He looked over the top of his glasses, nodded his head and made a humming noise. I don’t know why he looked at the menu, we’d gone there every week for ten years. The menu never changed, except when they introduced steak night on Wednesday, but we went on Friday so what did it matter to us? It was a long ten minutes of swirling the dregs of his beer around in his glass, and gazing over the menu as if it was the directions to the Holy Grail. He finally closed his menu and put it on top of mine.
“You know what you’re having love?” I finished off the last of my Rioja and folded my arms on the table.
“Yes, the salmon. You?”
“I’m going to try their steak and ale pie.” Try? I thought. He’d been ‘trying’ it every other week since 1998.
The waitress didn’t even change. I didn’t know what was sadder, the fact we’d been eating there for 10 years, or the fact that she’d been working there all that time. She was a bowling ball. She rolled around the restaurant, between the tight tables. “Oops, coming through,” she’d say while trying to land a plate of vegetables on one table, and navigate her obscenely big bottom around the chairs. I thought how could you let yourself get like that. Must be picking in the kitchen and it is true what they say, little pickers really do wear big knickers.
She shuffled through the tables, pen behind her ear and note pad in her hand. Her tights were like the skin you get on sausages and her skirt was showing too much of them. Her gut was tucked in to her skirt and her shirt buttons weren’t done up high enough. Cleavage was spilling out all over the restaurant. She was smiling at us. Pretty face with heart shaped lips and big eyes. Lots of make-up but that’s what they do these days. Understated is out.
“Fancy seeing you here,” she said. I smiled and Al laughed.
“Yes, fancy it,” I said.
“Let me guess,” she put her fingers to her temples and hummed, she pointed at me. “The salmon?”
“That’s me,” I said. “How did you guess?”
“And you are having…” she looked at Al and did the same with her fingers on her temples. “Now, last week you had the sausage and mash, so this week it has got to be the pie!” Al laughed hysterically, I laughed a little.
“You’re so good at remembering,” he said breathless from laughing. Had he always laughed at jokes that weren’t funny? Jokes that weren’t even jokes.
“Did you want it with all the usual trimmings? Chips and peas with the pie, new potatoes and veg with the salmon?”
“Please.” We both said same tone, same time.
She shuffled back through the tables, the glasses chinked together as she passed. One week we when we were at the restaurant I spent the entire time thinking about how the place could be arranged better. Why did they even have so many tables? The place was never full, just a couple of regulars doing regular things.
I knew Al would go and get us both a drink, he liked to do something while he waited. I told him I’d have the large red and he shuffled off to get them.
He was at the bar.
“Hello Al, me old mate,” that was the barman. “What will it be?” He knew what it will be, bet he even knew the joke, wait for it and brace yourselves, it’s a good one.
“I’ll have a large red and a pint of Frog, not in the same glass mind!” The barman was kind, he laughed. I cringed every time I heard that bloody ‘joke’. To think, all those years ago when we met I’d laughed at that. I’d touched his shoulder in the pub while he ordered the first drink we ever shared and thought it was the funniest thing. Those were the days, back then when I was in a pub with my friends, having interesting conversations.
Good old conversations.
Since we moved out in the sticks ten years ago I lost touch with everyone. Al promised me it would be nice in the country, there would be groups to join and he could get a dog. He never got a dog and I never joined a group. He got old and I got shy.
Al shuffled back, two glasses in his hands. He always placed them so gently on the coasters and had to line the rim up with the picture. He breathed heavy because he had polyps, and it was worse after any kind of physical activity- even walking to the bar. A couple of long hairs tickled his upper lip and I wished he’d used the nose hair trimmer I’d got him for Christmas. I took a sip of my drink; he took a sip of his. He looked around the room, and I did to. I lined the coaster up with the edge of the table, and counted the corners on the picture frames. I looked at my hands and stroked each soft nail, straightened my eternity ring.
Eternity means forever. I spun it back round.
I knew exactly what he was going to say and I tried to stop him because every time he said it I hated him.
“I do love the wall paper here you know. You think we could do it at our place. Hire someone in maybe, you know I’m not too good with wall papering.” Words to that effect were said every week, every other week if I was lucky. The wall paper had been up since 2005. Big ugly flowers taking over an entire wall.
“Yes, I guess we could. We would have to hire someone of course,” I said. He nodded and took another sip of his drink. He sang along to a song he was too old to know and tapped his hand on his knee. Next, he had a choice of three people to talk about and two different topics. Either his brother giving his kids their inheritance last year, or the next door neighbor getting her teeth done.
It was our neighbor and the teeth. He was thinking about going down to talk to the dentist about his. He hated his teeth. Bit late to care now I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I nodded, smiled. He told me I was blessed with straight square teeth. Others would kill for my teeth he said, then the food came.
I didn’t see the signs, honest. I was looking down at my plate, picking at the fish and trying to remember if the salmon always tasted so bland. I was thinking what I would do if I ever got to cook something so different. I thought that rosemary and butter would make this salmon so much tastier and maybe a foil parcel would make it more moist. I decided that I’d make it for myself soon and Al could have his usual meat, veg and potatoes. I looked up to tell him how I was going to do the salmon, not that he’d care, and not that he’d react, but I had to say something.
Al looked different. His mouth was drooped at one side. His arms were heavy on his lap. “Al,” I said. “Are you okay? Is something wrong with the pie?”
He tried to speak but his words were slurring like he’d drank six pints of Frog, not one and a half. It clicked.
I threw my chair back, “Call an ambulance!” A stroke, of course. It was a blur, the staff rushing around, a couple of diners leaving their meals to lend mobiles. I didn’t know how to work it, I threw it back and said, “you call.”
When the flashing lights got there they bundled us both in the back of the ambulance, Al more carefully of course. I knew he was goner. It was how his mother went. I held his limp hand and thought how we hadn’t held hands in years.
His nose hair stopped tickling his upper lip on the road that led to the hospital. The paramedic turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, he’s gone.”
It felt like Christmas eve back when the kids were little. It felt like the weight of a 14 stone man had been lifted from my shoulders. It felt like happiness.
“Do you cook salmon in a foil parcel,” I said the paramedic, “or do you pan fry?”