Today, unusually for her, she was at a loose end. Perhaps, that wasn’t the right phrase. She had plenty to do but in the past few days, weeks even, she has felt directionless. Her writing, which had sustained her, providing her sole motivation to leave the bed in the morning, appeared pointless. Have her fears come to pass? The poison seeping from her marriage has infected the rest of her life. Now, she couldn’t write. Yesterday, when a sentimental love song, the kind she used to mock, reduced her to tears, she knew she had crumbled.
Diagnosis was easy. But what was the treatment?
Rudderless, she entered a café she has passed many times on the way to her French conversation group. She placed her order at the counter and walked to a table in the back corner. A young man with a middle eastern face and a mop of curly hair brought her coffee and a glass of water. That was a good sign. A good sign for what? Nothing. Except that she was looking for something to cheer her up, no matter how insignificant. A glass of water served with a coffee, as they do in Paris, the city she loved, meant something positive. The waiter smiled. Would she like a newspaper? They had newspapers? Of course. But why of course? No other establishment like this one offered newspapers these days. If anyone still read them, they had a phone app for that. He brought her two dailies. Prego, Signora. Italian. Why are her assumptions so regularly wrong? Each paper was in a holder, one of those old-fashioned contraptions she remembered from the cafés of her youth. The past, the past which was better than the present, was resurrecting itself. Another good sign! Pathetic. The way she clutched at straws.
A man walked in. The weight of his interest tipped towards her. She would bet with anything dear to her – not that there was much left – that he would speak to her. He didn’t waste his time. Choosing the table next to hers, he commented on a headline in the paper that lay in front of her. An innocuous, neutral remark, she thought. By the time you reach middle-age, you have learned to tread carefully, not to offend with your politics.
He hadn’t seen her at the Rendez-vous before. Rendez-vous? Here. Oh, that was the name of the café. No, she hadn’t noticed. She had been for a long walk – more of a loiter, she thought but didn’t say it, an aimless loiter of steps and thoughts cascading through love and betrayal – and had wandered in on the spur of the moment. A clean, well-lit place, as in a story she recalled.
Did she work or live near? Neither.
He volunteered information about himself. He was a city lawyer; his court appearance had been cancelled that morning. Other work was piling up and he could have made good use of a few unexpectedly free hours but what the hell; he needed some time for himself. She nodded.
He felt like a school kid playing truant, he said. Choosing to be naughty. Everyone needs a treat from time to time, wouldn’t she agree?
In fact, had he not met her, he was planning to spend a few hours with a novel he had been trying to finish for more than a month. She was about to say that she didn’t wish to distract him from his reading when he pulled out a book from his jacket pocket. She was reasonably happy with that one. That had to be a sign. A third sign? A good sign. A good sign? With a city lawyer? No, not her. She could imagine what kind of nasty politics he had. As she tended to do in the presence of a person of whose views she suspected she disapproved, she smiled and made every effort to appear friendly. Why? Too afraid to show what she really thought? Too considerate to offend? So bloody insincere. Ridiculous. Grow up! Differing on politics or religion didn’t mean they were enemies, just people with points of view not the same as hers.
Had she read the novel? Yes, and she knew the author personally, as well as one could know anyone, but she didn’t say that. She was careful to keep the conversation open, unconstrained by a single direction. No point telling the reader about the author’s marriage and low moods.
His mobile rang. He glanced at it before switching the sound off. They could hear the muffled vibrations emanating from his jacket. My wife, he said and made a disapproving face. Checking on me. She made sure to keep a neutral expression. Not another one whose wife doesn’t understand him.
Outside, the sky wept.
You may not want to hear this, he said, but every day she tells me she stays with me only for the children’s sake. Children? In their twenties. Out to destroy me.
She murmured sorry to be polite.
But today I am filled with despair, grey despair, at the election result. I took time off work, campaigned day and night. We were so close. And what now? More of the same.
A city lawyer! She couldn’t have imagined there was a city lawyer anywhere who shared her politics. About time she learned not to have preconceptions about people.
Yes, I’m miserable today, he said. He looked into her eyes. She fought the tears. A cuddle? A friendly cuddle? Shall we walk down the road and get a hotel room?
Her reader. Sharing her politics. Why not? No one has given her a cuddle for a long time.
The upstart scrap of intimacy.
Why not? Well, because twenty years earlier she’d met a man, in a café like this one and he was miserable, and his partner wasn’t nice to him. He’d asked the same question as this man. They were married a few months later. That’s why not.
Vesna Main was born in Zagreb, Croatia. She is a graduate of comparative literature and holds a PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham. A lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the UK she also worked at the BBC and as a college teacher.
Her most recent publication is a collection of short stories, Temptation, A User’s Guide (Salt, 2018). A new novel, Good Day? by Salt in April and autofiction Only A Lodger by Seagull Books in June.