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“Excuse me. Didn’t I see you at Pippy’s party last night?” The distinctive transatlantic voice broke into Anne’s thoughts, as she stood motionless on the crowded escalator. Such remarks were a common gambit which she and her friends had often encountered and usually ignored, during their student days in London.
Today however she turned in surprise and found herself looking into the smiling face of a tall good looking man behind her. She said nothing, but as the escalator reached street level, he fell into step beside her. “Stephen’s the name,” he said with a mischievous grin. “And all right, we didn’t meet at Pippy’s party, but we did meet at John’s party near here six years ago. Remember?” Anne nodded, shivering in the cold November air, and pulled up her coat collar. He placed a firm hand on her arm and steered her through the scurrying crowd into a nearby cafe. “You look frozen,” he said. “A hot cup of coffee will do us both good.” They found a vacant table in the already crowded cafe, and he looked round impatiently for a waitress.
Anne studied him; he really hasn’t changed at all in six years, she thought. He’s still the same — self-assured, mischievous, impulsive and totally irrepressible. There had been an instant mutual attraction at that first meeting — the attraction of opposites. He was a backpacker American student from a comfortably off Boston family, easy-going, fun-loving, intent upon enjoying life to the full. She had been brought up in a frugal, middle-class English family, taught that life was a serious business and money was for saving, not spending. She was reserved, cautious, and economical. His carefree attitude to life had both appalled and fascinated her.
“Two cappuccinos please.” Stephen’s voice broke into her thoughts as he placed the order.
Anne at once became practical. “I can’t stop for long. I’ve got a lot of Christmas shopping to do, and I must be home by three.”
“Of course,” he said agreeably, smiling at her. His next remark was not what she had expected. “By the way, you really shouldn’t wear those high heels when you go shopping. You caught a heel in something back there, and nearly tripped.”
Anne stared at him suspiciously as the coffee arrived. “You’ve been following me,” she accused. “How did you know where to find me?”
Stephen began to look mysterious. “Aha! I’ve learnt a lot about you over the last six years, and let’s just say I have my sources.“ Obviously enjoying himself, he continued, ”and what’s the point of spotting a pretty girl in London if you don’t follow her?”
Anne was not amused. “You always were quite impossible! And I’m not a girl anymore. I’m a married woman with two children.”
“Is that so,” said Stephen with irritating casualness. “But still pretty. And I note you don’t mention the husband. I hope he measures up to expectations.” He raised a quizzical eyebrow.
Anne drank her coffee and said nothing. I will not be goaded, she determined. She went on the attack. “What are you doing here anyway? Why aren’t you at work?”
“Aha,” said Stephen with a broad grin. “Work! That’s exactly why I am here. I’ve just heard I got the big promotion I applied for, plus a bonus. So I took an hour off to go out and celebrate. You made a big mistake, my dear, when you turned me down six years ago, because you thought I’d never amount to much, and you couldn’t face marriage on a shoestring.” He waggled an admonitory finger at Anne and continued. “You’re now looking at a very successful man, my dear.” He gave an exaggerated smirk.
In spite of her mounting irritation, Anne couldn’t help laughing at his theatrics. But she quickly returned to practicalities. “I really must go. Mother can only baby sit till three, and I have a lot to do. It’s nearly eleven already.”
“Of course,” he agreed equably. “But I have a bigger celebration in mind. How about taking you out to dinner tonight?”
Anne glared at him. I always knew he was totally unreasonable, she thought, but what on earth does he expect me to say to that. Aloud she said firmly, “that’s quite impossible. You should know I couldn’t do that. You can’t be serious.”
“Nonsense,” said Stephen. “Of course you can. One dinner after all these years.” He finished his coffee. “Time you got away from domestic chores, my girl, and learnt to enjoy yourself again.”
“Impossible,” reiterated Anne, “and why this sudden idea for tonight anyway?”
