‘Will you please come on Lou!’ Anna shouted. ‘We’re going to be late!’
‘All right, keep your bloody knickers on, I’m just finishing my makeup,’ came the high pitched reply of her best friend.
‘Well, get on with it will you, you know we need to get there before 6 o’clock or there is absolutely no point in going at all.’
‘I know, I know,’ came another yell from the bathroom. ‘I’m going as fast as I can, you know it takes time to reach this kind of perfection!’
Anna paced up and down, cursing. One thing she absolutely bloody hated was tardiness and as much as she loved her flatmate Louise, she couldn’t stand that she couldn’t be ready on time for anything.
‘You’ll be late for your own funeral, you will’ Anna yelled back.
‘Ta Dah! Here I am, all ready to go.’ Louise was standing in the middle of the living room spinning around to show the finished article in all its glory.
Whilst the complete opposite of Anna, whose weight, or lack of it, was a constant source of worry to her mother, Louise Latham was a large, gregarious and outrageous woman. Her generous curves matched her personality. Funny, kind, loving and shameless. She was the kind of girl that men wanted as a friend with benefits, but never wanted to take home to their mothers. She could drink most of them under the table and had a naughty sense of humour. She could tell the bluest of jokes without blushing and never forgot a punch line. She was legendary in the office as the one person who was guaranteed to get pissed at the Christmas Party and, more often than not, ended up either photocopying her bum or kissing a member of Management under the mistletoe with a little too much gusto. She was never embarrassed by any of it. In fact, quite the opposite, she revelled in her notoriety. Anna loved her.
‘You look amazing Lou,’ she said, and meant it. Looking in the mirror at her own reflection, she sighed. ‘Why don’t clothes look that good on me? Why do I just look like I’m wearing cast offs. Everything I wear just hangs off me!’
‘Seriously, Anna, what is wrong with you? You’re gorgeous, a little too thin maybe, but still gorgeous. Blokes love girls like you, all willowy and wispy, you could be a model.’
Anna blushed. Knowing Lou was saying it as she saw it, she still couldn’t take the compliment as it was meant. Complete lack of self-confidence her mother called it, and she was right. She could never see the good in herself, only the negative. Too thin, too geeky, too dark, too serious, too everything. ‘OK,’ she said, I will have to do. Let’s go.′
They reached Leyton Tube Station with a couple of minutes to spare before the train into town arrived. It was quiet this evening, although it was still only 5pm and most people were still at work, so it wasn’t really a surprise. The train pulled in and the doors opened.
‘Loads of seats,’ exclaimed Lou. ‘At least I can sit down. These heels are a sodding nightmare already!’
‘You should have worn the flats to go in and then put your heels on when we get there, that’s what you normally do, I don’t know why you didn’t tonight,’ said Anna irritated with her friend, but also knowing she would never change.
‘I know, but they don’t fit in this stupid new handbag. All I can get in here are my fags, lighter and purse. No room for shoes!’ Louise sat on the seat facing forward. ‘I don’t know how you go backwards on this thing, it always makes me want to puke.’
Anna laughed at her friend. ‘Never bothers me really, I am happy facing either way. When you’re going through the tunnels, you can’t see anything anyway.’
They travelled through the darkness of the underground chattering about what they were going to do when they got to their journey’s end. They did the same thing every Friday, so it was a bit of a ridiculous, and rather pointless, conversation but it passed the time. The train came into Bank station and they jumped out and hurried to the District and Circle Line where they waited for the next westbound train. When it came there were a lot more people about and they had to stand. Lou was getting pinker by the minute, hopping from one foot to the other in discomfort.
‘Do stop that will you,’ said Anna. ‘You look like you need the loo.’
‘Actually, I do,’ said Louise. ‘I should have gone before I came out! Never mind, we’re nearly there now.’
They reached Embankment Station and pushed their way through the throng of people trying to get home. Both now getting impatient with the human traffic and just wanting to get there, they made their way through Victoria Embankment Gardens and took a left up Savoy Street and then on to Strand.
‘Let’s all go dahn The Strand, ava banana’ they both sang, tunelessly and in a terrible cockney accent. With Louise’s private school accent and Anna’s slightly Brummy one, they would never have a career in music. They stopped to look at the menu on the outside of a restaurant they liked. They always did this, more as a contingent if things didn’t go according to plan more than anything else, before moving along Strand until they got to the little turning that led down to the Hotel.
