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Beta, cordelia_v, who added charm and consistency to a rather thrown-together text.


An Evening at Le Maison
Jay Tryfanstone
Feb 2006

 

"Skim a stone across the river
Throw all my money in the wishing well..."

Fairground Attraction, The Moon is Mine

 


"Why're we open?" Con says.

He's leaning against the wall out the back, getting to the end of a prison-thin rollie held between finger and thumb.

"Dunno."

Typical Magpie. Small and sharp as a weasel, but the best line cook Con's ever worked with.

"Got no prep, no customers. Feels like a morgue in there. You know what the crack is?"

"Dunno," Magpie says.

"You put that in the bin when you're done," Con says. He's two years senior and has the scars to prove it.

Magpie grinds the stub to shreds under his boot.

Con shrugs.


Langham taps a thumbnail on the wineglass: ching bright and sharp as a knife.

"You make me polish that again and I'm out of here," Vicky hisses.

"Keep your knickers on, kid," Langham says. His accent's slipped. Front of house, you could swear he's a fifth arrondissement Parisian. Off stage, it's Southall.

"I can't believe you made me come in for this," Vicky says. "I could've had a hot date tonight."

"Later," Langham says.

Vicky snorts. "Right, you and the wine list? Give it a rest, Lan."

"Would I mess you around?"

"Yup."

"Be on your best, sweetheart," Langham says, and moves the napkin a millimetre nearer the plate.


"And then this Brazilian guy says, Richie, you want fries with that? And he's just got the cutest accent and Richie's like in convulsions-"

"So what're you doing tonight, Jon?"

"Oh, here and there, you know." He's in front of the television with a bottle of Cava, but he's not going to say so.

"What happened to that guy you were seeing last month?"

"Visa ran out." Found behind the speakers with a young thing from Basildon.

"Thought he was the one."

They all are. "Nah. Young, free and single, that's me. Daniel, who ironed that shirt for you, your girlfriend? Throw it over, iron's still hot."

"Ta. Hey, you seen the book?"

"Langham called twenty minutes ago. I had plans, y'know, but the great man pleaded and here I am..." Steam hisses.

"One booking."

"You're kidding? What?"

"One booking. He's got Con and Magpie, and Vicky on the bar."

"You must be joking." Jon flips the shirt.

"Says it's important. It'd better be."

"Oh, someone's upset. You all right?"

"Fine. I'd thought we were closed, anyway."

"As of shut-down last night, I thought we were too. What did Langham say about couples? I reckon it was that guy asked him where the pianist was last year that did it."

"What about that woman who said she had allergies. Could we bin the roses? Remember her?"

"How could I forget the dress - like a sparkler with pink bits, and I don't mean that nicely. Here, don't crease it."

"Ta."


It's always eerie like this, before the restaurant fills. Just her and the tables, and Langham at the end of the bar with the book and an unlit cigar. He's turned the lights low tonight and lit candles, and even though Vicky's feet are aching already - it's her tenth shift in a row, thanks to a new and over-young catering graduate who didn't know it'd be like this - the place looks good to her eyes. The tableclothes are starched and the cutlery's silver. The glasses are pure Polish crystal clear and sparkling, and the plates are simple white porcelain. Langham's bought tiny midnight blue violets for the tables. Checking the settings, she catches moments of scent elusive and sweet.

"When's the booking?"

"Seven," Langham says. "Vicky, you changed your hairstyle today?"

"New colour. You like it?"

"Goes with the linen," Langham says.

"Well-" Vicky says, but Langham's standing up. The best Maitre d' in the trade. Vicky knows she's good, but Langham's got that sixth sense about customers, just seems to know when to pour a little more wine or leave people be. Right now he's checking the fit of his gloves - it's a bad sign, he's nervous - but he's walking towards the door before it opens.

'..that's it?' Vicky thinks.

The man in the doorway, dripping damp and peering in from water-speckled glasses, is not someone she recognises. He's young: absurdly young, for the Maison's prices: fresh-faced and uncertain and hesitating in the doorway, looking round as if he's come to the wrong place, but Langham's got that leave-it-to-me smile on. The coat changes hands, and although Vicky can just imagine what Langham's thinking about rain on his dinner jacket it gets hung up with care and the customer gets the full-on walk to the table, chair held out, napkin shaken and folded. It's a professional compliment wasted on this one: he looks round like he's never been in a restaurant before, poking the cutlery as Langham moves back to the bar. To her he looks like a baby blackbird, all elbows and gape.


