She had gone through everything with Louise in great detail the next day and Thursday soon came around, all too quickly. She was very indecisive, as usual. What to wear, hair up or down, heel height, perfume choice. It had taken her ages, but now, at last, she was ready for their date. Their first date, just a date or their last date? She couldn’t be sure how she felt about it all. He had called her yesterday to double check that she was still OK for dinner and agreed to pick her up at 7pm. She asked him where they were going, whether it was classy or relaxed and he had laughed. He told her not to worry, that she would look great whatever she decided to wear. Why men said things like that was most perplexing to Anna. Did they not understand that wearing the appropriate attire was of the utmost importance? However, here she was, ready at 6pm, way too early she knew, but she didn’t want to be cutting it fine. Dressed in a new outfit, that actually fitted her quite well for a change, and shoes that were far too high, from Chelsea Girl. Pacing up and down impatiently.
‘You look fantastic,’ said Lou. ‘Amazing, beautiful, fabulous, stunning.’
‘All right, all right, no need to over egg the pudding. I feel like a prize cow at a farming show.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous you’re far too thin to be a prize cow. Maybe a Llama or a Giraffe, but definitely not a cow’
‘When did you ever see a Giraffe at a farming show?’ Anna laughed at her friend.
‘They’re very diverse in Gloucestershire, you know,’ said Louise with a smile. ‘You never know what you’re going to get.’
Anna sat down on the sofa and switched on the news as a distraction. Nigel Lawson had resigned as Chancellor and some grey bloke called John Major had taken over.
‘Can’t see him going very far,’ said Louise. ‘He looks awfully boring.’
‘All Politicians are boring, they have to be,’ mused Anna. ‘It’s part of the job description.’ She switched off the TV, unable to settle and got up and paced some more.
‘Will you stop fidgeting,’ sighed Lou. ‘It’s very disturbing. You’re usually so calm, look at you, you’re like a cat with fleas.’
‘Thanks Lou, what a lovely image.’ She sat down again. ‘Give me something else to think about while I am waiting then.’
‘OK, what do you want to do about Christmas? Are you going to your Mum’s or do you want to spend it with my lot in Broadway?’
‘I have no idea. Mum hasn’t asked me over, I think she has other plans, although I’ve no idea what. She hasn’t really been the same since Dad died, she misses him terribly, I know that much. I wish she would find a companion, it would make her so happy.’
‘Well to Broadway it is then,’ smiled Lou. ‘I will let Mama and Papa know to make up another spare bed and get a bigger Turkey in, you need feeding up.’
The doorbell rang. ‘I’ll get it,’ said Louise. ‘You need to play a bit hard to get.’ She went to the door and Anna could hear some chattering and then some laughter. What on earth was she doing out there?
Louise came running back up the stairs. ‘He’s only gone and sent his Assistant for you,’ she shrieked. ‘How pompous is that?’
‘His assistant,’ said Anna, a bit upset. ‘Really, he couldn’t even be bothered to fetch me himself?’
She stomped out of the living room to be greeted by a tall blonde muscular man in full livery and a chauffeur hat. He looked a little like a Chippendale from the male stripper show and Anna held back the instinct to giggle.
‘Hello Madame, Mr Whittingdale sends his deepest apologies, but he has been caught up with a client and didn’t want you to be waiting any longer than necessary so sent me to collect you and drive you to the restaurant, where he will be waiting. I do hope that this is acceptable to you, I would hate to have to go back empty handed.’ He smiled and quite disarmed Anna in the process.
‘Well, I don’t really have any choice in the matter do I,’ spluttered Anna. ‘Come on then, let’s go, it won’t do to keep his highness waiting now, will it?’
As she slipped into the back of the car and took in the beige leather seats and the walnut dashboard she realised she was in a Rolls Royce. She didn’t know much about cars at all but she did know that this was proper fancy and very expensive. As she looked around, the assistant, who had introduced himself as James, turned in his seat.
‘If you fancy a glass of something, just pull open that cabinet in the middle. I am sure there is something in there you may like.’
