*Winner of MiNDFOOD magazine short-story competition, July 2019
Hana sat on his sofa and stared up at him.
“So?” she prompted.
Tom glanced back at her. Hana was his oldest and, right now, quite possibly his only friend. She had seen him at his worst, after the affair and after his mother’s death, but she had put him back together piece by piece. Hana had been the sole thing between him and total darkness. But what she was asking of him now, it didn’t feel right.
“What do you think?” she said.
Tom stood at the window, with his back to her, and peered down at the Auckland street.
“Tom?” said Hana, tentatively.
He lingered at the glass, his eyes stalking the alleyway, and looked at the rubbish bags cluttering the pavement. A stray cat teased something from the black plastic and hurried away. Tom turned around to face her. The sight of Hana on his couch felt right and he found himself staring at the curve of her neck, where her skin was showing just above her scarf. She looked good, well-rested.
“You’re serious?” he said.
“Yes, I’m serious. It’s not that far-fetched.”
“What’s his name?”
“Derrick. Derrick Johnston. He’s thirty-eight, an English teacher at one of the private schools.”
Tom raised an eyebrow.
“Yes,” smiled Hana. “Private.”
“And where did you meet him?”
Hana’s smile faded, held only in her dimples, and she looked at him more seriously, with a pang of charmed guilt.
“Well,” she said. “We haven’t exactly met, not yet. We were a match on Tinder.”
Tom’s face remained blank.
“It’s a dating app,” offered Hana. “On your phone.”
“On-line dating? Aren’t you a bit…”
Hana stopped him with a look.
“I suggest you choose your next word very carefully.”
“A bit… sophisticated,” said Tom.
He smiled and a trickle of laughter leaked into his dry lungs, still parched from the past year. Hana had a way of doing that, making him feel lighter.
“Everyone’s using apps these days,” said Hana. “Women have needs too, you know.”
Tom looked at her, an unease caught in his eyes, and Hana hurried on.
“So,” she said, her face flushed. “Will you do it?”
“You want me to sit and watch you on a date?”
“Well, not watch, I mean you can bring a book. It’s just, I’m a little nervous. I’ve never done it before. What if he’s a psychopath or a stalker, or he has a fetish for dead people.”
“I thought you said he was a school teacher?”
Hana’s eyebrows gravitated up her forehead and she looked bemused. “Haven’t you watched Notes on a Scandal?”
“The movie?” Her eyes searched his face. “Physiological thriller… two screwed up teachers. Judi Dench. Cate Blanchett.”
Tom gave her nothing, and Hana rolled her eyes.
“You need to get out more Tom.”
“By babysitting you on a tender date?”
“Tinder. But yes.”
“Brel Bar in Ponsonby. You know the Belgian one with the nice courtyard.”
Tom sighed and ran a hand down his face. Ponsonby Road, with its trendy cafes and pretentious food scene, was a far cry from his current south Auckland residence. God, he hated taco trucks. Although, the craft beer was half decent.
“Come on,” continued Hana. “It’s a lovely part of the city, good music, great beer. What’s not to love? Just one drink … maybe two.”
Tom groaned and rubbed his temples. He was not in the mood to listen to the squawks and political ramblings of hipsters and young professionals.
“I love Ponsonby,” said Hana, “and you’ll be able to get a decent drink. I mean, what is this stuff?” She paused to read the label on her bottle and held it up to her nose. “It smells like sour water that’s been sitting in the pipes for ….”
Tom lifted the beer from her fingers, her eyes following the label as he took it.
“I’ll come,” he said. “Just …” He closed his eyes. “Just stop talking.”
Hana smiled, victorious.
“So,” he said. “When is this date?”
She shifted in her seat, the guilt returned, and looked down at her hands.
Tom had been right. Saying yes had been a mistake.
The bar was crawling with young professionals, a sea of faces hidden behind thick-rimmed frames and foreheads exposed by perched-back hats. Tom had never seen so many checkered-shirts and oversized glasses in all of his life. Specsavers had to be making a killing. The beat of the background music gave him an instant headache, grinding beneath his skull, and he couldn’t hear himself think over the buzz of conversation.
Tom was about to protest when he felt Hana’s hand slip into his. She leaned into him, her perfume magnetic, and led the way through the swarm of bodies to the courtyard. She released her fingers, but the scent of her lingered, and it took a second for Tom to pull his eyes from her hand. He glanced up and Hana smiled at him, something unapologetic in her expression. Tom broke eye-contact, feigning interest in the courtyard as he looked around.
The place wasn’t awful.
The once misused alleyway space had been transformed into a sliver of semi-outdoor urban greenery, with twines of ivy and fairy-lights hung from the brick walls. The wrought iron gates at the end of the courtyard gave the place a warm industrial feel. Like a chic, edgy prison.
Hana walked past the first couple of tables and led Tom to a small bench up the back.
“I’ve got a table booked for Derrick and I a little further down,” she said. “I thought you’d prefer it up here, less danger of someone talking to you.”
“Funny,” said Tom. “You’re very funny.”
“I like to think so.” Hana smiled and checked her watch. “I should probably go, I told him half past.”
“You told him, how endearing.”