“Why not tonight?” asked Stephen. “Before you have time to think up a lot of excuses. It’s not much fun for me to celebrate on my own, and I’m sure Mother could extend her baby sitting for the night.”
Anne was now really horrified. “Surely you’re not suggesting a hotel! I certainly couldn’t go as far as that!”
Stephen held up his hands in mock horror. “What a suggestion! And you a respectable married woman with two children. Tut! Tut!” He began to roar with laughter, while Anne continued to glare at him. “No, just dinner tonight, “ he said when he had stopped laughing. “But a hotel — what a delicious idea! Think of the fun we could have. We could keep going all night! Oh boy! Forget all the domestic chores. What an idea.” He rolled his eyes at Anne, who by now, in spite of her exasperation, was laughing helplessly.
She was beginning to weaken under his forceful persuasion, as she had known she would. She tried to check his exuberance. “All right,” she said. “Just dinner tonight, and only this once.”
But Stephen was now quite unstoppable. “A bottle of champaign, a ‘do not disturb’ notice on the door, what a romp we could have! Just like the old days — me chasing you round the room, and you with that cute little mole on your . . .”
He stopped abruptly, and looked to his right. Following his gaze Anne stopped laughing, horrified to see that a well dressed, middle aged woman at the next table, was unashamedly listening to their conversation. Blushing furiously, she got up. “All right,” she said hastily to Stephen again. “Just this once. You always did get your way. But dinner and nothing else.”
Stephen looked amused. “Whatever you say, my dear. You remember the kiosk at Victoria Station where we used to meet. I’ll meet you there at 6:30, and don’t be late.” As they left the table he gave an exaggerated leer and broad wink at the eavesdropping lady.
As Anne wandered along Regent St, enjoying the Christmas decorations and festive window displays, the excitement of an evening out began to grow on her. With uncharacteristic extravagance, she added a bottle of expensive perfume to her Christmas purchases. He’s sure to choose an outrageously expensive restaurant, and a good perfume will help to make up for my lack of designer clothes, she rationalised as she produced her credit card.
A cursory glance around as they entered the restaurant showed she had guessed correctly — expensive it certainly was. Once they were seated Stephen immediately ordered champagne. For the second time that day Anne studied him across the table. Yes, he hadn’t changed; he was still the same fun-loving, quite irresponsible Stephen she had met six years ago, completely exasperating at times — and she loved him dearly.
He smiled fondly at her. “Yes, I really did get that promotion, but we also have something else to celebrate don’t we.” He raised his glass and looked serious for a moment.
“To us, darling, and our five wonderful years of marriage.” The mischievous grin returned as he added, “and aren’t you glad that I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer when you turned me down six years ago!”
As they drank, Anne’s mobile phone rang. After a brief conversation, she turned to Stephen. “That was Mother. The children are both asleep, but she couldn’t find Pippy’s dog biscuits.”
A waiter approaching the table wondered why they both suddenly broke into peals of laughter.
Arnold Braithwaite had had a very good day! As he drove slowly home through the peak hour traffic, the usual delays and hold-ups did nothing to dispel his good humour. He had been commended by Head Office for the excellent sales performance of his showroom staff over the past month, and on top of that, his recommendation for Stephen Wallace to fill the vacant position of Assistant Manager had been approved.
A jovial, rotund, middle-aged man who enjoyed a good joke and a glass of whisky, Arnold had taken an immediate liking to Stephen when he had joined the company two years previously. He was young, but what he lacked in experience, he made up for in enthusiasm; that American accent, and light-hearted manner, made him popular with both clients and staff, Arnold mused, as he pulled up at yet another set of lights. Good stable family man too, he thought, as he recalled the pride with which Stephen had shown him the photo of his wife and two children. Pretty young wife too.
