Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Making it up

 She didn't fancy the Valentine's  dinner. Certainly not in her husband's company.  It was as intended a surprise. Not enough notice to turn it down.  "Why did you suggest this, she said as they were led into the candle-lit dining room? " I should be flattered but I'm not. You must want something from me. But I can't think what." They sat side by side on a  cushioned banquette in the richly decorated restaurant where other couples examined  the menu with signs of animation.

"That's not very gracious." He spoke as though he didn't care one way or the other. Her reaction  had been no surprise.

It's how I feel. We haven't talked properly for months. Today you left for the office without saying goodbye. Not a word. Typical. Cold, self-obsessed. Even now  when we met in the bar you didn't notice  what I was  wearing.  I took the afternoon off to have my hair done. I  put some decent clothes on.  Not to let you down?  My metier for the last nine years.  Not to let you down. To be truthful  it was not to let myself down.  Not that you would care either way.This was after all  just another  appointment in you diary.

"I thought it might break the ice.  The menu and the wines seemed  OK. I thoughts perhaps we might remember better times.

"That demands a long memory and a high pain threshold."

A waiter slid into place and handed them each a leather folder. Options were few and discouraged. This was a special menu devised to restore romance to the jaded lives of the rich.  "For the first course we suggest a truffled consommé with gold leaf. To accompany it a glass of chilled manzanilla." She nodded her assent. Her husband did the same.

"I was thinking just now," she fixed him with a steady gaze, "that this might be an opportunity to have a serious talk about our future. But perhaps that would be ungracious."

The consommé  glittered in the candlelight. Slices of black truffle bobbed beneath it. The   perfumed  bowl proved enough to take their minds off her recent outburst. As they sipped   they looked across at other tables. She was afflicted by a sense of inadequacy. A sort of loneliness.  Should they not be enjoying themselves or at least pretending to? But her doubts didn't last. He never felt inadequate. Why should she?

"Not bad," he said.

"Must have cost a bomb," she bit into a generous tranche of fungus: "Truffles are scarce in the Dordogne this year, like eating banknotes."

"To go with the gold leaf."

They fell silent. The silence lasted a long time.

It was a relief when the waiter appeared: "Next there is artichoke heart filled with chicken liver parfait.  With it we suggest a glass of St-Amour.   We prefer to serve it  slightly chilled.

Again they nodded it through. "I detest the Gamay grape," she said, "even in a Beaujolais Cru.  But never mind Amour conquers all I suppose. "How's the bank? Still raking it in despite the crisis?

"I can't bet on much of a bonus this year, but I shouldn't complain.  Some will get none at all and I can think of at least one person with a prosecution round the corner. It will be alright for commercial lawyers like you particularly with connections like me. At least I have some uses where you're concerned. "

"Sometimes I think I would  run a restaurant with gastronomic pretensions somewhere rural, with bunnies in the garden and pheasants in the woods".

When  the  artichoke arrived she said: "You know, this Beaujolais was a good idea. I must rethink my Gamay phobia."

The waiter again: "Would you like a pause before the next course?"  "No,"  they both said  almost in chorus. "Bring on the duck.

 "To accompany  the Duckling with Poached Cherries,  we propose a glass of Château Mouton Rothschild 2000."

"Makes a lot of sense, it should be drinking well just at the moment. Thank you, " she said.  And was that a skeletal smile?  She thought  maybe she had managed one. No one could say she wasn't trying.

"Banking is no longer a respectable profession. People look at me as though I were a pimp or  convicted rapist. Perhaps  I should take off to the country, forget the boardrooms and the politics. Would you come with me though?"

" Fine talk, darling, but you couldn't let go of the power and the thrills. Not for a  moment."

"I might if I had to contend with another parliamentary committee and the threat of some sort of investigation...

"You don't mean ...."

No I don't but.... if it's not  a dirty business, it too often looks as though it is. If I retired while the going was good, I could expect a reasonable  handshake, enough to leave us comfortable..."

"Comfortable maybe, but happy ...How would we spend it?   Managing a restaurant is a lot harder than playing with investment when it comes down to it. You're no golfer.  You're not suited to country life. Nature is not exactly your cup of tea. What would we talk about?"

The waiter: "Something for love and romance  to celebrate St Valentine there is a Délice aux Fruits de la Passion, a delicate assembly of passion fruit custard, with fine layers of sponge and meringue" and to accompany it a glass of d'Yquem 2005.

"I  would be happy with that,"  he said. His wife blinked her agreement.

In the moments of anticipation before the arrival of  the passion fruit he said to his wife, "I wonder if you have noticed that couple over there, do you think they are enjoying themselves?"

"They are not really a couple,  I'm afraid my dear, despite your efforts.  Vain as ever, you are not wearing your glasses. If you were you would have recognised yourself in that  mirror and perhaps  noticed who it was  who was sitting next to you."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Near miss

He on the  down-escalator, she on the up. Who saw the other first? They waved more or less at the same time. It was five-thirty on a Friday afternoon.  The London rush hour. Time to go home or to meet friends for a drink.   There was no room for either of them to turn on the moving segment of stair on which each was wedged.  He shouted her name across the well, "Sylvie'". She managed only a smothered cry.

He thought: What to do? What would be in her mind? Had she shared the intensity of his feelings? They were different people then. How long was it? Ten or eleven years? Should he when he reached the bottom of the escalator turn and go up?  Would she wait at the top? Or even turn round and transfer to the down-escalator? Time would have changed her as it had changed him. He could not, as he might  once have done, guess her thoughts or feelings. Or predict her behaviour.  Just follow your instincts, he said to himself, and  edging into the jostling crowd, up he went back where he had come from.

She thought: What to do? More than anything else she wanted to tell him that she had missed him. She repeated his name under her breath, "Tim, Tim",  as though chiding him. More recently since her marriage break-up, he had been continually on her mind. At least the Tim she had known. No question,   she would turn at the top of the stair and go down in pursuit. With luck he would be waiting for her. With luck. She wanted to throw her arms round him. To say sorry, though she was not sure for what she was sorry.

What happened? They both retraced their steps, he on the up-escalator, she on the down. They passed for the second time midway, and waved frantically. He tried to indicate that this time  she should wait for him at the top but his signals were open to misinterpretation. And uncertainty was beginning to gnaw on either side.

She thought it likely that he was hurrying home to a girlfriend or a wife. Or perhaps he was on his way to an appointment. Perhaps one  that would affect his future. She felt guilty about her own loyalties, the new lover she was on her way to meet.

This pursuit is about to become absurd, he thought, a perpetual hell of passing escalators sweeping them off for ever in opposite directions. What if they succeeded in making contact? What would be the outcome?  Life was complicated enough as it was, in the office and at home. An ache hollowed his stomach.

He realised then as did she that to resume their journeys they would anyway have to retrace their steps, he on the up and she on the down-escalator. This time they glanced across the well but there was an awkwardness in their wave, something half greeting, half farewell.

At the top of the escalator the crowd grew even busier and more urgent and she felt herself swept on towards the station exit.  In the sharp  air of  the winter evening laden with fumes and the smell of food, a tear came  to her eye. She wiped it away impatiently. She had promises to keep.

At the bottom of  the stairwell for the second time he half turned and tried to join the opposing stream of people to go up again, but he was troubled by doubts and fears.  He was older now. Suspicious of impulse. He gave in and allowed himself to be dragged by the flow towards the Northern Line platform and the train that would take him home.