By Ciara O’Leary

 

I laid eyes on him for a few fleeting moments before he had a chance to notice me. He was a waiter, dressed in black slacks, a crisp, white shirt, and black dress shoes which had been freshly polished.  The staff were allowed wear black runners but comfort over style was never his priority. A smile twitched in the corners of my mouth for it suddenly became so clear how my younger self was broken by this man. 

His facial hair was neatly trimmed and his overall appearance was impeccable as it had been nine years ago. The apron tied to his waist, which was layered almost twice around his slender frame, exposed the only disturbance to an otherwise faultless facade. On his right leg, the faint outline of a hand, in what one could assume to be yeast or flour, was just about noticeable to a strained eye. I inadvertently blushed, recalling a life long ago when similar imprints of his hands were left on my own thighs.

The restaurant contained an atmosphere of an elite underground club, with dim lighting and warm, heavy air. An intimate seating arrangement allowed just enough space between tables for the matchstick waiters and waitresses to skirt between. Gold candelabra were scattered over mantelpieces and tables alike, and the wax, a deep merlot, flowed down the candles, slowly but steadily coating the glittering gold in molten lava. 

I couldn't help but reach out to touch one such river which was close to oozing its way onto the white tablecloth. Using my index finger I tipped it ever so lightly but, being a thinner consistency than I expected, the wax greedily slid over and under my nailbed, coating my finger in a smooth, red thimble. 

Every wall was adorned with an ornate, gold-framed mirror. I caught sight of myself in one, still holding my blood stained finger outright; a furrowed crease in my brow. The paleness of my complexion seemed ghost-like by the flickering candle light. I looked away, unable to stomach any further dissection of my image.

For years I had imagined the different scenarios in which we would meet once more. Would he tell me we made a mistake that day? But he was so sure and remained so the entire journey from Dublin to London, door to door. I relied on his sureness that day, not thinking for myself or of what would become of us after the one thing holding us together was destroyed.

I took a sip of my water, my pale finger still stained by the wax which had hardened further and become impossible to peel off. As the water soothed my dry throat, I glanced into the mirror once more and immediately caught his eye. He was serving the table behind me, a white napkin draped over his left arm and a bottle of red wine in the other. 

Pausing, he allowed one of the guests to swirl, pucker, and swallow this taster of wine, all the while staring straight ahead into my reflection. His otherwise perfect performance was thwarted by his surprise at seeing me, and a single droplet of wine fell silently from the bottle as he was withdrawing it from the last glass on the table. His armoury now failed him and he sported a matching injury to mine, blood red upon white. I watched his reflection retreat from the table and within an instant he was by my side. Without saying a word or even looking at me, he concentrated on refilling my glass with water. Only then, when he could perform no more duties did he raise his eyes to mine.

"How are you?" came his meagre attempt.

"Fine thank you. And you? I didn't know you worked here,"  I lied.

"Yeh it pays the bills, you know yourself. I do enjoy it though. They made me manager there a while back." 

"Congratulations," I hesitated, allowing him time to move out of the way of another waiter. "Are you still living in Knocklyon?"

"No, actually." He shifted on his feet and adjusted his apron which was already perfectly in place. "I moved in with me girlfriend, we've a place just down the road from here." I reached for the water.

"Another congratulations is in order I guess!" I strained a smile and took a long sip, leaving him in silence for a moment.

"What about you? What are you up to these days?" He was trying to keep it light.

"Still working in the gallery, still painting… I got engaged recently." I may have blurted it out but I was desperate to convince him that my life had also moved on.

"Wow that's brilliant TJ, I'm so happy for you". He was one of the few people that ever called me TJ rather than Tara-Jane.  His delight seemed genuine but I longed for him to be hurt; anything but unconditionally happy for me. 

My discomfort must have showed because he knelt down to my eye level, pretending to adjust the leg of the table. His face, in line with mine, was how I remembered but with the addition of two small age lines by his temples. They suited him of course. He lowered his voice, still pretending to concentrate on the table leg. 

"TJ, I still think of us and that day. I know we were young and stupid but we made the right decision as hard as it was." 

This was not playing out as I had envisioned and hearing him so casually bring up what relentlessly haunted me, without any hint of guilt, was almost too much to bear.  I lost my composure and began twisting my fingers, desperate for him to leave me be. He glanced at my index finger and reached out as if to hold it.

"Your finger is bleeding! Let me get a cloth and a plaster." I recoiled from him, snatching my hand away. He left the table so quickly and gracefully that I only realised he was gone when I felt the cool gush of air raised by his swooshing apron. 

 

He never returned to talk to me but at one point, when I came back from the bathroom I noticed a small plaster left on my place mat. I toyed with it a while, turning it over in my hands, thinking how quick he was to try to mend things. If he had only taken the time to ask, he would have realised that it was simply wax on my finger. No blood had been shed this time.

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Ciara O'Leary is a twenty-something Masters student of Writing in NUI Galway. Originally from Dublin, she worked for some time in the corporate world before making the decision to pursue writing. Ciara's fiction and journalistic pieces have been published in The Irish Times and The Galway Review. She is currently working on her college portfolio and is looking forward to the upcoming Cúirt Festival in Galway.