I am first. I am always first; always too early. I don’t mind. Getting here before the others gives me an opportunity to peruse the cakes and pastries at my leisure without the pressure of pretending disinterest. By the time they turn up I’ll have chosen; even, perhaps have consumed something. I’m leaning in favour of the ‘special’, a slice of Christmas cake, a rich, aromatic slab speckled with fruit and topped with a glistening, tooth tingling band of white icing and a dark green fondant holly leaf.
On the other hand, if I buy it now I may not have finished devouring it by the time one, or both of them appear, which would present an unseemly image. I should wait. I exert a seldom utilised self control, and having made a mental note of my preferred option I go straight to a table-the only remaining table, which is next to the toilets.
There are diners who are perfectly at home eating alone, able to consume an entire meal in solitude without appearing uncomfortable. They pull out a phone or a tablet with what seems like an endless deluge of emails, texts or photos, or they have some absorbing task to complete. I could take out my phone, but then I’d have to feign interest in the one text I’ve received today, from ‘Store 21’, alerting me to their ten percent off day, a snippet of information I have already viewed and which is unlikely to sustain my interest for the unspecified period I must wait. I fall, instead to studying the menu and have read it all through twice and memorised it before I spot Beverley weaving her way through the tables towards me.
While her sunglasses are incongruous on a winter’s day in the gloom of this dark corner of the café by the lavatories, she is dressed in her customary way, in flowing layers and expensive fabrics. She is a tall, statuesque woman and can get away with this look in a way that the shorter and dumpier of us cannot.
I rise to greet her and we embrace gingerly, like wary politicians before she discards her tweed cape and sinks down on to the seat. She is forcing a wan smile, which may indicate tiredness or something more sinister. When she tells me that Ava will be late I can only smile. Ava is late in the same way that I am early-by default. Not wanting to share too much before she arrives we talk of the weather, the traffic, how busy the shops are. I know my eyes are straying towards the menu as my stomach growls in an impatient demand for the slice of Christmas cake, although Beverley is occupied in checking her phone to see if Ava has called again.
Then she is coming in, bumping tables and customers with assorted bags, turning this way and that as she scans the café for us. For a few moments I observe Ava, taking in her discomfort, her small, breathless panic as she stares over the heads of the assembled diners until at last I relent and offer a wave.
She bustles up, all puffing and blustering excuses. ‘What a busy life I lead’, she seems to say, though the bulging bags of her purchases tell a different tale. She is so sorry to have kept us waiting and only wants a black coffee. She places a solicitous, manicured hand on Beverley’s arm and inquires if she’s alright because she looks tired. I volunteer to order, more a ploy to ensure the capture of the Christmas cake than a magnanimous gesture, returning to the table to find them already engaged in showing each other photos on their phones. In the competition of life’s successes Beverley has scored the giant prize of acquiring a grandchild.
They turn to me-a diplomatic nod of interest in my unglamorous existence. Has George retired yet? Is Jacob working now? Still living at home? Such a shame.
The order arrives; black coffee for Ava, cappuccino for Beverley, hot chocolate and the cake for me. There is a slight pause as we all regard the cake, before I lever off the first, sweet, rich forkful.
Ava is asking Beverley how Rob’s business is going now, since he had to reorganise and lay off staff. Bev removes her sunglasses and rubs her eyes, bloodshot and dark ringed. The business is ‘ticking over’. They’ve begun looking for a smaller property in a less expensive area, seeking to down-size, to release capital. She speaks to Ava, avoiding my gaze. I am allowing a chip of hard, sugary icing to melt on my tongue, recalling how I visited for coffee one morning and found her in the kitchen, working her way through the contents of a vodka bottle with a determination that had eclipsed her memory the invitation. The failure of the business is not the sole reason for needing to release capital.
She straightens, takes a sip of the creamy cappuccino. In an abrupt change of subject she questions Ava about Matthew. Does Ava have any recent pictures? Ava reddens as she fumbles with her phone, then hands it across the table. Bev studies the photo of Matthew for what seems like a screen bite as Ava glances at me, eyes wide in her frightened face. Matthew is only two, an ‘afterthought’ as Ava describes him. Holding out the phone, Beverley frowns at the tiny sparrow of a woman opposite her and declares she cannot see anything of Steven in Matthew and I’m thinking, no, because there is nothing of Steven in Matthew-a fact that Ava confessed to me prior to his birth when faced with the dilemma of whether to tell her husband he was not the father. I lick my finger to sweep the remaining crumbs from the plate, wondering how three years can have passed since Ava blurted the tale of her sordid affair out to me in a moment of tearful desperation. What should she do? Should she tell Rob he could be the father of her baby? I’d advised her to leave well alone-after all he might not be the father. Who would know? She was frantic, sobbing. The child might resemble her friend’s husband; and of course, now he is older, he does.
