Good Friday morning. The streets are calm as cats. And the salt-soaked mist, creeping up from the beach. We leave the sliding door open at night and through the flywire it feels its way like braille. Before dawn it hangs from the balcony rails and now it’s just a shiver in the hairs on our bare arms.
By early afternoon the sky is a cracked crust out past the glimmer of the roofs. Too hot for April. We recline on banana lounges like Lolita and smoke. When the sun angles in from the west it flashes against the water tank and stings our eyes. The summer seaweed on the stairs and in the laundry trough has dried out; its edges sharp, smelling of old blood.
In the next-door house, there’s an ancient old bloke. We watch him up on a platform on his garage roof watching the sky. At first we think he’s an old perv, taking photos of us in our bikinis. But he calls us over to sit with him and shows us his cloud photo albums and teaches us the names – cirrus, cumulus, stratus, nimbus. His name’s Taffy and his eyes are shot from cataracts, so when he looks up now, everything is blurs and halos. That’s why he takes photos. He looks at them on his big screen computer with a magnifying glass. I say it’s like with all the looking up, the clouds have drifted in. He nods and says, “Well put.”
Back home in the evening we lie with our knees touching and listen to the geckos clicking from their lookouts on the greasy kitchen walls. When we get up to eat, sweat-damp hollows, like wet sand, stay behind us on the sheets.
In the morning it’s raining, so we stay in and play Scrabble and paint our nails. At lunchtime we cook chicken nuggets and chips and run over to Taffy’s with a towel on our heads. The inside of his house is full of pot plants and it’s damp and rainforest cool. He introduces us to his cat. He calls him Ernest because it’s a Hemingway cat with seven toes on its front paws.
He tells us about his life. His marriage and divorce. He had a roof tiling business and a boy fell off a house and died. Taffy did two years in jail for manslaughter. That’s where he got his passion for clouds. He drew them with charcoal. “Clouds are the great equalisers,” he says. That’s because you can see them out the windows of palaces and prisons. He still draws them now but his drawings aren’t as real. He shows us his huge book – The International Cloud Atlas of the World Meteorological Organisation. He tells us there’s a big battle going on over a new type of cloud. Undulatus asperatus. Taffy says there’s been no new clouds classified in over fifty years. He hopes it’ll happen before he dies, but he doesn’t want to get his hopes up.
We go online and there’s a Cloud Spotters page on Facebook. We send some of his rare cloud photos in. We make Taffy a Facebook page and one for Ernest too with a photo of his seven toes. Taffy doesn’t really get it but he laughs and laughs like it’s the best thing he’s done for ages.
When it stops raining and the sun dries up the puddles, we go up on the roof and take some more photos. Taffy says you can only look so long at a sky without clouds before you yearn for something more. He tells us about Constable, the artist. He was so mad on clouds that for two years, that’s all he painted. “You haven’t seen Constable’s cloud paintings in the National Gallery?” he says, all pretend serious. “You must go at once!”
We stay up on the roof till sunset, just smoking and drinking red wine. The sky goes dark and there’s a full moon. We sit and stare at the silent sky and then Taffy starts to sing.
Taffy was born
On a Moon Shiny Night,
His head in the pipkin,
His heels upright.
I say, “What the hell’s a pipkin?” and Taffy says, “Buggered if I know” and we all piss ourselves laughing. We drink some more wine and he lets us plait his beard and when he falls asleep we paint his horny toenails midnight blue.
This morning we’re asleep and a policewoman comes and knocks on our door. Taffy fell off the ladder coming down from the roof early morning. He’s got a couple of broken bones in his arm and wrist, but he didn’t hit his head, so otherwise he’s OK. She asks us if he has any family. “Just a cat,” we say. We say we’ll go visit him in hospital if that’s ok.
When we see Taffy lying in his hospital bed, he looks about a hundred years old. They’ve undone the plaits from his beard, but we look under the sheets and his toenails are still blue. I show him the Cloud Spotters page on Facebook on my phone. They’ve posted his photos and he’s got seventy-six likes. We have to explain what that means and when we do he says he feels pretty famous.
When we leave, Taffy starts to cry. Not much. Just a little tear out the corner of each eye. We kiss his cheeks and tell him we’ll come back tomorrow. We drive back to the house and spend the afternoon just smoking and drinking on the banana lounges. After tea we go over to Taffy’s and climb up on the roof and take some photos of the sunset for him. Purple and pale orange on the tops of the stratocumulus down low. The moon comes up bright behind the trees. We feed Ernest and water all the plants, but we don’t know who’s going to do it when we go back home on Monday.
Printed with permission from Michelle Wright, copyrighted by Michelle Wright @ 2014. This piece, winner of the Fall 2014 Orlando Prize for Short Fiction and selected by Finalist Judge Vanessa Diffenbaugh, originally appeared in Issue No. 17 of the Los Angeles Review.