Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 6 July 2017

Romance blooms over a fish supper

Low life | 6 July 2017
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Up on the fifth floor the wind was like thunder. Wild gusts shook the window glass so violently I thought it might smash, which lent the occasion an unexpected drama and significance. I couldn’t entirely shake off the faint and appallingly egotistical suspicion that the universe strongly approved, or strongly disapproved, or something. My digestive system certainly disapproved. Viagra and the tart cheap fizz had brought on exquisitely agonising acid reflux. As it was getting on for nine o’clock, we decided that if we didn’t get up right now, leave the hotel, and go and find something to eat, we’d starve.

As we walked down the hill into the teeth of the gale, raindrops hit us in the face like tiny bullets. Strings of coloured lights danced madly between the lampposts. After 50 yards we came upon a conservatory-type fish and chip restaurant, brightly lit outside and in. Through the window we could see customers bent busily over their plates. That’ll do, we said. As I pulled open the door, the wind tried to wrestle it out of my hand and make off with it across the English Channel.

Only a few of the dozen or so plastic tables were occupied. The flames of the tealights on them flared and tugged frantically at their wicks. We chose a corner table, threw off our wet coats and sat opposite each other. She took up the plastic single-sheet menu and studied it calmly and intelligently. Flustered by restaurants as I am, even fish and chip restaurants, I was amazed at her poise. There was also a wine list. Again the expert, decisive eye. I looked around at the other diners, expecting incredulous stares, and was glad and a little surprised to note that I had been approved and accepted as being nothing out of the ordinary. ‘Have you decided?’ said the waitress, who was standing over us with her Biro poised over her notepad.

She was quaintly uniformed in a black dress and white frilly apron and looked far too elderly to be waitressing still. The sympathetic face had seen everything yet hadn’t lost faith, one felt. The voice was 40 a day. Yes, we had decided, we said. The order was lasagne for her, cod and chips and mushy peas for me. And to drink, the Chablis. ‘Any sauce?’ she said. ‘Get your knickers off,’ I said. ‘I would but I’m not wearing any,’ she said right back, poker-faced. ‘Brown, please,’ I said.

We talked easily while our food was cooked. Whether I liked her as a person, or didn’t, was immaterial. All that mattered in a situation like this was whether or not we found each other desirable. And of that, thank goodness, there were no two ways about it. (We’d seen photographs of each other beforehand, of course.) To like and approve of each other across a table in a fish restaurant, however, was an unlooked-for bonus. She was far too classy for the likes of me, it’s true. But I did, in fact, like her. I liked everything about her, especially her naturalness in fish restaurants. She appeared to like me, too, though she might be one of those blithe souls who overwhelmingly find something to like, even in the insane. I refused point-blank to tell her anything about myself, however. She would die of boredom, I said, when she started a line of inquiry. So she refused, too. Instead we played I-spy until the waitress came out of the kitchen bearing our plates of fuel.

After the meal, the waitress came again to remove the empties. As she did so, she said kindly, ‘I’ve been watching you two. You look so fresh and happy together. It’s such a rare thing and so lovely to see. Are you?’ We thought she was joking and laughed. But she wasn’t joking. She was perfectly serious. We looked happy. We said it was kind of her to mention it, but appearances must be deceptive because we’d met for the first time only a few hours before. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ she insisted. ‘It’s in his kiss, my dears. A kiss is all it takes to know. Never mind all the rest. I kissed a man when I was 16, knew, and I’ve only just thrown the bugger out. Drink. That’s why I’m waitressing at my age, in case you were wondering.’

‘It’s in his kiss,’ she repeated, in all seriousness, as she lent her strength to ours to prevent the door from being blown off its hinges as we left. On the way back up the hill to the hotel, we belted out into the mad wind what we could remember between us of the 1960s pop hit ‘It’s in His Kiss’ and laughed and laughed.