"Water," Langham hisses under his breath to Vicky. "Just water."


Five minutes later the second customer arrives, which is a surprise, Vicky thought one booking - but Langham's not fazed. Then, hey, one customer, two, what difference does it make? They couldn't be more unalike, this pair: the new one's tall and hawkish with it, long hair sleek with rain. He stands in the doorway as if he owns the place, great black coat falling over his hands and the briefcase he's holding. Carries himself like he's someone and the case is Italian leather, but Vicky doesn't recognise the face. And she would. It's a proud face, beak-nosed and singularly distinctive. He won't let Langham touch the briefcase and hangs the coat up himself, and when Langham tries to take him to the number three-one by the window he points at number sixteen instead. It's colder and smaller, but the customer's always right. Vicky can see Langham's disdain in the line of his back.


Glenlivet, no ice, splash of water. He orders short and sharp this one, pointing at the menu, not like table five who'd frowned and couldn't make his mind up and handed the card back with a smile and a shrug.


"Steak?" Con says. "He wants steak? He's got the best kitchen in London waiting for him and he wants steak?"

"You heard me," Langham says. In the kitchen, he's king, he knows it. "And make it good, will you?"

"What d'you expect me to do, stick it in the deep fat fryer?" Con says, but Langham's gone.

"You got that chicken hot-to-trot?" he says.

It's right under his nose in two seconds.

"Toss you for the oysters," Con says. He's chopping onions, fast, and Magpie's put the butter in the pan: great whoosh of steam. They're cooking.


"Soup and steak for table five," Langham says. "Oysters and Coq au Vin for sixteen. No mistakes, lads, I want this perfect."

Jon can't remember the last time Langham took an order. It's not his job: Langham was born black-suited and gloved with the wine list in his hand.

"I'll take five," he says, and thinks, that boy's pretty. Not so bad for an off night. He sashays a bit, just in case, bringing bread, and gives his best smile that shows off all the new whitening, but the boy blinks up at him like he's never seen a gay waiter before. No one's that naive. Smiles though, quick and shy and enchanting.

Don't flirt with the customers. He can hear Langham say it.


Daniel's not having a good night. He's swopped the glasses and wiped down the table and now table sixteen wants the plates changed. Vicky leans her elbows on the bar and raises a comradely eyebrow.

"He'll learn," Jon whispers in her ear. "Just wants to play with the big boys."

"You wish," Vicky whispers back.

"Table five. Cute."

"As a button," Vicky says, before she remembers where she is. "Lay off, Jon."


"One soup, one oysters - Magpie, where's the lemon? Get the fucking-"

"Plated," Magpie grunts and when Con looks down it damn well is.

"Sod."

Magpie flicks a teaspoon of sunflower oil at the back burner and sends the flames ceiling high: Con winces.


Table sixteen's jumpy as a waiter on the take, restless and frowning. Vicky's just about got to the stage of sending over another whisky when he moves himself. Glance round at the windows, flick of his eyes at the bar and he's up. The three of them at the bar tense. A walking customer's an unhappy customer, this time in a sitting, but the man's not headed for them - it's his briefcase he's after.

He's not a handsome man, table sixteen, not by any stretch of the imagination, but there's something about the way he moves that draws the eye. Vicky's watching, so she sees the moment when he looks up and freezes. He's seen the young lad at table five.

His face changes, hardens, sours. Vicky looks round to catch Daniel's eye, just in case, and finds him and Jon watching too.

Table sixteen straightens up. He's got his hand in his pocket. Vicky's got her fingers crossed but it doesn't work. Almost as if he can feel the eyes on the back of his head, table five turns round.

Stands up. Knocks the chair over, standing up. Catches the tablecloth. Drags it: cutlery crashes to the floor, the glass is over, the linen wet, the violets scattered, and table five himself is white as a sheet and shaking.

They're all holding their breath.

