Sass (Part 2)
She thought of those afternoons, early on, when he'd meet her from work. And then they'd go back to her bedsit and go to bed. And despite his muscles and tattoos, and his rugged attitude, he was actually very gentle with her. He took his time, too. He brought her with him, rather than just doing his own thing. And it made her feel so special - something no one else had made her feel before. She felt cared for and cherished. She felt... yes, loved. And then afterwards, they'd lie there, sharing a spliff, and they'd talk. That was something else that hadn't happened before. Todd liked talking. He was full of it. He spoke about 'we' instead of 'I'. We could do this. We could do that. All the things they could do. They could do anything. As long as they were together. She'd heard similar things before. But with him, she really believed it. It was exciting. Anything did seem possible. That must be love, she'd thought.
He'd talk about all sorts of things. Running off together. Travelling around the world, perhaps - doing odd jobs to pay their way. Todd said he'd heard about people doing it. Fruit-picking. Bar work. Sofa-surfing, or sleeping out under the stars, or in the back of some old car they'd bought. Spending some time, then moving on. Always moving on. Never stopping too long.
"I mean," he'd said, one afternoon, lying beside her afterwards - him blowing smoke rings at the ceiling, her stroking him, and tracing the swirls of his rose tattoo with her finger. "I mean... you don't want to be stuck in that stinking café all your life, do you?"
She'd stopped her finger at the end of a tendril, where it became a tiny green bud, and looked at him - staring up into nothing as he was. She pressed her fingernail into the bud, but he didn't shift his gaze.
"No. But it's alright for now. It's money coming in, and I need that."
He sniffed. Then he passed her the joint and she took a hit.
"Anyway... I wouldn't call it a stinking café. It's the cleanest one I've worked in. And I thought you always liked the smell."
He sniffed again, but said nothing. It stung, as it was meant to.
"It's a job, Todd. I have rent to pay. I need it."
He'd looked at her then, finally. He'd put his hand across and cupped it around the curve of her waist.
"Sorry, babe," he said. "You know what I mean, though. You want to do something with your life. You only get one."
She took another swig and turned her head. The couple were leaving - walking slowly off along the beach, away from her, towards the shellfish stall on the prom. He was walking at a slightly higher level than she was, where the sand had been carved into a wall by the tide. He reached down a hand and she took it, and he pulled her up to his side. Then they continued on, hand in hand. The image struck Sass. She pulled out her phone quick and snapped the picture. As she did so, the man turned and kissed the woman on her head - and that's the picture she caught. She looked at it. Such a sweet one! She wondered how long they'd been together. They were older than her parents had been before they'd split, but not as old as her gran. Somewhere between. And still holding hands. Still kissing. Still in love. Real love, she supposed. The kind her gran had told her about.
It's like a rose bush, girl. Once you've planted it, you can't just leave it and expect it grow all by itself. It needs tending. You have to feed and water it. You have to shape and train it the way you want it to go. It's hard work... but anything worthwhile always is. And sometimes it just goes its own way anyway, and nothing you can do will pull it back.
Yes, that's what you have to do. But the soil has to be right first of all. And it needs to be in the right place. Look at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, she thought. She remembered, as a kid, watching him - a grown man in his mid-forties - dancing around on Oprah's sofa for all the world to see, stupid with love. And look what had happened to that. Even for these perfect people. And yet... here were these two on the beach, holding hands and kissing. Clearly showing that it was still there. And maybe that was what the look on the man's face meant - as if he'd seen something in her. See... this is what it's all about. This is what love really is. And it's worth the wait.
She walked back up the beach to the wall again and pulled herself up onto it, brushing the sand from her feet. She was over half-way down her can, but she was still only feeling a light effect - like she sometimes felt after taking an aspirin. Just a gentle muzziness. The day had been hot and sweaty, and she'd only had a coffee since breakfast. There hadn't been time for anything else.
She looked along towards where the café was. She could see people going in. She thought again about what Todd had said that afternoon... which had been one of their last together, before it started to fall apart. Was he really being dismissive, as she'd thought? Did he really think that she was made for better things?
Or was it his funny way of saying, as he did with other things, that maybe it was all she was good for? That it was all she was ever going to do? Was it his way of saying something else? And if so, who was he to speak, anyway? What did he do?
"What about you?" she'd said. "Are you planning on getting an income anytime soon?"
And she'd no sooner said it than she realised something deep inside her. The thought made her sadder than she'd ever felt possible while she was with him. He'd pulled his arm out from her waist then and put it behind his head - still staring at the ceiling through the smoke.
"You don't need to worry about me," he'd said. "I can take care of myself."
It was the thought made real in her head. It was no longer we and us, really. It was me and myself. I.
She tipped back her head and swallowed the last of the beer. She squeezed the sides of the empty can inwards and crushed the ends together - just as Todd always used to do. Except he always used one hand for the whole operation. She looked back along the prom, past the shellfish stall, but the couple she'd seen earlier had gone - vanished amongst the people bustling along. A woman pushing a baby-buggy, a small dog trotting alongside. An elderly man in a summer hat, riding his electric scooter. Other couples - mainly young, some with kids, some holding hands, some not.
A young guy there, too, sitting as she was, looking out to sea with a can beside him - shirt off, shoulders exposed to the afternoon sun.
As she looked, he turned his head and stole a glance in her direction. Distant as he was, she could see him raise his eyebrows - see a smile touch the corners of his mouth. He looked fit. Good physique, neat haircut, nice toning. He picked up his can to take a drink - but something in the way he did it caught her eye. A small pause, it seemed. A gesture - like he was holding it up to her. Cheers! it seemed to say.
She smiled at that. Not to him, though. To herself. Picking up her crushed can, she aimed it at the mouth of a nearby litter bin. Two small swings - and then it went, arcing across the footpath, dead centre. Slam-dunk. Just as Todd would have done it, too. Except he'd have missed. Every time.
Her phone beeped. Another text from Angeline.
U deffo comin, girl?
She smiled again. This time for the world to see.
Try and stop me!!
She slipped her shoes back on and got up. The young guy, she noticed, had just been joined by his girl. She was leaning down over his head, giving him an upside-down kiss. Quickly, she aimed her phone and snapped that one, too.
Then, turning her back to the prom, she set off, along past the café.
Along the road she knew she needed to take.