‘Shouldn’t be much longer,’ Una calls from the bathroom.
Stan turns from the window and watches her reflection. The bathroom mirror is fogged except for a cloud of clarity Una has cleared with the hair drier. She leans in and daubs her philtrum with a tanned circular pad. She notices him watching, pauses mid-daub and smiles. He acknowledges her with a widening of his eyes then returns his gaze to the street below.
It is just getting dark and an imperceptible rain falls on the commuters as they hurry, sheltered by their umbrellas, towards the end of their day. A cat slinks under the hedge along the footpath, its fur weighed down by the rain.
‘Not sure it’s the best time of year to come here,’ Stan says without turning.
‘We can hardly change the time of year we met, can we?’
Una stands in her underwear in the doorway with the sponge pad in her hand.
Still laying the foundation.
‘Can you crack on there? It takes you long enough without the insertion of breaks.’
‘I’m pausing, not breaking.’
She’s happy. Encouraging badinage.
‘Look,’ he says to her faint silhouette in the window, ‘I’ve come across many of your like before: you take the liberty of a pause, then it becomes an established break, and the next thing, you’re unionising on me and demanding it as a right. So kindly hop back in there, and don’t come out without the finished product.’
Una scoffs. ‘Huh! You’re not on one of your building sites now.’
‘I’m all too aware of that,’ Stan says, eyeing her silhouette. ‘Health and Safety would never let you away with that rigout.’ He smiles but she does not move. ‘Hop along then.’
‘I will once you’ve answered me.’
‘Answer you what?’
‘Do you want to change the date of our anniversary?’
‘No.’ He drops his eyes to the canopy of umbrellas. ‘We’ll leave things just as is.’
Anniversary? Can it even be called that? More an approximation of our first hookup. If it wasn’t for the work calendars we’d have no idea. Both too drunk to know. Nine years. What’s that? Neither here nor there. Not quite the double digits—nice round ten. Nine. Odd but not prime. Three times three: a trinity of trinities. Suppose there’s something to that. Holy J’sus mother of god and the Blessed Saint Joseph. That’s three but not the trinity you idjit—wrong daddy. Father son holy spirit. Ah that’s the lads.
Stan turns from the window, sits slowly into a beige lounge chair and eases back into its folds. A faint discontinuous hum is coming from the bathroom; it is familiar yet strange, and reminds him of his mother, but he cannot think why. He scans the room. The disturbed coverlet and two flattened pillows mock his earlier endeavors, looking like someone lay back to flick through a magazine.
The suite of suitcases Una bought six or seven years back lay open in descending order, along the far wall. In the front room of their flat in Willesden Road, Stan had asked why three as she displayed their telescopic handles and extendible sides, and Una just smiled and pointed out a hidden pouch. They took to calling them the three bears but that had faded and stopped. They never discussed who was to blame.
The hubbub from the street below gets louder and Stan’s temples contract. He stands, puts his wallet in his right pocket, his mobile in his left, and white plastic keycard in his back right trouser pocket.
‘I’ll be downstairs when you’re ready,’ he says towards the bathroom.
‘I’m just about done.’
‘You were about done ten minutes ago. I’ll see you downstairs.’
He leaves, the metal door closer pulling the door tightly shut.
‘Same again, please,’ Stan says in an undertone, his face flushed at having to use English. The barmaid acknowledges with a reassuring smile and reaches for the dispenser. Her tired white blouse is messily tucked into a shiny black skirt. Stan shifts his gaze to the clear liquid as it tumbles into the glass and breaks on the ice. He notices the clock above the bottle, and in a swift movement pulls back the sleeve of his left arm.
The barmaid places the glass in front of Stan and removes the empty. She gently lifts the brown water jug and, satisfied with its weight, returns to her magazine at the end of the bar. Stan looks out to the street but the glare of the sun on the window makes him turn away. He rubs his right eye with the heel of his hand.
Best make this the last. Get to that gallery or she’ll twig something. Have to have been somewhere. Certainly can’t be here.
