Chapter 67 – The Cats
At that very moment less than two miles away, Ellen felt a tinge. The two cats with her in the room, stirred. They were crouched under her desk as she went through her emails and scheduled her appointments for the coming week. Carla had gone to see her mother in Surbiton, they had had a row and she didn’t know when or if she would come back. Greta was still away in the US with JC. She assumed still in New York.
Ellen had thought a lot about Keith since she had seen him near Fleet Pond. She knew it was her destiny to meet him, and now he could sense he was thinking of her. Carla was out, a perfect time.
A Google search took her instantly to three Maxwell’s listed in the Hartley Wintney phone book. It wasn’t obvious which one was correct, so she closed her eyes and held her index finger against each of the numbers on the screen until she felt a tingle as her finger hovered over one of them. This was his number. He answered on the second ring, with a practised: ‘Hartley Wintney 856749’.
‘Who is this?’ he said, but secretly he knew who the husky female voice belonged to.
His mother thought it very strange that he was going out to dinner with a woman he had never met. She said that she had bought something special from Waitrose for dinner, but she said it would keep. She had made him feel guilty.
Keith was excited and a little nervous. This was not his first date, he had dated several women at University and while he had been working at the lab. They had all been fellow scientists, but he had never felt like he felt now after seeing Ellen’s pictures and hearing her voice on the telephone.
Keith had put on his newest clothes, and used after shave. Although he didn’t actually shave, but he did trim his beard. As he said goodbye his mother offered her cheek for a kiss reluctantly, and gave him one of her looks.
On leaving he stroked the sleeping puppy, ‘Well at least you will have this gorgeous creature to yourself all evening.’ Strudel blinked briefly up at Keith, before falling back to sleep.
His mother smiled at the puppy, and then said, ‘have a good time.’
Keith walked to the curry house, it was just a few hundred yards. Ellen was already waiting outside in her BMW X5. He recognised the car from when she had driven onto the scrub land by Fleet Pond, just before he was arrested. He also recognised the shape of her bushy red hair and wide set of her shoulders sitting inside the vehicle.
He waived as he got closer and quickened his pace. He was worried, should he kiss her or should they just shake hands? He saw her get out of the car and then she came at him like a whirlwind, threw herself into his arms and they kissed. She fitted into his arms perfectly, he didn’t want to let go. It was as if he had known her all his life. They kissed for a long time. Cars began honking as they went by. Then someone shouted, ‘get a room’, and they broke their kiss and laughed together like teenagers.
They walked arm in arm into the Indian restaurant. It was crowded and they were shown to a table for two. The tables were positioned close together in the small restaurant, and their table was squashed in between a fire exit door and an adjacent table occupied by a family of four. There were two teenage children at the adjacent table who both looked pretty fed up, and were sat fiddling with their mobile phones, while their parents tucked into a multitude of dishes covering the table.
The parents nodded to Keith and Ellen as they squeezed by, realising that getting these two tall people sat down at the neighbouring table was going to be a challenge. The mother nudged the teenage boy next to her, and motioned for him to pull in his chair. He reluctantly did so, never looking up from his phone.
In act of chivalry, Keith pulled out the small table to allow Ellen to squeeze into the chair. As he pulled out the table, a small vase of flowers that was on top, fell over. The spilt water ran over the sides of the table and onto Ellen’s shoes. He was mortified, and dropped to his knees and began mopping Ellen’s shoes with a napkin. She said it didn’t matter. The teenage boy was now looking around and laughing and pointing. He laughed it the exaggerated over-loud way that teenage boys do. His mother pulled on his arm, and said, ‘Liam don’t point, it’s rude’. But she couldn’t resist laughing herself. She covered her mouth for her hand to try and stifle her amusement. The teenage boy began filming Keith on his phone. Other heads began to turn to see what the commotion was all about. Keith felt himself blushing.
