Friday, 20 December 2013
It is Christmas Eve in the busy Andalucía restaurant. There is an atmosphere of noisy chaos; this is a deliberate ploy on the part of Esteban, the restaurant manager. The aim is to transport diners far, far away to the heat of exotic Southern Spain, with its Arabian heritage, where everything seems to be chaotic but really it isn’t. There’s a lot of shouting from the waiters as they attend swiftly to the diners. The waiters flatter female diners with flirtatious flickering glances. Esteban has told them to do this, flirting with English women is to be expected of Spanish men regardless of your sexual preference and regardless of the woman’s age.
Christmas Eve is always one of the busiest nights of the year in the Andalucía restaurant.
The lights in the Andalucía are kept low, creating an atmosphere of intimacy. You are just able to discern colour and you can observe a guitarist wearing a red muleta, a matador’s cape, moving between tables, getting in the way of sweating waiters as he thrums a flamenco in the style of Rodrigo.
Reds and blacks predominate and sudden flares as a chef flambés steaks at one of the tables. His movements and gestures are flourishing; a sort of constitutional showing off.
The fragrance of cooking meats stimulates the appetite.
A host greets a man and a woman, a Señor and a Señora at the door and takes their heavy coats. It may be warm in the restaurant, but this is England in December and it’s bitterly cold outside, a gale blowing spiteful flecks of snow around.
There will be a white Christmas.
The woman is very beautiful with a Rubenesque figure. Her features are pretty, with wide dark eyes and a full sensuous mouth. Her long auburn hair is swept up at the neck with just a few curls allowed to fall casually.
She is small, barely reaching her partner’s shoulder. His craggy dark good looks are tight with tension.
They are shown to their corner table. It’s the table that they have always had, every Christmas Eve for twenty seven years. She has asked for it when she made the booking.
They sit in silence for some minutes.
“This is nice,” the woman says.
They peruse the menu, each knowing what the other will order. It will be the same entrées and main courses that they have always ordered over the years that they have been coming here.
Only the choice of wine varies.
They order their food: small talk seems necessary.
“I do love this restaurant, it’s like being in Spain, I mean actually being in Spain. I think we should book our holiday soon, make our reservations at the hotel.”
“Perhaps,” says the man; he knows that a response is necessary.
“There’s no ‘perhaps’ about it,” she says quickly.
“Well…yes maybe we should.”
“Well, at least we agree on something.”
“Do we what?”
“Agree on something.”
They are silent for seconds. The waiter brings a jug of iced water.
“A bottle of this,” the man asks the waiter, pointing to the Cava on the wine list.
The waiter pours them both a glass of iced water and leaves them to talk.
“I’m in the mood for red,” she says.
“Nothing’s ever right for you…”
But he’s asked for the Cava anyway…he has ordered his usual Fruit du Mer as an entrée. Mussels are at the height of the season and will be plump and delicious right now. And his wife has predictably ordered her usual safe citrus fruit cocktail. The taste of the cool white wine will clash horribly with the citric juices, but he’s past caring.
She ignores his jibe. She picks at the cuticle of the thumbnail of her right hand with the index fingernail of the same hand. She wants some answers from him, but she’s not sure what the question is anymore. When she does speak it is a clumsy attempt at intimacy.
“What sort of people sit in a restaurant and don’t even try to talk to each other?”
“Married people,” he says quickly.
The woman flinches. There’s a sting in his words. “We don’t talk anymore, not really talk,” she says. We used to sit up all night, just talking, remember?”
The man fixes his wife with a long cool glance.
“I remember we used talk about a lot of things all night. We used to do a lot of things all night too.”
“Please don’t…I thought we’d finished talking about that.”
“Talking about what?”
“You can’t even say the word. It’s sex; fucking.”
She takes a sip of her iced water. “I still can’t make up my mind about how to have the kitchen finished off. I think wood would be best. Mahogany or pine. What do you think? I don’t think we should go for the stainless steel. An industrial look wouldn’t fit with the farmhouse.”
