"The Last Bus"
Although not excessively loud or overbearing, the background music, a monotonous jazzy beat, forced her to raise her voice and shout at him across the table. She hated the sound of her own voice at this screechy pitch. The tone was far too inappropriate to tell him about Danny and the terrible trouble he’d been getting into since Danny’s father had left.
The man she had met for the first time, less than three hours ago under Cleary’s clock – his suggestion - leaned across his prawn cocktail, chewing and nodding, eager, it seemed, to demonstrate deep concern. He chewed with his mouth open, obviously unaware of the pink sauce sliding down his chin.
She felt her stomach do a somersault. She sat back, dropped her eyes, and pushed her own starter to the side.
She glanced around her. The restaurant was packed, and the tables were far too close. She tuned into a conversation between two women. They were talking about what bastards men were, and how you could only really trust another girl. They used the word ‘girl’, not ‘woman’, as though they hadn’t long ago left behind their mid-thirties.
The unexpected sound of the man she was with speaking startled her - actually made her jump the way characters did in the trashy paperbacks her sister was always passing on to her.
“Are you okay?” he repeated.
“Yes,” she said, “fine.”
The man paused, nodding again, before going back to work on the bowl with his spoon. He was scraping up the last of the sauce around its edges, when the long-stemmed wine glass she was replacing in front of her failed to stay upright, thanks to a fold or something in the tablecloth.
Instinctively, she was on her feet. Too late. The tipped glass lay on its side, and she could feel the sticky chilled dampness left by the spilled red wine soaking into her thighs.
“Oh dear,” the man said. “Dearie me.” He was also standing out of his seat opposite her and tentatively offering her a napkin.
She brushed away his offer and clamped her hand to her mouth. The sour fruity smell left by the wine on her hand nauseated her. And her skirt. Why had she worn beige? A large ruby-stain, the shape of an irregular fried egg and surrounded by smaller ruby splashes, was now printed on her skirt. She could feel herself welling-up to cry, but found diversion in the young foreign waitress who had arrived to offer assistance.
“Yes, thank you,” she said to the girl who gave her a damp cloth to dab at the stain.
The girl told her not to worry, to soak the skirt in cold water when she got home.
Yes, she would do that. The girl was very good, she told her, and she thanked her again.
Another waitress soon arrived with their main order. She had ordered sea trout, the only fish-dish on the menu. Fish was always a safe bet. He had ordered steak, medium-rare, and began to cut into it almost before the waitress had removed her hand from the plate. She waited for him to make some conversation. He didn’t.
She considered saying something about the stupid movie they’d seen together – also his idea. But why should she? Anyway, who ever heard of going to a movie with a complete stranger five minutes after they’ve just met?
With his mouth open, he sort of chewed in time to the music, and his head bobbed. If she looked to his left, he followed her playfully with his eyes. He did the same when she let her concentration drop to the plate. He even allowed a disturbing smile to form on his chewing face. Unable to avoid being pulled in by his bloodied teeth, she imagined that he was chewing her, tasting her.
Her sister’s fault. It was her sister’s entire fault.
Her sister was the one who decided she needed to get out more, meet new people, and start dating again. Her sister had contacted the dating agency, sent in her details: vivacious young redhead, recently separated. Would like to meet a sensitive man, 30 – 45, for dining out, musical evenings and theatre-going.
The bright-red face of the stranger opposite her interrupted the barely-suppressed feelings of anger she was harbouring towards her sister over the table. He was about to speak. She froze.
“Excuse me,” he said, his face turning puce. “I have to go to the little-boy’s room.”
“Okay,” she said, because he wasn’t going anywhere.
He scratched his ear, laughed apologetically, and left the table.
She watched him move awkwardly between the tables. He wore brown corduroy trousers and a green-checked shirt tucked into the waist - although one side of the shirt had slipped out exposing glimpses of a perfectly rounded stomach. This she saw when he stopped, twisted round and gave her a kind of a wave. The black belt, mismatched with the brown shoes, looked as though it had been pulled so tightly, his upper body was being squeezed out of his trousers like a great blob coming from a tube.
The smouldering anger she felt towards her sister was joined by a breathless panic. She had to get out of this ridiculous farce. Danny would be out with those boys by now. What if the police were trying to contact her? Maybe he was already lying lifeless in some dark laneway, or calling out for her from a mangled car.
In less than ten seconds she could be out the door and into the night. There was a bus due in ten minutes. She could make it to the bus stop in less than four minutes if she hurried. But wait. What if the restaurant staff stopped her, asked her where she was going? Or accused her of trying to leave without paying the bill? Too many buts and ifs. Her body overrode her head.
