by Phil Arnold
I was sitting at my favourite café, watching the passing parade and enjoying some time to myself. It was a crisp, June, Sunday morning. The combination of mid-morning sun and outdoor heaters was only just beginning to take the chill from the air, but the hum of conversation and the occasional burst of laughter provided an inner warmth of sorts.
My coffee had grown tepid and unpleasant and I was about to abandon it when I noticed an older lady glancing around her, apparently looking for an available table. She seemed out-of-place in those casual surroundings, dressed in a black, obviously-tailored, mid-length coat with a violet scarf nestled at her throat, her matching hat secured against the breeze by an ornamented pin. She looked unused to finding a table for herself, so I stood and gestured towards mine.
“I’m leaving now,” I said, “You’re welcome to this one.”
She sent a beatific smile in my direction, and proceeded towards me in a stately manner.
“Thank you,” she said, as she arrived, “It’s much busier than I anticipated,” and I detected a slight European accent in the precision with which she said it. She took the seat opposite me as I gathered my things.
“You’ve not finished your coffee?” she said.
“Cold,” I said. “I’ve only got myself to blame. I took too long over it.”
“Stay then,” she said, suddenly, “Stay, and let me buy you another.”
My first thought was to decline, though I’m not sure why. I looked at my watch and was about to make an excuse when she pre-empted me.
“Please,” she insisted, and there was something in the tone of her voice that caused me to hesitate.“You would be doing me a favour,” she added before I had time to decline.
“Well, in that case,” I said, and sat back down. “It’s generous of you to offer.”
“Not at all,” she said, and gestured to the waiter.“Do you serve leaf tea?” she asked, when he arrived.
“I’m sorry Madam?” he frowned.
“Leaf tea,” she said again, enunciating each word precisely as if speaking to a child. “Do you serve leaf tea?”
The waitress at an adjacent table intervened.“We only serve tea bags, Madam,” she said in a voice that suggested she could take it or leave it.
The woman raised an eyebrow and forced a smile.“Then I shall have a pot of Earl Grey tea with two tea bags, and an accompanying pot of hot water, please. And my friend’s coffee is cold. Kindly replace it with a freshly brewed espresso.”
“Certainly Madam,” said the waiter, and I thought I saw him and the waitress exchange meaningful glances as they walked away.
“Thank you Mrs…?” I began.
“Dombrovska,” she said. “Violetta Dombrovska. It’s a bit of a mouthful I’m afraid. You’re welcome to call me Mrs D if you’d rather – lots of people do. And you are…?”
“Steve,” I said. “Steve Thomas.”
“Ah,” she said, “then I shall call you Steven if you don’t mind. It’s such a nice name, it seems a shame to shorten it.”
The waiter returned with my espresso and Mrs D’s pot of Earl Grey. She looked down at it appraisingly.
“Milk?” she said, and raised an eyebrow.“I’m sorry, Madam?” the waiter frowned.“There is no milk,” she said.
“I don’t recall…,” he began, and then: “Of course Madam,” he said. “My apologies. I’ll get it straight away.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and, having dealt with the stress of coping with mere mortals, opened them again and smiled.
“Now Steven,” she said, “it’s not often I find myself sharing a table with such a handsome young man. Tell me about yourself.”
I was a bit taken aback and I think it must have showed.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t mean to pry but, at my age, there’s little time for beating around the bush. And, I’ll be honest, there is a purpose behind my asking.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “let me see. I’m twenty five. I grew up not far from here. I work for a law firm in the city and I’m studying for my post grad degree on-line… there’s not much else to tell really.”
“There’s no one in your life then?” she said, clearly sceptical. “No partner?”
“Well, I have a girlfriend, if that’s what you mean,” I said. “She’s at the gym right now, actually. I’m meeting her after this.”
She nodded and poured a cup of tea, pursing her lips and shaking her head as she did.
“Not to your liking?” I said.
She smiled ruefully.“At my age, Steven,” she said, “there’s very little that is to my liking. Society has abandoned most of the niceties I grew up with. They have disappeared, along with my closest friends. It’s the price one pays for longevity.”
Suddenly there was none of the haughty matriarch about her. She was a vulnerable old lady and, I must admit, I felt a bit sorry for her. I sipped at my coffee and we lapsed into an uncomfortable silence that I felt compelled to fill.
“You said there was a purpose behind your question – before, when you asked about me,” I said.
She placed her cup in its saucer, deliberately.
“Yes,” she said, “I haven’t forgotten,” and there was a slight testiness in her response. She poured hot water into the pot – more, I think, to give herself time to consider her reply than out of a desire for more tea; most of her first cup remained.
“I have tickets to the Opera for next Saturday evening’s performance,” she said at last. “Two tickets. My friend, Dulcie, and I subscribe. But Dulcie has been taken ill. She’s in hospital, and I suspect she will not recover in time to accompany me. I wonder…it might seem an odd request given that I’ve only just met you, but would you consider joining me? It’s Rigoletto,” she added, as if that might be an incentive.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The complete story is available in the Askance collection “Saltwater And Other Stories“.
Phil Arnold is a teacher, musician, composer, playwright and fiction writer living in Sydney, Australia. Though he spends most of his professional time directing community and school band programmes, he is also a freelance writer/editor, having had articles included professional magazines, and written several musical plays, all of which have been performed several times.
Phil has written fiction since childhood and completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing through the University of Sydney where he studied under award-winning novelist Sue Woolfe. Since then, he has had several short stories selected for publication in a variety of anthologies – most recently ‘Letter to Grandpa,’ which was short-listed for the Lane Cove National Short Story Award, and selected as winner of the Resident’s Prize.
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