No Surprises – A Short Story by Rachel Deeming

This was a story first published on Reedsy Prompts on reedsy.com and was inspired by the writing prompt “Start or end your story with two characters sitting down for a meal”.

Barbara looked around the restaurant and marvelled at how busy it was for a Thursday night. Not that she’d know if this was busy or not as it was the first meal out that she had had in months. She took another sip of the water that the waiter had very kindly brought and tried not to look too self-conscious although she felt like all eyes were on her and all the low conversations were discussing her. She did wish Bert would hurry up.

As she thought this, a waiter headed towards her table again, obstructing her view of the door into the restaurant.

“Would you like to see the menu while you’re waiting?” He asked courteously but she could sense that he thought she had been abandoned. But manners prevailed, just as she had always been taught.

“Yes, please. That would be lovely,” she said in a clipped tone and she lifted her glass again with what she hoped was nonchalance and took another sip.

It was nice to get out, she thought, despite her current discomfort. Bert was rarely home these days what with his Gardening Club at the community centre and his local charity work and his greeter job at the local supermarket. She smiled to herself. If she didn’t know better, she’d think that he was trying to stay away from home! But Barbara dismissed this as soon as it entered her head as a notion, as she had always kept a tidy home, like a new pin; nothing could ever be said about her housekeeping as she was meticulous. A place for everything and everything in its place. It was just as well they had never had children as it would have been awful. All that mess! Barbara suppressed a shudder.

As her shoulders gently quivered, so the door to the restaurant opened and with a fresh gust of air, in stumbled Bert. Barbara should have felt relieved but was assailed by a strong feeling of annoyance at his less than dignified entry and his choice of trousers and shirt. How scruffy he looked!

And now look at him! Acting all befuddled and trying to find her in the restaurant. He was currently struggling out of his beige jacket, the one with the frayed cuffs that he would insist on wearing because it was comfortable. It was loathsome, Barbara thought, and as soon as they got home this evening, she would throw it out. She wouldn’t tell him, of course – it would just disappear. Poof!

Barbara allowed herself a wry smile at her future craftiness and watched as Bert finally saw her shortly after handing his jacket (that odious thing!) to the waiter. Immediately, she straightened her features into the rigid scowl that Bert had come to expect from his wife of thirty years. No surprises there.

Bert saw Barbara and her accompanying expression and steeled himself. He was late. He knew he was late. He was intentionally late because he didn’t want to be here. He felt sad about this as it was actually one of his favourite restaurants and he had many lovely memories of eating here and laughing and drinking and leaving with things to look forward to. The Gardening Club regularly used the place as a hub, supporting local businesses being one of their mandates, one that Bert encouraged as chairman. The place was convenient and homely and he very much liked being there although tonight? Well, tonight, it did feel a little different to be here, meeting Barbara. He’d chosen it because it made him feel comfortable, a place where he felt he belonged, amongst friendly faces and squishy furniture. He thought that it would be a place of which she wouldn’t approve. But then, where wasn’t?

He pulled his shoulders back and straightened his posture, noticing as she saw him the snide smirk, which retreated quickly to make way for the scorn to return, and headed her way. He felt a mixture of fear tempered with determination as he strode to the table. Barbara was no longer looking at him and was reaching into her purse for her glasses. A waiter had just dropped a menu on her table and as he went past Bert, Bert gently stopped his arm and asked for one for himself.

The waiter smiled at him. “Hi Bert! I’m surprised you want a menu. Don’t you know it off by heart by now?”

Bert laughed lightly and replied. “Hi John! Yes! It is a bit of departure for me, I know!” He was conscious he sounded a little forced in his tone.  He and John would regularly share banter when he ate there and had something akin to a friendship as they would chat about football or cricket in the quieter serving times.

John didn’t seem to notice as he said, “The specials are the same as Tuesday’s too so there’ll be no surprises there neither. Who are you with tonight then? I don’t see the usual crowd here?”

Bert took the menu John offered and gestured towards the table where Barbara was now studying the menu, reading glasses firmly in place.

John glanced over and said, “Oh, I see. Well, she’s been waiting a while if you’re here on a date. Not your usual sort, is she?” Before Bert could answer, John added, “She looks a bit sour to me, mate, not like those nice ladies of the Gardening Club. Good luck!” John was then beckoned over by the barman who had been preparing drinks for another table and before Bert could say another word, he had patted Bert on the shoulder and headed off.

