The couple were sitting silently opposite one another at one of the centre tables in the restaurant. Most of the tables were empty because it was still early for lunch. I had decided to treat myself to an all-day breakfast before measuring up the kitchen cupboards. The restaurant was good, clean, and cheap. It attracted lots of people who had no intention of measuring up kichen cupboards, or anything else for that matter. In particular, it seemed to attract older people on a smallish income, who wanted to have a day out at low cost and in the warm. They could meander undisturbed up and down the aisles lined with furniture and fittings. The huge halls were heated and light and romantic music could be heard from every corner. The day’s special was the climax to their outing.
Quite a few regulars had already taken their seats and were tucking into the day’s menu. Some really did come every day. While I was queuing to pay I heard one older lady explaining to her friend that she couldn’t possibly cook for less money and saved oodles of time. The friend, her face stuck in a permanent frown, expressed her disapproval about eating out. She wanted to know why she should save time by eating out if she spent the rest of her days trying to think of ways of killing it. But the first lady had stopped listening. She had always thought her friend stupid, and now she was convinced. After all, there was something exciting about queuing up at the wide buffet and waiting for your chosen meal to be reheated in the microwave. Then there were the salads. If you really chose carefully, you could pile up the smallest plate with the most enticing delicacies, compositions you would never dream of eating at home, since the peeling and slicing took hours and hours. Here you could get anything you fancied, and it always tasted wonderful. If her friend couldn’t understand, she wouldn’t bring her again. While she piled up her own small salad bowl and her friend’s, I slipped past them and paid for my selection.
I sat down at the free table next to the silent couple and placed my tray in front of me on the table with the easy-to-wipe green tiled top. I was hungry after wandering around the store, and would enjoy my lunch to the accompaniment of more or less catchy tunes out of the loudspeaker and the clatter and chatter of the other eaters.
The couple had their eyes on their plates, the man chopping up and ingesting his portion with a healthy appetite while the woman pushed the food around her plate and ate hardly anything. They both had the same menu. I wonder why, I thought. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying hers at all. Surely, if you go somewhere where you can choose, you pick something you really like. Perhaps she was one of those women who identify so completely with their partner that they forget they ever had a mind of their own. More fool them, I thought.
I found myself searching for names to give them. I often did this when I was staring at people, and had been even known to choose the name that really belonged. Edith seemed a good name for the woman. She was small and underweight, and she looked quite sad. Her clothes were plain and practical, her hair was faded, crimped and frizzed and she clutched a crumpled cotton hankie in the hand with the fork. Occasionally she stopped fiddling with her food, put the fork down, and wiped her brow with the small square of material. I could see that it was embroidered with tiny flowers and leaves and had lace edging. I imagined her standing wearily at her ironing-board straightening out the corners and folding all her hankies from corner to corner rather than edge to edge, as she probably folded her husband’s. That way she would be able to tell at a glance which were hers in the communal hanky drawer.
The man stopped eating for long enough to take a long draught of beer and inspect her plate through the corner of his eye. I’ll call him Fred, I decided. Fred and Edith. Two of a kind. I pictured them at home. Fred would sit square on to the TV in the best armchair, which would be covered in a nondescript dark pink velour and have a grease-stained antimacassar over its back, and Edith would sit perched on the sofa part of the three-piece suite. She actually liked sitting there. She wasn’t facing the TV directly, of course, but she could spread out her threads for her cross-stitch picture of a Rembrandt and the sofa was nearer the door for getting more beer or whatever else Fred needed. On the coffee-table would be a selection of items you could have found at any flea-market. Useful things like an ashtray with a spring you pressed to get rid of stale ash and cigarette ends; a chrome lighter with a dark red leather cover; a collectors’ Christmas plate with a gold rim and snow scene; a stack of tattered magazines which could not be thrown away because each of them contained one small item on jam-making, flatulence, travelling on a small budget, or seeing into the future; a bowl of soft sweets, the kind that don’t stick to dentures; an ageing photo in a painted wooden frame showing someone on a holiday beach in a sagging bathing suit, smiling despite the cold wind.
Edith sipped at her water and leaned over to look closer at Fred’s plate. He was just mopping up the last of the gravy with the last of the mashed potato. Edith stuck her fork into the slice of meat still lying untouched on her own plate. With a grim little smile she pushed it onto Fred’s. He didn’t say thank you. He had been aware of it all the time he was eating his. For years and years he had had his eye on whatever was on Edith’s plate. He usually got it, too. Edith deliberately left the parts of her meal which she knew Fred liked, and Fred never argued when she decided to order the same menu as he was having, because he knew that he would soon be eating it. Poor Edith. Had she ever ordered anything she knew he wouldn’t like? I doubted it.
And so they finished their meal in frigid harmony, Fred, because he had had enough to eat, and Edith, because she had again been able to show her selflessness and devotion, both of which were a matter of habit rather than conviction.
Entertained by my observations, I hadn’t even noticed what I was eating.
Fred lit a cigarette and Edith toyed with her water. Presently she leant over and whispered something. Fred nodded, and Edith got up, cleared away the dishes onto the tray to take them to the waiting trolley, and hurried back to the drinks counter to get another beer for Fred and a cup of coffee for herself.

