|The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.|
The waiter looked at him, expressionless, bored. Making concessions for stupid foreigners was apparently not in his job description. Okay, thought Neil. My fault. I should probably have started this conversation in a language I actually understand.
"I'm sorry, I -- Non capisco. Er ... mi dispiace..."
The waiter looked slightly happier. It was a small triumph for him. "Do you want anything else?"
"Oh, no -- no thanks. Grazie."
The waiter nodded, put the glass down on the little table, and went away. Neil looked at the drink. It looked good. It looked cold. It had a slice of lemon floating on the surface.
He wasn't sure where this sudden craving had come from. It was definitely a craving. Late afternoon, a sudden oasis of free time in the middle of a busy schedule, and he found he was absolutely desperate for a gin and tonic. He just ... really, really wanted one. It was all he could think about. Of course, he could have just stayed in the hotel and had one in his room. But he felt a bit funny about doing that, kind of sneaky. Like he'd turned into some secretive, bottle-hiding, gin-craving alcoholic overnight. Anyway, he decided he wanted sunshine with his drink. He thought it might do him good.
Here, there was sunshine. Lots of sunshine. It was a steady, constant fact of life, drenching the piazza, turning the pale stones bleach-blonde. Shadows lengthened with the afternoon, attached to the heels of the passers by, tourists mainly, and one young, earnest-faced priest. He was in a hurry to get somewhere, his black skirts flapping and his shoes slapping on the paving stones, as he didn't-quite-run past. A hot, green scent drifted over from a little basil tree in a pot by the wall, mixed with smoke and the hard, metallic flavour of the city. Traffic buzzed somewhere nearby, overlaid by the clatter and chatter of the café.
Neil put on his sunglasses. He was glad he'd brought them; they made him feel happy and relaxed. Nobody else liked them much. They were big and round, Bono-style, The Fly-style. They felt as though they were covering up most of his face. They were like a smoky visor, a dark screen through which to observe the world. He put them on, and smiled vaguely at the piazza, and tucked some flyaway strands of hair behind his ears. He sipped his gin and tonic Un gin tonic, said the phrasebook. He wished he had a cigarette really, but it was one of his giving up smoking days.
Today, Neil was wearing a black T-shirt, and jeans, and his trainers which weren't really trainers, but weren't really shoes either. They were somewhere in the middle. He liked them. They'd cost quite a lot of money. He was fine with the shoes -- the shoes were good -- but he wasn't really happy about the rest of the ensemble. When he'd woken up this morning, it had felt like a jeans and T-shirt day, but now he wasn't so sure. What with the gin and tonic and everything. Now it felt more like a suit day. A day for wearing a suit. A suit would have suited it (ha ha). A nice light-coloured suit, possibly with some kind of hat, so that he could have sat there, sipping his gin tonic and playing up the Anglo in his Anglo-Irishness.
Oh well. Not that it mattered. He looked at the British paper he'd picked up on his way here, and did a double take. For some perverse reason, he'd bought the Daily Mail. Not the Guardian. Not the Independent. Not even the Telegraph. But the Daily Mail. A sure sign that all was not well in the World of Neil. The stress was obviously getting to him more than he'd realised. He opened the paper. GAY BISHOP SCANDAL SET TO SPLIT CHURCH, spat a headline angrily. He blinked and turned the page. Prince William stared up at him goofily, looking awkward and well fed in a polo shirt. Without warning, Neil found himself flooded by a wave of homesickness. He put the paper away again.
People-watching. That was the thing. That was the thing to do. If he turned slightly to his left, he could see a girl sitting alone. She was youngish, with glossy dark brown hair, gathered in a tortoiseshell clip at the back of her head. She had gold hoop earrings, and she was curiously rectangular. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, trying to work out exactly what it was about her that gave this impression. She was like a piece of stiff rectangular card, folded and scored across the middle for the purpose of sitting down. Her shirt had narrow vertical stripes on it, which only served to emphasise the illusion. She was drinking espresso and smoking.
