The Night We Met

The Ritz Hotel London. The Restaurant. 1941.
 
A gentleman folded his umbrella.
 
"The table by the window, sir."
 
The current maitre d'hotel, Monsieur Guilleme Hubert, was a short weather-beaten Pyrenean in his fifties with a thick moustache and one eye. A childhood farming accident had taken the other and left him unfit for service. He had therefore travelled to a Toulouse kitchen to train in the traditional trade of Frenchmen. Patiently and professionally, he worked his way through the decades and garnered that quiet respect which can only be given by those who have worked as much as the person receiving it. These days, a nod from Monsieur Hubert to the right plongeur would result in a quiet conversation about the plongeur's future, a smiling handshake and a bursary to learn from a man who'd learned from Escoffier. Conversely, a raised eyebrow or quick shake of the Hubert head, meant a lesson in back doors and the uses thereof. Despite his reputation, he had throughout his life been hampered by an accent which sang of sheep's cheese, red peppers and boles de picolat. To chefs and waiters across the country Hubert was a byword for excellence, but the men who signed the payslips heard only the cherry orchards, village dances and other tropes of rough mountain life. Quiet chuckles followed him out of offices from Paris to Bordeaux and shunned him to London where people were oafish: unschooled in the importance of gliding over letters that wished to remain unsaid, or not allowing unwelcome arms and hands into the conversation.
 
The gentleman saw all this. He saw how, without any apparent need to gesture, Monsieur Hubert successfully conveyed to which of the four window tables behind him the gentleman had been allocated.
 
He was impressed.
 
A piano quintet played Schubert in the corner. They had chosen arrangements in which the more stressful time signatures had been ironed out to four-four, sometimes two-four, giving the impression of an ambient march. The incumbent hotel manager was proud of the restaurant ceiling and chandeliers; he hired musicians who would best compliment these features. Height, girth and colouring played a far greater role in the selection process than, for example, ability. The viola player, a fetching reflection of the cornicing above him, had spent the last fifteen minutes repeating four bars of E flat.
 
As the gentleman passed between the tables, a ripple followed. Patrons in his wake were left with the faintest sense that perhaps, just perhaps, their lives could be better. Ladies coughed genteelly and held thoughtful fingers crooked to their lips. A frail barrister mulled on who would be nicest to him tomorrow if he changed his will tonight. The viola player imagined a world without E flat.
 
The gentleman was perhaps in his seventies, perhaps older but sprightly. He was still heavy-set around the shoulders and bordering on jowly. A thick moustache and silver hair framed pale blue eyes. The lines on his face betrayed an easy laugh. His immaculate evening dress sat handsomely on him. Around the room, the occasional uniform was the only indication that there was, after all, a war on.
 
He found his companion in just such a uniform. Square jaw, close cut brown hair, taller than him though not by much. Late thirties, yet the epaulettes of a General. At first glance, he was an ordinary, if rather young, senior officer. But look at his irises. Brown at first. Now a flash of green. Now icy white, now navy. The gentleman smiled as he approached, spotting the rank on the shoulders.
 
"Yes, of course."
 
The soldier stood to greet him.
 
"Good evening, Lucas," he said, warmth in his eyes. "It's good to see you again."
 
"And you, young man."
 
"It's been...?"
 
"A long time," replied the gentleman.
 
"Too long."
 
"A long time."
 
They sat. Cream chairs. Light red velvet. A candle fought to cast its light against the warm glow thrown out by the hotel manager's treasured chandeliers. At a neighbouring table, somebody laughed a little too loudly for sincerity. The quintet came to an end and moved onto a Mozart crowd pleaser in three-four. The viola player began to sweat.
 
The waiter came to take their orders. He was a tall man who was perfectly bald save two thick black eyebrows raised permanently in an attitude of genial bafflement. As if he'd just been asked to spend five minutes minding a radiator. The menus were printed on thick cream paper. The soldier chose the Supreme d'Ecrevisses a la Bordelaise, followed by the Perdreau au Truffes sous la Cendre, Salade d'Asperges Vertes. The gentleman opted for the Consommé au Oeufs de Pigeon and the Mignonettes d'Agneau de Lait en Belle Vue, Brochette d'Ortolan.
 
The soldier told the gentleman about life in what they chucklingly called “the military”. The gentleman replied with stories from his own life. They smiled, laughed. This was fun. This had been fun before, and it was so still. How wonderful.
 
The gentleman paused, cocking an ear.
 
"Was that you?" His eyes sparkled.
 
"Was what?" replied his companion, lowering a glass.
 
"The nightingale."
 
The soldier said nothing.
 
"Outside the window."
 
"You've very good hearing."
 
"I love nightingales."
 
The soldier smiled. The gentleman leaned in conspiratorially.
 
"There's a woman in the corner, do you see her? Spectacles."
 
