Yes? he thought he heard her say.
Yes! he cried, not speaking. I always hoped I might remember you.
Well, then, her eyes said, we shall be friends. Perhaps in another time, we met.
‘They’re waiting for us,’ she said aloud.
Yes, he thought, for both of us!
And now he spoke. ‘Your name?’
But you already know it, her silence replied.
And it was the name of a woman dead these four thousand years and lost in Egyptian sands, and now refreshed at noon in another desert near an empty station and silent tracks.
‘Nefertiti,’ he said. ‘A fine name. It means the Beautiful One Is Here.’
‘Ah,’ she said, ‘you know.’
‘Tutankhamen came from the tomb when I was three,’ he said. ‘I saw his golden mask and wanted my face to be his.’
‘But it is,’ she said. ‘You just never noticed.’
‘Can I believe that?’
‘Believe it and it will happen in the midst of your belief. Are you hungry?’
Starved, he thought, staring at her.
‘Before you fall,’ she laughed, ‘come.’
And she led him in to a feasting of summer gods.
The dining room, like the porch, was the longest one he’d ever seen.
All of the summer porch people were lined up on either side of an incredible table, staring at Cardiff and Nef as they came through the door.
At the far end were two chairs waiting for them and as soon as Cardiff and Nef sat, there was a flurry of activity as utensils were raised and platters passed.
There was an incredible salad, an amazing omelet, and a soup smooth as velvet. From the kitchen drifted a scent that promised a dessert sweet as ambrosia.
In the middle of his astonishment, Cardiff said, ‘Hold on, this is too much. I must see.’
He rose and walked to a door at the end of the dining room, which opened into the kitchen.
Entering the kitchen, he stared across the room at what seemed a familiar doorway.
He knew where it led.
And not just any pantry, but his grandmother’s pantry, or something just like it. How could that be?
He stepped forward and pushed the door, half-expecting that he would find his grandmother within, lost in that special jungle where hung leopard bananas, where doughnuts were buried in quicksands of powdered sugar. Where apples shone in bins and peaches displayed their warm summer cheeks. Where row on row, shelf on shelf, of condiments and spices rose to an always-twilight ceiling.
He heard himself intoning the names that he read off the jar labels, the monikers of Indian princes and Arabian wanderers.
Cardimon and anise and cinnamon were there, and cayenne and curry. Added to which there were ginger and paprika and thyme and celandrine.
He could almost have sung the syllables and awakened at night to hear himself humming the sounds all over again.
He scanned and re-scanned the shelves, took a deep breath, and turned, looking back into the kitchen, sure he would find a familiar shape bent over the table, preparing the last courses for the amazing lunch.
He saw a portly woman icing a buttery yellow cake with dark chocolate, and he thought if he cried her name, his grandmother might turn and rush to hold him.
But he said nothing and watched the woman finish the job with a flourish, and hand the cake to a maid who carried it out into the dining room.
He went back to join Nef, his appetite gone, having fed himself in the pantry wilderness, which was more than enough.
Nef, he thought, gazing at her, is a woman of all women, a beauty of all beauties. That wheat field painted again and again by Monet that became the wheat field. That church façade similarly painted, again and again, until it was the most perfect façade in the history of churches. That bright apple and fabled orange by Cézanne that never fades.
‘Mr Cardiff,’ he heard her say. ‘Sit, eat. You mustn’t keep me waiting. I’ve been waiting too many years.’
He drew close, not able to take his eyes away from her.
‘Great god,’ he said. ‘How old are you?’
‘You tell me,’ she said.
‘Oh, hell,’ he cried. ‘You were born maybe twenty years ago. Thirty. Or the day before yesterday.’
‘I am all of those.’
‘I am your sister, your daughter, and someone you knew years ago back in school, yes? I am the girl you asked to the Senior Prom but she had promised another.’
‘That’s my life. That happened. How did you guess?’
‘I never guess,’ she replied. ‘I know. The important thing is that you’re here at last.’
‘You sound as if you expected me.’
‘Forever,’ she said.
‘But I didn’t know I was coming here until last night, in the middle of a dream. I fixed my mind only at the last moment. I decided to write a story …’