I was no stranger to the highly polished revolving door, all glass and brass, that led into the restaurant. Indeed, once upon a time I’d treated the place as if it was my staff canteen. I’d been running a company just down the road back then, and fell in the habit of dropping in for lunch three or four times a week. If I was alone, I’d sit at the curved steel bar and order fish and chips and a Bloody Mary, followed by a couple of glasses of red wine and perhaps a plate of oozing French cheese. If I was with friends or work colleagues, or, as occasionally happened, my wife Martha, we would sit at a good table near the window, perfectly positioned to observe the bustle of Mayfair outside.
Today, as I usually was these days, I was alone. I paused for a moment, my gloved hand raised in mid-air, snowflakes falling lightly onto the thick, dark wool of my coat, the chill biting my newly shaved face and stinging the vulnerable, widening bald patch on the back of my head, feeling a flutter of mild anxiety. With my relatively newly found honesty, developed at regular AA meetings – ‘Hi, my name’s Jimmy and I’m an alcoholic’ – I knew the griping in my belly, and the knot lodged high in my chest, to be nerves.
I put my hand on the glass and pushed. The maitre d’ looked up from perusing his list of reservations, and after a portion of a second so short that if I hadn’t been watching him closely I would have missed it, his handsome Spanish face blossomed from a polite blank into the practiced, easy smile I recognised, much like the opening of a familiar book.
“Mr Daniels, Sir, how very nice to see you again.”
The cloak lady materialised to take my coat and gloves.
“No reservation? No problem, sir. We have a seat at the bar?”
“That will suit me very well,” I replied, trying to assume my old habitual cloak of confidence.
Everything looked precisely as I remembered it. The half drunk bottles of spirits lined up so invitingly behind the bar looked as if no one had drunk a shot since I had last staggered out of here after a well-oiled lunch. It was one of the strokes of brilliance of this place, that despite its celebrity – and you often glimpsed a famous face here – the place somehow made you feel it was your local and that you had been here just yesterday, when the truth was it was so ruinously expensive that most people only came here on special occasions with something serious to celebrate, unless they were financially reckless and quite possibly mad.
Had I been mad? Had that been the problem? I looked across the mostly empty restaurant – it was still early for lunchers – with its starched tablecloths, shining glasses and the sense of opulent order that I had always found so soothing. My now ex-wife had certainly thought insanity to be the root cause of my problems. As for me, I’d thought I was simply running a business, working hard, aiming high, providing employment, on my way to being Entrepreneur of the Year. But four years on from the credit crunch, I’d had time to think about it, and I could see that to someone who knew me but didn’t understand the intricacies of the business, like, say, Martha, or even, if I’m brutally honest for a second, which I really don’t feel comfortable being, the bank that was my funder, it might have looked a little different. The long nights in the office had read to my wife as adultery. The extravagant fundraisers, the expensive PR launches, the massive overspend on all the projects, had spoken to the bank of recklessness. The working so hard I didn’t go home for days in a row, had been taken by my wife as the cue to hire a divorce lawyer. Yet viewed from inside the business, all these things had made perfect sense. It took a lot of effort to get a business off the ground. PR was an essential part of any business plan worth its salt and the girls who ran that side of things usually were show stoppingly pretty, and name one building project that hasn’t run over in terms of both time and money.
“What can I get you to drink, sir?”
A boy young enough to be my son was standing in front of me, immaculate in white shirt, sleeves rolled up Obama-style. New since my time. I pondered for a moment. There was only so much fizzy water a person could drink. The fledgling thought that had led me here now emerged, fully formed.
“A bloody Mary,” I said boldly. “Spicy”
“Coming straight up.”
I found my heart was beating hard, hard and fast, and I felt fear clammy on my back. Stay cool, Jimmy, stay cool. If I wasn’t entitled to a drink or two today of all days, on Christmas Eve, when was I? The barman took down a cocktail shaker, poured vodka, Tabasco, a dash of sherry, salt and pepper, tipped in the tomato juice, and shook the whole lot up vigorously, before transferring it into a chilled glass. Watching his practised routine calmed me, and the sweaty, frightened moment receded as swiftly as it had come. He added a stick of celery and a straw and deposited the glass in front of me.