She looked and saw a little brass handle sticking out from a panel in the middle of the seats in front. She tugged at it and it eased open to reveal a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket and two crystal glasses. ‘Classy!’ She whispered under her breath and shut the cabinet quickly before she relented and had a glass. She wanted all her wits about her tonight. He had already wrong footed her by sending an assistant instead of himself and whatever the reason was, she couldn’t help being a bit miffed at the fact.
The journey seemed to go on forever to Anna. Every time James slowed the car she thought they had arrived at where they were going to. She hated not knowing, but again, she seemed to have no choice. James finally brought the car to a complete standstill and Anna looked out of the window. No, it couldn’t be. He wouldn’t bring her here, after last week surely? Was he some kind of sadist or was this just a joke? As she was rapidly trying the think of a reason to get out and run from the car, the doorman opened the rear door and offered her his hand in assistance.
‘Good evening, Madam,. How lovely to see you again, welcome back.’
‘Hi,’ she mumbled and scrambled out of the car. ‘Thank you.’
She was straightening the skirt of her dress when she heard a shout. There he was, running down the little drive of the Hotel, beaming from ear to ear.
‘Anna! You made it. I hope you don’t mind eating here only I know the food is excellent and well, I thought it was better for you to get back on the horse, so to speak, by coming back to the scene of the crime’
‘No, this is lovely.’ She said, knowing that she sounded a little bit off. ‘I am sure that if the food is as good as you say it is, then it will be wonderful.’
‘Come, let’s go in.’ He put his arm around her waist and guided her through the rotating doors. He went to turn left and then stopped. ‘I guess that you don’t want to have a drink in the bar first?’
‘No,’ she said, embarrassed. ‘I think a drink at the table will be more than sufficient, thank you.’
He led her to the staircase and down to the River Restaurant. They were greeted by the Maitre’d.
‘Good Evening Mr Whittingdale, how very lovely to welcome you back.’ He looked at Anna, ‘Madam, may I say you look beautiful.’
‘Thank you, Phillipe,’ said Jeremy. ‘I hope we have the table I asked for?’
‘But of course Monsieur. Table number one, by the window, nice and private, let me show you.’
He led them through the restaurant which, Anna noted, was full of affluent looking people enjoying their dinner. To the rear were large windows with their fantastic views over the Thames. Even though it was coming into Autumn the lights from the embankment, both south and north, sparkled on the river, lighting it up with a thousand stars.
‘This is just perfect Phillipe, thank you,’ said Jeremy handing the little French man his hand, which Anna assumed had some kind of tip in it. He pulled out the chair for Anna and she sat down with an unusual elegance that she didn’t ever normally possess. Maybe being in this environment automatically made her more graceful. She was glad she hadn’t had that champagne in the back of the car now as she was pretty sure she would have had too much of it and would probably have missed the chair entirely and ended up on her bum in the middle of the restaurant.
Menus were produced as if by magic from somewhere completely out of sight and two glasses of pink champagne set down on the table. Jeremy lifted his glass and held it in front of her expectantly.
‘Phillipe was quite right; you do look absolutely beautiful. I am sorry I didn’t pick you up myself, but I am sure that James would have looked after you more than fittingly.’
She raised her glass to his. ‘That’s OK, I was a little bit concerned getting into a car with a strange man, but then he showed me the champagne and I thought, Oh well….’
‘There seems to be a theme forming here with you and your flatmate and Champagne,’ he chuckled. ‘Cheers.’
The menu was quite grand. It certainly beat her usual Thursday night feast of Sweet and Sour Chicken and Rice from the Ming Kee take away just down the road from the flat. She didn’t know where to start. She looked for things that were familiar and was quite happy to see ‘Omelette Arnold Bennett.’ She didn’t know who Arnold Bennett was, and she didn’t really care, but she knew Omelettes, Louise was brilliant at them. Cheese and Ham a speciality.
‘Do you know what you would like to eat?’ Jeremy said. ‘I can give you some recommendations if you wish?’
