A Time Like Now

A café such as Johny’s was no place for the likes of Belle Phillips. Dark patches seized her Jimmy Choo pumps as she stalked across the carpet that resembled a moulding strawberry and lime concoction. She tautly smiled and sat down graciously at an empty window table, glimpsing out at the close view of a damp field. She inhaled the thick coffee air that stirred a yearning for her caffeine fix of the day. Glancing at her wrist watch, she genuinely hoped he was still coming; it wouldn’t feel right asking him over the phone.

Belle sucked on her bottom lip as she skimmed over the room, lowering her eyes frequently. Tables assembled next to one another at different heights under coffee and jam stained table cloths. The emerald centre pieces contrasted profoundly with maroon leather chairs with gold painted rims that were covered in clammy hand prints. Hunched over a table in the neighbouring aisle was an older man with grey curls and an apparent beak. His eyes focussed entirely on the jacket potato he was blending with crushed beans and stale grated cheese.

Belle was aware of Gregory as soon as he entered.

He strolled towards her, arms out with flat palms, as if he were somehow holding up the tar stained ceiling. He arched his back as he walked and what little neck he had stuck to his chest while his eyes squinted and lips curled against his teeth. Belle couldn’t decide what was more repugnant, his smile or the obnoxious Hawaiian shirt that had buttons missing here and there, and was regrettably worn with charcoal knee length slacks and sandals.

‘Annie,’ Gregory declared, prolonging her childhood nickname in an unnaturally cheerful tone. He rounded the table to greet her, she stood as his arms squeezed her to his chest, grazing her cheek on his chin stubble. She could smell his musky aftershave blended with sweat and tobacco, she pulled back at once and if Gregory was insulted; he didn’t show it. ‘It’s good to see you, kid,’ Gregory said. He swayed backwards and manoeuvred around the tables so he could claim the seat opposite her. Belle returned to her seat as he fell down into his. ‘I was surprised when you called,’ he stroked his chin, watching over her shoulder. ‘It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’ She nodded. ‘How’ve you been?’

‘I’m well, thanks,’ Belle replied immediately. ‘Yourself?’

‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve been good.’

‘Good.’

‘School good?’

‘University,’ Belle corrected, grasping tuffs of her dress under the table. ‘Yes,’ she told him, ‘I’m enjoying it.’ He glanced at her and shifted his body to watch outside.

‘You’re at Uni then?’

‘Yes.’

‘What are you learning?’

‘Psychology.’

Gregory turned back to her, his eyebrows joined. ‘What’re you going to do with that?’ His voice thick with uncertainty and animosity. Belle didn’t like how he looked at her. Expression reaching his eyes, projecting disappointment that wasn’t his to project.

‘I want to become a psychologist,’ Belle replied rather shyly.

‘Thought you wanted to be a nurse like your Mam,’ he grunted. He lazed back in his chair and reached for the laminated menu that had been folded and stained, cartoon pictures decorated the boarder and blank space.

‘I did,’ Belle said.

‘What changed?’ He asked not glancing up, he looked more interested in the menu than he was in her. Belle grinded her teeth.

‘I get queasy at the sight of blood.’

His eyebrows twitched and he rubbed his chin again. He looked up, over her shoulder and nodded. Belle twisted to look over at a waiter who was now heading towards their table.

‘Have you looked at the menu?’ Gregory asked, arching his back and puffing out his cheeks.

‘No.’

‘Here you are,’ he said, tossing it onto her side of the table.

‘Hi, I’m your waiter Antonio and I’ll be serving you,’ Antonio the eyebrow waiter said flashing a crooked grin that levelled his eyebrows momentarily. Belle curled her tongue at the options on the menu.

‘Decided what you want?’ Gregory asked, Belle’s face became warm and she quickly scanned for something appetising; not remotely contemplating the jacket potato.

‘Um, I’d like the ham sandwiches, please.’

‘Drink?’

‘Oh, er, latte please.’

‘You drink coffee now?’ Gregory asked, sounding sceptical.

‘Yes,’ Belle replied.

‘I’ll have the cheese ones with a pint, Tony,’ Gregory said, tightly smiling at Antonio.

‘No problem, I’ll be back with your drinks,’ he replied, scribbling down their orders and shuffling away. Gregory pursed his lips and stared at his daughter, Belle avoided his gaze but with every glance that confirmed he was staring, the warmer her face got. She found herself intensely interested in the view, noticing the café had garish yellow-ribbon curtains placed precisely at either ends of the window.

‘So, um, I really was surprised when you called,’ he eventually said, he cracked his knuckles in the silence. ‘It’s really been a while.’ Belle nodded. It certainly had been a while. ‘So, uh. Why did you call?’

Belle opened her mouth to reply and closed it, glancing briefly at her hands.

‘I’ve met someone,’ Belle said.

‘Right.’

‘We’re engaged.’

Gregory pursed his lips and then sighed loudly. The older man in the aisle behind stood abruptly and shuffled out from behind his seat, attracting Belle’s gaze. He gently retrieved his coat from the back of his chair and put it on over his creaseless shirt as if trying it on for the first time. He patted his pockets and then walked past the table, offering a small smile as he met her eye contact. Gregory was picking at his nails.

‘I want you to be there,’ Belle said, her voice hushed.

‘When is it?’

‘We haven’t got a date yet-’

‘I might be busy-’

‘You might not.’

Gregory’s lips pressed shut.

‘His name is Spencer.’ She sat back up and smoothed out her dress. ‘He’s at Law school and we’ve been together for 3 years now.’

‘I’m not coming,’ he said, no hesitation, no guilt, no remorse. Belle was still, her nails digging into her thighs, her jaw stiff. Gregory straightened out his shirt and watched as Antonio came over with their drinks.

‘Your food won’t be long.’

‘Thanks, Tony,’ Gregory flashed a grin. ‘Sugar?’ He asked, she shook her head. ‘Suit yourself.’ Gregory sipped his pint as he gazed at her untouched sandwiches. Belle pressed her tongue to the bridge of her mouth and blinked excessively at the ceiling. She pushed the plate away.

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