The place they come apart is very beautiful.
Behind the leaded-glass doorway are rows of high-backed chairs silver painted, white walls and white tablecloths setting off the blue willow-pattern crockery. Once upon a time a carpet of soft grey slid beneath the chairs and settees draped in rich rose-purple and leaded mirror glass reflected bright enamels in pastel pinks and mauves.
But it is still very beautiful, this place they come apart.
She watches him. He looks at his hands. He is smoothing his hands on the creaseless white tablecloth while she watches him. She enjoys seeing him nervous, always has, and still even now. He knows this too, knowing all she thinks, is.
“It’s a big mess isn’t it?”
“It is, pretty much.”
He doesn’t say anything. His hands are so interesting to him against the white tablecloth because they are not interesting.
“I’ve always wanted to come here,” she says. “I’m glad we did.”
He doesn’t say anything, looking at her face, trying to imagine what it would be like to meet her for the first time. It’s a funny feeling.
“It’s so formal though,” she says. “Like being in church.”
“I thought we should make the last time special.”
The edge in his voice surprises him, revealing too much, but she seems to miss the telling inflection.
“And we’re so not the type of people who’d be doing this in church.”
“No.” She picks up an exquisite white-handled little butter knife and examines her reflection in it, frowning slightly. “Room de Luxe,” she whispers.
“You wouldn’t find a jewellry store on the ground floor of a church though.”
She looks at him and he can see himself in her eyes looking at her. If he were to glance at the knife in her hand he’d see himself glinting there too.
“I’d really like to play a game,” she says. “I miss that, playing games with you. Remember when we’d go to a bar and just sit and play exquisite corpse for hours?”
“You always got mad when I beat you at chess.”
Resentment still, after all this time. But she always was such a terrible loser.
“Not every time.”
She’s right of course. There were days she won too, many days.
“We can keep doing that,” he says, quickly. “I don’t see why not. We can still play like we used to. Online maybe. Just for the, you know, company and. . .”
“No we can’t.”
“Just for. . .”
“No, we can’t.” She puts the knife down carefully, impresses it in the cloth, this soft denting. “Tell me one of your stories.”
“I can’t. I’m all out of stories. My mind has to be at a place.”
She shrugs and sips at her tea, her lips lovely pouted, waits for him to say more about his mind, other places, but nothing else comes.
“I like tea,” she says. “I never drank it till I came over here the first time. We’re so coffee back home.”
“I like watching you.” His words come a sudden blurting. “You’re so pretty. You’re so pretty when you don’t know someone is watching you. You’re never prettier.”
“Really?” It’s not a question, really, and she seems even a little distracted.
“I want to hold you.”
“Oh, quit it.” She touches a finger to the rim of the blue cup. “You think I don’t need to feel you hold me?”
Her voice is hoarse saying this, and this causes his eyes to burn slightly.
“We keep having the same conversations,” she continues. “ It never gets any better. It’s not healthy.”
“I check when you don’t e-mail at night. I look to see if the goddamn server is down. It’s ridiculous.” She reconsiders this, corrects. “I’m ridiculous.”
You’re the only thing that brings peace to me,” he says. “You’re the only thing that ever made me happy.”
Saying this, he realizes that he means it. It is very shocking to him, this meaning. He frightens himself with a cliché.
“It’s true. It happens to be true.”
“Well, that’s what’s wrong then.”
They sit at their corner table in silence, sipping tea, nibbling at sugary croissants. A buzz of chatter settles, neighborly. Her compatriots are photographing the walls.
“It would be easier all around,” he says, slowly, “if you were only to . . .”
“Meet someone else,” she says, finishing his sentence.
It is not his intention to hurt her, or he doesn’t believe it is, and as for hurting himself, well he’s not so sure anymore.
“Yes.” He considers this affirmation. “No.”
“I can’t meet anyone I like,” she says, brushing crumbs with her palm. “It’s too late for that. I could have anyone I want. I meet guys and it seems fine and no problem and I think it’ll be okay and then they don’t want to play, chess or anything else. They can’t talk. They have nothing to say, to me, no silly stories. They bore me senseless.”