Last night. What a complete disaster. Hit it too hard. Why though? Why last night above all nights? Why not just celebrate the anniversary like a normal person? No reason. Never seems to be. Just full throttle no excuse whatsoever. Some head on her this morning. Couldn’t drag you out of the bar… Table gone by the time we get to the restaurant… Almost had a row with your man. What’d you call him? Maître d’, that’s it. Hardly his fault. Wander the square. Whole place crowded. Settle for a cubbyhole tucked in a corner. Comment on its quaintness, good Lord, the eyes staring across, like Superman’s ready to laser me in two. Zzzeeet, off with me sallynoggin. Nothing for it only to order a bottle or red. Another glare. The menu not even opened. She has to start with prawns and a small glass of house white. Couple of attempts at conversation, all shot down. Have it your way. Don’t blame me if I’m blowing the head off of you later. Sure enough, mouth going a mile a minute. No shutting meself up. Only remember ordering a third bottle but not finishing it.
Stan toys with the glass, twisting it in circles with his thumb and forefinger. He watches the remains of the milky white liquid swirl and lap, empties it with a protracted swig and sets it on the countertop with a twirl. Looking up, reflected in the blotchy-faded bar mirror, between the Pernod and the Belvedere, a young woman is seated at a round marble-topped table.
The barmaid looks up from the magazine and moves to take her order, Stan raises his glass and nods for another. With head fixed forward but eyes aslant, he watches the space between the bottles.
What brings you here on such a fine day? Sneaking a quick few, huh? Can hardly blame you. Aren’t we in the same boat. No good me throwing stones. Or glasses, ice cubes or whatever… Local, definitely local. Got that continental look. Sophisticated. Blonde hair. No, brown. Both. Brown by the roots. Well holy god, not happy with herself. What chance have I eh? Just trendy, I suppose. Or indecisive? Why have one when you can have both. A bottle of red and a bottle of white… Ah, of course. Coffee. What else would you be having at this hour. Maybe you’ll lace it with whiskey once your one turns her back… No, no chance of that. You can hardly say you have her ticket now, can you? Been a while since you could say that of anyone. Sharp once. Gone a bit blunt… What do we have here? What does that say? Are you kidding yourself. You’d want to be looking over her shoulder to read that. Second-hand though. Classy. Recycled pleasure. Woman in a cafe reading. Hair coiled behind one ear. Few stray wisps catching the light. Thumb resting on the lower lip. Other hand on the book. Lost in fiction. Skin the colour of buttermilk. Flawless except for that solitary freckle. Just off-center to focus attention. The detail that completes the picture. Turner’s red buoy.
Stan’s left leg vibrates and his stomach flexes. He retrieves the phone from his trouser pocket. A text message from Una: Finished. See you at the museum? He quickly types: I’ve left already. Lets meet in the main square and we’ll grab a bite to eat. He looks to the end of the bar and clears his throat loudly. The barmaid looks up, he scribbles in the air and goes to the toilet. When he returns he deposits thirty euro on the counter next to the white slip, slides it towards the barmaid and nods his thanks. He is concerned that the six euro gratuity is too much but doesn’t have the time nor the stomach for the exchange. He leaves without a look towards the marble-topped table where the woman is seated, and turns right for the gallery.
There has been a light shower while he has been indoors. The smooth cobblestones shine, and Stan nearly loses his footing twice. In the forecourt of Saint Gatianus’ two men are settling on a bench, placing their bags beneath. Stan crosses diagonally in front of the cathedral without blessing himself and continues down the road, skips up five steps to the Musée des Beaux-Arts and enters. A family of three is buying tickets at the kiosk; Stan passes them and goes to the shelves lined with postcards. He scans them slowly, turns and leaves.
The restaurant is busier than the night before. Stan looks for the maître d’, and is happy he’s not there. Two tables are joined at the back of the restaurant, and a mixed group of eight revel in animated conversation. Una is seated at a small table for two looking out on the square.
‘Sorry, I’m late,’ Stan says taking a seat. ‘Here long?’ He tears a piece of bread and chews away the smell of the pastis.
‘Not too long,’ Una says, distracted. ‘How was the museum?’
‘Not great, to be honest. Quite a selection of fourteenth and fifteenth century religious art, but not really my thing. They’d a couple of Impressionists; nothing to write home about, really.’ Stan looks for the waiter. There are two attending to the group. ‘How ‘bout you? What’d you get up to?’
