A Saturday on
'Short back and sides, leave some weight on the top and front,' says the customer. Tony nods but cuts the man’s hair exactly as he cuts every customer’s hair. Tony has been the only barber on the island for thirty-seven years and he knows how a man ought to wear his hair. He works quickly; he needs to leave at noon and it’s a quarter to already.
'You taking the boat today?' says Gracie. She’s wiping the tables outside her café as Tony locks up.
Tony has taken the 12.30pm boat to the mainland, two return tickets tucked in his wallet, almost every Saturday for the thirty years they’ve known each other.
'Stay away from them gold diggers over there,' Gracie says, as she does every week.
'Don’t want you coming back hitched to some cute 22 year-old.'
Tony grunts his acknowledgement and, in his pocket, fingers the notes he’d taken from the cashbox to see him through the weekend. He was 22 when he came to the island to avoid making a commitment that he hadn’t been ready for then. He isn’t going to be anyone’s meal ticket now.
On the boat, returning holidaymakers cluster near the bow, hoping to glimpse dolphins. Tony sits at the stern, one hand resting proprietorial on his old golf bag, and watches the island gradually fade from sight.
Jeff collects him at the harbour as usual. Apart from a greeting, neither say much. He’s driving the Tesla today and on the way to the club he indicates a sports bag on the rear seat.
'Kate’s fixed us some lunch.'
Tony reaches for the bag and rummages inside, nodding approvingly. It’s the same lunch every Saturday.
'You’ve got a fine woman there, Jeff. Should have married her myself while you were out of the way in Washington.'
Jeff doesn’t respond. Tony says that every Saturday too, a gentle reminder that one college roommate had landed an internship at the White House while the other had spent six months fetching coffee for corporate lawyers.
Despite the heat, they walk between the tees and the greens. Tony suggests renting a cart but Jeff says he needs the exercise - he’s been sleeping in hotels and eating out every night for the past week - and Tony appreciates his tact. Jeff’s golf balls are monogrammed in gold leaf and at this club even the roughs are sprinkled daily at dusk. A cart for the afternoon would cost more than Tony’s room will for the night.
Afterwards, Jeff drops Tony at his motel, back near the harbour. As he lost the game, Tony invites Jeff for a beer in the diner next door but Jeff declines. He’s on a flight to Frankfurt that evening and wants to be home for dinner with Kate before he goes.
'I’m in Europe all week but I’ll see you next Saturday,' he says.
'Time you cut down on all that travelling,' says Tony, knowing Jeff never will.
As Jeff drives away, Tony taps out a short text to one of the half-dozen numbers he keeps stored on his phone, then walks into the motel reception. The phone vibrates in his trouser pocket even before he reaches the desk. He glances at it, allows himself a smile of anticipation, and taps in a short acknowledgement of the message.
In the diner, Tony eats alone. He has his usual – steak, cooked rare, salad, fries and a half bottle of Malbec.
'I’m finishing my shift at ten tonight if you want some help with the other half of that bottle, honey,' says his regular waitress.
Tony wishes for an immediate response, something to make him seem witty and entertaining, but he’s never been that quick. It doesn’t matter in any case. She’s only flirting because he is always there alone and she knows he always leaves a decent tip. He pays for his meal by card but tips in cash, so the management can’t take a slice off the top.
It’s a warm evening and after dinner Tony takes a walk around the harbour. The last boat of the day from the island is approaching and in a few minutes the day trippers will pour off, voicing daydreams about quitting their busy lives and moving there.
In his mind’s eye Tony sees himself arriving on the island, stepping off the boat with most of what he owned in a couple of suitcases. He thought he’d be there for the summer - enough time to get over her. Then he’d come home, start again, perhaps meet someone else and settle down. Summer had become winter, another summer passed and soon it was winter again.
Some nights he stands at the end of the jetty and imagines the lights of the mainland reflecting in the clouds on the horizon. Had he stayed there, he could have had the life Jeff has: the cars; the travel; the houses; the over-achieving grown-up kids; the monogrammed golf balls; the wife.
Tony won’t harbour regrets, because his home is the island, now.
Except he never did get over her.
Lying in bed, Tony checks his wallet. Both tickets back to the island are still there. He reads the message on his phone again and wonders if tomorrow that spare ticket might, finally, be needed. The possibility feels so real that he can reach into the screen and touch it, but he’s experienced so many Sunday morning disappointments over the years. He won’t know for sure until the first boat is about to sail.
Around midnight, a knock sounds at the door. Tony remembers to flick off the bedside lamp before getting up to answer. Even when they were in college, Kate hated undressing with the lights on.
First published by Flash Fiction Magazine, November 2021
Image by Jay Mantri on Pixabay