I don’t wear lipstick to restaurants because I don’t like to mark my wine glass. But as we stare at each other across the table, as I touch my fingers to my cracked lips, I wish I did. You make me nervous. You lean forward on your elbows when I start talking.
I was walking home from town – I’d been buying something or other; it’s not important what. There was a bottle green Volvo parked beside the memorial. The driver’s door was open and a woman had her hand on the door behind it. She was the brusque looking sort, you know? If she didn’t own horses, she knew someone who did. She was wearing dark trousers and a green wax jacket. I’ve never liked wax jackets. I had a friend who had one once. Very distinctive smell. Anyway, this woman: one hand, as I’ve said, was on the car door; the other was holding a pair of mallards.
You raise your eyebrows and pick up the menu.
We’re in the usual restaurant. I’ve never known anyone else with such a terror of eating in public. We go for dinner every Wednesday as a kind of therapy: face your fear. It suits me.
I say it would be symbolic if we both ate duck.
You say I have a Plath complex. Not everything has to be symbolic.
You order duck anyway. I’m stubborn. I have the chicken and I sulk when the waiter takes our menus. You watch me. You know I’ll grow uncomfortable with the silence. I carry on with the story.
So anyway. The woman had some ducks. She gripped them by the neck while she talked to a man standing by the driver’s door. He was what I would call a wet man, so wishy washy he practically dripped into the background. He was dressed all in beige of varying shades: beige cords, beige jacket, beige woollen cap. He nodded while the woman spoke.
The first thing I noticed about the ducks was that one was male and one was female. The second thing I noticed was that the drake’s head matched the colour of the car.
We share a bottle of Chianti.
You point out that they don’t let you smell the cork anymore.
I ask if you knew what you were looking for when they did.
You admit that you didn’t but you say you liked the whiff, the musty dryness that caught your lips as you inhaled.
I tell you you’re pretentious.
You snort. If you were pretentious you would have known what you were looking for.
I look for cork residue on the rim of the bottle. There isn’t any. I shrug.
Nothing else happened. You can decide who they were, what they were talking about... why they had the ducks.
Would it bother you if you saw a woman holding two dead birds by the neck, letting them drip down her side like that?
You don’t answer as usual. I fiddle with the hem of the tablecloth. I know it annoys you when I talk to you like this. Perhaps that’s why I do it. Perhaps you’re not even listening.
The question is: why should you care about the man and the woman and the ducks? I haven’t told you to. Would it make a difference if I had? Perhaps you’re interested. You like to observe things: The Way People Are. I know you: you like stories. You like meaning.
The Rule is that I can’t look at your face. When the food comes, I have to talk to your plate or your forearm or your right shoulder. I can’t look at the left because it’s attached to the hand that carries the fork to your mouth.
You say you might be ready to try dessert without The Rule. Work backwards. We’ll be more drunk by dessert.
Your cutlery landscapes the plate, pushing bright green mange-tout through marmalade rivers. This is how it goes: I talk; perhaps you listen.
The woman was frowning, I think. I didn’t catch the look on the man’s face but you can make that up. They were wearing wedding rings but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were married to each other. Hold on though, I’m not telling you they weren’t. I’m just saying I don’t know.
When you’ve laid your knife and fork across your plate, that’s my signal to look at you. You’ll have finished chewing. You don’t put your cutlery down until your mouth is empty. When I look up, it’s like opening the windows; it’s like fresh air.
I ask you how was your duck?
You say it was a little sweet but the meat was tender and how was my chicken?
You tell me you used to order chicken sandwiches at the deli near your office.
I ask you how when you don’t eat in public.
You roll your eyes. You can order in public, can’t you? You just used to take the sandwiches away and eat them in the stationery cupboard.
Why don’t you order chicken sandwiches anymore then?
You got bored. Now you have tuna.
The waiter takes our plates and makes crosses of our cutlery. We shrug at each other and share a laugh that doesn’t make a sound.
So where do you think they went then, in that little car with their ducks and their Wellington boots? What do you think they said to each other over the purr of the engine? Not that it necessarily purred, of course. I didn’t hear it. It might have been more of a growl.
You know I’m not expecting an answer.
We order dessert. You’re nervous. You’ve decided we’re definitely going to do it today. We’re going to lift The Rule.
I suggest you have ice cream so you don’t have to chew.
You don’t think that will help and anyway, you don’t care much for ice cream.
You order a white chocolate tart because that’s what you really want and you don’t think it’s a fair test if it’s not what you really want.
I order profiteroles.
The waiter thinks he knows why we’re behaving awkwardly and smiles. I wonder if we should pretend he’s right. Maybe we’d get some money off the bill or a free glass of champagne.
I walked away but we can imagine it differently. You can be in the car with them if you like. You can listen to their conversation and see what happens to the ducks. But you should know that when I turned the corner, I heard car horns and screeching tyres. There was the sound of concrete and metal colliding. Take it or leave it. It’s up to you.
When the waiter brings our desserts, you let out a sigh like a little puff of smoke. I want to focus on your plate but I can’t because I know it’s time.
Since you’re not interested in my story, I suggest we decide what we’re going to talk about before we start eating. That way, we’ll minimise the awkwardness.
Let’s talk about our dreams, you say.
I don’t often remember my dreams, I tell you.
No, not that kind of dream. The kind you weren’t ashamed of when you were a kid; the kind you don’t like to talk about anymore.
I tell you I wanted to be a paramedic.
You ask me why and I tell you I liked the uniform.
Now I prefer jobs that don’t have uniforms.
I start to eat. Profiteroles are hard to negotiate. I worry I might flick one out of the bowl. And I’m annoyed that you weren’t interested in my story.
You tell me that you wanted to be an astronaut.
I tell you that’s a cliché and then I ask you why.
You say you liked exploring.
I try not to watch your lips too carefully as they straighten in determination and prepare for the spoon.
I wonder if your chewing is always as mechanical as this or if it’s just the pressure. I want to ask but this isn’t something we can talk about.
I ask you what your dreams are now.
What do you mean? you say.
I say, how should I know? You’re the one who started the conversation.
You tell me you want to live on a mountain.
And explore? I ask.
No, you say, and there is chocolate on your chin.
Will we still have dinner when the therapy is over? I ask.
You say you have a long way to go.
Still, I say.
You call me on the way home from the restaurant. You’re standing by the memorial. I think of the drake’s green head. You say there is a brown feather on the curb and a scattering of shattered glass in the middle of the road.
You ask if it’s relevant.
It’s up to you, I say and I’m glad there’s no one around to see the colour rise in my cheeks as I fiddle with a loose strand of hair.
About the author: J. Adamthwaite is a London writer with short fiction published by Cinnamon Press, Stand Magazine and Dead Ink. She recently had a piece of micro-fiction highly commended in the National Flash Fiction Day Competition 2012. Her website can be found at www.jadamthwaite.co.uk
Photo (c) Ben Sollis