Maire Fisher

Heat

Nose to the wind, Astrid sniffs the new day. A brisk walk, a good way to start as she means to continue. New day, new leaf, new life. She’ll treat herself to a coffee at the Deli, the only place open this early. She hasn’t been there since she and Mark … No! Astrid tells herself. She concentrates on her footsteps. Pad, pad, go her trainers on the walkway, a solid reassuring sound. She’ll keep walking.

But she hadn’t expected it to be this windy. With gleeful malice the South Easter tears strands of hair free and whips them across her face with stinging flicks. It slices through her t-shirt, prods her with icy fingers, pushing her across the road to the sheltered overhang of the buildings. Astrid looks down Main Road to the Deli and quickens her pace.

A wave of sound as she pushes open the door. The café is filled with early morning regulars, some ready for a leisurely breakfast, others grabbing a quick coffee before dashing out to catch the train to Cape Town.

‘One coffee to go, please. Milk, no sugar,’ she says to the woman behind the till. She’ll head home sipping it, and its warmth will keep the wind at bay.

She used to love sugar in her coffee, before Mark took her in hand. Her face, her figure, her clothes. By the time he left, she scored almost perfect marks. Some things, though, she couldn’t change. She shakes her head. The waitress pauses. Astrid smiles quickly. She has to stop these endless internal monologues, cataloguing what she’d done wrong, tried so hard to do right. People look at her oddly these days as she growls under her breath.

How simple life was before Mark. How stupid she had been to think he loved who she was. It’s taken a month of sleepless nights, of dragging herself through grey days. Only this last week has she begun to notice again what delights her – the smell of the sea curling under her door, the sound of her neighbour practising the cello, children in the park rushing from swings to seesaw. This morning the sun rose, tingeing the sky a hopeful gold, coaxing her outside.

Behind her a laugh. She doesn’t need to turn her head to know Mark is here. Heat rises from her throat to meet the pink sweatiness of her cheeks. She sees herself in the mirror behind the counter: baggy sweat pants, sloppy t-shirt, rattails of hair hanging from a scraggly ponytail, face like a boiled tomato. He laughs again, sniggering, derisive. Her heart speeds up, her palms sweat. Laughing, like he used to … at her, his eyes flat and assessing. And then he’d ruffle her hair, tell her how sweet she was. Sweet, but not quite sweet enough. She, always begging, panting for his approval. Watching herself slip away, bit by tiny bit, as he whittled her into shape. Hating herself for craving his approval. Vowing time and time again that she’d stand up to him; show him she didn’t need him. And then, without fail, her will would bend under his.

Astrid turns sideways and sees his broad back, the hair curling over his collar. A new shirt, one she’s never seen before. Probably a gift from the blonde sitting across the table. She’s smiling; a smile Astrid recognises only too well – lips parted as she hangs on every word he says. Five weeks, and already he’s found someone better, younger, prettier.

The new girl is pretty. Glossy. She’s looking at him like an eager puppy, waiting to be petted. She’s stoking his hand now. Astrid knows the feel of his skin, fine-grained and smooth. As smooth and sleek as he is. He leans towards the blonde; her face lights up. And he laughs again.

‘Actually,’ Astrid says, ‘make that no milk.’ Her voice snarls, and the waitress recoils. Astrid rearranges her face.

The coffee arrives, steaming in its cardboard container. Astrid reaches into her pocket and pulls out a crumpled note. ‘Keep the change,’ she says. Holding the cup carefully, she walks towards them.

The blonde looks up, her eyes as blue as a cliché. Astrid taps him on the shoulder. ‘How’s your sex life, Mark?’ she asks, and pours the coffee into his lap.

He yelps in horror and leaps to his feet, clutching at the scalding stain.

Astrid yelps too. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘so sorry. I though you were someone else.’

‘Are you fucking insane?’ he yells.

The blonde is on her feet too, dabbing at his jeans with a paper napkin. ‘Andy? Are you okay, doll?’ she whines. He pushes her away, sinks to his seat, whimpering. ‘I don’t understand,’ she says to Astrid. ‘Why?’

‘Don’t talk to that mad bitch,’ he says. ‘Can’t you see she’s lost her bloody marbles?’

But Astrid isn’t mad, or lost, not any more. She leans over and pats the blonde on the shoulder. ‘Your boyfriend has a nasty laugh,’ she says.

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