Hannah R. Palmer Author
Table For One: Thriller Flash Fiction
My wonderful author friend Orla Hart has made a YouTube audiobook playlist with over 25 stories from authors from across the world, all using the stimulus 'Five Minutes' as a jumping off point.
I had a great time creating my story, Table For One, and would love for you to read/listen to it. The video above is yours truly narrating, but if you'd rather read it for yourself, here it is!
Link to the full playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wq_przvNi0&list=PLgRuObGAJsz_v3y-MEJdK71nw7lG1TtXk
Table For One
People eat alone for all sorts of reasons.
Like doctors or police officers. Others are driven by their desire to enjoy their own company.
You might think it’s because the person has got an insufferable personality and they’ve done such a good job alienating themselves they can’t even convince someone to accompany them to a restaurant. Perhaps they’re elderly and the love of their life has passed away, leaving them no choice but to frequent the cafe that holds warm memories of conversations and smiles and laughs and those petty arguments we all pretend to never have, but of course we really do. What if they were waiting for someone that never showed up? It’s conceivable that they couldn’t face going home, couldn’t face seeing the person they were once infatuated with, only to realise that those feelings had long since stagnated and left behind only their stale aftertaste. There are so many reasons, so many potential scenarios and possibilities that at some point, one of them is bound to be right.
Or, you never know, they could all be very, very wrong.
‘I’ll have a table for one please.’
The waitress watched as they walked in, chin tucked towards their chest, head angled to the floor. She waited for them to approach, clicking and unclicking a chewed pen in her hand.
‘Table for one, please,’ he said again, interrupting her wandering thoughts.
Her eye met his and she shrugged, silently leading him away to an unset table hidden in the back of the restaurant. She slapped a menu down in front of him and sauntered back to the bar. The wooden chair creaked from underneath the table. He shrugged off his jacket and let it fall inside out over the back of the chair, the sleeve slipping and brushing against the floor.
A sticky smear streaked the front cover of the menu, like the trail of a snail or slug. He hoped it was neither. The cover peeled off the front with a comical smacking to reveal a long list of overpriced steak and fish. He looked over the options, conscious of the search-light eyes of the other customers passing over him.
‘What are you drinking?’ the waitress asked, reappearing at his side.
‘Coke. Diet, with ice,’ he said, the words juddering from his lips in fragmented chunks.
A few moments later she returned with a half-pint of tepid brown liquid, suspiciously devoid of ice cubes. The glass thudded down, droplets dancing across the surface. She didn’t wait to find out if he was ready to order.
He didn’t expect this reaction to eating alone, but he could read it in the other customer’s eyes. Pity. The same look you see on someone’s face when they see an elderly person on their own. That pang of guilt that flashes in your gut before you can tell it not to.
He glanced up to see the waitress leaning on another table at the other side of the restaurant. She was chatting to a group of four who threw the occasional glance at the lonely man in the corner, trying to diagnose what was wrong with him. He wondered if they’d guess it right.
‘Excuse me,’ he called over to the waitress. She didn’t seem to hear him. ‘Can I order please?’ He was in something of a hurry. He glanced at his wrist watch; he reckoned he had anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes left, if he was lucky. The latter end of the scale if someone was doing a particularly bad job that night.
She turned around and walked back over, hands poised with notepad and pen.
‘Steak please,’ he said before she had a chance to reach him. ‘Medium rare. And fries. Thank you.’
‘Won’t be long,’ she exclaimed, sweeping up the menu and walking away, having written nothing on her tiny notepad.
The table of four were looking over, examining him from the safety of their group. He bit back the desire to question them, to ask them what they found so intriguing, and instead reached into his jacket to retrieve his phone. The shattered screen illuminated in his palm, a missed call from just 5 minutes ago. He slipped the phone back into his pocket. As his hand slid between the folds of fabric, his eye caught something that had spattered over the top of his thigh. A handful of dark red spots that had seeped between the fibres of his jeans. A cluster of spots that he’d missed. Shit. He scratched at the marks, tasting the iron underneath his tongue as the cells lifted liften from the woven denim and gathered under his fingernails.
‘Will you want any sauces?’ The monotone voice of the waitress cracked his concentration. He slammed his hand over the offending trouser leg, forcing himself to look her in the eye. He attempted to say no, to look normal, but the air bubbled and trapped below his larynx, refused to let him speak. He shook his head, maybe frantically, maybe normally, he was finding it hard to tell. Stay calm.
‘Oh no, thank you. I’m fine,’ he managed to whisper, his sandpaper tongue swelling in his mouth.
‘Alright, well here’s your steak knife. It’ll be a few minutes.’
He’d clamped his hand over the stains, determined to conceal them from prying eyes. They’d all but been scratched away, tiny iron fragments floating in the dust around him. He snuck another look at his phone, a tiny peekpeak as if he was breaking the rules. There were no more missed calls, just the one adamantly sticking to the screen to remind him of those few minutes that had passed.
The steak knife glistened on the table; its tip was round but the teeth that peppered the serrated edge were angry and itching to tear at flesh. He lost himself in amongst those serrated teeth; not all knives were made for stabbing.
‘Sorry, sir,’ the waitress interrupted his train of thought again. ‘It’ll be another 5 minutes.’
5 minutes, he thought to himself. 5 minutes to cook a steak, 5 minutes to run here from there, 5 minutes to get some distance.
‘Oh, what’s going on out there?’ one of the women said, pushing herself up on bangle-adorned wrists to get a better view. The darkness outside lit up in lights of blue and red, a blistering siren blaring through the cool evening air. The man swallowed. ‘It’s not often we get this kind of excitement on a Wednesday evening,’ she continued, ushering her husband to his feet.
The man grabbed his phone, his saliva sticking like a golf ball in his throat. Of course there were no new messages. Not since the last one that he received 5 minutes before arriving at the restaurant. He risked a glance up and out of the window. The lights pulsed and wailed down the street; he knew just where they were going.
‘Your steak,’ the waitress intervened. The lump of meat sat in a shallow pool of translucent red liquid. He gripped the knife in his right hand, aware of the quieting sirens and dulling lights as they reached the end of the street and took a right turn towards his house, no doubt.
‘Thank you,’ he mumbled, tripping over the simple words. He dragged the knife’s teeth along the steak, watching as they pulled and caught amongst the fibres.
‘Put the TV on!’ the woman from the other table gasped, gripping her phone in her palm. ‘They’ve found a body.’
The man glanced at his watch. More than the 5 minutes he thought he’d have, but less than the 20. He slid a tender cube of meat into his mouth and chewed, watching the frantic customers rush around the small television screen behind the bar.
At least he wouldn’t have to pay for his last meal, he supposed as he chewed in silence and switched off his phone.