Twelve Red Herrings - novelonlinefull.com
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"I haven't had time to look at the menu yet," Anna replied, not even bothering to look up at him.
"I can recommend the fettucini, madam," the waiter said, pointing to a dish halfway down the list of entres. "It's our speciality of the day."
"Then I suppose I might as well have that," said Anna, handing him the menu.
I nodded, indicating The too," and asked for a half-bottle of the house red. The waiter scooped up my menu and left us.
"Do you ... ?"
"Cani ... ?"
"You first," I said, attempting a smile.
"Do you always order half a bottle of the house wine on a first date?" she asked.
"I think you'll find it's pretty good," I said, rather plaintively.
"I was only teasing, Michael. Don't take yourself so seriously.'
I took a closer look at my companion, and began to wonder if I'd made a terrible mistake. Despite her efforts in the washroom, Anna wasn't quite the same girl I'd first seen - admittedly at a distance - when I'd nearly crashed my car earlier in the evening.Oh my G.o.d, the car. I suddenly remembered where I'd left it, and stole a glance at my watch.
"Am I boring you already, Michael?" Anna asked. "Or is this table on a time share?"
"Yes. I mean no. I'm sorry, I've just remembered something I should have checked on before we came to dinner. Sorry," I repeated.
Anna frowned, which stopped me saying sorry yet again.
"Is it too late?" she asked.
"Too late for what?"
"To do something about whatever it is you should have checked on before we came to dinner?" I looked out of the window, and wasn't pleased to see that it had stopped raining. Now my only hope was that the late-night traffic wardens might not be too vigilant.
"No, I'm sure it will be all right," I said, trying to sound relaxed.
"Well, that's a relief," said Anna, in a tone that bordered on the sarcastic.
"So. What's it like being a doctor?" I asked, trying to change the subject.
"Michael, it's my evening off. I'd rather not talk about my work, if you don't mind." For the next few moments neither of us spoke. Itried again.
"Do you have many male patients in your practice?" I asked, as the waiter reappeared with our fettucini.
"I can hardly believe I'm hearing this," Anna said, unable to disguise the weariness in her voice. "When are people like you going to accept that one or two of us are capable of a little more than spending our lives waiting hand and foot on the male s.e.x."
The waiter poured some wine into my gla.s.s.
"Yes. Of course. Absolutely. No. I didn't mean it to sound like that ... ' I sipped the wine and nodded to the waiter, who filled Anna's gla.s.s.
"Then what did you mean it to sound like?" demanded Anna as she stuck her fork firmly into the fettucini.
"Well, isn't it unusual for a man to go to a woman doctor?" I said, realising the moment I had uttered the words that I was only getting myself into even deeper water.
"Good heavens, no, Michael. We live in an enlightened age.
I've probably seen more naked men than you have - and it's not an attractive sight, I can a.s.sure you." I laughed, in the hope that it would ease the tension. "In any case," she added, "Quite a few men are confident enough to accept the existence of women doctors, you know.'
"I'm sure that's true," I said. "I just thought ... ' "You didn't think, Michael. That's the problem with so many men likeyou. I bet you've never even considered consulting a woman doctor.'
"No, but ... Yes, but ... ' '"No but, yes but" - Let's change the subject before I get really angry," Anna said, putting her fork down.
"What do you do for a living, Michael? It doesn't sound as if you're in a profession where women are treated as equals."
"I'm in the restaurant business," I told her, wishing the fettucini was a little lighter.
"Ah, yes, you told me in the interval," she said. "But what does being "in the restaurant business" actually mean?"
"I'm on the management side. Or at least, that's what I do nowadays. I started life as a waiter, then I moved into the kitchens for about five years, and finally ... ' ' ... found you weren't very good at either, so you took up managing everyone else."
"Something like that," I said, trying to make light of it. But Anna's words only reminded me that one of my other restaurants was without a chef that night, and that that was where I'd been heading before I'd allowed myself to become infatuated by Anna.
"I've lost you again," Anna said, beginning to sound exasperated.
"You were going to tell me all about restaurant management. ' "Yes, I was, wasn't I? By the way, how's your fettucini?"
"Considering this place was your second choice." I was silenced once again.
"It's not that bad," she said, taking another reluctant forkful.
"Perhaps you'd like something else instead? I can always ... '
"No, thank you, Michael. After all, this was the one dish the waiter felt confident enough to recommend." I couldn't think of a suitable response, so I remained silent.
"Come on, Michael, you still haven't explained what restaurant management actually involves," said Anna.
"Well, at the moment I'm running three restaurants in the West End, which means I never stop dashing from one to the other, depending on which is facing the biggest crisis on that particular day."
"Sounds a bit like ward duty to me," said Anna. "So who turned out to have the biggest crisis today?"
"Today, thank heaven, was not typical," I told her with feeling.
"That bad?" said Anna.
"Yes, I'm afraid so. We lost a chef this morning who cut off the top of his finger, and won't be back at work for at least a fortnight.
My head waiter in our second restaurant is off, claiminghe has 'flu, and I've just had to sack the harman in the third for fiddling the books. Barmen always fiddle the books, of course, but in this case even the customers began to notice what he was up to." I paused, wondering if I should risk another mouthful of fettucini.
"But I still wouldn't want to be in any other business."
"In the circ.u.mstances, I'm frankly amazed you were able to take the evening off."
"I shouldn't have, really, and wouldn't have, except ... ' I trailed off as I leaned over and topped up Anna's wine gla.s.s.
"Except what?" she said.
"Do you want to hear the truth?" I asked as I poured the remains of the wine into my own gla.s.s.
