by Kerry Hadley-Pryce
When they meet again, it’s just not the same. Not to her it isn’t. How could it be, really? Even the place isn’t the same. It’s in the same spot, but it isn’t the same, is it? Everything has changed beyond easy recognition. This place they’re in, it used to be quiet—cosy, she would say. Intimate, perhaps. Not now. It has ‘gone corporate’, like all those places have these days. It’s all faux-leather fixed seating and mis-matched tables and wooden flooring and noise. Oh, the noise. The clatter of crockery, constantly. Now coffee has a culture, it seems to her. She doesn’t really know what that is supposed to mean: culture, all the culturisation of things. A lot of things puzzle her these days.
The man sitting in front of her now, Ben, is not the man she knew. He is a matured version, a sepia version, a version tatty at the edges. She has ordered the drinks—he, Ben, has left his money, his card at home—and the waitress (is she Polish? Perhaps, yes) has said she will bring the drinks over, so they sit, the two of them, in this familiar, unfamiliar place of theirs, quietly, until Ben says, ‘I didn’t think you’d come. Thank you. I’m glad you got the letter.’
She barely hears it, over the clattering, and the sudden laughter from people sitting nearer the door. She basically read his lips.
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Well, of course, yes.’
The waitress comes over with a tray of their drinks. As she places the cups down in front of them, some of Ben’s tea spills into the saucer and she apologises. Ben flashes her a glance that is all too familiar and he all but waves her away. His sigh is audible, even over the noise. When the waitress has gone, Ben says, ‘What’s that?’ He means ‘what are you drinking?’
‘Coffee,’ she says. ‘A latte.’
They both stare at her cup, at the froth and the steam and the whiteness of it.
He makes a face and shakes his head. ‘None of that for me any more,’ he says. ‘I stick to this: camomile.’ He pronounces it camomeel, and for some reason that jars with her.
He taps his chest with the tips of his fingers and says, ‘Coffee: bad for the old ticker.’
The cuff of his shirt is frayed, but his fingers, she notices are still long, almost the same as before. Perhaps, she thinks, musicians’ fingers always remain the same. Perhaps the constant practising keeps them young. It makes her look at her own hands, which haven’t kept so well. Veins, like blue worms live under the skin there. She places her hands under the table, on her knees, conscious suddenly—not suddenly, conscious again, perhaps—of the time that has passed. But he, Ben, sees her do it.
‘You’re wearing rings,’ he says, and his face rests in a way she almost recognises from before.
‘I am,’ she says. ‘Yes.’ But she keeps her hands on her knees, out of sight.
‘You are not,’ she says. ‘Wearing rings, I mean.’
He straightens, and she notices the sinews in his neck. He will have trimmed that beard this morning, she thinks. That grey, grey beard. He will have combed that hair, what’s left of it.
‘I never married,’ he says. ‘Mary and I, we never did.’
Mary. She receives the name, such a common noun, with all of its religious implications, like a stone in the face.
She takes a sip of her latte, which tastes of nothing but heat.
He leans forward. She is not wearing her spectacles, but anyway is short-sighted, so the closer he gets, the clearer he becomes, and she can see clearer and clearer, the depth of time in the lines around his eyes, along his forehead.
‘She…’ He starts to speak. His eyes are still quite blue. He takes a little breath in as if he has an announcement to make, and then seems to change his mind and sits back. There is a paunch of flesh visible in a gape in the fabric of his shirt where a button is missing, just above the waistband of his trousers. It makes her remember, the sight of his flesh there. How long ago? How old were they? How old was she?
‘I’m a widow,’ she says. She says it because it brings her back to where she is now, where she wants to be. ‘And I had a child, but…’ She’s not sure she wants to tell him.
His eyes, she notices, brighten, but only for a second.
‘Mary died,’ he says. ‘Quite suddenly, actually. No children. She never fell pregnant.’
He empties out, his body, it deflates in front of her, and, of course, she thinks he might cry. She hopes he won’t. And he doesn’t.
At her age, she has experienced the death of several loved ones: friends, relatives, not just her husband, but her child too. And her job, of course, taught her how to respond to death. She knows the things to say to others in these circumstances, but…but, she cannot bring herself to say that she is sorry for his loss, or that she understands what he must be feeling, so, instead, she reaches across the table, with her weathered hands, and touches his. She wants to say, ‘Do you remember when we used to come here? Every Friday, for how long? Do you remember that time, that last afternoon we had together? You must do, you must remember.’ But she does not. And anyway, Ben gathers himself, she watches him do it.
