Vapour Trail

Cover your mouth when you sneeze.

He sneezes again.

Cover your fucking mouth.

And again. And one more after that. He’s a big guy, looks weird. Voluminous hair, and a wide, elasticated hair band, making his glossy, black bouffant splay out from his head, long and straight, in all directions. He’s wearing multiple layers of loose-fitting, brightly coloured clothes, accentuating the bulk of of his chubby frame.

I guess he’s around thirty.

But I can’t figure him out. He could be a musician. Probably a songwriter. There are a lot of rehearsal studios round here, and he’s got the of air of an amateur performer who thinks he should be famous. Slouched over, his shoulders roll forward even when he hikes himself up and casts a frown around the room, scowling and scratching, and demanding attention.

Or maybe he is famous, and I’m sitting too straight.

Across the table from him in the chain restaurant is a slim, beautiful woman. She must weigh about half what he does.

Poised and sharply symmetrical, dressed in monochrome, she looks him in the eye and doesn’t laugh, and he doesn’t laugh back.

She could be his girlfriend or she could be his manager. Her stillness has purpose though, and no-one gets to be that expert at concealment for fun.

We all have bills to pay.

He starts twitching. Is he going to blow phlegm again?

No, he settles down. Sniffs.

I can’t intuit what she thinks of him. She just sat straight across from his gaudy, heaving frame as he rattled his lungs, four times, with no attempt to cover his mouth, and no apology. But she didn’t flinch. Didn’t comment.

What’s in it for her?

She knows I’m staring at the side of his head, from my position at a right-angle to them. Knows I’m disgusted. Isn’t she disgusted too?

She glances at me, making brief eye contact. Was it a meaningful connection? Held for a second, did it signify agreement, or nothing at all?

She’s looking back forward now, her focus somewhere around his chest or shoulders. She’s neither smiling nor not smiling.

I don’t think she hates him. Not like I do, anyway. I think she’s smart enough not to give a shit. The brains of the outfit. The smartest person in this whole Japanese curry diner at three o’clock on a dark, wet afternoon.

I don’t know the difference between resignation and patience. Don’t know how to play the long game.

Without visible notice he sneezes again, even louder than before, but this time it’s over-ruled by a punchy metallic clatter as I slam down my stainless steel fork.

He spins straight round on his bench seat, faster than I could have anticipated, so that he’s instantly facing me. Legs spread, chest open, baring his teeth and looming hard,

“What the fuck?” he barks.

She barely moves, just as much of an adjustment as is necessary to hold me in her line of sight.

Her mouth hasn’t shifted, but is she smiling? How do you smile without moving your mouth?

“You fucker.” He’s getting to his feet rapidly and I still haven’t responded.

I’m watching him move on the edge of my vision, because I’m looking at her. It’s barely a couple of metres between our places, and I’m still staring at her as his hand slams down on my table, shaking my plate.

It’s a big hand, I’m pretty sure of that, even though I’m not looking at it.

“Kei!” she pulls him up curtly, “doors open at six.”

He steadies himself, withdraws his hand, leers down at me. He’s a big guy, that much is confirmed. I’m looking back at him now, wondering what he’ll do next. There are splashes of yellow-brown curry sauce on the table, and a couple of chopped red pickle squares, but that’s the extent of the damage as he turns and half swaggers, half waddles, to the front door.

His companion stands and picks up her bag to follow him. The way she moves is fluid and composed. She stops in front of my table.

“It’s just hayfever.”

“What is?”

“He doesn’t have the virus.”

“You’re a doctor?”

“Sorry for the disturbance, no harm intended.”

From her bag she produces two tickets and places them on my table, avoiding the displaced food. The gift comes packaged with an efficient disclosure of her perfect smile, and then she walks to the door.


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