An Average Individual takes a trip to a pub and comes face to face with the tyranny of coupledom
‘Excuse me,’ says a woman in an Irish pub in Vieux Lyon, dark-haired and scarfed, on the periphery of thirty, ‘Can I take this stool, please?’
‘Course,’ I reply.
From time to time, I get looks from the woman’s table next to me, made up of one, two, three sets of couples. Talk of water polo wafts over, as do competing howls from YouTube videos. I hear the woman’s boyfriend say ‘leave her alone’ but it can’t be about me, so on I read.
The book consists of two randomly ordered stories – one of George, a recently bereaved teenager who looks back on her relationship with her dead mother, pondering what life means, what art is; the other time-travels to 15th century Italy and is narrated by a garrulous artist ghost. Two alternative narratives, but interconnected somehow.
It’s the woman again and I look up. Her face is so rigid it looks as if it’s been ironed.
‘Oui?’ I reply.
‘Can I take that coaster, please?’
I look down at the table and see my own pint parked on one of the coasters and another one next door, apparently expecting an occupant. I pick it up and hand it to her, and as I do, I notice something in her look that is more entitled than appreciative, and I think twice about giving it to her straight away. For her, there’s obviously a clear mathematical logic to explain the presence of two coasters on the table and I, as a unit of 1, don’t fit the equation.
I’m flashed back to two nights before and I’m in a Thai restaurant with my parents who are visiting from the UK. There’s a woman two tables away eating on her own. She’s scrolling on her mobile phone and forking duck into her mouth.
My Mum tuts.
‘Can’t believe it,’ she says.
‘Can’t believe what?’ I ask.
‘Well it’s so rude. Coming to a restaurant and looking at your phone’.
‘But she’s not with anyone.’
I can feel my Mum is considering censoring herself, sensing that her now single daughter might have a crusade up her sleeve.
‘What,’ I begin, ‘so you’d prefer her to stare into space or maybe learn the drinks menu off by heart?’
‘She could read a book,’ she says.
‘Reading a book’s more acceptable that reading a phone?’ my Dad asks, filling the three glasses with red and white. It’s getting colourful.
‘Yes,’ Mum replies, ‘but it’s still sad.’
I tell my Mum about the first time I ate in a restaurant on my own, knowing pretty well her opinion wasn’t about to budge.
At first you feel self conscious, I say, you feel as if you might need a permit to be there, but once you overcome this, there’s a little victory in not giving a shit about what others think. Then, once the fuck-you feeling has worn off, that’s when real appreciation kicks in. You get to be in your restaurant bubble, mindfully chewing on bean sprouts or bacon whilst the sentences of Baudelaire or whoever ring in your ear. You’re engaging with your food, dipping into your own brain, with the hum of humanity around you. I tell her I’ve sometimes struck up conversations with other diners, and other evenings I haven’t uttered a word.
‘Well that’s the problem,’ Mum replies. ‘She’s in her bubble.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’ I ask.
The duck-chewing lady turns around, instinct telling her she’s being talked about.
‘Well we’re in a restaurant,’ Mum whispers, to a small domino set of sighs.
Back in Vieux Lyon, it dawns on me that Iron Woman is of a similar persuasion, someone who would ideally weed out the single folk from the dining/drinking landscape, judging their existence better spent fly-fishing, speed-dating or just staying in, not thieving precious space – not to mention coasters – from couples whose interactions are rich enough to merit the tables they’re sitting at.
And so I’m holding out the cardboard coaster and Iron Woman’s index and thumb have pinched it. She’s looking into my eyes, and I’m in hers. She tugs it, but I don’t let go straight away. Opposing worlds and models and morals condense themselves into two seconds. Two alternative narratives vying for space. And then I let go.
Iron Woman falls back, in slow motion, and splits her head open on the flagstone floor. As peanuts cascade off the counter, forming yellow constellations in her ironed-out hair, her couple friends run to her rescue, some screaming.
Or perhaps I just sit back and drink my pint, smile, and stroke the pink-red cover of my book, in silent awe of what the imagination does when you’re alone in a bar and of how sweet the sip of Guinness is.