The Taste of Goodbye – A short story by Sarah J Harris

May 15, 2018

Dinner datesGETTY

Would Bertha’s date with Attitcus be one to savour?

So what, exactly, are you up to?” Bertha placed her fork down next to the overcooked pici con ragù she’d pushed around her plate as Atticus had described his love of photographing postboxes around the country.

She’d enjoyed his elaborate vocabulary much more than her main course – that came as no surprise.

The food at Basilico was poor as usual, but that hadn’t stopped her returning – on four dates with Atticus and twice more with two other elderly gentlemen who also had unusual names.

“Is Bertha your real name or have you fabricated that as well?”

She sighed. The dinner had been memorable despite the sticky pasta, but now Atticus looked outraged, which was unsurprising given his much-stated passion for amateur dramatics as well as postboxes.

His expression was also totally justified, given her deception. “My name really is Bertha,” she said finally, dabbing her mouth with a napkin, “but I’m afraid you’re correct on every other single point. However did you find out?”

Atticus leaned back in his chair, stroking the tuft of hair sprouting from his right ear – a mannerism that had almost ruined her evening. He also looked a little crushed that she had confessed so easily.

But what was the point of continuing the charade? And the dessert menu wasn’t worth staying for. “I had my suspicions when you refused to share my taxi after our second date and walked in the wrong direction for the Richmond bus. After our last supper, I got my taxi driver to follow your bus.”

“You followed me?” Bertha said slowly.

“To 35 Radbrook Gardens in Isleworth, not Richmond,” Atticus finished triumphantly.

“The next morning I returned and happened to meet your neighbour, Mrs Finch.”

“Happened to meet?” Bertha felt dread curl up her spine, the way it had when Tobias had broken the news to her about his emphysema, a word that had left a singed matchstick taste on her tongue.

“My bridge club didn’t begin until 3pm so I loitered for an hour or two until Mrs Finch left to go shopping,” Atticus replied.

“She told me you’re a retired English teacher and your husband, Tobias, passed away 15 years ago. She also said you have no interest in gentlemen any more. What say you to that?”

“Fifteen years, three months and two days,” Bertha murmured.

Atticus shook his head. “Don’t play the widow card with me. My friends think you must be a gold-digger. You live in a shabby little flat and you’ve found out about my law practice pension.”

Bertha laughed loudly. “Tobias always said my sweet tooth would get me into trouble one day, but he encouraged it. Every Saturday, he used to buy me a Fry’s Five Centre. Do you remember them? Delicious chocolate bars in the world with segments of orange, raspberry, lime, strawberry and pineapple.”

Atticus shook his head. “Sadly, they were discontinued years ago. I’ve written to the company, begging them to bring Five Centres back, but to no avail.”

“We’re getting off the point,” Atticus stuttered.

“I thought I’d never taste one again. But then a friend pointed out your unusual name in a lonely- hearts newspaper column. Atticus. Immediately, I could taste a lovely, melted mixture of all five segments rolled together on my tongue.”

“I don’t understand,” Atticus said.

“My pension…” “I’m after your name, not your money,” Bertha explained. “This is going to sound strange, but I have this condition.” She hesitated before continuing.

“I can taste words. I always have, ever since I was a child. My best friend at school was Lily because her name tasted of strawberry lollipops and my husband’s name was barley sugar. That’s why I love this restaurant. Sometimes I taste sherbet dip or Turkish delight when the waiting staff introduce themselves. They always read out the specials menu to me because they think I’m gaga and the dish names are truly sensational. Staff at restaurants nowadays usually just point to the specials board. It’s such a pity.”

“I’ve never heard of such a ridiculous thing,” Atticus sniffed.

“It’s called lexical-gustatory synaesthesia if you want to look it up. I shouldn’t have lied about my background and address, but you can never be too careful nowadays. I just wanted to enjoy the flavours of my youth. Your name, and the overblown descriptions you always use, were too tempting for someone with a sweet tooth.”

“I’m not sure whether to be offended or flattered,” Atticus said shortly. “But I do feel sorry for you. It sounds like a terrible affliction.”

“It’s not a burden, it’s a gift,” Bertha replied.

“I can get great joy out of even the most tedious people simply because of their names and choice of words.”

Atticus stared, open-mouthed, as their unsmiling, dark-haired waitress returned with two laminated menus.

“Any desserts? Tonight’s special is rum baba with a fruit compote.” Bertha beamed at her.

“How lovely, Abrianna! Your rum baba tastes of Dutch chocolate and the compote of ice-cold watermelon. What an extraordinary combination.”

“I’m pretty sure the compote is raspberry,” the girl said, confused. “But I can check with chef?” “Don’t worry, dear,” Bertha replied, standing up.

“I think I’ve had more than enough sweets for one evening. Sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing.”

She picked up her jacket from the back of the chair and walked out of the restaurant before she could be tempted by the taste of Atticus’s goodbye.

Sarah J Harris’s novel The Colour Of Bee Larkham’s Murder (HarperCollins £12.99) is out now.

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