The Birthday Wish

After one last round of clumsy hugs and handshakes, Joe slid his leg expertly across the vast expanse of the Goldwing seat and nodded at Shelly, who steadied herself against his hot shoulder before climbing gracelessly on to the back. They donned their matching helmets in unison, checked that their helmet-to-helmet intercoms were working properly, and flipped down their visors. Joe started up the engine and revved it hard a couple of times. Then, with a last solemn nod in Peter’s direction he pulled effortlessly away, beeping his horn, with Shelly waving like a child from her cosy perch behind him, blowing helmet-dumb kisses back down the dusty, narrow street.

When they had disappeared round the corner, Peter looked at Emma with raised eyebrows and nodded questioningly in the direction of the bar. “Why not!” Emma responded. “It is my birthday, after all.” With Emma holding both helmets, and balancing expertly on the pillion seat, Peter carefully manoeuvred his six-month-old Pan European through a wide u-turn, to rumble slowly down the road, and park at the side of the market square, just opposite the café.

The Saturday market was bustling beneath the dappled canopy of the gigantic plane trees that edged the square. The intense sunlight imbued the scene with the quality of a high contrast TV screen, and the sharpness of the edges between the luminous light and the deep shadow cut into Emma’s eyes, making her squint. She never wore sunglasses. They made her feel too distant from what was going on around her. The deep blue sky was high and impossibly far away, glimpsed in brilliant patches between the green umbrella of the trees and the sheltering walls of the tall buildings surrounding the square in a rose-tinted embrace. From her seat in the shade of the striped awning in front of the café, Emma could hear the muffled billow of human voices, surging in intermittent waves across the road between herself and the crowded market; each separate voice the sound of a single pebble rolling in the tide, part of an indistinguishable whole that ebbed and flowed in a hypnotic pulse of sound. She closed her eyes and saw the summer beach of her childhood, remembering those long lost times of careless freedom.

Peter emerged from the cool dark of the bar’s interior, carrying two small glasses of cold lager. They had spent enough time in this bar over the last week to feel at home and to stop behaving like tourists. Anyway, he had reasoned, they didn’t really have enough time to sit and wait patiently for the lone, lethargic waiter to rouse himself from his bar-leaning reverie, to come and take their order.

“Happy Birthday,” he said again. He placed the glasses on the wonky metal table, knocking one of the legs as he sat down, making a foamy ring appear at the base of each glass, as the spill trickled down the sides to form a small puddle.