Fall 2019, Volume 27

Fiction by Justin Fenech

A Girl and Her Take-Away

On his way home from work on Boxing Day he saw her for the first time. It was a cold evening. Starlings performed their soundless murmurations as the moon hid behind the northern clouds.

He had never seen a face so completely expressionless. It was almost as though she lacked humanity. A cardboard figure given flesh. Her features were beautiful. Her jaw was sharp, her eyes an ever-changing blue, her nose thin and upturned and her body looked slender even underneath her thick coat.

She got on the bus a stop after he got on. When she got on she took out from her big handbag a box of Japanese take-away.

She nestled herself in a back seat, tucked her head cosily into her coat, and began eating sushi and nigri rolls with chopsticks. She also had with her a cup of green tea. As she ate, her vacant eyes remained floating outside the bus window.

Nothing changed her blank expression. Even as she chewed, her face remained perfectly mask-like. Outside, along the cold promenade, a gentle rain began to fall. The bus windows fogged up and the streetlights became mere impressions.

The commuter got off the bus and waited for the bus to pass so he could glimpse her one last time. Or rather, he wanted to see if she looked at him. But of course, she didn’t.

Later that night, as he prepared his ragu, he kept thinking about the girl on the bus. He was actually worried about her even though she was a complete stranger. Her vacant expression unsettled him, made him think she had lost something precious. He felt as though he had seen a ghost. He had seen sick and dying people before. When his father was dying his uncouth face actually acquired a whiff of grace. Death and illness destroy a human face but never strip it of its humanity. She looked inhuman. What kind of thing must a person go through to look like that?

The next day at work he realised he felt sorry for the girl. His colleagues at the IT office where he worked always accused him of being overly macho.

Not in his physique or his manner. But he was very firmly convinced that men and women were different beings; men shouldn’t cry; men ought to protect and nurture; men should be strong and uncompromising.

He wasn’t disrespectful towards women but he had a healthy respect for the job of patient customising natural selection had done on men and women over the centuries.

And he never really admitted to himself he was in any way discriminatory. But now, he felt suddenly conscious of his sexual bias. If he had seen that vacant face on a man of any age or race he wouldn’t have thought twice. But for that girl, that beautiful girl, he felt sorry and worried.

He worked in an IT company from seven in the morning until six at night. He worked more than anyone else. He was saving up so he could move abroad. When he was a child his mother had taken him and his older sister to Scotland and he fell in love with the stark, Martian beauty of the Highlands.

He promised himself he would one day move there and work from home. And when men make promises, they keep them.

“Johnny, you’re coming with us for some after-work drinks?” One of his colleagues asked him at the end of the day.

“I have to go to my mother’s tonight.” He curled his lips in apology.

“Come on man, it’s fucking Friday!”

“Yeah, my mother’s my mother on a Friday too.”

This was a lie from Johnny. Of course his mother was still his mother on a Friday. But he didn’t need to go see her tonight.

He wanted to see the girl on the bus again. And this time, he wanted to talk to her. Dammit, it was his duty as a man to help her out.

When he saw her on the bus however, he went tongue-tied. She still wore the same blank mask but it wasn’t her face that surprised him.

She was eating on the bus again. This time, she had a box of Mexican take-away in her lap. She had a taco with blood-red insides, a bowl of pozole and an enchilada. Whenever she finished an item she took a swig of Corona. She had removed the lemon from the bottle.

Why was she eating on the bus again, Johnny asked himself? Is she homeless, or a runaway?

His feelings of pity were beginning to mix with a seasoning of admiration. Maybe she was in an abusive relationship and ran away. Or maybe she’s too busy and doesn’t have time to eat.

Johnny didn’t talk to her. He looked out of the window to try and see what she was staring at. But there wasn’t anything exciting. Just the same old city. Snaking traffic. Double-parked cars. Cranes that seemed to be supervising the city’s giant game of jenga. Narrow streets doing a magic show of disappearance behind a screen of smoke. In essence, all the things Johnny hated and wanted to get away from.

He was reminded why he worked so hard. Why he barely allowed himself to spend money, to socialise, to shop; he was saving so he could get out of this place.

