Table for One
I don’t need to say ‘Table for one’ any more. The waiter has stopped saying it as well. He would always end with the little upward inflection that seemed to mock my single state. Or maybe that was just my imagination. But I don’t think so. Why had he taken so long to stop saying it? Of course I wanted a table for one. Did he think I had come with an invisible escort? My imaginary friend Billy from my first couple of years at Primary School perhaps? Or maybe God, my imaginary friend in the sky who took his leave not long after Billy? It occurred to me that maybe all friends are imaginary. Maybe it’s friendship that isn’t real.
It is of course the usual table. I wonder why he always needs to ask, and to walk in front of me. Surely I’m old enough to find my own way to the dark corner by the radiator unaided? Maybe waiters have a script, like insurance salesmen. ‘I can see that your circumstances are very pleasant at the moment, sir, and you must indeed be proud of your fine house, your successful career and your beautiful wife and children. I know that it’s hardly the time in your life when you’re likely to be thinking about things that could go wrong. Things that would mean your family might not be provided for in the way that you would wish. An illness, for example, or damage to your career through no fault of your own, a misfortune befalling a family member, a difficult period in your personal life…or even – we need to face up to such possibilities, however remote – your life coming to an untimely end…’
Sorry, Mr Salesman. It’s too late. Most of those things have already happened. All except the last one I suppose. I ought to be suitably grateful for that. And June and the kids are provided for. The one who isn’t provided for is me.
I stop myself. Self-pity is an ugly thing. Be positive. This is a new phase of my life. It doesn’t have to be bad one. It’s a new beginning, that’s all it is. In my head I hear the words of the old Seasick Steve song: ‘I started out with nothin’ an’ I’ve still got most of it left.’
Of course normally a new beginning is something for your teens or twenties, or your thirties at worst. It’s when you leave home, when you graduate, pass your driving test, start your round-the-world gap year trip, move in with your first girlfriend, get your first job, see the birth of your first child. It’s not for people at my time of life. At my time of life it isn’t exciting any more, it’s absurd. More than half my life over and I still haven’t grown up. Still haven’t worked out what it’s all about.
The waiter comes back with the menu. He talks to me about such things as soup-of-the-day, specials, vegetables. I let him choose for me. Strange, I was once so fussy about food. Where has that gone?
My reverie is interrupted when I hear the same waiter, now over by the door, make that familiar enquiry: ‘Table for one?’ I try to look without making it too obvious. It’s a woman in her early middle age, much the same build as June, similar hair.
Immediately a fantasy starts to build up in my mind. She’s going to speak to me, or me to her. We’re going to discover that we’re both alone, both recently divorced, both with the same needs. We’re going to leave here together, discover that we’re neighbours, walk towards our road together…your place or mine? Great things, fantasies. So much better than real life.
Damn, she’s looking straight at me now! I must have made it too obvious. What if she does speak to me? I smile nervously. I should have realised that there are only two tables with single seats, set back in this little alcove. Where else would the waiter take her?
She returns my embarrassed smile with one that oozes confidence. Her face is pleasant. Probably a bit prettier than June if I’m honest, and softer. Less angry. Less world-weary. Cheerful, even. She’s only about six feet away from me now and she hasn’t broken eye contact. Should I say something? I think I have to.
‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ I say, trying to sound friendly and casual. What a dumb thing to say! Not much better then ‘Do you come here often?’ I wince at my own ineptitude.
‘I dine here quite frequently,’ she says in a casual tone, ‘but not usually on my own.’
The spirit of Sherlock Holmes rears up inside me. What does she mean by ‘not usually on my own’? Is she signalling that she’s married, that I need to back off, or that she would prefer not to be alone? I notice a significant clue. She isn’t wearing any rings but on the ring finger of her left hand there is a clear discolouration and even a slight depression in the skin where a ring has recently been. A new divorcee! No, I mustn’t jump to conclusions.
‘Would you like to join me?’
Did she really say that or is my imagination running away with me? No, she said it. I’m not going mad. ‘That’s very kind of you. Why not? My name’s Martin.’ I feel it might be too pushy to give her my full name right away. Too presumptuous. I lift my chair to her table and sit slightly to one side. Facing her directly might come across as over-familiar. Or worse still, desperate. I smile again. Yes, she’s attractive up close. It’s more her expression than her features, which are a bit better than average but not drop-dead beautiful. The thing about her is that she looks happy. How often do we talk to someone who looks genuinely happy?
‘I’m celebrating tonight. I want to have a really nice meal and a good wine, and I don’t want to do it on my own. I’m Phyllis Elder. Pleased to meet you.’ She holds out a small and elegant hand and I take it but don’t quite know what to do with it and return it after a faint-hearted squeeze.
‘May I ask what you’re celebrating?’
‘The end of a marriage. This evening I did something that I should have done years ago. Decades ago. And it feels very good.’
‘I’m delighted to hear that. Congratulations!’ I pause. ‘I was married too, up to a few weeks ago. I know I should feel like celebrating the… release, but I don’t, really. It was sad in a lot of ways too. And there were children Do you have children?’
‘No, thank god.’
‘For the moment.’ I don’t press her on what she means by that. ‘Let’s not talk about marriage and things that are finished. Tell me…’ she pauses for thought, ‘about the most wonderful holiday you’ve ever had. Where you went and what you did.’
I am quite simply charmed. This woman is like a child, she seems to be on the edge of laughter all the time, she just loves being alive and wants to have fun – why can’t I be like that? Why can’t everybody? Where can a man go to find such a wife?
I’ve never been any good at small talk but with Phyllis I am. We chat, we joke, we talk about our lives – but in a light and flippant way, concentrating on the absurd moments and the little pleasures and delights. Only the ‘ups’, none of the ‘downs’. We are in time to cancel my order and the meal Phyllis orders for the two of us is superb: a Portuguese seafood soup, a poached lobster-tail main dish, vegetables cooked to perfection and served with a butter sauce, slices of lemon-and-mango meringue cake to finish off, and a magnificent Burgundy red to go along with it all. I can sense the waiter’s disapproval of red wine with seafood but Phyllis obviously couldn’t care less. I never imagined that my little bistro could aspire to such heights of culinary perfection. This isn’t going to be a cheap meal, I know, but like Phyllis, I don’t care.
As we eat and chat I notice a group of three men enter together and start talking to the waiter near the door. Dark suited, quietly spoken, I can’t make out anything of what they are saying. Phyllis laughs loudly at something and they look in our direction. “Friends of yours?” I ask.
She drinks down the last of the Burgundy before she replies. “No, but I think they may have come to make my acquaintance.” She glances towards them. They have not sat down and are now staring with blank expressions in our direction. “Martin, this has been a delightful evening for me. The best one I have had for years. I want to thank you for your company. And please, I beg you, allow me to talk to you again.”
I am puzzled. “Of course. I would love to. I haven’t had such a nice evening with a woman since… since I can’t remember when. Your ex-husband was a lucky man, he must be so devastated to lose you.”
For the first time the joy leaves her face. “No, Martin. He didn’t appreciate me. He didn’t see me as you do. But let’s not talk about him. Just promise that you’ll come, as soon as you know where I am, and the visiting hours.”
Visiting hours? My confusion deepens. The three newcomers in the dark suits are walking steadily towards our table in a parallel formation like soldiers or line dancers. Standing directly in front of us now, the one in the middle produces an official-looking laminated plastic identity card and recites in a quiet clear tone: “Phyllis Marie Elder, I am arresting you for the murder of Raymond Charles Elder. You are not obliged to say anything…”