All that grief but never alone
Gina was waiting at an outside table at the Abattoir Café for Louie to show. They had agreed twelve-thirty but already it was closer to one. They were always late meeting each other, and it was a wonder they ever met at all. Louie had insisted on the location, but she would have preferred somewhere upmarket, perhaps the Number 10 on Vincent Street, or the Barometer near the fresh food stalls on Claire Street, but after he complained over the phone she had acquiesced. She didn’t much care for the Abattoir of late; it was an empty place with bad artwork on the walls; and the concrete garden, where she now sat bathing in the sun with cold lemonade in hand, was situated by the traffic lights of a busy road. When at last Louie arrived there was barely an apology. He was wearing his white satin shirt again, buttons undone, chest hair on show. He lit a cigarette and took a sip of coffee before he met her gaze. His glasses glinted soberly in the sun.
‘Have you eaten?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t really eaten. Have you eaten?’
‘I’m fine,’ she told him, and then picked up the menu. The food on offer was simple; sandwiches, baps, rolls. ‘I’m fine,’ she said again, thinking of her new years resolution to eat only fresh fruit and vegetables.
‘Come on, Gina. Don’t make me eat on my own.’
‘Go ahead, Louie. You can order, it’s fine.’
Louie bit his lip as he scanned the menu. His glasses slipped down his nose and he pushed them back into place. After a moment he said, ‘I’ll just be a minute.’ Standing, he lay his cigarette in an ashtray and took the menu inside, his decision on what to eat presumably made. She watched him walk away, the long stride, the swagger of the shoulders – he had been working out again, she could tell. Going to the gym made him feel powerful. She wanted to say to him, ‘But you’re so skinny, Louie,’ but she never had the courage.
When he came back, he took one last puff of his cigarette and then ground it out and smiled through the smoke. ‘So how are you anyway?’ he asked.
‘I’m good. You?’
‘Oh God!’ he realised, ‘It’s your birthday today isn’t it?’
‘That’s next week, Louie.’
He made a point of wiping his brow with a finger and puffing out his cheeks. ‘Phew,’ he said and smiled. ‘I didn’t get you a card.’
‘Or present,’ she added.
Louie wasn’t listening. ‘Birthdays,’ he was saying. ‘Funny thing about birthday’s is when you look back they all blend into one. I remember my twenty-first, though. That was a night to remember!’
Leaning back, Louie took off his glasses and with a cloth from his pocket proceeded to wipe them clean. ‘My twenty-first,’ he continued. ‘We marched through London protesting the Poll Tax, and then got drunk! The next day I’ve never been so hung-over. I had to go to the hospital to visit my mother. She was sick at the time. Pneumonia.’ He misted his glasses with breath and rubbed them with the cloth, repeating the process several times until satisfied. It was something he did when he wanted women to see his face unsullied by frames.
‘How’s the book?’ she asked, attempting to engage him.
‘The book’s fine. It’s coming along nicely. How are the classes?’
‘I’m sure,’ he said, putting his specs back on. ‘I’ve ordered a bacon and Brie bap with cranberry sauce. I ate earlier, but I’m hungry again.’ He smirked, as though at a private joke.
When she pressed him on it he explained that he’d eaten with a female colleague from the University and afterwards had failed to get her number. Gina felt bruised. She knew her relationship with Louie was “open” – the two of them having agreed to a somewhat liberal union – but she couldn’t help but feel pierced by his insensitivity. He was always regaling her with his conquests or attempted pickups. It was as though she didn’t matter. It was insulting. But wasn’t that what they had agreed to in the first place? No jealousy, no bitterness? To not be constrained by the social norm?
