CONSOLATION AND A TUNA MELT

Before we begin I think it’s important that I lay my cards on the table, set the record straight and all that bollocks. I love her, always have. I’m not sure if love is the right word or if it was simple lust at first and that changed over time, whatever, what I know is that the way I feel about her is something I think is love and has been for a long time. Well, a significant percentage of the time I’ve known her, like 90% plus. I mean, wouldn’t you? She’s gorgeous, witty, intelligent, kind, friends with everyone, beautiful and…

I’m gushing aren’t I? Ah, sod it, just remember that strong feelings are a bit of an understatement when it comes to her and we’ll begin.

I think we’ll start about an hour and a quarter before I turned up at quarter past twelve for a one o’clock lunch and found myself thirty minutes late. For those who think my logic is flawed: a man starts being late the moment the woman arrives before him, so despite being technically forty-five minutes early, I was late. My apology froze in my throat at the glacial remains of last night’s tears sparkled like flawless crystal in the midday sun. Iris’ smile, despite being obviously forced, charmed me anew, as it does every time I see it, whilst her eyes imbued me with a hint of the melancholy she was trying to hide from me.

To catch you up to speed, this was sadly not a casual lunch between friend and secret admirer – it was a consoling session. Iris had just been dumped. Tomorrow this would be news worthy of elation. Today, on the other hand, I would have to deal with tears and reminiscing. Joy. I never met her ex-boyfriend as he goes to a different university and, as such, I painted him as cartoonishly evil as it is possible for a boyfriend to be. After all, he was the easy excuse for why I hadn’t asked Iris out myself and I wanted to hate him. However, I’m pretty sure that’s not what Iris wants to hear. To be fair, I have no idea what Iris wants to hear, or for that matter why she asked me of all people to get lunch with her.

Back to the story: me and Iris on a street corner – her trying to hide how torn up she is, me trying to recover my higher brain functions. If my life were a film or novel, this would have been one of those horribly clichéd infinite moment moments, instead it was a horribly clichéd “if my life were a film” moment, the realisation of which snapped me back to reality.

“Ah, sorry I’m late,” I mumbled.

“It’s okay,” Iris’ voice was enchanting, the slight hoarseness from the previous night’s grief just made me want to hug her and sweep her away on a heroic steed like some fairytale prince. “After all, you’re early.”

I was finding it difficult to make eye contact. “You got here first though, that makes me late.”

“Oh, stop being so silly Geoff. I just wanted some fresh air so I came really early. You know I can’t stand loafing around my room. What about you? You hate getting up on Saturdays.” She was so earnest, so determined to not be miserable. It almost made me forget the phone call the night before.

I shrugged, trying to look like I hadn’t set an alarm especially early, woken up before it anyway and then spent an aeon pacing my room like a caged panther. “Just felt like it, you know, on whim.”

Iris raised a perfect eyebrow. I averted my eyes. I shrugged again. “I have whims, whims are cool,” I mumbled. Iris laughed.

“You are a ridiculous man, have I ever told you that?” Iris’ face lit up when she laughed. I know I’ve already complained about clichés, but this one’s so true it’s painful. It’s not sparkling eyes or cute dimples or anything so mundane. It’s an atmosphere, an aura she has whenever she laughs. Life just feels better when you see it, like everything’s going to turn out okay despite everything being utter shit. I heard it described once as the feeling of having a bunny rabbit asleep in your lap. Whilst absurd, the description is remarkably accurate.

I finally smiled. “With gusto. On several occasions,” I replied.

“Oh yeah, I have now that I think about it.” Iris giggled again.

I sighed, as I am wont to do when Iris makes fun of me. “So where is it you wanted to get lunch?”

“You know that coffee place that opened where The Body Shop used to be? Laura said it was really good and I thought it’d be worth checking it out. Sound okay to you?”

“I have no problem with coffee.”

Iris smiled the most genuine smile she had since I arrived. “Sweet. Let’s go.” With those words, Iris grabbed my hand and proceeded to drag me in the direction of Cup and Coaster. I’ll admit, I spent most of the trip convincing myself that any meaning to the holding of hands was entirely based in my imagination and not indicative of my desires being more mutual than I had thought. I failed, so reminded myself that Iris was in a really bad place right now and it would make me a bad person and friend if anything did happen.

