The waiter moved his hands across the bar. The place began to fill with young professionals trying to fill their glasses with chardonnay and rich merlot as quickly as possible. He wiped his hands across the front of his apron. There were already pink spots on it where some Pinot Noir had splashed him on its way to the glass.
At the far end of the counter, Julia took an order for a potion of oysters from a tall man with freckles across his nose. In all the time he had worked there, the young waiter had never tried the oysters. It seemed to him a waste of time. He tried to keep his mind from wandering. He had been in the country over a year and, although his job provided him with enough money to pay his rent and keep him in food and cigarettes, he was annoyed that there were so many attractions in the city that required money. He resented every ounce of the £10.50 steak sandwich they served as well as the £4.75 glasses of Burgundy that cost as much as his hourly wage. He shook his head with annoyance at the tall man’s voice, “Yeah…. I’ll have ten of the oysters, a Caesar salad and some fries.” Julia took down the order and as she read it back to him, shot a glance at the waiter. He was frowning. The Americans that came in always ordered enormous amounts of food that they never finished. “Please go to the bar for your drinks order,” she said then ripped the order from her pad and headed towards the kitchen.
The place was very hot. In the afternoon when the staff came in to prepare for the evening, the basement walls of the wine bar kept the place cool. By five o’clock, when the offices released their staff and the tables began to fill, the air carried second-hand smoke into the waiter’s lungs and warmed him. The bodies pressed against the bar leaning towards him radiated heat and within minutes of taking his place amongst the bottles, he could feel the sweat gathering in the collar of his black uniform. He was never allowed to loosen his tie or undo the top button of his shirt to let the air in and at such moments of discomfort he envied the men in suits at the end of their day, free to sip Shiraz and bare their throats.
The waiter filled an order for a bottle of Chilean Merlot, four glasses. Julia took them to a corner table where a group of women sat laughing. He leaned over the bar and looked around, his hand wiping the counter. She was not there. He had waited for her to come in for over a week. Normally, she came in about once a week and always with different men. As they poured her wine, she would laugh at their jokes, but always kept her eyes on the waiter. On those nights he would juggle the bottles of drinks, pass the glasses over the counter and watch her.
One night, as she sat waiting for someone, she looked up from the newspaper in front of her and met his gaze. His hand, which held a glass waiting to be filled, froze and he forgot what he was meant to be doing. She looked at him as though trying to decide something then, very slowly, her lips softened into a smile. At that moment, her friend, a short young woman rushed forward apologising for her lateness and tugged at the girl’s sleeve. They were late for something. She stood and carefully gathered her newspaper. The customer standing at the bar tapped on the counter while shaking his head. The waiter remembered to breathe. As she made her way towards the stairs, she looked over her shoulder at him and let out a sigh. Her shoulders shrugged as if to apologise for leaving him. She pushed angrily past the crowd blocking the stairs and found her way out. From that moment on, he looked forward to the nights when she would come in. * * * * *
The bar was bursting with people. Julia passed order after order at him and as the evening progressed, his thoughts wandered away from his wondering until someone nudged him.
Fredrick stood beside him cradling a tray. “Need some help?” He asked.
The waiter nodded, Champagne flute in his hand.
“I saw your girl, Paul. She’s near the back with some bloke, but he’s fat and I don’t think he’s a boyfriend,” Fredrick said.
Paul poured the Champagne. “Who’s near the back?” he asked.
“Your angel. You know, the lovely one who’s here every other week. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.” Fredrick smiled. “Oh, I think we need some more Mandolin Zinfandel from the larder. Get a box, will you? I’ll do this.” Fredrick winked and took the Champagne bottle from Paul’s hand.
Paul made his way to the rear of the bar. He remembered what Fredrick had said the first time they saw her. “Beautiful, no?” Paul had merely nodded in agreement. He had hardly been able to look at her. It amazed Paul the way that Fredrick had been able to read him. He had said nothing about the girl, but as he moved towards the stacked boxes of wine, he realised the admission in his actions. The Swede had been able to read his mind and send him where he wished to go.
Her eyes were cast down as she spoke to the fat man across from her. The napkin on her lap was unfolded and she played with its edges, rolling the napkin then unrolling it. Paul had seen him with her before. His chubby face was pink and what little hair remained on his head was in wisps along the crown.
