You Don’t Have to Thank Me

pebble-3287482

by

Marcus Ong

The woman was feeling light and hollow, as if a part of her had been cut out. Usually, at this hour, she was at home preparing dinner. She removed her rosewood-coloured handbag from the table and tried to hook the strap on the backrest of the tall stool. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and listened.

“Can we just not talk for a while?” she said.

The lawyer widened his eyes. His hair was damp and slicked back along the sides of his head. The wind coming through from the sea softened his hair and stroked his fringe over his brows. Now, he felt dryness in his mouth and throat. He ran a hand through his hair then with the other hand pulled his necktie to one side.

“Sorry,” he said. “Was I talking too much?”
“You’re not,” the woman said. “It’s just…I had a long day.” She was wearing a beige blouse and a black pencil skirt and it was the same outfit she wore two days before. She hoped the lawyer would not notice. But she could tell from his eyes that he noticed everything. He might have even noticed the few strands of white hair on the top of her head.

Both of them reached for their beer bottle on the wooden table.

He smiled at her, showing his teeth. Then nodded at her to show that he sympathised.

He shifted his gaze from her out across the shoreline with the dry coconut trees. The coast was long and brown. Over them, the sun was setting, sinking slowly into the horizon. The sky on her back was orange, and he thought she was glowing. Noticing that her eyes were not on him, he twisted his body around to see what was behind. The restaurant was slowly filling up. People moved about; waiters showing smiling customers to their seats; and those already seated were eating, drinking and talking. He turned back and looked at her across the table. Her lips were touching the mouth of the bottle and she was staring at his belongings on the table—a black leather wallet, a silver iPhone and the car key to his white Audi parked not far away. He lifted and pushed himself further inwards on the stool and felt his armpits cold and wet. “Do you like this place?” he asked her.

The woman nodded once without looking up, returning her bottle to the damp coaster.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Good,” she said. “I’m just tired.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing.”
“You can tell me anything. You know that.”
“You already know a lot.”
“I guess,’ the lawyer said. He thought about it for a some time, then asked, “Do you
mind if I have a cigarette?”
“I didn’t know you smoked,” she said.
“Only once in a while,” he said. “You don’t mind, right?”
“You don’t need permission from me at all.”

He took his cigarette case from his trouser pocket. He put a menthol cigarette in his mouth, cupped his hands around the tip and lit it. With the cigarette burning, he was quickly in better spirits. “You look like you want one,” he said.

She took a long swallow at the beer, shook her head.

“Take one,” he said.
“Well, okay.”

He slid the case across the table and placed the lighter on top of it.

The woman lit a cigarette and returned the case and lighter.

“Don’t you want to know what the C.S. stands for?” He lifted the hinged lid of the lighter to her eyes.

The woman did not answer.

Both of them exhaled smoke. They took another puff and the tips glowed brightly. It seemed to him her eyes were away from him again. He stroked the sharp grove of the car key before pulling the cigarette from his lips. He could hear movements behind him: light footsteps, scratching of chairs against the vinyl flooring, clanking of cutlery and glasses. The lawyer turned around and signalled the waitress for an ashtray with an up-turned palm.

The woman thanked the waitress when she came with a white porcelain ashtray.

“Do you want another round?” the waitress asked them.
The lawyer moved his hand, “Another—” and he noticed ash from his cigarette had
fallen onto his lap.
“No, it’s fine. Thank you,” the woman said to the waitress. Then she punched out her cigarette against the tray.

By now, the wind had died and it was starting to get warm. The lawyer wondered if it was the power of one beer, or something else that had made the woman’s cheeks rosy.

“It’s pretty hot, isn’t it?” he said. He loosened his tie even further.
“The weather’s always like that,” she said.
“It’s great we can have a nice cold beer when it’s warming up like this.”
A moment later: “Thank you,” she said to the lawyer.
“For what?” he asked.
“For your help. It’s been a long one. And you have been awfully nice to me. I wouldn’t have done it without your service.”
“You don’t have to thank me.”
“I have many things to thank you for. So, thank you.”
Quickly: “Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat? To go with the drink?” he asked her. “They have good steak here. If you don’t like steak, the fish here is good too.”
“No, thank you,” she said. “I don’t have much appetite now.”
“Eat something,” he said.
“No, thanks,” she repeated.
“Are you sure?” he said.
“Yes, I’m sure. You can order something to eat if you want. I don’t mind waiting.”
“No, it’s all right then,” he said. “I’m not hungry.”
“Really, it’s fine. You look like you’re hungry.”
“I said I’m not hungry.”

