I don’t talk about myself a lot. I’ve had a lot of things happen to me in my forty odd years and the Counselling helped me come to terms with almost all of it. But that doesn’t mean that I sometimes don’t find echoes of my experience when people talk to me.
It’s the fourteenth of February and all the restaurants and pubs are full of couples having lunch together. I love people watching at the best of times, but today is doubly entertaining. Bear with me, I promise all will become clear as we go on…
* * *
I’d grabbed my usual table in the pub long before the Dinner rush started happening. I was working on a wedding ring commission and I had spent an hour in there already, sketching from a series of photos I’d taken on my mobile earlier. I took a break and ordered my food, sitting back in my chair and watching all the tables for two fill up.
It was rather fun, guessing the state of each couple’s relationship; from the teenagers who appear to be glued to each other in the booth across the bar from me, to the elderly couple who sat rigidly at the table they had chosen by the window, neither of them saying a word.
There was the normal scattering of regulars, but all the singles appeared to have taken refuge in the Beer Garden where the pub had brought a band in to play for the occasion. I saw a few of my friends heading in that direction and decided that I’d go out there after I’d eaten.
The waitress brought my starter and I happily nibbled on the cheesy garlic bread, while I put my sketchbook away.
“Is this seat taken?” the voice startled me and I looked up.
The woman asking seemed agitated. She had a tall glass in her hand with bubbles popping on the surface of the clear liquid emitting a waft of juniper that cleared my senses for a moment. Gin & Tonic. Trying to steady her nerves?
“I’m about to eat my dinner, but I don’t mind you using the seat for a bit.” My answer brought a sigh and she put her glass down on the cardboard coaster before dropping into the chair.
“Thank you. I didn’t feel right sitting up at the bar and every other seat in here is taken.” She waved one hand in a circle over her shoulder.
“I don’t blame you. You waiting for someone?” I took a bite of garlic bread.
“I take it he’s late.”
She nodded again. I lapsed into silence while I ate my starter, enjoying the vaguely rubbery texture of the mozzarella and the strength of the garlic. Keefie must be on tonight, he knows I like my garlic bread smothered.
She sipped her drink through a black straw and avoided looking at me. Just when I thought she might move away, she spoke again.
“I’ve been with him for over five years. But I don’t think he’s happy.” She took a long pull on her straw, the liquid gurgling through the narrow plastic.
“Is he looking elsewhere?” I wiped my fingers and smiled at the waitress as she retrieved the basket the bread had arrived in.
“Um…I don’t know… he might be. He’s been acting funny recently.” She sighed again.
“You don’t sound happy.”
“I am… content.” She stirred her drink with the straw, the ice clinking against the glass.
“That’s not happy though.”
“I love him. I don’t want anyone else.” Shrugging, she looked at me. “But I want him to be happy and I don’t think he is.”
I looked around the room at all the couples. She’s after advice. I’m not exactly the best person to give advice on relationships, not with my track record. “What makes you think he’s unhappy?”
“I’m not sure. He just doesn’t seem to want to be in the same room as me anymore.” She knocked the ice cubes around a bit more.
My eyebrows disappeared into my fringe. “He leaves the room when you come into it?”
“Not exactly. He’s a Gamer and is always playing something. It’s hard to get his attention at the best of times, but when he’s playing I can’t even raise an argument out of him.”
I nodded. “I see. Is that why you suggested coming out?”
She smiled. “We used to come here every Friday, play pool, have a few drinks and get something to eat. I thought if we came here, he might…” her voice trailed off.
“You thought he might see ‘you’ again.” I said, looking around the room, wondering what to say.
Over by the bar, a tall, dark haired man stood, nursing a Guinness. Every so often, he’d glance across at my table and our gazes met. He smiled slightly.
Damn. Not him and not now.
“I can’t talk to him; he just grunts at me.” She said, “I hoped that getting him away from the games console would help.”
I focused back on her. “What time did you arrange to meet here?”
“Six. He finishes work at five, so it gives him time to have a shower and get changed.” Glancing at her watch, she sighed. “It’s nearly seven.”
I looked down at my placemat. I used to be like him. And HE was like her. Maybe helping her will help me? “How much do you love him?”
“What do you mean?” She sucked up more of her drink, the straw gurgling as it drained the glass.
“Would you take a bullet for him?”
She made a small snorting noise. “I would.”
“Would he take one for you?”
“I don’t know.” She set her glass down with a click. “Not anymore.”
A thought struck me and I looked over at the dark haired man. This time he was smiling at the back of the woman opposite me. Maybe he’s not here for me then… what are the odds?
“What does he look like?”
“Tall, Dark. Handsome in a rough fashion, not like those pretty models you see in the magazines.” She looked at me.
“Does he drink Guinness by any chance?” I hoped I wasn’t showing my hand.
“He does. Says that it gives him…” she started.
“…the Iron to be able to move mountains with his mind.” I finished, almost automatically.
“What?” she frowned. “Do you know him?”
I glanced at him again and ignored the flip flop that my heart did as our gazes connected again. Help me by helping her to reconnect with him. My time in his life is gone.
“I do.” I said, fiddling with the serviette from the garlic bread. “Did he ever tell you about a girl he was with that said she would marry him and then found someone that she liked better?”
She blinked and drew in a breath. “Yes… you know my Alejandro?”
He’s changed his name again. The change made me smile; it had been a joke with us, he was Alejandro and I was Stefani. “I knew him once. When I was a teenager. He left to travel after we broke up and I never saw him again.”
I looked her in the eye. “Is your name Stefani?”
She shook her head. “Joanna.”
“Even better.” I mused. “There’s one sure fire way to distract him from his games console.”
Joanna seemed torn between listening and running away. She sat on the edge of the chair, glass in her hand as if she were about to go and get another drink. But she wants to know.
“Sit next to him, lean in close and run the tip of your tongue from the back of his ear down his neck.” I grinned. “Used to work every time.”
The waitress brought over my dinner. The soft sweetness of the buttery mash made my mouth water. I took the cutlery she gave me.
“Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t realise I was interrupting your meal.” She picked up her glass. “I’ll find somewhere else to sit.”
She’s glad to escape. “Thank you. Would you do me a favour?”
Looking down, she nodded.
“Once you have his attention, talk to him. Don’t let him go until you know the answer to the question I asked earlier. Once you know that, you’ll know what to do.”
“Okay.” She stood up, looked around and her face brightened as she recognised him. Then she looked back at me. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It was a long time ago, it was my mistake and I’ve made my peace with it now.” That seemed to reassure her and she walked away.
As I ate my Toad-in-the-Hole, folding bits of sausage in batter pudding and dunking them in the gravy, savouring the flavour and texture; I realised that my last sentence was true.
I was finally at peace with what had happened all those years ago.