by Robert Kibble
a glass of rich red wine
He stands out. Of course he does – he’s come straight from the airport so he’s still got his carry-on bag, and he’s got that slightly-bedraggled look of someone who’s been travelling. The way he checks his watch and sighs suggests he’s been worried about making it on time. There’s always a risk if you arrange something for the day you get into town, but there’s more to it than that – he looks up and down the street. He’s expecting someone.
He takes a step beyond the wine bar’s entrance, maybe to check inside in case someone he knows is already there. Checking if she is in there. Or maybe he’s checking his reflection, checking if it’s obvious he’s had a long day. Or obvious he’s had a drink already on the plane?
He pushes the door open, awkwardly catching his bag on the handle so he has to push it all the way open and then shuffle about to release it, leaving it open for way longer than he wants, letting enough of the cold night air in that a couple on the table near the door stop their conversation to glare at him.
He looks around again once inside. He’s been there before, since he knows there are extra seats in an alcove to the right of the bar, but nothing round the side to the left other than the toilets. He heads for a stool by the bar, taking off his jacket and putting it over his bag, before picking it up again and taking his passport out of an inside pocket. It’s a well-used passport – he’s no stranger to travel. He pushes it into the back pocket of his jeans and lays his jacket back down.
The way he glances at his watch and the street outside again nervously suggests meeting someone here isn’t something he’s done before. This is important to him. This is a special night.
He turns to the barmaid, a specialist in her trade. She’ll be asking him what style he likes rather than what specific wine he wants to drink. They’ve got some unusual varieties in there, interesting new styles to try – that’s a lot of their charm.
The place isn’t cheap, but it’s good value for the entertainment you get, the education you get thrown in. And then there’s the free – well, you’ve paid for them in the cost of the wine I suppose – nibbles. A parmesan wafer, some thin-sliced smoked ham from a farm the owner visits personally, and a pair of tiny biscuits with locally-sourced cheeses, perfect to match the red wine, poured by eye into the glass in front of him.
He talks to the barmaid some more. She places two glasses of water out, securing the bar stool next to him for his expected companion. He does not as yet order her a glass of wine.
Would that be presumptious – to assume what she wants? Does he not know what she’ll be drinking? Does she prefer to order for herself? Most women probably would. Or is he beginning to have doubts?
The way he shrugged at the door suggested he at least was on time, but not by much. Perhaps she is running fashionably late. He takes a sip of the wine, congratulating the barmaid – no, sommelier does her more justice – for her excellent suggestion, and sips again, before pointedly placing the glass down, opening his hand to it as if warding off its evils, and glugging some of the water.
His hand is shaking as he puts the water glass back down.
He pulls his phone out of his pocket and unlocks it with his thumb. He puts it on the bar for mere seconds before picking it up again. Nothing has changed on its tiny screen. No message from her.
The wine almost immediately finds its way to his lips again, followed by the parmesan wafer. Again he says something to the barmaid, this time as much to test his voice for nerves, to distract from his racing mind. In the circumstances he won’t enjoy the parmesan wafer’s beautiful melting taste the way he should.
He begins a cycle of wine, water, wait, interspersed with the nibbles as the time ticks on. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty and he’s down to the last sip of the glass, however hard he’s been trying to pace himself. He has to make a decision now.
Another glass and if she does arrive he’ll be significantly ahead of her, dangerously off his guard, liable to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Wait without a drink and his nerves will only grow. That glass hasn’t stopped the shaking, and it’s not from the drink.
The phone appears in his hand again. This time the thumb does more than unlock it. This time it dances over the screen, composing a text. I’m here, it will say. At the bar. You close? A short sentence, making it as casual as he can manage. His thumb hovers over the send button for a while as he considers deleting it again, staying calm, acting like this doesn’t matter when it clearly does. Finally he makes his decision and presses send.
If only he knew.
If only he knew how drawn she is in that instant to that bar stool, how much she wants to make good on that drunken offhand comments at the conference two years before about how if they ever found themselves in the same city at the same time… She wants to join him and laugh about how many times over those two years there have been the near-misses, one or other’s plans being changed at the last minute, keeping them from actually meeting up, actually going through with it. Whatever it is.
She wants to sit by him, feel the touch of his hand in her, laugh like they did back at the conference reception where their had only had twenty minutes before their respective taxis, when the world closed in around two people, both forgetting commitments from other worlds, and for the intervening time her dreams of this moment have been a secret pleasure, a longing, a fantasy, keeping her going through dark times, buoyed up every few weeks by a city name and a range of dates, each time imagining that city, each time imagining the two of them exploring it together, exploring each other.
My phone buzzes.
I cover it quickly in case he glances behind and sees my face, illuminated in the dark of the café across the street where I sat down, an hour ago. I was – I am – just as nervous as he is. I couldn’t have stood up when he arrived – my legs wouldn’t have obeyed my command. I’ve been drinking coffee all this time, and I’m hoping that’s the reason my hands are shaking as much as his.
Now is the time.
We are in the same city.
He will believe me if I say my plane was late, that we’ve failed to meet up again, and how sorry I am. He won’t even check. I can stay here and let him go, keeping the fantasy as only that, leaving the complications out of both of our lives. Or I could text back that I’m just arriving, that I’m sorry I’m late, and his face would light up from phone and expectation.
It is time to decide.
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