Do as You Would Be Done To

by Paul Dance

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It isn’t cold today although it’s the middle of winter but Catherine – with a C please – is dressed in thick windcheater and blue scarf tucked under her red woollen hat. There is a tension in her walk as she enters the bar, carrying her candy-striped shopping bag and her speech is deliberate, strained.
“What is the soup of the day please?”
“Tomato, vegetable or minestrone,” replies Mark, the barman from New Zealand.
“Tomato please.”
“Granary bread or white?”
“White please.”
“Would you like a drink with…?”
“Diet Coke please in a glass please, no ice.”
“I guess that covers it all,” thinks Mark
She takes the drink, sips it, “I’ll pay you please.”
“OK that’s £3.25, thanks.”
“There you are,” passing him the exact money.

  She sits at the table nearest the bar and puts down her glass, somehow without a sound. Mark brings her a spoon and a knife wrapped in a creased paper serviette. She immediately pulls out the cutlery and passes it back across the bar to him “Could I have another set please, these are smudgy, not quite clean, they come out of the dishwasher like that, ours do at home too.” And now he feels inadequate, dismissed, even though he doesn’t do the washing up.
  “Ours,” he thinks, she said “Ours do too,” I’d figured her for a loner. But he wants to know who is behind the ‘ours’ – husband, brother, mother? He looks across the bar and sees her right leg crossed over her left, the foot tucked behind the left ankle and the whole lot twitching frantically up and down. He darts to the kitchen to hurry up the soup and nearly bumps into the waitress taking Catherine her meal, gets a “thank you,” and returns to the kitchen.
  Catherine carefully dips one-eighth of an inch of a corner of bread into the soup and nibbles it, looking into space, as if running a litmus test across her tongue. She finishes her soup and Diet Coke, puts the spoon and knife neatly on the plate and walks out of the pub and Mark’s life. He breathes more easily and contrives a laugh with two regulars to reassure himself.

  Catherine looks in both directions then turns left on the same side of the road. She walks two sides of the block before crossing to the road she has lived in for the last thirty-four years. Her steps are slower now and, though she would not realise it, her shoulders droop as she nears her home. By the time she reaches her front gate her bag is across her stomach, clutched by both hands. She opens the door as quietly as she can manage but it’s never quiet enough and the yell from upstairs makes her stiffen, again. “Where the hell ‘ave you been ‘til this time?”
  “Sorry,” she replies, unheard.
  “I’ve been lying ‘ere bloody hours, get my tea and bring it up ‘ere fast as you can, I’m starving.”
  She blocks out the rest of the anger and shuffles off to the kitchen, shedding her coat and hat on the way. She opens the microwave door and puts in tonight’s shepherd’s pie. She sets the timer and lays the tray as usual but tonight a four inch paring knife also goes into her pocket. Someone was giving the knives away as a promotion in Debenham’s at the weekend, the announcement made it sound like an unmissable opportunity so she had queued and taken one of the knives and the leaflet that was with it. Surgical stainless steel it said. She did not know how this was different from non-surgical stainless steel or why she had wanted it, but tonight she knew.

Paul Dance has written short stories and poetry for years - even since before he did his English degree aged 47. He lives in Cambridge and loves it. He looks forward to giving up his job to write.

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