Her husband sighs. He rests his elbows on the small table and he leans forward. She can feel his warm breath on her face. She cannot repress a shudder.
“You’re prevaricating again. You always do that…prevaricate. Evade the subject.”
“Thank you. I do know what prevaricate means,” she says irritably.
“So you should, you’re an expert at it.”
She slides her forefinger over the condensation forming on her chilling water glass. A gesture that could have been seen as slightly erotic, but he knows better.
“Don’t be nasty. It’s Christmas Eve. We can do it when we get home…if you like.”
“Don’t say ‘thank you’. You our make our lovemaking sound so mechanical.”
“It is mechanical. You go to the bathroom before we fuck and stuff your cunt with lubricant. Then we fuck. I want to hold you afterwards and even do it again, or maybe not…but you can’t wait to get back to the bathroom so you can douche.”
“Don’t be crude…you’re being crude…and nasty cruel.”
Her fingernail digs at the cuticle; she has made the place sore.
“Oh sorry if I offend your delicate sensibilities. I can’t believe that you really think that couples of our age don’t have sex anymore.”
“I never said that…not exactly that…but I no, I don’t believe they do.”
“So because we’ve both hit fifty, we’re never going to have sex again?”
“There are more important things.”
“Oh really? Like what? The kitchen and holidays in Spain?"
“Yes…if you like…”
“I don’t like…sometimes I despair.”
“Don’t exaggerate. You despair about what?”
“My own body. I don’t know I don’t know what to do about my own body.”
“You’re still talking about sex? You’re obsessed. You should masturbate…in fact I know you do, I’ve smelt it on the bathroom towels”
“I do…masturbate, often. But it’s not enough.”
“You’re sex mad, that’s your problem.”
“You always say that.”
“I have needs and so do you…I hear you masturbating in the night, when you think I’m asleep. Doesn’t that tell you something?”
“It’s…it’s just a physical thing…like scratching an itch…I sort it out and go back to normal.”
“You’re insane,” he mutters.
“You always say that.”
The wine waiter arrives, the tall clear bottle of pale, honey coloured wine wrapped in a white linen napkin. He performs the little pantomime that none of them really believes in, but the ritual of pouring, offering the glass to be sniffed and tasted has to be observed.
The man nods his approval to the waiter and the waiter pours two glasses.
“I really would have preferred red.”
“I’ve order red, a Rioja to drink with our main course.”
“Don’t you love me anymore?”
“What, because I didn’t order red wine straight away, you think I don’t love you anymore?"
“You’re just being so abrasive tonight.”
The waiter brings their entrée. They are silent a while; the food is a small distraction. She pushes the thin slivers of orange and grapefruit around the deep blue bowl and surreptitiously watches him eat.
He is skilled at the delicate way he manipulates the shell fish. The first one he opens with a fork, then he uses the empty shell casing as an implement to pick up the next moules. He opens it up, now using the shell like a pair of tweezers and grips the plump body inside. Then he eats. The procedure is sensual. Touch, taste…clever sensitive fingers, dexterity, lips, mouth, saliva, sucking.
She has given up all pretense of eating her entrée.
“Well do you still love me?” she asks.
“Don’t know. Do you still love me?"
“Yes, I do very much.”
He is silent.
“Don’t you like your food? I can ask for something else if you like.”
“Perhaps I do still love you, perhaps I don’t, I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t like you very much. But I still desire you, is that the same as love?”
“Not really. It’s like in the song, ‘something has died inside and I can’t hide and I just can’t fake it’.” He knows he’s muddled the words; he always muddles the words even when he’s singing along with Carole but he’s smiling as he softly sings the lyric.
“You’re being personal and hurtful to pay me out.”
“Revenge?” the man’s laugh is without any humour. “I gave up on revenge a long time ago. But I’m glad it hurts. I think of all the times you’ve belittled me, made me the butt of your stupid jokes. Made me a joke. Vanessa doesn’t think I’m a joke, by the way.”
“What do you mean?”
The fingernail digs deeper; the cuticle begins to bleed.
“Have you had sex with Vanessa?”
