The Salt Box Café
Sunday June 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
The shops either side of the Salt Box were dark. In one, a little pale light gave out from a back-room, dim and vague across the surfaces. Three cars sat empty in the car park. In a fourth, only a pale silhouette on the driver’s side, waiting. From their table Cathy was able to watch her father’s van as it approached, the high roof emerging over the top of the traffic and into the car park like a shark prowling into shallow waters, the headlights searching the edges of the drooping, dark trees along the embankment, illuminating, briefly, the dark, angular recesses of the precinct.
George snapped shut the ignition. A string of extinguished Christmas lamps flapped against the awning of an adjacent shop. In a doorway further along, two figures shared a light in the shadows. He pauses, beached momentarily on the frosted curb. He sees through the densely reflecting glass that Hilly and the girl are sitting up by the counter, practically alone. Somehow it seems like them. How like them, he says to himself, feeling that pressure gather again in his throat. How like Hilly, any road. Connie, he nearly says.
Stepping inside, he orders a tea and walks over to them, surprised how gloomy it is in here. Somewhere a radio plays Christmas songs, but the volume is turned down low. Sitting down beside the girl, Cathy, he sees she has a milkshake. Hilly has nothing, only a cigarette that she is leaving to burn along the rim of the foil ashtray. How much he would like to say nothing, to slip inside the languorous delay of the occasion.
The girl drops his tea beside him. She is not like Cathy. As she walks away, she is nothing like the girl, and why is he surprised. Hilly is saying something about their day, and he finds himself listening.
– I need to tell you both something, he says finally.
– Ok, George. We’re both sitting right here.
He feels foolish. He has lit a cigarette of his own. His lips are burnt from the tea.
– Its Connie, he says. There’s been an accident.
Cathy has finished her milkshake. She’s sixteen now. He looks over again at the waitress, busy closing up her till. So young still, compared to his Cathy and her probably older. Probably. You never can tell, not for sure.
– They’ve taken her to the King’s.
– Aye. They’ve taken Connie to the hospital.
Hilly takes a long drag of her cigarette, breathing her smoke up into the ceiling.
– Does Ian know?
– He was the one what called the ambulance.
– She fell.
– She fell, says George. Aye, she fell.
– Pissed, was it? says Hilly.
And Connie his own sister.
When Cathy was younger, maybe only ten or eleven, Connie had brought some of her old clothes to the house for the girls. George remembers this now, looking at Cathy looking at him, and he wonders if she remembers this too. In his mind’s eye, he sees Cathy standing on the hearth rug in Connie’s old fur coat and slippers.
– I don’t know. Does it matter?
Hilly dashes her cigarette out in the tray.
– She brings these things on herself, George.
– She might die.
It is daughter’s reaction he looks for, but he finds none.
– Don’t be so dramatic George.
– They reckon she’s fractured her skull. There’s bleeding on the brain. I don’t know. She might not make it.
– I’m very sorry, says the waitress. She has walked over to their table, and is leaning over the seat next to Hilly. We’re closing now.
He realises he is still wearing his work clothes. His hands are still dirty, and he suddenly feels old, and threatening in front of this young girl, who is not like his Cathy, more like the girls that the young lads at the factory knock around with.
-I’m sorry love, we’ll just be a minute, he says.
On the pavement outside Cathy goes ahead to the van, while he and Hilly talk.
– I am not having her going up there, she is saying, and he is agreeing, ok, he says, and she says ok, and walks over to the van, waiting for him to go inside, reach across and unlock the door for her.
The waitress passes them, says goodnight, and walks over to the waiting car, which sparks its headlights and pulls away before he can even tell Hilly that its open.