by S. Slottje
Hope stared at the remnants of the alcopop she had been nursing for the past half hour. She had never thought of herself as one of those sad types that spent the evening waiting for a man. Lorraine had brought her up with the kind of tough love that had made her self-reliant with a staunch belief in the female spirit. To hell with men.
Yet, here she was, waiting for a no-show. She wanted to slam her fists on the brushed-metal bar, but instead Hope straightened up and met herself in the mirror behind the optics. Mini ringlets darted out from her hairclips. Her mane had been contained at the start of the evening, but she had fiddled with it one too many times. On her mother, the chaotic black curls, now silver streaked, enhanced her elfin looks. Hope’s jaw, however, was that little bit too wide and her features too pointed. It was as if someone had, for a joke, taken the top off Lorraine’s head and from the eyes down stuck it on another, a stranger. Hope finished her drink. How disappointed Lorraine would be if she learnt of this evening.
Behind Hope, the two people in the corner, whom she had dubbed ‘The Happy Couple’, rose to leave. The man, tall and thin with a hideous moustache, spread his arms and helped his companion slip hers into her coat. She smiled up at him and wrapped her scarf around her neck. The man took both ends and pulled her closer for a quick kiss before they waved to the barman and left. As they opened the door, Hope noticed the wet streets glimmering and in the distance haunting sirens wailed their way through the city. It added to her melancholy and she sighed. The last punter, she was alone.
The barman shrugged, as if to apologise for the shortcomings of his gender. He seemed used to pathetic women propping up his bar.
Hope’s evening had been rum lubricated, and the edges of her world were growing hazy. Should she have another? She had planned to keep the alcohol to a minimum. That was hours ago and, besides, he wasn’t going to turn up now. They were meant to have met at eight.
“Straight after work,” he’d said to her answering machine, “It’s…it’s just easier that way. You understand. My wife…well, we can sort that out later.”
Yeah right, Hope thought. Her nails dug into her palm. She had been stood up, lied to and cast aside for something better. If only he had rung. They could have talked, and she would have understood. She had never wanted to upset his life.
Suddenly panicked, she rummaged through her handbag. She had not heard her phone, but perhaps the music in the bar had drowned out her Bolero ring tone, or she had simply missed the message’s beep. It was difficult to concentrate on her bag, and she had to look up several times to keep upright. There was no message. Of course, there wasn’t.
Her foot slipped off the metal ring at the base of the stool. She jerked forward and half the contents of her bag scattered across the black and white vinyl floor. Hope cursed and slid off the stool to retrieve the collection of keys, pens, make-up and tampons.
She lost her balance as she stretched for a cylinder of lipstick that rolled teasingly out of reach. Her knee collided with the hard flooring. When she got up, she hit her head on the rod around the bar.
“You alright, love?” The bartender helped her up.
“Yes.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper. What a terrible state she had got herself into.
“There doesn’t appear to be any blood,” the barman said with an edgy smirk. “You sure you’re OK?”
Hope nodded. By tomorrow, she would have a nice big bump to show for her trouble. All those months of searching, the years of hoping, came to her in that one instant and the tears poured out. She tried to stop them, but that only resulted in a series of hiccupped swallows. So close. This time she had really thought she would get to meet him.
Ever since she was a child she had looked around, studying the features of men. Was he old enough? Did he seem Lorraine’s type? It was no accident Hope had chosen to study in the city where she was born. Gradually, she had pieced together clues, trailing through old paperwork, photographs and talking to Lorraine’s friends. Hope had been persistent and two weeks ago, almost by accident, it had come together. She could not believe it when she found the faded envelope behind her Nan’s dresser. The postmark was the right year and a return address was scribbled on the back. He had moved of course, but she did get a name and then she found him: Mr T Williams – Tim, Tony, Thomas? Not a minister, a private eye or even an ex-con. Oh, the reasons she had imagined for Lorraine’s secrecy. No, he was just a guy working in an office. A guy who, once she’d tracked him down, had answered her phone call and left a message. Why would he do that to her? Why lead her to this bar and then not show up? Hope feared her chest might collapse under the sorrow.
