An old man followed us into the restaurant, he was one of those spritely types, tall and ramrod straight. He had a sense of pride in his bearing, invisible in the younger men of the village and only a race memory in our slouching children.
He was unhurried but he didn’t dawdle, he gave the impression of going somewhere even as he stood still waiting to be seated. I had seen him before, he was I remembered, a lecturer or a teacher of some sort and a sports man, a hurler or a football player. He wore the scars of a hurl or a studded boot on a crooked nose.
His hair was parted precisely, not just grey but snow white. His eyes a startling shade of green in a face wonderfully serene. He is wearing today a grey suit with an open neck. He reeks of salt, sea and air, a gardener or a sailor, an outdoors man by the tan on cheeks and neck. A sailing club pin tells me my latter guess was accurate.
I shepherded my daughter to our allotted space, a table by the window that looked out over the beauty of this special place that we are so blessed to live in. The palomino dun sand of the beach and the string of three islands hung in the expanse of glass like an oil painting. Not a breath of wind moved a white cap or riffled a blade of green grass on the promenade.
My daughter is four years old and ordering in a restaurant is an adventure for her, a dialogue of oohs and ahhs. A question and answer session of paramount importance. “What’s that daddy?” the question, among many, that takes up my time as we waited for a waitress to take our order.
The gentleman had been seated next to us at a table already set for two. The table cloth in this weekday diner was special in its whiteness alone, it was linen while those on other tables were disposable nuclear grade tissue paper. The cutlery, which had already been laid reflected the early September sun that filtered in through the picture windows.
He was seated facing into the room, allowing his not yet arrived companion the ocean view. He rearranged the place settings, adjusted the seat so his companion would not be blinded by the suns reflection and then settled himself with his back to me.
I thought then that he must have being waiting for someone special. I guessed he is mid-seventies at least and my memory dredged up a faceless wife and a daughter that was in a class ahead of me at college.
Was there a son, I seemed to recall one, a few years younger than me. And then the shades of a tragedy, a drowning. It was the boy when he was fifteen or sixteen.
I remembered still the shock of a teenage death when I, a young man, soon to leave the village, to London and then to Cape Town, thought myself above such things as coffins and tombstones. And then of course I thought, inevitably of my own boy, lost over twenty years ago and still remembered every day.
I felt closer to this elder man, who in truth I knew so little of. We shared a blunt and heavy burden. Brothers under flayed flesh. Bereaved parents both.
The waitress came to him, she brought no notebook or electronic gismo. She just nodded as he placed his order and I begin to understand that this was something regular, a ritual. The waitress glanced at me and smiled at my very cute daughter, a promise she would be with us shortly and I nodded back, in no particular rush on this holiday Friday lunchtime.
When she came, again armed with the gadgetry of waitressing, Rou ordered sausage rolls and skinny chips, she equated this to the skinny latte her mother drinks and informed me in an earnest tone that she was on a diet. I smiled and squeezed her in the way that fathers do and I wondered who this little creature was who invaded so much of my head space and filled my chest with sensations similar to squirming centipedes.
I perused the menu but knew the inevitable awfulness of my choice. I order a salad (because) I’m on a year-long diet that doesn’t work unless I give it up and then it works in reverse, every pound earned a bastard to spend.
The gentleman was being served, a simple meal for that is what the eatery was all about, plain food at affordable prices, where the overstretched, overburdened parents of young children and the workers of the village, came to eat and talk and share the view.
He was tucking into a poached egg salad and still his companion had not arrived, I think I may have been mistaken, perhaps he is eating alone but then why the fussy rearranging of cutlery and seating? Why the suit? And I noticed then that he was conducting a lively if one sided conversation with the empty space across from him.
I try to recall his wife and my memory draws from the ether the shade of a small, energetic woman, she was a pharmacist I recall, worked in the old family chemist on the main street when I was a teenager. It was not a place I frequented often, a few visits at most, laryngitis once and maybe to collect something for my mother a time or two, so my memory of her was faint. I remembered a shape and a personality more than a face or a voice. I remembered her as helpful and friendly, full of optimism.
She disappeared from my view when I left the village for other shores and by the time I returned she had retired.
I try to picture her, to recall some small detail and the memory I recover is of her at the funeral of her son, it is strange how one memory links to another and things that seemed strange or odd to a young man on the cusp of new experiences can when dredged up again make perfect sense to an adult who has been scraped off the sharp sides of the world.
I remember them standing apart, strangers almost, at the boy’s funeral, a distance between them that meant nothing to a boy of nineteen but to his older grown self who has lived through that same tragedy it meant much.
I remembered then my own experience of that unnatural grief. Face again the yawning chasm of loss and despair that separated me from my love when we stood over that awful gash in the ground. Barely able to stand, let alone support each other as we watched a pine box take our world into the darkness.
I remembered the struggle to look in her eyes and see reflected their my own awful pain. The drift into stranger-hood, living day by day with the ghost of a bright vibrant woman I once adored who is now trapped behind dead grey eyes.
I remembered the months and years of hiding so I didn’t have to remember any more. The withdrawing into oneself.
I read a statistic on a scholarly article some time ago that put the odds of a couple staying together after the death of an only child at about 50/50 and I thought the author of the research was perhaps optimistic with those percentages, I recalled the gnawing ache, the loneliness, the wall of unspoken words that pushed and pushed. It took a few years for us to face squarely the damage we were doing to ourselves and to each other and by blind luck or providence we were able to back away from the abyss.
The healing involved me quitting my business and staying home, talking for days upon days, talking until our jaws were sore from it, allowing her to beat my chest with frustration and anger. It involved first facing the blame we found in each other and then finding ways to forgive that blame.
It took six months of trying, crying and coping, visiting demons every day and battling them together. We survived, we had another child, another boy and later a daughter. We rebuilt our lives.
I look now at the dapper gentleman and I wonder did he rebuild his life after he buried his son. I think perhaps he did and just like me and my wife I think he is still in love. He is finishing his meal, no companion came. I am slow witted and only then was I realising his lunch date was already here, had entered the café on his arm.
He is finishing his food as I face and understand the complexity of this ritual in which the waitress has been complicit. This small thing that is done in a restaurant in a small eastern village where people know a little about loss and about pain.
As I drove home, enjoying the delicious sounds of a four year old singing nonsense from her booster seat behind me, I happened to spot him again, a flash of grey by the graveyard gates. In his hand he carries flowers. Not a wreath or a drab offering to the dead but a bunch of gay late summer fire, Dahlias and Crocosmia.
A bouquet for his darling, who I fancy, he used spoil on Fridays when his pockets were full from his weeks work.