He could see from a mile away that she was irritating. He felt sorry for both of them. The man was about sixty but still good looking. Close-cropped grey beard, a sweep of thick iron-grey hair. Hard blue eyes in a well-proportioned face. He wore a bomber jacket, boot-cut jeans. His wife was dowdy, eager to please. She wore an old brown coat and her brown hair was limp and lank. He watched her fussing, trying to engage her man. He opened the newspaper, nodded without looking at her. He couldn't hear what they were saying – there was too much noise in the coffee shop – but he caught snatches of her petitioning intonation as her voice rose and fell. It looked like they'd been together for a hundred years and still she was trying to get his attention, get his approval, impress him with something he didn't know, get him to love her. He could see it a mile off.
When their food came the man put his paper aside. She looked around the restaurant, beaming. Her face was shiny. She gave out a self-satisfied little sigh. His face was weathered and his eyes distant, as if he'd spent a lot of time outdoors in the company of other men. A lineman, perhaps. She looked like she never went outdoors. She was as plump and rosy as a fatted pig. He liked the man's face. The face of a ranger, of a hard-bitten man.
He thought how terrible it would be, that kind of marriage. The longest he'd been with any one woman was about five years.
The woman rearranged things on the table. She wanted everything just so. She moved the antique lemonade bottle with its four yellow daisies to one side, so it wasn't between them. She moved the condiment bottles to the opposite table edge. She stared frankly at the man but he was studying his food with hooded eyes.
Before picking up her cutlery the woman turned her head to gaze out of the window and he saw that she was better looking than he'd thought. And younger. At least fifteen years younger than the lineman. She shook out her hair with spread fingers and he wondered why he'd thought it lank, it was actually pretty good hair. She had beautiful hands and wrists. She pushed off her coat, letting it flop untidily over the back of the chair. It had a gorgeous floral pink and blue satin lining. He'd thought it a cheap hand-me-down but he saw now that it was expensive. She had a good figure too, strong and shapely but still feminine.
He stopped watching, distracted by his omelette. When he looked at them again something had changed. The man was reciting a poem from memory. He watched her closely as he spoke, as if her reaction was very important. His voice was low and gravelly, his inflection measured and sonorous. He smirked self-consciously; it didn't suit his rugged image. The woman had stiffened, as if frozen into silence. The man finished, shrugged, looked away.
He had to go to the toilet. There was a small window above the urinal; through it he could see a dirty waste trap and the crusted ends of rusty pipes. Continual streams of grey water disappeared down the black hole under the slimy grate. He disliked drains. And where the hell was all that water coming from? What a waste. Didn't they know there was a drought?
When he got back to his table the woman was talking and the man was paying attention. She was passionate about something. She shaped words with her hands and punctuated sentences with cutting gestures. She was leaning forward, appealing to the man. He inhaled, puffed his cheeks, leaned back. He made small gestures that suggested he didn't know what to say. He looked defeated.
The angry face of the blonde manager, ballpoint pen stuck in the corner of her mouth, loomed between the scale and the espresso machine. She glared at him and cocked her head. Her warning look, her 'do you want something?' look. He shook his head and looked down. Perhaps he'd been staring too intently. He pretended to check his phone. The door jingled and the newspaper seller with the white beard dashed in brushing rain off his shoulders. He looked perpetually perplexed. In the window seat the two lesbians were craning their necks in tandem to study the old pressed steel ceilings. They were both very good looking. What a bloody waste, he thought.
The lineman asked for the bill. When it came he put on a pair of spectacles and checked it carefully. His lips moved silently as he read off the items. The chit trembled in his hand, as if a fine wind blew just in that corner of the restaurant. The woman pulled out her purse and put down a few notes. The man protested, crestfallen, but she insisted. It looked like they'd never split a bill before. She stood up and put on her coat, full of fire and energy. Her big silver bracelets caught the light. She bent down and touched the man's shoulder. Her eyes were brimming but she swept out of the restaurant with such purpose that the wind of her motion lifted her tails. She swung her leather bag onto her shoulder as she strode off, like a cowboy shouldering a saddle.
The man sat for some minutes after she'd gone. His eyes were red, as if he'd been crying. He looked old. When he stood up to leave it was clear that he'd never been a lineman. One of his legs was wasted away and he limped badly when he walked.
He was annoyed to be left alone with the lesbians. And why did the restaurant insist on the little butter sachets? They were an eternal irritation. He ordered another coffee and wondered how to spend the afternoon.