Staring Me In The Face

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[size=150:2rvsibfa]The tray didn’t just hit the floor. It crashed and smashed his lunch to pieces. Serves you damn well right, I thought. You were staring again.

He stood stock-still and looked down at the food. Suddenly I got up and moved towards him. I hadn’t intended to, hadn’t wanted to help him. I called to the woman behind the counter. She closed her mouth and brought a cloth to clean up the mess. I picked up crockery, put it on the tray. There was a soppy stain on his trousers and through it you could see just how bony his knees were. Like the rest of him. All bones, dangling jacket and hanging trousers. Stooped shoulders and mile-long arms. Then he smiled at me. A wonderful smile that creased up his worn face and totally surprised me.

"Thank you."

I shoved the tray at him and went back to my table.

I worked at a large publishing company and ate lunch in the canteen. I had noticed him because he stared at me. He was weird-looking. His hair was badly cut and his clothes were ancient and dull; too-short corduroys, baggy at the knees and colour-less sweaters, dotted with fluff. Often he sat alone and just picked at his food. Or he read and jotted things down.

A few days after the crash, he stopped at the table I was sharing with Mark from proof reading, and asked if he might sit down. I said the seats were taken and continued eating. He apologised and took his tray off somewhere else.

"What’s your problem, Leanna?" asked Mark.

"No problem. It’s just that I like to choose who I share my mealtimes with."

"A bit rough on the old chap though."

I shrugged.

It was Mark who told me more about him. He had gone over to scrounge a cigarette. By the time he came back to the table, I had my head stuck into the news-paper.

"Interesting chap. Sub-editor. Been all over the world," said Mark.

I decided to find the newspaper more interesting and finally Mark shut up and finished smoking.

"Asked your name," he said.

"He what?"

"Yeah."

"What’d you say?"

"Leanna, of course."

I folded the newspaper.

"I’ve loads of work this afternoon."

"Said you look familiar," said Mark. "Like someone he knew."

"Someone he knew?"

"Yeah. Could be strategy. Maybe he fancies you."

"Fancies me? But he’s old."

"Only old enough to be your father."

I grabbed my tray and left the table.

I didn’t do much work that afternoon. I kept wishing Mark hadn’t said what he had said. Old enough to be your father.

The following week I took along a book to read during lunchtime. When I got into the lift on my floor, he was already inside. He greeted me so I had to reply but I didn’t smile. We were alone and that worried me. I wondered whether I should get out at the next floor and walk up the stairs to the canteen. Don’t panic, I thought. Just because he’s stared at you for ages doesn’t mean he’s going to do anything.

" Well, I suppose one of us should press the button or we’ll be here all day, won’t we?"

I’d been so busy wondering what he was going to do and expecting him to do something, that I’d completely forgotten to do anything myself. I felt like an idiot and this made me smile and I hadn’t wanted to. He smiled back, his blue eyes crinkling right up to the grey hair at his ears and making him look … nice. Then there was a slap. My book hit the floor. I bent down and so did he, and we bashed heads. At that moment, the lift shuddered to a stop and the doors seemed to fling themselves wide open. I was so embarrassed, I marched out of the lift, straight towards the queue at the counter. I ordered without looking at the menu and took my tray to a table where there was only one empty seat. I breathed a sigh of relief and began to eat. But the salad stuck in my throat when I noticed that everyone else at the table had already finished lunch and they were getting up to go. I glanced over at the counter. He was paying and in a second, his eyes would scan the room to find me. I ducked my head. Waited. Any minute now he’d sit down with his tray.

Short Stories from Australasia. My book appeared in front of my eyes. His fingers were the longest I’d seen and his nails were manicured. I hadn’t thought he’d bother.

"You left it in the lift," he said. "May I sit down?"

His voice was soft. Cultivated. What could I say? The tables were all pretty full so I nodded. He said bon appétit and began to eat. I’d always thought he picked at his food. But as I watched, I noticed that he selected small pieces, speared them and moved them carefully to his mouth.

"Have you been there?"

"Been where?" I was totally dazed. From dropping my book and banging my head and everything.

"Australia, New Zealand."

I stared at him and thought again of what Mark had said about me reminding him of someone. An Australian? Maybe an ex-girlfriend or wife?

"Not such a strange question," he said. "You’re old enough to have travelled there. And Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, are most likely in the book."

His smile crinkled up his eyes.

"No, I haven’t and yes, they are," I said.

That’s how it started. He asked me a question, nodded when I spoke and then asked another. I was off, talking about reading, books and all that stuff I love.

Days later Malcolm passed our table with his tray and spontaneously I said a seat was free. Mark stared at me and I felt a rush of heat to my cheeks.

After that, Malcolm often sat with us and he and I discussed a lot of things. We spoke a little about ourselves too. I told him how Mom had brought me up on her own at the start of the Hippie Era. He said he had married during that time but divorced a few

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