Lydia meets Susan just outside Fourth Chapter. The large white timber door, with a handle worthy of a Paris entryway, is shut. A line of people stand in perfect pairs with little pug or poodle breeds by their feet.
The two friends greet in the usual way, kisses on each side, followed by a discussion of wait time and if they can get a table by the window. Susan says it is for her Vitamin D deficiency.
This time of morning means sun floods from the top of High Street, and shines onto the faces of the luckless people who sit outside, squinting at their partners. The sunrays do not reach the inside of the café, not even stretching to the booths that face the street, separated only by a plane of glass. But Lydia knows the Vitamin D is a pretext for Susan to perform her habitual people watching.
There have been times when Susan only half listens to Lydia, preferring instead to observe customers lining up for a brunch table. Whether Susan tries to be discreet, Lydia is never sure. A sigh, an eye roll or a conversation interrupted by “kids these days,” or “how could she wear that out in public,” generally gave her focus of attention away. Lydia may be talking about Harry’s new girlfriend. Telling Susan about how she stays over most nights now, and hardly leaves his room, and always comes late at night – which of course they all hear because Boris barks when she enters through the side gate.
A “well that’s just ridiculous,” or “how rude,” is the statement Lydia seeks, but it’s precisely in these moments that Susan will mutter something about the fluffy women’s slide sandal that everyone seams to be wearing. She will be looking at a pair of pink fuzzy sandals from the corner of her eye, disgust oozing its way through her pores.
The two sit down, at a small table for two facing the window, alongside the white painted staircase. Susan has her back towards the café and erects herself in the chair so to better view the booths and the people outside. Lydia faces the café. Every table is occupied and patrons sit beneath immense hanging pot plants. They’d knock even the footballers unconscious, were they to fall.
Susan orders a half strength almond milk latte. When the waiter asks Lydia she orders a cappuccino, but then changes to a long black.
“So how are you?” asks Susan now directing her attention towards Lydia.
“I’m fine,” she says looking back at her friend.
A pause. There is look of concern all over Susan’s face. The expression that is usually withheld is now there, accessible and unreservedly provided. Susan’s usually chipper face, with its blue eyes and too youthful skin for a natural 60 year old, now wears the wrinkles she so furiously tries to keep at bay. Her forehead is clearly grooved, her lips pursed slightly.
How Lydia had craved that expression when the contractors didn’t complete the extension on time and Lydia had to live with Joe’s parents for an extra 2 months, or when her younger novice colleague had beaten her at that job promotion or when Harry had decided to drop out of university. In those moments she could have strangled Susan, strangled her for her indifference. How hard is it to say, “oh that must be awful,” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Living with her in-laws had been a nightmare, their prudish politeness and hovering eagerness. And Susan knew how Lydia felt about teaching, she’d always regretted going back so late after having Harry. And then Harry. After spending enough money for a 2-bedroom apartment on his education, for him to drop out and travel in one of those stupid caravans. That’s when Lydia could have used that expression. That’s when Lydia could have used some empathy. What was the point now?
“And how are you?” Lydia finally replies willing the silence to end. She’ll change the topic to that new TV show or maybe she can ask about Tom’s retirement. Redirect the conversation; make it about Susan.
Susan stares at Lydia, her face still wearing the same expression. It makes her look older. Susan is yet to reply.
Just say you’re fine! Lydia thinks. But that’s not what Susan would be thinking. Susan would be filling this silence with judgements, judgements and questions. She’s thinking:
Is that wrinkle new?
Does she look more tired than usual?
She’s definitely paler, and perhaps skinnier. No definitely skinnier.
Susan uses those eyes – the eyes normally reserved for spotting ill-fitted outfits or judging interiors for being too conventional or too eccentric – to create a story. An incorrect story. A story she will recall to Tom, later.
Lydia can hear her too pitched voice already, telling Tom:
Oh she looked dreadful, she hardly spoke.
She’s really not coping.
Her face looked haggard.
Do you think Joe’s doing enough? Maybe you could talk to him. Tell him she needs more help.
I’ve really never seen her look like this before.
And Tom will shrug; he will reassure her. Tell her not to worry. Tell her that Lydia will be fine, just fine. That the both of them need to stay hopeful, for what use is it to worry. He’ll bring her a cup of tea and tell her that he is grateful that she is healthy, that she is fine. They’ll kiss and go on with their day – both fine.
