by Margaret Bulleyment
macchiato on the side - espresso with a dash of froth
‘Did you have a good meeting, then?’ Mike sat down heavily at the tiny table, dragging the gingham cloth with him.
Sue carefully straightened it and peered under the table. ‘Haven’t you forgotten something?’
‘No, I don’t think so. Where’s that pretty little waitress? I need a coffee. How’s Elaine? Book club plans going well?’
‘What are you playing at Mike? Why are you doing your John Cleese impression and where’s the shopping?’
‘There isn’t any and there won’t be, until we’ve sorted a few things out.’
Mike planted his elbows on the table and started talking slowly and distinctly as though Sue was suddenly three years old. ‘Two weeks ago, we came here for you to meet Elaine, so the two of you could discuss starting a Book Club. Remember? You chose this cafe as it’s quiet, has plenty of wheelchair space and is near Sainsburys, so I could do all the shopping while you and Elaine were chatting. Remember telling me all that?’
‘Of course, I do. Stop using that ridiculous tone of voice.’
‘Then you’ll also remember two weeks ago I headed off, realised I’d left my phone onthe table and came back for it.’
‘And when I did, you were talking to the waitress, because you said Elaine was running late.’
‘And when I’d got back with the shopping, you said Elaine had turned up and you’d had a good meeting.’
‘So, what’s your first Book Club choice then? The Liar?’
‘Mike, for God’s sake, what’s got into you?’
‘What’s got into me? Okay. Here we go again. Listen with Mother. Last week, we came here for you to meet Elaine – again. Just after I’d left you, I got a call from Derek – a problem with the cricket fixture – so I sat on the bench outside and made a few calls. I couldsee you from there.’ He raised his hands to his eyes and peered at Sue through his fingers.
‘Will you stop being so ridiculous, Mike.’
‘Why? Am I embarrassing you? This place is empty. Shall I continue? You were chatting to the waitress again, with no sign of Elaine, and the waitress was sitting down at the table with you, like a customer and it looked as though you were getting along, like old friends.’
‘Today, I sat out there again. Elaine never turns up and you spend the whole time, chatting to the waitress. Oh, and I just happened to run into Elaine earlier this week – I can’t remember when I last saw her – and I asked how the Book Club was going and she said youtwo still had to arrange a meeting. Look at me, Sue.’
‘So why does all this matter?’
‘It just doesn’t feel right. Let’s face it, we never really talk to each other, do we? We just stumble along and only say what’s necessary – and now, that’s lies. I know when we got married, we said we’d never talk about our first marriages, ‘we were starting afresh’ and that worked. But since the accident, it’s got worse, hasn’t it? We just check wheelchairaccess and disabled facilities and all the things that dominate our lives now, but we never have a proper conversation.’
‘And why’s that, Mike? As soon as we discuss anything – anything at all – you feel guilty and we end up arguing. Once you say, ‘but I was driving’ – everything falls apart.’
‘But it did fall apart, didn’t it? Okay, forget I said that – just humour me and tell me what this is all about.’
‘Okay. Okay. I was going to tell you when it was all arranged, but if you want to knownow – fine.’ Sue pushed her coffee mug across the table and looked straight at him.
‘I found the waitress on the internet and I arranged to meet her here, at work, but in her break – she’s called Anna, by the way – and she’s very interesting. Anna’s Lithuanian and she’s studying childcare over here and we get on well and she wants me to help her with her English. I also wanted to talk to her, about her other job.’
‘She’s an escort.’
Mike snorted. ‘A what? You mean..?’
‘No. No. I don’t mean. Please listen. Just listen, Mike.’ She paused and fiddled with thetablecloth.
‘I read a letter in my support magazine from a woman who is paralysed from the waist down, like me, who arranged for her husband to meet with an escort.’
‘So he could have a friendly chat with her, about things that the writer and her husband no longer could chat about. The escort and the husband didn’t have to do anything, unless he…’
‘Are you mad? You’re setting me up with that little waitress, who is young enough to be our daughter?’
‘No. No. Anna doesn’t do that. Just listen. It would be someone older. A colleague of hers.’
‘A colleague! I’ve never heard one called that before. So, it’s all right then – with an older woman…who does, what Anna doesn’t.’
‘Look, you know there are things that we can’t do any more and I just thought…’
‘You thought. Oh, for God’s sake, Sue.’ He leaped up, knocking over the chair. ‘This is ridiculous! What the hell are you trying to do?’
‘It’s not like that. It’s…’
‘You idiotic, infuriating, bloody stupid woman! Don’t you realise I love you to bits – whatever we do, or don’t do! I don’t need anyone else, least of all…’ Words failed him.
‘How could you think that?’
He knelt down beside her, his hands over his face, his shoulders shaking. ‘I can’t believe you’d…’
‘I’m sorry if I’ve upset you.’
Mike reached up, clutched her arm and burst out laughing. ‘It’s simpler than what I’d imagined, I’ll give you that.’
He wiped a tear from his cheek with the back of his hand. ‘Some kind of secret from your past,’ he sniffed. ‘An illegitimate daughter, perhaps?’
‘And you’re calling me stupid? You thought I’d keep something like that from you?’
‘Well, you thought I’d be happy with a bit on the side.’
Sue started to snigger and then they were both clutching each other laughing louder and louder, unable to speak. When she had pulled herself together, she took Mike’s hand.
‘We’re both complete idiots, aren’t we? But I do love you and I thought…”
“Don’t think,’ said Mike getting up slowly. ‘Let’s forget all of this – and get the shoppingin. Enough is enough. My knees won’t stand it.’
He kissed her, took the brake off the wheelchair and started to push her towards the café door. ‘Actually, we won’t need anything for a meal tonight, because we’re going out somewhere expensive, to celebrate talking to each other.’
‘Or, we could just stay home and talk some more.’
‘That my darling, means I’ll spend the whole evening in the kitchen.’
‘But I do need to phone Elaine to set up a meeting and then there’s Anna’s English lessons.’
‘For God’s sake, you exasperating woman, never mind English lessons and bookclubs – just promise me you’ll subscribe to a new support magazine. I’ll even pay for it.Now let me wheel you away into the…’
‘I was going to say the pub. I never did get my coffee and now I need something stronger, but I’ll follow you wherever you want to go.’
About the author
Her children's play Caribbean Calypso was runner-up in Trinity College of Music and Drama's 2011 International Playwriting Competition and has been performed three times in Bangalore, by educational charity Jagriti Kids.