I looked at the drink, and then up at the boy.
“Thank you,” I said.
I picked up the glass, put the straw into my mouth and sucked. The alcohol hit my brain instantly, swirling around it just as I had remembered it did, shrouding it, protecting it, making things seem so much better in just a matter of moments. It was a pure, uplifting feeling. I drank until the glass was empty.
I beckoned the boy over again. “A bottle of the Lynch Bages. 2008.”
I was out of the starter gates now. Soon I was sniffing and swirling and downing a taste of the earthy deep red liquid. Lynch Bages had long been my very good friend.
“Half a dozen Irish oysters, Natives, and the Boeuf Rossini with Dauphinoise potatoes and green beans,” I said to the boy young enough to be my son. My son was actually only eleven, but I had embarked late on family life, at not quite forty. Today my son was at home, or at what had once been my home, with his eight year old sister and my ex wife and her new husband of four months. They were probably having a jolly ‘family’ time, playing Monopoly, or perhaps singing Away in a Manger while my wife – sorry, ex-wife – picked out the tune on the piano. They’d have a goose tonight. Martha had always loved Christmas. She still asked me round for supper each year, as if we could be one of those modern post-marriage kind of families, the kind you read about in Celebrity gossip columns that consciously uncouple and end up gushing about how they are now each other’s best friends. Each year, needless to say, I don’t go.
The boy had filled my glass. I picked it up and drank deeply, in the way you can if you simply don’t care about the hangover that will inevitably follow. The wine wrapped itself around my tongue and tumbled joyfully down my throat. Words couldn’t describe how good it was. It was liquid beauty, a shark’s fin slicing through a still sea. The abstinence of the last few years only made the pleasure sweeter.
More people were pushing through the revolving door. It seemed the whole world wanted to celebrate. Nobody would be going back to the office that afternoon. I knew the drill. We’d had several pre-Christmas office lunches here back then. I glanced across to the large round table in the centre of the room that seated up to twelve, which had always been ‘our’ table. A party of office workers were just sitting down around it, led by an older man in an immaculately cut navy suit and a stiff white shirt, with well-groomed grey hair. I noticed he sat a pretty blonde girl on one side of him, and an attractive older dark haired woman on the other. The rest of the party – several younger men in less expensive suits, and a woman in her thirties with acne scars, mousy hair and a nose that looked not unlike a large potato –were left to sort themselves out in the remaining chairs.
My oysters arrived on a platter of crushed ice and the boy topped up my wine. Tradition dictated that oysters were eaten with ice cold Chablis, but I didn’t care. I squeezed some lemon juice on the oysters and tipped them back one by one, shuddering at their fleshy touch, and sipping from my diminishing glass. When I turned again to the party of revellers, I saw they were already toasting each other with champagne. The table was laid with crackers. It looked exactly as it always had.
“Happy Christmas,” said Silver Fox, standing up, “And thank you for all your hard work this year.” The words were unoriginal. I guessed that before the main course arrived he’d have his hand on the blonde’s knee under the table, fingers working their way up her stockinged leg.
The boy placed my Boeuf Rossini in front of me, the meat gently leaking juices onto the white plate, the potatoes oozing garlic and cream. A pale yellow circle of melting butter was spreading around the green beans. This was my favourite lunch here, but I no longer had an appetite for food.
Around the restaurant, bodies began to sag and relax as the alcohol worked its magic. Watching, I felt pleased, like a conductor who had led his orchestra successfully through a complicated score.
“Another bottle,” I commanded, feeling for a moment quite back to my old self. Imagine if the whole thing had been a bad dream. The company’s collapse, Martha kicking me out, the fact my kids now lived with another man, the small, bare flat I now called home, the lack of a proper job, the lack, even, of a bank account. The friends falling away, and then the stay in rehab, which had been rather like going back to boarding school as a middle aged man, and the scaffolding of my day becoming my daily AA meetings, where new, different friends were acquired.
Remembering my AA life caused me to glance around nervously. It would be beyond awful if my sponsor saw me here. He had given me so much time. He would be so disappointed. Martha wouldn’t. She would only wonder it had taken me this long.
