If the next person to walk past has a red coat, thought Paul, then she’ll definitely come. A black leathered woman ran, chasing a bus. His shoulders sagged. Ok, if the next person has a kid. An elderly couple strolled, chuckling at a private joke. Paul rearranged the salt and pepper pots, the vase with tasteful Christmas decoration, the carafe of water. This was not his sort of place at all. He felt gauche, outsized.
Behind him he could hear: ‘Yeah, but Rio’s had a bad season, so we couldn’t expect anything else…’ A covert glance earlier had revealed two men in their thirties, possibly brothers, or was it their identical short back and sides that made them look so alike? They’d covered English football and were now moving on to European. He didn’t think they’d stop there. He supposed this wasn’t their sort of place either, but probably the firm was paying.
Not like the quartet to his right. Two couples, in their mid sixties he supposed, having a festive lunch out. ‘We’d like three glasses of the Rioja’, one of the men had said in a carrying tone. ‘You could have the whole bottle for less…’ suggested the waitress. ‘Ooh, shall we have a bottle…?’ said one of the women, voice aquiver with the decadence of it all. The man had paused, tight-lipped, torn between the appeal of a BOGOF and the implication he was cheap, before conceding this was a good plan.
Most frightening of all, the woman to his left, who had kept up an almost non stop tirade to her male companion. The snatches he caught indicated it was not about him but a work colleague, but the venom and intensity of it had caused the poor man’s Elvis-like quiff to droop. The woman’s appearance looked better suited to a garish club on Halloween night, witchy black hair, spangly silver top, heavily made up. Her lip liner extended a good two millimetres above her mouth, drawing attention to the poisonous spout as it tumbled forth its bile. He was mesmerised.
A grande dame swept into the dining room, unwrapping a fringed shawl as she went, simultaneously bundling the frothy swathes and her innumerable shopping bags into the arms of a hapless waiter. ‘Such a foul day. If the café at Harvey Nicks hadn’t been so frightfully crowded I would have stayed there. I nearly froze coming across the street.’
The laden waiter indicated with difficulty a free table as crackers cascaded from a box. They were picked up by a young woman, who had the misfortune to be with the dragon.
‘Careful dear, those aren’t your supermarket tosh. We’ll sit here. I like to see the door. Spot which raddled old specimens come in.’
She settled herself imperiously at a table meant for four, from which she could see her reflection in the restaurant door. Setting her gigantic bejewelled hat, complete with three glittering plumes, at a more rakish angle, she remarked dryly, ‘Some of us are more rewarding to look at than others. So many dreary types in the world. Come along Sarah!’ she barked at the girl who hovered awkwardly.
Paul watched as the old trout waved away the proffered menu. ‘Now, I’d like some Oeufs Hollandaise, with a little green salad. I’m sure you can manage that. My granddaughter will have the same.’
Thinks she owns the place, thought Paul, as he furiously jiggled the salt cellar again. He wouldn’t be surprised if she was related to Celeste in some way. It was like Celeste to be this late. To pick such a pretentious stuffy place, full of freaks and then not bloody turn up.
He heard steps approaching. Bound to be that waiter with the menu again, looking at him pityingly.
His head whipped up.
‘Did you think I was not coming? Have you been waiting ages?’
‘No, no, I was early. Had some business in the area’, he lied quickly, trying not to sound too keen.
‘Well, that’s alright then’, she drawled, dripping in self belief .
He watched in admiration as she slipped gracefully into the seat, then he turned self-importantly to look for the waiter. Perhaps he could do one of those summoning gestures that James Bond did so easily.
Celeste shrugged off her coat and tossed her flaming hair back over her shoulders unconcernedly. She knows the effect she has, thought Paul, noticing her glance over at Elvis-man who was looking enviously. She bestowed her most winning smile on the hapless waiter. ‘What would you recommend…? Something special.’
‘There is our Luxurious Lobster…’ he offered in hushed tones, indicating this was only for the truly worthy.
Paul glanced at the specials board, freezing in horror at the price. For that money, it had better have diamond bloody claws and dance a hornpipe, he thought.
‘What do you think, darling..?’ she said. ‘A bit extravagant, but it would be delicious.’
She called me darling, shouted his heart. Did you all hear, Elvis man, old trout, football obsessives?!
‘Of course. And a bottle of champagne to go with it,’ he said expansively. He hoped his credit card would stand the onslaught.
The waiter nodded, somewhat obsequiously Paul thought and disappeared to the kitchen.
Paul looked round expansively, catching the eye briefly of the granddaughter before it disappeared from view behind the feathers of the hat. She was being harangued for her decision to go into journalism. ‘Such a rough trade, Sarah dear. You could easily be a teacher in a nice infant school. That’s the sort of job men like their wives to have…’
‘But I’m not married, Grandma. And I’d expect a man who loved me to support me, whatever I chose to do.’
