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."


  1. Now this I can really get my teeth into. For one thing it's constructed almost entirely of dialogue and that, as you already know, is my tendance. For another, in the para beginning "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." you make the dialogue work for you in another sense. By using short sentences, often shorn of subject and object, you take advantage of spat-out words to convey antipathy. In fact I have discovered that any sentence exceeding twelve words and bracketed with quotes always deserves close editorial scrutiny.

    I see I might have been recycled what with all that stuff about Beaujolais and the gamay grape. It's a useful device. One cannot have opinions about everything and adding in someone else's (especially if it makes a negative point about the preference) always seems more authentic than laboriously thinking up something that will run the risk of being detectably implausible.

    A restaurant serving glasses of MR 2000! Yes I know it's a swanky place and that he's a banker. But I think I might have chosen a response from her that more subtly underlined her casual wastefulness. And perhaps ensured that the reader recognised that you knew what you were dealing with. Something slightly crass, perhaps. "I hope you're not using your Barclaycard. The limit has caught you out before, as you well know."

    Oh, and there's the d'Yquem too.

    The structure seems excellent (I'd almost be tempted to set the waiter's interpolations in itals) but on re-reading I am struck by the sordidness of it all. As you mention, early on, they are eating money. He is attempting to influence her with money. The elaborate dishes pass by without comment. Could this be stressed more. In a Balzacian way: he watching her as she eats to see if there is any effect. She says "You must want something from me." but this is not followed up.

    A personal preference but I would break up her final explanation into single sentences (with monosyllabic responses from him) which taper off in a deliberately feeble way - nothing having been resolved. Its crueller and might explain their apartness.

    But definitely a step forward. And I'm more able to say this since I am presently reading Hemingway's short stories and most people seem to think they are superior in technique to the novels. Even so, 30% cut from The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber would be an enormous benefit: there are limits to what can be achieved from repeating the same statement over and over.

    1. As you may have guessed I paid some heed to your thoughts about short story writing in this attempt. Your critiques are not wasted. You were right about the Gamay. I hope I may be forgiven for borrowing your prejudices. As someone who used to share them I did not purloin them without thought. I no longer have a Beaujolais phobia.

  2. In view of RR's observations about the the tellingness of the main characters' short sentences, it is fittingly ironic that the waiter speaks in longer sentences than either of the other two characters.
    The ending is a great take on the other-regardedness of St. Valentines diners generally.