20/05/2016 by paulinebsc
These days Joanne had few occasions to dress up, but tonight she had made the effort. She had seriously considered not making the trip this year knowing that it would not be the same without Jerry by her side. The dress she was wearing was not in the latest style, thankfully Joanne did not have to worry about keeping up-to-date these days, and could stick to a classic dress in plain colours which highlighted the beautiful pearl necklace and earrings that Jerry had given her on their thirtieth wedding anniversary. She loved the jewellery but felt a pang about wearing it today, on what should have been their thirty third anniversary, but there was no reason not to wear the necklace just because Jerry wasn’t here with her. She glanced at herself in the mirror, critically. Her hair had as much white in it as brown these days, but she had resisted dying it. Once you started doing that you had to keep doing it, or the roots would show, and hairdressers intimidated her. Often she didn’t understand what they were talking about ‘feather-cuts,’ ‘bobs,’ ‘razor cuts,’ they could have been talking Greek for all Joanne knew (in fact she knew more Greek than Hairdresser-speak thanks to a holiday in Crete).
She pulled a pair of black court shoes from her suitcase and pushed her feet into them. She tottered as she stood up, and held onto the dressing table for a minute before stepping forward. While working she had worn heels this high all the time but since retirement low heels and flats had become her norm, worn for comfort rather than appearance. She walked across the room and back again twice, making sure she was firm enough on her feet that she wouldn’t embarrass herself by falling. At her age it would be ridiculous.
The restaurant looked the same as her last visit. She and Jerry had come here on their honeymoon, and every anniversary since, until two years ago. Last year she had been too upset, but this year she had shaken herself up and vowed to face up to the world alone, and enjoy it alone. The hotel and the restaurant were taking a large chunk of her savings but she needed to spoil herself for once. A classy restaurant like this wouldn’t have the ‘two meals for the price of one’ offers that were so annoying to singletons. She couldn’t be the only person in the world who wanted to eat out without subsidising all the couples. It was bad enough having to eat alone without that to face up to. Even eating at home proved difficult. Large supermarkets were expensive to get to on the bus and convenience stores packed all their food for large families, not for the many people like her living alone.
Determined not to get depressed Joanne pulled the lace shawl higher on her shoulders and forced herself to smile as she entered the restaurant.
‘For one, Madam?’ the maître’d queried in his rich Italian accent. It didn’t help Joanne’s mood. She had been perfectly clear that she was dining alone when she booked, why was he asking now?
The table he led her to was deep in the interior of the restaurant, well away from the large windows with the view across the harbour. Always before their tables had been there where she could watch fishing boats coming in and out as she eat. She supposed that was a privilege only granted to couples.
She took her seat, sure that everyone in the restaurant was hiding the pity in their eyes at seeing a woman with no man to take care of her. Joanne saw red. She stomped over to the maître’d.
‘Are those tables booked?’ she asked.
‘No, ma’am, why?’
‘Then I would like to sit there. I have always sat there when visiting in the past, I would like to do so this time, rather than being hidden in the back of the restaurant where I can’t be seen dining alone.’
The maître’d had worked here for ten years. Although he could not have remembered Joanne’s name, when she mentioned coming before he recognised that she always had venison. Syl may not remember a customer’s name, but he always remembered their favourite dishes. He looked at his book of reservations and hastily made changes. The man who had booked to sit in the window seat in half an hour always ate chips with his roast beef. This earned him no favours in Syl’s book.
‘Of course madam. Would you mind very much sharing the table though? My mother is on her own tonight too. She would be glad of the company.
Joanne was taken aback, but his look had been friendly, not pitying, so she agreed.
Shortly Syl brought his mother to join Joanne.
‘Mama, this is Mrs. Roach.’
The two ladies shook hands. Margaret looked disapprovingly at her son.
‘That’s Mum, to you’ she declared in a broad Swansea accent.
‘Isn’t he Italian?’ she asked as Syl walked away to get their menus.
