It’s 8.30 p.m. and Carol and I are sitting opposite each other in a quiet little Greek restaurant in Therburton Street, not a stone’s throw away from Carol’s cash dispenser. Okay, so it’s not quite so swanky as the Ivy or Euphorium, places which, before good sense set in, I had briefly considered taking Carol to for her thank-you meal, but I doubt very much that she notices the difference anyway. Actually, when I say quiet little restaurant this is not strictly true: it may be little, and the hand painted seascape mural that dominates one whole side of the restaurant could be part of the reason why Egon Roney has for the moment elected to give the place a miss, but quiet it’s not. At a table in the far corner sit a party of about a dozen young men. They’re all dressed in T-shirts and jeans, sharing a jug of lager and speaking in voices that are unnecessarily loud for an establishment of this size. They look like a party of rugby players on a night out.
It should be fairly obvious to you why I have decided to take Carol here when there are any number of more suitable locations that we could have elected to patronise. The deciding factor in my decision was, of course, anonymity: I needed to choose somewhere that: a/ Marie and I had never visited in the past; and that b/ Marie and I were never likely to visit in the future. This one fits the bill as well as any: I’m confident that not even handcuffs and a whip would entice Marie to step inside its doorway. Judging by the knowing look on the proprietor’s face as he ushered Carol and I to our table earlier, it appears that I’ve made a wise decision: this seems like exactly the sort of place that a middle-aged man on the run from his wife ought to be taking his bit of young fluff to. I feel part of a rich historic heritage: I stand in the shadows of a thousand lecherous encounters between balding men in their fifties with beer bellies and fat wallets, and youthful floozies with too much make-up, too little neckline and too many ambitions.
Carol, however, is a class above this sort of person. She sits across from me, the fresh, unlined contours of her porcelain face framed by her peroxide hair; her bruises are almost gone now. Admittedly, the roll-ups do tend to shatter the illusion somewhat, but Carol looks like the sort of girl – of woman – who has been genetically modified to sit at restaurant tables with men with too much money. The foxy red number that I bought her makes Carol look sensational; some of the young rugby player-types at the other table have already given her the once over. I’m feeling quietly pleased at their envy: I’ve not experienced this kind of feeling since the golden days of Dawn and her torpedo chest. I’d quite forgotten how pleasant it is.
At the risk of sounding a little immodest, I have to say that I, myself, have not let the side down either: I’m wearing a newish black suit which I bought for a wedding last July and I’ve washed and combed my hair and even used a bit of Marie’s facial scrub to scratch away a few of the excess years. My shoes are brushed suede and I look exactly like someone in their late thirties who takes younger women out to restaurants and tries to impress them with his worldliness and sophistication, something which I fully intend to do.
In a way, there’s a whole sort of honeymoon quality to this moment: Carol has been staying with me for four nights, tonight will be her fifth, and I feel that we have somehow forged a connection that will never be broken. I may have just lost my job and my father may be dying and Marie may have run off in disgust at my recent behaviour, but I feel like celebrating. Tonight is Carol’s last night – our divorce, I suppose you could say – and looking at her now and remembering what she used to look like under her cash dispenser I can’t help feeling a sense of achievement. The achievement may only be temporary but something positive has come out of all of this nevertheless.
It is while we are eating our second course that things begin to go a little awry. By now the party of rugby players across from us are on their fourth or fifth jug of lager and have been getting increasingly rowdier. Carol, who is sitting with her back to the group, sipping from our second bottle of wine, is not able to see what they are doing at their table. I, however, have a clear view, a view that allows me to keep a close eye on their antics. One by one the group seems to be getting increasingly more interested in Carol and her red dress. Gradually, they are getting bolder: the lustful looks that have been cast in the direction of Carol’s bare shoulders are becoming more and more exaggerated. In a sense these people have my sympathy: they must have drunk about four times the amount that I have but already I myself can feel the poles of my interest in Carol slowly shifting from that of indulgent mentor back to that of slathering paramour.
“Why don’t those idiots keep quiet?” asks Carol as she dips her fork into some aubergine-type concoction that she ordered from the vegetarian menu.
“They’re harmless enough,” I reply. “They’re just having a night out.”
“But they’re going to ruin it for everyone else.”
“No they’re not,” I say. “Just ignore them.”
I look over and smile at Carol reassuringly, like I’ve been in this sort of situation a million times before and she smiles back; genuinely pleased to be here, it seems to me, happy to be sitting in this cheap little eatery with me. I find myself wondering what might have been on the menu later on if only I were younger and my stomach didn’t carry quite so much ballast as it does these days. What would I have once done to possess a woman such as this – to what lengths would I have gone?
It is whilst I am busy considering the what ifs and if onlys that Carol suddenly leans a little closer to me and speaks: “You’re a strange one, John Price,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“Well… I mean, look at you, sitting there in your expensive suit. What are you doing here with someone like me?”
“What do you mean?”
