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THE TABLE

Hristo Karastoyanov

web

Once two men decided to have a drink and went into a restaurant. It happened that they were too early, so they found a nice table - far from the orchestra. Immediately after that they ordered a brandy each but then all of a sudden a stranger appeared from nowhere and asked if the other two chairs were free.

The two men exchanged glances in wonder, looked meaningfully around the still empty restaurant..., but then shrugged and testily answered "Yes". "Very well, then", said the stranger and, unexpectedly, asked them to keep the two empty seats for him. He said he had to go and meet someone at the railway station - or was it the bus station - they didn't quite understand where, and would be back in no time... Then he excused himself cheekily, thanked them for the favour in advance, rose and disappeared instantly.

The two men shrugged again: after all, they said, there were all sorts of crazy characters around - and continued to sip their drinks.

The restaurant, however, began to fill and around eight o'clock others came to ask about the two seats. The two men blushed and explained with embarrassment that the places were reserved and that they were expecting someone. At the same time they guiltily faced the enquirers, more and more losing their confidence, for the man was nowhere to be seen while late couples stared angrily at them from all sides. At half past eight they really began to wonder how long they should wait for him and all, but decided that they should no longer hesitate and let someone take those seats under the circumstances. But then they hesitated again, saying that anything could have happened and the train or the bus might have been late. And hadn't they, after all, agreed to keep those two blasted seats free. Besides, the man had thanked them in advance. In other words, they agreed to wait a little longer and then discuss the matter again. Meanwhile, they ordered their third brandies and agreed they would pay and leave the restaurant at nine. At nine, however, there was still no sign of the stranger. So, after glancing with mixed feelings at their watches, the two men called the waiter, ordered another couple of drinks - this time very, very small ones - and asked him to bring the bill.

Then one of the men said his wife would raise hell if he was late and the other bitterly waved his hand in response and said his wife would do the same. He even gloomily admitted he would have to think of a lie for, if he told her the truth, she would accuse him of lying to her without batting an eyelid. "Then tell her you've been with a whore", advised the other, "then she might believe you, damn her". "You must be joking, you idiot!" his mate responded angrily. At that precise moment the waiter brought the insipid restaurant brandies. Then he brought them more, for the man didn't turn up either at half past nine, or at ten - the hour both men had firmly agreed they would leave that smoke-filled hole reeking of bad cooking. The people around them who at first had looked threateningly at the two empty chairs now seemed to have forgotten them. It seemed their main concern was how to out-shout the energetic band and particularly the ugly little singer whose cries and eerie howling of being alone in the night was turned into unbelievable and triumphant yowls by the microphone. It was only then that two men gathered the courage to lift their eyes and look around. That’s how they realized that everyone around them was concerned only with himself, meaning that everyone was enjoying himself, no one was waiting for anyone else and only they, like perfect fools, were expecting someone they didn't even know. They felt how the guilt for the two empty seats turned first into envy, then into something else - secret and hazy like a premonition. And then they banged their fists on the table and ordered more brandy. One of them said that what the man had done to them was outrageous - making them sit there and wait for him like dumb-bells. His companion agreed wholeheartedly and angrily said: "Wait and see what will happen if anyone comes asking me for anything! I won't do it for all the silk in China, no matter what."

The stranger did not turn up at half past eleven either - not even with the last unbelievable and crushing binge of the band, after which those tousled thugs began to turn off their amplifiers making an earsplitting noise and the waiter again alighted by the table of the two to settle their bill, as he clumsily joked. They tried to explain about the empty seats at least to the waiter - how some idiot stranger had made fools of them - but the boy deftly and scornfully took their money and left them in mid-sentence, growling wearily that they were closing. True, they hadn't noticed that the restaurant was now empty, the lamps above the heads of the two lonely men began to wink insistently while the waiters, half-dead on their feet, moved around, collecting the last glasses, ashtrays and plates and snapping the cloths off the tables. Now the rastaurant - the men could see this clearly - became even more filthy and mediocre, the tablecloth - unrecognizable with spots and turning over, and the tables - chipped, lop-sided and good for nothing. The two men clumsily began to gather their cigarettes and lighters..., rose very unsteadily to their feet..., then exchanged glances and stood frozen as if by a secret decision!

