When people see my briefcase and suit they often think my job is glamourous. It isn’t. My job is to sell knives, travelling door to door, city to city, all year round and as I make my way around the country I’ve learnt to savour every little pleasure I can. From my car’s hot air, that brushes my face on winter mornings, to the many hours of driving happily wasted on day-dreams and fantasies. But the thing I most enjoy about travelling is the food. Every day there’s a new restaurant and every day a totally new meal. I’ve had a thousand different margarita pizzas on the road, cooked by a thousand different chefs, but you know what? None of them have been the same. They’ve been similar, but always unique. Some have more cheese, some more tomato, one place had no cheese or tomato at all. I wasn’t angry though, I enjoy surprises.
Out of the thousands of restaurants I’ve visited, my favourite of all is The Mansion, a snug little bistro tucked down an alley in Hammersmith. It’s two streets away from my least favourite hotel and two hundred miles away from home.
You see, the thing I like about The Mansion, isn’t Eduardo – the cheery Portuguese waiter – or even the sirloin steak which is always cooked to perfection. It’s the ambience. Even when its busy, The Mansion feels at peace, the walls suck away all the anger and stress. As if the simple act of stepping into the restaurant calms the customers and soothes their worries away.
A few months back I was visiting London for a knife convention. Yes, they exist! You turn up, get your name badge, then you talk knives all day. Well on its second day the convention ended early, so immediately I rushed to The Mansion, desperate to soak up its atmosphere. When I arrived, it was almost empty and Eduardo led me to my favourite seat. “For you, sir” he said, holding out a menu, but I waved it away. “You know what I want, Eduardo! And stop calling me, sir! How many times…” He interjected with a sly smile before shaking his hips off to the kitchen.
My seat always gives me a perfect view of the restaurant and that day I surveyed it, ensuring the clientele were to my liking. Since it’s my favourite restaurant, a part of me is invested in it, and ensuring the other customers are good enough to eat there is always of great importance to me. That day the clientele was perfect, all enjoying their meals peacefully.
Easing into my chair, I felt the warm air against my face as the song of clinking glasses and murmuring voices filled the air. I closed my eyes and let myself slip into a comfortable reverie, the melody of the room acting as a cushion to lay my mind on. But moments later the atmosphere was broken as the loud clack of boots echoed into the room. I opened my eyes to see – standing in the entrance – a young couple, who looked like they were still a few more mistakes away from truly becoming adults. They were both suitably dressed, the man in a casual suit without a tie and the woman in a green summer dress that made her seem younger than she was. I decided automatically that they were nice enough people for my restaurant and my instincts were enforced when they politely smiled at Eduardo and asked for a table. He led them to the far corner, directly across the room from me.
Now it’s worth mentioning that The Mansion is not a large restaurant – as I’ve previously stated it’s snug. The establishment is situated in an old, restored wine cellar, the aging bricks painted white. The ceiling is low overhead and the tables are close together – so when I say the couple were sat in the far corner – I only mean as far away from me as possible. But really, they were so close I could just hear their conversation with Eduardo.
After they were seated Eduardo handed them both a menu and left them to mull over their decision. The little waiter’s footsteps melted into the back of the restaurant as I closed my eyes again, listening to the room as sounds reverberated off the walls. I allowed my ears to scan the space, to hear every tiny noise in the small cellar. The light scrape of a knife slicing into a melon, the small crunch of bread being bitten into. All the sounds flowed into me and intoxicated me, taking me away with them. But just as I was about to hit the pinnacle of relaxtion I heard something. My ear twitched as I tried to block out the sound, but no matter how hard I tried it wouldn’t leave. It was the most uncomfortable sound of all. The sound of awkward silence. My ears – accostomed to the sounds of the cellar after many years of eating in the same seat – knew exactly where it was coming from. The corner, where the young couple now sat, looking at their menus and not at each other.
If the sounds of silence are magical, the sound of awkward silence is dark magic. It penetrates the ear like nails on a chalk board and makes me shudder with derision whenever I hear it. The worst sound in the world is that deafening silence. I snapped my teeth together. Shot daggers over at the couple. Prayed they would say something to each other. Anything! But they just continued to look at their menus, ignoring each other’s presence.
Quickly I brought my hand to the wall behind me and knocked three times. Once slowly, twice quickly.
In an instant Eduardo was striding into the room. To anyone else he would have looked laid back, but I could see he was rushing. He spoke quickly, worried “is everything alright, sir?!” I shot a glance over to the couple “they’re annoying me.” His eyes followed mine and he shrugged “they seem fine to me.” “But they’re making lots of noise! Can’t you do anything about it?” He shrugged, trying his best to sound apologetic, although his accent filled his words with insincerity “I’m sorry, sir, but they aren’t making any noise.” A sigh escaped from my mouth and I waved Eduardo back to the kitchen impatiently.
Staring over at the silent couple, I could feel their tension. The uncomfortable hush pierced my head like a thousand needles. I tried to block it out. Tried to hum. Tried to listen to everything else in the room. The boomy bass from the kitchen. The slight hum of traffic from the front door. I even tried concentrating on the sound of my own breath. But it was no use. All I could hear was that sodding awkward silence. Then the idea came to me.
