An Evening With An Immortal Man
By Ed Crane
The main bar of, “The Doll’s House” serves as a reception area for visitors to the reason this ancient building is still standing. The fussily polished flag-stone floor plays host to groups of square backless padded seats surrounding functional tables topped with expensive composite mimicking pinkish granite. The centrepiece of the room; a four-yard wide Tudor arched inglenook fireplace, no longer houses a green-wood log furnace spitting sparks and eye-watering acrid smoke to warm clay-piped coachmen, sitting as close as they dare while steam rises into the hazy atmosphere from their heavy travelling cloaks. A gastro pub they call it in this part of the century. Once, you were a regular of this establishment, but no one here or their grandfathers would recognise you as a local.
Taking your place on one of the padded slabs, you place your thick bottomed Swedish-glass tumbler containing a centimetre of dark Jamaican rum on imitation stone and await your guest. To your eyes, the furniture is as alien in this aged room as a Rolls Royce Phantom would be to Sir Thomas More’s if it were parked in the King’s Private road outside Beaufort House. Even within this cleansed tobacco free atmosphere you can still sense the odour of unwashed bodies, damp wool, wet hay and horse shit which the lime-straw walls and oak timbers soaked up like a sponge for centuries.
The automatic glass door glides open with a barely audible sigh – a coldblooded entrance to another dimension. Your guest has arrived. A wave of her gloved hand and a wrinkle-nosed grin are sent your way and you rise in greeting. A brushed cheek-to-cheek kiss is exchanged and she sits opposite.
‘Sorry, I’m a little late – traffic. Do we need to go in now?’
You smile, as much to yourself as to her. Of course she would be late. ‘We have plenty of time. I reserved a place for eight-thirty. Would you like a drink first?’
She picks up the burgundy leather bound drinks menu and flicks through its tanned cardboardy pages. ‘Oh that’s good, they have mocktails.’ She smiles apologetically. ‘I’m driving. May I have a Blueberry Mojito?’
You make eye contact with the waitress hovering near the table and order the beverage. You direct her to put the seven pounds-fifty drink on your account. The girl frowns and you correct account to my tab. A tall glass of purplish cloudy liquid drowning four blueberries and sprouting mint leaves arrives after a three-minute wait.
She raises her eyebrows. ‘Quick.’ She examines the fluid art-form for a second or two before bringing the glass to her lips and taking a sip. ‘I don’t like to drink when I have the car. I may have a glass of wine with a meal, but only one.’ She eyes the tumbler of rum you are holding.
‘I came by taxi. It’s hardly worth bringing the car for a five minute drive.’
The small talk flows easily, she is flattered you invited her to dinner. She didn’t realise you lived so close by and such a lovely old building. You pass on a brief recent history of the “The Doll’s House,” how got its name and the way it was saved from falling into grade-one listed dereliction by an Anglophile American billionaire who owns a chain of gastro pubs across the Southern States – just for the fun of it.
The drinks are finished, you glance at your Apple watch reflecting on the fact you only know how to use it to find the time, but need it to look early twenty-first century. You make an open hand gesture cutting her polite monologue short.
‘Shall we get some dinner?’
The waitress leads the way to the dining room and points out one of the private booths, luxuriously upholstered in buttoned chestnut leather. You allow your guest to choose one of the four place settings and sit opposite her while the waitress clears the excess cutlery and glassware.
‘This is so opulent.’ She looks around. ‘I feel like I’m sitting inside a Chesterfield.’
‘Yes, the Americans certainly know how to make us feel pampered, don’t they?’ You chuckle at the thought of how people in this era can never imagine the excesses of wealth you have witnessed.
A young man dressed in a trendy designer uniform comes over to deliver two biblical sized menu folders. He looks more like a first-class cabin attendant than a waiter and he surprises you with the words, ‘You guys want some drinks before you order?’
She shakes her head.
‘Not right now, we had an aperitif in the bar. Perhaps you could bring the wine list, though?’
‘It’s in the back of the menu actually,’ he smarms.
‘The other wine list.’ You try to keep a straight face.
He snaps to attention. ‘Yes sir.’ A minute later he returns with a plain A5 parchment card.
She is fascinated. ‘The other wine list?’
‘Their best wines. They don’t put them on the main menu. The prices frighten people.’
Her expression embarrasses you into making an apologetic explanation. ‘There’s a wine on it which I find irresistible. Not the most expensive, but it’s certainly overpriced. I thought it would be nice for you to try since you will only have one glass. It’s a red. . . . I’m so sorry I’m being self-indulgent. Of course, I have no idea what you want to eat, you don’t have to—‘
She laughs, it’s almost childlike. ‘Well if it’s that good it would be rude to refuse. Don’t be embarrassed, that’s a very generous gesture and I love red wine.’
You are relieved, but you worry. It’s been so long since a woman flustered you into making such a fundamental mistake. ‘Shall we see what’s on offer?’
You fake perusing the menu while she makes her choice. When she is ready, you flag down the waiter. Before taking the orders, he lights three plump candles waiting on a ceramic tray in the middle of the table with a silver-plated wand-like gadget.
You get another surprise when she requests, Tournado Nicoise – saignant. You ask for Páve de Venaison et sauce au vin rouge.
‘You will like my choice of wine I think.’
‘I don’t doubt it. I’m surprised the menu is in French, I thought that was rather out of vogue.’
‘Perhaps the American owner thinks it makes the food taste better.’