‘No, I think I’ll have the Omelette please, that sounds lovely.’
‘And what would you like as your main course?’ Jeremy inquired over the menu.
She felt a bit stupid. ‘Isn’t the omelette a main course?’ She asked tentatively thinking what kind of place was this that served an Omelette as a starter?
‘No,’ he said patiently. ‘This Omelette is an appetiser, its only small so I am sure you can make room for a main course.’
She looked over the menu again, more confused than ever. Jeremy glanced at her. ’I know, why don’t we have the ‘Chateaubriand?’ It’s for two so you can have as much or as little as you like. You like steak don’t you, you’re not a vegetarian or anything daft?’
‘No, I love steak, yes the chateauthingy will be great’
He ordered for them both, adding some side dishes of Pomme Frites and sautéed spinach to go with the steak. He also ordered a bottle of Chateau Margaux, which she knew to be a very good wine.
‘So, how has your week been?’ He asked conversationally.
They hadn’t talked much about what Anna did for a living as she hadn’t really wanted to tell him about her situation. While she had been given a small sum of money from the sale of the bar when her Father had died from her Mother, she still had to work to pay her share of the rent and bills. That she worked part time as an office junior at a recruitment consultants in the City, and as a barmaid at the pub just down the road from the flat, was a little bit embarrassing compared to his grand job as a solicitor. But, she thought, he must of started somewhere so she told him.
He looked at her appreciatively, nodding when she told him how hard it was to earn enough to live and pay the bills. She explained that she wanted to go to college to get her NVQ in Office Studies. It wasn’t her ideal profession, she admitted, as she had really wanted to be a teacher, but it was easier to get an administration job than a teaching job these days and she was happy enough.
Their starters arrived and she was surprised not to see the usual Omelette offering, but a dish bubbling with what looked like molten cheese. She put in her fork and took a bite shocked that there was something decidedly odd in this omelette. ‘Oh!,’ She looked at him. ‘It’s got fish in it!’
‘Yes, it has. This was a dish especially made for the writer Arnold Bennett while he was staying here,’ said Jeremy. ‘The chefs perfected it to his exact taste in the 1920s, it’s been on the menu here ever since.’
She tasted it again and realised that the rich cheese sauce with the fish and eggs was absolutely delicious. ‘I think this may be my new favourite Thursday night dish,’ she said. ‘I am going to have to get Lou, I mean Louise, to have a go at this.’ His eyes lit up as he relished that she was so obviously enjoying the experience.
Once the waiters had cleared their starter plates, she asked him about his week and why he was late.
‘Yes, I am sorry about that. I have a difficult client who is in a bit of trouble with the police. He is quite famous so I don’t want to go into too much information, but let’s just say, I need to get the case against him dropped. If not, it will be all over the news and it will be the end of his promising career.’
‘What did he do?’ She asked and then realised that he may not be able to tell her. ‘I mean, what does he do for a living?’
‘He’s an actor, and a very fine one too, but as I say, he has been bit silly.’
’Is that what you do, defend people who have been ‘a bit silly?‘’
‘Yes, I do and I appear to be quite good at it.’ He smiled at her.
Two waiters then appeared pushing a trolley with a big domed lid on it. They opened the silver cover and a rather large piece of beef emerged below it. One laid the table with the chips and spinach and put two sauces down. One was buttery with little flecks of green in it which she later learned was Béarnaise Sauce made with Tarragon, an herb that she hadn’t heard of before. The other was a Red Wine Sauce, deep in colour and rich in flavour. The other waiter made a great show of bringing out his knives and sharpening them on a steel that was hanging off the trolley. Once he was satisfied that they were sharp enough, he began carving the meat into little slivers and adding them to the plates with flair. He put the plates down in front of Anna and Jeremy with a wave of ‘Bon Apetit’ and he was off taking his trolley with him.
‘This looks amazing,’ said Anna. ‘How on earth am I going to top this when I repay the favour and cook for you?’
‘Oh, you’re going to repay the favour by cooking are you?’ said Jeremy with a smile. ‘I thought ladies like you repaid with something else!’
