“Hello. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
She had been observing the woman from afar throughout the service, puzzled that there could be someone in the small congregation she didn’t know. Now, as she approached her – the woman smiling in a gently compassionate way, sharply dressed in a trouser suit not quite dark enough for a funeral – she wondered if there had been some kind of mistake.
The woman extended her hand confidently, with the certainty of knowing there was a bond between them.
“You’re right, we haven’t met – but I’m sure you know who I am.”
“A one-way conversation”
How many people know exactly where they are going when they set off? Even if it’s just to the shops or to fill the car up with petrol, so much could happen between here and the supermarket or garage… You might not even make it. But you always assume you will. You have to. If you don’t, what would you do? We’re all hostages to fortune in the end.
Is that what Liam was thinking that morning – being a hostage to fortune – as he went down to the hotel restaurant for his breakfast? How far ahead was he thinking? That he had a plan of sorts was certain. It began with breakfast and went on from there, generally with increasing vagueness. Nothing very exciting nor, to be honest, particularly remarkable, but a plan nonetheless. In its predictability and lack of ambition, it was a plan much like his current life. Perhaps most of us have plans – and lives – like that.
If these days he was surprised by anything it was that he had become an old man. If people – friends and family – dutifully protested at any assertion he made in this general direction, he knew they meant well. And perhaps on one level they may have been right. But when you came down to it, their opinion meant little to him. Even if the boundary where you tripped into being ‘old’ was an indistinct one, he felt it a threshold he had indeed crossed. There was no one moment nor single event that had seen him make the jump; it had crept up on him. If part of his surprise came as a result of this stealth, it was also responsible for generating a larger part of his anger. It had transpired without his permission, and even though he knew there was a consequence in having had the luxury of time to do things, to live his life, he somehow felt as if the terms of the arrangement had not been stated clearly enough up-front. It was akin to a badly worded HP agreement. Yes, he had done a great deal, but the price he had paid – almost inadvertently and without any explicit contractual agreement – seemed to have been weighted too far in his adversary’s favour. It hadn’t been a battle, not until recently anyway, but it was now.
None of this has anything to do with his mental state as he pauses dutifully at the ‘wait here to be seated’ sign. If pressed, he might have struggled to identify when he had last consciously thought of himself as ‘old’. Yet even so, there were signs – clearly visible from the elaborate restaurant mirror into which he finds himself looking – that age preys on his mind. His clothes look as if he has borrowed them from someone younger, a nephew perhaps. There is also something in his manner, the way he stands, to suggest he is a single man. And even that pose – a little too relaxed for a man in his late fifties – offers up the notion that not very far beneath the surface something vaguely inappropriate is going on. The occasional respondent in a vox pop might even have suggested that perhaps he was gay.
Such superficial analyses would have been wrong on all fronts. The clothes are indeed his, chosen because he likes them, picked out after careful deliberation with little regard as to whether or not they suited ‘a man of his age’. And his nephew (had he one) would never have worn them nor looked as good in them as he thought he did. And what was wrong with weekend jeans that were a little faded, a shirt whose pattern verged on the indecent side of bold? The analysts would have been wrong because he was no longer in his fifties, but sixty one. Wrong because, even though he was now single, for the vast majority of his life he had not been. And most certainly wrong because he was not gay, had never been, nor shown even the slightest inclination in that direction. At least not as far as he knew. He wouldn’t have said he was ‘a man’s man’ – whatever one of those might be – but he was comfortable in his own skin; a skin that was beginning to feel a little thinner than it once had, a little more scale-like. In moments of fancy, he wondered if he might be turning into a snake who was just about to slough. If so, it would have been a re-birthing to which he would happily have subscribed.
“Table for one?”
