by Andrew Bramwell
gin and tonic
To say he was nervous would be an understatement. At that moment James felt like a soldier on a landing craft just before the lowering of the ramp and if that sounds a little over the top, well it probably was because that’s what he was like, a bit dramatic, flouncy, full of himself but, actually, underneath if you were being honest terribly insecure. But then wasn’t that a lot of people?
He’d never been to this restaurant before and that made him even more uncomfortable and he had got here early. That was a fault of his and he always ended up having to hang around as if he’d been stood up.
But there you go. He ordered a gin and tonic from the bar and sank into one of the leather armchairs. Trying to look at ease only made him feel uncomfortable and he began to feel quite warm. He knew his face was going red, it always did. He scanned faces as they entered from the car park or tried as well as he might in this ridiculously subdued lighting.
When she walked through the door he didn’t recognise her at first. He hadn’t really thought about what she might look like after all these years, almost forty to be exact and in his mind still visualised the pert eighteen-year-old with the bobbed black hair and tight jeans. As logic should dictate she didn’t look like that. How could she?
It was a wave of disappointment that swept through him, that was the prominent emotion for he had been looking forward to this moment for so long, ever since that first contact through Facebook. A sense of anticipation had been ignited, a long-forgotten thrill, a kind of shiver taking him back all those years.
But it was certainly her. Despite the rather thin grey hair and red flowery dress he recognised her straight away. She had put on weight, but then hadn’t everyone? It was the eyes, the deep, deep eyes in which he had lost himself as a very young man that gave her away. That touch of magic was still there. He could tell, and a kind of tremor shot through his body like a lightning bolt.
Before allowing himself to think he called her name.‘Alison’. It was half shout, half whisper.
She smiled, and he was suddenly taken back all those years which had passed since then. It was so strange. He had not expected this.
‘James,’ she said in a kind of silky whisper, almost formally. ‘I can hardly believe it is you’.
‘Well it is,’ he said trying to be funny. ’Shall we go to our table? I believe it’s ready.’
She followed and sat opposite and for a few moments there was a sense of mutual awkwardness as if this was their first meeting, which of course it was, in a way.
‘So, how are you?’ he said.
‘I’m OK’ she replied in a way that hinted she probably wasn’t. ‘And I’m ready for a drink. I’m sure you are too’.
‘What will you have?’
‘I’ll have a glass of chardonnay please, a large one’.
‘Another gin and tonic for me. Just a single. I have to watch my waistline’. He already knew he was beginning to sound ridiculous. He already knew it was too late for his waistline too! He scanned the table, appraising the presentation as he was wont, placing his jacket on the back of the chair as he did so.
The arrival of drinks seemed to break the ice and some of the awkwardness disappeared’.
‘We have so much to catch up on,’ he said. ‘Where do we begin?’
‘You first James, after all it was your idea to meet’.
‘Not so fast,’ he paused, swirling the wine around his glass ‘If I recall you were the first to make contact, that I believe gives you the prerogative’.
She smiled again but at that moment the waiter arrived to take their order. It was quite opportune, and they were both momentarily absorbed in the menu.
‘To begin’ said James with as much authority as he could muster ‘I’ll have the risotto of Brixham crab, chilli and cockle popcorn, which sounds, dare I say exquisite, followed by sirloin steak – medium rare, croquettes, portobello mushrooms, vine tomatoes, au poivre sauce’.
‘I’ll have the same to start please and then the pumpkin and ricotta ravioli’.
‘A good choice’ James said, somewhat condescendingly.
‘You wear glasses now’.
‘Only for reading, my long vision is perfect’. He still had that touch of vanity.
‘I suppose age is catching up with us both’.
James watched the candle flicker in the middle of the table and then looked up.
‘You were saying.’
‘Well if you insist. When I left university I went into teaching, didn’t like it much but persisted. You have to pay the bills after all and in the end, I put up with it. I met someone, got married, got divorced and last year I became seriously ill’.
‘I’m sorry to hear that’.
‘There was a degree of unpleasantness with the treatment and then a period of convalescence. I found myself alone at home with nothing much to do so I started to make contact with old friends. The internet is a marvellous thing isn’t it. I was more curious than anything. There were lots of people who responded who I didn’t actually like’.
‘Still…it does sound fascinating. I wish I’d had the nerve.’
‘Once I started it sort of became addictive. That’s when your name came up, first through the usual social media and then I stumbled across your blog. You have quite a following’.
‘Thank you, it just snowballed. You have no idea how many people out there suffer with allergies’.
Then the first course arrived and there was a natural break in the conversation while James with his usual obsessive intensity analysed and evaluated the subtleties of every flavour.
‘Rather delicious don’t you think?’
‘Very nice’ replied Alison.
She’s not really interested he thought and glimpsed the reflection of multiple candle flames in the windows. The restaurant was located in a conservatory with a large Indian looking ceiling fan whirring away in the ceiling. It was sparsely furnished but very tasteful.
