A fiver, at least

A short story by Tina Konstant

“I can’t do it. I can’t. I’m a hopeless, useless, pathetic liar. You know what happens when I lie.” Eliza Grant covers her face for a moment and looks up at her oldest friend.

Nicki grins at Eliza’s scarlet cheeks, pushes her dessert plate away and licks cream from the tip of her spoon. “I know what happens you try to lie, think about lying or even pretend to think about lying.”

“It’s my mother’s fault.” Eliza slumps back in the cushioned chair of the outdoor café nestled between hundred year old trees. “I used to be a brilliant liar. Lied for no reason at all as a kid. Just for the fun of it.” She takes a mouthful of apple crumble (custard congealed around the edges), puts her head to one side and doesn’t have to try hard to sound like her mother. “Where have you been, Eliza? I’d say I’d been to the park when I’d been to the beach. No reason to lie. The beach wasn’t out of bounds. It’s just that lying was easy.”

Nicki puts £15 on the table. Her share of lunch including a tip. Eliza pushes the half eaten dessert away and hands the other half of the bill to the waiter who puts change on the small silver tray between them. Before Eliza can call the waiter back to give him his tip, Nicki pockets it.

“What?” Nicki holds up her hands. “The service was rubbish.”

“The service wasn’t rubbish.”

“The coffee was cold.”

“No it wasn’t.”

“OK, fine. I need change for parking.”

Eliza puts an extra £5 on the plate as she leaves the restaurant.

On the path outside the café, Nicki turns left and strolls further into the park jangling parking change in her coat pocket. “So, you going to tell him?”

Eliza catches up with her friend and links arms. “I thought you had to go straight to work after lunch.” Change the subject. Smooth.

Nicki lifts her face to the sun. “I told them I wasn’t feeling so good. I said I needed to take the rest of the day off.”

“Jeez, Nicki. You’re going to get caught.”

Nicki stops and turns to Eliza. “Get caught for what? It’s mostly true. I don’t feel good when you’re in such a mess.”

“Don’t make this about me.”

“It’s not about you. It’s about me. I can’t concentrate, so I wouldn’t be doing my job, so I’d be wasting their money and my time. The truth is that charging them for an unproductive afternoon is what’s really dishonest.”

“Then why say you’re sick? Why make an excuse?”

“Because people need to hear what makes them comfortable. If I said – I’m not coming in because I’d rather have lunch and spend the afternoon with my buddy – they’ll call me uncommitted and kick me out. But I am committed. Just not right now. So I make it easy for them. Tomorrow they’ll ask if I’m feeling better and I’ll say yes. They’ll feel all good about themselves for caring and we can all get on with our jobs. Harmony and afternoon tea. So, are you going to tell him?”

“It’s not really up to me.”

“Not saying anything is tantamount to lying.”

“So I just won’t go home at all then.”

Nicki leads Eliza across the narrow bridge crossing a stream. “How can this one little lie hurt you?”

“He’ll find out and hate me. He won’t ever believe anything I say again.”

“So tell the truth.”

“I can’t. That’ll hurt him more.”

“You can’t have it all.”

“I can’t lie!”

“Okay, stop.” Nicki grips Eliza by the shoulders and holds her friend still, looking at her. “I’m going to point to a person and I want you to tell me one good thing about that person that you see.” She swings Eliza round and points to a man on a bench with a phone pressed against his ear and a sandwich on his lap.

“He’s got a nice smile,” Eliza says, frowning, glancing at her friend.

“Yes.” Nicki nods. “He’s also so fat he’s going to give himself a heart attack if he eats that sandwich. Now, we’re going walk past him. Which would you rather I said to him. Dude, you’ve got a great smile or Dude, you’re so fat you’re going to die?”

Nicki strides up to the man. Her steps, long and determined. The man looks up from his sandwich. A blob of mayonnaise escapes the crust and lands on the ground next to his shoe. He frowns, mutters something into his phone and glances up.

Eliza runs up behind Nicki. “Which one?” Eliza whispers. “His smile or his waistline? What am I going to say?”

“Oh, God, no Nicki.” Six strides to go. The man holds his phone away from his ear like it’s a witness to a pending assault. “Smile. His smile!”

Nicki stops in front of the man. “I just had to come over and tell you that you have a most amazing smile. I don’t often do this, really I don’t, but in your case, I had to.”

The man beams. His eyes crease around the edges, lighting his entire face, turning his cheeks slightly pink against the white of his teeth. “I thought you were going to hit me.”

Nicki laughs.

Behind her, Eliza breathes out. Sort of. God, she’s sweating.

“Nope,” Nicki says. “Just thought you should know. Your smile moved me from that end of the park to here. You’re a cool dude. See you round.”

