The tray didn’t just hit the floor. It crashed and smashed his lunch to pieces. Serves you damn well right, I thought. You were staring again.
He stood stock-still and looked down at the food. Suddenly I got up and moved towards him. I hadn’t intended to, hadn’t wanted to help him. I called to the woman behind the counter. She closed her mouth and brought a cloth to clean up the mess. I picked up crockery, put it on the tray. There was a soppy stain on his trousers and through it you could see just how bony his knees were. Like the rest of him. All bones, dangling jacket and hanging trousers. Stooped shoulders and mile-long arms. Then he smiled at me. A wonderful smile that creased up his worn face and totally surprised me.
I shoved the tray at him and went back to my table.
I worked at a large publishing company and ate lunch in the canteen. I had noticed him because he stared at me. He was weird-looking. His hair was badly cut and his clothes were ancient and dull; too-short corduroys, baggy at the knees and colour-less sweaters, dotted with fluff. Often he sat alone and just picked at his food. Or he read and jotted things down.
A few days after the crash, he stopped at the table I was sharing with Mark from proof reading, and asked if he might sit down. I said the seats were taken and continued eating. He apologised and took his tray off somewhere else.
“What’s your problem, Leanna?” asked Mark.
“No problem. It’s just that I like to choose who I share my mealtimes with.”
“A bit rough on the old chap though.”
It was Mark who told me more about him. He had gone over to scrounge a cigarette. By the time he came back to the table, I had my head stuck into the news-paper.
“Interesting chap. Sub-editor. Been all over the world,” said Mark.
I decided to find the newspaper more interesting and finally Mark shut up and finished smoking.
“Asked your name,” he said.
“What’d you say?”
“Leanna, of course.”
I folded the newspaper.
“I’ve loads of work this afternoon.”
“Said you look familiar,” said Mark. “Like someone he knew.”
“Someone he knew?”
“Yeah. Could be strategy. Maybe he fancies you.”
“Fancies me? But he’s old.”
“Only old enough to be your father.”
I grabbed my tray and left the table.
I didn’t do much work that afternoon. I kept wishing Mark hadn’t said what he had said. Old enough to be your father.
The following week I took along a book to read during lunchtime. When I got into the lift on my floor, he was already inside. He greeted me so I had to reply but I didn’t smile. We were alone and that worried me. I wondered whether I should get out at the next floor and walk up the stairs to the canteen. Don’t panic, I thought. Just because he’s stared at you for ages doesn’t mean he’s going to do anything.
” Well, I suppose one of us should press the button or we’ll be here all day, won’t we?”
I’d been so busy wondering what he was going to do and expecting him to do something, that I’d completely forgotten to do anything myself. I felt like an idiot and this made me smile and I hadn’t wanted to. He smiled back, his blue eyes crinkling right up to the grey hair at his ears and making him look … nice. Then there was a slap. My book hit the floor. I bent down and so did he, and we bashed heads. At that moment, the lift shuddered to a stop and the doors seemed to fling themselves wide open. I was so embarrassed, I marched out of the lift, straight towards the queue at the counter. I ordered without looking at the menu and took my tray to a table where there was only one empty seat. I breathed a sigh of relief and began to eat. But the salad stuck in my throat when I noticed that everyone else at the table had already finished lunch and they were getting up to go. I glanced over at the counter. He was paying and in a second, his eyes would scan the room to find me. I ducked my head. Waited. Any minute now he’d sit down with his tray.
Short Stories from Australasia. My book appeared in front of my eyes. His fingers were the longest I’d seen and his nails were manicured. I hadn’t thought he’d bother.
“You left it in the lift,” he said. “May I sit down?”
His voice was soft. Cultivated. What could I say? The tables were all pretty full so I nodded. He said bon appétit and began to eat. I’d always thought he picked at his food. But as I watched, I noticed that he selected small pieces, speared them and moved them carefully to his mouth.
“Have you been there?”
“Been where?” I was totally dazed. From dropping my book and banging my head and everything.
“Australia, New Zealand.”
I stared at him and thought again of what Mark had said about me reminding him of someone. An Australian? Maybe an ex-girlfriend or wife?
“Not such a strange question,” he said. “You’re old enough to have travelled there. And Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, are most likely in the book.”
His smile crinkled up his eyes.
“No, I haven’t and yes, they are,” I said.
That’s how it started. He asked me a question, nodded when I spoke and then asked another. I was off, talking about reading, books and all that stuff I love.
Days later Malcolm passed our table with his tray and spontaneously I said a seat was free. Mark stared at me and I felt a rush of heat to my cheeks.
After that, Malcolm often sat with us and he and I discussed a lot of things. We spoke a little about ourselves too. I told him how Mom had brought me up on her own at the start of the Hippie Era. He said he had married during that time but divorced a few
years later. Mark asked me how come Malcolm and I always had so much to talk about.
“He’s easy to talk to. And he reads a lot.”
“You two got so much to say, I don’t get a chance to open my mouth all lunch-time.”
“You do. You shove food in.”
