“Are you looking for an arrangement? Would you care for another cocktail?”
Air caught inside the two with the same intonation, some American inflection and a smile inside each syllable. He drained the flute, tipping the glittery, syrupy sap down the gullet. The waiter materialised for the re-fill, poured, nodded, evaporated back inside the curtain pattern.
“What’s an arrangement?” I managed my innocence, twisting a textile tiger lily boot under the cloth.
“I had an arrangement with a girl whose boyfriend died.” He licked his lips then dabbed the steak juice with the lacey edge. “I put her through college. I told my wife.”
The first time was exhilarating. I heard it was like that for all the girls. His name was Carl. If it was anything different I never knew. We went to the Baglioni Hotel, toes touching Hyde Park, on a Wednesday autumnal lunchtime. We sat by the window. I watched the fire leaves fall and a young family walk their chocolate Labrador on a pillar-box red lead.
There were only two rules. Never exceed three dates with the same man. Never get drunk. The outline of the crystal glass sparkled like the inside. Of course, there were no rules.
“What did your wife say?” I asked him, curious.
He’d lounged under the pepper mill for a lot of my existence, a colour that was all the way to the tip, dripping but comfortable among the ashes now. He had an older confidence about him, his tone smiled and his eyelids creased.
“She didn’t take it well, Sara.” He said my name like people who own things say it, people who stand with their two feet in the world and know where they are. I noticed the name, present, continuous, and how he said mine. I didn’t even know her and I felt inferior, I admired how he did that and how it made me feel.
This was the first time but, among the sautéed winter truffles, pommes dauphine, egg yolk ravioli, celeriac cream no topic was off the table. Everything was on the menu and he was testing it out.
“Why are you on the website?”
My answer was well-rehearsed. “I want to go to places I’ve never been able to go. I want to meet people I’d never be able to meet.” He didn’t know this was my very first time. He didn’t know I’d never done this before. “I want to feel alive,” I said, then I added, “I want to feel.”
It sounded dramatic but it had never been truer, and in that moment, I thought, if you can’t tell a stranger, then who?
He looked at me then, involved, attentive, absorbed by what might be running up the edges of my skull. Leaning in he ordered another plate of olives, ordered everything, regardless of anything I said. It was how he liked it, holding the power. But something in the way he hung off the air patterns drifting from my mouth made me feel powerful too. He was interested in me then.
“Don’t you feel like you’re alive, Sara?”
I shrugged but I didn’t break the contact through our eyes. Big Blue Eyes. I didn’t blink but my heart was pounding. “Do you?”
Sara Big Blue Eyes. The girls chose it for me, a play-up to my assets. A close up on the face. The Eyes. Head thrown back, carefree and fun in tiny shorts, my legs up against a white-washed Ibiza wall. The Legs. Nothing suggestive, unless you were really looking. Sara Big Blue Eyes. There I was, a picture on the screen, and here I was, a girl in the Baglioni Hotel, giving away her secrets.
He soaked a mushroom truffle in his thoughts, still turning me over in his mind. My question didn’t seem to faze him but he didn’t answer straight away. He glanced inside all the searing and braising, inside the artichoke hearts, before looking back at me. He chewed, he swallowed, he cleared his throat. “Would you like to come to New York with me?”
He likes girls with drive, they told me, ambitions girls. Young women flourishing with dreams. Young women who are going somewhere. “Would you like to come to New York with me? Shall I get another plate of olives?”
I smiled, “I’ve never been to New York.”
“You’ll like it,” he assured me.
He explained then a little about the four different wines we had been drinking by the bottle, told me he had a cellar at his Cape Cod home. Of course, I knew about the cellar. One of the girls had told me that he’d bought a one-thousand-pound bottle of wine at a dinner with her. They drained it within the hour.
Our waiter set down the olives, all different shapes and sizes. Nothing was excluded from the table, no order or rhythm, just courses and anything he felt like eating, two more lychee milks and another pot of red onion puree. The only other people in the room were a middle-aged couple, the female a walking cliché with a bird on her head. The man looked like he never had anywhere he really needed to be. There were too many zeros in their conversation.
Carl checked his watch, he was running out of time. I knew the next girl, ninety minutes after me, in the Baglioni Hotel. The waiters on rotation, rock steady eyes and muted beams for the recurring wads of heavy tips. They were meeting for an afternoon cocktail. I suddenly prickled with excitement, to see what would happen, if I was still here with him, would he leave and come back? Take a turn in the park for sobriety? I half expected, when I turned up, to see him sitting with a different girl. I’d looked for them because I wanted to see what it looked like. I wanted to see if she looked like me.
But when I arrived the place was empty and when Carl finally did arrive the waiters addressed him as if it was the very first time that day, as if I was the girl. It was a scene well-rehearsed, perfected. How are you today, Sir? How about the window table for the lady? A view across the trees, perhaps? The seat’s still toasty.
“I bought you a gift,” as promised, he said. My “gift”. Three hundred and fifty quid cold spooned in a paper white envelope slipped into a Harrods string bag rubbing shoulders with a fifty-pound bottle of pink Veuve Clicquot Brut. The gift for ninety minutes of me. The amount I was missing out on because I wasn’t at my job, the line they use.
Okay, there was one rule. Never mention the money. Don’t break the spell.
I thanked him, put the bag by my feet. It was my very first time and I was desperate to count it, descend inside the mirrored bathroom below, fan it across the toilet top in a peacock’s tail, send a photo to the girls, but I’d have to wait.
“Shall I order desert? You can pick absolutely anything you like.” He was running out of time.
Letters curled around the edges of every dish and I wasn’t sure, so he ordered four. The waiters cleared away the savoury plates still covered, and bought out warm chocolate mousse with spiced fruit ice cream and lemon posset with blackcurrant sauce and oatmeal biscuit shavings and amaretto cream and more lychee milk and another peach Bellini, a soft sunset, too pretty to offset.
He was running out of time, was very late to his afternoon drink and I wondered where the next girl was. Sweets piled across the table, spangled pick-me-ups, treats and thirst quenchers, juices with more than half a bottle of wine to go. I couldn’t see the table. “Take your time, I have to get back to work but stay, enjoy yourself.”
He pressed a thick wad inside our waiter’s hand. “She’s staying a while,” he told them, “don’t you agree she’s absolutely stunning when she smiles?”
Suddenly I didn’t want him to leave and, resisting the urge to reach for his hand, I stammered rather awkwardly, “What happened to the girl?” I wanted to know.
“What girl?” A flick of the wrist and somehow, he had paid.
“The girl you had an arrangement with,” I said. “The one with the dead boyfriend.” I cringed at my directness but nothing seemed to alter the poised and self-assured smile. I was sad that it had gone by so fast and now it was over.
“Oh,” his eyes impaled against my soul for a second. “She got another one. Another boyfriend. That’s always the way, in the end. Don’t forget your gift, and don’t get up.” He bent down to give me a kiss on the head. He smelt like life. “You’ll like New York, every girl should go to New York in their early twenties.”
And he was gone.
I sat back, let out an inhale. Suddenly I was drunk in a world where I didn’t belong, Alice on potions, but still I stayed to drain every drop of it. The middle-aged couple glanced across.
Outside it was warm, I zigzagged across Hyde Park and gave twenty to a homeless man. The world was mine. I sat by the water edge, popped the champagne from my Harrods bag and swigged from the bottle. Kicked off my fabric tiger lily boots against the lake and felt alive. I stared up at all the windows and inside all the rooms at the Baglioni Hotel.