“Ahh, yeah…” The man lets the phone hover by his head for a while before going back to his conversation. The smile stays on his face.

“Did I lie?” Nicki says as they pass a coffee station promising the best cappuccinos this side of the globe.

“No.” Eliza admits and orders a double espresso.

Nicki nods and leans against the coffee cart. “Do I tell this guy his coffee is rubbish or that his cakes are the best I’ve ever had?” Nicki whispers in Eliza’s ear.

“Please stop,” Eliza whispers back. “I get the point.”

“I don’t think you do.”

The barista spurts espresso into a tiny china cup and presented it to Eliza as though she’s won first prize.

“Your coffee…” Nicki starts.

The barista turns to Nicki and beams. “Beans. It’s all in the beans,” he says before she can say anything else. “I bring them all the way from Columbia myself.” He smiles. “My family grows them. All organic.” He waves his hands over his coffee like the pope blessing orphans.

“It’s lovely,” Nicki says and takes Eliza by the elbow, leading her to a small table under an oak tree.

Eliza sips her espresso.

“Is the coffee any good?” Nicki leans back, her face to the sun. “Organic. Home grown. All the way from his parent’s farm in Columbia.”

Eliza takes another sip. Maybe it just needs a bit of sugar. Maybe she should have ordered the hot chocolate. No. Espresso is what an adult drinks and she’s the adult, right? She’s supposed to have her hands on this situation. Right?

She picks up her phone and dials. After three rings, a voice hits her from the other end of the line. “Joyce here.”

Joyce. Eliza would rather have her a kidney removed than talk to Joyce who’s sharp and strong and knows everything about everything and thinks it’s her duty to let Eliza know it.

“Can you please put Chris on the phone?”

Joyce pauses. “Are you sure? Haven’t you perhaps done enough damage? I said I would handle it.”

Damage. Eliza pushes her cup away. If she’s honest, the coffee is awful. No amount of sugar can fix it. That’s just the truth. Sometimes things can’t be sweetened.

Joyce carries the phone over to Chris. Eliza watches the barista make a show out of preparing a hot chocolate for a child. “This chocolate comes all the way from a mountain where there’s a giant goat who runs things! Did you know that?”

The child shakes his head. “Noooooo.”

“Indeed.” The barista winks at the father standing next to the child. “That goat has a thousand puppies with sacks on their backs. They run up and down the trees collecting the chocolate and they send it all to me. On the backs of those pigeons.” He point to a dozen pigeons picking seeds out the soil around the base of the tree. “Smartest puppies in the world.”

“Puppies pick the chocolate?”

“Yep.”

The child looks up at his dad. “Can we have a pigeon, Dad?”

The dad glances at the birds. “They’re too busy delivering chocolate.” Quick thinking.

“Then a puppy?” Smart kid.

The boy and his dad stroll out the park careful not to disturb the pigeons.

“Hello?” Eliza hunches over her phone as Chris picks up. “Hey, Chris, how you doing?”

“Fine.”

He’s upset. She can tell.

“Listen… Ahhh.” She glances up at Nicki who throws a bit of pastry to the pigeons. They flutter and peck at it until it’s gone.

“It was my fault. I forgot to tell the tooth fairy you’ve moved.”

“Forgot?” The six-year-old wails.

“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m new to this. I didn’t have his phone number.”

“Why?” Chris sniffs.

“Well, when you were born, the stork would have given your parents a list of all these important numbers.”

“Whose?”

“Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy.”

“Mum and Dad didn’t give them to you before they left?”

Left? Oh, God.

“They did. I’m sure they did. I just haven’t looked them out yet.” Eliza rubs her eyes and wonders how the kid’s parents would have handled this. Her practical, honest sister and her peaceful poet of a husband. Both dead and buried… Correction: both looking down on their son from Heaven.

Chris shuffles, scraping the phone. Most likely wiping his nose on his sleeve.

The fat man on the bench finishes his sandwich, beams at a passing woman who says hello. The boy with the chocolate skips out the park with a dozen puppy names to choose from already. The barista serves another home-grown Columbian coffee to a tourist who doesn’t notice the Bulk Buy Coffee Bean Bags under the counter. He just enjoys the story and figures all British coffee tastes bad.

Everyone smiles. Everyone turns their faces to the sun. The world keeps rolling by.

Eliza goes back to the barista and orders a hot chocolate made by cocoa picked by puppies and delivered by pigeons. “Put the tooth under your pillow, Sweetie. I’ll call the Tooth Fairy and let him know where you are.”

“How much is the Tooth Fairy paying these days?” Nicki asks when Eliza finally hangs up.