Old trout snorted, shaking her head at the folly of youth.
‘Oh dear, you young girls over-complicate these things. It’s no wonder the divorce rates are so high. Men are simple creatures, dear. They are not up to the task of fathoming out what their females want.’
‘I think that’s a bit simplistic. And I don’t think divorce rates indicate people are less happy in their marriages, but….’
‘Let me tell you, I have been married three times and I know…’
‘So what was the business you had in the area…?’ Paul jumped as Celeste’s voice broke the spell.
‘Oh, just a meeting with a client. We might be doing some more design for them….’ He faltered as he observed her amused smile. She knows I’m lying, he thought, furious at his flaming cheeks.
‘What about you…?’ he recovered. ‘Didn’t you have a casting this morning…?’
She sighed dramatically. ‘Yes. They kept me waiting for an age. The director said I was marvellous…Of course he stood a bit too close. Looked me up and down like he was pricing me up. He said my hair was like a fire created for the gods…’
Paul snickered, then realised this wasn’t the expected response.
He said quickly, ‘Well it is stunning, obviously. You’re the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever seen.’
She smiled, Mona Lisa-like, raised her champagne to her lips and looked slightly over his shoulder at the shoppers scurrying past.
‘It would be a nice Christmas present. Art doesn’t pay very well generally. And I’m afraid I have expensive tastes.’
Don’t I know it, thought Paul. In the three months and seven dates he had known her, she had not contributed a single penny. He had met her on a balmy evening in late summer outside the Royal Festival Hall. She’d had a violent disagreement with her boyfriend about a concert they had just seen. Boyfriend stormed off, leaving her sobbing piteously. That night Paul had been the one in charge, buying dinner, paying for her cab home, asking for her number.
It had taken a couple of attempts to reach her – a reconciliation with the boyfriend causing the delay – but she had conceded to meet for a coffee. Then for a drink the following week. She remained aloof until the glorious third date when she’d flung herself into his arms outside the National Gallery. As he kissed her, he felt a thrill at all the people walking past who would envy him. It was only later he discovered that Stefan the property developer had zipped off back to Switzerland.
‘He didn’t even say goodbye,’ she had sniffled, still beautiful through the tears. ‘Just a text. You’re not like that, Paul, you’re kind.’
A Halloween party, a Bonfire Night and a frustrating wait while she was away doing a low budget film for three weeks but he finally thought they might be becoming established. She’d been most amorous in the phone calls he’d made to her, promising delights to make his head spin. On impulse he’d booked a hotel for their first night. She had left pleading a migraine before anything could happen, not that that was the reason he’d booked it, well, not the only reason, but still…. He’d been left eating over-priced peanuts morosely from the mini-bar.
He picked up his champagne determinedly. Best not dwell, best get her on side.
‘This is an amazing place’, he lied gamely. ‘Is it somewhere you’ve been to often..?’
‘Once before’, she said quietly, smiling her enigmatic bloody smile again. Probably with flashy cad Stefan who left her heartbroken. Would she say that about me..?
‘There’s so many things I’d love to do with you’, he enthused. ‘Plays, concerts….’ Her face clouded. ‘Picnics, walks in the country,’ he added hastily.
‘I hate the country. Makes me sneeze….’
There was a small frisson in the room as the waiter emerged, holding aloft a gigantic platter upon which reposed the Luxurious Lobster. It was surrounded by various fruits de mer, asparagus, sugar snaps, truffles, jus, hollandaise, beurre blanc, the kitchen sink… Christ, thought Paul looking at the torturous claws and gleaming shell. It looks even harder to get into than Celeste’s knickers.
He noticed the pursed lips of the Rioja man, who muttered, ‘Wasting all that blooming money on something you can’t eat most of!’ as he tucked determinedly into his steak. ‘I think we’ll have another bottle…’ he said loudly, waving the empty aloft, as the womenfolk tittered at his panache.
Witchy woman momentarily paused in her monologue to shoot dagger eyes at Celeste and moan inwardly, ‘Why won’t HE spend that sort of money on me..?’
Elvis-man took the opportunity to steal a couple of frites off her plate.
Sarah peeped over the hat, looking slightly quizzical and sympathetic. She had overridden her domineering grandmother, he noticed and was tucking into a mushroom risotto. The footballing duo were oblivious. Beckham could come in and they wouldn’t interrupt their exacting dissection.
His momentary pleasure dissipated as he realised he hadn’t a clue how to deal with the beast. Celeste showed no such qualms. With an energy that made him fear for his nether regions should they ever be exposed in her company, she grabbed a claw and cracked. And cracked again, louder than before.
‘Must you do that?!’ hissed Paul.
Celeste ignored him, concentrating on cracking the lobster shells even louder.
