27 January, 2008

Short and Sweet / Short story by Cecelia Ahern

Lucy leaned her head against the window and felt the vibrations as the DART pulled away from the station. Her head repeatedly bumped against the glass as the carriage trembled. Like her, it seemed tired and fed up as it rattled along the tracks, shuddering occasionally as if almost falling asleep and then suddenly jerking awake in fright. Lucy tried to keep her eyes open. She sank down into the uncomfortable seat and looked around the carriage.



She decided to keep her eyes closed.

The rhythmic rocking of the train comforted her and she felt herself drifting away. The train shuddered, Lucy's head jerked and her eyes flew open. They were stopping again. There was something about the train that she felt she connected with. It felt to her as if it too was tired of doing the same thing everyday; tired of going up and down the same route all day, only being permitted to stop and start, stop and start and never fully gather speed. The monotony of it all made Lucy yawn.

She understood how it felt being surrounded by crowds of people everyday, never physically being alone but all the time feeling it. She knew what it was like being used to get people from A to B, helping them get to where they want to go but never being able to join them.

Lucy watched as a couple stood up from their seats and walked hand in hand from the train. Once on the platform the man draped his arm over his partner's shoulder and kissed the top of her head. She responded by wrapping her arm around his waist, tucking her hand into the back pocket of his jeans and resting her head on his shoulder. They fit together perfectly. Like a jigsaw. They strolled toward the exit as if time didn't exist. Beside them on the platform stood a smartly dressed man with a beautiful bouquet of flowers in his hand. He was looking as his watch anxiously and studying the train timetable. Lucy imagined the woman he was meeting, waiting for him elsewhere, nervously looking at her watch wondering if he was going to show.

Go Lucy screamed in her head to the train. There was urgency in the voice in her head. She didn't want to see any more displays of love.

As though the train was in tune with her thoughts, the doors slid closed slowly and it started moving again. Still not yet in the city the train sped happily past golden fields, knowing that it didn't have to stop for at least a few more minutes. Lucy smiled as she looked at the view, at the greens, browns and golds all blurring together with the speed. Minutes later the reins were pulled from behind and the train screeched on the tracks, its cry of frustration at having to slow down.

Slow down, stop and start again.

The doors slid open slowly, tiredly and invited another couple inside. The man sat beside Lucy, the woman across from him. She seemed the same age as Lucy. She smiled at her partner, her eyes twinkled. He blew her a butterfly kiss and winked. Her face softened even more and she continued to watch him as if he was the most interesting thing in the world. Their knees touched in the centre of the booth, touching and smiling so much that Lucy had to close her eyes again.

Finally it was Lucy's stop, she jumped up before it began to slow down and pushed her way through the kissing knees and waited at the doors. The opened slowly for her. Thanks, see you again tomorrow, she whispered quietly to the train and stepped out into the cold afternoon. She buttoned up her coat to protect herself from the bite of the cold February wind, she felt the breeze slap her across the face, sting her ears and numb her nose. She shoved her hands deep into her pockets, kept her head down and made her way to work.

The day was February 14 th . Valentine's Day. Lucy worked as a waitress in a French cuisine restaurant in Dublin 's city centre. They were going to be incredibly busy that evening, and there had been the annual argument about who would work that night. Everybody wanted the night off to spend with their loved ones but they knew better than to ask Lucy. Of course she would work. Her position was the same every night but especially tonight, on a night that celebrated the joy of loving. Everyone knew that.

Lucy had never been in love before. She would be thirty-one next month and she had never been in love. She had never had that look the girl beside her on the train had painted all over her face, she had never had anyone blow her kisses or wait anxiously with a bouquet of flowers while worrying that being late would mean precious time being stolen away, like the man at the train station. She had never received a bouquet of flowers. She had never known what it was like to feel a kiss on the top of her head through her hair. She had never shared that look. Never shared that feeling. She had never looked into anyone's eyes and seen forever with them, never felt such a connection that made her want to be with them and only them for the rest of her life. She had never been with anyone who immediately made her start thinking of her future babies names. She didn't dream of fairytale wedding days with princess brides and handsome prince charmings.

But she knew about all these things. She knew they existed. She read about them in books and saw them on trains. She listened to friends and grew up with parents in love. And better yet she believed in love. But the older she got, with every passing year that failed to bring her a soul mate, she believed less and less that love was for everyone. Just for the lucky ones. And the longer she went without it, the more she saw it everyday until it smothered her, wrapping its arms around her, like great big bear hugs of loneliness.

