Jennifer Brady is from Dublin, Ireland. She has stories published in The Stinging Fly, Southword Journal, Incorrigibly Plural and These Are Our Lives. She graduated from TCD with a MPhil in Creative Writing in 2007.
A Lavish Proposal
She looked at him as they sat together in L’Gueuleton, drinking Kir Royals. The jaw-shaped beard superimposed on the jowls did not hide his double-chin, but he was still attractive and the extra weight he carried suggested affluence. He was forty-five, Emma calculated, and he looked a man whose energy had not been sapped by offspring. She remembered long lie-ons in bed with him years before, dreaming of a house in the country filled with their children.
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like something more silver-service?’ said Seán.
‘This place gets good reviews, doesn’t it?’ Emma replied, sipping the champagne and taking in the clientele.
A couple about the same age as Emma and Seán sat to their left. The man fed a woman a mussel from his fork. Her neck bulged slightly as she swallowed. To the right of them sat a more serious looking twosome; the girl was heavily pregnant and she squirmed on the wooden chair for comfort while the guy stroked the back of her hand. Their meals were ignored. The other tables were mostly filled with groups of women, still in work attire, drinking Prosecco, sharing appetisers.
‘Besides,’ Emma said. ‘Giblets and knuckles are all the rage now.’
‘And tongue,’ Seán said. ‘Delicious if cooked properly.’
They had become reacquainted only days before, at the cheese stall in the Farmers’ Market. She was scrutinising a slab of Bleu Auvergne and hadn’t noticed him until she heard his voice: ‘But, how ripe really is the Rustic Brie?’ he said, and Emma slid her eyes sideways to see the tip of an index finger (also familiar) bent back against the Perspex shield, behind which several cheeses oozed from the prisons of their rinds. Unmistakable. The slight poshness of the vowels, the use of the word really to hint at a superior wisdom. She was twenty-five again, lying in his bed after sex, him saying, But, how well does the withdrawal method really work?
She pressed her hand to her stomach. With the skill of one familiar with anxiety attacks she breathed up in counts of six, down in counts of eight without the slightest change in her demeanour.
‘Howaya!’ the girl on the stall seemed to shout. ‘The usual portion?’ Emma nodded. The wire was positioned over the cheese. A slice suitable for a single person was selected and wrapped.
‘Emma? I thought it was…’ he said.
‘Seán! I don’t believe it! How are…’
That horrid moment of speaking over each other. Then, further awkwardness – an embrace. She found herself pressed up against him and, with shame, noted that she was hanging off his neck like a medallion. He straightened up, and they stood, red-faced and staring at one another in toothy silence.
‘We should go for coffee,’ Seán said, pointing towards the IFI with his Irish Times. Emma gave his hand the once over – no wedding ring.
‘I’ve a million things on…’ Emma struggled to complete the sentence. She had in fact nothing on.
‘I know the way.’ Seán’s gaze drifted towards the brown paper cheese bag, which she realised she was gripping too tightly. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘how about dinner on Wednesday? I know this great place on Fade Street, they don’t take reservations, but…’
‘L’Gueuleton?’ Emma interrupted.
‘You know it then?’ He seemed irritated. ‘We can wangle a table on spec.’
‘Sure. Wednesday it is then.’ she said, ‘Let’s say eight pm?’
‘Maybe earlier in case they do an early-bird. I mean, pre-theatre.’
They were seated at the window and as the weather turned they could see the narrow pavement outside the restaurant becoming frantic with pedestrians. They held newspapers over their heads, collided with each other, squinting, as if a dash of rain might puncture their eyes. Across the road, parked at an awkward angle, was Emma’s VW Polo. Behind it lay a bicycle, partially mangled, yet still, somehow, shackled to the railings.
‘I would never have backed into the bike if those Chinese guys from the Asian Market weren’t shouting at me in the first place. What on earth were they saying?’
‘They were probably trying to warn you?’ Seán suggested.
He had seen the whole thing from the window.
‘They walked off when I got out of the car. It obviously wasn’t their bike. Anyway, aren’t bikes penny-a-pound these days? That’s how European we are now. In Holland they just leave bikes all over the place. People take strange bikes to one destination, pick up another when they’re going somewhere else. Bikes everywhere there. Bikes galore. Cheers.’
Clunk, went the champagne flutes.