The Savoy was a beautiful hotel. Full of history and the grandeur of a time gone by. They were greeted by the doorman, who always seemed to remember their names. Although how he knew them in the first place was still a mystery to both young women. As they waved hello and walked in through the rotating door, the splendour of the hotel hit Anna again. It did every time and every time, without fail, she was always surprised by it. The oak panelling from goodness knew how long ago, shone with years of attentive polishing and the marble staircase leading down to the River Restaurant, was as grand today as it was when it was installed in 1889. Louise gave Anna her usual history lesson about the hotel, she did it every week as if Anna was joining her for the first time.
‘Thomas Collcutt designed this Hotel you know,’ she enthused. ‘You can almost feel the presence of Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin and Lawrence Olivier wandering through the foyer can’t you? I would have loved to come here back in those days.’
Anna knew the next bit off by heart. ‘Richard D’Oyly Carte would have been happy to have seen so many people enjoying his hotel don’t you think?’
They walked briskly down the staircase to the toilets and the cloakroom. Whilst Lou rushed into the Ladies, Anna took both of their coats to the counter.
‘Good evening Madame,’ said the cloakroom attendant. ‘How are you this evening, it’s always lovely to see you back.’
‘Thank you Frasier,’ she said. ‘It’s always lovely to come back here.’ He took their coats and gave her the numbered ticket. She popped 50p in the saucer on the counter and wandered off to find Louise.
She found her friend in deep conversation with the toilet attendant talking about perfume and liberally spraying the complimentary ‘Anais Anais’ all over herself.
‘Didn’t you already put some on?’ said Anna.
‘Yes, but you can never smell too good, can you?’ She said with a giggle.
They walked out of the toilets with an air of confidence that neither particularly felt. Even with her classy background, Louise didn’t really fit into places like this and Anna, coming from a middle class family from the Midlands, was completely out of place.
‘Shoulders back, tits out.’ Lou whispered and off they went.
They moved quickly back up the staircase and took a quick look around the foyer to see if there was anyone of interest. They both agreed that there was no-one even remotely noteworthy there so they climbed the little staircase to the right and entered The American Bar.
The bar was crowded with the usual after work crowd. Temple and The Royal Courts were not that far from the hotel, so a lot of solicitors, barristers and other legal types would generally come here after a hard day fighting their corner in legal battle. It gave the bar an air of even more stateliness, if that were at all possible. The piano was playing in the background and the atmosphere felt a little heady as they made their way to the bar. The barman waved at them and signalled that he would be there in a minute. They nodded back ‘OK’ and looked around themselves.
‘A few different faces in here tonight,’ said Louise. ‘It’s better than usual.’
Anna looked about and caught the eye of a guy she had been talking to last week. She raised her hand in acknowledgment and he did the same before turning his back to her and continuing to talk to his friends. She knew that he hadn’t been that impressed with her when, after all the champagne he had bought her, she left when Louise had said she wanted to go there and then. She would have been quite happy staying and chatting to him, but Lou had been keen to leave after ‘throwing up a little bit’ on a Judge’s shoes.
The barman came over, ‘The usual Ladies?’ he grinned.
‘Yes please, but the house stuff this time. That overpriced fizz you gave us last week is OK when someone else is paying, but when we’re buying, £7 a glass is perfectly adequate thank you.’
Louise could be quite terse at times, but she never really meant it, it was just her way. The barman gave us a knowing look and smiled as he walked away to get the Champagne.
‘They take the piss if you let them you know,’ said Lou.
Anna raised her eyes to heaven, as was often the case on these nights out. The Champagne arrived and Anna took in the intoxicating aroma. The bubbles tickled her nose as she sipped the luxurious drink. They found a couple of stools at the end of the bar and settled themselves in.
‘Hopefully we won’t have to buy too many of these tonight,’ whispered Lou. ‘There are a few wealthy ones in here for a change, I think.’
Louise’s family, something in biscuits, were more than well off so it always surprised Anna that she was so impressed by other people’s prosperity. Her job, secured by her father, at the PR Agency paid the rent and bills so the monthly allowance she also got was more than enough to keep most people in the little luxuries of life. Louise was more than generous and had often spoilt Anna with little trips here and there and, to Anna’s consternation, a pair of Gucci shoes and a Versace handbag. Neither of which Anna had ever worn for fear of ruining them on their first outing. She loved Louise’s generosity, but also knew that Lou got a lot of pleasure out of thinking she was introducing designer labels to her.
