‘I asked for a sandwich, not these chips.’
The waiter, a young man of about sixteen, rolled his eyes but leaned forward to take the plate. ‘I’ll get rid of them for you, Ma’am.’
‘By the time you get back here that sandwich will be cold. Bring me a new one. And not so much mayonnaise.’
He looked at her as the waiter took her plate away. ‘You didn’t need to go that far, Margaret.’ She glared at him. ‘You could have just left the chips on the plate.’
Margaret looked back at him, unabashed. ‘That’s the trouble with you, Charlie, you let people walk all over you.’
One by one the other occupants of the little restaurant looked away and got on with their lunches. He was embarrassed by her outburst. He always was.
She had a lot of good points, his wife did, but tact and diplomacy were not amongst them. He wondered, not for the first time, if she did it to attract attention. He picked up a chip in his fingers, and chewed on it reflectively. It was just right, he thought, crispy and firm.
‘You didn’t ought to eat those, Charlie. You don’t need the extra weight. Next thing, it’ll be diabetes.’
Charlie kept eating his chips, one by one. ‘Don’t be bloody silly Margaret. You don’t get diabetes from eating a few chips. ‘sides, I’m not that fat.’
‘Give over,’ she sneered. ‘Look at you, blowing up by the day. Eating too much and no exercise, that’s your problem.’
The waiter returned with a new plate, a nicely toasted sandwich and nothing else. ‘The manager says he’s sorry, and your meals will be on the house.’
‘See,’ Margaret said triumphantly, ‘You got to show them…’
At that point the waiter gave a quiet hurrumph and turned away.
Margaret twisted and followed the waiter with her eyes. ‘… who’s boss.’ She turned back to the table. ‘Cheeky bugger,’ she said in an injured tone. ‘I’ll have to have a word with the manager.’
Charlie put down his knife noisily and looked at her, leaning forward to emphasise his point. ‘You’ll do no such thing, Margaret.’
She stared at him. Whatever had got into him? ‘I will, you see if I don’t.’
He put down his fork too. ‘If you even think of it, Margaret, you’ll be walking home.’ He glared at her for a moment, then returned his attention to his sandwich. He was shaking slightly. He couldn’t remember ever talking to her like that, though he had felt like it a thousand times. She was what Charlie’s mother called ‘a domineering woman’.
‘Charlie Green,’ she said, and she almost spat the words, ‘whatever has got into you? I’m simply standing up for my rights.’
‘Trampling over everyone else’s rights, more like it. I’ve never known a more disagreeable woman in all my life. It’s time you thought a bit about how other people feel, ‘stead of just going on about your rights all the time.’
That’s torn it, he told himself. Gone too far this time, I’d be willing to bet. But Margaret was sitting back in her chair, her forkful of sandwich held in mid-air, her mouth open, clearly surprised. As he watched her face paled, the blood draining from it.
Oh well, he thought, in for a penny, in for a pound. ‘Now stop your nonsense and finish your lunch.’
They didn’t speak for the rest of the trip. Charlie was at first surprised, then pleased, then a little frightened as he thought of the likely consequences of his outburst. They drove all afternoon into the west, and when the silence began to get on his nerves he switched on the radio. Margaret reached forward and tuned it to a country music station, but Charlie glared at her and re-tuned it to a discussion of mental health, which he thought was quite appropriate for that afternoon, and very informative. Margaret sniffed loudly and turned her head away to look out of the window.
As the sun sank lower Charlie had to reach for his sunglasses and lowered the visor. He noticed that Margaret did the same, her pointed sniffing clearly at an end. Perhaps they could call a truce,
hopefully without having to talk about it.
It was almost dark by the time they reached home. Charlie put the car in the garage while Margaret opened up the house, pulled the blinds and switched on the lights. By the time he got to the kitchen, Margaret had disappeared.