The meals arrived quickly. Seán picked his pig knuckle up by the shank and soon his fingers and mouth were greasy. An unfamiliar brasicca lay under Emma’s pan-fried whiting. She picked it up and gnawed at it for a while, but it was very fibrous and perhaps not meant to be eaten at all. She waited for Seán to look down at his food, then discreetly left the mystery veg back in the pool of jus on her plate.
She observed Seán with a mixture of admiration and resentment – there was no conversation from him as he gobbled. She waited.
‘Great stuff!’ he said, wiping his mouth with the napkin. ‘So, I never asked you, what are you working at now?’
‘I’m head of Human Resources.’
‘I’ve always been able to find scope to progress there.’ Emma felt her shoulders tighten. Too defensive, she told herself. Relax.
‘What does that involve?’
‘Training and tribunals.’ Her attempt at self deprecation came out churlishly. She sounded as she felt. Tired.
‘Jaysus.’ Seán tried an inner-city Dublin accent – he still sounded posh.
‘Exactly. Lucky I didn’t have the six kids in the end, eh?’
‘So Jim doesn’t mind being denied the son-and-heir then?’ Seán said into a mouthful of bubbly.
‘John, you mean?’
‘John, sorry, yes.’
‘He went to the Africa to build a school for children. He’s adopted several of them now, I believe.’
She snatched the tears back and pumped joy into her voice:
‘Anyway, I adore my own space. I feel so sorry for those wretched women you see, chained to the buggy, stuck with incompetent men. Have you ever heard them? Where’s the changing bag? You mean you didn’t bring the bag? Where's the fucking BAG! Just give us the bottle then. What? You didn’t bring the bottle?’
Emma realised she had spoken far too loudly. She checked quickly towards the pregnant couple. Were they in earshot?
Seán nodded in agreement: ‘When I see what children have done to my brother and his wife! Christ, they've aged. They don't have sex anymore. He doesn't even have the energy for an affair. It's that bad.’
‘That is bad,’ she laughed. ‘So. Where do you live now?’
‘Oh, you remember that place.’
‘I decorated that place.’
‘That’s right. Well, the area's come up a lot since you were around; of course the apartment in Bulgaria is doing nicely. The blue print in Dubai is nearly built and my tax break in Park West is cleverly staggered for the next twenty years or so.’
An alarming sizzling noise came from behind them and they turned to see a waiter bearing a skillet of hissing meat towards a group of women who squealed and clapped their hands like children as it approached.
‘Of course,’ Emma turned back towards Seán, ‘the old bricks-and-mortar aren’t what they used to be. The way the pensions are going, what with the recession too, neither are the more traditional assets…’
Emma moved her chair to let the pregnant couple pass. The bump was so large it nearly brushed Emma's cheek as the girl struggled past the table and towards the door.
‘It’s hard to know what a lasting investment would be for old age,’ Emma finished.
‘Where did you buy your place? Seán asked.
‘Not far from you actually. Lourdes Demesne?’
‘The affordable housing place? It can get a bit rough there, can’t it?’
‘They’re knocking those flats.’
‘Yeah. Sure. It’s funny we haven’t seen each other around more.’
The restaurant was full now, the warm air and alcohol made Emma sleepy. She struggled to hear Seán properly over the table of women in the corner (now drunk) who shrieked and slapped their thighs with mirth for the slightest reason. The couple beside Emma and Seán shared a crème brulée from the same spoon.
‘Sorry? Could you say that again?’ Emma said to Seán.
‘You were wearing that tight-red-dress.’
‘What? I never had a “tight-red-dress!”’ she laughed. ‘You’re getting me mixed up with another ex.’
‘Wasn’t our first night in that posh hotel in Connemara? Jesus, that made a dent on the account.’
‘No, that must have been the other woman.’
‘You’re right,’ he said, looking down at his hands. ‘And you were right to leave me.’
‘I didn’t leave you because of that,’ she said.
Suddenly there was very little to say. She picked at the leftovers on her plate.
Seán reached for the wine. ‘How do you find the Languedoc?’ he asked.
Emma looked him in the eye. Don’t, she told herself. Just let it go.
Seán poured the wine.
‘The best thing I ever heard you tell me was that I was cold comfort. That was so brilliant. I always remind myself of that when things don't work out with other women. Of course they don't. I lack that empathy, that warmth a woman needs. And that's why they get upset, and leave! Who could blame them?’
‘Well, you know yourself better than ....’
