A short story by Carolyn Roberts
Support independent, non-corporate media.
It seemed ironic. Smart wooden tables and chairs filled the dining area: orderly, spotless, and empty. We, the customers, were huddled into the waiting area for carry-outs, crammed onto a single narrow bench. A single waitress wrote down each order then strode across the gleaming floor to the kitchen, apparently unperturbed by the vacant tables, the drinks no-one was ordering or the napkins no-one needed. But then, it wasn’t a night for eating out. The snow crumped under our feet outside and the icy air battered viciously onto any piece of unwisely exposed skin, leaving it raw. We were newly arrived in Lanark, staying in this small town where my partner’s parents lived while we searched for a new property. Home was Glasgow: busy, raucous, full of possibilities, both welcome and worrying. Here, there was one high street with a row of shops down either side. The road out of town was jammed with cars in the morning, and the train station car park was full. Everyone worked somewhere else. Everyone except this waitress, constantly traversing a carpet the colour of muddy cherries.
Along the bench, a new customer wedged himself in with some difficulty. He was wrapped in a beige jacket that was as thick at the top as it was at the bottom, making him look like a well-wrapped item of furniture waiting to be put into storage. He nodded at someone I couldn’t see, and a low, gruff conversation began. From what I overheard, it seemed the two had not seen each other since they left school. There in the dark restaurant, they ran over the events of the previous decade. It didn’t take long.
“Aye, jist workin’ away. Kept goin’. No’ so many jobs these days.”
“Naw.Times are tough, but, eh? Got a baby on the way in May. Didnae mean it, like.”
There was a pause. I waited for congratulations, for the obligatory expressions of delight, but it wasn’t that sort of conversation.
“Aye.That’s the way life goes, eh?”
The first man, the only one I could see, was looking down at his hands. His expression didn’t change as he replied
“Ah might bolt. Just leave her tae it. Don’t think ah kin handle a kid right now.”
I felt my partner’s body tense next to mine. Was the man joking? I couldn’t tell. His voice hadn’t altered throughout the conversation. Could he seriously be suggesting abandoning his girlfriend and baby, with as much emotion as if he was considering changing his takeaway order? I felt a slow anger begin to rise up, warming my body from the inside.
The other man didn’t move. Eventually, he replied in the same steady tones,
“Naw. Ye cannae. Yer demons’ll haunt ye.”
I stared at the floor. The other man shuffled his feet. There was a long pause. I wondered if the other customers were awaiting his reply as anxiously as I was.
“Aye. Yer right.”
They moved on to talk about the weather: emotional crisis over, moral advice administered and accepted. Later, as we were collecting our saggy white plastic bag full of steaming foil containers, I glanced back over my shoulder, wanting a glimpse of this man who dispatched such sensible advice with neither judgement nor drama. He was dressed almost identically to the other, in bulky coat, dusky shoes and jeans. Their conversation exhausted, they were sitting with heads bent, displaying matching patches of balding scalp, waiting for their dinner.