His train of thought was abruptly broken by a loud honking from the car behind. He moved on slowly, only to be held up again at another set of lights a short while later. As he continued to review the events of the day, he began to chuckle as he recalled an amusing incident he had witnessed through his open office door — a conversation between Stephen and young Barker, a new employee. It had been quiet at that end of the showroom floor; two of the salesmen were out with clients, and another had gone to lunch. Barker, a thin, bespectacled, serious young man was meticulously inspecting a new car which had just been delivered, when Stephen had walked in.
“Such fun,” Arnold heard him say as he approached Brian Barker. “I saw this good looking blonde, so I followed her on to the escalator and took her for a cup of coffee. Persuaded her to have dinner with me tonight — maybe a hotel later. Oh, I had to do quite a bit of persuading, and there was this prune faced, miserable-looking old dame at the next table, listening to every word. She looked so shocked, and I gave her my best leer as we got up to go. Such fun!”
Arnold had a clear view of Barker’s face through his open door, and he too had been obviously shocked. “You mean,” he said in his precise slow voice,” that you picked up a woman in the street, took her to have coffee, and propositioned her for dinner and a hotel.” He sounded outraged. “What about your wife?”
“That’s OK,” said Stephen loudly. “She is my wife, and today is our fifth wedding anniversary.” He had walked away, roaring with laughter, while Barker stared after him open-mouthed.
Arnold laughed again as he recalled Barker’s startled expression. Yes, Stephen was an asset, he thought, as he drove slowly on. But maybe he had better get him to tone down his leg-pulling, or Barker would have a heart attack! But then what a wonderful change Stephen was after poor old Jenkins. The traffic was thinning out, and Arnold was able to increase speed as his thoughts turned to Jenkins, the previous assistant manager, who had taken early retirement. The last few years with him had become very difficult, with his continual time off for doctor’s visits, and his constant talk about his ulcers. His sales figures had slipped, and Arnold had begun to suspect that his frequent visits to the men’s room had more to do with the slim flask he carried in his pocket, than with getting water to take his tablets. Poor old dyspeptic Jenkins, a sharp contrast to his buxom wife who always appeared to be bursting out of clothes at least two sizes too small!
Well, thought Arnold, as he turned into his street, at least we gave him a good send-off. This reminded him of the larger flask and two glasses which he kept in his desk drawer — strictly for clients and emergencies of course! He turned the Mercedes into his own driveway, thinking contentedly of his comfortable armchair and a glass of whisky while he watched the six o’clock news.
. . . . . .
The “prune faced, miserable-looking” eavesdropper had not had a good day!
It had started badly with the daily help arriving late, and then finding she had forgotten to pick up the groceries from Sainsburys. It was all very annoying, and when she was finally ready to leave for her Christmas shopping expedition, Jocelyn couldn’t find her comfortable walking shoes. Not wanting to delay any further, she had been forced to wear another pair which tended to hurt her bunions. The underground had been crowded, and so too were the department stores she visited. The bunions were beginning to hurt, so, relieved that she had at least got the grandchildren’s presents, she wandered into a nearby cafe for a welcome rest and a cup of tea.
The cafe was also crowded and noisy, but she found a seat and was checking her shopping list when she suddenly became aware of a loud man’s voice at the next table. Definitely American, she thought; they always talk so loudly. She looked across. He was facing a girl with shoulder-length blonde hair, and they appeared to be arguing. Not that she intended to listen, Jocelyn told herself, but, well, one couldn’t help hearing! The man was waving his arms and obviously trying to persuade the girl to do something. People were walking past between the tables, but in the breaks between them Jocelyn caught the words ‘dinner’ then ‘yes you can’. He was laughing and smirking, and as Jocelyn listened further, she caught such words as ‘hotel’ and ‘all night’, before they got up to leave with his hand firmly on her back.
Jocelyn had been so intrigued at the conversation that she hadn’t realised her eavesdropping had been noticed, until, as they left, the man had looked directly at her, winked and given her the most frightening leer. He looked sinister, she thought, and decided to stay where she was for a while in case he was waiting outside for her. She finished her tea, retrieved her shoes which she had surreptitiously kicked off under the table, collected her parcels, and cautiously left the cafe. The bunions were still painful, so she decided to leave the rest of the shopping for another day and took a taxi home.