And that’s when it happened. All of a sudden Fred gave a sort of lurch and toppled over sideways onto the floor. I jumped out of my seat and hurried over. His heavy bulk lay sprawled, face down, motionless and he wasn’t making any sort of sound. I managed to turn him over far enough to loosen his collar. His face was ashen and his eyes stared straight ahead.
I’ve never been good at first aid, being squeamish and liable to faint myself at the sight of blood, and I had had no previous experience of heart attacks, always assuming that was what had happened to him. The vision of Fred looking considerably more dead than alive reminded me of a picture I had once seen somewhere with instructions on how to resuscitate with mouth-to-mouth breathing. Since nobody else seemed to be taking any notice of the poor man I steeled myself into taking up the position I thought would enable me to start some sort of life-saving action.
When I touched his flaccid hand, it was already turning cold and clammy. I knew then that no amount of resuscitation would ever breathe life into Fred.
“Edith, come quick!” I found myself shouting, and sure enough Edith turned in my direction. I heard the crash of her tray falling to the ground and she rushed whimpering to the scene.
“Oh God, what’s happened,” she gasped, kneeling down to clasp Fred’s podgy left hand and hold it to her bony cheek.
“He’s cold,” she said, then she shouted “Get a doctor, someone!” with much more energy than I could ever have credited her with.
“I can’t leave my till,” shouted the cashier. “Get a doctor and quick!” she commanded a cleaning woman in a flowered overall, who looked up startled from scraping up the spills from the buffet.
There was a flurry of activity. Someone called through the public announcement system for a doctor. A paramedic appeared and knelt down to try to do something for Fred. Edith got up stiffly and backed off. A doctor who had happened to be buying cutlery in the adjacent boutique now scurried in and he, too, set about looking for signs of life in the ailing Fred. The onlookers formed a respectful circle around him, their food forgotten. The music was turned off and there was suddenly an atmosphere of awe in the presence of this human drama. By the time the ambulance arrived there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that nothing more could be done for Fred. A grey blanket was thrown over him and his earthly remains were heaved unceremoniously onto the stretcher.
„Anyone going with him?“ the doctor asked.
I waited for Edith to volunteer. But she didn’t. She had concealed herself behind the onlookers and was observing the commotion at a safe distance.
“Nobody with this gentleman?”
And still Edith did not make herself known.
“You, miss?” The paramedic was looking at me.
“Oh no,” I protested. “I was just sitting at the next table, that’s all.”
The paramedic looked out of his depth. What if it was his first corpse? A second Red Cross helper came to his assistance.
„Well, get him to the mortuary then, and the police will deal with the rest!“ the doctor instructed. Then he just shrugged his shoulders and went back to the cutlery boutique. He was no longer needed. The death certificate could only be issued after a post mortem had established the cause of death.
The paramedics wheeled Fred covered in his grey blanket to the ambulance. We all watched them go in silence. The emergency doctor arrived just in time to see Fred’s earthly remains hoisted onto the vehicle. After looking Fred over very briefly he made a sign of the cross and waved to the driver.
Dead is dead.
The spectators went about their business and I watched Edith go back to the drinks bar and order herself a fresh cup of coffee and a plate of large cream-cakes.
I was still watching her when she came back to the table at which she had so recently been sitting with Fred. Her face was relaxed and her eyes sparkled. She sat down, stabbed her fork into the first cake and stuffed a large corner of it into her mouth.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Finally she looked up and nodded.
„Thank you for not spilling the beans,“ she seemed to be saying.
I nodded back. I was missing Fred more than she was, I decided.


Faith Puleston

Herdecke, Germany

  • Artist

Artist's Description

This is a short story based on an experience at a large furniture store. It is fictional, of course. I am usually alone on shopping trips and invariably find myself staring at people in restaurants – having found suitable candidates to sit near! These two were no exception, but they stuck so firmly in my mind that they had to emerge in the form of a tale (of woe?). How nondescript must one be to escape notice? The answer is that no one can really hide away.

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