Barbara’s head was still down and he looked over at her. He scanned her features and noticed that despite the concentration on her face which made her look serious, the vestiges of her beauty were still there to see. She had thick hair and her skin was remarkably smooth, all except the deep line between her eyebrows where her disdain for him lived. It wasn’t there now and he was flooded with unwanted memories of girlishness and giggles, of hope and happiness, of passion and playfulness. They were nice memories and he was revelling in them despite his better instinct when Barbara removed her glasses. Before she could look up, he broke his reverie and moved quickly the last few paces to the table and pulled out a chair.

Barbara looked up as he stood there, holding his menu and, turning her face slightly, offered her cheek towards him. This was how he was always expected to greet her with a light kiss, lips barely grazing her carefully applied powder. He gazed at her for a moment and abruptly sat down.

Barbara felt a frisson of surprise, almost alarm at this break in routine but quickly found her form.

“You’re late”, she hissed at him, leaning back in her chair to appraise him, arms folded firmly across her chest.

Bert took a deep breath and said, “I know.”

Again, Barbara felt a small shiver of shock. No apology? Normally, Bert would be falling over himself to ingratiate himself to her, the excuses for his tardiness tumbling out of his mouth in their haste to be aired. He hated her to be unhappy and was always trying to do the right thing to avoid confrontation.

“I got held up.” He added this as he sat down and looked hard at the menu. “Do you know what you’re going to have?”

Still a little taken aback by his rudeness (how dare he!), she once more put on her glasses and turning once more to the menu replied, “There’s nothing really that takes my fancy. It all sounds so, so…” She reached for the word.

“Common?” Bert offered, without lifting his eyes from the food card in front of him.

Barbara smiled her sardonic smile. “Well, yes, a little. In fact, I was surprised when you suggested that we eat here. I thought you might have chosen somewhere a little more upmarket as you don’t take me out that often.” She paused and looked at Bert who was still studying the menu. She barbed her comment. “But I’m not sure why I expected anything different from you. It seems just your sort of place, really. Drab, frayed at the edges (an image of his jacket landed in her mind’s eye, spurring her on), pedestrian in its food…” She trailed off as her comment was released and waited to see the reaction.

Bert placed the menu slowly on the table and took a sip of his water before meeting her expectant eyes. He noticed that they gleamed with anticipation and he felt a shot go through his gut as he was reminded of eyes earlier that evening also glistening with energy like Barbara’s but reflecting warmth and laughter. Barbara surveyed him like a snake.  Strengthened by his memory, he held her gaze.

“I like it here. In fact, I love this place.”

He delivered these comments whilst Barbara continued to look boldly into his eyes. He was determined that she should look away first.

Again, Barbara felt unsettled. What was the matter with Bert tonight? He was being quite rude and inhospitable in the way that he was choosing to talk to her. She was starting to get upset and knew that if the evening carried on like this much more, she was going to have to give him the silent treatment once they got home and certainly cut down on the home cooking. It would be ready meals for the next two weeks at this rate for him! Not that he had been at home recently for many meals, his extra activities taking up so much of his time.

Barbara was about to send another retort when John the waiter arrived to take their order.

“Do you know what you’d like?” He asked, pointing his pencil at the menus in turn.

“Barbara?” Bert raised his eyebrows to his wife. “Do you?” Before she could answer, Bert said, “I’ll have the special that I had on Tuesday. Trout, wasn’t it?”

John wrote it down whilst confirming that “Yes, it was” and would Bert “like the same sides?”

Bert agreed that “Yes, that would be lovely” and “Could we have a bottle of that house white as well? I could do with a drink!”

John responded with a “Yes” and then they once more both looked at Barbara.

This night was becoming an experience that she was certainly going to try to forget as soon as they got out of here. She couldn’t believe her eyes! Bert was here on Tuesday! And he had trout! He never wanted fish at home, picked at it when she baked it. She always found him cutting a sandwich late at night when she cooked fish and chastised him for not eating more at dinner time. Sandwich eating late at night was so over-the-top in her opinion. One should have better control of one’s appetites. And wine? On a week night? This was unheard of! Barbara was starting to feel that the very fabric of her tightly wound world was coming adrift, like threads on a well loved jacket.

Realising suddenly that an answer was expected of her but not knowing what she wanted, her mind having been made blank at the gravity of Bert’s odd behaviour, she said “Garlic mushrooms” rather abruptly and then, because manners are paramount, “please’ a little later.

“Do you want a main course too?” John inquired of Barbara.

“What?” she blurted. “A main? Er, no. No. The mushrooms will be sufficient.” Barbara felt very flustered and she wasn’t sure why. She was usually a very decisive person, very controlled and prided herself on it but tonight, she was feeling out of her depth.  Fancy stuttering whilst talking to a waiter? She really needed to get a hold of herself.

