Sachets of sugar stand to attention in the sugar bowl like an array of flowers. Taking one out she tears the golden edge and spills the sugar into the coffee, quickly followed by a second, a third, and finally a fourth.
‘I’ve a sweet tooth,’ she says.
‘‘You’re too sweet to be sugar,’ I say out of the blue.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It’s a joke,’ I reply, ‘something my granny used to say when I was a little boy. I don’t even really know what it means.’
‘Well it doesn’t sound funny to me and besides you shouldn’t say things if you don’t know what they mean. You’re not a child any longer.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. My mind is now on high alert.
We’re in the Kilkenny shop cafe on Nassau Street. It’s our Sunday morning ritual. We have an early breakfast and then I stay to listen to the jazz and read the papers, while she heads down to buy up Grafton Street. We have our own table at the window. I like to look out at the street or into the grounds of Trinity. It’s nice. It’s our compromise. She hated the way I used lounge around in bed at the weekends. But I’m an easy-going type of guy. I hate confrontation. We’ve been doing this for months. We know all the staff at this stage. They even tease us about setting a date for the wedding. She blames me that there’s none.
‘It’s hard to tie him down,’ she says.
I laugh at that, and protest at how busy I’ve been, trying to manoeuvre schedules and dates at work, but she just shrugs and walks off.
A waitress arrives at the next table. She must be new. I’ve never seen her before. She quickly fills her tray to overflowing, while giving the surface a final wipe and settling the chairs in place. She lifts the heavily laden tray with ease and it confirms for me the notion I’ve always held, that no matter what the job or the task, it is wonderful to watch excellence in action.
She smiles, a knowing smile that her simple task has been perfectly executed and I know I want to be with my waitress stranger more than with the woman sitting across from me, who, up until a few minutes earlier was the centre of my universe.
‘What are you staring at?’ My lover’s voice interrupts my musings from across the table. ‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you that it’s rude to stare?’
‘No,’ I say, ‘she didn’t.’ I smile but I can see by the way her eyes have narrowed cat-like that I’ve irritated her.
Truthfully my mother never had much influence on my life, but my granny often said a few wise things to me.
‘I only have eyes for you,’ I lie.
‘Well I hope so, though the evidence appears otherwise.’
I feel decidedly uncomfortable. She is an attorney, forever coming up with legal jargon to prove a point.
‘What evidence do you have to support that claim?’ she asked me once. I felt I was on the stand in the Criminal Court instead of trying to prove a simple point about some trivial aspect of house cleaning. I hate when she gets all legal and attorneyish. I always forget my evidence in the moment and as a result she wins every argument.
‘Guilty as charged,’ she declares each time. Sometimes, if I’m lucky I might get off on a technicality, but it’s a rare occurrence.
The waitress is back at the other table buzzing around like a beautiful honeybee. She has a long piece of blond hair that falls just above the line of her blouse. Every now and again she flicks it back but it never stays. I thought waitresses were meant to have their hair tied back. Maybe not! She bends over the table as she sweeps the crumbs and runs the cloth over some spilt milk and in an instant our eyes meet. She smiles. Her full lips turn up ever so slightly at each edge. Granny always said that a girl whose lips turn up like that was always smiling inside.
I haven’t really noticed lips before. I look back at my lover. I have kissed her lips many times. I have felt their touch, their warmth, but if I were to close my eyes this minute I would never know their shape. A pang of guilt shoots through my brain. Love needs to know all these things, the colour of eyes, the shape of lips, the lipstick.
‘The fruit salad is beautiful, isn’t it?’ She interrupts. I look at her lips, they are nice, big lips, but not too big.
My waitress is once again doing her balancing act with the tray. She moves to another table. I want to be at that table. I want to watch her closely to see her hair fall, sweep her shoulder and settle on her breast. I want to study her expertise.
‘You’re doing it again. You’re staring,’ my lover complains.
My heart jumps. ‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I’m not actually staring. I’m sort of tired after last night.’
‘What happened last night? What did you do after you left me?’ She asks.
‘Nothing happened. I just went home to bed.’
‘So why are you tired?’
‘I didn’t sleep. Did you never find it difficult to sleep?’ There is an edge to my voice now and I sense her hurt.
‘No need to be sharp and cutting,’ her face is red, but I know she will remain controlled. She always does. I decide that I don’t like her lips. They move too much.
My waitress is talking to a guy at the next table. They laugh and I see her breasts rise and fall with the effort. He sees it too. What is he saying to make her laugh? I find it hard to make people laugh. I’m a really serious type. People say that’s what they like about me but I don’t know. I’m not sure. Look what’s sitting opposite me for God’s sake – a cross-examining attorney with as much wit and fun as a retired judge. I feel a pang of jealousy. I never feel jealous. I only felt that once, years ago when my granny gave my brother more pocket money because he was older. What was that all about, an accident of birth?
I want to spill the milk or the dregs of my coffee. I want to spill them and wait for my waitress to come over and wipe them up. I want to watch her balance the tray and plates and watch her wipe all around and I want to hear her voice say,
‘Excuse me,’ and I want to smile at her and let her smile at me, but I know I can’t. Like a chess player I survey the table, the position of everything: the milk jug, the saltcellar and the pepper. I can’t spill the sugar. It’s safe in its sachets.
‘Let’s get out of here.’ My lover’s voice breaks in on my thoughts. ‘You’re miles away.’
Guilt shoots thought me again. I jump up, pulling my coat from the back of the chair. I don’t notice the handbag on the floor. My foot catches the strap. It sends me into a spin. I hit the table as I fall. Now I am lying flat on the floor, surrounded by astonished diners who have all turned to stare. There is a pool of milk from a broken jug.
‘That’s what you get for not paying attention.’ My fiancée is shouting facts at me, as she grabs serviettes to mop up the spill.
‘Are you ok, sir?’ The waitress is on her knees beside me. She gathers the few items that have fallen from my pocket with the same efficiency with which she gathered the dishes earlier and helps me to my feet.
‘I’m fine,’ I whisper. ‘Nothing’s broken.’
Then I see the shattered pieces of porcelain bathing in milk on the floor. I mumble something about paying for it.
Her beautiful lips are moving. She is speaking again. ‘I must take your name and phone number,’ she is saying.
‘No need for that. I really am fine.’
‘But I must make a report,’ she says.
‘Nobody’s hurt,’ my lover interjects. ‘There’s no need for a report.’
My two women are locked in conflict as I dust myself down.
‘Oh! But I must,’ my waitress insists.
I hand her my card. ‘All my details are here,’ I say.
She takes the card and her eyes scan the details, then she slips it into her apron pocket.
‘It was your own fault and that’s a fact.’ My lover continues talking as we make our way down Nassau Street. ‘You were not paying attention. But it’s done now and there really is no use crying over spilt milk.’
‘No indeed,’ I smile. ‘That’s exactly what granny always said.’
I think of the waitress, her beautiful eyes, her upturned lips and my details tucked safely in her pocket.
Eithne Reynolds, lives in Dublin. Her work has been published in Gods and Monsters of Tomorrow anthology; The Galway Review anthology; Skylight 47 Literary Magazine; The Bohemyth and Woman’s Way Magazine. She has been long-listed for the Doire Press 2nd Annual Fiction Chapbook Competition, and long-listed for the Fish Poetry Competition 2013. She was placed 2nd in North West Words Poetry Competition and short-listed in the Ó Bhéal poetry competition.
–Art by Zak Milofsky