The clear lochs and deep green woodlands, the dusk lights over the Ayr, castles floating over strong, stark hills as light as birdsong, and a warm pub overlooking the faint aurora and the sound of the Scottish waves.

That was his destiny. He could see it clearly in his mind and feel it in his bones. That image probably animated his face, gave it life, the feeling of being human. But the girl was missing all that. Why?

Over the next few days the same scene kept repeating itself. Johnny would get the bus after work, the girl would get on at the next stage and go sit in the same back seat to look out the window at the same scenery with the same gaunt expression.

The only thing that changed was the food she ate. Spanish, Italian, Korean, Chinese, Lebanese and everything in between. Never local, he noticed, never Maltese.

She was a one-woman travelling fusion of world cuisine. It was like watching a different Anthony Bourdain episode every evening for Johnny. Falafel, paella, deep-fried artichokes, dumplings, miso soup, ddukbokki – it was almost mesmerising to Johnny.

Every time he saw her he felt guilty about not talking to her, not doing his part to help her. But he had gotten used to the routine. She spiced up his commute back home. Gave him something to look forward to. The one time he got a later bus and she wasn’t there he missed her.

What am I feeling, he thought to himself?

He dreamt about her one night. He dreamed he was following her in a supermarket. He watched everything she threw into her basket. The names of the food were too strange for him to pronounce. He kept on thinking, she’s eating the world, she’s eating the world. And then: she caught him looking at her. And right in that moment he felt an overwhelming desire mixed with fear. Her eyes were suddenly screaming out emotion: I want you, I want you, I want you. But then, when he began walking towards her, every step he took made the ground shake, and by the time he was beside her, she had slipped through a gelatinous hole in the ground.

Johnny shot awake and felt overwhelmingly afraid. He went to the bathroom to wash his face and put on the television to get his mind off the dream.

But he couldn’t shake the feeling of soft, sweet anguish. It was a mixture of paternal feelings; this must be what a father feels like when he loses a daughter, he thought. And he also felt a burning unrequited love. This is what it feels to be unwanted by the only woman you’ve ever loved.

She wasn’t his daughter and he probably didn’t love her (real men don’t do love-at-first sight). But still, the thought of losing her combined the pain of both scenarios.

If I never saw her again I don’t know what I’d do with myself, he thought over the incoherent noises of the television.

He was scared of this inner emotional fear. Johnny didn’t normally allow himself time to feel. He was usually resolute and unbreakable. He was also simple. His work and his dreams and his after-work beer at home gave him enough pleasure to last a lifetime. That happy monotony was occasionally interrupted by tragedy. The death of his father, his mother’s stroke, his sister’s ugly divorce. But those were only bumps along the road, because that’s all Johnny ever allowed them to be.

The one thing that ever made him feel truly emotional was his memory of Scotland. But even that wasn’t helping now.

As he fell back into a dreamless sleep Johnny knew that tomorrow would be the day he spoke to the girl on the bus. And somehow, he felt, it would be the most important conversation of his life.

What am I doing? He asked himself as he walked to the back of the bus the next day, aiming to sit on the empty seat beside the girl.

What if someone I know sees me? I’ll tell them I’m going to chat up the girl. That’s it. It makes sense.

Even so, he couldn’t shake-off the nauseous uneasiness in his gut.

I need a fucking beer, he said.

“You want to sit down?” The girl spoke with the voice of a whispering bird when she saw him hovering in front of her. She moved her bag from the seat next to her and Johnny sat down.

Today, apart from seeing her food, he could smell it. She was eating Persian today. He could smell pomegranate molasses and warm walnuts mixed with citrus. The meal was colourful and it excited him beyond reason.

“That looks amazing.” He said with a broken voice like a pubescent teenager.

“It’s really good.” She said looking down at her food. She was smiling but he didn’t believe it was a human smile. “There’s a new Iranian restaurant up north. Well, not really a restaurant, it’s a hole in the wall. But that’s where you get the best food.”

“Up north? That’s a long way to go.” He said rubbing his hands pretending they were cold.

“Not really. I love buses. I could spend my whole life on a bus.” She smiled from the edge of her lips but her eyes remained lowered and hollow.


