Pleased with herself, and with her day, she waves off her colleagues and says – no, sings – her goodbyes. “Bye, yes, goodbye. Have a great week, see you next time”.
And across the road she goes, ready to head home in the evening light.
But as she passes the lamp-lit door to the café, she pauses: why not? She has a little money, has nothing – and no-one – to rush home for. Why not stay out a little longer in the crowds, in the people, in the world?
So up the stairs she heads, and into the café area – quiet now, it’s only just six o’clock. She chooses a table, a table for two of course, but still…
And she orders herself a comforting dish, pasta with scallops and samphire and cream. As she looks around, another woman enters, sits nearby, also alone. So it’s not just me, she thinks, reassured.
Outside, the sky darkens suddenly and rain comes in a machine-gun rattle on the windows and the skylight. The other woman looks across. “I think we were lucky!” she says. “My goodness, yes.” And that small exchange, that camaraderie, makes her feel part of something, not alone. She feels a little – what? – grown up, perhaps, having taken herself out for supper, as other people do.
For a few moments, as she waits, she checks her phone for messages. Wonders what people used to do before mobile phones, to cover for their solitude. Books? Newspapers? Perhaps….
A sudden kerfuffle causes her to look up from the tiny screen. It’s a family, a big one, and she recognizes them. First the man, the husband, it’s – Michael? Mark? Martin! Yes, Martin, one of the ‘school-Dads’, father to one of her daughters’ friends. And hard on his heels, the extended family; Grandma, Lottie-the-wife, Grandad and the two kids, Alex and Berry. Berry’s the girl, same age as her two, same year at school. Nice girl.
And she looks at them, all crowded together, and her heart fell away.
All together, laughing (don’t let them see me, don’t let them see me…)
Alex, a bit bored, but gamely tagging along. (Don’t let them see me…)…..and now they’re settling themselves into a happy, jabbering crowd at the big table in the corner. Her meal arrives, the waiter is solicitous; is there anything else she needs? No wine, no bread? She shakes her head.
No, nothing more. In fact, now all she can think of is how to get out of there as fast as is possible. She feels a fool, a stuck-out sore thumb, a pariah; the once-mother with no children, forever eating alone, forever making the best of her solitude. She forks a mouthful of pasta to her mouth, knows it’s good, struggles to swallow.
The place is filling up, pairs and groups, late night shoppers and pre-theatre diners. A girl calls out, waves to the solitary woman across from her, joins her at her table. She feels betrayed – no longer are they like-minded travelers, two brave singletons entertaining themselves to supper. Now, she’s the only one, alone in being alone.
She knows this is wallowing. It’s a well-trodden path, this sudden darkening of her mood. But just for a moment, she can’t help herself – it’s as seductive as an addiction. “Will I ever sit with my family again? Will I ever feel a part of something, that I matter to someone?”
She’s eating faster now, hoping to finish and leave before Lottie or Martin see her, or worse – Berry. Berry asking ‘where are the girls?’. Can she muster the strength for a bright smile, a cheery wave, a blind eye to the pitying glances?
Finally, she finishes. Puts down her fork, folds her napkin (try not to rush!) and gets to her feet. Carefully she avoids meeting anyone’s eye as she pulls on her coat and scarf, collects her bag and heads to the till. Taking her shopping and her loneliness with her, all of them neatly wrapped and bagged.
As she reaches the till, Lottie looks up and catches her eye. Lottie, a nervous but kindly woman, a woman who knows her story. A smile, a wave; there, that wasn’t so bad, was it? She nods, waves back, mouths ‘in a rush, see you soon!’
And pays. And leaves. And steps out into the now-dark , rain-spattered street, so different from an hour ago.
She shoulders her bags. Takes a breath, then a step. Then another. This won’t be forever, she reminds herself. Everything changes. I don’t know how, but it will, And she pushes on into the night.