“What’s this soup made of?”
“No way of knowing … The cook probably doesn’t even know.”
The waitress had just finished filling two bowls with a yellowish liquid: small pieces of green leaves were floating in it. They had left the suitcase sitting on the floor, beside the table. A dog went over to it, smelled it calmly, and moved away to the next table, where an old lady wearing a brown hat with a pheasant feather was holding out a fish bone.
“Don’t look at me, eat.”
He obeyed and put his spoon in the bowl. A moment later he raised his eyes and looked at her for a while.
“What do you plan to do?”
She wiped her lips, hesitated a moment, then answered:
“I don’t know.”
“I hate for you to leave like this, not knowing what you’re going to do.”
“Better not to think about it,” she said in a very low voice, looking down at the bowl.
“Yes, I do, I hate it.”
The restaurant at the train station was full. The waitresses hurried up and down with little notebooks stuck in their apron pockets, pencils hanging by little metal chains from their waists. Theirs had dark hair. She must have been about 40 years old, 40 withered years. You could see she was tired and in a bad mood. She wore a lot of eye makeup.
From time to time he glanced at his watch: still three quarters of an hour before the train left.
The waitress took the bowls and set the plate down. A warm china plate. She served them a piece of boiled hake, covered with mayonnaise, with two or three lettuce leaves.
“Say whatever you like, just say something.”
The waitress came back.
“Excuse me, I forgot to serve you the asparagus.” She gave them half a dozen, placing them beside the piece of hake.
“They count them carefully: six for you, six for me. I’m certain everyone eating dinner counts the asparagus they’re served. Six. The same number of years you and I …”
A train whistled. You could hear the sound of hammering on wheels mixed with the station boys’ cries and the noise of the loud speakers announcing departures.
“Oh, oh! The glass …”
It had been knocked over while he was reaching for a slice of bread from the little basket. Beer spilled over the paper that served as a tablecloth, spread to the edge of the table, and began to drip onto the floor.
“Move the suitcase!”
“Fortunately I didn’t break the glass.”
A tall, thin gentleman entered, wearing a raincoat the color of café amb llet. With a glance he surveyed the entire room, took a watch out of his vest pocket, checked it against the clock on the wall, and walked slowly away.
They continued to eat the hake. They ate mechanically: neither of them was hungry.
“When I think about you leaving with no money … I’ll be worried about you.”
A black cat had just wandered by and the dog let out a few barks and started to chase it under the tables. A gentleman who was dining alone, a little further away, turned red, protesting with an air of great dignity.
“Better not to think about it. Ah …! That reminds me: I forgot to tell you I left your ironed shirts on the top shelf of the armoire, the socks in the right-hand drawer, where we kept the aspirin and the electric bills … Don’t you like the mayonnaise?”
“Then why don’t you eat it?”
“I mean … I don’t like it much.”
The gentleman in the raincoat entered again, carrying two large suitcases. He crossed the room and sat down at the table where the lady in the hat with the pheasant feather had been earlier.
The waitress took the plates away.
“Grapes for me. And you?”
“Grapes for both of us.”
The waitress went over to the man in the raincoat, set the tray full of plates down on the table, and wrote the order in her notebook. A man and a woman entered. The man had one eye covered with a black cloth and was carrying a guitar. He started to sing with a hoarse, weary voice. From time to time he brushed the strings with his fingertips.
“I thought that was against the law.”
“That. Begging. Do you want to smoke?”
He handed her a cigarette. He took another and put it between his lips. The cigarette shook. He lit a match and the flame shook also.
“The last two I have. I gave you the whole one. Mine has a little hole.”
“Shall we swap?”
“Oh, I’ll just cover it with my finger.”
The large hand of the clock moved and jumped a minute. The waitress brought the grapes and then served the gentleman in the raincoat a bowl of soup. At the same time she served him the plate of hake, with the lettuce leaves, the asparagus, and the mayonnaise.
“Let’s see if he counts them.”
They began to eat the grapes one by one, smoking from time to time. All of a sudden they laughed. The gentleman in the raincoat had put on his glasses: first he examined what was in the bowl, then he took his fork and calmly separated the asparagus, moving his lips slightly.
“Are you cold?”
“You looked like you were shaking.”
Through the window you could see the branches of a plane tree shining in the light from a street lamp. The leaves were yellow and shook gently in the early autumn wind.
“The leaves are already yellow. Did you notice?”
“But it’s still not a bit cold.”
“Perhaps I’d better start getting ready. Why don’t you ask for the check?”
She took a tube of lipstick and some powder out of her purse. She painted her lips, spreading the lipstick with her tongue, and powdered her face. In the mirror her eyes were hard, expressionless, still a bit congested. Suddenly she felt an infinite weariness.
The man with the guitar approached them and held out his hand. A dark hand, large, with long fingers. He gave the man a coin.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t linger.”
She didn’t answer him. A hand like his, the man asking for charity, began to tighten around her throat gently, gently.
“Do you want me to walk you to the platform?”
No, she couldn’t answer. It was as if she were choking. The hand was tightening around her throat. It was painful in two or three places.
“Do you know which platform it is? I’m afraid you might get lost …”
The gentleman in the raincoat had opened a suitcase and had taken out a bottle of wine. He poured some into the glass and started to drink slowly. He had eaten the asparagus, stems and all.
He called to the waitress.
“I’m sorry, really sorry. I think without me you’ll find yourself …”
It was starting to pass. The hand wasn’t so tight now. She was even able to say:
“I’ve always liked traveling by train … I loved it as a child … Did I ever tell you that once …? Oh, there’s no point in my telling you now.”
The waitress brought them the check. They paid. She picked up the suitcase.
When they were at the door of the restaurant, she told him: “Don’t come. It’s better. Do you hear me? Don’t come.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. Again she felt her throat tightening.
He took her by the arm: “Don’t you think we could … don’t you …”
He started to kiss her. She turned her face. He felt her whole body stiffen, and he released her arm.
From a distance he saw her hand the ticket to the control officer. “I won’t see her again,” he thought, “ever again.”
The man with the guitar wanted to get by. The woman was behind him. She was short and plump, wearing a soiled black dress, very shiny.
He let them through and went out to the street.