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#20 Retribution Is A Bowl Of Warm Noodles
Today, we spend time with Martha, whose boyfriend, Ben, is running late to dinner.
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#20 Retribution Is A Warm Bowl Of Noodles
Martha queues for the restaurant and waits for Ben.
He said he would be thirty minutes. He said he was just leaving the office. He would be there in no time. He couldn’t wait to see her. He loved her so much. That’s what he said.
The queue fattens, people pressing against her to keep out of the rain. It runs around the corner into the market. It is one of the most popular restaurants in the city. They serve nothing more complicated than noodles in bowls, but there is something desirable about a meal so simple proclaimed to be so good. She’d suggested going many times, but only this time did they commit to it.
Two chubby university students gossip behind her. One tells the other of the boy she is seeing, who said he wasn’t ready for anything serious. She speaks of how he left her in her bed without saying goodbye. The friend is less sympathetic. She knew what she was getting into when she first met him, that that’s what boys do, she says.
Martha turns around. ‘A word of advice, get rid of him. Sounds like you could do better.’ She smiles, thinking the girl might appreciate the words, but she just stares at Martha like she is a stranger on the street.
Because she is.
Martha sees the consternation on the girl’s face and gives up on conversation. Why do people have to be so judgmental? I was only saying a helpful thing. More helpful than her friend.
Martha turns back to the queue. Inch by inch, she reaches towards the door, listening to the painfully inept gossipers behind her.
Checking her phone: no messages from Ben.
Are you near? I’m about to get in.
Someone asks each person in the queue for change. Martha gives him a few loose coins and says it’s all she has.
I’ve just left. I’m on my way. Order me a glass of wine and I’ll be there in no time.
She reaches the front of the queue, and the lady on the door, whose short bob gives her head the shape of a juicy blueberry, asks: ‘How many for?’
‘One moment.’ The blueberry disappears and wipes down a table and shuffles some chairs before waving her over.
Martha takes a seat, adjusts herself comfortably and texts Ben.
I’ve got a table.
Hopefully he reads the subtext: hurry up.
The waitress comes over, flicks her hair over her shoulder and starts, ‘Would you like to order some drinks?’
‘Yes, please. I’m just waiting for my boyfriend. Can we get two glasses of white wine?’
‘How did you guess?’
The waitress smiles. ‘Right away.’
Martha feels doubly embarrassed because the place is roaring. People chattering and laughing and slapping each other on the back from every angle. They’re only talking, laughing a bit, but it’s as though they’re bellowing directly into her eardrums.
Rain streams down the steamy glass. There’s the quiet rumble of cars passing out the front and the consistent rattling of tires over loose drain covers.
The tables are very close together and someone returning to theirs from the toilet accidentally knocks her shoulder as he passes. She looks up at him, about to hurl abuse, when he says, ‘I’m really sorry, I do hope you’re okay.’ He’s more handsome than she expected, a full chest and a tight shirt, a thick head of hair.
She puts a hand up. ‘Not at all. It happens.’
He smiles and passes to his table, where his girlfriend waits for him. She’s pretty too. Long dark hair. A crystal smile. They could be in a magazine shoot.
The waitress returns with two large glasses of wine, placing one beside the empty place opposite Martha. She checks her phone. No messages.
The wine’s arrived. I’m working through it in gulps.
Ha ha, don’t worry, I’ll be there soon.
She met Ben at a party he hosted. One of her friends had brought her along one Friday night, after she’d had a bad day at work. The party was miles from her. They had to change on three trains and when they got there, his apartment was hidden down a dark side street marked by nothing but a few overflowing bins and a fox skulking across the street. The party wasn’t great. It was dark and the music loud and the ratios were about forty guys to one girl. And one of those guys was Ben. But he made her laugh. He told self-deprecating jokes about how all the guys there were looking at her, about the party, about his career in consultancy: doing nothing, talking bullshit and getting paid.
When she was leaving he told her he wanted to see her again and she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t feel strongly either way but without really knowing much about it, she’d given him her number and they were texting while she caught the train home.
For months she’d talked about it with her friend, Sophie, who’d brought her to the party. They talked about Ben’s pros and cons, how he’s lazy with date ideas and obsessed with his work, but that he makes her laugh and she likes his grin. Sophie said he was harmless. He couldn’t hurt a fly. And while it might not be fireworks (her words not mine), he could make a good companion for a while. Martha agreed. And over time, she grew to really like him. She grew even to depend on him. When her father was hospitalised following a heart attack, he’d helped her cope with it, kept her spirits up, made her laugh when laughing was the last thing she wanted to do.
And now she’s sitting here, alone with two glasses of wine, waiting for him to arrive. Waiting for him to make her laugh again the way only he knew how.
The waitress returns.
‘Would you like to order any food?’
‘He hasn’t arrived yet, he’s five minutes away.’
‘Ok. No rush. You can order if you like.’
‘He already told me what he wants. Maybe I’ll order and it’ll arrive shortly after he does.’
‘Pad Thai for him please, and a Pad Prik for me.’
She returned to her phone. No more messages.
The chubby gossipers are sitting at a table nearby, and she thinks she catches the one with the boy watching her and laughing to her friend.
Where the f*** are you? I’ve ordered food.
OMG, you’re amazing. I’m nearly there. I promise.
It feels like only a few minutes but it must have been quite a while: the two bowls of food, full and steaming, come out from the kitchen and towards her table. She’s praying the waitress walks right past, but she stops in front of Martha and declares, zealously: ‘Pad Prik for you, and a Pad Thai for your partner. Whenever he arrives.’
‘Very good. Can I get you anything else?’
They exchange a look. ‘No.’
Martha gazes down at the table around her. She’s red in the cheeks. She feels as though everyone is watching. Two bowls full of noodles, steaming out around her, and two glasses of wine, sit stilly, mocking her.
She calls Ben. It rings through. No answer.
She leaves a message she knows he won’t listen to. Trying to keep her voice down: ‘Where are you, Ben? I’m sitting with two bowls of food and two glasses of wine. It’s humiliating.’
She waits long enough for the steam to stop. Long enough that tables around her are emptied of people and bowls are replaced with others. Long enough for the waitress to ask if she would like the food reheated.
Eventually, her phone lights up.
Really sorry, M. When I was leaving work my boss, Eleanor, asked me to go for a drink. I had to. She’s my boss after all.
What am I supposed to do with that? I’ve spent £50 on a dinner no one’s eating and sat in one of the busiest restaurants in London chugging wine on my own.
I’m on my way now. I’ll be there shortly. I’m just crossing the river.
Don’t bother. It’s been nearly an hour.
Martha chucks her phone into her bag. She has no time for this. She stands and walks away from her table. She pays the bill with the waitress, a subtle smirk on the latter’s face.
The man who apologised to her for bumping her shoulder looks up and smiles a smile of sympathy. The girl with him doesn’t notice.
Martha, in a moment of rage, approaches their table. ‘What are you smiling at?’
He sits back, astonished. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are you?’
‘What are you grinning at, asshole?’
Martha picks up the bowl in front of the girl, who’s still smiling like a wax figure, only capable of one expression, and pours the oily noodles over the girl’s head.
‘Have a nice evening,’ Martha says sweetly.
When she walks out she passes the table with the chubby gossipers on. The girl with the boy says smugly to Martha:
‘A word of advice, get rid of him. Sounds like you could do better.’
Martha takes the girl’s handbag off the back of her chair, tips its contents out onto the floor and confidently strides out into the evening, into the rain and into the roar of the city traffic.
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