I wrote this story last year for a competition. It didn’t get anywhere – but then it doesn’t. I’ve tweaked it a bit since then but it could probably do with another going over.
You Never Know
Perched on a high metal stool, her feet resting on bars some way from the floor, Sarah stared idly out of the window at parked cars and determined shoppers. The narrow granite shelf on which her lunch rested was just too far away to make eating comfortable. She picked up the warm, slightly soggy cardboard container – 100% recycled, fully compostable – and rooted among layers of rice and dhal, bean stew and cauliflower cheese, with an ineffective wooden fork. There was something pleasantly anonymous about sitting here: she didn’t have to bother about anyone seeing her.
She put down her food and looked round the high-class wholefood supermarket, its sign advertising organic smoked salmon and its shelves of hypo-allergenic baby food. Looking self-absorbed and slightly cross, people were earnestly weighing up which kind of raw chocolate to buy or contemplating varieties of gluten-free pasta. As she moved her head she felt her hair coming down. She groped for the slide that was just about holding it up and fastened it back. Tufts were still escaping from the sides but she didn’t much care. As she turned to her food again she vaguely noticed a man moving towards the eating area, a lidded paper cup held out in front of him like a sacred vessel.
He didn’t sit next to her but left two empty stools between them. As he passed, the edge of her body gave a slight shiver, which made her look towards him. He smiled, holding her gaze until she tucked her head down. She shivered again and carried on eating. When she stopped to drink some water he was looking in her direction, with the kind of inviting smile that could begin a conversation. She was chewing a piece of undercooked broccoli and continued to do so, while he sipped his coffee and lifted tiny peaks of foam to his mouth on the end of his wooden stirrer.
Until then Sarah hadn’t registered much about the man’s appearance. He was wearing a raincoat, open, and under it a blue shirt and brown jacket. She noticed that because she didn’t like blue and brown together. She noticed too his large dark eyes, with thick eyebrows that gave his face a theatrical look. She turned back to finish her meal and had to stop herself glancing round him again to see if he was still looking, still smiling. Once she had pushed away the cardboard container she allowed herself to catch his eye, without giving him anything as definite as a smile. The sense of familiarity startled her. Though they had never met, she was sure they knew each other.
When she came back with a paper cup of tea, he had moved one stool nearer; a woman with a nest of bright red hair was sitting where he had been. He sat with his chin resting on his hand, openly watching Sarah. His long reddish face had deep lines that suggested humour or sadness, or perhaps irony; his hair, grey threaded with black, was pushed back, keeping his view clear. She lifted the sides of her mouth and gave him a look that might be encouraging, then moved her stool aside, scraping it along the floor, and climbed on it again. As she stared out of the window she felt his gaze on her profile. She had brought with her a small catalogue from the exhibition of photographs she had just been to and tried to absorb herself in it while she waited for her tea to cool.
The shivery sensation had become something like excitement. Sarah tried to remember when she had last attracted or been attracted to a man she didn’t know. A strange man, she wanted to say: she had started to wonder if there was something strange about him. Why would he be interested in her, when she made so little effort to be interesting? What had made him single her out? The dry, finely wrinkled skin of her hands reminded her how old she was. She doubted that he was quite so old, though perhaps he was not far off. The same generation, certainly. She glanced sideways from her catalogue and saw him take a drink of coffee, stare into the paper cup, swirl the last dregs round and swallow them down. Then he would go, if neither of them said anything.
He placed his cup on the granite shelf to his far side, where it didn’t come between them, settled himself on his stool and raised his eyebrows enquiringly at her. She drew breath to make some vapid remark but stopped herself. He seemed to do the same, inviting her to begin. She liked the way the smile lifted his cheeks and eyebrows; she liked him looking at her as though she was someone who counted. Scruffy as she was, she subtly preened herself inside her old padded jacket that had gone flat with the years. It disquieted her that he hadn’t said anything; the tension stretched taut between them. How ridiculous it was getting: two middle-aged-to-elderly people facing each other and ducking away like shy teenagers.
She was used to living alone. After deciding she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with James, whom she had called her boyfriend despite their age, she filled her time with the kinds of things women on their own did, usually with other women on their own: the pottery class, the rambling club, the little job in the soon-to-be-closed library, the local choir. The diary was pleasingly full; she wasn’t looking for anyone to fill it. All the men she knew were either married or gay, surrounded by a soft but impenetrable barrier. This man here might be neither… You could never be sure of someone, that was the thing. Those dreadful stories of stalkers and con-men, women who’d been flattered by the attention and let someone get close who had then persecuted them. As he neatly folded his cup in half and opened it out again she looked him over thoroughly: the button missing on the raincoat, the swept-back hair, the signet ring on his muscular finger. Could you trust someone who wore a signet ring?
While she was staring at him, making an inventory of all that he might be, he caught her eye again and smiled. It was so infectious – so innocent, she would have liked to say – that she smiled back without thinking, as if they had already confided in each other and reached a point where words were unnecessary. He edged closer on his stool, still keeping the empty one between them, and she felt her body pulled to do the same. She imagined their hands meeting on the seat, warm flesh on the cold metal slats, and instead pressed her hand against the hard edge of the tabletop. She felt it making a groove in her palm.
Glancing out of the window Sarah saw a trail of people coming out of the church opposite, busy and gratified. A large notice-board behind them promised New Life. She wasn’t sure she wanted a new life: the model she had suited her quite well. ‘A relationship’ that needed time and care would only complicate things. A man might make demands, as this one was doing, sitting beside her and wanting her to talk. Perhaps he would have gone away while she had not been thinking of him, and then she wouldn’t have to decide.
She heard a quiet cough that might have been an abortive attempt at speech. It seemed to come from a low, resonant voice of a kind that she had always liked. She found herself clearing her throat in response, thinking, What’s to stop me saying something now? She could still get up and walk away after; a few words wouldn’t commit her to anything. Then she could disappear into a charity shop and stay in the changing-room until he had given up; or she could get her hair trimmed and hide in the hairdresser’s, pretending to consider having it all cut short. She could always talk to him first.
She slid down from the stool, reached for her rucksack that was resting against the footrail, unzipped it and put the catalogue inside. He had stood up too and seemed to be waiting courteously for her to go. They held each other’s gaze again, his smile becoming more uncertain as hers flickered and then died.
She shouldered her rucksack and walked out of the supermarket without looking behind her. Better not take chances: you never knew what might happen.