The tiny Korean restaurant in bustling Soho was just picking up speed on a Friday. Kia, the ‘head’ waitress (out of the 3 who worked there) was running an expert eye over the ‘table settings’ – a small boat with jars of soya sauce, chilli sauce and salt, aluminium chopsticks, and paper napkins (they had had to discontinue the cloth ones last year…apparently another fallout of the ‘recession’). She darted over to add a swipe on one wooden table, pull the chairs straight at another – and wonder, not for the first time, why she seemed to be the only one concerned about these things. The other two were off somewhere, no doubt trying to beat each others’ score at Candy Crush. As she hurried over to a beckoning old man in the corner table, she noticed a young couple enter and seat themselves in one of the tables at the centre.
They were an oddly matched pair. The woman was speaking Mandarin, and though Kia could not hear the exact words, there could be no doubt as to their intent. Flinging her scarf and coat on the back of her chair, black eyes flashing behind green-rimmed spectacles, she practically snarled at her blond companion who sat down opposite. He looked resigned, as if he had given up even before the fight had started. Conscious of the curious glances they were attracting, Angry-Eyes (as Kia mentally christened her) tried to control her tirade. She tried to concentrate on the menu instead, which seemed unperturbed at the scorching stare directed at it. Kia decided to wait a few minutes before going over to them.
The tables were set up in a way as to ensure there was no ‘privacy’. Care had been taken to maximise the utilization of space (rent was not cheap in these parts). Powers of meditation had to be called into play not to overhear the conversation at the next table. To the right of the couple was a boisterous group of men, their jackets thrown carelessly, ties loosened – as if they had already forgotten the week’s grind, sadistic bosses, deadlines, mortgages, irate fiancees. They probably had entertainment planned for the night and were finishing dinner early. They had ordered far too many bottles of Soju, and Kia hoped they left before they became unmanageable. On the left of the couple were two women, shopping bags at their feet. They were giggling at Angry-Eyes, amused at her obvious lack of tact, secure in their current ‘steady’ relationships. They were not old, but had passed the stage of uncertain dates, heartbreak, roller-coaster emotions and waiting for the phone to ring – or so they probably thought. Kia knew how Life could unexpectedly knock the wind out of you just when you thought you were almost ‘there’. But for tonight, they could look on condescendingly and feel a secret twinge of relief that they did not have to brave the perils of ‘single life’.
Taking the deep breath of a diver about to plunge into icy cold water, Kia made her way over to the couple to take their order. After expected arguments over the merits of the Bulgogi and the Bibimbap, the man finally pushed his menu away and asked Angry-Eyes to order for him. Probably realizing she had gone too far, she called truce and placated him by ordering his choice and a bottle of wine. Peace prevailed for a while at the little table. She tried to reason with him, and his sulky expression began to soften. By the time Kia returned with their order, even a reluctant laugh was heard. The group on the right had progressed onto the back-slapping stage, and shouting ‘dares’ at each other. Thankfully they seemed to be nearing the end, and hopefully would soon be gone. The women on the left seemed a little deprived of their entertainment now that Angry-Eyes was busy with her food. It was quite the lull. Suddenly the women perked up – there was action at the next table again. This time it was the man, who seemed to have had a slow fuse burning all this while. Without raising his voice too much, his words were scathing enough to have silenced Angry-Eyes. Soon hot tears were running down her cheeks. She tore at her napkin unconsciously, shredding the cheap paper to bits. Neither of them seemed to be bothered about their surroundings anymore. Their almost-finished dinner lay cold between the empty wine glasses. The man continued relentlessly, arms folded, a cruel smile on his lips. Angry-Eyes tried to say something in a pathetically broken voice. All bravado and aggression had deserted her. She suddenly looked very small and alone. The fickle public sympathy, which had hitherto been with the blond man, now was firmly turned towards her. As if the sympathy was even more intolerable to her than the derisive glances, she jerked back her chair, grabbed her scarf and stumbled out into the chilly night.
There was sudden silence. After a second the man got up and ran out after her. The women looked a little apprehensive, guilty of their momentary enjoyment, now that this seemed to have taken a serious turn. The boisterous group looked on merrily, peeping out of the window next to their table which looked out into the street. One of them called out to the man outside, pointing to the two coats still left on the chairs. Angry-Eyes was standing with her head bowed, while the man standing in front held onto her shoulders, seemingly apologetic. After a minute the man marched back in, picked up the coats, and rushed out again before Kia could react. She saw he had left a 5 pound note on the table. The bill was at least 30 pounds. She would have some explaining to do at tonight’s till reconciliation.
A few blocks down the road, the couple walked very fast, holding hands tightly. He looked ashamed. She looked determined. That was one night taken care of, and more food than they had managed in the last 3 days put together. Tomorrow they would have to think of something else. But at least there would be a tomorrow.