Read by Sarah Feathers
“Snapper or veal, sir?” asked the waiter again.
Roger often said that there were two types of people in the world. There were those who knew fish should only be consumed with white wine, and those who didn’t. It seemed to Elsa that if you were going to live your life by arbitrary rules, then that one made as much sense as anything else.
The bottle of vinho verde white wine that Elsa had ordered sat opened on the table between them.
“The veal is served in a velouté sauce,” said Roger. “What does that mean exactly?”
The waiter, swarthy with some kind of boil on his wrist that he kept scratching, looked bored.
“Velouté is, how is it in English, a light sauce. We make the stock thick with flour and butter.”
“Hmm,” said Roger.
Elsa was thinking about how there were really only two types of people in the world that mattered. There were those folks who could make a decision, and those who just fucking couldn’t.
“This veal,” asked Roger, taking a careful sip of wine. “It could almost be called a white meat, couldn’t it?”
The waiter looked puzzled. “Yes, is meat. Finest meat veal and cooked medium rare.”
“If you don’t like the sound of that, then get the snapper,” suggested Elsa.
“Perhaps I will,” said Roger.
“OK.” The waiter started to write.
“You know that you wouldn’t be able to eat meat with this wine anyway,” said Elsa carelessly.
Roger exhaled through his nostrils. “I’ll have the veal,” he snapped.
“Don’t be like this,” she said.
“Like what?” he replied. “I’m not like anything.”
The other tables were filling up. O Muro was popular, just like the Rough Guide to Lisbon had said. Most people seemed to prefer the inside of the restaurant. Elsa guessed sitting out on the terrace was for tourists, but she loved the view. House lights on the opposite bank gleamed like tiny fires all the way up the steep hillside.
“Will we manage to get to the post office tomorrow?” said Roger suddenly.
Their flight was at eleven. “We’ll try,” said Elsa.
Roger tapped the postcard he had been carrying in his top pocket. It showed the Castelo de São Jorge. They’d got lost there on their second day.
“I’m sure Russell will appreciate it,” said Elsa.
Roger said nothing. Elsa knew Russell wouldn’t appreciate it – he was the most surly teenager Elsa had ever met. He wouldn’t like the fact that Roger had made her sign the card too, in the small space that he’d left after “Much love from Dad and …” She’d tried hard – he was Roger’s son, after all – but nothing seemed to please him. She knew that Roger found his son difficult too, but they never talked about that.
“It’s getting busy,” said Roger.
The restaurant was full now, with a small knot of people waiting by the entrance for a table to come free. Elsa noticed a young man moving amongst the tables.
“What does that guy want?” Roger had noticed him too.
“Just begging, I think.”
“Gypsies,” said Roger. “I’ve read about them in the guidebook.”
Elsa watched an elderly woman at a nearby table embrace the young man and press something into his hand.
“Everyone wants something for nothing nowadays,” said Roger. “I’m sick of it.”
Their starters came. Elsa poured more wine.
“Why don’t you try one of these figs wrapped in Parma ham? They’re delicious.”
When Roger smiled and nodded, she speared a fig with her fork. He was leaning forward to taste it when someone jostled him.
“Poderia me ajudar, por favor?”
It was the gypsy. Elsa realised he was younger than she had thought, a thin boy of about fourteen wearing an old Lacoste shirt that was too big for him. He reached out to touch Roger’s shoulder again, but Roger squirmed away. Roger didn’t like being touched by strangers.
“De onde você é?” said the gypsy.
“What’s he saying?” said Roger. Neither of them spoke Portuguese.
“Go away,” said Roger.
The gypsy kept talking. Roger flapped his hands.
“Shoo, shoo. Go away.”
The boy’s voice was low but urgent.
“He wants money,” said Elsa.
“No, no,” said Roger, shaking his head vigorously.
The boy pointed to his mouth.
“He’s hungry,” said Elsa. She felt weak, as if she had inadvertently laid bare some secret.
“No, he’s not,” said Roger. “We … will… not … give … you … anything.” He drew the syllables out so slowly Elsa could barely understand him.
The boy smiled and touched the goat’s cheese tart on Roger’s plate.
“Euurgh!” said Roger, and slapped the boy’s hand. The blow made a flat smacking sound. The boy curled his hand into a fist.
“Quem ...?” said the gypsy loudly.
Then the waiter was there. Shoving the boy back into a table with a tinkle of glasses and cutlery, hustling him away down the terrace.
“Much sorry, gentleman and lady, a thing to be regretted ...” said the waiter.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Elsa quickly.
“I’m OK,” said Roger. “I’m fine.”
After the waiter left, they were quiet.
“Maybe you should have given him a couple of euro,” suggested Elsa.
“For what exactly?” said Roger. “Besides, I don’t have more than ten euros left. I’m trying to get rid of them before we go home.”
Roger picked up his knife and cut away the crust where the gypsy had touched it. Then he used the fork to drop the tainted piece on the ground.
Elsa pushed her last fig away, the Parma ham limply unfurling like a flag of surrender. When the waiter came for their plates, she noticed Roger had eaten less than half of his tart.
“Another bottle, please,” asked Elsa.
All around them, the restaurant was full of talk and laughter. Elsa noticed that the noise in the restaurant was much louder than the tables along the terrace where the tourists sat. That might have just been the sound refracting off the walls, she thought, or perhaps the foreign language made it seem louder, less digestible. She thought she glimpsed the gypsy on the far side of the restaurant, but she didn’t have her contacts in.