Then table sixteen gives an odd kind of bow, clipped stiff and formal. He waits. Table five doesn't move. Table sixteen waits on.

And then finally table five dips his head in reply. The moment he does table sixteen spins on his heel and stalks back to his setting. Snaps his fingers for Daniel.

Jon's already over at table five and clearing the mess. Poor fool, the customer's trying to help, and it takes five minutes before the whole thing's sorted and that's five minutes of Langham breathing hard at her elbow. It's beneath the man's dignity to pick up spilled plates, but a soiled piece of linen's a blow to his heart.

They've changed seats, the customers, moved themselves sideways, and half the setting is off. Thank God for the starters, which gives them something to do other than look at each other, although Vicky could hear the shout from the kitchen when Daniel went for the plates and knows that three minutes under the lights of the serving counter won't have done the oysters any good.


"Fucking waste of a-"

"Con. Stuff it. Eat them yourself, no one else in tonight."

"What the fuck happened?"

"Steak spilled the table. You on time?"

"What do you think?"

"You and Magpie up for desert?"

"Haven't cooked one since Paris," Con says, automatically. "Magpie'll do it. Here, youth, have an oyster."

He tosses the thing across the kitchen and Magpie catches it in his mouth neat as a perfect six.


"Was that good for you, sir?" Jon says to the customer at table five who has baby-soft skin and eyelashes sooty as a kitten's. Jon's falling in love right on the floor of his own damn restaurant.

"That was smashing. Thanks. Hey-" Table five says. "Do you think..could I have a glass of wine, with dinner?"

Jon can't help it, he looks twice to see if the lad's over eighteen. "I'll send the Maitre d' over," he says.

"No! Can't you.." Table five blushes adorably. "I've never seen a wine list before," he says. "Is there something you'd drink yourself?"


Table sixteen has ordered a bottle of the `84 white burgundy with his main course and it's Langham who serves it, elegant as a Mucha drawing. Langham, pouring wine, has an arch to his wrist and a knack with the napkin that's unique in London and miracle of miracles, table sixteen seems to appreciate the art. They taste in silence, and the expression of appreciation on their faces is almost exactly the same. The timing is perfect, Langham's smiled and acknowledged the compliment and is just about walking away when Daniel appears with the main course.

Which means table five's got his steak. Vicky turns round to check and - what?- finds the man out of his seat and walking. Away from his table, past her, towards the only other customer in the place. At table five, Jon, theatrically open-mouthed, is still holding the steak; Langham's standing at the end of the bar with his napkin still in his hands; Daniel's stopped serving veg with the spoon half-way between dish and plate.

He stops, table five, and says something short and quick to their other guest. Who says something back, equally snappish. Table five shrugs and cocks his head on one side. Table sixteen flicks his fingers across London's best Coq au Vin in dismissal: table five picks the plate up and starts walking back to his own table.

The gentleman at table sixteen stands up. Vicky can almost see the air crackle. He looks, under the polite mask of his face, furious. For a moment it feels as if violence is a real possibility and Vicky's fingers are already itching for the panic button.

Then, suddenly decisive, he gathers up bottle and glass, no, two glasses- she's racing out to collect the cutlery - and starts walking over to table five. Sits down.

Never before. Never, ever before. Vicky doesn't dare look at Langham's face. She busies herself with helping the boys as discreetly as she can: cutlery just so, glass, fresh water, serving tray, mustard and port jelly, and during all the necessary rearrangement the young man whose table it is doesn't take his eyes off the man he's invited...ordered?...to join him, who himself seems unable to look away.

They know each other, these two men, and not happily either.

"Capitalising on fame, Potter? Your sort of restaurant?"

"Freedom makes strange bedfellows of us all. Snape."

She gets Jon and Daniel and herself out of the way as quickly as possible.

"You would know."

The sound of a flung down knife.


'They're lovers.' Jon's written it on a paper towel and shoved it under her nose.

Vicky shakes her head at him but Jon wiggles his hips and grins his way back to the kitchen.

The two men at table five are talking. Brief, snapped out statements sent across the table. They eat in parenthesis, not looking at the food. Langham's refilling the glasses at five minute intervals.


