They had been friends as teenagers, not boyfriend and girlfriend, just friends. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been a mutual attraction, they’d held hands, kissed a few times, but their relationship never moved to the next level, they just stayed friends. At eighteen she went overseas and that ended all possibility of them as a couple.
He saw her Mum in the street sometimes and asked after her. She was doing fine, he was told, attending university in the states. Later he heard that she’d married a doctor and there was a baby on the way. He married too, a waitress and had four kids by the time he was thirty. He worked at the timber mill and lost a hand in an accident at thirty-one.
The Mill paid him out, so he owned a house and a decent car. He tried to help his wife with the housework and the kids, but he wasn’t good for much and felt more at home in the pub. He felt comfortable in the pub, no-one ever asked questions about his stump, he had his own stool and he could walk there from home. He made that trip daily, a brisk walk down the hill and a hard slog back up it several hours later, with a belly full of beer.
It was on his way to the pub that he saw her again. It was a wet Tuesday in early spring and they had not seen each other for twenty years. Both of them had to look twice before they smiled at the recognition. She was thinner, more attractive than he remembered. She was wearing a watch that looked expensive. He was aware of how red and bulbous he looked from years of drinking. Her smile was one of surprise, his was of embarrassment. He drew his arms across his chest.
‘I can’t believe it’s you,’ she said reaching out to touch his shoulder.
‘You look great,’ he replied. They stood looking at each other for half a minute, unsure of what was next.
‘Come and have a coffee,’ she suggested.
They walked down the street together, he felt awkward. She knew more about what was going on in the town than he did, he never listened to much other the banter at the pub, and he knew most of that was crap. ‘In here,’ she told him, guiding him into a coffee shop that he hadn’t even noticed was there. Two old ladies sitting down over steaming cups of tea looked up, the thought he knew one of them. His missing hand made him feel self-conscious. Thankfully she chose a table down at the back, away from prying eyes. There was a window, he could see the river. ‘Remember down there,’ she pointed to a place where the river swept around a bend, heading into its last stretch before it wound its way into the city. ‘We were twelve and I threw a rock that knocked a bird out of the sky.’ He remembered, but chose not to admit it. ‘I threw a stone up into the air; it hit a bird and killed it. You cried,’ she taunted. He tried to smile, but she was annoying him.
‘I don’t remember.’ He reminded her. She seemed disappointed, she was going to say more in an attempt to jog his memory, but the waitress was there.
‘What would you like?’ The waitress asked with her pencil poised.
‘We’ll both have Coffee,’ she told the waitress.
Coffee, coffee, he didn’t want bloody coffee, he didn’t want to be here drinking coffee with her, looking down her nose at him, with her rings and expensive watch. He wanted to be in the pub, drinking beer; he wanted to be half pissed.
‘It’s good coffee in here,’ she told him.
‘I wouldn’t know.’ The only place he went for a drink was the pub, besides who did she think she was telling him about the coffee, she wasn’t a local, she hadn’t lived here for years, what would she bloody know. She started telling him about her husband, he was a surgeon, cosmetic surgery, he did noses and boobs and made fat people thin. Perhaps that was why she looked better than he remembered. He pictured a tall blond bloke, fondling with tits all day long.
‘We live in the Hollywood hills, amongst the stars,’ she bragged. Their house had a huge swimming pool, some actress he’d never heard of lived next door. ‘We went to south America for our holidays last year, brazil and Ecuador,’ she continued, rubbing his relative poverty in his face.
‘My youngest is a really good footballer, he might end up a league player if everything goes right,’ he told her, doing his own bit a bragging. He told her nothing about his oldest son who was on drugs or the other son who was doing six months in a boy’s home. She looked disinterested, she didn’t ask him about him about how many children he had, he could tell in her eyes that she knew everything about him anyway, her mother was one of the town’s biggest gossips.
‘My son plays gridiron at school, there’s millions in that sport if you go to the top level,’ she said bragging again.
‘All the good ones are black,’ he commented, intentionally trying to burst her bubble, besides if her son was anything like her brother at sport he was no doubt useless.
‘Do you want a biscuit?’
‘No,’ he answered crossly, what was he a dog that was behaving itself. The meeting was ruined now and neither of them tried to do anything to save it. They drank their coffee in silence, trying not to look at each others, strangers sharing the same table.
‘Anything else?’ the waitress asked after a few minutes, in a tone that told them she knew the answer.
‘Just the bill,’ she said sharply.
‘I’ll get it,’ he offered.
‘No, I will,’ she replied as he was trying to take something important from her. He considered demanding to pay for his own, and then decided to let her, after all she had more money than him.
They parted at the front door.
‘It was nice to see you again.’
‘Yeah,’ he replied, just as insincerely as she had. They turned their backs on each other and walked in opposite directions. Within five minutes he was in the pub. He tried to get her out of his mind for the rest of the day, but it didn’t work.