IN THE JAPANESE CAFE he helped her off with her coat and took it to the line of hooks beneath the sign that absolved the management of responsibility for its safety. They weren’t the first in the cage, although it was early, ten past eight. The taxi-driver who came in most mornings was reading the Daily Mail in his usual corner. Two of the music students had arrived.
He hung up the coat, which still carried a faint trace of scent. Light-weight, and black, its showerproof finish as protection enough today, since the forecast they’d both heard – she in her kitchen an hour ago, he while he shaved in Dollis Hill – confidently predicted that the fine weather was here for another few days. He hadn’t brought a coat himself and he didn’t wear a hat in summer.
From the table they always sat at, side by side so that they could see the street where the office workers were beginning to hurry by, she watched him patting a pocket of his jacket, making sure his cigarettes and lighter were there. Something was different this morning; on the walk from Chiltern Street she had sensed, for an instant only, that their love affair was not as it had been yesterday. Almost always they met in Chiltern Street, their two journeys converging there. Neither ever waited: when one or other was late they made do with meeting in the café.
‘All right?’ she asked. ‘All right?’ She kept anxiety out of her tone; no need for it, why should it be there? She knew about the touchiness of love: almost always, it was misplaced.
‘Absolutely,’ he said, and then their coffee came, his single croissant with it, the Japanese waitress smiling. ‘Absolutely,’ he repeated, breaking his croissant in half.
Another of the music students arrived, the one with the clarinet case. Then a couple from the hotel in George Street came in, Americans, who sat beneath the picture of the sea wave, whose voices – ordering scrambled eggs and ham – placed them geographically. The regular presence of such visitors from overseas suggested that breakfast in the nearby hotel was more expensive than it was here.
The lovers who had met in Chiltern Street were uneasy, in spite of efforts made by both of them. Discomfiture had flickered in his features when he’d been asked if everything was all right: now, at least, that didn’t show. She hadn’t been convinced by his reassurance and, within minutes, her own attempt to reassure herself hadn’t made much sense: this, in turn, she kept hidden.
She reached out to flick a flake of croissant from his chin. It was the kind of thing they did, he turning up the collar of her coat when it was wrong, she straightening his tie. Small gestures made, their way of possessing one another in moments they made their own, not that they ever said.
‘I just thought,’ she began to say, and watched him shake his head.
‘How good you look!’ he murmured softly. He stroked the back of her hand with his fingertips, which he often did, just once, the same brief gesture.
‘I miss you all the time,’ she said.
She was thirty-nine, he in his mid-forties. Their relationship had begun as an office romance, before computers and their software filched a living from her. She had moved on of necessity, he of necessity had remained: he had a family to support in Dollis Hill. These days they met as they had this morning, again at lunchtime in the Paddington Street Gardens or the picture gallery where surreptitiously they ate their sandwiches when it was wet, again at twenty to six in the Running Footman.
He was a man who should have been, in how he dressed, untidy. His easy, lazily expansive gestures, his rugged, often sunburnt features, his fair hair stubborn in its disregard of his intentions, the weight he was inclined to put on, all suggested a nature that would resist sartorial demands. In fact, he was quite dressily turned out, this morning in pale lightweight trousers and jacket, blue Eton shirt, his tie striped blue and red. It was a contradiction in him she had always found attractive.
She herself, today, besides the black of her showerproof coat, wore blue and green, the colours repeated in the flimsy silk of her scarf. Her smooth black hair was touched with grey which she made no attempt to disguise, preferring to make the most of what the approach of middle age allowed. She would have been horrified if she’d put on as much as an ounce; her stratagems saw to it that she didn’t. Eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, unblemished neck: no single feature stood out, their combination necessary in the spare simplicity of her beauty. Good earrings – no more than dots, and never absent – were an emphasis that completed what was already there.