The waiter who had shown them to their table held back, because he couldn’t move any nearer to the table. The space between the tables was always narrow, was now made even narrower because Keith had pulled the table out.
Ellen was laughing at Keith sprawling on the floor. She was looking down at the crown of Keith’s hair, and could see a small bald patch appearing. Despite her mirth, she also looked at his clothes, and thought she had some work to do.
As Keith stood he caught his head on the underside of the table, and said ‘fiddle ticks’ and rubbed his bald patch to dull the pain. The vase then fell on the floor and smashed. This caused a momentary lull in conversation at the sound of breaking crockery, and then everyone applauded the breakage. The teenage boy laughed even louder, and stood to get a better angle of the mess on his mobile phone.
At the expression ‘fiddle sticks’ the two teenage children and Ellen all began giggling. Keith laughed with Ellen still rubbing his head.
Through his chuckles, Keith apologised to the waiter and said he would pay for the damage. The waiter prevented Keith from bending down again in the small space to pick up the pieces of the broken vase, Keith on the floor was like a bull in a china shop. The waiter moved them to a larger table in the opposite corner of the restaurant – Ellen was beside herself with laughter.
Keith made a show of steadying the vase with both hands, as they sat down, as if cherishing it like a priceless object. This caused renewed laughter from Ellen, and the diners on the adjacent table got the joke and laughed with them.
In fact everyone in the restaurant smiled with them. These two people were so right for each other. Both tall, both confident. The women in the restaurant all noticed the way they looked at each other, and wished their own partners and husbands looked at them that way. Most of the men in the restaurant had taken in Ellen’s magnificent physique and thought Keith a lucky guy. But what really drew the glances towards Ellen and Keith was their open body language, the way they smiled at each other and held each other’s gaze.
As they were leaving the mother of the two teenage children whispered in her husband’s ear, ‘I remember when you looked at me like that’.
The waiter appeared again and took Ellen and Keith’s order for drinks and starters. The restaurant had two beers on draft and Ellen ordered a Kingfisher and Keith a Cobra. They arrived in suitably branded glasses. They both sipped both glasses and agreed that neither could tell the difference. But from that day, their pet nicknames for each other became Bird and Snake.
When the poppadums arrived with the pickle and chutney relishes, they were deep in conversation and had not even looked at their menus. The waiter asked politely if they were ready to order, and Keith said they needed a little more time. The waiter went away unsurprised.
Keith was telling Ellen about his ordeal at Basingstoke Police Station, ‘so I didn’t realise how hungry I was. I had a shower and …’
Ellen interjected, ‘I would like to have seen that.’ She pulled him to him and kissed him. Keith nearly knocked his beer over, blushed again, took a mouthful of poppadum to cover his embarrassment and then continued.
‘So as I was saying, I had a shower and then they put me in a cell. They then brought me beans on toast. It was on that cheap white bread with margarine, instead of butter, but it never tasted so good. I had a second portion.’
Ellen said, ‘Oh I love it like that, but with a bit of Worcester sauce and cheese sprinkled on top.’ She lifted her hand and twitched her fingers as if she was sprinkling the grated cheese.
This time it was his turn to lean forward and kiss her. In doing so, Keith not only managed to put his sleeve in the mango pickle, but also knock over his beer. He stood up quickly saying, ‘oh fiddle sticks, sorry, sorry.’
The spilt beer soaked both the menus and had dripped onto his trousers. The waiter rushed over with napkins to mop up the spilt beer, and for Keith to wipe the pickle from his sleeve and wet beer from his trousers. Ellen was now in mild hysterics. The waiter brought fresh menus and another beer for Keith. Ellen held her menu over her face because she couldn’t contain herself as Keith ordered their food.
He was asking her if she would like chicken or lamb, all she could do was reach for her napkin to stifle the tears of laughter, she could not speak.
He asked again, ’is chicken balti OK? She just nodded.
When the waiter had finished taking her order, she went to the Ladies room to get herself back under control. She couldn’t remember when she had a better time.