She looked away at her handbag and took out her phone from it. The light from the screen lit her face. She wanted to know if there were calls from home she might have missed during the day. But there was none.

“Do you do this often?” she asked him, putting her phone on the table.
Smoke flared out from the lawyer’s nostrils. “Do what?” he said.
“Have drinks after work.”
“I’m usually very busy.”
“I see.”
“I don’t like to drink alone, anyway,” he added.

The woman lifted her handbag from the hook and placed it on her lap.

“Do you like to drink?” the lawyer asked.
“I don’t really have the time.”
“Now you do.”
“Maybe.”
“I like the beer they serve here,” he said. “Do you?”
“It’s only Heineken,” she said.
The lawyer gave a suppressed laugh. “Maybe I like the company.”
“I don’t know much about beer,” she said. “I don’t have time to drink.”
“You didn’t. But it’s different now. You have lots of time. Have you thought about what you’re going to do next, Sarah?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “And I don’t really want to think about it.”
“I know you’ll be fine.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve seen many people who’d gone through the same and they are fine now, even happy. People move on. That’s what we do.”
“It sounds overly simplistic.”
“Because it’s simple. You can have everything. You can do anything you want now.”
“Don’t say it as if it’s so easy. It’s insulting. I don’t like it.”
“It’s not complicated at all. I don’t understand why you must think it is.”
“Mr. Seetoh,” she said. “I told you it was too soon for a drink.”
“But you are here.”

It was dark outside now and the blue strips in that place came on. They did not say anything. He was staring out at the black sky and at the black waters. He thought about working for her, the long days and long nights it had consumed and the long list of other works he had forgone. He pressed the groove of his key again.

She was looking at the people. She saw there was a long queue outside; people waiting to be seated. The waitress, busy, was eyeing their empty beer bottles on the table. Then she caught the eyes of the waitress, and started looking through her handbag.

Her hands were moving very fast. When he saw that he did not want to look at her anymore. He exhaled very loudly and stared out once again, and could hear the water lapping onto the shore but not see it. There was a rumble far out in the dark sky. “I’m going to have another beer,” he said, and raised his hand for the waitress.

When the beer came, he took his time with it.

“I have to go soon,” she said.
“Wait for me to finish the beer.”
She closed up her handbag and waited, because the beach was far out from town and it felt like it was going to rain. She kept looking at her phone under the table and then at him.

“What are you thinking of?” she asked him.
“I’m just staring at the beach, you know,” he said and shrugged. Then he tipped the bottle way up and let the drink slide down his throat. He picked up the bill and paid the waitress extra for an umbrella.

Later the clouds swallowed up the moon and a light drizzle came with the wind. He opened the small umbrella. It opened with a clap, which startled the woman a little. As they moved to his Audi, he said, “It’s still early.”
“It’s late.”
“It wouldn’t be late if the rain did not come.”
“Please.”
“It will stop raining soon,” he said. “I know.”

The lawyer opened the door for her. Then he got into his two-seater, his right side catching some of the rain. Both of them strapped in.

She clutched the handbag close to her tummy and held her knees together. This was the hour that she usually went to bed. She listened to the tires running against the wet road and the light rain sprinkling on the window.

They went slowly at first. When he saw the sign on the road to exit from the coast and out to the highway, the lawyer stepped on the gas.

“You’re going the wrong way,” she said.


Marcus Ong is a Communications graduate based in Singapore. His fiction has been published by Momaya Press in their Annual Review 2016. He believes that a good chair is a necessity for any writer. Besides writing, he enjoys watching stand-up comedy, listening to rock n’ roll music, and memorising lines from the Blackadder TV series. 

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