Let’s fast forward a bit to a half hour ago. It was a fair trek to Cup and Coaster and, despite both knowing exactly why we were going for lunch, we also both acknowledged the inherent wrongness of starting before bums were on plush chintzy chairs and necessary coffee was on the lips. As such, the walk here is of no interest. At least it is unless you care about the small talk and minutiae that filled both the walk here and the disgustingly long queue that independent coffee shops seem unable to be shot of. So where we take up the story is the two of us standing awkwardly off to one side after having placed our orders.

“You did that wrong, you know.” The joke was stupid, but I didn’t think it through, so when Iris offered up the perfect responses I had to follow through despite cringing inside so hard I was liable to turn inside out.

“Did what wrong?”

“Your order.”

“How do you order coffee wrong?”

“Well, you know how it goes. In your circumstance you’re supposed to take your time, deliberate and then declare ‘fuck it, I’m going to try something different! No more of the same old stuff’. You know, like in a Hugh Grant film.”

“I see.”

Amusing isn’t it? How the words “I see” are two of the iciest in any woman’s arsenal. Actually, that pun doesn’t work so well spoken does it? Better it stays written, or in my head – either works.

Awkward silence ensues as I counted the stitches in my ever-so-slightly shuffling shoelaces. If you’ll indulge another tangent, I normally don’t have a problem with us adopting some American habits, as in feeling easy talking to people, especially those you don’t know. However, names on coffee cups, shouted across cafés, is a step to far for me. I know its pure British insecurity and paranoia, but the idea that my name is shared with such a random group of strangers is unnerving. Now there is a reason I bring this up, and no it’s not to soapbox, which is to explain why I jumped quite so embarrassingly when my name was shouted across the shop. With mumbled thanks, I retrieved my caramel latte and toastie and retreated to the aforementioned chintzy chairs.

A few short minutes and I worked up the courage to attempt eye contact with Iris again. As I look up, toastie tactically in mouth, I found Iris staring into the middle distance with an air of wistful melancholy. Deciding it best not to interrupt her reverie, I bit down upon the toastie, melted cheese oozing delightfully into the tuna mayo and sending a feeling of deep satisfaction seeping onto my welcoming tongue, into my spine and finally, wonderfully, up into my brain. Shut up, I know that was far more information than you wanted, but I really like tuna melt.

I chewed my lunch for a while whilst waiting for Iris to return to the here and now. Two scrumptious bites later, she showed no sign of returning. With a resigned sigh, I return my toastie to its plate.

“Iris…”

“Hmm? Oh, sorry Geoff I was a million miles away.”

“You were? Damn you move fast.”

Iris slumped her shoulders and looked exasperatedly at me. “That joke wasn’t funny a year ago and its still not funny now.”

I shrugged and looked off to a side as nonchalantly as I could manage. “I was hoping by this stage my persistence would be the funny part.”

Iris half giggled, half snorted. “In a way Geoff, in a way.” She went back to her staring contest with infinity and I returned to my toastie, attempting to assess the mood at present. Maybe she didn’t want consoling, maybe she just doesn’t want to be by herself. I could almost hear Fate chuckle that sinister chuckle of his and mutter: “Awww, hell no. You don’t get off that easy, boy.”

“Geoff, what did I do wrong?”

Shit. I sensed the mood wave to the crowd and perform a spectacular five star dive off the ten-metre board only to stack it mid-air and belly flop at the last second. I knew exactly what she was asking, the two hour phone call last night meant it was impossible I didn’t, yet I could only respond with a questioning “hmm?”

“I really need to figure it out. It kept me up all last night. What was it that made him dump me?” There were no tears welling in Iris’ eyes. The only thing left there was hurt.

“Shit, Iris, what do you expect me to say? I never even met your ex.” The air quivered at the word “ex” and I felt myself heating up at that collar. “Your boyfriend, let alone had him confide in me.”

“You’re not being much help Geoff,” Iris said reproachfully, hiding her face behind her large coffee as she took a sip.

“If I knew what I could do to help, I would do it. But I’m not going to tell you that you did anything wrong because I can’t imagine you did.”

“But I must have! Why else would Tom dump me?” Iris was almost pleading, as if having one mistake to latch onto was the only thing that mattered any more. Alarm bells started to ring in my head, but all the emergency exits were barred.

“If you must have me conjure up some reason, I’d say the simple fact you’re at different unis. I mean, look at all the others who were in couples when they arrived and aren’t any more: Ash, Laura, Kenneth, Dave, Pascal, Wendy. Shit, the list is most of our friends and then their friends as well. In many ways, it’s impressive you lasted this long, over two terms.”