These uncomfortable thoughts were jabbing at me now, breaking through my alcoholic veil. I didn’t want to think about any of it, but it was as if the thoughts knew that and so they swooped in gleefully for the kill, stabbing and prodding me where it hurt the most. I didn’t want to think about the bank pulling the plug on my business, or letting go of my staff, some leaving in tears, others angry, all terrified for their mortgages, partners, kids. I didn’t want to remember being escorted from the office by two of the bank’s enforcers, or how the bank had pressed to make me bankrupt while saving themselves at the taxpayer’s expense.
I didn’t want to think about how I had accidentally lost my whole life.
I drank the last glass of red in one long draught.
The boy raised an eyebrow in enquiry. I had barely touched my food. The Boeuf, so mouthwatering at a different time in my life, was congealing on the plate, the Dauphinoise lying oily and rejected, the beans losing their glossy green colour.
“Sorry. Not hungry. Just the bill,” I said, fishing into my jacket pocket. I saw as I did so that I had lost a button, and for some reason that small fact made me feel very tired. I pulled out a wad of notes and peeled off several fifty pound notes. I had not forgotten the price of Lynch Bages in four long years of abstinence, as I had not forgotten the taste, and the immediate effects of it on my mind. But I had forgotten the follow up, the alcoholic backhander, the sudden lowering of mood that hunts down the initial euphoria and kills it off, thereby leaving melancholy free to reign havoc on an exhausted and beaten mind.
The bill came and I laid down my notes.
“Keep the change,” I said to the boy, who was not my son and never would be.
I gave the cloakroom girl a fiver and shrugged back into my coat, smoothing down the beaver fur collar. The maitre d’ appeared to say goodbye, nodding and smiling and wishing me a Happy Christmas.
“You too, Joseph,” I said, palming him another £50.
“Thank you sir. I hope to see you again soon, sir.”
I knew he meant it. The boy, the coat girl, the maitre d’ all had my money in their pocket and wished me well. But Joseph had seen a lifetime of customers come and go, in every way. His suit had not lost a button, and I suspected he knew we would not meet again.
I walked slowly down the small lane that led onto St James’ Street. The earlier snow had settled and was turning to ice as the temperature plummeted below zero. The pavements were still crowded with people hurrying somewhere, nipping round the corner to Fortnum and Mason or up Old Bond Street to Tiffany’s to buy an overpriced, imperfect present. I dodged a handsome lady of middle age, tugging two small pugs on white leather leads, and reached the edge of the pavement.
Opposite, I saw my old offices had become a well-known advertising agency. My heart lurched – out, out, damned spot – it seemed my alcoholic shroud no longer worked. (Had it ever?) I looked down at my feet, shielded in their shiny black shoes, toes venturing over the edge of the pavement like a pair of curious moles.
The road was a sea of rounded black taxis, all in a hurry, dashing up the inside lane, next to the pavement on which I stood, raking in the final fares before Christmas took over and they kicked back for a day. I saw a taxi turn the corner down by the back of Clarence House, and start to hurtle up the street. This one would do. It was going so fast that surely it would work. Anything over 30mph and the impact apparently killed instantly.
My pocket vibrated and I started with surprise at the interruption. I fumbled for my phone and lifted it to my ear without looking to see who the caller was.
The taxi swept past me, splashing me with snow.
“Daddy! It’s Edward.”
“Eddie.” His sweet, high voice. A sickening mix of guilt and Lynch Bages churned within me.
“Mum says, are you coming to have Christmas Eve supper with us?”
I looked down at my black shoes, wet now, my eyes a blur.
“Seven o’clock, she says. She’s roasting a goose as usual.”
I stepped back from the pavement edge. I forced words up my throat and out of my mouth.
“Is she? All right.” Here I was again, making promises I might not keep. The nausea rose.
“Great. Mum says don’t be late.”
Of course she does, I thought, putting my phone away slowly, straightening a little and, my son’s voice still ringing in my ears, a glimmer of something brighter in the darkening sky, I stepped out into the traffic.
Mary Alexander asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work