‘Or he’s after a Michelin star.’
You laugh softly. ‘I think you are right.’ Things appear promising for a seduction this evening.
The main course goes well, the conversation less formal. She charms you with her witty anecdotes about her childhood and the way she clearly relishes her bleeding steak and yet manages to look graceful while she deftly slices it into neat pieces. You feel a warmth which is morphing into a concern.
The wine in her glass is now down to a mere finger. ‘Did my choice please?’
‘Far better than I expected, and I knew it would be good. I’m tempted to have another glass,’ She chuckles coyly, ‘but I don’t want to give a bad impression. I’m having this little bit while we wait for dessert.’
Maybe it’s your imagination, but as your Crème Brulée and her Oeufs a la Niege arrive, the lights seem lower. You wait until she breaks off a piece of her “island” and places it in her mouth before concentrating on cracking the brulee’s caramel topping. Looking up from this task you notice she is studying you. It’s not the first time you’ve seen women do this. It’s a bad sign. The guileless expression on her lovely face seems to glow in the candles’ soft light. You stare at her, transfixed.
‘Um . . . are you alright?’
Her question breaks the spell. ‘Yes, sorry. I was miles away for a second.’
You attempt to laugh it off, but those words were too close to the truth. You thought you were past such emotions, but you’re mistaken. This game cannot go on, you must put an end to it. Now.
A silence descends. You take a spoonful of your dessert and then another, stretching the pause to make it slightly uncomfortable. She drops her gaze and follows your lead. You make use of the interval to think up a plan.
Laying your spoon aside you attempt a condescending expression. ‘You appear to have settled well into city life, quite a change from rural Suffolk I imagine. Such a lovely village, Mellis. All that space.’
Swallowing the morsel of meringue she was eating, she purses her lips. The frown on her brow lasts an instant. ‘Yes, its lovely, have you ever been there?
‘I spent some time there a while ago. Did you know Oliver Cromwell exercised his soldiers on the green?’
‘Of course, one of the first things we learnt in history at school.’
‘Bit of an oddball was Cromwell. Arrogant, but also insecure. When he was nervous he kept pinching the end of his nose. Like this.’ You demonstrate. ‘That’s something you won’t read about in books.’
‘You sound like you knew him,’ she says in a giggly voice.
‘I did. I used to mend his boots.’
She tips her head back. ‘Ha, and I had you figured as thirty-five not three-hundred and thirty-five.’ She continues to laugh at her joke.
You remain serious. ‘I’m much older than that. Add on about another four-hundred.’ You lean forward. ‘Did you know Henry VIII had a stutter as a child?’
She’s tense, but still smiling. ‘Go on.’
‘I was born around 1250. My mother was raped by the son of the local Norman landowner. We were serfs. My "father" accepted me, but he was cruel to me and Mother.’
‘This is not funny.’
You lean back and take a large gulp of the remaining wine. ‘I apologise. For the past nine months I’ve been totally involved in tracing back my family line. The documents I have uncovered. Fascinating. Sometimes it sort of takes me over.’ You smile. ‘Hmm, you must think I’m very odd.’
‘Not at all. Research can be so engulfing.’ She relaxes, but her body language speaks of doubt.
The barb is set. ‘Finish your dessert, I’ll order some coffee.’
‘That won’t be necessary, it’ll keep me awake and I need my sleep. I have to be up early tomorrow. Um, I suppose I’d better be going soon, but have your coffee first.’
You refuse coffee and she excuses herself to visit the ladies room. You suggest you settle the bill while she’s away and you’ll meet her in the main bar. She accepts.
When she enters the room, you help her on with her coat. ‘I’ll take you to your car.’
‘Oh it’s alright, it’s quite near the door.’ A smile. ‘I’ll be quite safe.’
‘I’m sure you will. Shall we meet next week?’
‘I’ll call you. I forgot to tell you I have a busy schedule for the next few weeks. Thanks for a lovely evening.’
She swishes through the dreadful glass door. You watch her go. You have set her free, like you would free a captured bird. You uncupped your hands and she flew, but in truth you have freed yourself.
You take a seat and call for a taxi. It’s a busy night there’s a twenty-five minute wait. You attract a waitress’s attention and request a large Prunier Grand Champagne. When it arrives, lurking in the base of an outrageously big brandy glass, you give the girl a twenty and let her to keep the morsel of change.
Cupping the miniature goldfish bowl in your hand, you take in the aroma and savour a mouthful. You’ve long become immune to the ravages of alcohol, an advantage since you can enjoy the subtle flavours without the dulling effect of the drug.
Over the second mouthful you review the turning point of the evening, remembering the beautiful illuminated features of this confident twenty-seven year old dentist. You shivered when her face changed to thirty-nine, still attractive, but slightly fading. Your body going ice-cold as she aged before you until finally you saw a withered crone sleeping in the confines of a coffin lined in white satin.
You have seen this so many times before. Wives; lovers; sons; daughters even grandchildren. So many lost souls. So much lost love. It has become more than you can bear. Only whores and prostitutes can satisfy you now. Tonight was a huge mistake.
When the cognac is finished you leave the bar and wait outside in the cool autumn air, watching the season’s last moths mindlessly head butting glass in the orange glow of a street lamp. Dipping your hand in your jacket pocket you recover your iPhone and check the time. Another five minutes. Looking at the device in your hand, you say, ‘A twenty-first century oracle stone – nothing special. Just new magic.’