‘She was the love of my life,’ he says. He says it as if it is a hard, cold fact. ‘I travelled around the world with her. We lived in Paris for a while, and then in Canada…’ His voice trails. ‘I travelled around the world with her, there was never any pressure to…’
He looks at her then. ‘And then, suddenly, she died.’ And he moves his arms, his hands, like a magician. It looks quite bizarre. And his face is full of a look close to terror, and when he breathes, she can hear it like air passing through water.
She wants to remember him as he was, all those years ago. For the first time in years, she pictures the last time she saw him. They had had coffee here in this place, here. It was a greasy-spoon then and the coffee was dreadful, and the scones were stale, but that made it all the more illicit, really. He had suggested it, that they go back to his room. It is all coming back to her now, the excitement of that suggestion. She feels her face, her cheeks, her ears, become hot with the thought of it.
‘And you,’ he says, and it brings her back to him now. ‘You’re a widow.’
‘Yes,’ she says, and her voice is compressed, she feels, like a young woman again. ‘Michael died years ago—five years.’
Ben, she notices, takes a gulp of his camomeel tea, and she hears him swallow as if it is difficult to do so.
‘He was my second husband,’ she says. ‘I was married to Richard before that, but…’
‘You were married twice?’ he says. There is, in the corner of his mouth a collection of something forming, spit, or something brownish. It seems ridiculous, to her, to answer, and anyway, yes, she’s been married twice, so what?
‘You can’t have fallen in love with them both,’ he says.
He says ‘fallen in love’ in an entirely different tone of voice, an entirely different accent. It makes her wish she’d been married six, seven or even eight times, and that she could list the names of all the men—and women, yes, let there be women—with whom she had slept in the, what, forty-odd years since last they had last met. Forty years ago—more than that—he had driven her to his room, the room he rented from Mary, and his single bed had been in need of a new mattress, and the duvet held his smell, and she had seen the pile of books on the bedside table, the ones she had recommended he read, and they had spent that last afternoon together and she had said it, because it had been a reckless thing to do, a reckless afternoon spent with him, in his bed. And she had said, she had told him, that she had fallen in love with him. That is what she had said to him, that she had fallen.
She notices that there is a twitch, or something sagging about his eye as if the appraisal he is giving her is too heavy for his face to cope with, for his flesh to handle.
‘And your hair,’ he says. ‘Short now, I see.’
She places her hands, with the rings, on the table and looks at them there. Forty-odd years ago, he had held them, these hands, he had kissed them. He had said they would meet again, as usual, the following Friday, that he had found himself somewhere else to live, that they would be happy together, not to worry, that Mary wanted him out, she needed the room, she was only his landlady.
He sits back in the chair. He is an old man now, she sees that. Old, even, before his time. She sees the sharpness of his collarbones, the length of his earlobes, the mottled, drooping skin along his jawline.
‘You completed your training,’ he says. ‘You must have done.’
‘I did,’ she says. ‘Obstetrics.’
He seems impressed, or tries to seem impressed, and for a second, she thinks she might tell him, about the child, but he says, ‘I didn’t think you’d do it. I thought you’d, I don’t know, give it up or something. I didn’t think you had it in you.’
When she looks about this place, she can, just about, see it as it was. Perhaps she’s even sitting in the exact same place she sat all those years ago, waiting for him, sitting with two cups of dreadful coffee and stale scones, waiting. Perhaps she could, if she wanted to, bring to mind how it felt to sit there like that, having fallen in love. Perhaps she’ll never forget that feeling of having fallen, and the dawning realisation that as the coffee cooled, so had he, and of the things he’d never know.
‘Good pension though?’ he says. ‘I bet you’re well-off.’
And he winks. He actually winks at her, and she lets herself gently fall back against the faux leather of the fixed seating.
He hasn’t even finished his tea, but he says he needs the loo. That’s the phrase he uses, ‘need the loo.’
‘Don’t go anywhere,’ he says. He says it like a joke, and he stands up, as if in sections, from the seat, and he rubs his thigh and says, ‘Cramp,’ and limps slightly as he walks towards the washroom.
The waitress appears immediately, and asks if they needs anything else. ‘No,’ she says, ‘thank you. I think I’ve had everything I need.’
She knows he’ll be a while, because being an old man like he is, urination will take some time. She imagines his prostate being an issue, and she imagines, anyway, he’d notice his reflection in the mirror above the wash hand basin, surely, and he’d have to wipe away that clump of god-knows-what that had accumulated in the corner of his mouth. So she sits for a little while, listening to the clatter and laughter. And then she leaves. Before she does, she considers finishing her coffee, but decides against it. It is dreadful, the coffee, even now.
Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s first novel, The Black Country, published by Salt Publishing in 2015, was part of her MA Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement 2013–14. She is currently a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University researching Psychogeography and Black Country Writing. Her second novel, Gamble, also published by Salt Publishing in June 2018, was shortlisted for the Encore Second Novel Award 2019.