‘Look at the mess on the tablecloth….!’
She poked her tongue delicately out at him, then to his horror, picked up the claw in her hands to nibble at it.
He gaped aghast, crackers dangling from his slack hand, as she munched with obvious delight, juice running down her chin. He daren’t look anywhere except at her, certain that the rest of the room would be as thunderstruck as he. And yet, she looked so alluring, abandoning herself to the crustacean in this way, so completely wrapped up in her pleasure. It shut him out and invited him in at the same time. She opened her lazy violet eyes, fixing him with a steady glance. She put down the denuded claw, then picked up another and held it out to him across the table, daring him.
He swallowed convulsively and took a bite. It was delicious, he admitted. He gobbled greedily, then scooped up a handful of mussels, dunked them wildly in a sauce and ate them too. He demolished an avalanche of asparagus, plundered a pile of prawns. Maybe he could do this. Be a wild, Byronic figure. He mopped sauce up with his baguette, poured the champagne with the expertise of a pro, made a couple of witty remarks, and was rewarded with her tinkling laugh. He felt confident, dashing, urbane.
‘So’, he said nonchalantly dangling a claw from one hand and picking up an oyster with the other. ‘They say seafood boosts the libido…’ He had to put down the claw to pick up the fork to extract the oyster. He managed after a little difficulty and held it out to her.
‘Perhaps we should retire somewhere more comfortable when we’ve finished lunch…?’
He looked at her face. It was unimpressed, to say the least. The heat of their frenzied eating cooled. He felt the drop in temperature as significantly as the oyster dropping off the fork.
‘Is that your best chat-up line?’ she remarked archly.
Probably that bastard Stefan hadn’t even discussed such things. He would just have scooped her up under his tree trunk property developer arm and strode off to his cave.
‘I’ve got plenty…’ he said. The bravado fell short.
‘Paul, you’re a sweet guy, but I don’t think I see you like that. I’ve got to meet someone now. This has been lovely, but I think we should leave it there for a while. Maybe a coffee sometime, I’ll call you…’
She was wrapping herself up again, withdrawing from him, a nonchalant kiss blown as she made her way to the exit.
Crushed. He stared at the table, which swam before him in a red fury. Now they would certainly all be looking at him. He raised his head, expecting to see a ring of mocking faces.
‘Well, if we had Ronaldo, everything would be different…’
‘She said to me, if I expected a raise I’d have to put five more hours in a week, can you bloody believe…?’
‘This bream is really excellent, don’t you think Douglas? And the Rioja goes so well….’
‘Sarah, dear, it wouldn’t be a crime to wear some brighter colours…’
No. Perhaps he was invisible. Oh no, there it was, a smirk from Elvis-man. Complete demolition. He moodily signalled the waiter, punched his numbers into the machine without looking at the bill. Time for that heartache later. His eyes came to rest on Sarah and he leaned left slightly to see round the feathers of the hat. He admired her smooth dark bob, the little butterfly tattoo on one wrist, the fact that she sat so patiently listening as the battleaxe trampled over her ideas, her thoughts, her feelings. It wasn’t right that she should have to suffer it, he thought. Bullies should be stopped. He stood suddenly and advanced to their table, heart thumping.
‘Sarah!’ he exclaimed.
She looked up, startled but not hostile.
‘And you must be her delightful grandmother. I’ve heard so much about you.’
‘Oh..?! Charmed, I’m sure, Mr…?’
‘Just call me Paul. Would you mind ever so much if I stole Sarah away now? I’m due to go away overseas at the end of the week, we were supposed to meet before I went but I stupidly misplaced her number…’
‘No, you two young things run along, I’ll settle this’. And an almost genuine smile crossed her face.
‘Well! That was bold’, said Sarah, as they emerged onto the street, just settling into wintery darkness, a hundred Christmas lights twinkling. ‘Where’s….what happened to your…?’
‘She’s not. I won’t be seeing her again.’
‘She didn’t look very…I mean, she was a bit…’
‘What made you steal me off like that..? Not that I didn’t appreciate it.’
‘You looked like you were getting a hard time as well.’
‘Yes, Grandma’s definitely a trial. But she’s quite lonely under all that bluster. I know it cheers her up to boss me about.’
He smiled at her. ‘As kind as you are beautiful.’
She smiled back, blushing slightly. They were passing a modest café.
‘Do you fancy a cuppa..?’ he asked. ‘ I need to banish the taste of overpriced seafood.’
‘All style and no substance….?’
‘Exactly. I think we’ll need a cream bun as well.’
‘We’ll go halves.’ She paused on the doorstep.
‘Are you really going overseas…?’
He smiled down at her, feeling safe and excited all at the same time. How simple things could be.
‘Not for the foreseeable. I’m staying right here.’