For the last few weeks, I’ve been coming to Jacqueline’s for lunch and when I say lunch I mean a diet coke and cream tea – English breakfast. It’s my favourite tea room with its assorted table cloths, dark wood and 1940s crockery adorning every shelf and up-cycled trunk screwed to the wall. A gramophone crackles in the corner, the colour of smudged brass. Every waitress wears a button up cardigan and sways, away with the fairies, to world war two melodies.
The man at the table for two behind me is tapping his feet to a different beat, circling thumb around finger and chewing gum. My guess is, he is a city boy. He’s wearing trainers and denim but the navy fisherman smock is throwing me off. He is drinking a ginger beer – his knuckles turning yellow as he makes a fist with the glass. He has aged with a use by date; thin grey hair, checkerboard stubble and sallow cheeks. He couldn’t look more out of place so I remove the compact mirror from my bag and observe my own face. There are bags beneath my eyes I never knew I had agreed to carry. My eyes have faded to dead lavender instead of blue and my lips are drawn thin; their edges lacking definition against the translucency of my skin. Perhaps, I’m just as out of place as him.
We are both alone. I, nursing a notebook and hope someone interesting will walk in. He, is waiting. The gramophone has shuddered to a waltz and yet his feet have sped up; a VHS fast forward of impatience. Then, like daybreak, every line and smile in his face light up. A blonde woman has appeared in the window, framed by the flowers the owner thought would look chic. She is perusing the menu – deciding on a jacket potato or a selection of cold meats. She is petite. Middle aged and light on her feet. Only the bell above the door announces her entrance, although I bet if you listened closely you would hear the thunder of city boy’s heartbeat.
She smiles and he undergoes a pumpkin transformation into a gentleman. He pulls out her chair and compliments her hair and they order lunch.
‘You look worried…’ she remarks, her smile still reaching from one small ear to the other.
‘There was a ninety-nine percent chance you wouldn’t show.’ he replies. She frowns. ‘I still came for the one percent you would be here.’
My chest opens and my heart shatters; each piece chokes on the oxygen it never thought it deserved to breathe. From each piece, bathed in blue air and sunlight, petals blossom and stems flourish. A clematis blooms and reaches into my chest; weaves its tendrils through my ribs, around the base of my spine, tucks them behind my ears and decorates my womb. After seconds of breathlessness, my heart beats again. A faith in love, humanity and how everyone has a story, restored.
She scoffs but her cheeks flush serenely. Her hair shimmering like gold. Her eyes glittering like buried treasure. And I bet, if you listened closely you would hear the thunder of all of our heartbeats, drowning the stuttering crackle that once played music like birdsong.
I wonder about the love stories the gramophone has witnessed. I wonder if four months earlier it had already seen the end of mine and the beginning of the one at the table behind. I wonder if love is lost and felt so keenly here because of the 40s and its penchant for welcoming and ending world war. Jacqueline’s is the battlefield on which I lost what I always thought I would hold dear and it is the welcome home parade during which my heart was broken to be mended again.
City boy is no longer alone and yet I am. I take one last look in the compact mirror still resting in my left hand. My hair still hangs limp, my freckles still mix with the shadows daylight casts across my profile, but my eyes are a bright, fiery blue. They are burning with the hope that with an end comes something new.
This was inspired by a couple I observed in a cafe. The dialogue is verbatim.