Estobar Gamine had more on his plate today than he’d had in a long time.
He’d taken great pains to enrich his profile on the ‘Me’n’You’ site the best way he could, i.e. he’d uploaded a photograph of his cousin who was infinitely better looking but in the right light still possessed enough genetic similarities for it not to be wholly dishonest, and for the past week and a half he’d been electronically chatting to a girl called Clemency.
In fact Clemency had been the one who’d proposed they meet up in the first place, and Estobar could still feel the clench in his stomach as he’d read the suggestion two, three, four more times as it teased him from his screen at the back of the café. And then he’d panicked. He’d even pushed his chair back from the desk as if the words might shoot out poisonous barbs, and let the castors roll him to the bookcase behind where he’d juddered to a full stop. If he was far enough away, it might make the whole thing less menacing – less real. Could he meet this girl? Could he meet any girl? He’d taken his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose, then edged himself slowly by the balls of his bare feet back to the plastic desk and his laptop. He’d practised deep and shallow breathing and felt sweat bead on his top lip. He’d rubbed the palms of his hands on his shorts, brushed the hair back from his face and cleared his throat before tapping out a response to her query.
Cool. Let’s do that. He’d typed back.
Cool. He’d never used that word in real life – in his entire life as far as he could remember; only ever used it as a proper word: “It’s cool out today/This coffee has gone cool”, and was immediately worried he’d have to start using it in everyday conversations now. Now he’d typed it. To her. To Clemency. To the girl he was going to meet. In three days’ time.
She’d suggested the café. If he’d had his way then it would’ve been anywhere but here. Here he was owner, manager, part-time waiter and cook (if Donal or Hattie were off) and now – he was already calculating – he’d have to ask one of them to step in and cover whatever role he might be playing on the day that he met Clemency.
Clemency. Even her name made something hard and immovable stick in his throat and he’d been practising to try and remove it. He tried repeating the word cool over and over to see if it might, by some form of osmosis, have the effect of becoming a more familiar word to use within his everyday conversation. He’d seen Donal and Hattie’s eyes narrow suspiciously at the word every time he’d used it but now, three days later, he thought they might finally be getting used to it. Although he wasn’t.
Donal saw her first. He nudged Estobar as they stood beside the coffee machine rubbing the mugs dry.
‘Pretty girl, far right corner,’ he said.
Estobar looked up. A girl with hair the colour of wheat and blue/green eyes (age: 24, height: 5’6”) hidden behind large, dark-rimmed glasses was sliding herself into the seat of the table by the back window – the shadiest part of the café – where he’d let the curtain stay half-closed to keep the morning heat out. He swallowed. Clemency. This was it. This was his time to shine; his time to spread his wings and proclaim to the world that he was just as normal and regular as the rest of the population would have everyone believe.
‘What’s the plan, big fella? D’you want me to go over and take her order or what? Donal asked.
Estobar swallowed again. He’d forgotten where on his list of steps this part was. He couldn’t remember what he’d decided he was going to do at this stage. Was he to go over and introduce himself? Was he to send someone else over so that he could refresh his deodorant and calm his batting heart? His limbs had frozen. His tongue had stuck to the roof of his mouth and his vocal chords had tied themselves up. A sharp hiss of an egg freshly-cracked into a hot frying pan in the kitchen reminded him there was a full complement of staff in today and he was free – very free – to perform the duties of possible suitor to this (very pretty) girl with golden hair in the corner of his café.
‘Too late, man. Can’t leave the poor girl waiting,’ Estobar heard as he watched Donal sweep over to Clemency’s table with his pad and pencil. He watched as Donal’s body slackened to one side, his head almost touching his shoulder as he nodded, scribbled something and tore a sheet off. With a little half-bow, he wandered back, stopping briefly to check with a couple on another table that they were happy with their orders – which they appeared to be.
‘Wants a full English, my man,’ Donal raised his hand to slightly higher than waist: the covert-high-five height and Estobar found strength enough to slap it back. ‘She’s a keeper,’ Donal grinned, heading away to the kitchen. He stopped and turned back to Estobar. ‘Go on, man. Go now –we’ve got it covered.’
Estobar swallowed with every step he took towards Clemency’s table; in fact the motion of swallowing nothing seemed to have the effect of propelling his feet further forward and so by the time he reached the far table and felt a pair of blue/green eyes look up at him, he found he’d swallowed every word he’d been practising for the past three days, so all that came out was a faltering, brittle cough.
Clemency raised her glasses from her freckled nose, slid them up and onto the top of her hair. She smiled and Estobar was transported to a meadow of thigh-high wheat on an endless seventies summer afternoon. She looked just like her profile picture; he hadn’t been prepared for that (he’d heard the stories). He cleared his throat and tried:
‘Oh,’ she beamed back. ‘It’s alright, I’ve already seen one.’
She slid her glasses back down over her nose and sat neatly in her chair, her hands on her lap, perusing the tables around her with keenness.
And so Estobar did what he always did when a customer had already ordered. He smiled, nodded politely and did a little bow before turning and heading back to his counter, and safety.