She wasn’t wrong. They had not been there for more than five minutes when a couple of city types came over and introduced themselves. Neither were Anna’s kind of bloke. Although she wasn’t really sure what was, she knew that they weren’t it. Both were ‘something in banking’ which made Anna and Lou look at each other with raised eyebrows. As her mind and her eyes wandered off, she caught sight of a man watching her. He smiled and raised his glass. She looked away, a little puzzled by his attention. She didn’t normally attract the attention of older men, they were usually much younger. When she looked back, he was still looking at her. His eyes sparkling with amusement at the situation she and Louise found themselves in. She lost him as the crowd thickened at the bar and just as she was leaning over to see if she could catch sight of him again, she felt a hand take her elbow.
‘Excuse me Gentlemen,’ a deep voice said. ‘I just need to speak with my Secretary.’ She let herself be helped from her stool and propelled along the bar to a quiet corner.
‘What the hell do you think you are doing?’ She shook his hand from her arm. ‘I was absolutely fine there, thank you very much.’
‘No you weren’t,’ said the man, ‘I could see from your eyes that you would have rather have been anywhere in the world rather than talking to those two prats.’
‘They were OK.’ She looked him straight in the eye. ‘I’ve spoken to a lot worse, including, I might add, you.’
‘I suspect you have in your profession’ he said quietly.
‘I beg your pardon? What exactly do you think my profession is?’ Anna said indignantly.
‘Well,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘You’re a hooker aren’t you? Lady of the night? Prostitute?’
She didn’t stop to think about what she was doing as she poured the remaining champagne from her glass over his perfectly groomed ‘salt and pepper’ head. She turned with all the dignity she could muster, held her head high and walked out of the bar. She didn’t see the delighted smile on his face as she left or hear the spattered applause from the rest of the bar crowd. She felt completely outraged and humiliated in equal measure. Is that what people thought of her and Louise? Prostitutes? No, that couldn’t be right, surely? That’s not what they did. She wouldn’t be going back there in a hurry. She ran down the stairs with Louise rushing after her laughing.
‘Seriously, Anna, what on earth could he have said to make you do that?’ Louise said when she had caught up with her.
‘You don’t want to know Lou,’ she said through the lump of indignity in her throat, ‘you really do not want to know.’
‘Go on, tell me,’ Lou said, curious now.
‘Alright, if you really want to know, he thought that you and me were Hookers or Prostitutes or something!’
Louise fell into a fit of hysterical laughter which included a lot of her trade mark snorting. ‘Really? Is that it? I thought that he had insulted your family or something.’ Of course we look like a pair of strumpets, that’s what we do. We go into a bar with the sole purpose of selling our services, albeit company and not sex, for copious amounts of champagne. Same thing!’
‘No, it’s not,’ cried Anna. ‘It’s completely different. What we do is go into a bar and….oh, I see what you mean.’ She looked mortified. ‘Well, we can’t go back in there for a while can we, not after what I just did’
Louise gave her a friendly punch on the arm. ‘They won’t care, I am sure that they have seen a lot worse over the years.’
They collected their coats and bid farewell to Frasier. ‘See you next week?’ he asked.
‘I doubt it very much,’ said Anna with a wave. ‘I am not sure I want to see that bar for a while.’
Neither of them was particularly hungry, so they decided to pop across to the little pub they knew and have a drink there. It was a busy pub even though it was tucked away down a little side alley. They ordered their drinks and found a small table in the corner.
‘I can’t believe I did that. Really, what on earth was I thinking?’ Anna looked at Louise. ‘I mean, he was only trying to be nice and save us from those boring wanker bankers, wasn’t he? Or maybe he was trying to pick me up to do who knows what. Maybe he likes tarts?’
‘Listen,’ said Lou. ‘All is not lost. As I was following you out of the bar that guy stopped me and asked me for your name and number.’
Anna looked at her through squinted eyes. ‘You didn’t, did you? Oh my god, Louise, you bloody did, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, I bloody did and he seemed very nice too. Not at all worried that you had just wasted a perfectly good glass of champagne over his head.’
‘Oh god, oh god, oh god! Why would you do that? What have I ever done to you to I deserve that? He’s probably going to sue me or something or at least send me his dry cleaning bill. My god, Louise, what have you done?’
‘Calm down Anna, he probably won’t call anyway. Blokes as good looking as him never do. Let’s go and get something to eat, I’m starving.’