Laura’s husband, Fred, is late. It’s an annoying, habitual condition.
She’s waiting at a table for two in the cafe, nibbling on tasteless crackers and cheese, when her right eye starts watering. She holds a sodden napkin over it.
“Can I help you?” a man asks.
She lifts her head, drinks in the handsome man, a pair of glasses resting on his attractively crooked nose. He wears a trench coat and hat, holds a leather briefcase. The clothing and posture is formal, the voice and accent, oddly familiar.
She wants to jump up, shout, “Hey, I recognize you!”
The particle in her eye unbearable, she moans.
He slides his briefcase under the table. Producing a white handkerchief, he asks her not to blink.
Instant relief—the moment a reenactment of that melting scene in Brief Encounter.
How has Alec, the protagonist, manifested himself? It cannot be. That movie’s seventy years old.
“May I?” he asks, setting her senses aflutter.
She nods. “Of course.”
The evening throng packs the cafe.
A waitress comes by with a flask of coffee, asks in a snide manner, “Still waiting?”
“We’re ready,” Laura says.
“Coffee, or something carbonated?” she asks Alec.
“Coffee sounds wonderful,” he says.
He dangles the hat on his chair’s back, sets the coat on his lap.
The blister on his palm could use a band-aid and a loose fingernail hangs off his thumb. She shifts her focus to his face.
“Thank you,” Laura points to her eye. “That felt as big as a bead.”
“Most welcome. Many thanks for sharing your table.”
“I’m Laura, by the way.” Like your heroine.
“Very nice to meet you, Laura!” He shuffles his chair closer, kisses the back of her hand. Charming.
In the movie, Alec moves to Africa. How did movie Laura ever let him go?
Her cell phone dings with a message. It’s Fred. She flips her phone over.
“Live close by?” Alec asks. He stirs four cubes of sugar into his coffee.
“No, we have the standard house in the suburbs. I took the bus in.”
She doesn’t say she’s waiting for Fred. No reason to when Alec is looking at her, his knee brushing hers.
He slurps. She forgives the sound.
“Springdale,” he says after a bit.
Her eyes go round. “Oh, nice!”
His mouth full of crackers, he nods.
He finishes his coffee, looks at the wall clock shaped like a cat. “Time to go,” he says.
“Wait! I’m leaving too.”
“No, don’t leave on my account. Stay, finish your coffee.” He presses a firm hand on her shoulder. His fingers smell like chemicals.
“See you sometime?”
He pauses. “Sure.”
She stares after him as he meanders his way out, the hat perfect, the coat stylish, the stride slow. The door swings behind him.
She pours coffee, takes a sip. Hugging herself, she rubs her upper arms. Another sip and she clatters her cup onto the saucer. Where’s the briefcase? He came in with it.
He leaves it under the table. He tells her to stay.
Oh no, no! “Noooo,” she screams.
She picks up the briefcase, jostles her way through the crowded cafe shouting, “Out of the way. I need to get out.”
Outside, she yells at the top of her voice, “Stand back, everyone. Stay back,” then flings the briefcase to a grassy area across the road.
She shivers. Alec, prove me wrong.
In moments there’s a heart-stopping, deafening explosion.
She doubles over on the sidewalk. Someone lifts and shakes her, shouting, “Stupid, stupid, stupid, woman. You know never to handle anything suspicious.”
Fred’s never felt dearer.
Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction appears in Necessary Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, New World Writing and New Flash Fiction Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com