I ask Ava if she has any photos of Lucy and I am rewarded by her feverish smile as she replaces Matthew’s guilt-inducing image with that of her student daughter.
Plates of beer battered cod with potato wedges and mushy peas are delivered to a neighbouring table, momentarily distracting me with the waft of delicious, hot grease. It is what I would choose if I were lunching.
We three have less in common these days; now that our children have grown. Once, as young mothers meeting at the school gate, starved of adult company, we could never see enough of each other. When I look at them now I think how age is most cruel to the once beautiful; Beverley no longer the willowy, well healed style guru, Ava’s slender, elfin appeal grown brittle as a dried twig. Beverley didn’t understand Rob, she’d explained when justifying her adultery to me. He’d needed someone to talk to, someone to console him when things went wrong with the business. If I’d considered that she’d undertaken the consolation with a little too much enthusiasm I’d kept the thought to myself. In any case, Beverley was too embroiled in her own dalliance with Mr Smirnoff to care or even to notice what her husband did.
All that remains of the hot chocolate is a circle of glossy, brown sludge in the bottom of the mug, a last scraping I might attempt to access with the long spoon if I were on my own. Ava still has half a cup of cold, black coffee, impressive as ever in her ability to make a coffee last for the duration. She is reaching into one of the bags to bring out two small parcels wrapped in co-ordinating Christmas paper from Marks with matching gift tags. Not for her the ironed out, salvaged wrapping from last year or three-for-a-pound from Savers. I wonder why it is we’ve continued with this ritual.
We have exchanged gifts every Christmas since we met, the first few years’ offerings being humble, home-made items, sewn or baked or grown, rather than the competitive quandary the exchange has now become.
Beverley presents her own gifts. They will have been purchased from a craft stall or a tiny, beach front gallery; a driftwood photo frame, shell jewellery or a hand-thrown pot. They are wrapped with that artful carelessness she retains, as though she has scoured the beach for cast off paper and string. Ava plucks her package from the table and turns it in her red-tipped fingers, exclaiming how interesting it looks. I assume from the shape that she has the pot this year. Sensing their expectation I withdraw the two, identical parcels from my bag.
Infrequent as they have become, I have grown weary of these meetings; weary of these two self absorbed women and their confessional outbursts, the inconsequential chatter and the shadowy events that lie under each rendezvous like bubbling volcanic pools. I have extracted what I needed from them only as recompense for my services over the years as confidante, counsellor, shoulder-to-cry-on and keeper of secrets. Now I am ready to move on.
Ava thinks the parcels look the same. They look like books. Is it a novel? Do they have the same gift? I nod. The same book? Yes. Is the author someone they’ve heard of? I’m still nodding. When she tells me she hopes it ends happily because she can’t bear sad endings I say she will have to wait and see. Bev has shown little interest and has already stowed her holiday reading away in the leather appliqué satchel she brought and stood up. I’m guessing she is anticipating her first, warming, reassuring slug of liquor of the day as if she were going to meet her own secret lover.
Ava straightens and tuts, rearranging the silk scarf around her neck, smoothing her blond, highlighted hair. I wait for her to say she must look a sight but she gathers her bags and reels off a list of appointments she has before picking Matthew up from nursery; travel agent, chiropodist, the returns counter at Burberry. She wants to know where I’m parked because we can walk together and I know she is anxious to find out if I think Bev suspects anything. I could tell her that Beverley wouldn’t notice if a bomb exploded here in the café but I surprise her, instead by deciding to stay here, in my seat, alone at the table.
Then they are gone; the farewells said; the promises to meet again soon and the air kissing are all done. I don’t need to consult the menu before returning to the counter, since the seductive, lingering aroma of cod and chips is pulling at my senses and cannot be ignored. I am happy to sit alone now while I wait for my lunch, and contemplate a future which exists without Ava and Beverley but with a significant upturn in my fortunes, now that the royalties for ‘The Exchange’ are flowing in such a satisfying way and my account is inflated by a substantial advance for the second novel. Is it a sequel? No. I have said everything I want to say about those two parasites. They can edit their own future. I’m still working on mine.
Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/