‘Nah. He was born in Porthcawl. He thinks that being all la-de-da and sounding Italian impresses the punters more than his normal voice. And I am quoting his words.’
Joanne felt her evening was looking up. Faced with Margaret’s matter-of-fact words she brightened up.
The two woman shared a bottle of red wine. Joanne bowed to Margaret’s superior knowledge of the restaurant’s wares and had a dish of broccoli and cheese soup, followed by her favourite venison, this time cooked in sloe gin, while Margaret had a fish pie. The two found that they had much in common, and were soon chatting as if they had known each other all their lives.
‘I’m too full for a pudding,’ Joanne admitted, with shame.
‘Have cheese and biscuits, then you can have as much as you like.’ Margaret hid her mouth behind her hand as she whispered: ‘Robert the chef makes the most delicious éclairs. I’ll get Sylvester to put some in a doggy bag for you, so you can eat them tomorrow when you have room for them.’ She giggled. I get him to do it for me most days, and eat them for lunch. It’s the reason for this; she patted her belly, which did protrude noticeably.
‘It seems a shame just to eat and go home, how about we take ourselves off to the Red Lion.’
Joanne was on holiday, there was nobody who would notice her if she got drunk. Not only that but she was reluctant to leave Margaret’s company. Soon they were seated in a traditional British pub with dark panelling, a stone floor, and friendly staff who were not trying to push the latest products.
‘Is Sylvester’s dad still around?’ Joanne asked.
‘No. He ran off with some floozie years ago. I never found anyone else, but then I’m not sure I want to. Living on my own has benefits. I don’t get disturbed by snoring, I don’t have to watch rugby every week and if I don’t feel like cooking I don’t cook.’
‘Oh, a woman after my own heart.’ Joanne laughed, glad to have met someone who felt exactly like that. ‘’Cept with Jerry it was football and snooker, not rugby.’
‘I take it you were married.’
‘Yeah, thirty years, but the story ended like yours, he found another woman two years ago.’
‘Were you upset?’
‘At the time, yes, but now they are married, and like you I feel free to live my life as I want it. Doing what I want, when I want.’
‘To freedom.’ Margaret raised her glass of stout as a toast.
‘Freedom.’ Joanne echoed, raising her lager to meet it.
Much later the two woman, somewhat the worse for drink wound their way back to Joanne’s hotel. Unable to stand in her heels any longer, Joanne was carrying them and walking in her nylons.
‘Here’s my number, call me when you get home.’ Margaret handed over a piece of paper.
Joanne hastily tore a page from her diary, and wrote her telephone number on the back of it before handing it over to Margaret, receiving a bear-hug in return.
As Joanne pushed open the door of the hotel Margaret turned the diary page over.
‘Wedding anniversary, Cornwall’ Joanne had written, before crossing it out and writing ‘Meal out, Cornwall’ in its place.
The restaurant was closed when Margaret got back, the last few diners were drinking their coffee.
Syl stopped his mother before she reached the stairs.
‘Yes, Joanne’s a lovely lady, thanks for introducing us.’
Syl took the key from her and opened the door to her apartment, knowing that she was probably too pie-eyed to manage it on her own.
‘Do you want me to help?’
‘Naah, I’m a big girl now, look after meself you know.’
‘Are you going to see her again?’
‘Yeah, I’m sure I will.’
There was a bright smile on Syl’s face as he headed down the stairs to his own apartment. He had been looking for someone his mother could relate to for a while, in spite of her declarations of independence and self-reliance he didn’t want her dying lonely. He just hoped she and Joanne would keep in touch. Maybe even more. His mother had often said that she didn’t want a man, perhaps she was a closet lesbian, and a woman would be the answer.
He would have changed his mind about that if he knew that the next night Margaret and Joanne were on the phone arranging a night out to see a group of male dancers (strippers) in a few weeks time, but Margaret never told him about that. A son doesn’t need to know everything.