“Absolutely. You can do anything on a bus. Eat. Meet people. Sleep. Listen to music. Read. Look at the scenery.”

“Shame the scenery’s so shit here.” He felt bad straight away about swearing, it must be those paternal feelings, he thought. But he had done it to make her think, he’s a man.

“Shit? Why’d you say that? It’s beautiful.” She suddenly turned to face him.

“Really? I, I can’t see it.”

“That’s because you’re looking badly. You’re only looking at the things you don’t like. I know the cars and the cranes are ugly. But I love skyscrapers. Look, with the lights on in the windows, they remind me of Christmas lights. And I even love the construction sites. People get excited about old ruins and say imagine what must have happened here. But me, I look at a construction site and say imagine what will happen here. You can see an ugly shell if you want. But you can see babies being born, people falling in love, dying, dreaming, playing games, eating amazing food, all in that single space.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

As she spoke her face began slowly to crawl into life. She never looked Johnny in the eye and never moved her head or her hands to gesture. But her smiles grew wider and her cheeks produced microexpressions as delicate and frail as cherry blossoms.

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” He said taking a noticeable intake of breath. “It sounds strange, I know. And forgive me if I’m speaking out of place. But, are you ok?”

She arched her eyebrows so humanly. “What do you mean?”

“It’s just, I see you here every day, on your own, eating dinner on the bus, and you look, I don’t know, sad, sad in a melancholy sense, you know, don’t get me wrong.”

“Do you usually talk like you’re about to orgasm or have a nervous breakdown?” She laughed as she looked away. He laughed too though he felt a mixture of awkwardness and warmth emanating from her frank words.

“No, not really.”

“Well this is new. I’ve had friends and family telling me I don’t have any emotions, but a stranger on a bus, that’s a first.”

“Please don’t take it the wrong way!”

“No, no, don’t worry, it’s sweet really. And a bit creepy.”

“Granted.” He laughed. There was a silence. She looked outside the window and then at her food then outside the window again. Funny, Johnny thought, up close, she actually looks content.

“But you don’t have to worry about me, sir.” Sir? What an odd thing to say. And yet, she said it as if she believed it. “I went through a rough patch, true. My boyfriend broke up with me on Christmas day.”

“Oh no, I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not. At least, not now I’m not. Well, maybe a little. I prepared beef wellington for our Christmas meal and I had to throw it away.”


“But you know, it was actually a blessing in disguise. Not throwing away the wellington of course.”

“Of course.”

“But since he dumped be I’ve been falling in love all over again.” Johnny felt as though he should say something but didn’t know what. “Not with a guy. Or a girl! I’ve been falling in love with being alone.”

“Really?” He said genuinely interested. He noticed that for as long as they had been talking she hadn’t once looked at him. We’re sat next to each other, both of us can see, he thought, and yet I don’t even think she knows what I look like.

“I’ve been doing everything on my own and I’m enjoying. It feels like I’m free, you know. I can get on a bus when I want, go to see a film, whichever film I want, go for a walk by the sea, waste time drinking coffee in a cute cafeteria. And of course I can eat wherever the hell I like!”

“You like food, don’t you?”

She nodded deeply. “That’s the one thing I hated about my boyfriend. Well, that and him breaking up with me on Christmas day. But he was such a boring eater. All he ate was pasta and meat. Cooked the same way, day in day out. I could never try anything new. And now I can.” She smiled and looked happy for the first time.

A strange, heavy silence fell between them. They were back to being just commuters on a bus. Johnny wanted to say something. She was opening up to him. He guessed this was a difficult thing for her to do. And he felt he should show his appreciation. But what the hell is a man supposed to say?

“You work near here?” She said in her whispered tone.

“Yes, in an IT office. But not for long.”

“You’re changing jobs?”

“Changing countries.”

“Really, what city you moving to?”

“Not a city. I’m hoping to move to the Highlands in Scotland.”

“Isn’t that like where badgers and loch ness monsters live?”

Johnny laughed. “Not just. People live there too.”

“How? I don’t get it.” She seemed almost agitated now. “People living outside cities is unnatural. It’s like putting a tiger in a cage or a fish up a tree. It’s ungrateful, really. Human beings, our ancestors, like, have been perfecting the city, the ideal human environment for thousands of years, and now we repay them by going back to the wild.” She shook her head and took an angry bite of her saffron rice.