“Well, you can’t not,” he begins, “just because. . .”
He doesn’t know what he wants to say. There’s no because will work well here.
“I’ll just buy that farm and raise those goats,” she says, achieving a smile.
“I’d like to live on that farm.”
“No, you wouldn’t. I’d be there.”
“Oh, stop it.” He is suddenly aware of his echoing of her. Did he always repeat her words like that, realising it only now? How long has he been dreaming this?
She sighs and looks around the tearoom at all the purples and reds.
“Tell me something I don’t know. Something about monkeys, I always like your monkey stories.”
“I saw Margaret last month,” he says, knowing this is not what she wants to hear. “She’s got so old, shrunk into herself. She’s withered.”
“We all get like that.”
“Don’t let me get like that.”
“That’s not my call.”
“That’s someone else’s call.”
“I feel like we’re not talking about what we need to talk about,” he says.
“No? I thought we just this minute were.”
He picks up a teaspoon. He’s right way up. Flip it he’s upside down, that easy it is. But why is the spoon so cold?
“We can’t go on,” she says. “It’s too late. We can only open a space.”
“If I wasn’t such a craven coward. . .” he begins.
“You’re not.” She lays her hand upon his and taps a fingernail on the ring, gently. “Come on. Let’s go back.”
Leaving through the gift shop, he looks up at the breakfasters on the sky-lit mezzanine. He can’t help it, still conscious of being seen with her, even now.
Out in the street, she examines the stuccoed white Tea Rooms in their infill slot, points out the small paned windows, braces, ornamental tile inserts, art deco things he doesn’t get. She explains these things to him and he likes it.
“That Macintosh was sure something,” she says, her heels beating a sweet tattoo on the sidewalk, her word.
They walk back along Sauchiehall Street towards the hotel, not touching. It begins to rain and she buys an umbrella from a barrow boy, which she opens and swings dangerously. She has all that confidence, being American, is that outgoing.
“You’re going to blind someone with that,” he says.
It is always raining in this awful city.
“Craven coward,” she says, lifting the umbrella higher, accepting him under it. “Where’d that one come from anyways? Weird much?”
He shrugs. “They won’t be letting you take that brolly on the plane with you, if you go around wielding it like a weapon like that.”
And she doesn’t smile like he wants her to.
Back in bed, she begs him to tie her hands. He has to use the belt of his pants, her word. It’s all he has. He tries to loop it around the headboard but it won’t fasten right and he commences crying.
“Fucking buckle,” he says, weeping now. “Fucking stupid buckle.”
“Hush, you,” she says, and strokes his hair.
When they make love it is her sobbing.
“I love you, I love you. Fuck,” she whimpers, and the headboard slams hard against the wall.
“Say my name,” he says, furious, his hand splayed, gripping her throat. “Wrap your legs around me and say my name.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
It is sort of erotic like that for a while until they have to start up giggling.
“That’s so not my name,” he says, and then the two of them are laughing, almost.
She cracks the back of her head getting in the taxi, grimaces slightly and rubs at her scalp. His heart jumps in his throat for he cannot bear ever to see her hurt.
The cab door clicks shut before he can say all that he has planned to say, and she smiles weakly at him through the window. Her eyes are very beautiful and he can tell she’ll be crying again on the way to the airport.
There is something she wants to say to him, important, but she can’t figure out how to wind down the window. She mouths it through the glass at him.
He doesn’t know what it is.
The bruise-blue street is shining with rain. Crisped leaves gelatinous in puddles, jewelry of parked cars, pavement coated with worms, his reflection in everything.
The taxi disappears. She disappears. He opens his wallet and takes out a pound.
“That wis a helluva pretty girl that,” says the doorman.
He opens his wallet and takes out a pound, gives the doorman two pounds.
“Yes,” he says.
“She go and hit hersel’ oan the heid there?”
“You huv tae be careful gitten in they new cabs. She’s awright but?”
“I don’t know."