‘Nothing much. I’d a bit of a strange morning.’
Stan’s left hand is raised. He wants to click his fingers. ‘How do you mean?’
‘I was at the shops, and after a while I realised I couldn’t remember what shops I’d been in or what I’d looked at, so I decided to wander down to the river. Then I came across two cats. One was cornering the other, arching its back with its tail erect, the other was cowering, its tail furled. It was terrified. I was terrified. Next thing, the big one chased the other down a stairwell, and the squeaks and squalls that came out of there—I tell you—was unnatural. I stood frozen. Then all of a sudden, it stops, dead. I mean there was nothing. I wanted to know what happened; to see if the poor thing had been killed or what, so I head down slowly but at the bottom, there was nothing.’
Una stops. Stan is looking for the waiter.
‘Okay? Where’d they go?’
‘Is this boring you?
‘Not at all. So?’
‘There was a railing. They either got through the bars or under it.’
Stan sighs and looks for the waiter. There is one behind the bar. He raises his hand, ‘Excuse me!’
‘But the thing was,’ Una continues, ‘I walked to the river but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I mean, why didn’t the cat slip through the bars before? Why did it stay there and just take it?’
Una looks at Stan. He shrugs his shoulders. ‘How do you expect me to know? Maybe it had a gammy leg or something,’ he offers and turns to order a bottle of Chinon.
‘Gammy brain, more like,’ Una snaps. ‘Anyway, it made me think of us.’
‘Sorry?’ Stan leans forward with feigned surprise. ‘One cat tearing the shit out of another reminded you of us? This is going to take some unpacking.’
He sits back in his chair and smiles. The waiter brings the wine. Stan waves off the tasting and aligns the cutlery until he finishes pouring. Stan narrows his eyes.
‘What exactly did it make you think?’
‘Just about us.’
There is silence. A piece of cutlery hitting the floor rings from the kitchen.
‘Anything in particular?’
‘Oh, give it a miss,’ she snaps. ‘What would you think I was thinking of?’ Stan shrugs. Una takes her glass and rests back into her chair. ‘I’ll be forty in seven months, Stan… And the two of us, the two of us are just doing loops. I think maybe…’ She pauses and then blurts, ‘I think it’s time to call it quits.’
She looks at his face but not his eyes. She holds her glass with both hands—left hand supporting the base, the stem between thumb and index finger, like a priest holding a chalice before the offering.
Stan looks around the restaurant than pulls his chair into the table. He slides the glass of wine to the right, unites the fork with the knife and sweeps them towards the wine. He places his elbows on the table, crosses his arms and leans forward, ‘That’s hardly the solution, is it?’
‘I know it isn’t, but it’s something. It’s movement at least.’
Una waits for him to respond but he remains silent with his eyes fixed on the edge of the table. She exhales and her lips quiver. Una then takes a long slow drink and Stan relaxes.
Stan sits in the armchair swirling a glass on the right armrest. The curtains are drawn, the street below blocked from view. He looks at Una’s half-lit face as she sleeps. Her lipstick is smudged and mixed with Chinon stain on her upper lip.
She’ll be annoyed when she wakes. Make-up all over the place. It will all turn on what happens in the morning. She’ll either hit the drink or go dry. Approaching forty. Big step. Nice and symmetrical. Thirty-nine now though… odd but not prime. Three thirteens. Huh. What do you get when you multiply luck by misfortune? Which one wins? Three times luckier or are you thirteen times as misfortunate? That three keeps popping up. Three times one. One times three. One plus two. Or the other way around. One plus one plus one. One’s a frightfully useless number. Nothing to it. Weak. Minus one. There’s a powerful number. Multiplying that by anything is a completely different kettle of fish.
Stan toes off his shoes, stands, unbuttons his shirt and throws it over the arm of the chair. He undoes his trousers and they drop to the floor. He sits on the edge of the bed, pulls them off and flings them onto a chair. He switches off the lamp and gets into bed. In the dark his hand reaches until it finds Una. He rests the back of his hand against the base of her spine and closes his eyes.
Hope she joins me for a drink tomorrow.