They waited a while for the second bottle. A boat meandered by, festooned with multi-coloured lights. Through the windows, Elsa could see a dance floor with a mirror ball. It was almost empty, only a few couples moving to a beat she couldn’t hear. Elsa liked to dance. It had been a while – how long? – since she’d last danced.
When the waiter finally came with the wine he also brought their main meals. Roger’s veal looked appetising, the meat plump in the rich sauce. Her snapper looked good too, even if the fish’s eyes had been pressurised by cooking and bulged out unnaturally from its head. Perhaps Portuguese snapper were always like that though, she told herself.
“The veal for you, sir. You like the velouté sauce?”
Roger chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “Yes, it’s quite good.” He cut off another small piece, and chewed it even more thoroughly. “It’s OK with the wine.”
The waiter squinted at the label. “Excellent. Bom appetito.”
“He didn’t ask you about the snapper,” said Roger.
“It’s fine,” said Elsa.
“He knew you’d say that.”
They finished their main courses in silence. At the end of the meal, taking the plates away, the waiter dripped velouté sauce down Roger’s front.
“Oh, no!” Roger dabbed at the sauce with his fingers.
“Leave it,” said Elsa. “I’ll deal with it when we get home.”
“I don’t want it to set,” he replied fretfully.
For the next ten minutes, Elsa watched him busy himself rubbing his napkin on the stain while the restaurant bustled around them. They skipped desert, but they ordered coffee and port. They drank in silence. The port was excellent: benign and flavourful, tasting of warmth and sunshine. It had not been a good dinner, she thought, but it had not been their worst dinner either.
When the bill came, Elsa took out her wallet to pay. Roger took up the bill and started to scrutinize it.
“It’s very reasonable,” said Elsa. She put down a twenty and a ten-euro note on the saucer. The waiter whisked it away. “Let’s go.”
“No, it’s not reasonable,” said Roger. “They’ve charged us for two snapper – look.”
She looked where he was pointing. He was right.
“It’s because you changed your mind when we were ordering. We’ll just think of it as a generous tip.”
“It’s because they got it wrong, and we shouldn’t have to pay for that,” said Roger. “I’ll sort this out.”
“Couldn’t we just leave this be?” asked Elsa, but Roger wasn’t listening.
Through the window, she watched him thread his way through the restaurant. In his dirty shirt he looked like a beggar, Elsa thought. She watched him arguing with the waiter, and then with the owner. When the owner returned with a new bill on another saucer, Roger grabbed one of the banknotes and returned to the terrace, waving it like a tiny banner.
“Did you leave them a tip?” asked Elsa.
“Yeah, improve the service,” sneered Roger. He folded the ten-euro note in half and tucked it ostentatiously behind the postcard in his shirt pocket.
Elsa felt as if she were the one who had made the mistake. She never knew with minor details if they mattered a little or a lot. She wanted to go back and put five euros on the table, but it seemed like everybody in the restaurant was watching them go. She just wanted to get away.
They walked back up the cobbled streets in silence. Roger was looking for something. Stamps maybe, thought Elsa. Tomorrow there would not be enough time. Russell wouldn't care about the postcard, but Roger would still be unhappy.
Nothing ever changes, she thought, not really.
Halfway home, they heard running footsteps behind them. When Elsa turned, she almost screamed. It was the young gypsy, looming close, still talking with quiet insistence. In his left hand, held down against his thigh, Elsa saw a knife.
“Give him the money,” Elsa said. She held out her purse, but the gypsy ignored her.
“No,” said Roger firmly.
Elsa’s throat constricted.
Roger took a step forward. The gypsy touched the postcard sticking out of Roger’s pocket.
Suddenly the two were scuffling, an ineffectual flailing and struggling of limbs that seemed to throw them both off balance. Elsa screamed, and looked around for help. She saw no one. Roger lashed out, and the gypsy fell back. When something metal clattered onto the cobblestones, the gypsy turned and ran away.
Roger shouted, the sound full of fear and anger. Elsa bent to pick up the knife. It looked like one of the knives from the restaurant.
“Elsa,” said Roger.
“I’m all right,” she croaked. Her throat relaxed, releasing the oxygen in her lungs up into her head.
She decided to leave the knife alone. Perhaps the police would do something with it. When she straightened up, Roger was holding his side. There was a dark stain underneath his shirt pocket.
“Elsa?” said Roger again.
Elsa braced Roger with one arm and fumbled with her phone. When she called “999”, it didn’t work. “911” wouldn’t even connect. Her frantic fingers pressed the recall button.
The call went through. Elsa listened to the phone on the other end begin to ring. She noticed that the bloodstain on Roger’s shirt was spreading. It was the same side as the velouté sauce, she thought wildly: cleaning it would be easier.
Elsa wondered why she might think such a thing, here and now.
Someone picked up the phone.
“Restaurant O Muro,” said a faraway voice.
She opened her mouth, trying to think about everything she needed to say.
What came to her instead was the thought that there really were only two kinds of people in this world. There were people who made certain choices, and people who didn’t. The difference between them might be tiny or enormous, depending on your point of view. But what actually mattered – what you couldn’t always judge when the decision was made – was whether you wanted to live with the consequences.
Gratuity by David Bausor was read by Sarah Feathers at the Liars' League Give & Take event on Tuesday, December 13th, 2011, at The Albany, Great Portland Street, London.