It wasn’t long before he came back to the table and sat down. He took a long time to get comfortable, all the while carefully keeping his eyes fixed on the shiny surface of the red Formica. She too gazed, unfocused, at the star speckled surface, appearing like some ancient volcanic ash trapped in a tacky, plastic sheet of rock. Then, abruptly cast her eyes back to his, running down his thin, aquiline nose to the rough stubble clinging to his chin like some week old mould, finishing her sweep at the collar of his shabby, old raincoat. “You look like shit.” she said in a flat, non-committal tone while anxiously clenching her hands in her lap under the table. His gaunt frame shrugged slightly inside his coat and he half lifted his arms in a questioning manner looking like a gust of wind passing through a badly erected tent. He moved his lips, as if about to speak, but said nothing.
This had always been their table; the locals had always left it for them or vacated the booth when they arrived. She had never noticed this as a kid and it wasn’t until she was much older that she began to understand why the people treated him the way they did. Sunny afternoons after school were spent sucking down long cool milkshakes, licking ice-creams and feeling the fizz of sherbet drops while they sat at this table in the window and watched the world go by. People, bicycles, farm trucks, cars, dogs, clouds and the wind, it all passed by here eventually and she had soaked it all up as any child would. Now it all came flooding back to her, but none of it mattered now. It hadn’t mattered for years, so why did the memories sting like chilli in her eyes?
The wind was passing by now. She watched as a piece of paper was carried along the street and then, without warning, as it was lifted high above the pavement to disappear out of sight around the corner that the diner occupied. Looking slowly back at him she found his eyes now focussed on her, steel grey, lifeless looking eyes that looked right through you. He made no move to look away and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, squeaking on the vinyl upholstery in a way that used to make her giggle, but that was a lifetime ago and she didn’t feel much like giggling now. Somebody coughed in the gloom at the back of the diner and motioned for the waitress to bring more coffee. Her eyes followed the waitress as she shuffled across the white and black floor tiles, making it seem like the effort would kill her. Leaving behind her cosy stool behind the counter and the radio on the shelf which forced out a crackly version of Ring of Fire. A flash from the window of a passing car snapped her attention back to her Father where she found it easier to focus on his dishevelled coat than meet his eyes again. Strange, she was the one who was angry, and had every right to be, yet it was he who breathed like one about to admonish a petulant child over some errant behaviour.
The shadow of his chin moved and she noticed that he was now looking out the diner window, across the road to the small park. She could easily have fooled herself that he was also remembering the school day afternoons they spent here, but she had been fooled before and was not ready to fall into that trap again. This time, when his lips moved, he did speak "Your Mother …", "Her name was Diane!" she spat out before she could even think. He stopped rigid as if instantly frozen by her voice. Seconds passed like millennia, this time with her eyes piercing the flesh of his right cheek until, like tiny fishhooks of willpower, she fancied she pulled his face slowly toward her once more. This time, he breathed like a man on trial. He cast his eyes down as he absentmindedly wiped her furious spittle from the mirror like surface of the table that yawned between them. The remaining streak trailed like a ghostly meteor whispering through the star littered plane.
"Her name was Diane" she hissed once more through teeth clenched like ivory battlements. As the words escaped her mouth for the second time she felt the bile rise in her throat and she wished for one of those smooth milkshakes from yesteryear. Wished it would wash away the burning, the despair and the memories. She wished it would burst out of the glass and smother them both in the richness of its over-accentuated fruit flavour changing this noir event into a Disney moment. But the shake remained wedged in her prepubescent years, the years of colour, wonder, questions and frivolity. The years immediately hunted down and savaged by the events and answers found in her teenage life. Any other man might have cried, he might have apologised, he might even have looked like he cared, but this man just stared on dispassionately, like the headlight of a freight train. "Diane" he muttered awkwardly as if the word itself would leap from his face and devour him, "Yes, her name was Diane." Her Mother's name sounded so very ugly on his tongue and now she found herself pained that she had forced him to utter it, but what was one more grain of pain in the already overflowing silo of her torment?
The velocity of her outburst dissipated and with a weary sigh her head swung down, her gaze snagging on the battered chrome edge of the table. The thin, black line around the surface edge represented decades of filth trapped in the overturned metal strip. Almost a metaphor for her immediate thoughts and feelings, the lifeless band silently cried out in empathy. The shine abated with a passing cloud, its shadow penetrating the glass that kept out the wind, the noise and the rest of the world. The background conversation lulled and the break between songs on the radio created an almost perfect silence. The sudden change in atmosphere caught them both off guard and in a rare moment of synchronicity their thoughts entwined and their hands reached across the exposed void of the table. Reluctant as their movement was, they had almost clasped hands when the waitress appeared at the booth, dingy coffee pot in one hand and grubby notepad in the other. "Top up for you both?" she asked redundantly as she half filled both their cups and then shuffled off like some emotion inoculation injected into the arm of their mood. Their hands snapped back to their respective sides of the table and flopped like dying fish into the basket of their laps where they squirmed and wiggled for a time before becoming still.
With an even tone and no obvious emotion she spoke directly to him, "Look, I don't know what you expect from me, I don't even know why I came back. I think I'd better go …" she trailed off as she saw his face sag. Like some deflating balloon his whole form seemed to cave inwards and fold up on itself. Such a remarkable display of feeling from a man who never so much as flinched a facial muscle at his own wife's funeral. Not sure what to make of this subtle yet dramatic development she paused, halfway through collecting up her bag and coat, and questioned, "Well, do you have something you want to say or not?" The pain was now blindingly evident as this once powerful and respected man moved to speak, the immense weight of his history pushing down on his body and mind threatening to explode his very being.
The croaking from his parched throat reminded her of the sound wood made when it split open as he made kindling. She had clung to her woollen haired doll and sucked her thumb as she sat on the back of the truck watching his sweat-soaked, sinuous strength conquer the grain of the wood in concert with the sharpened steel. She felt faint and the buzzing in her ears, accompanied by an adrenalin thump, blotted out his first words. He was trying to say something, but she could not grasp it. The splitting of wood and the thump of the axe head into the stump muffled everything. There was that shadow again, no, another shadow. The light faded so quickly, the splitting wood, the dry thump, the shattering of glass and groaning of tortured metal, the screams. All muffled. Now it was all gone, there was nothing but the buzzing.
The buzzing was insistent now, a fluorescent hum, sharp and unnatural. The thump was there too, but no longer axe on wood, this was her heart. Pulsing rapidly, agitated, desperate, needy. Her eyelids jerked open expecting to see him still sitting there, morose and despondent, grey and grim. But it was not his face that met her; it was a kindly looking older woman with her hair pulled back in a bun. "My Father?" she heard her own voice rasping, sounding distant and unsure, "Where is my Father?" The woman stared back with a look of great concern and simply said "I am sorry, he didn't survive the accident, but you are going to be just fine." Her mind was blurry and sluggish as if wading through treacle. She realised she must be under the influence of some drug and the painfully white ceiling belonged to the hospital and not the diner. The Nurse wiped away the tears streaming down her face as she took her pulse, "I know it's hard, but try to get some rest, your body needs time to heal. We've contacted your Mother and she'll be along to see you very soon." "What do you mean, my Mother?" she gasped as the sedative took effect, spinning her head six ways from Sunday before lapsing her into a deep seamless sleep.