As he follows the waitress into the open-plan restaurant where they are serving breakfast, he wonders just how long he’d looked like a ‘table-for-one’ kind of person. How was she to know that he wasn’t the vanguard for an enormous family, or the leader of a group of high-flying executives about to start their day together with a breakfast meeting? He trails her through the sparsely populated main body of the place to an almost segregated section filled with small tables designed to take two people at a push. Breakfast apartheid. Virtually every table here was occupied. Liam glances back over his shoulder at the oasis of open and unoccupied space as he is shown to number forty-three. The waitress’s gesture seems inappropriately grand, as if she were revealing something quite remarkable. He looks at what lay on the surface of the table and sighs. It seems hardly worth the trouble.
Having established that he has indeed had breakfast there before, she retires and he sits down.
“I’m sorry?” says a voice immediately to his left.
Liam glances across to where a woman, half-way through her own breakfast, is looking quizzically at him.
“Excuse me,” Liam says, “I didn’t realise I had brushed you when I sat down.”
Instantly recognising how peculiar it had been to have chosen ‘brushed’ in that sentence, he goes to return his gaze to the distant horizon of the juice bar but is stopped by a burgeoning smile.
“You didn’t,” the woman replies, “I just thought you said something.”
Liam’s short-term memory has not deteriorated that far.
“I was just muttering to myself, I expect,” he confesses. “All that space over there and they treat us singletons like lepers who have to be kept away from the normal people.”
She follows his gaze and then laughs. No-one laughs at breakfast in business hotels; it just isn’t the done thing. Bad form.
“Excuse me,” he says again, momentarily thrown, then stands up and starts to make his way towards the orange juice. He can feel her eyes follow him for a moment and then he is in amongst the minor melee for the toasting machine which, he assumes, will most likely cremate the bread as usual.
When he returns with his dark brown toast, marmalade and a small bowl of fruit, the woman has gone. A utilitarian cylinder of coffee now sits on his table. It is an unfair exchange, he suddenly thinks, as is him spending his time in this way. He feels out of control, nothing but a pawn in a machine that feeds him plastic breakfasts and limited professional stimulation as if such a combination should be enough to make him feel grateful. He doesn’t. If he did once – and he suspects, sadly, that this had indeed been the case – then not doing so is something getting old gave you. Or took away. He refrains from trying to give it a name.
The day proves unremarkable. Having, over the years, more or less accidentally fallen into the world of mergers and acquisitions, he is involved in providing impartial advice to a corporate heavyweight who is in the process of buying another business. “Right place, right time” he had told people in the days when it had all been fresh, an adventure, and had seemed to matter. But once he’d cranked the handle a dozen or more times, it had lost its sparkle. “Same shit, different day” he thought to himself. It was a harsh and over-critical assessment, and not one to which he wholly subscribed. No two deals were the same; they each had their angles and nuances. The current transaction was progressing pretty much to plan; very little had arisen thus far to suggest complications or the likelihood of unearthing of knotty problems that would need to be solved. To that extent he was going through the motions. Knowing clients are paying good money for his experience and expertise, occasionally Liam feels guilty that he doesn’t share the passion of his customers. He has a ‘game face’ which gets him through meetings; he knows the questions to ask, what to concede and what not to. People seem impressed. It boosts his bank balance.
The following morning, the same autopilot which had guided him through the previous day sees him standing once again at the breakfast ‘wait here’ sign. He wonders if it will be the same waitress as the previous day and, if so, whether she will bother to ask him where he was qualified to sit. When it proves to be a different young woman, he steels himself for the ritual.
“Table for one?” she asks, locked in her own autopilot.
Before he has a chance to reply, a voice from behind him.
Liam looks around. It is the woman from the previous morning.
“If you don’t object,” she suggests. “It would give us a chance to put your theory to the test.”
“And avoid leper’s corner?”
“This way please,” says the waitress as she turns on her heel.
“After you,” says Liam, graciously, “the glory is all yours.”
They are stopped in the sparsely populated area of the restaurant and offered a table comfortably big enough for four. The singletons’ section seems miles away in the distance.
“Thank you,” says Liam discretely, as he sits down.
“For rescuing you?” the woman asks.
“Rescuing both of us.”from “The Opposite of Remembering“