Once the first course was finished and cleared away the conversation continued.
‘So now it’s my turn,’ said James in his most seductive voice.
She looked across at him and smiled coyly.
‘Well I left university and I have to say it was one of the happiest days of my life. I’d really had enough by the end. The only problem was I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew what I didn’t want to do, that is return to the parental home but that was about it. Anyway, I took up the offer to stay with a friend in London and I took a job as a waiter in this rather select restaurant. I mean I took the job to pay the bills, until something else came along. Then, after a while I found I enjoyed the work and the food and the wine, well everything about the whole business. I was hooked. Eventually I scraped together enough finance to buy my own place. A bistro on the Marylebone Road. A good location, always busy lunch times and evenings. Yes, things turned out OK in the end. I found my niche in the world.’
‘So, you never married?’
‘Afraid not. Never seemed to have the time’. James was rescued by the arrival of the main course. He mentally licked his lips and savoured the rising aromas before sliding into his own culinary world. Cooked to perfection, he thought and the mushrooms and the sauce, more than passable. For a moment he forgot about Alison’s presence, he was so engrossed. She must have noticed and perhaps found it, well, a little odd. She was too well mannered to comment and quietly attended to her own meal but with none of James’s fervour.
‘That was delicious…the texture exquisite. I think I could actually pick up essence of the Mediterranean from those vine tomatoes. How was yours?’
‘Good I liked it,’ she said but with no real enthusiasm and if she was being honest she would have admitted that she really was really wasn’t having a good time. The food was fine, better than fine but the evening was dragging, and she began to wonder why she had come, until she remembered.
‘Do you recall our first meeting Alison?’
‘Yes mostly,’ she replied. ‘I’ve been sort of reminiscing over the last few days.’
‘It was a Friday night during one of those very loud, rather unsophisticated discos’.
‘I was sitting with a group of friends and you came over and started talking to me and complaining about the beer’.
James laughed’ Oh dear, I’m sorry about that. Still it was a long time ago’.
‘We were different people then’.
‘Yes of course we were. One thing led to another and we were together for quite a long time’.
Yes, thought Alison. I remember it well, the music and the movement of bodies gyrating across the room. We talked and as you say one thing led to another and we were soon a recognised couple. We went walking in the lakes and you held my hand. I went to your home and you to mine. I remember that little Italian pizza place and the park and the sweet scent of cinzano and coffee. We were together for a long time and though you could sometimes show off in front of your friends and be inconsiderate I thought you cared. Then just before we left you said we needed to ‘call it a day’ whatever that meant. I was heartbroken. You really messed up my finals and I remember crying for weeks. I couldn’t think straight. I thought I was going mad. Although I know it was stupid and you weren’t worth it…I never got over you. You messed up my whole life.
‘Tell me about your nut allergy.’
‘Well it’s not an attractive tale and how and why it developed is still a mystery to me. But it did. I’m afraid I have it quite badly. The merest particle may cause anaphylaxis shock – difficulty breathing, tightness of throat, cardiac arrest. I always carry my epi-pen in my jacket pocket.’
Alison looked at him deep in thought.‘So, you started this blog and shared information and experiences with others.’
‘Yes, it was a life saver and I’m not averse to admit that I am very proud of my achievement and the fact that I have so many followers. I’m sure it has helped a great many people.’
‘I’m sure it has.’
You are a prancing, dithering blob of arrogance she thought. What on earth did I ever see in you?
‘As you can imagine for someone who lives for food, good food, it is a terrible burden. That’s why I called the bistro ‘Nuts’ as an ironic joke. Of course, there are all sorts of regulations now concerning the use of these products and I am ultra-careful. If I ever accidently consumed a nut it would be very serious, quite possibly fatal’.
When dessert was delivered to the table James once again succumbed to a state of rapture. Chilled chocolate fondant, cherry puree, pistachio ice cream. He became more voluble and shared his opinions freely. Alison couldn’t tell if he was doing all this for effect or if he was always like this, which might explain why he never married. All in all, she found it slightly pretentious. She knew she was probably being unfair and was tired. That medical treatment had knocked her about.
Then there was a pause in the conversation while James savoured his cappuccino. It was going rather well he thought. Alison may have lost some of her looks, but she still had that presence, that something that had attracted him in the first place. He felt sure she was falling under his spell again and quite liked the sensation. Alas he had to go to the bathroom.
‘Will you excuse me Alison’.
She watched him waddle towards the exit. She thought he might even be humming and it sort of irritated her, though she could not say why. When he was out of sight she rose from her chair and fumbled in his jacket pocket. There it was the epi-pen. Quietly, without fuss she placed it into her handbag. Equally quietly she sprinkled a tiny amount of peanut essence into his coffee.
‘Sorry about that’ when he returned. ‘The old prostate’.
‘I’m really enjoying this meal.’
‘Good.’ She said. ‘I’m so glad’.