The girl looked up from her lap and over her companion’s head as though she were waiting for someone. Her hands went from the napkin to fidgeting with the glass in front of her. Her expression was fixed in one of indifferent politeness.
Paul pushed past a group of young men in suits, and towards her table. As he reached the door to the larder, she looked at him and his heart jumped. Her expression had changed from one of boredom to warm recognition at the sight of him. Be cool, he thought as he reached the door. Once inside, he threw a punch in the air and whispered, “Yes!”
Armed with a crate of Zinfandel on his shoulder, he went to the bar, taking care to hide the smug expression on his face with the crate.
“Did you see her?” Fredrick said when he reached the bar.
“I don’t know who you mean,” Paul said and smiled.
Fredrick glanced towards the rear of the bar where the girl and her companion sat. She rose and lifted her coat from the hook beside the table. She stood with her back to them while her escort helped her with her coat.
“Your angel is leaving, Paul,” he said. Paul kept his hands moving. He had an order of six glasses of different wines to fill, but he could not resist lifting his eyes to the girl as she reached the stairs that would take her away for another week. There was something sweet about the way she moved. He loved the anxiety he felt at the thought that one day she might fail to return and that those few moments in her company would be all he had of her. He wondered when he would see her again. Would he ever speak to her? What would she say and how would her voice sound to him? She looks foreign, he thought. Does she like me or am I like one of the others she’s always with? She had looked bored until she saw him, surely that meant something. Just before she climbed the stairs, she dropped her bag and knelt to retrieve it. Her companion, already at the top of the staircase, did not notice and went through the doorway.
Her small hand found the lipstick that had rolled away from her bag and as she replaced it, she looked up. Her eyes looked straight at the bar and Paul’s eyes met her gaze. She looked over her shoulder as if caught in the act of stealing then with a quick glance back to the bar, hurried back to the stairs and into the square.
I should have gone over to her, he thought. I could have helped her with her bag and then we could have talked. I’m sure that’s why she dropped it, he thought.
Three weeks later, she had not returned. Every night, Paul kept tight control of the bottles and glasses that surrounded him to ensure that when she did arrive, he would not have to much to keep him busy and therefore from going to speak with her. I could just ask her if there is anything I can get for her, he thought. There’s no harm in that. But, as the evenings passed and she failed to appear, Paul’s anxiety grew. I missed my chance, he thought. That time on the stairs might have been it, he thought. Damn. What if that was the last time? What if I never see her again? I don’t even know her name!
He imagined her in a car accident, hurt or dead and gone from his life forever. He reproached himself for not having approached her and his lack of action. She’s a customer, he thought. It would not be appropriate to ask her out. It’s summer, he thought, she’s just on holiday.
Paul had been called in to cover a Thursday shift when girl finally appeared. He rarely came in on Thursdays and he wondered if had ever missed one of her visits due to the shifts he worked. On this particular Thursday, she sat alone at a corner table towards the far end of the bar. A salad of stuffed vine leaves and olives sat untouched before her. An open book lay face down on the table beside her as she ran her finger along the rim of her glass.
Fredrick greeted Paul when he came in. The place was heaving with people and there was no mistaking the relief in Fredrick’s face as he handed Paul an apron.
“Thanks for coming in, Paul,” he said.
“No problem. I wasn’t busy. Does this mean I can have tomorrow off?” Paul asked.
“Friday is our busiest night, Paul. You know that.” “That’s why I want it off. I’m tired.” Fredrick nodded with a slight smile playing across his lips. “Actually, Paul, you owe me one.”
“How’s that?” Paul asked.
Fredrick looked around him and reaching for a tee towel ducked out towards the restaurant end of the bar. “You’ll see,” he said and disappeared into the crowd of suits.
Julia rushed back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room. She came up to the bar and handed Paul a tray.
“Could you help me get this order out?” She said. “Things are crazy on the floor. Fredrick slammed me with two parties of six at the same time.”
Paul stuck his head around the corner of the bar and towards the kitchen. Fredrick leaned against the wall with his eyes closed. He looked tired. Paul knew that he rarely took any nights off in the summer.
“Fredrick,” Paul said, “I need to help Julia on the floor. Cover the bar for me?”
Fredrick opened his eyes at the sound of his name and went to the bar.
