The List

[I belong to an online writing group, and each month we write a story with a theme and a word count. This time, we were asked to write about ‘The List’ in exactly 1500 words.]

It’s unexpected, the text. So unexpected that when I glance at the number, I nearly drop my phone.

I’m sorry, Sarah. My heart crashes into my ribs. I’m sorry about everything.

I can’t believe I’m reading this. I can’t believe –

Are you free tonight?

I take a quick breath in and start to choke.

“Hey,” says Rochelle, from the window, “Take it easy,” and she comes over, hovering uneasily.

I wave her off, but I feel like I’ve been hit over the head. My fingers prickle with adrenaline.

“Bad news?” asks Rochelle. She’s doe-eyed and dainty, the kind of woman I’ll never be.

I glance back at my phone.

I want to explain. Dinner? Pierre’s @ 8.

I take a deep breath in, hold it for a few seconds – and let it go.

“It’s my ex,” I tell Rochelle, disbelievingly. Her eyes widen.

“The one you were telling me about?”

I nod. My hands are shaking slightly.

“The one,” Rochelle is indignant, “who dumped you? Out of the blue??”

“Yes,” I manage weakly. “He wants to meet for dinner.”

My colleague pauses for a second, looking at me, and then asks quietly, “How are you going to play it?”

“I don’t know,” I say, but of course I know. Of course I’ll go.

Rochelle turns her back and starts stacking up cups.

“You’ve got time to think,” she says.

I don’t tell her it’s tonight.

I don’t tell her I’ve already said yes and I’m leaving work early so that later on, as the sun slips down, I’m standing outside the soft shimmer of Pierre’s in my best blue satin, crunching the leaves underfoot in a daze of disbelief. My hope is brittle: Rochelle found me two weeks ago, curled up, my heart spilled on the floor like red milk. (“It’s over,” she’d said to me, soothingly. “It’s over.”)

We never came here together. Pierre’s looks like the kind of place that has mange-tout and Moët and a maître d’, who nods at me with a question mark.

I give him my name, and add, “I’m actually here to meet my -”

Ex feels tacky, boyfriend presumptuous, date disingenuous.

“My…friend,” I settle on, with a half-smile. “He booked the table.”

The maître d’ looks at me.

“Mr Anderson?”

I’m taken aback. “Yes,” I say, and laugh. “It’s a small world!”

“I check the list, madame,” says the maître d’, and starts running his finger down the reservations. He must have misheard me.

“Oh no,” I interrupt, “It’s just me and him. There isn’t a list.”

“Madame,” murmurs the maître d’ without looking at me, “There is always a list.”

“- Really?” I ask, in confusion. “I’m sure there isn’t.” My voice rises a little. “It’ll be just the two of us!”

I try and peer over his arm, but I can’t read a word. Then he says, poker-faced, “Follow me,” and we wind through orchids and olive trees and orange blossoms – why did Jamie never take me here? – towards a quiet low table tucked in at the back, dotted with candles and cushions and camellias, where a young woman, a bare-faced millennial type, is staring at her phone.

The maître d’ bows elegantly, but I call him back.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him, under my breath, “but I’m meeting my – boyfriend, and this is a table for…”

“Five,” he says, “That is correct, madame,” and melts away. There’s a sweet smell of roses.

I toy with my handbag a second – this isn’t right – and then pull out a chair, uncertainly. The young woman, her eyes heavy, doesn’t look up.

“Are you…” I try, “…waiting for someone too?”

She glances at me, distracted. I see she’s not really dressed for the occasion – there’s a smear of something unknown down her tracksuit top.

“I’m meeting my husband,,” she says, “Well, my ex-husband -” she gives me a watery smile – “but you know.”

“Me too!” I say, “Well, my ex-boyfriend. He should be here – “ (I check my phone. Nothing.) “Any minute.”

I’m just saying, “Why don’t we -” when there’s a small commotion on the far side. An Amazon of a woman – flame-haired, fake-tanned – is arguing hotly with the maître d’, who remains expressionless.