“I feel trapped in a city.” Johnny said.

“That’s because you don’t know how to look, what to do you with yourself.” She sighed. “Look, I’ll confess this to you. I hate my parents. Not for the obvious reasons. Not for their alcoholism and divorce and bad choice in abusive partners. They’re human, I can forgive and forget, you know. But I hate them for raising me in a small countryside hamlet with nothing but horses and olive trees. All I can remember from my childhood is being alone, bored, frustrated. I hated all the damn birds and their singing and the only solace I had was my phone.”

“You could talk to friends on the phone, I guess.” Johnny made the effort to say.

“Friends? What friends could I make in that old rural shithole? Maybe a hawker selling lampuki or a dirty karozzin driver. No, I’d look up videos online about recipes and cooks from all over the world. If I didn’t have that, I’d have gone insane. Well, more insane, like.” She laughed and Johnny felt uncomfortable.

“I always thought phones were a distraction.” He said.

“No way, not for me. Phones are like having an entire second city in your palms. You can go to a restaurant, a cinema, a night-club, meet people, work, get a job, date everything, just through your phone.”

Johnny realised he had missed his stop but he had found himself hypnotised by the sudden eruption of life on the girl’s face.

She was looking at him dead in the eye now. And he felt as though the eyes of the four seasons were upon him. She wasn’t just human now, she was strong, stronger than him, a force of unseen nature, a nymph hidden at the back of a bus.

Johnny knew what happiness looked like on people’s faces. But in the circles he frequented happiness was a social commodity. You laughed at a friend’s joke and got excited when talking about a Netflix binge.

But the new happiness on the girl’s face felt supernaturally sincere. And all because it contrasted so immensely with her earlier vacant expression. She wasn’t faking this.

The city, her phone, food, this bus ride, they all made her happy. Monumentally so. This was the kind of happiness people felt when making love to their perfect partner or after having climbed a challenging mountain.

Johnny wondered to himself if he would look this happy when he moved and got his dream life in Scotland.

&This girl was happier than anyone could ever be, probably, and all from just being alone in the city.

It was time to get off the bus, otherwise he’d have a long walk back. But before he got off he mustered up a wave of testosterone and like a matador asked her:

“Can I have your phone number so I can be part of your city?”

“Sure.” She smiled and coyly gave her his number.

The thought of not seeing her still terrified him like a father and desperate lover. But he wasn’t worried about her anymore. Now, like a hapless mamma’s boy, he needed her.

Maybe I’ve been wrong all this time, he thought to himself. Maybe I’ve been living with beauty and didn’t know how to see it. I’ve been so obsessed with the idea of beauty being glassy lochs and starry seascapes that I’ve failed to see the beauty surrounding me.

Tomorrow, I’m going to take the day off, something I haven’t done for two years, and I’m going for a walk.

“What’s your name, by the way?” He asked so he could put in her name in his contacts list.

“Ema.” She said. “Just one M.”

“One M? That’s unusual.” He smiled.

“Yet another thing I’ve had to forgive my parents for.” They both laughed.

“Ok so, Ema with one M. I’m Johnny, by the way. That’s with two M’s.” They shook hands and she added his name and number into her hand-held city.

“Send me a WhatsApp when you want and I’ll show you some good restaurants in the city.” She said once more looking away from him, looking out of the window, into the view that brought her such contentment.

“I’d like that.” He said.

“Oh look.” She said suddenly. “It’s a full moon tonight. Look at that, there’s moonlight on the promenade, even on the cars.”

Johnny looked outside, the fragrance of the walnuts and pomegranate warming his cold nose.

“It’s pretty.” He found himself saying.

“Pretty? No, it’s perfect.”




BIO: Justin Fenech is a 30-year-old author from the Mediterranean Island of Malta. He writes short stories and novels that are minimalist and allusive, a mixture of Mediterranean exuberance and Japanese symbolism. He has several short stories published in online reviews such as Cecile's Writers, No Extra Words, Across the Margin, The Missing Slate and many others.