The soldier did. "I see her."
 
"She's worked out five ways of killing off her husband and disposing of the body without anybody noticing while he told her all about the mysteries of cotton."
 
The woman in question buttered a bread roll, with her steak knife.
 
"Never!"
 
"She has."
 
"How funny people can be," the soldier speared his partridge.
 
"Shall I encourage her?"
 
The soldier stiffened.
 
"Don't joke, Lucas," he said
 
The gentleman twinkled.
 
The soldier ordered Petits Soufflé Glacé au Violettes, Friandise. The gentleman chose Mille-Feuille, Ananas glacé Orientale.
 
"I have something for you," said the gentleman as his spoon broke into the pastry.
 
"Oh?"
 
He reached into his jacket and brought out a fountain pen. Black with gold edges and a golden nib. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light that made it seem to shimmer. Here was not just a fountain pen but maybe also an ink brush, a reed, a quill. From one angle it looked like nothing more than a bit of old rock.
 
The soldier took it.
 
"You used to like drawing. Do you remember? Before."
 
The soldier uncapped and recapped the pen.
 
"I do," he said.
 
"Do you still draw?"
 
The soldier didn't answer. He looked around surreptitiously then stroked the table cloth in front of him. As his fingers pulled back, a piece of paper appeared under them. Letter sized and somehow lit from below. In the top right hand corner, a stylised G was watermarked. The paper was thick but from some angles looked less neat, more parchmenty. There was a hint of wax tablet. A touch of cave.
 
The soldier drew a long curved line. On top, a circle. Petals crowned the flower. He added a leaf. An earthy springtime smell drifted from the page.
 
"Very pretty," said the gentleman. "You could put it in a garden, nobody would know the difference."
 
The soldier signed it. One word, seven letters. A passer-by would have had difficulty working out the alphabet.
 
"Where did you find this?" asked the younger man.
 
"It came with me. With us."
 
"When you...?"
 
The gentleman’s lips tightened.
 
"When we,” he agreed. “Yes."
 
"Oh."
 
They fell silent. The gentleman looked out the window. His reflection was thinner than he was.
 
The soldier ran a finger down the pen. Then he passed it back.
 
A party of loud and flamboyantly dressed young man arrived at the entrance, ready to be the lives and souls of whichever party might want them. The maitre d’hotel looked blankly at them and they walked away.
 
"Please take it," said the soldier.
 
"It's yours," replied his the older man, hurt.
 
"No, a gift!” the young soldier flushed. “A token. Please."
 
The gentleman took the pen and slipped it back in his pocket. He smiled at his plate.
 
"You know," he said, nervous suddenly, "I'd hoped we might have a talk. Ways back. We could talk about. A climb… so to speak."
 
The soldier leaned back in his chair and laid his hands in his lap.
 
"What's done is done. Isn't it," said the gentleman. It wasn't a question.
 
"It is," said the soldier.
 
"Yes, I thought so."
 
The gentleman stood up, abruptly. Was there a hint of too much pleat in his suit? A tired mind could almost make out a folded wing in the way it fell from his shoulders.
 
Behind him, a creaking politician thought about what a cracking time he'd had in the Boer War and whether he could persuade the PM to carry on down the coast when they'd sorted out North Africa.
 
"I enjoyed this, young man."
 
"Thank you, so did I." The soldier stood too. He was better lit than the candlelight should allow. The other customers were grey and shadowy by comparison.
 
They shook hands.
 
A thought struck the gentleman and he reached inside his pocket again. "Are you certain that I can't -"
 
"Please. This is my treat."
 
"That's very kind of you." He put his wallet back. "Good night."
 
"Good night."
 
The gentleman turned to leave. At a table near the entrance, a clergyman stared covetously at his neighbour's ox-tail. Another thought struck him.
 
"Gabriel?"
 
The soldier looked up. His uniform was growing paler. Light crowned his head.
 
"I'm very proud."
 
The angel smiled. Thank you, he mouthed. He put his hand to his hip where the service revolver had become a sword hilt.
 
At the next table, a lady in blue spilled pepper. On questioning, the waiter advised her against throwing it over either shoulder, left or right.
 
The gentleman walked out into the night. He made his way down the road to a residential square that he was particularly fond of. Large Georgian houses. Cobbled streets. A central garden beckoned to him. He walked through it until he found a wrought iron bench on which he sat heavily. The levity and charm had left his shoulders. His body shrivelled, his cheeks hollowed. Dry black wings unfolded and the blue eyes melted in on themselves. Cracked sockets stared unhappily at the earth and leaves beneath him.
 
Then: a breeze. Slight. The faintest suggestion stroked his cheek. A bird lit on his shoulder. It hopped onto the bench. Small, chestnut plumage and a cream breast.
 
The nightingale sang, in Berkeley Square.
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