Before he ate a croissant, Dingwall had a habit of tearing it into three pieces, then eating the middle piece first, followed by the end pieces in apparently random order. He would never use a knife to cut the croissant neatly, even if she had provided him with one. He’d just tear the pastry apart with his fingers. She could never figure out why he did this. To her, a croissant was a croissant; one part of it was just the same as any other. Perhaps it was some ritual he had observed on one of his trips to France before they met, and thereafter followed blindly in the belief that, if that’s how the French do it, that is how it should be done. She had never been to France, or any other French-speaking country for that matter, so whether Dingwall’s croissant-eating ritual was steeped in history or was simply a habit he had uniquely developed, she couldn’t tell. It was just another of his little idiosyncrasies she found both intriguing and increasingly irritating.
The croissant he was eating was one she had bought a week earlier and kept in the freezer until this morning, putting it in the oven to warm it up and give the illusion of freshness. She waited for Dingwall to complain. She watched him tear the carefully crafted artefact into his customary three pieces and take a bite out of the middle piece, washing it down with a swig of coffee. But he said nothing.
When they first met, Dingwall had a dog; a West Island White that he had inexplicably named Rusty. She had heard – she couldn’t remember where – that West Island Whites have notoriously bad tempers; but by the time she met Dingwall, Rusty seemed to have assumed his master’s persona. If a sparrow carelessly alighted on the drying green while Rusty was resting on the back porch, instead of bounding out of his basket towards the intruder, barking ferociously to scare it off, he’d get up slowly, stretch, and then amble quietly over towards the visitor, stopping at a respectful distance. More often than not, the bird would sense that there was no imminent danger and the two of them would eye each other off, perhaps communicating in some silent empathy about the decline in worm numbers this season, before Rusty would turn and trot back to the comfort of his basket, leaving the sparrow to get on with its search.
Having finished the middle piece, Dingwall selected one of the ends of the croissant for degustation.
‘How’s the croissant?’ she asked, almost willing him to complain.
‘Fine,’ he replied, giving his head a Gallic tilt to one side.
When Rusty died, Dingwall stoically put his body in a box he appeared to have been saving for the occasion and buried the dog in the garden, carefully scattering flower seeds over the mound. Dingwall wasn’t much of a gardener but he never let a weed grow on Rusty’s grave and tended the flowers, once they’d grown, with endless care. She sometimes wondered, if she were to pre-decease him, would he tend her grave with such dedication? Would she end up in the garden alongside Rusty? Did he have a box for her, hidden somewhere, awaiting the occasion? He had never replaced Rusty; nor shown any inclination to do so. She wondered if he would replace her; or would he live out the remainder of his life in quiet solitude, breaking his croissants into three pieces and tending Rusty’s flowers?
‘It’s not stale, is it?’ she asked, as though prodding him with a stick.
‘No,’ he replied. Then reiterated that it was ‘fine’ with a repeat of the gesture he’d used to confirm his earlier answer.
Dingwall finished eating the first of the end pieces of his croissant and took a swig of his coffee. He didn’t speak much at mealtimes. Even when they went out to eat in a restaurant, something they seemed to be doing less and less these days, his conversation was at best sporadic. To begin with, he’d be engrossed in the menu. Then he’d look up and ask her, ‘What do you fancy?’ – a clear indication that he either couldn’t make up his mind what to have or hadn’t found anything he thought he might like. Thus, the menu would continue to occupy him until a server came to take their order; whereupon the interval between ordering and their first course arriving was consecrated to conversation, assuming either of them had anything to say. But the dialogue would end abruptly as soon as the food arrived. It was as though he was only capable of doing one thing at a time.
It was the same when he was driving; another thing they were doing less and less now because he was convinced that the entire police force was mounting a vendetta against him, skulking in bushes with speed cameras, manipulating traffic lights to catch him out, hiding STOP signs behind trees where he couldn’t see them. ‘They’ve taken all the pleasure out of driving,’ he’d moan resentfully – this ubiquitous ‘they’ to whom he attributed all manner of unfairness – although she could never remember a time when he found driving at all pleasurable; when he’d ever said, ‘How about going out for a nice drive, dear?’
Dingwall put the remainder of the third piece of croissant into his mouth and she was just about to whip his plate away when he started dabbing at it with his fingers, picking up the residual flakes of pastry as though in a blatant attempt to frustrate her. The look on his face was one of satisfaction. There was no doubt that he enjoyed a croissant, although the way he initially tore it to shreds might suggest otherwise to those who hadn’t known him for as long as she had. Perhaps, it reminded him of another time, a time when croissants were a new and exciting experience, a time when conversation at meal times was effortless and enthusiastic, a time when driving was still a pleasure and he was not yet the target of malicious police officers with quotas to fill, a time when there was a dark-eyed girl sitting across the table from him, filled with wonder and surprise, hanging on his every word, transported by his vitality, and he by her vivacity.
Dingwall ate his croissant shrapnel and washed it down with the remnants of his coffee, now almost cold and almost tasteless, and she took away his plate and cup as though stripping him of his badges of office in a terse court-martial. He heard the cup and plate rattle into the sink in the kitchen; and his unused knife rattle resentfully into the cutlery drawer; and he sighed as he rose up out of his chair and headed out to the garden to check on Rusty.