They tamed their trembling fingers, proudly threw the cigarettes back on the dirty tablecloth and sat down!

The waiter saw what they were doing and immediately went to their table, telling them this was no time for jokes - they must get out. "Come on", he said, "Come on, we're closing." But the two banked their fists on the table and mercilessly told him they were waiting for another man - hadn't they told him so when they paid the bill, a short while back, was he deaf or something, when they said they were waiting for a man for whom they had kept the two seats. Then they added they would stay put - no joking. Why had they waited all night: to spoil everything in the end? The dumbfounded youth retreated and rushed to call the porter and the manager. But the now determined men told them the same. The porter, the manager and the other waiters went mad with rage and began cursing them and telling them they shouldn't be so pigheaded and should leave for, anyway, the restaurant was closed and no one could come in. "Look", they said, "Look at the porter! Do you think he'll let someone in from now on?" This was a hell of a thing to happen, they said, and why didn't they call the police, damn it, but were wasting their time with the couple of bums. "Call them", said the two derisively. "Call a hundred if you like - that won't change anything." "We'll wait for that guy and that's that! He even thanked us in advance and we don't give a damn that it is closed!" "But he can't come", pleaded the already serious adversaries. "He ca..." "That's none of your business!" the two men cut the manager off. "Now bring us another brandy each and scram, we're talking secrets!"... "The bar is closed and the cash-desk is locked," said their waiter stupidly while the manager, now green with anger, told him to stop talking rot and go call the police. "That's it. Great!" the two men hiccoughed enthusiastically. "Let him go. At least we'll see the police. And won't this pansy stop hanging about doing nothing, after all!"

After that, in spite of everyone, they leaned their heads on the table, shuffled around a bit to make themselves more comfortable and, still without paying attention to the cursing men around, fell asleep like logs.

Five minutes later three policemen came into the restaurant. "What's going on, boss", they grumbled tiredly. The manager, offended, waved his arms and led them straight to the table of the two. The policemen pursed their lips and shook them saying thay should be ashamed of themselves and should get up and go. The two again protested energetically and began to explain the case to the policemen at the top of their voices: that they were waiting for a man who had told them to keep the two seats until he returned from the station with someone else... "Won't you stop harping about that man, you idiots!" croaked the manager besides himself. "We're all sick and tired of him! Here you are, drunk as pigs, and talking gibberish on top of it all!" "You shut your trap" they shouted at him. "What a boss - just look at you! You shut your trap and don't cut in when people are talking or we'll start talking and then you'll see!... They've all grown too big for their shoes," they explained to the policemen, "Bosses should be bossed over - that's that!"

"Listen, you guys", said the tired policemen, "Just look at you! Come on, get up and go, or else... Just look at the time!"

The men, however, firmly stood their ground and again glued themselves to the chairs. Then the policemen - really angry - quickly lifted them and took them outside and, quietly warning them not to raise uselessly, herded them toward the police car in front of the rastaurant.

At first the two opened their mouths to protest: "Hey, don't pull! Don't pull like that!" they shouted. Then they unexpectedly gave up and let the policemen bundle them into the back seat of the cream-coloured car, slam the doors behind and drive them along the quiet streets into the gray night.

And no one saw in the dark how moisture glistened in their eyes. Then one of them said: "Why did that man do this to us?!"

His friend did not respond, then said: "Let him go to hell!"

Then they stopped talking.

And remained silent to the end.

 

 

© Hristo Karastoyanov
© Miryana Minkova - translated
=============================
© E-magazine LiterNet, 03.06.2004, № 6 (55)