After a while she finished her coffee, put out her cigarette in the ashtray, stood up and left the table. She even walked like cardboard, thought Neil, although perhaps that was just his imagination. How would cardboard walk, anyway? Like her, of course. The girl's shiny, shiny hair glittered as she stepped out from the shade of the awning into the bright sun. She didn't look like Orla. She didn't look anything like Orla. Orla was not rectangular. There was something, though ... just something about the way she'd turned round at the last minute and picked up her bag as though it were an afterthought. For some reason, watching it jabbed at Neil's heart with little tiny daggers. He turned away to find something else to look at.
"What?" A young guy, twenties, English. Northern accent. He was making complicated 'No, I can't hear you, stay there, I'm coming over' gestures at a table just in front and to the right of Neil's. Well, at the person sitting at the table. Small guy, fair-haired, slightly sunburnt.
"I was saying, 'Can't I just have a normal coffee?'" said the sunburnt one, as the first guy came nearer the table. Scottish accent.
"Whaddya mean?" The first guy clutched enthusiastically at the chair back, leaning over the table toward his friend. He had on a pair of slightly too flashy sunglasses, which would have looked even sillier on Neil than the fly ones. But they kind of suited this guy, he thought. "Whaddya mean, normal coffee? You have to have espresso, I told you. Cappuccino, at a pinch."
His friend looked at him, expressionless. "Why?"
"Because. Because you do! Because it's Italy, Billy, and that's what you do!"
Another look. Billy's mouth twitched, but he didn't smile. "But I don't want espresso, Dom. I want just want some normal coffee, like ... coffee, you know? With milk in it. Please. Is that all right with you? Good. Thank you."
"God, you're hopeless, you are." The first guy, Dom, threw his hands up as though in despair, but he was grinning as he turned and walked back inside the café.
Neil looked at Billy from behind the shield of his dark glasses. Billy was staring down at the table. He was smiling at the table. It was a small, intense smile, one that obviously had nothing to do with the table at all. A hidden smile, not intended to be seen by Neil, or by anybody. Billy smiled at the table, and then he smiled at his hands, which were laid palm-down on table. He seemed very pleased with his hands. He drummed his fingernails on the tablecloth, twice. Then he folded his arms, and looked up. He looked towards the open doorway of the café. The smile had disappeared, superficially, at least. It had gone inside him, Neil thought.
Neil knew he was going to have to concentrate very, very hard now on something quite mundane, so that he wouldn't think about his wife and his little girl, who were miles and miles and oceans and countries away from him, too far away to touch. He decided he was going to think about coffee, and about how he really should buy that fair-trade stuff, but how he just didn't, and how he really should, because there was no real reason why he didn't, and how he'd make a point of buying it next time, and about how instant coffee didn't taste nearly so bad when you were in the studio, or writing or whatever, and you were working really hard on something, and you'd stop what you were doing for a second, and have a lovely sip of hot instant Nescafe before getting back to whatever it was, and how then the coffee would buzz and zing into your system ... and how he probably shouldn't get Nescafe either.
Dom was back now. He put Billy's cup down in front of him, and looked around for somewhere to put the empty tray. Eventually, he just put it down on the ground, from whence it was later retrieved by a passing waiter.
"Honestly," he said. "The things I do for you."
Billy smiled at him. He sipped his coffee. "Aye," he said. "You love it, though."
Dom sat back in his chair. He looked at Billy through his flashy sunglasses. He looked at Billy for a long time. "Cocky bastard," he said.
Neil appeared to have something in his eye. He was forced to remove his own sunglasses in order to swipe at it surreptitiously with a finger. There was nothing left now of his gin and tonic but half a melted ice cube and a bedraggled lemon slice in a puddle at the bottom of the glass. He pushed it away across the table. Then, completely by accident, he had a thought about Orla, and the wispy curls at the nape of her neck, and the way she slept sometimes with one arm dangling over the side of the bed.
He looked at his watch. He started making calculations in his head about how much of his free time was left, and how long it was going to take him to get back to the hotel, and into the lift, and up to his room.
He'd just realised he had an urgent phone call to make.
"See? Told you it was him."
"No, it wasn't."
"Yeah, it was. I would have thought you'd have recognised him -- you're the one with all the albums."
"Oh, well, okay. Have it your way. Anyway, the last one was shite."
"I liked it."
"Dom, why are you licking my spoon? You're completely disgusting, do you know that?"
"Yeah ... you love it.