by Sharon Longworth
Helen unbuttoned the white coat as they entered the restaurant. She shrugged it off as she walked, held it out for the waiter to catch as she passed, heading straight for the table in the corner. Mark knew she’d want to sit against the wall, her back upright against the sludge-green wooden paneling. From there she could see across the restaurant; see and be seen.
He’d always been happy with it that way, watching her watching; satisfied enough by her decision to sit with him. He didn’t need to see the rest of the room; the looks of surprise exchanged between the other diners, their heads bending close as they whispered comments about beauty and the beast.
The waiter came to take their order; she always ordered for them both. At one time she’d have chosen different dishes, mouthfuls to be swapped, tastes shared.
“We’ll both have the beetroot salad. No starter.”
He looked at her while they waited for the food, while she studied the décor, the costumes of their follow diners. They didn’t speak, but he could almost hear her completing the judgmental checklist. He watched her run her fingers through her hair. To anyone else this might have looked like a distracted, thoughtless gesture. He knew better, understood her desire to demonstrate that, even at her age, she could still carry long hair. He knew that the blond colouring was carefully re-established every few weeks. He also knew how painstakingly the hairdresser recreated the dark roots growing through, doggedly covering any hint of grey.
The arrival of their meals stopped the silence from stretching. He watched as she sliced carefully through a piece of beetroot, noticed the purple juice seeping out like spilt wine, saw how it stained the white cubes of feta cheese. Her thin lips clamped down on the fork, enclosing the small mouthful of food. For a moment he imagined her with beetroot juice running down her chin, tried to picture her laughing and wiping it away on the back of her hand.
When had everything become so constrained? It was almost as though each stitch through her skin had sewn up a reaction, closed in an emotion.
There was a sudden shriek from the next table. Mark turned just in time to see a man drop a smoking napkin to the floor; it must have caught on the candle. His companion was smothering a giggle, hand clamped over her mouth to stop the laughter escaping, her shoulders shaking with the effort of keeping it in. He felt a sudden enormous urge to put his arm around those shoulders, to feel something other than taut skin, sharply defined bones. How he longed for looseness. Loose-limbed, lascivious, luscious, loveliness. He bit into a piece of beetroot, savoured the taste of sweet earthiness.
“Excuse me, I think I need the bathroom.” So polite, even after all this time. He placed his knife and fork neatly by the side of the plate, knowing anything else would irritate.
Crossing the room, he came to a short corridor running across the back of the restaurant. To his right the toilets, to his left the exit to the car park. He saw the white coat hanging on a coat rack by the door. He knew what it symbolized; an owner who had no need to use public transport, who had no fear of getting it soiled; a short-term seasonal whim, no need to make it last. God, how he hated the smug arrogance of that coat.
Mark paused, but only for the briefest moment, then without a backwards glance he turned left. As he unlocked the car he smiled ruefully, wondering how long it would be before she realised he wasn’t coming back. He pictured her calling for her coat, looking on in horror as the waiter handed it to her, seeing the rapidly spreading stain as the dark red juice seeped from the pocket where he’d oh so carefully placed the slice of beetroot.
After frittering away her life in the scrabble salons of south-east London, Sharon Longworth finally accumulated enough of a vocabulary to start forming sentences, but she’s still just dabbling in letters and playing with words.