Once every minute, for a second or two, she let a glance graze his face on its way to the door.
She must be expecting somebody.
But nobody came.
At least nobody that was hers.
So he rose; and in that moment of his decisive rising, a man entered on account of whom a glow came into her eyes and lit up her lips, so that the whole of her face became alight with this warm rapture, and the smile seemed to suffuse her entire body, creating upon her buttery skin an impression of being further softened.
The risen man, stalled in his designs by the sudden appearance of this other man, stayed frozen on his feet, his plans congealed in that black space between thought and action.
The other man, uncannily familiar like one’s image regarded through the haze of a hangover, was completely oblivious of him and even more, and strangely so, of the effect of his emergence upon the poor lady whose table he swung jauntily past without the smallest hint of recognition, posting himself at the bar, on a high stool.
He made a ceremony of drinking his stout – tilting the glass at a precariously acute angle to receive the beer from the lip of the bottle, pouring it with a flourish of wrist and fingers, with the practised precision of a maître d’, and raising the glass to the light, watching until froth dissolved into the darkness of the liquid, before bringing it to meet his lips for a small sip that was sufficiently exaggerated for effect – his back to the room, his eyes on the counter.
On his way out, in what seemed a suspiciously contrived act, he passed by the now flustered lady’s table again; this time slipping her a piece of paper, with the most furtive movement of fingers to table, keeping his eyes on the door ahead.
An ember remaining from the effect of his entrance flickered across her lips – a coquettish simper. He did not see it. He was already outside.
Reading the note, the ember grew and drew heat unto her cheeks, bestowing upon each a generous spread of pink which leaked upwards into her eyes leaving them moist with romantic elation. This fullness of joy threatened to rip her face apart, the way it stretched it!
She clutched her purse to her breast, as if her heart would fall out of her blouse from its frenzied fluttering, and fled after the man.
The initial fellow whose interest she had caught, and who had been on his feet throughout the duration of the surreptitious amorous dance, came out of his transfixation like a statue unfrozen, and followed the couple out.
Neither of them was anywhere in sight. As if thin air had claimed them.
GRRR-GRRR . . . GRRR-GR . . .
The growl of the phone’s vibration woke his wife.
She woke him – an elbow in his ribs.
‘Fuck!’ he breathed. ‘What?!’
‘Fuck,’ he said into it; eyes still closed, ears only half open.
Coming suddenly fully awake, with the masculine alertness that kicks in upon encountering a half-familiar female voice within earshot of one’s presently ruling female, he whispers into the receiver, ‘Yes?’
‘Who is this?’
You don’t know me; but you do – you gave me your number.
Yes – on a piece of paper.
Bob’s. He remembered being there yesterday. He remembered leaving early. The recollection of the heavy sadness at his departure returned to the fore of his memory the lady for whom this sadness had been; and her man, the other man who had set fire to her face! The ‘familiar’ man, like a distant image on the fringes of one’s memory, a blurred, out-of-focus face in a faded photograph, unremembered . . .
Do you remember?
The voice brought him back into the room and to the phone, and brought its owner’s face into view with the warmth of that strange fondness one develops for random strangers.
‘Yes, I do . . . But I don’t remember giving you my number.’
You don’t? You did.
He sensed a frown of confusion enter her voice, shrink it – ‘You did: when you passed by my table on your way out; you slipped me a piece of paper . . .’
Yes, she said, and, with a sigh, decided she had to go into a semi-detailed narration of the evening’s events to help jog his memory and probably absolve herself of the insinuated accusation of stalking:
You had been sitting at another table, then you rose and went out, and surprisingly you came back; surprisingly because I wasn’t expecting you to at the time. And you went straight to the bar, drank a beer . . . then on your way out you slipped me the paper; it had your phone number on it . . . (hesitation hinders her voice at this point, reduces it to a tentative whisper) I thought you wanted me to call you. . .
‘You did? I did! I–’
Then you left almost immediately and when I came out I couldn’t find you . . .
Sheri had been listening – but the frustration of her inability to make any sense of the dialogue from her husband’s end of it aroused and amplified both curiosity and suspicion at the same time, such that she rose on her elbows and pointed the sour morning breath, now laced with growing apprehension, from her flaring nostrils at her husband in accusation –
‘Who is that?’
Who is that? the lady asked, too.
Presently, the other man, the one from the bar, came into the room, in identical pyjamas to his.
‘Who is that?’ he asked Sheri, pointing at her husband with the limp whip in his hand.
Sheri looked down at the empty space beside her, and she knew.
She knew this man, this other man.
Terror entered her face and closed it.