I’m still practicing. Short stories seemed a manageable way of finding out a little about my own writing style before embarking on a more substantial project. This one, written last year, is about a less-than-delicious first date:
I knew the moment I saw him, that he wasn’t the one. A sour-faced man, older by a decade than he’d indicated. I should have turned him away there and then – saved us both the trouble. Instead I smiled and said ‘nice to meet you’.
Now our taxi is jerking along in the traffic, wipers sweeping vigorously against the heavy rain, and it’s too late. The taxi pulls up; the restaurant is Italian. Some hope of a decent meal at least. He climbs out and unfurls a black umbrella for himself. I follow him but am offered none of its shelter. He hands a £10 note to the taxi driver and stands pointedly, his hand out, waiting for his change.
“I never tip,” he says loudly as the taxi driver casts a few coins into his outstretched hand. “It’s a taxi driver’s job to get you from A to B for a fare – why would you give him extra for doing what he’s been paid to do?” He retreats to avoid the grimy backwash as the taxi speeds off. He detonates a gob of sputum into the gutter. The congealed bubbles wash into the drain, along with the residue of my hope.
He pushes ahead through the door, leaving me to benefit from a few more moments in the driving rain. “Table for two – not by the kitchen, thank you,” he broadcasts, vaguely in the direction of the Maitre d’. A table is found and he sits, choosing the chair with its back to the wall. I move to the vacant seat. His pinched and brittle face interferes with my view of the blank wall. The waiter relieves me of my drenched jacket and I thank him.
“I don’t much like internet dating, Marion,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to run across a gold-digger and no woman ever tells the truth about her age either. I’ve been lumbered with all sorts of old bags, fat girls with greasy hair, crazy women who don’t look anything like their photos. It’s enough to make you spit.”
“It’s Miriam,” I say. “My name’s Miriam.” I’ve swapped a quiet evening watching TV with the cat for this and it’s a bad trade. He drones on.
“You tell a woman what you’re looking for and she says ‘yes, yes, I’m just your type’. So you traipse across town and she turns out to be a single mum with a crowd of bleating brats in tow; or she’s a decade older than she says she is; or you find she’s sent you a picture of her younger, prettier sister; or she won’t stop talking; or she won’t pay her way; or she wears too much cheap scent; or she dresses like a tart; or she dresses like a nun. I thought you might be ok, but if you don’t turn out to be what I’m after, then I tell you, I’m just about ready to give up.”
“What are you after exactly, Colin?” I say, resolving to be the exact opposite.
“Oh, you know, the usual,” he replies. “Arm candy, conversation – but nothing too taxing, and… well… the other. You know what.” He is looking me directly in the eye, his thin lips pursed in a knowing grimace – or is it an attempt at a smile?
I swallow hard, holding down the acid of disgust which has surged from my empty stomach. I turn my attention to the menu but he is already semaphoring his napkin at a passing waiter. “We’ll have the soup, then the beef – bloody – and a bottle of your cheapest Chianti, so long as it isn’t a flagon of sheep-dip of course.” He snorts at his own remark then snatches my menu and thrusts it towards the waiter along with his own. As the waiter moves to take the menus, he lets them fall to the floor; the waiter to drops to his knees to retrieve them. I clear my throat – my discomfort leaking out inadvertently. The waiter smiles at me. It’s a moment of relief. I wanted spaghetti.
Another waiter arrives with a bottle of red. He opens it and pours a little for Colin, who lifts the glass to his face. He sniffs, long and too loud and wrinkles his nose. He takes a sip and slooshes the wine noisily around his mouth before swallowing it.
“Rough old stuff, but I suppose it’ll do,” he says. “Pour.” With a flick of his finger, he directs the waiter to fill his glass. The waiter fills mine first, a kindness I appreciate; another moment of relief.
Colin continues to spew forth, too loudly for such a small restaurant, about his experience of dating women he meets on the internet. I notice other diners raising their eyebrows, smiling knowingly and sympathetically in my direction. I sit, bolt upright and impassive, hands buried in my lap. I’m clenching and unclenching my fists, pressing my fingernails deep into my palms. The pain commands my attention.
