Phyllis is waiting. She is sitting by herself in the Spiegel tent waiting for her friend Melanie, who is always late.
A man with a coconut scented cigar reads the Scotsman reviews with an expression of grateful forbearance. Perhaps he too is waiting. Smoke wafts around his lop-sided trilby as he slowly rubs his beard, glancing round every now and then to see if the slender woman in Thai dye at the next table is watching him. Phyllis thinks them a most unlikely match. She is almost half his age and far too pretty.
Phyllis orders a half pint of some Austrian beer she can’t pronounce the name of. Her late husband, Henry, used to drink it. Her porcelain fingers hook the slim beaker to her lips and she sips daintily. The beer slips down her throat cold as a stiff collar, murky brown liquid clouding like schadenfreude under the froth. Her daughter would balk if she could see her now, drinking beer in public like a lesbian.
The soft jazz wafting in the background gathers pace abruptly as Melanie teeters towards her, flustered, with some well-worn excuse about traffic during the festival. Phyllis tells her not to worry; she has only just arrived herself. She has been waiting almost three quarters of an hour. She is hungry but Melanie has already eaten so they spend the next few hours drinking wine under the blazing sun. Melanie’s Gucci sunglasses provide ample shade. Phyllis squints, straining forward to hear her friend over the noise of the crowd: the linen jacketed intelligentsia and the fast-talking twenty-somethings who’ve bettered themselves by reading Gramsci.
Phyllis’ expression as she listens is attentive and empathic but her thoughts have drifted off to the summer she spent with Henry in Lyons just after they were married, when she was pregnant with Amanda. He had told her they would buy a speedboat when the child was born; teach it to grasp the wind with both hands, never care about the consequences. She would giggle delightedly. How very different from her own childhood – growing up in the shadow of expectation to do her best to disappear, lose all sense of herself to be acceptable to a prospective husband from a ‘good’ family. Decent men didn’t want a girl to be too forthcoming, her mother used to say wistfully, reflecting on her own marriage. “Your job is to keep a good house and provide him with children; keep him wanting more.” By which to mean look pretty, keep your head down and don’t expect a career or life of your own. When Phyllis met Henry she was well enough versed in her role not to expect or dare for anything different.
Henry, as heir to a wealthy banking dynasty, was raised with the parallel trajectory in mind. They would make money, rear sons to succeed in the family business and the cycle would roll on and on till market forces intervened. Nowhere was it written in the book that a man might want to trade in the gilt cushioned life for his winters on the saddle of a Harley Davidson, riding through every backwater and metropolis on the planet; stripping experience to theknuckle.
Nor was it written that a man like Henry, with the world at his feet, might die young. Cancer was a dirty word back then. It took hold of him with perverse gusto while the child within her grew. Amanda was two months old when her father was buried in the imposing family crypt on a crisp February morning. Phyllis watched her future being lowered into the ground with a faintly puzzled expression. She did not cry; it was not becoming. A light lunch of poached salmon was served afterwards in the great hall. The guests were dreadfully sorry for her loss. Every clink of teaspoon on saucer penetrated the murmur of restrained voices like a cymbal clashing too soon in a symphony. The child slept quietly all the while. And the last of the guests was gone before dark.
Melanie’s voice ebbs into focus as a light smattering of rain beads on to the table. Phyllis reaches for her cashmere scarf; as if that will keep her dry. The downpour soon to come distracts her from the myriad paths her mind might take her. Melanie tells her not to look now; that chap standing by the gate is staring straight at her. “I think you’ve quite lost your senses” Phyllis blushes, dismissing the notion that she would ever stoop to pick up a man in a bar.
There have been men since Henry: a gentleman companion in her later years who accompanied her to the theatre – plays which he always chose and she never enjoyed; and one or two other contenders who clearly were unsuitable after the first date.
“Excuse me” says Phyllis picking up her mobile to take a call from her daughter, Amanda, who has asked her to babysit for her again tonight. She edges round to notice that the young man Melanie referred to by the gate, is still eyeing her up suggestively. He is wearing leathers and has a motorcycle helmet perched on his hip. So handsome she buckles for the first time in years.
Before she can catch herself, she finds the words coming out of her mouth: “I’m sorry” she announces over the phone, “but tonight I am otherwise engaged.”