One lunchtime Malcom asked me if I’d like to go to a reading with him.
“Um. Don’t know.”
“Amelia Turner. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year.”
I wanted very much to go. But although I no longer thought Malcolm quite so weird, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go out in his company.
“Afterwards, I’ll cook us curry. Do you like it? ”
“Me too. Settled then?” he asked and smiled his soft smile.
It didn’t surprise me that I nodded.
After the reading and the curry dinner, I went into Malcolm’s sitting room where there were more books than I’d ever seen on anyone’s shelves. I began to read the titles.
“Help yourself,” said Malcolm.
“Thanks. But if I read a book, I have add it to my collection.”
“Strange, same here.” He waved his arms towards the shelves. “But look where it’s got me.”
“I’d hate to be without books. They’re … friends.”
“That sounds like lonely,” said Malcolm.
I turned and pulled out a book.
“Am I what?”
“Not really but what?”
My voice came from a distance as I tried to answer him.
“I’m choosy about my friends. Don’t have a great many.”
“I’m listening,” said Malcolm and sat down, indicating the armchair opposite him.
“My childhood was … I mean, my mother loved moving around. She had no trouble putting down roots all over the place. I hated it! Books were the constant things, so I buried myself in them.”
“Hell, sounds familiar.”
I sat down in the armchair.
“I had very academic parents,” said Malcolm. “Was an afterthought, perhaps a mistake even. They loved me in their vague intellectual way but left me alone to get on with growing up. Hence the books.”
“That’s lonely, too,” I said.
When I left, I took along a couple of Malcolm’s books.
My friendship with Malcolm grew but my curiousity remained. Who did I remind him of? My mother? If so, could he be my father? Although Mom had never bothered with books, our physical similarities, apart from my tallness, were undeniable. She had never told me much about the man who had fathered me. Clever, was all she had usually said. Once though, when I had been ill with chicken pox, and hot and scratchy, she had relented.
“What was he like?”
“Skinniest man you ever saw.”
“Where’d you meet him?”
“In a park. I was catching a suntan and these papers started blowin’ in my face. I was a bit cheesed off at them blowin’ all over me and then this man comes runnin’. He grabbed and grabbed but couldn’t catch them all. So he jus’ stood still, a helpless look on his face. It was so funny, I started laughin’.”
“I helped and we chased all over the place after them papers. When we sat down to get our breath back, he told me he was a student. He was ever so clever. Can’t re-member what the devil it was he was studyin’. Somethin’ I’d never heard of then or since.”
“Why didn’t you marry him?”
“Marry him? Good Lord, Leanna, I wasn’t ready to marry and he wasn’t the type I’d have wanted to marry by a long shot.”
“What else did he look like, Mom?”
“Lord, stop the questions, child. Get some sleep.”
She saw my disappointment however, and said she would write it all down for me. Put it in an envelope to open when she was dead and gone. I was happy with that. On a wet, slick highway, driving to France for a weekend, she was involved in an accident and died instantly. I was twenty-three then and on my own feet but as I sorted through and packed up the belongings in her flat, I felt like a child again. I looked for the envelope but didn’t find one. For a long time after, my mother’s death and not knowing who my father was, made me feel as though I was drifting on a sea without horizons.
One lunchtime I just decided to brave it and ask Malcolm who I reminded him of.
“Met her while I was a student,” he said.
“Was she studying too?”
“Oh, heavens, no. That was what attracted me to her. She was … so different.”
“What were you like?” I asked.
“Like? Much as I am now. Nose in books, bit of a loner. Not very interesting. Not for a live wire like she was.”
“Go on,” I said.
“She fell pregnant. I was very happy until she told me she didn’t want my help. Thought she’d change her mind, though, as the pregnancy advanced but when I attempted to see her, she told me to leave her be. I was very hurt but accepted her refusal to involve me. A few months later, I took a job I’d been offered in New York. Salary was dreadful but I thought it would be for the best.”
“Was it? ” I asked.
“No. When I returned, they’d moved. Left no forwarding address.”
“So you never knew whether it was a boy or …? ”
“A girl?” asked Malcolm.
“A boy,” he said. “Had the approximate date and went to the Registry of Births to look it up.”
I sat there, trying to take in what Malcom had said. I felt as though I’d been flattened by a truck.
“Somewhere out there I have a child I know nothing about,” Malcom continued. “I was stupid. Rushed off instead of staying to have a share in my son’s life.”
“I thought perhaps it was a daughter.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“A daughter. Me.”
“You thought I was … your father?”
“Books, curry, I’m tall. We … we like the same things.”
“We definitely have things in common but I’m not your father.” He looked at me.
“I’m so sorry to disappoint you, Leanna.” I tried to smile.
“We’re not related but we can be something else.”
“Can’t you think of anything?”
“It’s been staring you in the face for weeks.” Malcolm’s use of that phrase made me burst out laughing.
“Let me in on the joke sometime,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Tell you sometime seeing we’re friends.”
Then I smiled. And my smile was as wide and warm as the one he smiled in return.