The restaurant was on the top floor and the windows took up the whole of one wall; their double height panes of glass letting in the spring sunshine. From the top of each frame hung an oversized light-bulb inside a clear globe; all of them were switched on, despite the brightness of the day.
George headed for a table, hoping he'd get there before anyone else grabbed the last empty seat by the window. He held his tray carefully, trying to balance it; hoping the cup of milky coffee wouldn't slide into the plate, make a soggy mess of his jam doughnut.
The shopping centre had been built into a disused chalk quarry. Its glass domes and pointed steel towers filled the crater like a crashed alien space-ship. Far below he could see people arriving, entering the store. Already, on this first warm day of the year, they'd come out without their coats, relishing the feel of sunshine on necks and wrists, knowing it wouldn't be long before they could bare arms and legs. He thought of Lily, "cast ne'er a clout til May is out.” It bothered him that he could barely picture her face, even after such a short time; but her sayings were still there, just under the surface of his consciousness, her voice ready to whisper in his ear at the slightest prompt.
So many people outside. Young couples, new families with babies in pushchairs, mothers and daughters with matching haircuts, similar walks. He watched a man taking a long deep drag on a cigarette before dropping it to the floor and slowly stubbing it out. His wife waiting impatiently for him to take his last gasp, before entering the smoke-free halls of the shopping centre. Some couples were already returning to their cars, laden down with bags; he guessed they were the serious shoppers who knew exactly what they'd come for, bought it, then left. Funny, though, how many of them did the same 'pocket-patting-checking' action as they walked towards their car, trying to remember where they'd put the keys.
Sunlight caught on the wing-mirrors and glossy paintwork of a long line of cars, winding round and down the sides of the quarry, ready to fill each car space as it became empty. Everywhere he looked there were cars and people, constantly moving. They looked small from this height, reminding George of the way insects scurry around when their homes are disturbed, the cars like beetles, the people like ants. He imagined Lily ticking him off for being over fanciful, shook his head to dismiss the thought.
On the glass just in front of him were a set of child-size fingerprints. He could picture a little lad on tip-toe, nose against the window, gazing out at the scene below. At the next table a young girl sat watching. When she saw him looking, she offered a small conspiratorial smile, then hid her face behind both hands, offering up a game of peepo. She was brightly dressed in a pink corduroy pinafore over a striped t-shirt that matched her tights, peach and lemon, mint-green and lilac, a palette of pastel rainbow-colours, optimistic, happy, young. George smiled back, then raised his own hand to cover his face.
Slowly he opened his fingers, peered through the bent, swollen joints, but the girl had turned away, her attention distracted by the balloon tied to a nearby pushchair. He felt foolish, dropped his hand quickly. Too quickly. Before he knew it the coffee cup was on its side, pale brown liquid seeping across the tray. Lily would never have left the cup and plate on the tray, she liked to do things properly, eat nicely wherever they were. He’d forgotten to get napkins too, so he groped in his pockets for a handkerchief, but there was only a screwed up piece of tissue. There'd been no more neatly ironed, monogrammed, hankies in his sock-drawer. He hadn’t bothered washing any.
Small stupid acts of rebellion; not just the tea-tray and the handkerchiefs, what on earth had he been thinking, coming here today? She’d have hated it; the bright lights, the maze of shops, the hoards of people buying things they didn’t really need. Who was he kidding, this was no place for a silly daft old man, he should just go for the bus, get himself back home.
Slowly he started to get to his feet, looking across the restaurant for someone he could tell about the spillage, someone he could apologise to for the mess. At first he barely noticed the gentle tug on the hem of his jacket, but then it became more insistent. He looked down, saw the bright colours of her t-shirt, even through the blur of unwanted tears.
She held out a pile of napkins. “Mummy said you might need these”.
As he reached for them it seemed her smile shone brighter than all the lights in the windows, warmer than the sun outside.