Still a little shaken, she was relieved to reach the security of her Hampstead home where again she kicked off the offending shoes, made herself a large gin and tonic, and prepared to relax in the lounge, as she listened to the daily help vacuuming upstairs. She had just picked up her current library book when her mobile phone rang. It was lying on the coffee table where she had left it earlier in her haste to get out.
“Jocelyn dear,” cooed a familiar voice, “I’ve been trying to get you all morning. You hadn’t forgotten had you, that this afternoon is the sewing guild meeting where we make our final decisions for our table at the Christmas bazaar.”
Jocelyn had forgotten, but she wasn’t about to admit it to Paula Eade, president of the guild, as Paula continued, “so important that we are all there today. We must stop Beatrice Davey from submitting so many of those hideous toy animals she makes. They quite ruined the display last year. I’ll pick you up at 2:30. Bye,” and down went the phone.
The daily help appeared waving the missing shoes. “Found then under the bed,” she said cheerfully. Jocelyn put them on and reluctantly got up to make herself a sandwich, which she ate while sorting out her contributions for the Christmas bazaar stall.
By the time she and Paula reached the Community Hall where the meeting was held, the bickering had already begun. As the cold, damp hall gradually heated up, so did the arguments. Hilda Ramsay, a large angular woman with a loud rasping voice, was disagreeing with an equally determined Beatrice Davey over the number of soft toys she could display.
Paula stepped in diplomatically, trying not to shudder at the garish looking creatures. “Why don’t you display just three for a start,” she suggested. “Too many are bewildering, and people end up buying none. You can always add more as those sell.”
Beatrice reluctantly agreed, and selected three badly made purple and orange animals and put them aside. Paula turned her attention to Miss Pretty, a gnarled bent old lady who seemed to be part of the building. (‘Pretty old’ someone had quipped.) She regularly came year after year, always clutching the same unsaleable lace mats which she stated her grandmother had made. Each year like Miss Pretty, they were markedly more yellow, while their price was markedly higher! “Got to keep up with inflation,” insisted their owner.
At last the business part of the meeting was finished, all the contributions packed into boxes and everyone thankfully gathered round the long trestle table for tea, cakes and gossip.
“Don’t buy all your Christmas presents before the bazaar,” Paula admonished. “There are sure to be some really good gift ideas there.”
“I haven’t even started my shopping list yet,” confessed Nan Gorman, a genial, plump, middle-aged woman sitting next to Jocelyn.
It was Jocelyn’s opening, and she took it! “I went into the city this morning, and I had the most alarming experience,” she began. Satisfied that she now had full attention, she went on, careful not to mention her bunions, (Nan’s husband was an orthopaedic surgeon.) “My feet were aching so I slipped into this cafe — not the sort of place I would usually frequent of course.”
“Of course not, dear,” interjected Nan,
“And there was this awful looking American at the next table, talking loudly and waving his arms about,”
“Drunk, obviously,” interrupted Beatrice, “Beer, I suppose.”
“Disgraceful,” said Miss Pretty loudly, as she helped herself to a second piece of walnut cake.
“Drunk at that hour of the morning,” said Paula. “Are you sure he was American. Maybe he was Australian. Don’t they drink beer? Or he was maybe German — they drink beer.”
Jocelyn felt the conversation was getting away from her. “No,” she asserted firmly, “Maybe it was whiskey. He was definitely American. He talked like they do in the movies. Not like Humphrey Bogart, but one of those others. You know the sort I mean. I can’t think of the names at the moment. But it wasn’t that I was trying to listen of course.”
“Of course not, dear,” reiterated Nan.
“Who was he talking to?” asked Elaine Deveraux, a small birdlike woman with beady eyes and brightly dyed henna hair.
