Communion: a short story

April 11, 2011

~~~

She places the soup-spoon in her mouth, ever delicate and precise in her actions, refusing to slurp the stuff up like so many of her compatriots seem to. The chowder is two parts allotment-grown vegetables and one part locally farmed fish, and tastes of home, to some. Dabbing her mouth with the folded corner of a white cloth napkin, she says, softly and evenly, “I dreamed you wouldn’t kiss me last night because your parents were watching.”

 

He smirks, a sort of half-laugh, an attempt at casual disinterest, and wonders if she knows how much he’d like to kiss her now, always. She’s on the pretty side of average, and the most beautiful woman who has ever so much as looked his way. She’s demure and witty and speaks with such an even, calm tone, a posh accent she learned from archival footage of the Queen when she, a teenager from rural Georgia, was told her family was moving back to Britain. She makes coy little jokes about being a fish out of water, though she would never lower herself to using such a clichéd turn of phrase, and she talks like she’s the only person who has ever emigrated, but she does it with such grace and kindness that you almost start to believe her.

 

He was born in Venice and raised in Vancouver, but then there are all sorts in London these days.

 

“My parents have seen me kiss you loads of times,” he says, reaching across his own bowl of soup to break off some of the reheated bread roll that came free with their meal, and smears it with Restaurants-Own Whipped Butter that is nine-tenths air and one tenth margarine. “Few more won’t hurt. Maybe,” he says, very cautiously, “they’d even like some more…formal…photographs.”

 

Her hand pauses for a fraction of a splintered moment, unnoticeable to all but him – while she collects herself, perhaps? – and then she laughs, musically, but not too loud or obnoxious. “I’m sure they’d love that,” she says, blushing very faintly.

 

For just one moment, he imagines how it would be to hold her hand and present her with the ring he’s been carrying since he bought it on a whim three years ago, the pretty tears that she’d dab away before saying yes, the other diners watching in anticipation and vicarious joy. His mum would cry on the phone and his dad would feign indifference but smile in secret, and he wouldn’t ever have to do anything worthwhile again in his life to make it a good one.

 

She takes a small sip of sparkling water, looks out the window, and says “I think I might like to live in Edinburgh for a while.”

 

She changes topics like flowers blossom, regularly, seasonally, measurable in minutes or days or years, and each new topic is as each new petal, as spectacular and refreshing as it is identical to the last. Last week it was Taipei, the week before, Reykjavik; two minutes ago it was moving house and two months past it was owning her own flat. Being around her is like being on a second-hand adventure around the world; she might have dined with kings and heroes, might have visited the poorest village in the poorest country in Africa, might have seen the Magic Flute in Vienna performed with such reverence that it could have been Mozart himself conducting, if she hadn’t been a shop girl from Bethnal Green.

 

“What’s in Edinburgh that you can’t get twenty of in London?” he asks, mostly ignoring the threat of leaving threaded through her offhanded comment. She has never meant in in the five years they’ve been together and it’s not terribly likely she means it now.

 

“That’s not a fair question. I’d say you can get an Edinburgh native who hates London, but there are probably forty of those between here and the tube station. You can get twenty of anything in London and you can have your choice of colour, but maybe that’s not such a good thing.”

 

“What, choice bores you or something?” He eyes the dessert menu and she places her precisely-folded napkin on the table, looking around for the waiter. Chocolate Overload, he thinks. They could share.

 

“It’s not real choice. I can choose to go and see Les Miserables or Hamlet in the West End, I can choose to go to a jazz club or a blues club or an electro-trip-hop-punk club, I can choose to buy clothes down Oxford street or in Camden or some sleazy little charity shop. It doesn’t matter. Why would it matter?”

 

“So what’s different in Edinburgh? Other than the street signs and the way they pronounce cannot.

 

She gives him a little half smile and ducks to examine her red lipstick in her purse mirror. It needs touching up, but she wouldn’t, not in public, it’s not polite. Her red-painted fingernails tap an erratic pattern against the cardboard-reinforced sides of her olive-green purse, a rhythm that might have been the drum line from Stairway to Heaven, or the theme music from Top Gear.

 

“It’s not about what’s in Edinburgh, darling, it’s about making the choice to go.”

 

Later they might walk down the streets of Chinatown, hands clasped, feet shuffling along in perfect unison, her eyes on the old Vietnamese woman who licks her fingers to count American one dollar bills, the waving gold-plastic lucky cats, the paper lanterns, and the Canadian teenagers flirting with middle-aged businessmen from Albania, and his eyes on her, always her. There is a kind of silence in the hectic buzz of the city at sunset, a habituation of the soul to the relentless, aimless chatter. She’ll think of telling him she’s leaving, that she’s been leaving for four years of the five they’ve been together. He’ll try to ask her to stay.

 

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