"God's sake," Con says, looking at dessert. "You can't send that out, it's as pink as a flamingo on steroids. What's in the fridge?"

Magpie tosses out cream, chocolate mousse, an apricot. Two Mars bars, which Con puts on the counter for later. Strawberries.

"Now you're talking," Con says.


"I was invited."

"By whom, exactly?"

"You don't know either?"

'Business deal gone bad,' Jon writes.

'Stop it,' Vicky writes. 'I want to listen.'

"Were it not for the fact...Enough. There was a certain tone to the direction."

But across the counter Langham's pointing at the kitchen. Vicky grimaces, but the hand becomes more emphatic. She drags Jon away by the tail of his waistcoat.

"So what do you think?" Jon says, safely beyond the kitchen door. Con and Magpie are huddled over something on the worktop.

"They're customers," Vicky says. "I don't know."

"But don't you think it's romantic?" Jon sighs. "Strangers in the night...."

He sings flat. Vicky puts the kettle on and says, "Tea? Con? Daniel?" He's just come in from the backyard, smelling of starlight and cigarette.

"Ta."

"So what's with you tonight?" Jon says. "Table sixteen getting you down? I saw you drop that spoon."

Daniel shrugs. He's quiet by nature, shares a small flat over in Bayswater with his girlfriend and has three months to go before he'll be looking for his first law placement. Vicky'll miss him, she always does.

"Nothing."

"Kathy not left you, has she? Goldfish died?"

"No." Daniel looks down at the tea, blinks. Looks up. "Gonna be a dad," he says.

Con drops a plate.

Jon whoops.

Daniel, slowly, smiles. Shy and worried and proud all at once: Vicky could hug him. She does. She says, "What're you doing here, then," and, "Jon, open the champagne." Langham can wait. They drink a toast to welcome the new baby and another for the road, and then Vicky calls a taxi and sees Daniel off in it. Back in the kitchen, she finds Langham shouting at Con and Jon hiding the bottle behind his back, nothing new. She slides the champagne under her arm and takes it back to the bar, she'll explain later.


The two men at table five are leaning across the table now, intent. Conversation's faster and smoother. The glasses have been pushed to one side and the young man's actually drawing something out on a napkin. Table sixteen's tracing the lines, hair jammed behind his ear and eyes bright. They're both a little flushed and the bottle of white burgundy's got half an inch left in the bottom.


"Told you," Jon says behind her back.

Vicky huffs and polishes liqueur glasses: Langham points at the kitchen, taps his watch and frowns. Jon disappears at speed.

He comes back with the precious Lalique bowls and nothing in them but strawberries. Langham flings up his hands, scowls and shakes his head emphatically. Smiling sweetly and falsely, Jon shrugs.

'Fine,' Langham's face says, and promises retribution later.

Jon pours the lad's cream with an arch raised eyebrow and a perilous tilt to his hips, and the look on table sixteen's face is an image for the gallery, disdain and possession all at once. He looks at his plate like he's never seen the fruit before, but table five looks up and smiles and reaches for his dessert spoon. The lad closes his eyes with the first berry, slow and absorbed.

Table sixteen leans back in his seat and reaches for the wineglass. Cradles it between his fingers - his hands are beautiful, long fingered and slim - but doesn't drink. His eyes are on the man across the table, and his expression, unguarded, is very nearly tender. Something so far from anger it's almost affection.

It takes table five ten minutes to eat the bowl, and when he's done he gets table sixteen's as well, pushed across the table with a dismissive flick of the wrist. But the thank-you smile, that's something else, swift and so intimate Vicky begins to think Jon might be right. They might be lovers, these two. Mismatched as they are, there's something about the way they sit, the echoing tilt of their heads, that fits.

She pours another glass of Glenlivet and one of Glayva. Jon slides the drinks onto the table with the discretion he can manage if he tries, but neither of them notice. They're talking.

"Do you remember..?"

"The words of the man. One never knew."

Vicky props her elbows on the bar and watches, and in few minutes Con and Magpie come out for the post-clear down vodka to join her. Magpie's brought her a chocolate mouse with frosted mint and cranberries, bless, and she eats it slowly thinking about one night in a little bistro in Campden long gone now, when she looked up and someone said, Vicky, have you met..?

