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Image by Rod Long
The Skirting-Board door
By Cor de Wulf
Who is leaving messages for Sanne to decipher?  What do the messages  mean? 

Friday

Scratching Phina’s head, Sanne offers an arch smile when I ask about the dollhouse door set into the skirting board of the wall next to my table, something I hadn’t noticed on previous visits.

“I don’t know who lives there, but I’m glad they’re here. Phina is, too, aren’t you girl?”

Looking up at me, Phina thumps her tail.

“How do you know anyone’s there at all?”

Sanne’s eyes brighten. “The messages.”

Amused, I bite, my head tilting. “Messages?”

Sanne points to a perfect ring of salt on the table. “Most mornings, I find little circles like this when I come in to prep for opening. Sometimes they’re in obvious spots like this, sometimes in the most unexpected places.” Tilting her own head, Phina’s ears cock, her brown eyes searching mine.

“What do you think they mean?”

“I haven’t figured it out yet.” Laughing, Sanne wipes away the salt. “But I will.” 

That laugh, contagious, draws my own. “Well, if anyone can, it’s you.” 

 

Saturday

Seeing me enter, Sanne motions me to a cabinet separating the main dining room from the larger back room. “I have something to show you.”

Hanging my coat, I join her and Phina. Opening the cabinet, she points to the middle shelf, grinning.

“See?” It takes me a moment, but then I notice a perfect little circle that looks like the condensation ring left by a tulip glass. Turning to me, Sanne’s eyes crinkle. “Now, how do you suppose they got up to the second shelf?”

Recognizing a shaggy dog in the making, I pull as serious a face as I can. “I can’t imagine. Clever, though, aren’t they?”

Phina thumps her tail as Sanne’s husband, Yehlan, joins us. 

“I take it she’s shown you this morning’s dispatch?”

“I was just saying how clever ‘they’ are.” 

Catching Sanne’s eye, he winks, his mouth a wry curl as he pets Phina’s head. “Indeed, they are. Isn’t that so, girl?” Licking Yehlan’s hand in agreement, Phina sweeps the floor with her tail. 

 

Sunday

Entering, I find Yehlan busy behind the bar. After scanning the packed dining room, I catch his eyes and he nods me to a quiet table in the empty back room. Crab-walking my way through the crowded front room to get to my table, I hang my coat on the chair and sit, opening my notebook to a passage that has vexed me for days. After an unusually long wait, Yehlan comes to my table, distracted.

“Unexpected group?” I nod to the twenty or so people arranged around several pushed-together tables up front, chattering noisily as they slurp soups and beers, rummaging platters piled with toasties and sausages. “You look short-handed.”

“It’s the last of the autumn holiday parties, but Sanne was supposed to be here when I got in two hours ago. She and Phina left early this morning to set up for this event, but when I got here it was just the boy; he hasn’t seen her either. Phina’s here though, so Sanne must’ve run out for supplies. But she should’ve been back by now.” Shaking his head, he forces a preoccupied smile. “The usual?”

“Please.” Watching him go, I hear the click of Phina’s nails behind me. Coming alongside the table, she looks up at me, Yehlan’s anxiety compounding her own. Turning her head to the main room, she searches the crowd for Sanne. Rubbing one of her ears, I try to reassure her. 

“It’s all right girl. She’ll be back soon.” Unconvinced, Phina trundles off to sniff at every muddy shoe shuffling under the gathering’s table, flinching at every cheer, growing more and more dejected amidst the intensifying exuberance of the party.

 

Finishing, I push my plate away and reach for my notebook, scribbling an idea before it fizzles into the ether. When the harried busboy approaches to clear the table, I notice Phina following behind, head down, tail listless, utterly wounded by what I realize is Sanne’s continued absence. Staying behind as the boy leaves, she glances up as if to ask how Sanne could leave her alone for so long. About to pet the poor creature, her eyes sharpen before she abruptly darts under the table. Lifting the cloth, I find her on her belly, tail athump, sniffing at the tiny door, giving eager whimpers. Bending down, I tug at her collar, pulling her back enough to see what she’s so worked up about: a small slip of paper protrudes from the little door’s tiny mail slot.

 

Reaching for it, I let go of Phina’s collar; she sticks her nose back up against the door as I sit up to unfold the miniscule piece of paper. Presented with a small circle, perfectly rendered in pencil, I blink at it a long while as Phina’s tail beats against the leg of my chair. Looking up, I glimpse Yehlan, his movements precise as ever but his expression distant, the noisy partygoers’ continuous drink orders seemingly the only thing keeping his seams from bursting with worry. Returning to the cryptic message, I consider it a bit longer before shaking my head and refolding it. Reaching down, I nudge Phina’s nose from the door, returning the message to the tiny slot exactly as I found it. Sitting up, I feel as though I’ve just steamed open a neighbor’s mail. 

 

As I prepare to leave, Phina resumes her sniffing, both gaze and nose fixed patiently to the door. Leaving cash on the table, I wait for Yehlan to duck into the backbar supply room. Confused by my reluctance to show him the message, or to point out Phina’s relieved vigil at the skirting-board door—or to admit capitulation to such a fanciful notion—I grab my coat, hurry past the holiday revelers, and slip out into the cool October evening, my notebook clutched tight like some sort of an excuse. 

(For S. & J., De Bresserie, Banholt)

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