The city centre fast food restaurant, part of a chain known across the world, was empty when the young couple entered. They paused to survey the display boards of familiar fare: burgers and fries plus some recent healthy options. It was the in-between time when breakfast had finished but lunch had not yet begun. They both chose a Coke. They were not hungry. Neither of them was really thirsty but this was somewhere warm to sit and talk.
They selected a table out of sight of the door and, trying to remain inconspicuous, sat opposite each other. She immediately pulled her phone out of her jeans and swiped through to see if anyone wanted her.
It was warm here, out of the November chill.
She was young. Her jeans, tight like a second skin, and her skinny top, far too thin for the weather, emphasised her perfect anatomy but her eyes were bloodshot from recent tears.
“Why did we” she started and then stopped, leaving her half spoken question hanging in the atmosphere of stale food smells. She put the phone down on the table.
He was not much older. His denims were designer. His hair professionally styled.
“You wanted to. We wanted to.”
“But I didn’t fecking think?”
Silence. He brushed the crumbs of stale burger bun off the table and onto the floor with his soft slim hands, more used to touching a keyboard.
“It was chemistry. It was a natural re-connection.”
“But I shouldn’t have. You don’t understand. You know nothing of what my life is like now. You moved away. You went and became educated. Schooldays should have remained a memory.”
“You could have done more with your life!”
“I left school at sixteen but I remember one science lesson. I don’t have much need for it now but I recall clearly one of the rules of physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. At the time I heard that I said to myself ‘this is so true’. It is so fucking true for life. There will be always be an equal and opposite reaction!”
She took a slurp of Coke though her straw. Her hand with its gold coloured rings on every finger was wrapped round the red paper cup. He noticed that the nail varnish clashed with the colour of the cup. It was the chunky hand of a labourer.
A brightly coloured poster on the wall caught her attention. The picture evoked a dream destination of a beautiful white sandy beach, fringed with palm trees, beside a crystal clear turquoise sea lying under a tropical sun.
“Is the seaside ever like that?” she asked. He looked up at the idyllic scene.
“It obviously was when they took the picture.” came his glib reply.
“Huh! It never has been when I have been there. It always seems to rain. The beach is always strewn with litter. Holiday places are swarming with people trying to make money out of you.”
“Vacations are escapes from real life. They give you little windows into other worlds.”
“But they are not real. The real shit is still there when you return.”
She interrupted him.
“The escape isn’t real either as the holiday places are the ordinary places for the poor sods who live there all the time. I bet the buggers who live next to a beach like that can’t wait to get away for a vacation. Perhaps they want to go to the city and see some action, shops, life….”
“But that scene looks absolutely perfect. The warmth would encourage you to chill and enjoy.”
“It is too perfect. It is so pretty that you may forget the real crap for a while, but very soon you can get used to anything. And at that point, reality comes back and fucks your life up.”
“Is your life fucked up?” he asked. She paused for a minute as all the time she had known him he had never used the same vocabulary that she habitually used.
Her phone pinged and she grabbed it, looked at the screen and put it slowly down again.
“You haven’t helped but it isn’t just you. I guess I knew what was happening. It was so unexpected, even good, but it wasn’t real. This is reality. The morning after. A grubby cafe and cheap Coke going flat as we stare at it. The reality of who I am and who you are. And there is them. They will be sure to get to know. Life will not be worth living if they found out about…”
“But it was worth it. It was a great night…” The stubble shadow lightly covering his chin spread wide with his self-satisfied smile.
“Nothing is ever worth it if your face ends up torn to pieces by a broken bottle.”
“Scarring? He is good at that. Burning too. Amazing the heat a little lighter gives out when it is real close. I mean real fecking close.”
“You are not serious.”
“He has before. He could again.”
“Then say fuck him. Come away. I’m on the eleven thirty. I could get you a ticket, no sweat.”
“Get real. You think I am free? Myself a free agent? I live here. Everything I know and have is here. Everything I have ever been is here. I can’t get away from here. And if he thinks he owns me, that is good enough. Because it means he owns me. He is here and he has lots of friends.”
“But you are you. A person. An individual. You could go anywhere. The world could be ours. Even to that dream beach.”
“You are so full of bullshit. You can walk away. You don’t really belong here any more. You have a somewhere else where you can now feel at home.”
“You can come too. You could be a part of my somewhere else.”
“Hell no. He would find me. All my roots are here. I am a small, but a very attached leaf on a branch of this fecking tree. And as for your somewhere else. I wouldn’t fit in. That is your place, your world.”
“You could come back to London with me. I already mentioned the tickets and”
“You don’t understand. I am a goldfish and this is my bowl. Take me away and I would flap about a bit then shrivel up and die.”
“But I thought you were scared to stay here.”
“I’m scared. Scared all the time. Scared if I stay. Scared to go anywhere. I have always been scared. You don’t understand scared. If you had not gone away then you might perhaps understand, and I now have one more big reason to be even more scared. You will just fuck off back to London and I guess I will survive somehow. But I will always continue being scared. It is scary just being here with you. Please. For my sake fuck off, and fuck off quickly.”
“I’ll miss you Angel.”
Silence greeted his remark.
He stood, grabbed his leather satchel containing a dirty tee, yesterday’s boxers and his precious imac, and glanced contemptuously at his half drunk beaker of Coke.
“I really will miss you.”
There was still no reply, so he turned and walked briskly out of the restaurant and out of her world.
She grabbed her empty red cardboard Coke cup.
She muttered quietly under her breath “Fuck, fuck, fuck”. She repeated the word over and over as she squeezed and wrung it between her hands until it was a scrunched up ball of messy damp, Coca-Cola stained, redness.
She stood and with all her strength, hurled the ball at the beach poster with a forceful throw. It landed on the beach with a satisfying squelchy thud and then fell to the floor leaving a brown cola stain on the perfect white sand.
“Fuck you and your vacation!”
Her phone pinged.
She grabbed it off the table and stared at the screen.
The featured images accompanying this short story, entitled ‘Cafe Presse’ and ‘Meeting’, have been used with the permission of artist Lois Van Baarle.