A waiter deftly removes plates. Another waiter brings their ruby red Rioja. The ritual of pouring, sniffing, tasting is repeated.
Their steaks arrive. Filet de boeuf. Rare for him. Very well done for her. Thus it has always been and always will be. A younger waiter dithers over serving the red tomato salads and frites. Perhaps he feels the tension in the atmosphere. She sighs her irritation and the young man leaves the table unfinished.
“Not yet, but I could have. I may well do. Vanessa likes sex.”
He cuts into his steak, it is bloody, just as he likes it.
She glances at her bleeding thumb cuticle. Dabbing at the blood gives her a distraction. She doesn’t know whether to believe him.
“Have you discussed our private life with Vanessa?"
“Of course I have. I talked, she listened. Then she talked and I listened. You know a dialogue like grown up people have.”
“I want to leave. I want to go home. Can we leave now please.”
“What is it exactly, what is it that you want? Do you want a divorce?”
“No, I don’t want a divorce.”
He puts down his knife and fork.
“That’s pretty much what I talked to Vanessa about.”
“Ah, Vanessa, the fount of all wisdom.”
“Not really. She just told me stuff about people who have the same sort of problems that we have.”
“And what’s that?”
“You know what the problem is.” His voice is raised, and despite the noise in the restaurant, a couple on a nearby table turn to stare. “Boredom, sexual boredom. I want more than you seem able to give. I want to touch you deep inside. I want slow tenderness. I want it fast and rough. I want you to want me inside you as much as I want to be inside you like we used to. I want to taste you, I want to taste me in you after we’ve fucked. I’m dying inside here Elizabeth, suffocating…choking for air.”
“You’re ridiculous. Dying inside, suffocating, choking…that’s a stupid thing to say. And you’re disgusting, filthy, perverted. You make me feel sick.”
He meets her disdainful gaze. “And I want variety. That’s what Vanessa talked about. There are places we could go…together. Places where men and women have multiple partners. I want you to see me fucking other women. I want to watch you fucking other men. I want to watch you with a woman too. Several women…”
“And if I can’t?”
“Then I’m going to go there with Vanessa. You can do what you like. Take a lover if you want. Do whatever you want.”
The Spanish guitarist stops playing. He glances at the couple at the small table in the corner. A lovers’ quarrel. He and his Maria often quarrel. There is joy in the making up, in the fucking. He knows that the two lovers will go home and fuck. The woman looks feisty. The Spaniard would put money on her taking control of their lovemaking. How delighted the man must be with such a wife! They stand up to leave. They have barely touched their food. Obviously they cannot wait to fuck each other senseless. He leaves the restaurant and sits in the chilly garden for a cigarette break. Cigarettes are now politically incorrect in uptight England and you have to go outside in the cold. But he’s a Spaniard and he smokes. People have been generous with tips on this Christmas evening. He can buy his Maria a gift.
The restaurant is much quieter now. Just the low rumble and mumble of the diners.
George Pappas, author of Monogamy Sucks, Dear Hef and many, many poems, told me of a Hemingway story he’d read a long time ago at college. “Hills Like White Elephants.” I hadn’t read any Hemingway, but I ordered a collection of his short stories and read the tale. It’s very short, but what is intriguing about it is that Hemingway tells it entirely through dialogue; a couple are talking about abortion, but never actually say the word and I understood immediately why the story has stuck with George for all those years. George said it would be interesting to try and write a tale, perhaps with the theme of sexual boredom, using Hemingway’s technique of pushing the plot on through dialogue as a template. George’s idea would be to mention sexual variety but never to get to the word Swinging. “Go for it George!” I said. George said he didn’t have time, but with a generosity so typical of him, he gave his idea to me.
I hope I have lived up to George’s expectations. I know that I can never equal Hemingway, nor can I equal George Pappas, but it’s been interesting trying.
And film buffs will recognise these lines from “Two for the Road” starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. (1967)
Joanna Wallace: What sort of people sit in a restaurant and don’t even try to talk to each other?
Mark Wallace: Married people.