October 20, 2007

Paragon’s People (6 of 11)

Thread: Paragon

The student stood waiting in the lunch queue at Fifth Column; he was almost inside now. A vast hall filled to the brim with antique tables of all shapes and sizes, the actual food was sold at stalls that lined its walls. Tall, bold windows towered over the proceedings, swelling the hall with natural light. It had the overtones of a Mövenpick Marché restaurant but without the good food. The popularity had nothing to do with the food and everything to do with meeting new people. The spacious interior encouraged the café’s patrons to open up and fill the space with their voices.

He bore his teeth at the queue, tensing his jaw, angry at the slow-moving queue. And his girlfriend hadn’t shown – like she had stood him up. Even though he’d had no intention of putting in an appearance himself, having changed his mind, he couldn’t believe that she hadn’t turned up. She was the one on the firing line right now, not him. If she didn’t turn up in the next five minutes then the plan was off and baby cheeks was history. He didn’t need her.

It was with a sense of irony that the student laughed for allowing himself to be locked into a queue – the epitome of self-oppression – and dependent on someone else to turn up. So much for his own aspirations of freedom. With that, he relaxed and turned around to see his girlfriend standing behind him.

‘Hi,’ his girlfriend said. Her words were drained of emotion, like she expected little good to come from this meeting. ‘You said we could talk at lunch, right?’ She was avoiding his gaze. If he were to catch her eye, he knew that an involuntary, instinctive smile would be pulse across her face, and she would lose her temper with him for making her smile when she didn’t want to smile, bastard. He focussed on her mouth instead; he didn’t want a confrontation right off the bat.

‘Yeah, I did say that. Why are you late?’

The queue ahead lurched forward and the student’s girlfriend filled the gap that had opened up. ‘I thought about not coming,’ she said, with cutting bluntness.

Part of him was excited that she’d pushed back, but his ego was also bruised that she could discard him without a fight. He saw her outlined in black, blotchy ink.

He cocked his head to one side, conciliatory. ‘Well, I’m glad you did come.’

‘What’s up with your head, madman?’ Friendly words, but delivered in harsh monotone. Especially as she wasn’t really looking at him, her busy gaze always shooting past his face as if more important events were going on around them.

‘Trouble brewing.’

That pulled her in; looking straight at him, she said, ‘What kind of trouble?’

‘I can’t explain it,’ –actually, I doubt you would understand the explanation, he thought– ‘but I see things different now. It’s all messed up and I can’t go on as I’ve been taught to. I feel like I’m being smothered by society, a warm pillow on my face, deadening sensation, fading the world to black.’ He paused, tasting the words in his mouth before letting them free. ‘There’s more to life than queues, suppressed tears and formal language. We live lies.’

‘We all want more,’ the student’s girlfriend answered, moving forward again as a new gap yawned open in the queue. ‘What makes you one of God’s special snowflakes?’

The student frowned; she’d gone on the offensive. Bitchy, bitchy. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to reach her if she’d bolstered her defences like this. If only she’d stopped listening to her friends in the herd. ‘I wish I knew, baby cheeks. But I can’t be what I’ve been any more. That means… we can’t be what we’ve been either.’ He noticed his hangover had dissipated and his head was clear.

‘What do you mean? Do you mean you want to split?’ Her steely expression faltered, conceding fear again. The student was elated, but kept his demeanour serious; she was still frightened of losing him.

‘It depends – you might want to come with me.’

‘Come? Come where?’ She seemed completely baffled.

They reached the first stall and the student grabbed a tray, refusing to answer straight away, to build up an air of suspense. A cook, brandishing a large, metal ladle as if she were conducting an orchestra, held point on the other side of the stall; it was covered with brushed metal bowls filled to bursting with uninviting, dull-coloured salads.

The cook grumbled in a tired, weary voice, ‘Lord’s rations, whaddya want?’

The student said to the girlfriend, ‘Please come to a meeting with me tonight.’

The cook tapped a bowl that held greasy pasta with the ladle, panting with impatience. ‘Honey, just go with the boy here so we can get on with our lives already.’

The student’s girlfriend bit her lower lip, blinking nervously, and said, ‘Alright.’

Posted by: The Harbour Master @ 2025

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