The bell rang out across the noisy room. Frank stood and said a short, awkward, farewell before moving to the next table and his next date.
“Hello, Frank. Wow! You’re looking good!” said the brunette waiting at table twelve.
Frank stared at her for a moment, paused in the act of sitting down, before recognition hit. “Alice? Wow, you look fantastic. I almost didn’t recognise you with long hair. It looks good, really suits you.”
“Thanks!” Alice blushed and smiled at the compliment. Frank made himself comfortable in his seat.
“How long has it been?” Frank asked.
“Two and half years since Abu Dhabi,” she replied.
“Yeah, the hotel refurbishment job. Damn, it was hot out there.”
“In more ways then one,” Alice said with a lascivious smile.
Frank grinned as he remembered the hot, dusty working days and hot, lusty nights they had spent together in that foreign land. “Still with the same firm of architects then?” he asked before the conversation got too heated.
“No. I struck out on my own. I’ve got a small company, we do mostly historical restoration work, that kind of thing.”
“Not looking for a good plumber by any chance, are you?” Frank smiled to make it a joke but Alice could see the edginess to it.
“I always appreciate a man who is good with his hands, you know that.” Alice said with a flirtatious glint in her eyes. “Seriously though, are you doing okay? Obviously, you and Leslie aren’t together any more.”
“Leslie,” his voice caught, the change in his face was instant, the sorrow. “She’s dead,” he blurted. “A car crash. Not long after I got back from Abu Dhabi. Well, you know, we were in a rough patch before that. I thought the time apart would help but, obviously, it didn’t. We’d rowed, she’d stormed off. I thought she’d gone to her parents’ place to cool down but, in the morning, the police came just as I was getting Melanie ready for nursery. Someone ran her off the road. They never got to the bottom of it.”
Alice reached out across the table and took Frank’s hand in her own. “I’m so sorry, Frank. That must have been terrible. And the kids, are they okay, Melanie and…” Alice paused, unable to recall the youngest child’s name.
“Little Francis? Yeah, they’re good. They’re living with their grandparents, Leslie’s side. The thing with this job, you’ve got to work when you can, and that doesn’t mix with being full-time parent. But I can see them whenever I want, so that’s good.”
“Well that’s probably for the best. And you’re moving on, that’s good too.”
Frank sighed and looked around the room, at all the other animated couples chatting at their tables. “Yeah, I’m not so sure,” he said. “Before I got to your table, I was pretty much ready to make a bolt for the door.”
Alice flicked her hair and laughed, but she didn’t let go of Frank’s hand. “I know what you mean, there are some desperate people in here tonight.”
“What about you, Alice, are you one of these desperate people?”
“Ha! You know it! Thirty something, single, the ticking of my biological clock is almost deafening. Quick, run now, while you’ve still got the chance!”
Frank laughed, the sadness lifted from his face a little.
“There was a guy,” Alice continued more soberly, “he was very special, but I wasn’t the one he wanted so now I’m trying something new.”
Frank smiled at her. “He must’ve been mad to let you go. It’s his loss.”
“It could be your gain,” she said, hardly daring to meet his eyes but she could see the sadness was creeping back into them again.
“I’m not ready, Alice. I’m sorry, I thought I was, I really did, but I’m not. Coming here, this speed dating thing, this was a mistake.”
“It was really good to see you again though, Alice.”
Frank took his hand from hers and started to stand. The smile on Alice’s face cracked. “How long do I have to wait for you, Frank?” she hissed.
“Another year? Another two? Christ! She’s dead and she’s still got her hooks into you.”
Frank sat down again, slowly, his face drained as he searched Alice’s face and saw real anger, seething anger, there.
“What are you talking about, Alice?”
“I begged you to stay with me in Abu Dhabi.”
“Alice, I was married, I had to try and make it work, for the kids.”
“Even with that bitch dead, you never came to me. You spent all the time just moping around.”
“Alice…” Frank said her name slowly and watched her as if she were some dangerous, wild animal.
“I stayed away. Waiting and waiting until you were ready. After everything I’ve done for you, why aren’t you ready?”
“Alice, you didn’t have anything to do with — ”
“She didn’t love you,” Alice cut in, “Not like I loved you, not like I can love you.”
Around the room, conversations were stopping, people were looking their way.
Alice grabbed Frank’s hand again, held it tight with both hers and looked desperately into his eyes, but Frank only stared back at her, silent and expressionless.
“Please,” she said, breathing heavily and inarticulate now in the wake of her fury. A fat tear broke from her lower lashes and ran down her cheek. Frank rose silently to his feet. “Please,” Alice said again as he slowly but firmly pulled his hand from hers, turned away and walked towards the door.
The bell rang out across the silent room, silent except for the sobbing from the woman at table twelve.
I. Verse was born the year that man first walked on the moon and always wanted to be an astronaut. He makes up for the immense feeling of disappointment by being an engineer and writing short stories instead.