Something akin to physical pleasure oozed through her as she felt herself moving through the tables, her coat slung over her arm and her handbag swinging from her shoulder. The voluptuous sensation died at the sight of the man returning from the toilets.
Seeing her seeing him, a large grin sliced open his fat face. “Hi,” he said, waving at her from fifteen paces, as though they were old friends who hadn’t seen each other since Christmas.
She passed the exit and worked her way around the tables in the direction of the toilets. She locked her gaze to the ground in front of her own footsteps until they were facing each other. He stopped, rested all his weight on one leg and seemed ready for a chat. He shrugged his shoulders and chuckled. He then indicated her coat with a frowning nod, and he actually patted it.
“It’s to hide the stain,” she said too quickly.
Rubbing his chin, he nodded.
She tried to step around him, but he chose the same side to squeeze by her. She stepped to his right and found him going the same way also. Christ, how did she allow herself to get into this?
“Seamus,” she said. It was Seamus, wasn’t it? “I have to use the ladies.” At the same time she placed her hands on his shoulders and kind of twisted him sideways by pushing his right shoulder more forcefully – she almost dropped her coat. His shirt was clammy and wet to the touch.
“Bye bye,” he said, and he waved a flabby hand in her face.
She listened to the other diners go silent at the nearby tables, and she could feel their probing, criticising eyes burrowing behind her expression for qualifications to their assumptions.
In the Ladies she threw her coat over her shoulder and then washed her hands beneath the hot tap until they burned. The stinging sensation felt right.
Fumbling in her bag, she pulled out her mobile and pressed the dial-button. Danny never answered his phone, but she’d leave a message. The phone rang twice and, to her amazement, he answered.
“Hello,” the voice said.
“Danny?” she said, though she knew it wasn’t him, yet it should have been.
“Elizabeth,” the voice said. “How’s it going?” It was he, the man sitting at the table outside in the restaurant waiting for her return. She’d forgotten his was the last number she dialled when she’d missed his call earlier.
“Oh,” she said. “No … I mean, I didn’t intend – look, I’ll be there now. See you.” She snapped the phone shut.
That’s it, she decided. She was going home. She was under no obligation to remain with this man for the evening. She thought about that saying her mother fell back on all her life about being able to choose your company but not your neighbours. Her mother was right. If she had listened to her, she wouldn’t be in the ridiculous predicament.
Before the mirror, she practised a look of defiance. And in her head she went over alternative scenarios that would liberate her from this awful mess: she considered using Danny as an excuse, but cancelled the idea immediately. No need to tempt the gods. Better to tell him her sister had called her on her mobile. A family emergency. No need for explanations. She had to leave. He could call her. No, better to be honest - to cut off any sprouting expectations, to pre-empt any delusions this man might be under.
Ensuring there was no one in the cubicles, she rehearsed aloud before the mirror. “I’ve had a nice evening,” she said, but opted for another opening. “Seamus, I have to be honest with you. My sister was the one who gave my details to the agency. You see, I’m not ready for anything like this. My husband and I have only recently agreed that we no longer make each other happy.” She imagined the man interrupting her at this point and talked him down. “No, please, Seamus. Hear me out. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with you. I mean, you’re a nice man and everything, but I’ve got a sixteen-year-old boy who needs all my attention. So, let’s just leave it at this, okay?”
At this point she expected he would offer her a lift home, saying that that was the least he could do in the circumstances. She would thank him; say how much she appreciated his kindness. She might even add how there were so few gentlemen left anymore. And then she would insist on walking herself to the bus stop and making her own way home.
Back inside the restaurant she braced herself. The lighting was very dim and she had trouble locating their table. She was unable to see the man. When she neared the general area where they’d been sitting, she recognised the two women who’d been sitting at the table next to theirs. Figuring the man must have returned to the little boys’ room, as he put it, she seated herself and waited for his return.
Almost immediately the waitress who had served her earlier was at the table with the cheque. Puzzled, she looked at the saucer placed on the table.
“Excuse me, madam,” the girl said. “The gentleman said he had to pop out to make a call. He said to bring the bill, that he was coming back in a minute.”
Elizabeth sat alone for a minute and five minutes after that and then another five ticked away. She thought she heard the women at the next table talking and sniggering about her. When she looked at them, they didn’t look away. She left her seat and paid the bill at the counter. Outside the rain was coming down in sheets, and she was without an umbrella. The wind cut through her, especially around her upper thighs where the wine had spilled. By the time she made it to the bus stop, she had missed the last bus.