The lovers

by Tony Birch

FRIDAY WAS THEIR day. They always arrived just after twelve, before the lunch hour got into full swing. They took their table, under the side window, looking over the flowerbox of deep-red geraniums. And they always ordered the same meal, the goulash soup we're famous for. He was tall, tanned and fit-looking, while she was solid, with a sweet, vulnerable face. When they weren't eating they'd lean across the table, holding hands and staring into each other's eyes as they chatted away.

When I delivered the tray of food to the table, or returned to collect the empty bowls, I'd linger and eavesdrop on their conversation. They never spoke a word about insider trading. Or a legal brief. Or whatever else the suits go on about when they're in here throwing back the red and trying to hit on the waitresses. They looked like the perfect couple, and I never doubted they were.

That's what I started calling them when the bell above the café door rang out just after noon each Friday, announcing their arrival. I would look up at the clock on the wall, lean across the bar and nudge Carmen, the maitre d'.

'Look. They're here. And right on time. The perfect couple.'

Carmen's a hard-arse from way back. And a single mum, bringing up a four-year-old alone – the kid's father shot through before the baby was out of nappies. According to Carmen she's since been 'fucked over by just about every bloke in the phone book. My next-door neighbour, who complains about the dog. My bus driver, who won't change a note, not even a ten. And the last fella I went out with, who drove my car into a pole and wrote it off the same day he said he decided we weren't suited.'

She'd been burnt, and badly. It didn't surprise me that she didn't buy the perfect-couple line.

'No relationship's that good,' she'd sneer across the room as they took their seats. 'Or that happy. Unless one of them has a bit going on the side. My old man was like that. I'd catch him smiling at himself in the bathroom mirror, humming some fucking tune and preening himself like a rooster. Whenever he did that I was sure he was playing up.'

She'd look over at the couple again. 'He really fancies himself, so it's most likely him playing up. You wait and see, Jimmy. It'll come out. Always does.'

Then she'd smile as she picked breadcrumbs from my shirtsleeve. 'Wouldn't be all bad news though, would it? You know what I think? You fancy her yourself.'

She'd spot me blushing and slap me lightly on the cheek. 'You always fall for the ones you can't have.'

 

I WAS TOO busy taking orders to notice that they hadn't turned up at the usual time one Friday, until Carmen pointed it out to me as I was restocking the fridge behind the bar when lunch was almost over.

'Wonder what happened to the lovebirds?' she asked, raising an eyebrow. 'Something's fucked up there.'

I looked up at the clock and glanced over at the table by the window. The crockery and glasses hadn't been touched. 'Maybe they're late?'

Carmen circled me, stood behind me. She leaned her chin on my shoulder and whispered in my ear as she purposely pressed her breasts into my back. 'You know your trouble, Jimmy? You need these two. Thisperfect couple. Because they give you hope.'

She ran a hand through my hair and laughed. 'Let me give you some advice. If you don't want to get hurt, you're gonna have to get your head out of the clouds. Your trouble is you spent too much time in the romance section at the video library. All that Sleepless in Seattle shit has fucked with your brain. When I get home from here, stinking of spaghetti sauce and grease, I sit down with a smoke and a drink and watchThelma and Louise. I've got it on an old VHS tape. Just about worn it out. It's one of those "all men are arseholes" flicks. It might teach you something about the real world.'

'Not all men are arseholes, Carmen. You've just had bad luck. Maybe this couple went away for the long weekend. Monday's a holiday, remember.'

She ruffled my hair again. 'Yeah. Maybe. And probably fucking not.'

 

THE NEXT FRIDAY I anxiously waited for them to arrive. Whenever a customer moved toward their table I rushed over and waved them away, explaining that the table was taken, even though we don't allow reservations. I'd convinced myself that while the table remained empty they'd eventually show up. I hadn't heard them discussing wedding plans, but I imagined they might be on their honeymoon, walking arm-in-arm along a sun-drenched beach.

 

IT WAS MONTHS later when I next saw her, rushing by the café with her head buried in her chest, carrying a sad-looking sandwich wrapped in plastic. I hardly recognised her. She'd lost weight and had dark rings under her eyes.

I saw her most days after that, around the same time, and made a point of standing out the front of the café as she walked by. I tried making eye contact a couple of times but she wouldn't look my way. Carmen was with me one day, enjoying a sliver of sun and savouring a last cigarette before lunch when we spotted her stumbling along the bluestone laneway outside the café.

'What do you reckon happened to her?' I asked. 'She looks terrible.'

