Sound bites (John Clanchy)

Verity La Lies to Live By

Three words. Three tiny, banal words that had somehow – among the tens of thousands of others spilt in the cafe that morning – made their way through the clashing of voices, of cups and coffee spoons, and tugged at the sleeve of her thoughts.

‘Are you happy?’

All her instincts were to swing about and look. The voice, a man’s, had come from behind her, somewhere close behind and to her left. The next table perhaps, or the one over from that. She slowly adjusted the angle of her head until two figures – still blurry and amorphous – were trapped in the corner of her eye. She knew she mustn’t turn her head. Not just for the sake of good manners, but because she knew that any further movement would alert the pair of them to the fact that she’d heard. And spoil everything.

She continued to sit, rigid with attention, poised to catch the woman’s response when it came.

While across the table from her, Jane sat equally poised. Having apparently asked some question of her own.

‘I must say,’ Jane said when Charlotte still hadn’t answered, ‘you don’t seem very surprised.’

‘I’m sorry?’ Charlotte said back. Though in fact her only regret at that moment was at being interrupted. At losing the fleeting echo of the man’s question. She’d been playing his words over inside her head, trying to gauge the source of the strange calm with which he’d spoken. Was it merely a routine question between them, one to which he already knew the answer? Did he even care what it was? Or was it the reverse? Was this the gambler’s ultimate bluff, and his question the most extravagant bid he’d ever made?

‘Are you telling me,’ Jane’s voice and features had sharpened by now, ‘that you knew? That you already knew?’

Jane’s face, normally so pretty, so elfin and blue-eyed, was positively ugly when she was like this. All het-up and inquisitorial like this. Charlotte wondered whether she didn’t actually hate this woman – this lifelong friend who didn’t know when or how to shut up. Because right then, while Jane was carrying on about something that Charlotte, her best friend, was apparently supposed to have known and should have told her,  another woman was beginning to speak – but so softly and, like the man, so inexplicably calmly that Charlotte almost missed it.

‘I’m always happy,’ the woman’s voice, much younger than the man’s, claimed, ‘when I’m with you.’

Charlotte did almost turn then, in pure frustration, only at the last moment managing to check the movement of her head and shoulders. She raised a hand instead to signal their waiter for fresh coffee. But the gesture still allowed enough time for first impressions – a young woman’s pale cheek in profile, the redness of her lips, the black office suit, regulation fall of straight blonde hair. And opposite her the man, mid-forties, already greying, white business shirt, immaculately ironed – not by her, Charlotte guessed. Insurance, real estate, banking, retail management, something like that.

As she turned back to Jane, the sketch of an apology on her lips, she found that  it was the girl’s voice that now wouldn’t leave her. I’m always happy. That small pause. When I’m with you. So young, and yet so assured, so knowing. Assuming, that is, that the girl was just being playful, just teasing him with these clichés. Because the only other possible explanation, given the uninflected calmness her voice, was that she was perfectly serious. She was speaking from the heart.

‘You knew all along?’ Jane said in disbelief. ‘And you said nothing?’

‘Jane, I’m sorry,’ she said again. ‘I seem to have missed something . . .’

But by then the waiter was already beside them, checking on their order. Which, now that she’d summoned him, Charlotte found that she was incapable of giving. Found she could only refer him with a gesture of her open hand towards Jane, because the words reverberating at that moment in her head would have made no sense to him at all. Do you really mean that? the man had just said, Or are you only saying it to please me?

Which told Charlotte that the girl hadn’t been teasing after all, or not in a way that the man understood as teasing. And that therefore either she was speaking from the heart, or she didn’t care for him at all. And was merely mocking him. And that somehow the man sensed all this, and was desperate to know which it was.

Just as Charlotte – listening in – was.

‘Of course not . . .’ the girl began, but her next words were drowned out by the chatter of the waiter, as he gathered up their plates, their cold coffee cups. By the time he’d gone, the girl had finished. So that all Charlotte was left with were those three words, Of course not, and the mystery of whether it was the first or the second of the man’s questions she was answering.

‘That couple . . .’ Charlotte bent across the table towards Jane and whispered.

Jane looked at her. ‘What?’ she said, as if she hadn’t heard properly. Or had, but could make no sense of it. ‘What couple?’

‘The two just behind me, on my left,’ Charlotte hissed a warning. Hearing, even as she did, the squeak and scuffle of chair legs and shoes on the tile-and-matted floor of the cafe. They were getting ready to leave.

‘What about them?’ Jane whispered back. Obviously missing something herself this time.

‘What do you think?’

‘About what?’ Jane’s attention was having to be dragged. But at least she was now looking. Then looking away.

‘It’s pathetic,’ the words came spitting out. And just as abruptly dried. ‘All this . . .’

Charlotte sensed rather than saw the man and girl leaving. The withdrawal, the sudden  empty space at her back.

‘This hole and corner business . . .’ she heard Jane say, and regretted that she’d drawn attention to the couple in the first place. To the girl especially, whom in some odd way she felt she’d let down. Betrayed, even.
Of course you can never be sure, Charlotte was about to say. They could be anything, father and daughter for all we know.

But she didn’t say it, thrown off course by the hissing intensity of Jane’s words, and then by the sudden appearance of the couple in the street outside, framed in the cafe window at Jane’s back. The girl, looking a little older in the sunlight now, thirty at least, the man a little younger, less jowly than in the shadowy cafe, some of the heavy flesh pared from his cheeks by the bright blade of the sun. Almost an ordinary couple, she thought as she watched them pause on the pavement beyond the glass, the girl idly swinging one of the man’s hands between both of hers, the man bending down and kissing her on the lips before stepping out onto the road and making off. The girl stood for a short while perhaps waiting for him to turn and wave, but when he didn’t, turning herself and making her way, head thoughtfully down, off along the pavement towards wherever she was headed.

Not father and daughter anyway, Charlotte was about to smile and say to Jane. But then realised that this would make no sense either.

Besides, Jane herself had something she still wanted to say. And this time Charlotte understood that she really would have to pay attention. In view of what was happening right before her eyes. Jane’s face was crumpling, her lips trembling, the contours of her cheeks folding in on themselves, ‘Was I really . . .’ Her face was brave, smiling one last time through its tears. ‘Am I really the last to find out?’