The sound of silver on china and the la-di-da voices of Etienne’s usual clientele made David’s head ache. Through the entrée, Isabel’s voice made more than a fair contribution to the ambience. Under the table, David’s hands tormented a small copper face, now on its 500th rotation. He never used to fiddle.
“See, I’m not crazy about the hints of raspberry in this one. But this one is horridly dry, don’t you think, darling?” She said, without so much as a glimpse at David.
“Well I thought the fir—"
“Oh, he hasn’t a clue,” she said, smiling at the waiter, “we’ll take a bottle of the second.”
“A fine choice, madam.” Returned the waiter, much drier than the wine had been.
David sat, uncomfortably, trying to subdue new thoughts, to process. By the end of the main course, he still couldn’t think any clearer, in fact, a brazen look of contempt from the waiter towards Isabel made matters worse. David bullied the coin double time. But right through to the final glass, Isabel carried on just the same, blissfully unaware anything was up. She wore the same countenance as always: Happy. And entitled to be so. How have I got here? thought David. He felt his life choices so far had been made by an invisible hand. The same that waved away his chances of true gratification. The same coarse hand that struck him for wanting to be anything other than correct, proper. Words his father so often used. Perhaps it was his father’s hand all along?
“And then she had the cheek to call my scarf gauche!” Said Isabel, still rattling away, as if playing table tennis with one side of the table still up. She needed no opponent, just a solid surface to bounce words from.
“Can you believe that, hun?” she wasn’t asking, “I mean one isn’t surprised by her anymore, but please. Gauche? Read a fucking book.”
Abruptly, David’s hands froze, and the coin fell from his grasp. You might say the penny had dropped. He made a flash decision to say no, to bite the hand that starved him.
“Isabel, what are you even talking about!?”
It came out louder than expected. The approaching waiter stopped, raised an eyebrow, and swivelled promptly.
“Excuse me?” She said, her face thriving with disgust. He froze, a trapped little boy in a teacher’s glare.
“I’m uh, sorry. But it’s just, I can’t listen to you anymore. To this.”
“Darling. Are you serious? You are actually embarrassing me. If you want me to stop about Lydia then,”
“NO. It’s nothing to do with Lydia. It’s, it’s you.”
For once, David felt in control. Not just of the conversation or relationship, but of his life. His future. He said: “This isn’t me. I’m not pretending anymore.”
“David, please. You sound pathetic.”
“Don’t say ‘David’ like that. Like you know me. You never have. You don’t know or care about anyone but yourself. I’ve had it. It’s off.” He actually smiled.
A new vein appeared on Isabel’s face. Then her mouth scrunched to one side and she lurched forward. Glass. Wine. Wet.
For the next half hour, the waiter, who had discreetly enjoyed the scene from afar, sat next to David and dabbed at his stained blazer. They chatted. The waiter had a strong French accent and David couldn’t help but enjoy himself. He eagerly accepted the waiter’s invitation to meet at the pub after close. The fallen coin remained on the floor, drowning in a pool of red wine.
All evening and into the night they sat, drinking lager, smoking cigarettes and just talking. David couldn’t remember the last time he was somewhere that had beermats. In fact, he reckoned there were over a thousand of them in this pub, all collaged to the walls surrounding a dark wooden bar. He realised how much he had missed this sort of place. The Frenchman’s attention stayed undivided on David’s face.
By half eleven, stools were placed on tables and staff began wiping down the bar. Only the two of them remained. The waiter watched David for a moment, then said,
“You know something, David?”
David was daydreaming something pleasant before turning to fix his gaze.
“I know that uh, before tonight, I don’t know you, but I know you are happier now.”
David blushed and looked at his feet. “And why do you think that is?” He asked.
“Because someone is listening to you,” the Frenchman shifted and placed his hand gently on top of David’s, “the real you.”
At first David was unsure. But the Frenchman’s hands were so soft; certainly not coarse. Then a symphony of passion and the thought of freedom overcame him. He lunged over the table and planted a firm kiss on the waiter’s lips. It was less of a shock for the Frenchman than for David, who at that very moment promised himself never to lose control of his life again.
Later, he bid a farewell-for-now to the Frenchman and stepped out into the night. He wasn’t sure where to go, but every direction felt good. The air was crisp and electric, each breath filled with change, liberation.