She was suddenly sad at her predicament. She was thirty-two for goodness sake! She sipped her lemonade in an attempt to compose herself, and thought back to the day when, as a child, she had sneaked into a dining room café to look through the window where a procession of mourners were wailing and screaming in the street, a black tide of suits and dresses making their slow march towards the graveyard. She remembered clearly the mother being helped along by waves of hands that seemed to grab and pat her, seemingly feeding her the strength to carry on. The grief on the woman’s face had pierced Gina. Tears rolled down the woman’s cheeks; anguish in her eyes. But those hands had helped her, guided her along. All that grief but the woman was never alone. Recently, and a lot, Gina had found herself thinking of this memory.
‘Are you okay?’ Louie asked, bringing her back to the table. ‘You’re not listening.’
‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m just tired. It’s the heat.’
‘It is hot,’ he agreed, pulling at his collar. If he recognised her sadness he didn’t comment on it. Had he always been this distant?
His food arrived and he took a bite, cranberry sauce leaking from the bread and dropping to the table. He didn’t clean it up, which irritated her. As he ate he hardly spoke, not that he said anything of interest lately. When they starting seeing each other his sentences had poured from him, his manner electric and confident. He had a way with words, of expressing his thoughts through appropriate anecdotes, underlining them with the right witticism. She had fallen for him, laughing at his jokes, engaging with his views. He had been so… interesting. But now he was eating a bacon and Brie bap and getting cranberry sauce all over his chin.
With his mouth full and holding the bap towards her, he said, ‘Do you want a bite?’
She shook her head. ‘I can’t, Louie.’
Louie clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Crumbs fell from his lips. ‘You and your macrobiotic…’ he swallowed a lump of food. ‘…organic foods, huh?’
‘That’s not fair, Louie,’ she said, stung. He knew she had trouble with her weight, not to mention her bowels. ‘I can’t. You know I can’t.’
‘Chill out,’ he said, shrugging. ‘I’m joshing.’
She took a deep breath in through her nose. Louie seemed to recognise her irritation. He put the bap down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, Gina. Okay? I’m sorry.’
His eyes widened; those “yes” eyes again.
‘Okay,’ she said, after a moment.
Beads of sweat were forming on her neck. She dabbed herself with a napkin. The heat was getting into everything, the concrete garden like a suntrap. She was agitated, annoyed. The fumes of the traffic stung her eyes, and the rest of the afternoon slipped away without warning. Louie invited her back to his flat and she found herself complying just to get out of the sun, annoyed at herself for having no backbone. He only lived around the corner and suddenly it was apparent why he’d been so adamant on meeting at the Abattoir. How could she have been so naïve?
At the apartment they went into his bedroom, something about showing her some new book, which of course never materialised. Instead he kissed her, and for some reason she was nervous. She hated herself for that. It only served to feed his ego, and made him bold enough to run his hand up her skirt and along her inner thigh. The sex wasn’t special, and as he came he spat and sweated into her ear. Afterwards he seemed distracted, smoking a cigarette by the open window, unable to look at her for more than a few seconds. She knew what he was going to say next.
As though frightened of what he might unleash, he glanced in her direction and said, ‘I don’t know about this anymore.’ It was the glance that punctured her, not the words. Did he think she would get angry? Throw something? Cry, or worse, beg him to reconsider?
He was fidgeting now.
‘I wonder if there’s anything to be gained by this?’ he continued. ‘For both of us, you know? I’m pleased we… I mean, I don’t have any regrets. The important thing is that you don’t either.’
She didn’t say anything; just sat in bed watching him. He hesitated. ‘Look, I just think… I don’t know about this anymore.’
‘Okay,’ she said.
He blinked at her, perhaps surprised by her response. She peeled from the bed and gathered her clothes. She could see him in the corner of her eye, his body poised against the window frame, illuminated by the light, as though about to jump.
Now dressed and at the door, Gina looked him up and down. He didn’t say anything. He looked miserable. At least now he met her gaze.
‘Are you eating properly?’ she asked him.
Louie shrugged, baffled by her comment. ‘I… what?’
‘It’s just you look a little… skinny,’ she told him.
And with that she turned and left. She knew he would never call her again.