“Right you are, then. It shouldn’t be too long and I’ll get you that wine.” John tucked his pencil behind his ear and headed off to the kitchen.

Left on their own, Barbara and Bert sat in silence. There were opposing reasons for this: Bert was quite happy to be left alone with his thoughts at most times but this evening he was framing in his mind the words with which to tell Barbara that their marriage was over. Barbara had no clue that this was the purpose for this meal and was mulling over ways to reassert herself over the situation and most importantly, her husband so that she would be able to enjoy her garlic mushrooms and not be victim to indigestion or uncertainty later.

Eventually, she found her voice.

“I ran into that odious Anna Musgrave today.”

Barbara paused to let that sink in. Anna Musgrave or Ms. Musgrave as she called herself in the Gardening Club publications was someone of whom she knew Bert was fond, seeing her arrival in their small town as something to be cherished. Anna Musgrave was a garden designer who had had exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show; her joining the Gardening Club was a real boon for most. Barbara found her unending cheeriness and her brightly coloured outfits an affront. The woman was in her 70s, for crying out loud and flounced around like some senior hippy in floppy hats and big earrings. She was deplorable and she couldn’t understand why no-one had anything nasty to say about her. Except she had overheard a juicy little tidbit in the post office about a man spied leaving her house very late at night when Ivor had been out walking his dog. She had wanted to ask more about it but her good manners wouldn’t let her and besides the expression on Ivor’s face when he had realised that she was standing behind him in the queue, well, he looked quite ill and she hadn’t wanted to press him anymore. It seemed very bad form.

Bert hadn’t moved a muscle although he looked less assured than before. Pleased with the effect that her words were having, Barbara continued.

“That woman really does have the worst dress sense. She was wearing this most hideous scarf, covered in this gaudy pattern of blooms…”

As Barbara continued to slate Anna Musgrave, Bert realised that the moment had arrived. It was perhaps a little earlier in the proceedings than he would have liked but Fate had presented him with a moment and he took it.

Quietly, he said, whilst searching out his wife’s eyes, “I bought it for her.”

It took a moment for Barbara to halt in her tirade but the moment was dramatic. It was abrupt and as she had been gazing off into the distance, re-picturing in her head that awful scarf, the sharp turn of her head was like a switchblade emerging, in its speed.

“What?” she said, loudly and sharply but not enough to be overheard.

Bert steeled himself. “I bought it for her. As a present. For her birthday.”

Another pause as Barbara digested this information. “You bought it for her?”

Pause and a nod from Bert.

“But why would you do that?”

And then, the coup de grace.

Bert simply said: “I love her.”

Looking back, Bert marvelled at how he had managed to stay so strong and keep eye contact with his wife as he told her about his love for another woman. He had been resolute and strong which he had not been in the face of Barbara’s controlling nature for years. He was powered, he said to Anna later, by the rightness of it.

Barbara gasped and held her hand to her heart. Tears flooded her eyes and Bert, for a moment, caught a glimpse of the woman who had once been the love of his life, his companion, his lover, his friend. But, just as quickly, the hurt turned to rage.

Barbara scrambled to get up from the table and reached for her bag at the foot of her chair. In an instant, Bert felt an incredible amount of sympathy for his wife and reached out his hand to her. In a sudden rush of tenderness for a relationship that was once everything but had now ended, he started to speak, using an affectionate term of old.

“B. Sit down. I feel I need to explain. I’m sorry…”

As he said the last two words, Barbara stopped what she was doing and leaned over the table to him until she was inches from his face.

“Sorry? You’re sorry? You apologise now?” Her voice was escalating and she could sense that people were starting to turn around, a hush descending. She took a few deep breaths and forced her shoulders to relax, the burble of conversation resumed.

“You stupid, stupid little man!” She hissed in his face whilst Bert struggled to remain implacable, his heart thudding loudly in the face of the contorted face before him. “What do you know about love? Eh? What? You think you love her?”

Barbara looked straight into her husband’s eyes and saw it then, through the red mist. He never looked away but held her eyes, throughout and she respected him for this at least although she would never be able to forget the pity that she saw in them. And that was enough to pierce her anger and Bert watched as the formidable woman who was his wife shrank down back onto her chair with a defeat that made his heart wring.

Bert watched her, wondering what would happen next as Barbara sat with her head bowed, her shoulders hunched.

Gradually, her head lifted and she sat up straighter in her chair. She raised her eyes to his once more and he could see the pain but also the steel. Then, she rose from the chair, eyes still locked with his as she uttered her parting words to him, the last words he would ever hear from her:

“Enjoy your trout.”

2 thoughts on “No Surprises – A Short Story by Rachel Deeming

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