“What the heck’s happening in that kitchen?” he says loudly, invading my distracted consciousness. For goodness’ sake, it’s only soup – how long does it take to ladle a couple of bowls of soup? Come on over there!”
I want to say, ‘what’s the problem – we’re not in a hurry’. But I’ve been praying for this wretched evening to end since the moment it began. Good manners and social etiquette prohibit me from walking out on him. Yet in staying, all I seem to be doing is garnering the sympathy of a room full of strangers. He continues to disgorge his bile. Now he’s moved on to a cruel dissection of a seemingly endless succession of unsatisfactory dates. ‘Pity those poor women,’ I muse. The waiters work around us, maintaining a safe distance. Occasionally I notice a supportive wink or a smile from one or another. It helps, a little.
“You actually do look a bit like your photo,” he says, sounding surprised. “You’re not one of the world’s beauties, are you? But you’re not pretending to be either. What do you do, for a living?”
“I’m an environmental health officer,” I say. “It’s my job to inspect restaurants and pubs to make sure they maintain good standards of hygiene and food safety.” I love my job and I know I’m good at it; conscientious but fair. I realise it’s the most number of words I’ve managed to get out without him interrupting.
“Oh, right,” he mutters, making no effort to mask a lack of interest. “I work in a highly specialised area of the Government. I’m not supposed to talk about it. Official Secrets and all that, you know what.” Then more loudly, he bellows, “Look here, are we ever going to be served?” Another outburst explodes across the room. “They’d better not be expecting a tip in here either. Even if I would normally tip, which I don’t, ever, I wouldn’t tip today on account of the lousy service. Clumsy waiters, rough old plonk and the wait, it’s interminable. Do come on!”
I can’t bear this any longer. Escape is not an option but I need some respite. I set aside my napkin, stand and excuse myself. I enquire where the Ladies’ room is to be found and I’m directed to the back of the restaurant behind the kitchen.
I hide for several minutes. I freshen up my make-up and run a comb through my tangled, still damp hair. The face that stares back at me from the mirror is worn and weary, not much improved by a smear of lipstick. Eventually I feel strong enough to leave my tiny sanctuary.
I near the entrance to the kitchen and my attention is drawn to muffled laughter and a voice, which hisses quietly with just the trace of an Italian accent,
“No, no, no! Not the girl’s, just his…”
The surreptitious laughter continues and I look through the door – I can never resist a quick look around a restaurant kitchen, even when I’m not working. I see the chef and all three waiters, gathered around a tray which contains two bowls of steaming minestrone soup. I watch as one by one, each man hawks up a giant, glutinous mouthful of spittle and fires it through pursed lips, directly into the middle of the first bowl of soup. I am transfixed. I continue to watch as the four gobbets of foaming spittle are stirred down into the minestrone by the chef’s plump, greasy forefinger. He scatters a handful of chopped parsley to garnish and the vile broth is ready to be served.
The chef looks up. He is horrified to realise that his little ceremony of revenge has been observed. Just as well he doesn’t know me in my professional capacity, I muse. But he’s safe. I smile – sweet, wicked complicity – and I turn and walk back into the restaurant.
Moments later, a waiter appears bearing that same tray and the two bowls of soup.
“At last!” Colin shrieks.
“Signora,” says the waiter deliberately, as he sets a bowl in front of me, “your soup.”
I thank him. Did a hint of mischief maybe wrinkle the corners my mouth?
Both plates set down, the waiter sprinkles a little parmesan on each and retreats to the safety of the kitchen. Colin picks up his spoon and fills it from deep within his bowl. He blows on the contents and begins noisily to suck the liquid and small pieces of vegetable into his mouth. He swallows his first mouthful, then a second and third. I know it’s wrong, but my spirits soar.
He downs more than half the bowl before he opens his mouth to speak again.
“Actually, this isn’t at all bad,” he says. “I’d say better than usual. In fact, it’s rather tasty.” He gobbles on, spoonful after noisy spoonful until the all the soup is gone.
I offer him a hunk of bread to wipe around the bowl, just to make sure he has ingested every single drop.
(c) Julie Lawford 2010