Paul retreated into the kitchen where he piled dishes of salad, prawn marie rose and tomato soup onto his tray then followed Juila towards her tables. As he approached the group, he saw the girl out of the corner of his eye. The sight of her nearly caused him to drop the tray.
As he placed the order on Julia’s table, he looked back at the girl. There was something worrying about the way she sat alone. It was not the first time he had seen her without a companion, but the time before she had been waiting for someone, there had been expectation in her expression and movement. On his way back to the bar, he looked back at her and caught her eyes on him. She seemed sad.
Right, that’s it, he thought. I have to speak with her before the night is out.
It was nearly time for last call before the place slowed down enough for him to give the girl any thought. He looked at the clock as a group of young men entered the wine bar. In another hour it would be time to clear up and go home. In the meantime, he had a large order to fill.
She had been standing there for nearly a minute before he noticed her. His eyes met her gaze and the slight nod of her head made him increase the speed of his hands. Two, no, three Merlot, one Chardonnay and he could go to her. He felt sure that the time had come. His patience had paid off and she would finally be a part of his life.
She’s so lovely, he thought, just standing over there smiling sweetly. I’ll bet she’s a teacher or a secretary. She looks capable, but caring. He poured the drinks quickly and pushed them across the bar.
He could feel her eyes on him as he collected the money from his customer and handed over the change. He became aware of every movement of his body and reminded himself quietly to breathe. Inhale, exhale he repeated in his head as he made his way towards her.
“Nice to see you again,” he said.
“I’ve been away,” she said. “I’d like to close out my tab,” she said, indicating towards the credit card clipped to the board behind him. He pulled the card from the clip and ran the card through the till. He glanced towards her. Her eyes were on him and a shy smile played on her lips.
“What’s your name?” She asked.
He was surprised by the simple directness of the question. Yes, she should know my name, he thought, looking at the name on her card. Now I know hers. Annabel. “Paul,” he said. “You’re Annabel?” She nodded and he could feel that a critical moment had arrived. He looked over his shoulder. Fredrick was in the main dining room and Julia was struggling to balance too many dirty dishes on her arm. Most of the tables were empty and the coat rack’s burden had eased as the hour moved towards eleven o’clock.
Paul let the lids of his eyes droop into a sleepy, contented expression. Her eyes were still on him.
“What’s the accent?”
“I’m from Poland,” Paul said.
“Listen, if I gave you my phone number, would you call me?”
“No,” she said. Paul let the pen in his hand drop onto the counter.
“No?” he said, surprised. Fredrick was making his way towards the bar.
She shook her head, but a light smile was still there. “No.”
“Why not?” He asked.
He could feel his heart racing. It was not at all the answer he had been expecting. Everything about her had made him feel that she was attracted to him; her smiles, the playful look in her eyes, the deep sighs when she caught him looking at her.
“I just can’t,” she said. She looked down and reached for her credit card and bill. “Could I have a pen?”
Paul handed her the pen from under the counter. As she took the pen from his grasp, her fingers wrapped around it and the top of his hand. Her grip was not tight, but lingered there for a moment.
“I’m working, Paul. I have to go meet a client now.” she said, then signed the paper in front of her and placed the pen on the counter. Her voice had changed. The lightness that had carried her words before he asked his question was absent and her statement hit him hard. There was nothing more to say.
Fredrick approached the bar, his hands clutching empty wine bottles. He placed them on the bar. He looked at the young lady in front of him and smiled, but it faded as he saw the look on Paul’s face.
“Nice to see you again, Miss,” he said. She turned her gaze towards him and a light smile returned.
“Thanks. Good to be back. But I’m going away again…on business.” She glanced at Paul.
“Oh. I hope you won’t be away from us long. What’s your business?” Fredrick said.
She looked from Fredrick to Paul then dropped her gaze as though she had not expected the question.
“I’d better go,” she said and colour rose to her cheeks. Gathering her things, she moved away from the bar and backed away towards the door.
“Well, thanks. Take care.”
“Hope to see you again soon,” Fredrick said.
She waved goodbye and pulling her coat tightly around her, went up the stairs and into the chilled night air.
Paul had not moved. The bar was cluttered with glasses, ashtrays, and empty bottles. Paul surveyed the wreckage. That night, the usual care he took when he cleared his bar was absent. Only the disappointment remained. As the smoke began to clear through the door leading to the cool night above, he realised that he didn’t really know her at all.
© Eliza Dashwood