“Hey, hey.” The barman shuffled backwards and forwards. He seemed to feel obliged to comfort her and at the same time repelled by the intensity of her grief. “Don’t worry. Plenty more fish in the sea and all that.
He escorted her firmly to a corner near the window and sat her down on a tatty sofa.
“You sit here for a minute, catch your breath. I’ll call you a cab and…” he paused to look at her and shook his head, “I’ll get you a cup of coffee first.”
Hope was desperate for a tissue. She glanced at the bar. Her bag was still beside the stool. She picked up the serviette left by The Happy Couple. Blowing her nose trumpeted through the premises, but the only person left was the bartender and it was too late to keep up a sophisticated front for him. Hope sat back in the sofa and closed her sodden eyes. The cushions enveloped her. What a mess she had made of things.
“Hi.” The voice that disturbed her was hoarse and insecure. She would have recognised it anywhere. For hours she had listened to it on her answering machine, playing the message over and over again. Cautiously, she looked up. More than once she had woken up at night to that voice only to find herself alone. Not this time.
A man stood on the opposite side of the coffee table, looking back at her. He was shorter than she had imagined and wore an Armani suit, partially covered in a mud-spattered coat. Nervously he slicked back the wisps of his hair. With the neon lights in the background, Hope could not tell if it was mousy or grey.
“Can…may I sit down?” It was a polite request, as though he wanted a seat next to a stranger on the bus. Dumbstruck, she only managed to nod.
He sat on the sofa, pressed into the opposite corner, as far away from her as possible, but stared at her intently. She felt sick with nerves, but just the same, Hope needed to be sure. She swallowed, sat up and asked, “Mr Williams?”
He sighed and nodded. “Tobias…Toby”
It felt like she might pass out, but she extended her hand nevertheless. “I’m Hope.”
“What a lovely name.” Toby bent forward, elbows resting on his tarnished knees. He looked straight ahead. Shadows created by the lights of a passing police car played around his angular features.
Hope waited until she felt uncomfortable and retracted her hand. “I’m sorry. I know this is inconvenient for you, but I…”
“No.” Toby shook his head. “Don’t apologise, for God’s sake. It’s not like…I mean…I understand you wanted to know.”
Her heart leapt in excitement.
“I’m sorry, I am too late.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she chirped, “You’re here. That’s all that matters, right?”
Toby glanced at her in a manner that made her voice tail off. “I want you to understand something, Hope.” He looked at his scuffed-nosed shoes.
She nodded although something told her she probably would not understand at all. His expression was so sombre it sent a shiver down her back with his every word.
“I want you to know I would have come, if I… I would have liked to know you. I don’t want you to think I did not…that I didn’t care. I’m sorry I can’t be…what you needed.”
She had to concentrate hard to keep breathing and croaked, “Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?”
Toby bit his bottom lip. “I should’ve been there for you, but I didn’t know about you and when I found out…when you phoned me out of the blue…I panicked and I’m sorry about that. I wish I had the chance to make up for it, but this is all I can do.”
“Here’s your coffee, miss. Sorry for the wait. Are you feeling better?”
Hope’s head snapped round to the insensitive barman who smiled as he handed her a mug. She held it in her hands, letting the heat soak into her fingers and turned back to Toby.
The couch was empty.
“Where did he go?” Hope asked. The bartender looked at her without comprehension.
“Who?” he asked and picked up her handbag.
“That guy I was just talking to.” He could not have left, she was looking right at the door.
The barman gave a bemused smile and halted his approach. He held out her handbag as though he was feeding a tiger. “Cab’s on its way, but they said it could be a while. Apparently, there’s been a huge pile up. Somebody must’ve died or something, ‘cause the roads are a nightmare.”
Hope blinked, but couldn’t think of anything to say. How could anyone understand what had just happened? Her fingers tightened around the coffee. He had come to her. She smiled at her reflection in the mirrored wall. He had somewhere else to go, but he had stopped a while for her, to bring her peace. Her long yearning was over. From this day forward she could move on. She knew her father and her father knew her.
Careful not to attract the attention of the barman, Hope looked at the raindrops gathering in colourful strings running down the window and whispered: “Bye, Dad.”