May 13th, 2007

Cool Water

As you tried to moderate the speed of flow, your teeth gently bit at the edge of the beaker before you absent-mindedly replaced it on the cafe table. You stared at the sparkling top of the cool mineral water. The cafe itself – you realised – was slowly emptying of customers as the waitresses started clearing the tables, evidently hoping that you would soon finish your drink. They seemed eager to clock off and go meet their dates for the evening. The scowls directed at you, however, delayed your departure, encouraging you to continue deliberately, rebelliously, gradually to make gulps sips.

You imagined that the bubbles rising to the surface of your drink represented the breath of someone drowning at the bottom of the soft plastic beaker. Someone or something. The beaker was, of course, too small a container in which anyone could drown...

“Hello, you!”

You were interrupted from your thoughts by the arrival of a new customer who had just managed to slide in through the cafe door before any of the waitresses had remembered to turn its open sign to closed. A customer in the shape of an ex.

You must have looked startled, as he smiled and sat himself opposite you, much to the consternation of the impatient waitresses. And he said:

“Quite a thing finding you here. I spotted you from outside. How the devil are you?”

You smiled in return, if more weakly, taking a proper gulp from the rest of your mineral water so as to conceal your awkward self-consciousness.

“I’m fine thanks. You?”

“Not too bad. I’ve been a bit of a hermit ... you know ... since...”

You nodded. He hadn’t changed. Still the same whingey voice. The same hard-done-by manner.

“Excuse me ...” said one of the waitresses approaching your table, “but we shut in five minutes.”

“Oh,” he said. “Can I have one of those?” He nodded towards your beaker without even asking what it contained.

The waitress scurried off to perform what was probably her most efficient customer-service since she had been given this job straight from school. You idly wondered what her name was. A piece of trivial curiosity to take your mind off a chance encounter with an ex. Especially this ex.

You heard the cap lifted behind the counter and the hiss ensue. The gurgle as she poured out the cool water rather than bringing the bottle and empty glass to the table for the customer to pour.

“I saw you earlier in the library,” he suddenly announced, as the waitress plonked the glass upon the table with a shiny splash.

“Oh,” you said. You had been to the library today. Did he mean he had seen you there and followed you here? If so, his claim to spot you through the cafe window rather removed the possibility of this being a chance encounter. And the implication of that was his earlier spotting you in the library was not chance either.

Which had been the first chance, and which the subsequent plan? Perhaps he had been following you ever since the break-up months before. You must have appeared distracted, because he continued to talk, amid a rather sniffy appraisal of his beaker’s contents:

“I’ve got trouble at home.”

His eyes remained averted.

“I’m sorry to hear that. By the way I can’t stay here much longer. I’ve got a date.”

You lied, you knew.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean,” he continued, as he blew his nose on the serviette. "You know, my place has got lots of problems. The whole building is rotting around me. I spend most of my day out and about. That’s why I was in the library. I saw you there, but I wasn’t sure it was you. You half-looked at me, but seemed different, strange. As if I didn’t know you at all.”

He watched the bubbles of his drink rising in relentless replacement of each other. You wondered who had drowned in his drink. He grew hypnotised and scarcely noticed you get up from your seat.

The waitress without a name quickly hastened over and cleared your beaker.

“Can I walk a bit of the way with you?” he asked you, now getting up himself.

“Well...” You were at a loss to think of an excuse. Once upon a time you had both been so close. You felt guilty to tell any more lies. “Just to Union Street, if you like.”

“Oh, you going that way, are you? That’s convenient. So was I.”

The waitress with no name opened the door for both of you after you had both attended to your respective duties at the till. Scowls were still in abundance, however, from the circling waitresses. The day had been settled. But tips not left.

The sky was cold as you left the dying warmth of the cafe’s interior. A sense of mould or mildew was prevalent in this area of the city, sloping roofs scarred with weathering, glass-fronted blocks smeared over with earlier runny noses looking in through them from the outside only to discover nothing on show.

You disappeared towards Union Street, with a slouching figure in your wake. You prayed for a date, one you could palm off on your ex as your excuse to say goodbye. But, of course, there was no date to rescue you ... and the walk continued beyond Union Street towards York Court. The towers of the approaching business centre cast long shadows in the gathering gloom, as sleet slanted across the slates of the terraced roofs of the lower buildings: twouptwodowns huddling around blind corners that the business centre had not yet reached. You soon realised, of course, where you were both heading. His place.

There was the familiar dripping gutter just above the front door. You had not been here for a while. Nothing had changed, except the name of the waitress who flitted from job to job hoping her reputation of putting her hand into various tills did not follow her. You wondered if everyone in life was escaping the past. It was Ok for a gutter to drip, but to drip just above the front door was a real piece of bad luck, especially if the owner had no ladder. You felt the dripping coldness slide down your back from the open scoop at the back of your collar. You watched your companion try several keys to unlock the front door. Indeed, nothing had changed.

Eventually, the code was cracked, as it were, and the door groaned inward upon its hinges. There no longer seemed to be the necessity to speak. You simply followed where he led, rather than the other way about. You were no less reluctant to become involved with yet another ex, but fate seemed to have decided otherwise.

No need to talk, but talk he did:

“Union Street is a strange place to meet a date.”

You nodded, although he was still leading with his back to you down the dark hallway. From alleyway to hallway with no door between. The reluctant door had merely been his fantasy of miming a transition to take you indoors when in fact you were still outside and open to the elements. The sky was now not only cold but black, starless as the names that made them stars.

Air was faintly, icily luminous. This was his place indeed, his place by the water butt. A dig-in where he stowed his belongings. You sat beside him, oblivious of the wet stony ground. You no longer had a will of your own. He smiled a teethful smile. But then you saw he must have taken his empty plastic beaker from the cafe, the bottom end of which he placed in his mouth and then proceeded with the grip of his teeth to make its open end gape rhythmically, clownishly – as a ludicrous rubbery orifice.

You couldn’t help laughing, despite the powerlessness of your mind to feel the effects of laughter, as you watched the night’s many dates shadowing in pairs past the alley’s end amid laughter and joy, weeping and rage. At least he was currently busy with the task of making mawkish faces in an attempt at meaningless mummery. This took away the danger of any one particular face, any one particular mouth. You felt as if you should be sparkling with happiness at his attempt at good-natured, if slapstick, humour. An attempt to woo you back.

But, from beneath the sparkles, you knew, with each new face he made, you simply knew, because the law of averages was not an average law, that he would soon make your face, too. An ex-you. With its own teeth.