“Oh, there was a woman opposite him. Some sort of tart, I suppose, and he was making all sorts of improper suggestions about hotels for the night, and trying to persuade her.”
“Disgraceful,” said Miss Pretty again, as she endeavoured to scoop up the crumbs on her plate. Her teeth clanked.
“Sort of brassy blonde, I suppose,” said Paula, trying hard not to look at Elaine Deveraux’s hair. She viewed her empty teacup instead. “He must have been trying to procure her, and she was putting up the price.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Jocelyn suddenly.” I’ve just remembered. Before they left, he was talking about a mole.”
“A mole,” rasped Hilda. “That puts a different light on it. He was recruiting her as a spy. You know like Kim Philby.”
“But perhaps she wasn’t at the foreign office. He might have been a CIA agent,” objected Beatrice, still smarting from her disagreement with Hilda over her stuffed toys.
“Well she could have seduced someone who was,” argued Hilda. “What about the Profumo case. My husband has a cousin at Scotland Yard. He could check and see if the man has a record. What did he look like?”
“Oh, he had the most awful twisted face. And then when they got up to leave, he had his hand on her back, and he gave me the most frightful wink and leered at me. I was quite shaken up,” said Jocelyn.
“Disgraceful,” said Miss Pretty again loudly, as she took a second piece of chocolate cake.
“There are such awful types going about London now. All these foreigners walking round the city. Russians stabbing people with umbrellas,” said Beatrice. “They do all meet in cafes too.”
They each began to recount various experiences, and conversations became more general. But by the time she got home, fact and fiction had become so intertwined in Jocelyn’s mind that all logic and reason were lost. She was convinced she had overheard a matter of great national importance, and she must tell her husband at once so that he could take action.
As they settled comfortably that evening nursing their pre-dinner drinks, she began to talk while he was still fiddling with the remote control. “I had the most alarming experience today,” she stated. “I stopped to get a cup of tea while shopping and went into this most ghastly cafe where I wouldn’t normally go. It was full of foreigners, and there was this sinister-looking drunk man at the next table talking to a brassy looking tart and waving his arms about. He was trying to recruit her as a spy, and she kept saying no she couldn’t, till he put a lot of pressure on her. Then he had a firm hold on her and pulled her out. He had the most awful expression. Then when they went out, he leered at me and gave me the most hideous wink. I was really afraid and didn’t know what to do.”
She saw she now had her husband’s full attention and went on. “He was taking her to dinner and a hotel I heard him say. Isn’t that what spies do, Hilda Ramsay’s husband has a cousin who works at Scotland Yard, and she thought he could check if the man has a police record. But Beatrice Davey thought he might be CIA as he had an American accent. You must do something . . .”
She broke off as her husband emitted a strange choking sound and got to his feet. “Been slurping your drink again,” she reprimanded as he headed for the door.
Once in the kitchen with the door firmly closed and a tap running to drown the sound, Arnold Braithwaite gave way to the laughter he could no longer suppress. He recalled the conversation between Stephen and young Barker that morning. Such phrases as “prune faced miserable-looking old dame,” ran through his mind and as he coupled Stephen’s description of Jocelyn together with her description of Stephen, “sinister-looking drunk”, he burst into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter. Stephen, he knew had a habit of making flamboyant gestures to illustrate a point, and would often deliberately contort his face for fun. He must have had quite a time that morning!
As Arnold replayed the whole scene in the cafe as he now imagined it, he burst into fresh paroxysms of laughter. He laughed till his sides ached, tears streamed down his face, and he could laugh no more. Exhausted, he sank into a chair and wiped his eyes as he began to think. He suddenly realised with regret that he would now have to take Stephen and Anne Wallace’s names off the guest list for pre-Christmas drinks next week. Pity, he thought, Anne Wallace was a looker judging by her photo, and he had looked forward to meeting her!
More soberly, he made his way slowly back to the lounge.