It's time for coffee.

"We must be fools. It's almost impossible."

Snort of amusement. "Mr. Potter, if the elimination of the absolutely impossible leaves only the incredible, however unthinkable it may seem, then one must accept the incredible. Tell me . . "

"Hmm?"

"How else would one conceive of you and I at a single table?"

She looks round, but Langham's still sitting at the bar. Table sixteen thinks it's time for coffee as well: he looks at the bar - which is unusual, no one should have to look for a waiter in the Maison - and gestures. Langham straightens his cuffs again, walking to the table, and when he's there he listens and shrugs and says something apologetic.

Shocked, Vicky checks the cafetiere, but it's ready to go.

Table sixteen's got an arrogant frown. He says something emphatic, and Langham shrugs again. Table sixteen's just about to say something very rude - Vicky can predict it from the line of his mouth - when the young lad reaches across the table. He puts his hand on table sixteen's arm, and says something low, and smiles. Shrugs himself. Table sixteen frowns even more. Table five turns his palms up, as if to say, no bother, I just thought...

And table sixteen nods, once and decisively. He snaps his fingers at Langham without even looking - which isn't something customers do to Langham, but on this occasion the Maitre d' looks more relieved than upset. He comes back to the bar and lets the pair sort out their own clothing. Vicky cocks her head, intent.

"I think you should know. There is a conversation I have been wanting to have with you for a very long time."

Table sixteen pauses with his coat half-slung over his shoulders. "A conversation you were somewhat directed to have?"

"No," table five says. "This is personal. I don't think it will hurt."

"Potter..."

"No. Harry. Just Harry."


"...Harry. If you must."

But the man has a tilt to the corner of his mouth that's almost amused. A moment shared, a private conspiracy of two. Vicky knows what that feels like. She's been lucky, in her lover.


Leaving, table sixteen gives the group at the bar a final, slightly suspicious glare. Behind him, the lad from table five, Harry, looks back.

He's grinning all over his face, table five. Heart stoppingly happy, triumphant. He's got one hand, very lightly, on table sixteen's back and with the other he's giving the tiniest of waves.

Vicky's waving back before she has time to think twice. Then she has to blow her nose, and so does Jon, but he's meant to be the romantic.

Then she says, because in the space she's a professional first, "Lan, they didn't pay."

"It's been paid for," Langham says, expressionless and dry. He reaches out and closes the book, night over. "It was paid for six years ago."

He looks at Vicky. The Maison had opened six years ago to the month. She'd never asked where he'd got the rest of the money, never wanted to know, never asked who the absurd old man with the beard was.

"Don't worry about the kitty. Double pay for the shift," Langham says. "Go home. Take the champagne."

Jon's never been so fast picking up his coat. "Five o'clock tomorrow!" Langham shouts after him.


"Fucking ten minutes to midnight." Con says. He turns up the collar of his coat and looks at the sky. "Fucking extra shifts. You know what he can do next time? He can stick his extra shifts where the sun don't shine."

The moon's full and bright. It's stopped raining.

Con checks: the taxi fare's in his pocket, and he holds out his hand. He doesn't need to look round. Magpie's hand slips into his as easy at it did ten years ago. There's more scars on that hand now, but it's as thin and alive as when Magpie was a skinny seventeen.

"Come on, youth," Con says. "Let's go home."


Vicky locks up. The rest of the place is Langham's, his dream, his restaurant, the one they planned for and saved for and dreamed over when they were students, but the keys are Vicky's.

She turns round. Langham's waiting for her on the kerb.

"Good night?"

"You've no idea," Langham says. He smiles down at her, a smile that's all hers and one that if the customers saw they'd never recognise. "Thank you."

"So," Vicky says, as they walk together and in step down the little lane with its low mews cottages. "Who were they?"

Langham shrugs. "People I heard about." He looks down. "People who did something..." He stops. In the street, walking, Langham stops and reaches out his hand and touches Vicky's cheek like she's something precious and fragile. "I love you, Vicky MacAllister. Best waitress in the business."

Vicky takes a swing at him with her handbag, but she doesn't mean it.

"Aw. Lan."

 

Finish