‘Margaret?’ he called, but there was no answer. He went to the bottom of the stairs and called again. ‘Margaret? Are you there?’ The house was silent. Disconcerted, he climbed the stairs. There was no light in the bathroom, nor their bedroom. ‘Margaret?’ he called again in a lowered voice. He reached out and switched on his bedside lamp.
Margaret was in her side of the bed, her back towards him. She didn’t move, though she couldn’t possibly be asleep already. Charlie switched off the bedside light and left the bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind him. He didn’t know what to make of her behaviour.
He went into the kitchen, poured himself a beer and took it into the sitting room. He switched the television on and flicked through the stations, but there was nothing he wanted to watch. He thought about something to eat, and took his beer back to the kitchen and looked in the the refrigerator. Eggs, he could see. And wrapped up on a lower shelf, some bacon. He didn’t mind that he had had bacon for lunch as well, so he took that and prepared a light meal. As an afterthought he opened a tin of beans, tipping half of it into a pan and carefully covering the rest and placing it back in the refrigerator.
He was quite pleased with himself. When the cat’s away, he thought with a smile. Mind you, she might smell the food and decide to come down after all. Ah well, you can’t have everything!
He switched on the little transistor radio, the one they kept on the kitchen table, and he tapped his feet a little to the music that came from the tinny loudspeakers. He didn’t much like modern music, but it cheered the kitchen up. He whistled sometimes when he recognised a tune, but when an American rapper came on, he switched the transistor off: you can take things a bit far, he thought.
He warmed a plate and served the food, sitting there with a second bottle of beer, remembering the few times he had had to do for himself over the years. Secretly, he always enjoyed it, but he couldn’t let Margaret know that. She’d have never let him have an evening to himself again if she had known how happy he was.
As he finished the meal he took a slice of bread, buttered it and used it to sop up the juices of the beans and the fat from the bacon.
Delicious, he thought. He should do this more often. He got up and fetched a third bottle of beer, and after a moment’s thought he left the kitchen by the back door and went out to the back lavatory. He reached up and took a slightly bent packet from behind the cistern, opened it and took out a cigarette, then took a box of matches from the same place and lit the cigarette, sucking the smoke deeply into his lungs. Usually he stayed in the lavatory while he finished the cigarette. Not often, maybe once a month. That couldn’t hurt him, could it? Stands to reason. But this time he left the lavatory and returned to the kitchen. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, eh? he told himself.
He sat at the table luxuriating for a while, smoking and finishing his beer, then got up and started the washing up. Waiting for the water to run hot, he thought he heard noises from upstairs, but perhaps he was mistaken. He carried on, washing everything and then carefully wiping, too, and putting the plate and cutlery away.
As he was finishing he heard something on the stairs. He left the kitchen and went into the hall, switching on the light and watching in surprise as Margaret dragged a suitcase, a large one, down the stairs. She was fully dressed.
‘What’s going on?’ Charlie asked.
‘I can’t stand this. You’re just so cruel to me.’ She started sobbing.
‘But where are you going?’
‘I’m going to my mother.’
‘I’m leaving. I can’t stand your cruelty any more.’
He thought for a moment. It was ridiculous. ‘Want me to drive you?’
‘No. Get me a taxi.’
‘You sure, Margaret? You don’t want to go back to bed and make a decision in the morning, or anything?’
He could hardly stop himself laughing, but he knew that would only cause more trouble. ‘Well, okay, a taxi it is. Got some money?’
‘I don’t want any of yours, that’s for sure.’
‘Please yourself,’ he said.
When the taxi arrived he carried her case out and spoke to the driver, telling him the address. ‘How much, d’you reckon?’
The driver looked at his watch. ‘This time a night? A tenner’d
do it, I reckon.’ He looked at Margaret in the back seat through his mirror. ‘Had a bit of a how’s yer father?’
Charlie smiled. ‘You could say that. Should get a couple of days of peace out of it, anyway.’
‘Yeah,’ the driver said, and let out the clutch