Behind the closed office door, his eyes scan the room; noting the industry magazines are not fanned in front of the maiden hair fern and the reception desk is untidy. It’s Sally’s third week and Bill's idiosyncrasies still elude her. In the quiet, he mulls over the day’s inspections, client proposals and paper work that needs completing to close another deal. After checking the appointments for the next two days, he leaves a detailed to-do-list, in pencil, on the right hand side of his diary. He picks up the phone, and calls Pauline, his wife of 30 years, and says “I’ll be home after dinner” and then hangs up. She knows exactly what this means; an evening of solitude; an evening of emptiness. His cutlery is placed back in the kitchen drawer, again, as she squashes her hopes that perhaps tomorrow night or the night after will be different. Stepping out onto the pavement, with the office behind him and the restaurant ahead, Bill already feels invigorated. It’s only a 10 minute walk and while he knows he doesn’t have a dinner booking; he is expected.
Within moments of walking in the door, he is seduced by the vibrancy of the stained glass windows, velveteen curtains, laughter from the bar and the pools of light that whisper promises of acceptance and unconditional companionship. Scanning the room he sees her, she is always there, waiting for him, with a champagne in her hand, protecting their table. It’s in the nook between the waiter’s station and the fireplace. It’s their space, a space where they choose who enters and where they define the rules. Her style and serenity calms his mind but arouses his passion. He yearns to reach out and touch her, to quench his thirst for intimacy, but this is not the place.
As he draws his seat closer to her, the promise of acceptance and unconditional companionship is fulfilled. Mesmerised by her beauty and elegance, Bill remains oblivious to the other tables that arrive for dinner and the energy of a full house. His drink arrives but he dismisses the waiter as he prefers to pour his own. Just as he finishes pouring his dark foamy Guinness, he looks up and notices the fine beads of the Tattinger champagne rising in her glass. Not daring to speak, his eyes follow the beads to where her hand caresses the glass, along her porcelain arm and shoulder to her swanlike neck before finally falling into her serene eyes. She continues to laugh and tease him as she always does. Bill is excited by their contrasts and their unspoken arrangement. He continues to recount his day and she listens knowingly, never interjecting. She is the perfect dining companion.
Without looking at the menu, he orders a plain chicken breast, two potato croquettes, steamed broccoli and a sauté of whole Swiss Brown mushrooms and fresh tarragon. He reminds the waiter, “no fancy garnishes and the plate must be hot; make sure you tell them back there its “Bill’s order”. As dinner is placed before him, a wry smile transforms his face. The waiter can’t carry the plate without a serviette and a thin brown line has formed around the sauté where the mushroom juices sizzled upon contact with the hot plate. The croquettes are crunchy but give way to his knife to reveal fluffy white mashed potato and the broccoli, it’s mushy, but perfect. He asks the waiter, “is big Al working the stoves?” “He sure is and he’s got another croquette ready to go if you need it. Just give me the nod and I’ll take care of you.
In between each mouthful, Bill mulls over his plans for a late retirement. He tells her that Pauline is hoping that he will retire soon, be home for dinner every night and has suggested on far too many occasions that they would enjoy travelling together. How preposterous! Life without work, where everything is ordered and can be dealt with as a debit or a credit, is inconceivable. Travelling together with no routine and an endless parade of over priced, unfamiliar meals. No way! By the end of main course he knows he will tell Pauline, this weekend, while the kids are home for a Sunday roast, that he will continue to work for at least another three years!
He spends a couple of minutes starring into the abyss of his long black coffee, to consider how he will raise the subject, before he picks up the Toll House Cookie and snaps it in half. Resting one half on the saucer, he studies the chocolate chips and pecan pieces in the other before he takes a bite. As he does, once again, the glint of her champagne flute catches his eye. This time it’s the reflection from the birthday cake candles, at the adjacent table, which brings the champagne flute to life in the life-sized picture of Madame Tattinger that hangs next to his table. The shimmering light accentuates the champagne flute and he is drawn back to her. Mesmerised by her serenity, once again, his eyes follow the curve of her hand, along her graceful arm and shoulders to her swan - like neck before he abandons himself again to her serene eyes. The moment is broken as a piece of wood explodes in the fireplace and a fine spray of red hot embers fizzle and swirl and then disappear.
Finishing his coffee, he knows that it’s almost time to leave, to go home, where the years of emptiness have pervaded the house and his heart. He nods knowingly to his silent companion and whispers the promise of return.