By Peadar Ó Guilín
from Black Gate 13, copyright © 2009 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
A wine steward arrived at their table with metal goblets for each of them and a skin of wine that he poured expertly from a height. He was olive skinned with bare arms that would not have shamed Cassius Clay at his peak.
“What’s on the menu tonight, then?” asked Toby.
The waiter laughed aloud, teeth flashing in the firelight. “What’s on the menu?” he mocked in lightly accented English. “What’s on the menu is what’s always on the menu: Erta.”
“Or…?” prompted Toby.
“Why did you come if not for Erta? Erta or nothing, my young friend. Finish that wine so I can give you some more. Look – your waiter comes.”
The giant left them to be replaced by a man bearing a pair of earthenware bowls containing a dark, lumpy substance. Marie watched it warily, and Toby knew she was already thinking of leaving. She had expected champagne and chandeliers; a feast of caviar and lobster while famous men took time out from their wives to steal glances at her across the room. Her dreams did not include the absence of a menu, brown lumpy stuff and a waiter who looked like he’d eaten bad chicken the night before. In fact, Toby noticed, while the wine stewards were all fine, strong men, the food waiters who passed through the flickering firelight were frightening to behold. Their faces shone with a veneer of sweat that beaded and ran into the rough spun tunics they wore. They shook as though palsied, and each of them moved as slowly as possible, hurrying only under the glare of the wine stewards. Not one of the waiters looked Irish.
“What is this bleedin’ crap!” hissed Marie.
“Er-Erta,” said the waiter. He looked terrified. “Erta.”
She grabbed a bowl and thrust it under her boyfriend’s nose. Its scent was pungent though not unpleasant. “Would you eat this? Would ya feed it to your bleedin’ dog?”
Toby winked at her, and in a very exaggerated German accent said, “We might as well eat, dear. Since we are for it paying.”
She scowled. The evening was not proceeding at all as he’d hoped.
“The stingy wasters didn’t even give us a feckin’ spoon!” hissed Marie.
Toby ignored her outburst. He took the bowl and popped a lump of the sticky paste into his mouth. But he didn’t get to taste it, for the very second the Erta touched his tongue he was distracted by a memory.
He saw Eloise, a girlfriend from a time before he’d met Marie. They’d broken up because of his stupidity, but the memory was unspoiled by this fact, as if he lived it now for the first time with no knowledge of what was to come. It was February, and Eloise had snuck out of bed, thinking him asleep. Ten minutes later, curiosity overcame him, and he followed her. He stepped quietly out of the bedroom and saw Eloise sitting at the kitchen table in a baggy tee-shirt. A shaft of sun fell through the skylight, picking out the red in her hair and running over a bare shoulder where the collar had stretched too far. She was wrapping a fine watch in colored foil. It must have cost her several week’s wages. He was filled with a wave of tenderness for her such as he’d never felt before. He’d told her not to bother! Nobody cared about 22nd birthdays! But he was simultaneously delighted and moved.
Carefully, so as not to destroy the moment by alerting her, he padded back into the flat’s only bedroom, and lay there grinning at the ceiling until sleep overtook him.
“What’s it like?” asked Marie.
“Hmm? Oh! Yeah,” he smiled, “Beautiful.”
Perhaps Marie blushed at that, perhaps she thought he’d meant her. But Toby was already reaching for another bite.
Dozens of memories followed. They appeared in triumph from out of the nooks and crannies he’d thought he’d lost them in. The best moments in his short life paraded before his eyes, hitting him in a flood: his first beer with dad, sitting proudly among the men; six candles on a cake, the doorbell ringing and presents arriving; Eloise again, Eloise… And then…
And then his fingers were rubbing desperately at the rough bowl in search of more crumbs.
He looked up for what felt like the first time in hours. Marie’s bowl was empty and her face bore all the hallmarks of stunned bliss. “Jaysus, Toby. Jaysus! And we thought it made you smart!” Her hand snaked over to ruffle his hair. Eloise used to do that. A deep sadness filled him.
Marie was beginning to recover her composure. “How’re we gonna get out of here?” she said. Toby had thought of that earlier. He’d planned to complain about the food and refuse payment. Now, the best solution would be to make a run for it. Who was going to stop them? They should wait for the big wine stewards to move to the far corners of the room, and then head for the exit, bursting out of the building into the darkness, laughing and happy. Then they could go home to Marie’s place; he could rip that lovely dress off, kiss the white skin of her neck while his hands… his hands…
The thought left him cold.
“You go on home,” he said to her. “If anyone asks, just say yer off t’ the jacks t’ powder yer nose. They’ll not be worried since it’s me who’s payin’.”
She didn’t wait to be asked twice, seemingly unconcerned as to how he would make his own escape afterwards. Perhaps she was right. After all, what were they going to do to him if they caught him? Make him wash dishes? Dust the antiques?
Marie disappeared into the shadows. Toby sipped his wine and tried to come to terms with the sadness that seemed to be drowning him. Eloise! So many of the memories had been of her. Why had he been so stupid? Why?
He was still there an hour later when a couple of the wine stewards came for him. They were most polite.
“Would you like the bill now, Herr Schneider?”
“I have no money,” he said.
The complete version of “The Evil Eater” appears in Black Gate 13.