Ruth was getting ready for her date with Herman, but her heart was not singing. She knew in moments of honesty that she had rung Herman to annoy another man, and not from any real desire to see him or get to know him romantically or for any reason at all, come to think of it.
Like many of us, she was too proud to admit her mistakes when they affected someone else, so, sure enough, she smiled warmly when she answered the door to him, saying, “Herman, come in, come in, how lovely to see you” and offered him her cheek to kiss.
It was clear that he had been cheered, and possibly emboldened by her call, and felt a romance with her was actually possible. In truth, he had tossed and turned restlessly at the prospect of the date and the teasing prospect of being loved again. The thought had made him smile, because, if he was honest with himself, always an unsettling experience, it was more than possible that his first wife had married him more on the grounds of common sense than emotion. He would not dwell on that, but let his imagination focus again on Ruth and her pleasing and sophisticated manner. She seemed, as they say, to be ‘well out of his league,’ but then she had rung him, and that must mean something. What it actually meant was that she was hurt and irritated with the other man: a fact she would not recognise
Once at the restaurant they sipped their drinks and studied the menu, then Herman’s hand moved over hers as it rested on the table. That symbol of gentle connection did not settle her. She looked up at his bland and pale face and saw the cautious and possibly clumsy agenda in his eyes.
“Let’s not get carried away, Herman” she said.
“Sorry,” he replied, and the hand was withdrawn.
She could act as she wanted, but after all, it was she who had rung him, and that must mean something he thought. More certain of his purpose now, he was sure the evening and atmosphere would provide him with another chance to establish their new connection. He was famous for his patient pursuit of goals. For her part, Ruth was looking increasingly at the evening as a test of endurance.
Clearly, the man, as she now thought of him, had forgotten their talk at their last meeting and was embarking on a flight of fancy which could only cause embarrassment. It was important to nip that error in the bud, so she did what most people do: nothing. The food was delicious, the music played by the orchestra in the restaurant was both skilful and unchallenging, the atmosphere at the table tentative and unsettling. No one had the courage to say the ‘date’ was clearly based on misunderstanding mixed with pride. They ploughed on through the expensively provided courses towards coffee and release or, in his imagination, a promise of some sweet union which might drag him from his path of isolation.
In the corner of the restaurant, near the band, was a small area set aside for dancing. Already, in this expensive place, Ruth observed some middle-aged guy with balding head dancing with a girl clearly young enough to be his daughter and wondered what their relationship was. Looking at him, and then back again at Herman, she felt the whole evening to be tragic, possibly even sordid. How stupid she could be?
It seemed a place to her, where men clearly used their money to gain the favour of ladies who would otherwise pay them no attention. The food, produced with diligent thoroughness and some attention to flavour did nothing for her. The sweet, tempting love songs from the band floated over her head unnoticed, and all she could long for was the chance to return to her own dwelling, unmolested or desired. Anything she wanted in her life was not in this room or in his company.
“More wine,” he said, and his eyes shone with brilliant anticipation.
For his part, he could not fail to notice her uncertainly and uncomfortable demeanour. He could not say why, but the image excited him. He mistook her nerves for frailty and anticipation, and did not realise she was suffering from a mixture of boredom and claustrophobia.
“Where would you like to go after the meal?” he said.
“Home,” she replied, and seeing his eyes light up added, “On my own.”
Finally, some sense of her mood seemed to enter his consciousness, and he settled back in his chair. The expensive merlot, now free of that undertone of celebration, tasted inconsequential in his mouth. He would not be ordering another bottle.
“Have I misunderstood something?” he asked her.
“Yes, I think you have. I rang you because I was angry with somebody else, and not because I especially wanted to see you. I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t want to give you the wrong impression either.”
No one can fault her candour, but candour seldom goes rewarded. On this occasion, Herman sat back in his chair and looked at this woman, who now clearly wished to exit his life with a gathering urgency.
He smiled and said, with a hint of iciness, “Glad to be of service. Shall I get the bill?”
Ruth just nodded. The evening suddenly seemed to have become unpleasant, and she couldn’t wait to get away. “This is awkward,” she said. “I think I’ll leave you with it and get a taxi home. Thank you for a lovely meal.”
The surprise announcement and offhand use of cliché did little to settle Herman’s battered confidence, and he said nothing as she collected her bag and left the restaurant. The waiter, when he arrived, managed to neither raise an eyebrow, smirk, nor say anything clever, which was impressive given the fact that the first thing he did when he got to the kitchen was say, “That old codger at table 15 has been dumped. The lady just got up and left him to settle the bill. It was brilliant.” It was moments like these which added drama and relief to his day.