She hurried down Grafton Street and ignored the men and women standing together but alone outside Bewley's Café, stamping their feet to stay warm and looking at their watches nervously. She pushed through the crowd gathered around the flower stall outside the Westbury Hotel and received mouthfuls of orchids, lilies and roses as people bumped into her in their rush to get home. She scurried by the entrance to Stephen's Green Shopping Centre hearing loud greetings, hugs and kisses as other halves arrived at the meeting place. Everywhere people looked at their watches. They all had somewhere to be.

People spilled out of card stores, with little paper bags in their hands. Big red love hearts hung in shop windows grabbing at the heart strings of passers-by and pulling them in as though they were puppets. Lucy's head and heart sunk, her heavy heart causing her feet to drag against the ground. She turned right into her restaurant along Stephen's Green. A Valentine's Day special menu was displayed outside the door. More big red bubbly hearts.

At 6.30pm the door opened as the evening's first customers arrived. Lucy greeted them at the desk with a smile bright enough to light the room.

"Hello and welcome," she smiled happily at them.

"Thank you. Table for two?" the man asked politely looking around the empty restaurant.

"Have you a reservation?" she smiled.

"Yes. McCullough for 6.30."

Lucy scanned through the list. "Of course, Mr. McCullough. May I take your coats?" She took their coats, led the couple to the table and handed them their menus. Always bringing people from A to B but never being able to join them.

The door opened and shut again and a man and woman stepped inside, their cheeks and noses rosy from the cold.

"Hello and welcome," Lucy said perkily.

"Thanks. A table for two please," the man said looking around the practically empty restaurant.

Lucy smiled through gritted teeth. "Have you a reservation?"

"Yes it's under O'Hanlon," he said peering over the desk onto her page. She scanned down through the list and ticked their names.

"May I take your coats?" She took their coats, led the couple to their table and handed them their menu. The same routine all day everyday.

The door opened and closed.

"Hello," Lucy smiled.

Stopping and starting, stopping and starting all over again. Never allowed to go at her own speed or take another route.

"Table for two please," the lady said and a lump formed in Lucy's throat. Her hand began to shake as her finger leafed through the reservations book. Table for two. The words taunted her.

"Have you a reservation?" she asked as happily as she could.

"The name's Cooper," she replied.

Lucy ticked their names. "May I take your coats?" she asked the pair. She took their coats, led them to their table and handed them their menus. The door opened and closed.

"Welcome," Lucy smiled at the young boy and girl before her. She guessed they were around sixteen.

"Thanks," the boy said shyly. There was a silence as they all just looked at each other. The girl nudged the boy in the ribs. "Ow," he yelped and then realised he was supposed to speak. "We were wondering if we could eat here."

The girl smirked.

"I mean, can we've a table?"

"For.?" Lucy couldn't say it. She couldn't say the words.

They looked at each other confused by the question. "Well.for us," he pointed at him and the girl.

Lucy smiled.

Then the girl added, "A table for two please." He looked at her proudly for saying that.

Lucy's smile faded. "What's the name?"

They looked at each other uncertainly again and he spoke, "Eh, Shane and Michelle."

Lucy smiled again. "Ok, Shane do you have a reservation?"

He looked shocked, "Ah, shit no. Did I need one?"

Michelle elbowed him in the ribs again and hissed, "I told ya to book it ya eejit."

"Hold on a minute," Lucy said studying the reservations. "I can give you a table but we have a reservation for 8pm . It's 6.45pm now which doesn't give you very much time," she explained.

Shane's eyes widened. "Sure it never takes me more than an hour to eat me dinner at home."

"Fair enough," Lucy grinned, "can I take your coats?"

Michelle looked at Shane uncertainly, "Eh yeah," Shane finally decided for the two of them and they peeled off their denim jackets. Lucy led them to their table in the centre of the dining room and handed them their menus.

She went around the tables lighting the candles. What was it about candles that were supposed to be romantic? Could a flickering flame add an atmosphere of love? Lucy wondered if a candle should be lit for a table for one, or if one person sat down at a table for two should she extinguish the flame. She of all people should know.

"Excuse me?" Shane called her as she passed.

"Yes sir," Lucy smiled.

"Sir," he looked at Michelle and laughed. She giggled too. He pointed at the menu, "What's a whores devvers?"

Lucy smiled, "Sir the hors-d'oeuvre on the menu is a selection of appetisers."

"Oh," Shane reddened. "Well we won't have that then, we'll both just have steak and chips." They both looked nervous.

"It's not on the menu though," Michelle added quickly.

"I'm sure that won't be a problem," Lucy said taking their menus. "How would you like your steak cooked?"

They looked at each other again. "Eh, fried?" Shane spoke up.

Lucy bit her lip. "Rare, medium or well done?"

"Oh," he reddened. "Well done."

"The same," Michelle said quietly.

