Yep. That’s me. The guy sitting at the table on his own in the corner of the bustling bistro. Typing away on his phone while sporadically taking deep draws on his dwindling glass of the house plonk. It’s not the first.
There’s three sets of cutlery on the table, but the other two future diners are noticeably absent; the pull of games and a big screen TV blasting out cartoon movies in the kids room too much to ignore by the easily distracted mind of youth.
There’s four chairs here of course. Standard family configuration really, can’t expect them to have dedicated three person setups, they’re oblong tables after all. Pity though, how desperately I wish there were enough members in my family to fill the seats.
I watch the other diners, a voyuer in the shadows. One glass of wine sitting lonely on my table.
There’s the noisy multi family group who have pulled several tables together to form a long dominant centrepiece in the garishly lighted dining space. Children’s dinners, discarded with artistic abandon in favour of ipads and colouring books, are spread from end to end like a poorly planned modern art installation.
The mum’s gather at one end of the monolith like a coven, high pitched laughing as one, as they take turns loudly extolling little Johnny and Jenny to deaf ears while tipping back sauvignon blanc with abandon. All are dressed in an obvious but vainly desperate attempt to relive former glory days, of trim waists and perky chests, pre-children, pre-family life.
At the other end, as far from their partners as possible, the men crowd together, eyes downcast and staring into the void of half empty beers. Some are dressed up, some in high vis work clothes. Someone mentions the game on the weekend. Someone grunts. Someone nods slowly. No one smiles. The awkwardness is broken occasionally by a little person seeking admiration for their latest crayon masterpiece. Who’s up for another?
Clearly a dinner gathering organised by the mums who must be all friends.
My eyes roam across the room, reading the stories, taking in the snapshots of life brought together by the lure of cold beer, child supervision and food made by someone else.
The two ladies closest to me are truly enjoying their night. They take turns telling stories of their week. Eyes connected, listening intently. I can’t hear them, that would be borderline creepy, but I can tell by the easy going energy emanating from their space that they are enjoying the time together. I envy them yet I smile inwardly. Good on them. That’s what life is about.
Across the room is the obligatory table of young blokes. Drifted in with the parma and pot night tide, they are expectedly loud, half pissed and avoided by all barr the unlucky waitress unfortunate enough to land that section for her shift. Tales of conquest and raucous laughter mingle with drinking challenges and the friendly belittling of those that fail. Profanities abound, much to the chagrin of the Mum coven. I remember those days. The Ten foot tall and indestructible 20s. Sigh.
Several socially standard families fill in the spaces between. The 2.2 children picture perfect white picket fence crew. I subconsciously pay them no heed, unjustifiably irritated by their seeming perfection. Willing them to finish up and disappear in their range rovers back to their 2 story houses where a family game of monopoly awaits. Urgh…
The nearly empty glass once again finds itself on my lips, the dark liquid promising mild alteration, a false and temporary change from the monotony.
I hadn’t noticed him before amid the comparable din. The old man at the table to the right, facing away from me. Brown suit, combover, newspaper. One set of cutlery. Alone. I want someone else to return from the bar or restrooms. I want him to stand and greet his dining companion. He turns the page and reads on.
I am struck by a sense of foreboding, a deep fear that brings my old friend anxiety perilously close to the surface. Is that me? Not now obviously, but inevitably? Is he happy? I want to know but of course I can’t ask. I hope he is. I hope I am.
The whole scene threatens to overwhelm me; the lights, the noise the happy families, the lads, the cackling coven, the old man. Me.
The food arrives. The kids miraculously appear like hyenas sensing a fresh kill. The waitress brings me a fresh glass of red medicine. I smile and thank her, yes everything is fine. My attention is dragged back into reality with a request for soft drink. Denied of course, that’s a sometimes food. But eat all your dinner and I’ll think about dessert.
And we’re back. Normality. Family life. The usual.
The old man is gone.