Hana ignored his comment and did a quick scan of the tables before turning back.
“Just stay here and behave yourself. I’ll ask a waitress to come over.”
Tom pulled a book from his jacket.
“All set.” He held up a dog-eared copy of Seven Years in Tibet. “I might even make it through the next hour without you”.
Hana let out an exasperated groan and adjusted her hair.
“You’re infuriating, you know that.”
She smiled and turned to leave.
Tom watched as Hana wound her way to the other end of the courtyard, and he waited until she was seated before opening his book. He stretched his legs out in front of him, feet crossed at the ankles, and let the background noise fade away. After a moment, maybe not even that, he glanced over in Hana’s direction. Tom watched as the man approached and he followed Derrick Johnston’s hands as he hugged Hana, his left hand paused on the low of her back. Tom averted his gaze and returned to the split pages of his book, reading the same line three times.
…I can still hear the cries of wild geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa…
He was reading it again when the young waitress appeared. She had jet black hair and a straight fringe that formed a blunt line across her forehead. Tom lowered his book and looked up, surprised by her friendly smile and the natural chirpiness in her voice.
“I’m guessing you’re not here for the fondue?” she said, angling her eyes towards the table behind her.
Tom followed her gaze, to the couple huddled around a small pot.
“It’s fondue Tuesday,” she offered.
Tom looked back at her, he didn’t have a response. There was literally nothing that he could think to say.
“You’re tough work.” The waitress smiled, her left hand relaxed on her hip, and held up a brightly coloured menu, with the words Fondue Night printed across it. Then she held up one finger. “Accidentally drop your bread in the fondue and you owe your date a kiss.” She raised a second finger. “Rule two. If you drop your bread a second time then you owe them something more, your choice, but personally, I’d go for the ear nibble. Three, you lose an item of clothing…”
Tom looked passed her to see if Hana had ordered fondue. No melted cheese. Thank God. He could feel the waitress watching him and he sat back in his chair, glancing at the menu.
“It’s okay grandpa,” she said, giggling at the look of utter amazement on his face. “You could just chuck that jacket of yours. Not that I’d be complaining if you decided to lose the jeans.”
She winked, making no effort to conceal a smile.
Tom had forgotten the way that a woman could look at him. True, he’d had more than a few one-night stands since the divorce, but that had been different, both parties had been shamelessly inebriated. Tom had forgotten that look, and it reminded him of a man that no longer existed, a younger man who had enjoyed going out to the pub and taking a woman to dinner.
“You still with me?”
Tom glanced up to see the waitress staring at him, a look of perplexity caught on her brow.
“You know,” she said, “for an attractive man, you look kind of awful.”
Tom’s face lightened, the hint of amusement caught in his eyes.
“That’s better,” she said, “now how about I bring you a beer?”
Then she turned and left.
Tom flicked his eyes up, looking for Hana. She was smiling, her head tilted back in careless laughter, and she pushed a red strand behind her ear. He liked her hair, it was shorter than before, and it bobbed on her shoulders when she moved. Despite the first bites of winter, Hana had removed her coat and scarf and she was wearing a short green dress. It suited her, complimented her red hair, and he saw the way that Derrick looked at her. He wasn’t being obvious. But it was enough that Tom noticed it, because it was the same expression that he had.
At that moment, Hana looked back and she caught him staring at her. Her cheeks coloured and she widened her eyes in mock disbelief at the situation, then she smiled and turned away. Tom closed his eyes and cursed under his breath. Idiot.
He still had his eyes closed when the beer glass was placed down in front of him.
“She’s pretty,” said the waitress kindly.
Tom managed a slim smile.
“Didn’t she come in with you earlier?” asked the waitress.
“Yes. She’s a friend.”
The waitress raised an eyebrow.
“She’s on one of those internet dates,” said Tom, trying a smile. “Tinder or something. I’m back up.”
“I see.” The waitress nodded. “Back up.”
She went to leave, hesitated, and turned back to him.
“You know, I don’t think it’s for him,” she said. “The green dress. I think it’s for you.”
Later, after Hana had hugged Derrick goodbye, Tom drove her home and walked her to her door.
They stood under the dim light, a foot apart, and looked at each other. The street was empty, quiet but for the occasional passing car and the far-off hum of the city night. Despite the cold air, Tom felt the line of sweat down his back and the throb of a pulse in his neck. Hana, who always had something to say, was silent, her expression new to him.
Tom dipped his eyes, aware of his every awkward movement.
Aware of Hana. There. So close to him.
Eventually, Hana leaned in, and gave him a kiss on the cheek, her lips catching on the corner of his mouth.
“Thanks,” she said, “for tonight.”
“Derrick seemed nice.”
Hana gave him a small smile, which he returned. Then he started down the steps. But it was the waitress’ words that stopped him, kept him, and he toyed with the idea. It’s for you. Then he turned and looked back at her.
“The green dress …” he said.
Hana lifted her gaze and her eyes flooded with relief.
“You like it?” she asked.
She was sobbing and smiling at the same time.
Tom walked up the steps and slipped his arms around her waist, her body warm against his.
“I’m sorry it took me so long,” he said.