I was sitting across a restaurant table from Roger, whom I had never liked. Every so often, in mid sentence, his tongue would creep from his mouth and lick his lower lip. For years I analysed this and so far had not managed to fathom his peculiar habit, for “peculiar” to me it did seem. Each time he paused his speech, I carefully considered the word on either side of his lick. I watched his tongue tiptoeing over his lower tip and tossed the words around in my mind, ever more frantically, as if my solving of the riddle might magically beat his tongue into retreat. But no, I could see no reason and was left to endure the torment of that sight—unexplained.
We were arguing over who should wear the red sash on 6 August, which was seen as a great privilege in our village. I had no interest in wearing the sash but since Roger did, I was arguing with him.
“I am six foot tall and walk in a dignified manner,” he said.
He paused after the word “walk” to lick his lower lip. I certainly winced internally at the sight but hoped I maintained an unruffled exterior, for I prided myself on my diplomacy. Nevertheless, I told him:
“There is nothing dignified about your walk.”
“How dare you,” he said.
“I have noticed, for years, that you walk with a stoop.”
“I do not.”
“Yes, you do. Walk up and down in front of that mirror and look for yourself.”
“I’m not parading back and forth for your gratification.”
“I would not be gratified, I can assure you,” I told him.
“I seek no assurance from you, of anything. I can assure you,” he told me.
“And what makes you think I want assurances from you?” I asked.
“Well, you’re not getting them, anyway,” he said.
“Well, I don’t want them,” I told him.
We seemed to have settled the question of assurances and we each sat back and attempted to look dignified and uninterested in the other party.
The waiter arrived and placed a dish in front of me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Trout stuffed with celery,” he told me as he placed a delicious-looking meal before Roger.
“I didn’t order this,” I told him.
“Just eat it,” he said and walked away. I watched him strut around the restaurant like an undefeated stag.
Roger paused his eating and asked, “Aren’t you going to start?” nodding at the insolent trout lying on my plate.
I took my fork and began toying with the trout’s left eye. Its mouth seemed to hang open, reminding me of Roger’s creeping tongue. I felt like stabbing it in the eye but managed to restrain myself, not wanting to reveal my annoyance to Roger, lest he managed to derive pleasure from it. Instead I limited myself to nudging the trout in its ribs with my fork, shifting its position on my plate now and then, but showing no other interest in it. I ate a potato and tried to look satisfied.
“Red has always looked good on me,” said Roger. “You’re not touching your trout.”
“I have shoved it several times,” I told him.
“You haven’t eaten it, I mean.”
“I know what you mean. Do you think I’m stupid?”
“It looks good to me.”
“You’re quite fat enough with what you’ve just eaten,” I told him.
“I am not fat.”
“Well, why are you eyeing up my trout, then?”
“I’m not eyeing it up. I was just looking at it.”
“You were using your eyes. That’s eyeing it up, isn’t it?”
“It depends how you look at it. I certainly wasn’t eyeing it up. I was just glancing at it.”
“Well, that’s what you say.”
Roger folded his arms and looked away. I did the same. We each studied a separate wall of the restaurant for a minute or two.
My mother, who was sat at a nearby table knitting a pullover, walked over to me and tried it against me. She leant close to my ear and whispered, “There will be consequences.” She walked back to her table, pausing to look back at me and point at me, warningly. She sat at her table and continued knitting. Occasionally she caught my eye and gave me a subtle nod or a wink.
The waiter placed a bill on the table in front of me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Your bill,” he said.
“But I didn’t order it. Why should I pay for it?”
“You’ve been playing with it.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Yes, you have; I’ve been watching you.”
“You’ve been what?” I asked, indignant.
“You’ve got no business to be watching me.”
“It’s my restaurant.”
“Do you own it?”
“I didn’t say I owned it.”
“I just heard you. You’re a liar.”
“Very well. If that’s the way you want to play it,” he said, and walked away.
Roger said, “You might as well eat it now, since you’re paying for it.”
“I am not paying for it,” I told him, and watched my mother’s agile fingers building, stitch by stitch, the front of my pullover. She kept glancing at me, as though keeping an eye on her child as he played. As her fingers worked, she slowly shook her head at me.
Two burly men arrived at our table, each with a yellow rose tattooed on their upper arm, one on the right arm, the other on the left, as though they were the mirror imaged of each other. I was busy examining these roses when one of them said:
“Come with us.”
“Do what?” I said.
“Come with us.”
“But I haven’t eaten my trout yet.”
“He said he’s not going to,” Roger told them.
“That doesn’t mean I’m not going to,” I said, in desperation.
“Who’s a liar now!” said Roger.
“Come with us,” said the second burly man, who seemed less patient than the first. Nevertheless, I tried distracting him with an elaborate intellectual argument and soon found myself being lifted from my chair and transported from the restaurant. Two days later, I was stood before a judge.
“You should not play with fish,” the judge told me.
“I was not playing with it.”
“You were seen doing it.”
“He’s a liar,” shouted Roger.
“Order!” shouted the judge. “I will decide who’s a liar and who is not.”
“The waiter’s a liar,” I said.
“Do you mean you were not playing with the trout?” asked the judge.
“No; he said he owned the restaurant, but he didn’t”
“So, you admit playing with the trout?”
“I nudged it a few times; I did not play with it.”
“I’ll decide if nudging it a few times is playing with it, or not. Exactly how did you nudge it?”
“With my fork,” I said, puzzled.
“Hmmm. That sounds playful to me,” said the judge.
“I was not playing,” I shouted.
“Did your fork pierce its skin?”
“Did you cause a wound?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, there you are. You were clearly playing with it. If you had serious intentions, you would have pressed your fork through its skin and into its flesh, but instead you merely played with it.”
For the remainder of the trial, I remained in stunned silence. I was then taken to an open field on the hillside that overlooked the village. The two burly men were charged with constructing my prison and for days they toiled, carefully placing each solid, irrefutable brick upon the ever rising walls of my cell, leaving me only one small window. They placed their last brick on the morning of 6 August, and through my window I watched Roger parading on the grass of that hillside, adorned in the red sash. Back and forth, smiling, caressing the sash, watching my cell, turning, parading back down the hill, then back up again, but somehow seeming unable to wear his victory in comfort. It did not fit, was too small, too large, or irritated his skin with its rough fabric. His delight was corrupted with worry. He increased his pace, became almost frantic. He had the red sash but it was not enough; something was missing. Finally he ran to my cell and shouted in at my window:
“I ordered the trout. Ha! What do you think of that?”
He strutted off. His victory was now complete.
28 April 2011
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