This evidently had been an incorrect answer. “Exactly! We were still going strong at Easter, the long-distance thing was working fine. This was all out of the blue, I must have offended him somehow, I just have to figure it out. Did I call too much or not enough, did I miss some event or date? Augh! I don’t know! Why are men so infuriating?” Iris glared at me as the nearest example.

“Don’t look at me! I wouldn’t dump you, didn’t dump you.” Iris looked suspiciously at my slip, but let it pass. I gesticulated in a manner I hoped suggests being clueless and diverted the focus away from me. “Maybe it’s exam stress? Maybe Tom’s just having a shit time of it and can’t take dealing with anything else, or needed someone who was there right now.”

“Tom wouldn’t cheat on me.” The landmine tripped. It wasn’t even a deliberate attempt to turn Iris against him, but I think she took it as one. Iris was properly glaring at me now. All I could think to do was take a sudden interest in the décor of the Cup and Coaster. I decided it was a bit too cutesy and was clearly trying to attract some manner of hipster or indie crowd I most certainly am not a part of. However, the coffee was good and they did a damn fine tuna melt. The stereo was playing the Dire Straits gently into the place and along with the gentle buzz of conversation from the clientèle, most definitely hipster now I cared to look, gave the place excellent atmosphere. Something distinctly lacking from the table I was sitting at right now.

By the time it felt more uncomfortable observing the café than looking at Iris and my roaming gaze came home to her beautiful features, she was sitting slumped, head in crossed arms, staring jealously at the happy couple cooing at each other two tables over. “I hate them.” There was something so cute about her put out voice, muffled by the sleeve of her jumper, that I almost dropped to one knee then and there.

“No you don’t. You’re just jealous,” I chided.

“Exactly. I hate them. All happy like that. Not fair.”

I felt an unbidden twinge of anger. I could forgive Iris almost anything, especially at a time like this, but something about her statement irked me. I pursed my lips for a microsecond and the moment passed. “Yeah, I get you. It sucks getting used to being single at first, everything feels a bit weird. But you wear it in over time and it becomes comfortable like an old cardigan, if a little itchy sometimes.”

Iris looked over to me, staring up from her arms. I do not know how many men I would have kill for her at that moment. A lot. Numbers didn’t make much sense. “What?” she asked, an adorable, confused testiness to her tone.

“Eh, ignore me, I’m just rambling on.”

Iris did in fact do just that, returning to her jealous death glare. “I feel so lonely,” she murmured.

That brings us to ten minutes ago. You know how I said I would have killed for Iris she was so cute? That is multiplied many, many times in this instance. A whirlwind of insane emotion is blowing through me. Protectiveness, lust, anger, love, jealousy, regret – I don’t know, something seriously is messing me up. Maybe one of those is why I snapped, maybe just one, whatever the reason I fucked up. I told the truth.

“Bullshit, you don’t know what lonely is Iris. I know what lonely is. I’ve know what lonely is as long as I’ve known you. You ever realise that? Whilst you extolled the virtues of your perfect man half a country away, I sat there and I listened. I listened to your perfect life. I listened to all the guys who complained that you weren’t single. I only listened. I held my tongue. I didn’t want to risk the little I had. I tried to convince myself that that little was fine, that it was enough. But how could it be?

“Loneliness? Let me tell you a little about loneliness. Loneliness is the fifty-metre walk to my room from yours that feels like it takes an hour. Loneliness is finding yourself sitting around on a bench in the quad in the vain hope you’ll walk past and stop for a chat. Loneliness is crying after you break up with your girlfriend after only two weeks because you realise you can’t fucking get over you! Do you get it Iris? You don’t know shit about loneliness.” I grab my face in my hand. “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. I’ll, uh, I’ll go.”

I stood up and left. Around me, life went on uninterrupted, but if the universe ended at my skin it would have been imploding, exploding and any other fucking ‘ploding you can think of. That brings us to now, with me leaning against a wall somewhere just repeating the word “fuck” over and over and over and over and over and over and over…

“Geoff?”

The voice is small. I open my eyes and I freeze at the sight of Iris holding a brown paper bag up to me.

“You really like tuna melt. It’d be a shame to waste it.”

Iris is like a vision. I can’t take my eyes away. I can barely speak. “Iris. I… thanks.”

“Geoff?”

“Iris?”

“You want to go for coffee again tomorrow?”

I’m lost for words.

WORDS: JAMES ARNOLD

Bloody good, eh? Why stop there? Here’s another of James’ creative pieces.

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