"I'll try that for starters," she said.
I placed the empty bottle on the side of the table, and hesitated, but only for a moment. "I was driving to one of my restaurants earlier this evening, when I spotted you going into the theatre.
I stared at you for so long that I nearly crashed into the back of the car in front of me. Then I swerved across the road into the nearest parking s.p.a.ce, and the car behind almost crashed into me.
I leapt out, ran all the way to the theatre, and searched everywhere until I saw you standing in the queue for the box office.I joined the line and watched you hand over your spare ticket.
Once you were safely out of sight, I told the box office manager that you hadn't expected me to make it in time, and that you might have put my ticket up for resale. Once I'd described you, which I was able to do in great detail, he handed it over without so much as a murmur.'
"More fool him," said Anna, putting down her gla.s.s and staring at me as if I'd just been released from a lunatic asylum.
"Then I put two ten-pound notes into a theatre envelope and took the place next to you," ':26-' I continued. "The rest you already know." I waited, with some trepidation, to see how she would react.
"I suppose I ought to be flattered," Anna said after a moment's consideration. "But I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
One thing's for certain; the woman I've been living with for the past ten years will think it's highly amusing, especially as you paid for her ticket.'
The waiter returned to remove the half-finished plates.
"Was everything all right, sir?" he asked, sounding anxious.
"Fine, just fine," I said unconvincingly. Anna grimaced, but made no comment.
"Would you care for coffee, madam?"
"No, I don't think I'll risk it," she said, looking at her watch.
"In any case, I ought to be getting back. Elizabeth will bewondering where I've got to." She stood up and walked towards the door.
I followed a yard behind. She was just about to step onto the pavement when she turned to me and asked, "Don't you think you ought to settle the bill?"
"That won't be necessary."
"Why?" she asked, laughing. "Do you own the place?"
"No. But it is one of the three restaurants I manage." Anna turned scarlet. "I'm so sorry, Michael,'
she said. "That was tactless of me." She paused for a moment before adding, "But I'm sure you'll agree that the food wasn't exactly memorable."
"Would you like me to drive you home?" I asked, trying not to sound too enthusiastic.
Anna looked up at the black clouds. "That would be useful," she replied, 'if it's not miles out of your way. Where's your car?" she said before I had a chance to ask where she lived. "I left it just up the road."
"Oh, yes, I remember," said Anna. "When you jumped out of it because you couldn't take your eyes off me. I'm afraid you picked the wrong girl this time." At last we had found something on which we could agree, but I made no comment as we walked towards the spot where I had abandoned my car. Anna limited her conversation to whether it was about to rain again, and how good she had thought thewine was. I was relieved to find my Volvo parked exactly where I had left it.
I was searching for my keys when I spotted a large sticker glued to the windscreen. I looked down at the front offside wheel, and saw the yellow clamp.
"It just isn't your night, is it?" said Anna. "But don't worry about me, I'll just grab a cab." She raised her hand and a taxi skidded to a halt. She turned back to face me. "Thanks for dinner," she managed, not altogether convincingly, and added, even less convincingly, "Perhaps we'll meet again." Before I could respond, she had slammed the taxi door closed.
As I watched her being driven away, it started to rain.
I took one more look at my immovable car, and decided I would deal with the problem in the morning.
I was about to rush for the nearest shelter when another taxi came around the corner, its yellow light indicating that it was for hire. I waved frantically and it drew up beside my clamped car.
"Bad luck, mate," said the cabbie, looking down at my front wheel.
"My third tonight.'
I attempted a smile.
"So, where to, guv?" I gave him my address in Lambeth and climbed into the back.
As the taxi manoeuvred its way slowly through therainswept post-theatre traffic and across Waterloo Bridge, the driver began chattering away. I just about managed monosyllabic replies to his opinions on the weather, John Major, the England cricket team and foreign tourists. With each new topic, his forecast became ever more gloomy.
He only stopped offering his opinions when he came to a halt outside my house in Fentiman Road. I paid him, and smiled ruefully at the thought that this would be the first time in weeks that I'd managed to get home before midnight. I walked slowly up the short path to the front door.
I turned the key in the lock and opened the door quietly, so as not to wake my wife. Once inside I went through my nightly ritual of slipping off my jacket and shoes before creeping quietly up the stairs.
Before I had reached the bedroom I began to get undressed.
After years of coming in at one or two in the morning, I was able to take off all my clothes, fold and stack them, and slide under the sheets next to Judy without waking her. But just as I pulled back the cover she said drowsily, "I didn't think you'd be home so early, with all the problems you were facing tonight." I wondered if she was talking in her sleep. "How much damage did the fire do?"
"The fire?" I said, standing in the nude."In Davies Street. Gerald phoned a few moments after you'd left to say a fire had started in the kitchen and had spread to the restaurant. He was just checking to make certain you were on your way.
He'd cancelled all the bookings for the next two weeks, but he didn't think they'd be able to open again for at least a month. I told him that as you'd left just after six you'd be with him at any minute. So, just how bad is the damage?" I was already dressed by the time Judy was awake enough to ask why I had never turned up at the restaurant. I shot down the stairs and out onto the street in search of another cab.
It had started raining again.
A taxi swung round and came to a halt in front of me.
"Where to this time, guv?'
Point THANK YOU, MICHAEL. I'D LIKE THAT." I smiled, unable to mask my delight.
"Hi, Pipsqueak. I thought I might have missed you." I turned and stared at a tall man with a mop of fair hair, who seemed unaffected by the steady flow of people trying to pa.s.s him on either side.