In a quiet side street, beneath a solicitors’ office, steps led down from the pavement to the tiny restaurant.
There were still only ten tables in this little facsimile of an imaginary Italy. It was one of the few things which had barely changed.
Tom ordered some bread and olives. His early evening had been spent walking round betrayed by memories. He felt the disoriented bereavement of returning after so many years. Road layouts were different; you had to park in different places and pay to do so. The big named places which had gone under were filled with other big named places, struggling to compete with the out of town malls. Was that where Woolworths used to be? Was that once British Home Stores? Small shops and businesses he remembered had gone and been replaced. Perhaps he’d imagined them. The town was just as pretty, with its Georgian elegance and flower displays but nothing else was the same.
He could have eaten anywhere. The Spa Hotel was now easily affordable. Once he had walked through the park outside under tasteful Christmas lights, silver in the trees. He’d watched the rich go inside and wonder whether the food and ambience was worth the cost. Then, mentally counting how much he had left in his account, he’d gone to this little Italian haunt instead.
He could have eaten anywhere, but it didn’t seem right. He took Cara’s photograph out of his pocket and studied it. At that moment, the waiter appeared with the olives and leaning over his shoulder said ‘bella! bella!’
Tom was startled, his privacy invaded. He made a meaningless response and turned the photograph face down on the table.
‘Yes!’ continued waiter, oblivious to or despite Tom’s feelings, ‘and when she comes here, this place, it lights up!’
‘Really?’ replied Tom, ‘you mean, she comes here?’ How ridiculous, why shouldn’t she? She had lived here all her life.
‘But yes!’ the waiter, with his dubious accent, seemed unable to speak without exclamation marks. Tom wondered what would happen if he asked in Italian which region the waiter was from. But then, the exaggerated accent was part of the atmosphere, always had been. The waiter continued, ‘she comes here every Tuesday evening at seven o’clock. Such a beauty! Her laugh is like a bell!’
Wondering how a bell was supposed to laugh, Tom was startled by the punctuality. Cara must have changed. Routine and pattern were his traits, hers were spontaneity and surprise.
He had blamed that discord for his departure all those years ago. Only now, picking up olive after olive, he realised that for all that, he was the one who had gone off into the unknown and she was the one who had stayed.
Cara could have gone with him of course.
‘Plenty of prestigious schools down in the South East,’ he’d said.
‘Plenty of prestigious schools here too,’ she’d said.
But she had chosen to teach in the one everyone pretended didn’t exist as disadvantaged, uncultured poverty didn’t represent the way the town wanted to portray itself.
He’d wondered aloud what good it would do them to mix with those complex families. In his mind he pigeon-holed them into stereotypes: barely literate, behind with the rent, hiding from loan sharks, breeding like rabbits.
‘You mean they won’t give you good connections,’ she’d snapped, ’I want to make a difference,’ she’d said, ‘do you?’
Her words had escalated from ‘self-serving’, to ‘snob’ and then ‘bastard’; his from ‘unambitious’, to ‘lazy’ and then ‘failure’. The names stung then slashed. She cried, he left. He left her in that cold, damp flat with its elegant but unbeatable proportions, left the untidy rooms, left the hasty marriage proposed under those sparkling trees. Clean break. No contact. Twenty years had passed.
Tom glanced at the clock. It was six. He frowned. He’d just realised it was Tuesday. Would she come here this evening? With her man-friend? Tom had only come to check the restaurant out, wondering if he could ask her to join him there for old time’s sake another evening.
He had never intended to find her again. But twenty years of promotion and order, influence, routine, predictability had passed and he’d never found anyone to share it with. And then redundancy was offered; inevitable, but worth more if you jumped before you were pushed and when someone said ‘never mind, now you can have more time for your pastimes and friends’, he realised he hadn’t really got either. During a weekend of doubt and uncertainty, he’d bumped into Cara in the National Gallery, on neutral ground. They had nearly bypassed each other, not recognising the changed faces and bodies; but over coffee they simply started to talk as if time had been suspended and could now restart.
With trepidation he had said he was thinking of spending a week back in the West Country she had never left. Would she be free? Was she free? Would she consider spending some time with him? No strings, just company.
They had walked in parks and forests, climbed hills above the river, visited theatres and museums and found that somehow while different, they were still the same and while still the same, they were somehow different. Then her hand had slipped into his and he knew he wanted to ask her to dinner in the old place, if it still existed, and that this would be the turning point. He had never been afraid of risk before, but now, it was all or nothing. If he could not win her back, he would return to the empty South East alone.
And here was the old place, still existing.
The waiter returned to take Tom’s order and prodded the photograph again. ‘Yes,’ he continued, as if the conversation had not ceased, ‘she comes every Tuesday at seven o’clock with her man-friend. What a lovely couple they make.’ He kissed his fingers. Mwah!
The olives became tasteless, the room cold. Tom said something non-committal and picked up his phone.
‘Now?’ Cara said, ‘right this second? Well, I could… but…’
‘You remember the place? Park Close. It’s barely changed.’ He named it and looked at the clock. It was nearly six fifteen. She was quiet and then spoke, anxiety in her voice.
‘Not tonight, tomorrow night. I could meet you somewhere else tonight.’
‘I’m already here. I’ve got a table. Please join me.’
‘How about nine?’
‘No, now. Now or…’ he couldn’t say it.
The silence was so long, he took his phone from his ear and checked to see if he still had a signal. Then she said, ‘oh all right.’
She walked in at six forty-five. She was beautiful but her smile was strained. Her long chestnut hair was pinned up and she wore some earrings he vaguely recalled.
‘This was our place, do you remember? Do you still come here?’ he asked.
‘Hardly ever,’ she said.
But ‘every Tuesday’, the waiter had said, ‘every Tuesday at seven with her man-friend’. Cara fiddled with a piece of bread.
The waiter came back and took their order. He smiled and flirted a little with Cara and winked at Tom.
She was shaking slightly, rolling bits of bread but not eating it; swirling her wine but not drinking it.
‘Listen,’ she said, ‘there’s something I haven’t got round to telling you…’
The door of the restaurant opened. Its ringing bell made them turn. A young man and woman walked in laughing. The girl’s head was thrown back, uninhibited, long chestnut hair straightened and falling round her shoulders. Her clothes were retro, she might have walked straight out of his youth. She stopped laughing and wiping the mirth from her eyes, took in the restaurant including the middle-aged couple staring at them in silence.
The waiter returned with the starters and tapped the face down twenty year old photograph again, pointed at the girl and said ‘what did I tell you? Bella, bella! Laughs like a bell!’
Tom, his mouth open, looked at the slender young woman. He took in her hair, her mouth, hands and feet. Then he considered Cara with her fine lines and plumpness and then he turned the photograph face up.
And the girl, oblivious, stared at Cara and with the tone only a nineteen year old can emit, said seven exasperated words: ‘oh Mum! What are you doing here?’
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission