She eats the last piece of lamb on her plate (having saved it till the end, as usual) and puts her fork down. She’s tempted to run her fingertips over the plate, to scrape all the sauce up, and then to suck her fingers clean. She’d do this if Ali wasn’t there.
“So why are you telling me?” she says, and glances at the candle burning between them, worried that it might go out.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t help staring at his hands. It’s like I’m waiting for them to fly away. He’s caught me looking. Now we both pretend that there’s nothing wrong. Looking at his hands, with him watching me, it’s like he’s exposing himself to me.
“This one day, we were both looking down, and it was like we were watching an injured animal, a bird, in between us. He looked up, and he seemed relieved that it wasn’t a secret any more But he also looked terribly sad. I don’t know. I can’t explain it very well. Terribly sad.” He is almost whispering. “I’m all smiles with this man, every afternoon, but I’m selling him cheap vodka to still his tremors. It’s not good for him.”
“What can you do?” she says. “It’s not your business. What he does, how he lives, that’s not for you to think about. You can’t start having concerns like these. You’re a shopkeeper. A businessman. You have a family.”
He narrows his eyes; trying, it seems, to bring her into focus. “Sometimes you surprise me, Julie.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wonder if you’ve really understood what I’ve been telling you.”
She gazes into the candle flame. He’s watching her. She can tell. She feels a responsibility to say something that is lasting and important. But she needs time to think. She becomes aware that the radio isn’t switched on: it’s usually tuned low to a quirky country-music station that she finds oddly comforting. But she turned it off earlier in the day when Sharizad was sleeping off her sickness on the couch. She wonders if Ali has missed the music. She says nothing, enjoys the flame burning its light onto the backs of her eyes, moves them slightly and sees the after-image then looks back into the flame, and wonders why it’s safe to look at candle flames but not into the flames of the sun. A song comes to her, almost as if it’s originating from a room in the flat. A lyric sung by a boy soprano, of orange, and light, and neon, and bright. So orange the light; like neon, so bright. And then a whimsical line: A sky-change delight; to temper our fright. A strange song, with a soothing but un-optimistic mood.
“Do you think that’s what he does?” Ali says.
“Sorry?” she says, without looking out of the flame. She’s been hypnotised.
He sighs. “Do you think he drinks the vodka straight-away, on the street?”
“I don’t know what he does,” she says.
A noise comes from the bedroom. She turns her head, but she doesn’t hear it again. Everything’s quiet, and she relaxes. The candle flame flickers as if a breeze has passed through the room, and she shudders, says, “Shall we go into the lounge?” and stands. The warm scent of her aged Shalimar rises with her, and the flame dances.
“I’ll wash the dishes,” he says.
“Leave them,” she says. “We can do it later.”
He shrugs and follows her into the living room.
© Barry Lee Thompson and ‘Stories, by Barry Lee Thompson’, 2013.