Lucy never had anyone to learn things with like Shane and Michelle. Together they were going for a meal by themselves for what appeared to be the first time. They were learning about new foods, the different language used and how to speak up and ask for things themselves. Lucy had never shared moments like that with anyone. Everything she had learned was by herself. Of course she had been out on dates and had boyfriends but none of them were long-term and none of them helped her discover anything new about the world or about herself. Apart from the fact that they didn't love her and that she didn't love them.

She scanned the restaurant. There were ten tables for two so far with ages ranging from sixteen to sixty. All different kinds of love; new love, old love, stolen love, couples sitting in silence, others unable to keep their hands off each other, some in serious conversation, some laughing loudly. Lucy's eyes filled again and she scanned the reservations hoping for no more tables for two.

Clarke x 6.

Ha! Thank god, Lucy thought, the mist clearing from her eyes.

But when the six arrived she realised it was three sets of couples and there was nothing worse than a couple in love than three couples in love. The words table for two echoed and bounced around her lonely head as she overheard snippets of fights, tears, laughter and love from each table. Surrounded by crowds of people all night, not physically alone but all the time feeling it.

Standing at reception she heard the door open and close. Her heart dropped. She was tired, her eyelids were drooping and her feet and back were sore. How could the positive energy of so much love in the room drag her down so much?

"Welcome sir," her fellow colleague stepped in for her as she made herself busy by crossing out reservations and updating the sheet.

"Hello. A table for one please."

And there it was. The voice she had so desperately needed to hear. The voice of a stranger that would lift her out of her dark spell. Her head shot up, her eyes twinkling with happy tears. She was faced with a man aged what she would guess in his mid to late thirties.

He looked her way and gave her a small smile. He wore a long navy-blue cashmere coat, with a brown Burberry scarf wrapped around his neck. His hands looked cold as he rubbed them together and glanced around the restaurant. Lucy's heart danced with delight at the man's request. A young man. Ordinary looking. No rings on his fingers. A table for one! He had said it proudly, strongly, like there was nothing at all wrong with it. Lucy loved to hear it roll off his tongue. She wanted to hear it again. A table for one! Halleluia!

"I'm sorry sir, if you don't have a reservation I'm afraid we can't accommodate you," her colleague apologised.

"What?" Lucy snapped, her head turning to face her colleague. It was like the record she was dancing to in her head was abruptly scratched to a stop.

"Lucy," he hissed pulling her away from the desk and out of earshot of the gentleman. "What are you doing?"

"We have one table free," she defended herself. She pointed down the restaurant at it. There it was by the window with a beautiful view of the park.

"That's a table for two ," her colleague dismissed her, "we'll fill that by the end of the night." He took a step back toward the desk to the man.

"We'll fill it now ," Lucy said far louder and sharper than she had intended.

"Excuse me one moment sir." Her colleague spun around on his heel with a face like thunder, "What are you doing? " he hissed. "Are you mad? We'll make more money with a table for two."

More money. Lucy's eyes filled with tears, "No," her voice shook quietly. No she couldn't let this happen. She couldn't let being alone, lose out to being in love. While she was lost in thought she heard the door open, she looked up and saw a couple approaching them.

"A table for two please," the man smiled.

"Do you have a reservation?" her colleague asked.

"No we don't," they smiled stupidly at one another, "This was all very last minute." They gazed into each other's eyes, their fingers entwined.

"Certainly, allow me to take your coats," he held out his hands and said very softly to the lone man still waiting at the desk. "I'm very sorry sir, we are fully booked."

Tears spilled over the brim of Lucy's eyes, she felt the warm salty water run down her cheeks and drip from her chin. No one noticed her. No one ever did. She just rattled along, shuddering occasionally through life, doing the same routine, helping people, bringing them from A to B but never joining them, stopping and starting, starting and stopping. Never being allowed to go her own pace or change route.

Well not this time. She dried her eyes.

"Excuse me sir?" she called out loudly to the man pulling the door open.

He stopped and turned.

"There seems to be a mistake," she said politely to the couple before her. "This man was here before you and he will be seated at our last table. I'm very sorry for the inconvenience but my colleague was confused." She smiled sympathetically at them.

Her colleague's jaw dropped and was faced with the awkward situation of apologising to the couple.

"Allow me to take your coat sir," Lucy said, eyes shining as she held her hand out to take the lone gentleman's coat.

He took her hand in his, it was warm. "Thank you," he said softly.

Lucy blushed. "You're welcome," she whispered back.

She took his coat, led him to his table, handed him the menu and lit the candle in the centre of the table.

That night on the 14 th of February, the day she always hated, thirty-year-old Lucy fell in love for the first time, with the man at the table for one.

It quickly became a table for two.