Jude was never late. Every day, he dialled a special telephone number to check the time and made sure his watch complied. On the morning of his date with Susan he examined his watch. The second hand flew around the face and the time was correct.
He studied his reflection in the hall mirror—his jaunty green bow tie sat between the sharp points of his collar, his hair was smoothed down with wax. He had shaved with such prolonged care there was a pink rash on his jawline.
His mother poked her head around the door to the lounge. For someone who spent all day at home she was wearing a lot of coral lipstick. ‘You’re looking very handsome,’ she said as she adjusted her hair net, ‘Are you going on a date?’
‘No, Mum,’ replied Jude. ‘Just thought I’d take a bit more care today. I’ll see you later.’
He caught the 9:30 bus into town, guaranteed to deliver him to the clock tower on Princes Street at 9:45. Sunshine flooded the interior of the bus and he looked down at the gleam of his polished black brogues.
Jude stood and waited at the clock tower in the middle of town. Women scurried around him. They clutched children, shopping trolleys and handbags, their faces careworn and harried. The men strode in haste, their heads down with hats tipped over their foreheads. As the clock chimed ten Jude felt a shiver of premonition. Susan would be late. They would not get a table at the tearooms. All the scones would be gone. The cream would turn. The jam would congeal. He tapped his foot on the ground as his gaze flitted to his watch.
10:05. Susan was nowhere to be seen. Perspiration moistened Jude’s forehead and his breathing quickened. The voices of the crowd jangled his mind, distorted and loud. He hummed to himself and tried to imagine he was alone. No one was staring at him, wondering why he was waiting. He was in his room reading a science fiction novel. The birds chirruped outside his window. His mother called him down for a pot of tea and toast soldiers.
Reality crashed in as a man elbowed him.
‘Watch it,’ said Jude and rubbed the spot on his waist. He glanced at his watch. 10:10.
A flash of titian curls and white teeth approached. ‘Hello Jude, sorry I’m late.’
Jude tried to form words, his face wan. He frowned and wrung his hands.
‘Jude? Are you all right?’
‘It’s ten past ten, Susan. You’re very late. The Tabanac Tearooms only makes sixty scones per day.’
‘Why don’t we go to the park and feed the ducks first? I’ve got some old crusts.’ She rummaged in her clutch and withdrew a paper bag.
Jude shifted from one foot to the other. ‘Ducks? But I’m hungry.’
Susan laughed. ‘You’re an odd duck yourself, Jude. Come on then, the tearooms it is.’ She slotted her hand into his and led him down the street. Jude flushed and he felt his face break open in a smile.
‘What if they’ve run out of scones?’
‘Well, we could try some French pastries. I hear they’re very good.’
Jude followed her, his irritation fading as he spotted the red and white awning of the tearooms. He ignored the pull of his watch and stepped inside.