He goes back up to their room and takes a long shower. But it isn’t their room anymore, just his. Climbing out the tub, he sees her little green toothbrush in a paper cup. He starts to cry but makes himself stop by glaring in the mirror and saying ‘Be serious now.’ The water gurgles in the drain and his reflection stares back at him that way reflections do.
Serious, he tells the desk clerk he has to check out early, will not be staying overnight, a sudden emergency. He is very convincing, voice uninflected, spine straight, and the clerk, nodding amiably, isn’t buying any of it.
He washed away any lingering trace of her scent but on the platform he can smell her on his skin still. Her perfume was always cloying, unpleasant even, settling thick in his throat, but soon he only wanted more of it, wanted to bathe in it, her. He could never tell where the odors of her body began, all essences mixed, sweat and essential oils merged pooling, dripping on sheets.
He can still feel the thrill of her legs tight around him, is aroused again.
11.00 p.m. and there is just the one other commuter this late, a skinny boy in jeans and a dark red hoodie slouching under the arrival board. His new white sneakers glow in the dark like luminous rocks. The boy flips the back pages of the Evening Times but even reading looks menacing, delinquent, a typical ned.
Their propinquity makes him uneasy and he is relieved when he hears the voice. The man comes down the escalator in an immaculate black suit and red tie, talking business on his cell-phone. His hair, slick center-parted, shines with brylcreem.
The man in the suit moves very deliberately along the platform and stops beneath the arrival board. He does it fast. First he cuts the newspaper in two and then as the boy looks up, startled, he slashes him across the face with the open razor. The skin rips like paper and through the thin slits in the flesh the red comes bubbling.
It is as if the man in the black suit is dancing. With one hand he strokes the steel blade back and forth, elegant as you like, artistically precise across the boy’s cheeks, and in the other he still cups the cell-phone. He is still talking into it, and keeps on doing so until he is finished, despite all the screaming, until he leaves the boy contorting wildly on a cold marble stained red as his hooded sweatshirt.
When he snaps the phone shut at last, it is to lean over his victim and yell, “Whit ah tell you, Charlie? Whit the fuck ah tell you, eh?”
Folding the wet razor carefully in a clean white handkerchief, he slips it back into his jacket pocket.
Thinking of it later, the strange thing was he didn’t run. He understood that he wasn’t a hero, had accepted this, but thought he’d at least have the courage to run away.
“You,” says the man. “You didnae see nuthin. Whit did you see?”
“Naw, fuck. That’s whit you didnae see.”
“I didn’t see anything.”
“Aye, that’s right.”
The man in the suit walks towards the escalator, seems to think better of it, turns and comes back. The lobes of his ears are large. He reaches back into his pocket.
“You’ve got good grammar,” the man says. “Good grammar is dead important.” He takes out his phone and punches at the keys, squinting. He doesn’t speak again till he’s finished texting and then only to say “Goodnight” and nod and step into the darkness.
The boy isn’t writhing anymore but his eyes are open and he is emitting odd snuffling noises. His long hair drabbles as a weeping willow in the bright blood pools.
The train is due in seven minutes, so the board claims. It will be late.
He waits two of those minutes and runs up the escalator. Only one employee at the desk this late and she hides her cigarette quickly under the counter and stubs it out.
“There’s a man been stabbed on the platform,” he says. “You need to call 999.”
“How’d you mean?”
“This guy in a suit took a razor to him. Gave him a right going over.”
“That’s no being stabbed,” she says. “That’s being slashed.”
“Can you call?”
“Whit would ah say? How do ah know yir no jist winding us up?”
“Listen. There’s somebody lying on the platform down there, a human person, an emergency this is. This fella needs an ambulance.”
“There’s a phone ower there, you need tae make yir call.” She points. “See it?”
He can’t find change beyond pennies in his pockets and then there’s a nickel, her coin, mixed in with the rest, which is not good.
A roar of phone static in his ear, loudspeaker’s crackle-mumble unintelligible overhead, he is all so helpless and it isn’t fair.
Her face was so, so pretty. Once upon a time such a sad look she gave him from the window of a taxi taking her away from him forever.
Whatever she’d whispered into the glass, he knew it had been important now.