Her mouth opened. ‘How dare you, I thought that we had cleared this up. I am not what you think I am. Do not think that a good omelette and a fancy steak are the way to get what you want, I will not have you thinking that of me.’ She was rambling now but she couldn’t stop. All the anger that had filled her last week, was back. How dare he, again?
He held his hands up in mock surrender. ‘Joke, it was a joke, I was joking.’ He hushed her.
She blushed to the roots of her hair. Of course he was joking, how stupid of her. She looked at him. ‘I am sorry, I just get a little hot headed sometimes, it’s a family trait. You should meet my Mother; she can be terrifying!’
‘I think I would like to meet your mother very much. Tell me all about her and where she lives, it looked idyllic in the photo at your flat. I would love to hear more.’
And so she did. She told him everything there was to know about her parents, their move to the Algarve and her Fathers subsequent death. She told him all about how worried she was about her Mother and how she wished she could move on and find someone else to love. She told him about the big house that she refused to move out of, even though it was far too big for one person. She practically told him her life story once she got going. Once they had finished and the table was cleared, a waiter appeared and asked if they wanted dessert.
‘Goodness, I couldn’t eat another thing,’ she said. ‘I am completely stuffed.’
‘Coffee then, that shouldn’t be too filling?’ He suggested.
‘Yes, that would be lovely, thank you.’ She wasn’t really a coffee drinker, only when she had a hangover as a rule. She found that the caffeine simply didn’t agree with her, but she wanted to appear more mature and experienced in dining matters, so a coffee seemed to be the thing.
‘Two espressos and two Cointreau with ice please,’ he said to the waiter. ’Let’s see if ‘the ices melts.’ He said this last bit in a mock French accent.
She looked at him curiously.
‘You know the Cointreau advert, the French guy trying to get the lovely lady to like him with the liqueur.’
‘Oh yes, I know the one, very good.’
They both laughed as she thought to herself, yes, I can see myself melting here, let alone anyone else. Come on Anna, pull yourself together!
They finished their coffee and drinks and he asked for the bill. She felt a little light headed after all of the wine and after dinner drinks.
‘Will you excuse me please Jeremy, I just need the ladies before the drive home.’
He got up from his chair, walked around and pulled her seat out for her. ‘Of course, I will give James a call to collect us, I will see you in the Foyer?’
‘OK.’ And she was off to the cloakrooms to freshen herself up. When she emerged he was standing in the foyer with her coat in his hands, talking to the head doorman that she and Louise knew so well.
‘I hope you have had a lovely evening Madame. Will we be seeing you and your friend tomorrow night as usual?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ Anna replied. ‘Not this week.’
Jeremy gave her a look that she couldn’t quite fathom, but she thought it might be appreciation as he led her out to the car. When James pulled up, he drew Jeremy to one side and whispered in his ear.
‘I am really sorry Anna, but I am going to have to leave you in the capable hands of James again. My errant actor friend has left word and is panicking again and I really need to go to him. I really would like to see you again though, if you could bear it.’
She looked at him, reached up and kissed him on the cheek. ‘Yes, I think I could bring myself to see you again.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘I will call you tomorrow. James, please see that Miss Hawley gets home safely.’
And with that, he was gone. She got into the back of the car and let herself be taken home by the ever faithful James. She didn’t know when she had fallen asleep, but she was woken by James gently shaking her when they were outside her flat.
‘Here we are Miss Hawley, home sweet home.’
‘Thanks James, and as I am probably going to see you again, please call me Anna.’
‘All right Anna. Do you want me to see you in, there isn’t much light on your pathway?’
‘No you’re OK, I can see my flatmate in the window, I will be fine Thank you. Goodnight James.’
’Goodnight Anna, I look forward to seeing you again soon.
She ran up the path to the flat and let herself in. Louise was waiting at the top of the stairs.
‘Well……. How did it go?’ Louise was beside herself with excitement.
‘It was everything I hoped it would be and more. I really think this might be something very special, very special indeed?’