But Lydia is also fine. She is fine in the way you tell the lady in the supermarket that you’re fine. She is fine in the way you tell your over-involved in-laws that you’re fine. She is fine in the way that you tell the attractive young-enough-to-be-your-son waiter at Fourth Chapter that you’re fine. Lydia is doing just fine.
“I’m fine,” Susan finally replies. She pauses, “I’m just a little concerned, that’s all.”
Oh now you’re concerned! Now you want details. She hadn’t been concerned a few months ago, when Lydia first started to complain about the pain in her back. She brushed it off; “oh we’re getting older,” she’d said. But Lydia had known it was no ordinary pain; it was sharper – deeper.
They had been sitting in a café not dissimilar to this one. The same white walls, the same stupid greenery. Susan had quickly changed topics to comment on the café – the despised pillows on chairs. “I mean how often do you think they’re washed?”
Could Susan not do the same here? She could comment on the hanging pot plants. Or tell Lydia that the Scandi-design was out and that oriental was making a come back. Could she not make note of the waiter’s eyes and the two could devise a plan for Holly, Susan’s daughter, to dump her good-for-nothing boyfriend and date the pretty waiter?
At this point Lydia would be happy to be ignored, happy for Susan to focus on the other women. The one’s wearing active-wear; she could comment on the inappropriateness of it. She would say that in Paris this would never be acceptable. An idle conversation – could they not just have an idle conversation?
“How’s Holly doing?” Lydia asks.
Susan’s concern is wiped from her face, “she’s fine.”
Their coffee arrives. Susan takes a sip and looks back up with a forged smile. Undoubtedly pretending that almond milk tastes good with coffee.
“How’s Harry? Is he helping? And Joe? Is he helping?” Susan goes on, the forged smile now accompanied with the three worry lines.
“They’re both doing okay…” says Lydia looking around the café, “I’m just going to go to the bathroom.”
Lydia gets up, taking her handbag and heads to the back of the café, trying to find the toilets. She walks outside through the little courtyard with a small view of Victoria Gardens, where she takes Boris for walks each morning. She waits, as a young pretty girl exists the bathroom. Lydia enters and searches for a place to put her handbag, not wanting the leather to touch the floor. She places toilet paper around the seat and sits down, with her handbag resting on her lap. She searches her bag for the Keto measuring strips. She remembered to pack them this morning.
She takes a strip out of her bag and places the bag on the basin; luckily there are no water spills around the sink. She looks around the bathroom and smiles slightly; thinking of a former self, one that peed on sticks for other reasons.
She looks at the colour on the strip, deep red. She is in ketosis. The colour calms her, knowing that she is doing at least something calms her.
Back at the table Susan looks over the menu. She wonders if the Summer Greens dish is suitable for Lydia to eat; no other options seem Keto- appropriate. She curses herself for not checking the menu properly before coming. Perhaps half the serve would be okay. Maybe Susan could say she’s not hungry and ask if Lydia will share it with her? Then it won’t seem like she’s trying to help.
Susan can all too clearly recall the time that Lydia would not stay in her granny-flat during the renovations, preferring instead to stay with Joe’s in-laws and complaining about if for months on end. Or the time Susan tried to put in a good word for her with the principle at her school, an old family friend. Helping Lydia was like playing a game of tactics; Susan didn’t care for games. She often lost. By the time all the Harry issues started, Susan had decided better to by-stand and watch.
Lydia came back to the table.
“I’ve ordered the Sumer Greens, will you share them with me?” Susan asks.
Lydia nonchalantly stares at the ingredients on the menu that Susan had placed in front of her. She nods.
“You know I have rather a good cleaner now, she should come by your house some time,” says Susan.
“I don’t need a cleaner,” says Lydia.
“She is very good though, let me know if you change your mind.”
Lydia nods; a tired nod.
Does she know I’m playing? Round 2:
“I’ve been getting so annoyed with Tom; since his retirement he’s just always around. I think he misses getting his hands dirty. You know maybe he could come help out in the garden, you know, mowe the lawns or something. It would get him off my hands,” says Susan.
“I’m sure you could convince him to do some part time work?” Lydia offers, “or maybe a hobby? We don’t really need any help in the garden at the moment. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the garden since taking leave from work.”
“It’s not too much for you? How much rest do you need?”
“The doctor says I should keep moving, especially when I have the energy. It’s good to be outside. I usually get a good week of energy between chemo cycles.”
“Okay, you know if we can help with anything; housework, cooking. Just ask.”
“Honestly, Susan, I’m doing just fine.”
– The End –