When she came back from the ladies room, she noticed that the waiter had re-laid the table, with a fresh new white table cloth and brought new plates of poppadums and pickles because the others had swimming in beer. The poppadums were dinner plate size crisps, and broke them into pieces with the back of her spoon. Ellen filled her side plate with relishes and pickles and then passed it to Keith. She then took Keith’s empty plate and put some pickles and relishes on that, which she now used as her own.
Keith was mightily impressed by her dexterity. If he had done it, the table cloth would have been covered. Of course Ellen knew that, which is why she had served the sticky pickles. They both understood that, but words were not necessary.
They had moved on from the way they both liked their beans of toast to be cooked, and were now deep into conversation about the incident at the car boot sale when the warming plates arrived and were placed carefully in the centre of the table. The vase of flowers was carefully moved to one side. This brought on a bout of renewed hysterical laughter from Ellen.
A trolley laden with sizzling silver dishes was wheeled up to the table. Their waiter plus another waiter, held each dish up for inspection and announced its name with great reverence ending with the word ‘please’. So it was ‘Chicken Balti please’ and ‘Pillau rice please’ and so on.
Keith and Ellen hardly missed a syllable of their conversation as the food was being served. They looked politely at the waiters as they said the name of each dish, but moved around in their seats so they could maintain the conversation as the waiters lent across the table.
The second waiter picked up the gist of what they were saying.
He was in fact the joint owner of the restaurant, and his brother was the Indian detective Amit Chakrabarti who had been assigned to the case. His brother had told him some aspects of it. So this was the ‘mad scientist’ and the ‘witch with the red hair’ he had described. Interesting.
Keith and Ellen continued their conversation. Oblivious to all else in the restaurant. They ordered some fresh mango and ice cream for dessert, they had coffee, and failed to notice that the restaurant had emptied.
It was after midnight and the second waiter at the restaurant, came and introduced himself as Sandeep and asked if his wife may have a word with Ellen. Ellen noticed a handsome middle aged Indian lady dressed in a traditional Indian way sat at a table some distance away. Ellen agreed of course and stood up to take the hand of the lady as she approached. She introduced herself as Rani.
Keith was mystified and saw Ellen’s expression turn grave. She took Rani to a vacant table.
Keith asked Sandeep for the bill, but Sandeep said ‘there was nothing to pay, it was on the house’. Keith protested and took three twenty pound notes from his wallet, offering them to Sandeep. Sandeep took one as a ‘tip for his staff’ and insisted that that was all that was necessary.
He was distracted, looking at his wife, as tears came into her eyes as she spoke with Ellen. Ellen was clutching both of her hands and obviously talking to her kindly.
Sandeep asked Keith, ‘if he would like anything else to drink, more coffee or a liqueur perhaps, on the house of course?’
Keith asked for some more coffee. Sandeep barked an order to the waiter that had served them first, and a pot of coffee and three brandies appeared. Sandeep poured coffee into Keith’s cup, then refilled Ellen’s, then into a cup for himself.
He picked up one of the schooners of brandy and toasted Keith. Keith selected a schooner and they clinked glasses. Ellen and Rani, came back to the table. Rani had regained her composure a little, and Sandeep poured her some coffee. To Keith’s total amazement, Ellen now explained to Sandeep what she and Rani had discussed.
‘Sandeep your wife is not well. She has lost her baby because there is something wrong inside. You must go to a doctor and seek some specialist gynaecological advice. But do not worry, because I can see a future child for you.’
Sandeep took Rani’s hand and smiled.
Ellen went on, ‘but now it is late, we must go.’
They all stood. Ellen gave Rani her card and said she should call her if she wanted to talk again. The two women hugged, they all shook hands.
Outside they got into Ellen’s car. Without asking she drove to her house in Fleet, where she first discovered to her pleasure why snake was such an excellent name for Keith.