y’know, grow legs, wings. And then they sometimes explode into green fire or bubbles. We could check some out, if you want?’ Joe checked his phone. ‘There should still be a place open, not far.’
I said something about the time. ‘I was thinking I might go soon.’
‘Oh. Did you have somewhere else to be?’
I said I did not. And so Inner Illuminations wasn’t far enough, on a street Joe called Hardgrave, if it’s still there.
‘We’ve got the perfect shimlev,’ went the clerk.
Himalayan rock salt. A lump of it.
‘It’s like pink quartz, only cheaper. Perfect for new couples,’ the clerk said with a wink.
‘But it’s just salt,’ I said. ‘What’s so special about that?’ It could’ve been any other boutique tealight, except with that pitch wax running through, a varicose vein for someone’s valentine heart. I imagined it growing wings and flying far, far away.
The clerk pursed their lips. ‘Shimlev works with almost any mineral. The point is that you treat it like it’s special.’ They took out a knife and teased the wax out. ‘First, I’ll inscribe full names and birth signs.’
Before we left the shop, Joe asked if there was anything else to make it work properly. He tried smiling at me. ‘Like, do we have to hold hands?’
‘I’m sure you can figure that out,’ drolled the clerk. ‘Now who’s paying?’
You can always count on a Freudian gentleman.
After that, there was no waiting to find out what the universe wanted to scream with our lump of rock salt. Joe took me to a small park on a corner nearby. I remember those same shoeless men sitting on the footpath, like they were waiting, watching, passing bottles round; feeling pink from holding my breath.
‘Should probably go in the centre, hey?’ Joe said. A boy’s grin as he did just that. ‘No telling what it’ll do.’
I dug fingernails into palms. ‘Do you even have a light?’
‘Hmmm, good point, no. But gimme a sec, have an idea.’
Standing by myself, I closed my eyes, a deep breath, as Joe started towards the men on the footpath; opening to see bottles and a lighter held high for me, standing by myself, hearing those men laugh and cheer as the shimlev wick hissed alive, beating on earth, setting the rock salt pink aglow and alive as it took new shape as Joe stepped too close beside me; fingers found mine.
Together, having to hold this one, long breath.
Author: Rory Hawkins is a second year Creative Writing student who just can’t take art seriously enough. Like, what’s up with that? Is it some kind of self-pathologised barrier stemming from his own insecurity around his own work, resulting in a over-exaggerated ego or uncritical larrikinism? I’ve really got to get to the bottom of this, by reading his other prose and poetry throughout previous issues of ScratchThat, reviews and fiction with Glass Magazine, and through his Instagram @rory_writes_sometimes. I mean, someone’s gotta figure this guy out.
Editors: Jasmine Tait and Eliana Fritz