Carmen took a long thoughtful drag on her cigarette and blew smoke into the air.

'What happened? It's fucking obvious. She's walking around like a bag of bones and doesn't give a shit about the way she looks. I'll bet you a week of tips, Jimmy – no, I'll put my pay packet on it – that Prince Charming has been rooting someone else. Like I told you the first time I saw them together.'

'You don't know that. She's been missing for months. Why would she stay away for so long? He might have got sick, and maybe she took time off to look after him? The guy could be dead for all we know. Look at her. She's all in black. Maybe she's in mourning for him?'

Carmen butted her cigarette in the flowerbox. She was always screaming at customers for doing the same thing. 'Yeah, she's in mourning, all right. And it's because he's treated her like a corpse. She's probably been too ashamed to come back to work. Looks like she's had a breakdown.'

She took her packet of cigarettes out of the front of her apron, stuck one in her mouth and put her hand over her heart. 'He did the dirty on her. Trust me.'

 

I COULD HARDLY believe what I was seeing when he turned up at the café a few weeks later. It was raining outside and we were filling up fast. I was setting a table alongside the open fire when the bell above the door rang. He stood in the doorway shaking the rain from a large umbrella. For a moment my heart lifted. They're back, I thought. But they weren't. He was with another, the other woman. She was tall and thin and dressed elegantly in a cream woollen dress.

He looked across at the empty table by the window and headed for it, lightly guiding his companion with a hand resting on her hip. I retreated behind the bar alongside Carmen. She'd also seen them come in. She smiled at me cruelly.

'Look who's here. It's your dead-man-fucking-walking. Looks fit enough to me. And that suit he's wearing. Tailored, I reckon. Never dressed like that when he was in here with your girl. He's moved up the ranks. Promotion would be my guess. And look at the chick. It would have to be a blond.'

While Carmen's a little on the short side, I thought it wasn't the time to remind her she's also a blond.

When none of the waiting staff moved to serve them he impatiently scanned the café. Carmen nodded towards the table. 'You going to look after them?'

I studied the deep grain of the wood as I wiped the top of the oak bar over and over again. 'I'm busy.'

She snapped her fingers loudly and ordered one of the juniors over to the table.

I watched the couple out of the corner of one eye as he ordered for them. The goulash soup. I couldn't believe the insult.

Carmen was sure the blond wouldn't touch her steaming bowl. 'She can't afford to. You want to keep a wafer figure like that in trim – you live on fresh air.' She laughed, slapping her ample arse.

I was clearing a table on the far side of the room when Carmen rushed over and grabbed my arm.

'Jimmy. Look. It's the ex.'

I turned to the table under the side window. The girl was standing outside in the rain, looking in through the glass. Her hair was soaking wet, her dress clung to her frame and her thin arms rested limply at her side. He'd turned away from the window, and the blond was staring down at the red-checked tablecloth. The girl banged the window with her fists. Other customers looked up from their plates, but not the couple. They were clearly embarrassed. He called me over to the table. When I refused to move Carmen tapped me on the shoulder.

'You'd better go.'

'Fuck him. I'm not going.'

'Get over there. Please, Jimmy. This is upsetting the other customers. Tell him he's a prick if you like. I'd go myself, except I'd stick a fork in his throat.'

As I walked towards the table I kept my eyes on the girl outside. She looked directly at me for the first time. She was broken.

'Excuse me,' he demanded. 'Can we please have another table? Away from the window?'

I looked around the room. We were full. 'I'm sorry. This is all we have.'

As the girl continued banging at the glass the blond flicked a strand of hair from her face with a perfectly manicured fingernail.

The banging stopped suddenly. The girl wiped tears and raindrops from her face with the sleeve of her dress. She leaned forward, pressed her face against the glass and took a final look at the man who had betrayed her. When she walked away all that was left of her was a smudge of mist on the glass.

I walked back to the bar and muttered 'arsehole' out of the corner of my mouth.

'Too right.' Carmen nodded.

When the bowls of goulash came out of the kitchen she insisted on taking them over to the table – a task she rarely stooped to.

'I'm going to throw in a complimentary glass of wine for the two of them.'

She pulled out a pair of tumblers from under the bar and filled them to the brim with the cheapest red we stocked. I half expected her to spit in them. She held the tray above her head with one hand as she weaved her way through the rows of tables.

Carmen was no more that a couple of feet away from the table when he looked up, smiled at her and winked seductively. As she stumbled with the tray his face turned to horror, while the blond screamed as a culinary storm rained down on them.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.