Eduardo appeared again, this time with less urgency. “Yes, sir?” I pointed at the couple, a sly grin on my face. “Eduardo, my dear. I want you to go over to that couple and tell them that they can have whatever they want to eat, for free, as long as they don’t stop talking until their meal comes.” The small waiter raised his eyebrow. “And are you willing to pay for this meal?” “Yes, yes, whatever they get I’ll pay for it. But you mustn’t let them know it’s down to me, I don’t want them spoiling my lunch with their curious looks.” “Certainly, sir” recited Eduardo before spinning on his heel and making his way over to the couple.
I closed my eyes and focused on the corner. Listening as Eduardo explained the very special offer for the day. The couple seemed sceptical, but I listened as the man convinced his girlfriend that they could have anything they liked, spend as much as they wanted, maybe even have some champagne! With great reluctance the woman agreed and as I heard the small shuffle of Eduardo leaving the couple I started to let their new discussion float over me. They searched through the menu together, considering what they might get with their new found wealth, their voices chattering back and forth like a tennis match. As their jabbering continued I let it slip into the other noises of the restaurant, let all the sounds slide into the back of my mind as I meditated in the atmosphere I had created. Time lost all meaning along with my thoughts. I did not sleep, but I also was not awake, no longer conscious of the room.
Minutes later the loud scraping of a chair exploded into my ear-lobe and the sounds of the room flooded back to me. The awkward silence was there again and as I opened my eyes I could see Eduardo walking by with a few menus, he whispered in my direction “no way they’ll talk, sir.” “Oh? And what did they order?” “Champagne, lobster, expensive things.” I grinned, they had to talk, there was too much money on the line.
I waited. Watched them awkwardly looking everywhere but at each other. The woman restlessly straightened her fork and the man folded his arms in front of his body. Eventually giving up on the fork, the woman looked at her boyfriend “we need to talk” she said. He sighed. “I know, otherwise we’ll have to pay for that champagne.” She shook her head, “No. I mean. We need to talk.” He sighed louder, nodding, but the conversation ended immediately, awkward silence fighting back to take a foothold.
They studied the air as if waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever happens when you wait for it. I waited along with them until she spoke again, looked at him – “so…how was work today?” He didn’t look back, “you’ve already asked me that.” “Well how was it, anyway?” He bit back sarcastically “oh it was great, you know how much I just love that job.” It shut her up immediately, another cul-de-sac in their conversation, she moved onto straightening her knife – then stopped, looked directly at him and said “I’m sorry.”
For the first time he met her gaze, “oh?” he said “What for?” But even across the room I could hear his tone letting him down. He knew exactly why she was sorry – and from the look in her eyes I could tell she knew it too, but she took the bait anyway and said so softly I could barely hear it “you know what for.”
Instinctively I moved forward in my seat, no longer caring about the atmosphere of the room. I focused my ears to pick out her voice, hearing it tremble slightly as she said the words, “I didn’t think you’d mind.” His voice raised an octave, “well maybe you should think a little harder next time.” In shame she looked down at her napkin,whispered words as light as a breath, too light for me to hear, but I know what she said – the only thing you can say when tears are starting to well up in your eyes – “I’m sorry.”
His arms unfolded, “Forget it. It doesn’t matter…” His sentence lingered for a moment, unfinished, before he jumped back into it “You could have consulted me first though. Don’t you think it was my decision as much as yours?” She refused to look back at him, continued to concentrate on her napkin guiltily. When she finally talked, she spoke to herself between deep breaths. “I didn’t think you wanted kids…I didn’t think there was really an ‘us’ either…I thought this was just…I don’t know…I thought you just wanted a short term thing?” Then it was his turn to look guilty, he didn’t know what to say. So he simply said “wellllllll..” and the ‘well’ seemed to go on forever until she cut him off, looked up at him accusingly. “Did you think it was an easy decision for me to make? Do you think I wanted it on my conscience?”
Tears ran down her cheeks silently as he placed his hand on hers. “Why didn’t you just tell me?” he asked. Immediately she hit back “And what would you have said?” He knew what he would have said and it wasn’t worth the hurt of saying it out loud, he simply squeezed her hand. Trying to act sympathetic he said “we could have gone through it together.” At this she started to laugh. I watched as he went red and in an attempt to defend his pride he brought his other hand over to hers and said sincerely. “This doesn’t mean I don’t love you though!”
This cut her laugh off, her face quickly lost all emotion. She looked at him, confused “you love me?” His face grew redder and awkwardly, he stumbled out the words “er, yeah. Do you – um – love..me?” As the words left his mouth he cringed, not wanting a negative answer. She replied with a smile and a nod and he smiled back in turn, taking his napkin and handing it to her so she could dry her eyes. Happily she stared at him, but he just stared at her hand, squeezing it between his own. Eventually he spoke “You see. This is why I’m pissed off at you. Because…you know, we should be making our decisions together, because we love each other. Right?”
The woman smiled widely, her face glowed brightly as she spoke the words “I love you.” He replied in kind before staring into her eyes, she stared back. They were both happy, not saying anything, just concentrating on each other and nothing else. I smiled to myself, caught in their mood, watching them peacefully glancing at each other.
After a few moments the doors to the kitchen swung open and Eduardo stepped over to me, looking over at the couple with a smirk. “I guess they’ll be paying for that meal” he said. I gave the couple one last glance before closing my eyes, letting the voices of the diners slip over me, letting the peaceful silence of the couple wash away my tension. Ever so slowly floating away from the room. Before I let the ambience totally take me I flashed Eduardo a glance and a smile. “You know what, Eduardo.” I said “I don’t think they’ll mind.”