“They’ve really messed up today,” says the ex-wife, wonderingly.

Now the Amazon is picking her way over, all handbag and heels.

“Sorry ladies,” she says, in a flounce, “He told me to sit here and wait. Men!” She glances at her watch. “Are you waiting for one too?”

I’m about to answer when I see the maître d’ crossing the floor to us with an elegantly slim figure, who looks remarkably like –

“Rochelle!” I say. “What are you – doing here?” but Rochelle looks horrified, and has already taken a step back.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “There’s clearly been a mix-up.” She looks at the maître d’: “It should be a table for two,” but he turns from her, as unreadable as ever, and addresses us all.

“Ladies!” He nods at the remaining empty place at the head of the table. “Mr Anderson has been delayed.”

There’s a second where we all digest this.

Then, “Jamie?” says the Amazon, standing up straight, “Jamie?” and the ex-wife is asking about the time and Rochelle – what is Rochelle doing here? – is saying nothing. The maître d’ shrugs and walks away.

The Amazon is laughing: “Let me get this straight. Have we all been out with Jamie Anderson?”

She falters at my face.

“We just broke up,” I say, turning to Rochelle, who’s ashen. “ – What’s going on?”

“I’m sorry, Sarah,” she says, to the table. “I’m sorry.”

I feel like I’m falling away, inside.

“On the house, ladies!” announces a cheery waiter, who clearly has not been briefed. “One for you…” He places down champagne flutes, one after the other.

“I should think so!” says the Amazon, taking a gulp.

“How long…?” I manage, to Rochelle.

“It was after you,” says Rochelle, holding my gaze. “I want you to know that. It was after you.”

“He went for you?” I whisper, and she drops her eyes.

Of course he went for her. Look at her. And the last piece of my heart cracks in two.

“Cheers!” says the Amazon quickly, toasting the empty place at the head of the table, “Cheers to us suckers!” She knocks back her glass. “I met Jamie last August. He was – ”

“I haven’t got time for this,” says the ex-wife, pushing back her chair.

“Hold on, sweetheart,” says the Amazon, “Were you with him, too?”

I don’t believe this –

“I was married to him,” says the ex-wife, standing up. “For three years. We were still married,” she looks at the Amazon, “last summer.”

I don’t know where to look. Rochelle is pained.

“This is not happening,” says the Amazon, looking at the ceiling, and then coughs, to her glass, “No kids, though, right?”

“Did he tell you that?” asks the ex-wife.

“Oh no,” cuts in Rochelle, shaking her head, “Jamie doesn’t have children!” and in the middle of everything, I wince at her just saying his name.

The ex-wife hesitates, and then holds out her phone. We watch a tiny girl in a white dress taking her first steps. She’s adorable. I know the smile, but I can’t find the words.

“I guess I got the souvenir, hey,” says the ex-wife eventually, and leaves us, sitting in silence.

The Amazon whistles under her breath.

“You have to hand it to Jamie,” she says to herself, “He always did love a joke.”

I’m not finished with Rochelle.

“Where is he?” I ask her, and my voice cracks.

Rochelle shakes her head, and sighs.

“I had no idea about…” She wave her hand round the empty glasses.

I don’t answer her.

“I won’t be seeing him again,” she adds. When I still don’t reply, she nods to herself and stands, unsteadily. I watch her slender figure walk away.

The Amazon holds up the half-empty bottle.

“We may as well,” she says, splashing bubbles.

My dress is stained with champagne and old kisses.

“You were crazy about him, weren’t you,” says the Amazon, and I weave the Jamie I knew for her in little pieces, the way he sang, the way he ran upstairs, the way he kissed, under the stars.

“I know, sweetheart,” says the Amazon to me, as the candles burn down and the bubbles burst. She smiles. “He was easy to love.”

We eye the unfilled place at the table.

“Do you think he’ll turn up?” I ask.

“No, my love,” says the Amazon, after a while. “We’re just another list of exes now.”

We leave the table and wind back, wordless, under the olive trees. The maître d’ watches us go. And this time, I tell myself it’s over. It’s over.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

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