Carol laughs sweetly: “Oh, I don’t know…” she replies. “I mean, come on, you’re married – well almost married anyway – and you’re sitting in a restaurant with a girl you hardly know. And you’re letting me stay at your place… and you’re giving me money and you’re buying me presents. I mean, what’s it all about… Alfie?”
That’s a difficult one to answer. “I don’t know…” I say. “It wasn’t something that I planned to do… I just like you, I suppose.”
“And you do this for every girl that you ‘just like’ do you?”
“No… of course not… it just sort of happened really.”
We sit quietly for a moment while a waiter appears and refills our glasses.
“So you not doing this because you want to sleep with me then?” asks Carol as the waiter disappears into the distance.
“What a question,” I say, suddenly aware that Carol’s speech is slightly slurred: it is, after all, our second bottle of wine.
“Come on…” continues Carol. “Wouldn’t you like to go to bed with me?”
“I think maybe you’ve drunk a little too much.”
“No I haven’t, I’m perfectly sober. Come on – I asked you a question.”
“Alright,” I lie. “I don’t want to sleep with you.”
Carol looks surprised. “You don’t?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“You really don’t?”
“Stop it Carol.”
I’m smiling now and definitely feeling pleased with myself. Under Carol’s attentive eyes I light up a cigarette.
“So,” she says. “Let’s say that we go home tonight and I rip this dress off and stand in front of you naked – you’d still not want to sleep with me?”
I shake my head.
“Or maybe you’d like to rip it off me… maybe that’s why you bought this dress in the first place.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Well why else did you buy it for me? I’ve been thinking about this a lot: why did you spend all this money on me?”
“I don’t know… You said that you wanted it for tonight. I thought I’d get you a present. I’ll take it back to the shop tomorrow if that’s what you want.”
It is at this point in the proceedings that our musings are interrupted by the sound of breaking crockery. I turn my eyes towards the table of rugby players and watch as they hurl plates through the air like Frisbees. They seem to be enjoying themselves, apparently, their instinctive desire to smash things up temporarily sated. Carol, however, is far from amused that our neighbours have decided to indulge in this ancient Greek custom: “Can’t somebody get them to stop!” she asks angrily, looking towards me as though she thinks I’m the sort of somebody who ought to be getting them to stop.
“Oh, it’s all right,” I say, trying to calm her down. “They’re just having a laugh, that’s all.”
“No, it’s not all right,” hisses Carol. “Look at the poor waiter – he doesn’t know what to do with himself.”
Then, just as I’m about to explain to Carol – whose dedication to the classics has obviously not prepared her for an eventuality such as this – that the rugby players are undoubtedly destroying special unglazed plates that have given to them by the restaurant staff she gets to her feet and yells: “Oy! You lot – stop messing around… sit down and behave like civilised human beings, won’t you!”
Suddenly the whole of the restaurant is in silence. All eyes are on Carol and her slinky red dress. The restaurant owner/manager appears from the kitchen. “It’s okay, madam,” he urges. “Don’t worry about it.”
But Carol is having none of it. When one of the rugby players lets out a guffaw of laughter she angrily confronts him: “Think it’s funny, do you?” she snarls, picking up a saucer from our table. “Let’s see if you find this so funny!”
The saucer misses the rugby player’s head by a whisker. He looks over angrily at me. So do his mates. Fantastic. This is great: ten seconds ago I was sitting in my seat, nicely sauced and being flirted with by a supermodel; now I’m about to be dragged into the centre of a rugby scrum.
It takes some fast talking on my part: I stand up and pull Carol away from the floor and quietly tell her that what she is witnessing is nothing more than tradition. She issues a few spluttering buts and I repeat what I have just said and then she begins to blush until her complexion matches the colour of her dress. I apologise to the restaurant manager and then I move warily over to the rugby players and apologise to them, too, telling them Carol that meant nothing by what she did, and I pay for another jug of lager for them and they kind of smirk at me in a derisory manner. As am doing this I’m struck by the cultural chasms that divide Carol and I. More than her scarcity of wrinkles and lack of cellulite, it seems to me that it is experience that really separates us. It’s the little things that I have been able to acquire over the years that makes the difference. It’s by no means a crime but I’m sitting here having dinner with a woman who has no knowledge of Greek restaurant etiquette; I’m also sharing my table with a woman who doesn’t realise that if you attack a group of drunken rugby player-types in a restaurant, more often than not it’s the bloke you are with who gets to bear the brunt of their displeasure. Such cultural ignorance can be potentially hazardous to one’s good health.
What with me having to keep a guarded eye on the rugby players, the rest of the dinner is a little stilted. Even so we’re laughing about it when climb into a taxi and head off home. We’re still laughing when I open the front door and stare down the corridor at my flickering answering machine. However, by the time we’ve both finished listening to the message that it contains, neither of us is laughing anymore:
– John… sob… it’s your mother… please answer the phone… sob. Your father… sob… he’s a lot worse… sob… the doctor’s just left… he’s not got long now… sob… sob… Please; I’m asking you… I’m begging you… sob… please… you’ve got to come and see him… Please… answer the phone…”