Seán lunged. A knife fell to the floor. His mouth landed (and perhaps not where it was intended) on Emma's cheek. This was his way, Emma remembered. Spontaneous. He was not one to wait for dimmed lights. All of this was quite sexy, now that he was not her lover anymore. She wrapped her hand around his nape and drew him into her neck. She had no intention of sleeping with him. When he pulled away, his face was red and his voice had lost its former volume.
‘Ah Jesus Em,’ he mumbled. ‘I really fucking liked you.’
Over his shoulder Emma kept an eye out for her car, nervous that a policing type might judge her parking clamp-worthy.
‘Liked,’ she said.
‘It’s stupid. How long we’ve known each other, me a bachelor, and you… not with Jim anymore.’
‘John. His name was John.’
‘We should have been more radical. I should have got you pregnant.’
‘Who said you didn’t?’
He winced, or so she imagined. He looked down at the table.
She picked up her glass at the stem and swirled the wine around in it. She was driving so she had nursed her allocation of alcohol slowly.
‘I supposed we weren't organised for that,’ she said. ‘It's a big thing – having children. Certainly costs more than a flight to London. Or Budapest, or Amsterdam, as I believe is the destination of solution these days for Irish women.’
A woman making her way to the loo pushed past Emma’s arm. Wine splashed onto the napkin. Emma watched the stain spread on the white linen.
‘I never said not to get pregnant,’ he said.
She took stock of his eyes, black in the candlelight, and felt a twinge of regret for what had not happened.
‘Lavish proposal. Exactly what a woman needs to take such an enormous step.’
Emma moved her chair out of the way for a couple who were leaving. The woman wore very high heels. The man pinched her buttock as they passed by the table and the woman yelped and nearly lost her balance.
‘Are you eating this?’ Seán picked up the gnawed green stalk she had left back on her plate earlier. Her teethmarks gave it visually at least a more palatable texture. He shoved the whole thing in his mouth and chewed. And chewed.
‘Jesus, what the-?’
‘I’ve already, well, that thing has been used already.’
She was surprised at how she sounded when she really laughed. Decades of restraint unleashed, full-bodied sounds that were almost masculine in tone. It was the kind of laugh that could have gone either way. Indeed, tears rolled down Emma's cheeks.
‘That’s horrible,’ said Seán, having ejected the mystery veg into a napkin. ‘Waiter! Bill please!’
His long, perfectly manicured fingers keyed the numbers on the credit card machine. The numbers worked and the bill was paid. Emma passed roughly half of what she thought the bill would be across the table. Seán deliberated for a second and slid it into his pocket. They left no tip.
Outside it still rained heavily. The crowds had dispersed and there was space around Emma’s car, which made her parking look even worse, as it did the mangled bike – the casualty of her haste. She was eager to get home now. Her stomach was in a bad way.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘goodbye then.’
‘Yes, goodbye, and good luck.’
‘How are you getting home?’
He pointed at the bike.
‘Was mine. Carbon footprints and all that. I was doing my bit.’
‘How embarrassing. Please, let me pay for a new wheel.’
‘A new bike’. His cheeks sagged and he looked petulant.
‘You could always move to Holland.’
He did not laugh. She could see his scalp through his rain soaked hair. He looked forlorn and shabby. As she must too, she reasoned. She rooted in her bag.
‘Do you take credit card? I’m not being funny, it's just that, I’ve no cash left on me, I've never paid, a regular person, that is, a friend with Visa before. I'm not sure how it's done.’
‘Ah, leave it’.
She nodded and looked at the ground. Seán stuck his hands deep into his pockets. He leaned towards her. They kissed. It was a jaded kiss, with nothing of the spontaneous passion of earlier.
‘Listen,’ he said when they finally separated, relieved. ‘What will you do tonight. You know, when you get home?’
‘A book. A hot whiskey in bed, two slices of lemon, three cloves. Maybe a hot water bottle. You?’
‘A 1948 Armagnac with some cheese and quince. A bit of TV.’
‘Sounds perfect. Enjoy.’
‘Will do. Will do. See you around then?’
‘Give me a call,’ he said.
Ironically, Emma’s bad parking meant that she was perfectly poised to make a fast getaway. Through the rear-view mirror she watched Seán bend over his destroyed bike. She waved. Stupid – given that she was waving to a reflection.
She waved to no-one. Rain spattered the windows so hard she could hardly see the road. By the time she got the windscreen-wipers going she had turned a corner and he was out of sight.
©2009 Jennifer Brady
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