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01/09/2014

Perfect Stranger

Jay Willis

As she walked in, she caught the eye of a man seated at a table with his wife and two children. His gaze lingered before he forced his eyes back to his meal, then back to his wife. He would look again.

The maître d’ had not seen her before. ‘Bonjour Mademoiselle.’

‘Hello,’ she said.

‘A table for two?’ She knew he’d make this assumption.

‘Please, by the window.’

‘Of course. Do follow me.’

She followed. A man watched from behind, studying her body as she walked. As she neared the floor-to-ceiling window the sunlight shone through her delicate summer dress, silhouetting her figure. The man stared. ‘If I were forty years younger,’ he said. His friend turned to look.

‘You’d still have no chance.’

She raised her arms and drew the hair from her neck.

‘My god,’ he said.

She took her seat.

She’d arrived in Oxford just after midday. A clammy train journey from Paddington in a standard class window seat next to an old lady sucking hard-boiled sweets. ‘Barley sugar, dear? Oxford? Visiting family? Isn’t that lovely.’ There was no family now, but the story made the old lady happy.

She left the train with nothing but a barley sugar. It wouldn’t have been this way in first class, but it was that or the dress. The dress was perfect, a subtle vintage print cut to reveal just enough but never too much. She knew she wouldn’t find another like it in Oxford. She hadn’t come here to shop for fashion.

She kept her head down, she didn’t want attention yet. A walk from the station. A cheap hotel. Two hours’ sleep. Shower. Hair. A touch of make-up. The dress. Out.

La Table Haute is one of Oxford’s better restaurants. Situated on the corner of Merton Street and High Street, it has a view of Magdalen College and is itself on view to a constant stream of pedestrians. She sat in the window, watching, waiting.

A young waiter spotted her and mouthed to the maître d’, ‘Mine.’ He noticed how still she was. She didn’t fidget, she didn’t attempt to occupy her hands. She crossed her legs, smoothed her dress against her thigh and brushed off her shoes with the tips of her toes, letting them fall where they may. She dangled a perfect bare foot and waited.

She watched as they walked along the pavement. Men with their girlfriends, men with wives. Men in want of girlfriends or wives. They noticed her. The women noticed, too. She hadn’t always looked this way. It wasn’t until she was nineteen that she had realised her potential.

She saw the waiter approaching and looked away. She let him wait some seconds before turning to face him. He introduced himself and stood slightly bowed, holding the drinks menu with his arm outstretched. She didn’t take the menu, she just looked. She remembered the first time she’d let a man wait this way after he’d offered his hand in greeting. Three seconds. Four. Seven. She’d looked into the man’s eyes and seen his discomfort, felt her power. She met the waiter’s eyes, paused a moment, then smiled. She glanced about, looked back at him, moved forward in her seat and beckoned him closer. He bent. ‘Can I trust you?’ she said.

‘Of course.’

‘Why of course?’

He hesitated. She willed him to play. ‘Because I’m a waiter and we go by the waiter’s code,’ he said.

‘What code is that?’

‘We are to be trusted with all things. We keep secrets.’

She leant back in her seat. ‘I was only going to ask you to choose me a wine,’ she said. ‘I’ll have a very good rosé, one I can allow you to choose for me because you’re to be trusted with… what was it?’

‘All things.’

She smiled and turned back to the window.

Men passed by. Many looked. Some slowed. A few passed twice. She didn’t make eye contact yet. She let them pass. She let them look. A man who’d been dining near her stopped on his way out. ‘The pot-au-feu is delicious.’

Too old. Too eager. Too early. ‘I’ll mention it to my boyfriend, he loves pot-au-feu,’ she said.

She ordered an hors d’œuvre but gave it little attention. A man exited the newsagents opposite La Table Haute and looked at his watch. He wore well-fitting dark trousers and a jacket in spite of the heat, his white shirt unbuttoned above a loosened tie. Good shoes – she always checked their shoes. He reminded her of a neighbour she’d had a crush on when she was a gawky fifteen-year-old. Wealthy, charming, good looking; he’d had it all, and had been entirely unobtainable to her. She wondered where he was now. Could she have him now? She brought her mind back to the man in her sights. He surveyed the shops and restaurants like a man in need of something. He saw her. He crossed the road diagonally away from her and paused outside an antiques shop. He made his way back along the road. As he passed the restaurant he turned his head towards her, veering off course and colliding with a tourist who was taking a photograph. He apologised to the man and looked back. She had seen and she was smiling. She made eye contact. His smile began when their eyes met and broadened as he walked on.

Come back, she thought.

A few minutes later he entered the restaurant. He’d fixed his tie. She looked away.

It was still early so the maître d’ had no trouble seating him. She did not turn her head from the window. She wanted him to work. As soon as he took his seat she busied herself with her phone. She wondered how lone women had coped in these situations, in an age before mobile phones.

She waited. Two minutes. Three. She studied the menu. Was she playing with her hair too much? Four minutes. She played with her hair. Footsteps from behind. A shadow. And there he was. She looked up.

‘I…’ He hesitated.

She didn’t let him continue. ‘You made it back without skittling any more tourists then?’

‘It’s a good thing it wasn’t a procession of Japanese schoolchildren,’ he said. ‘They go down like dominoes.’

She laughed. Humour used to be a bonus but now she made it a requirement. ‘Do you do this a lot?’ she said.

‘What? Knock down tourists?’

‘No, see a girl eating alone and then come and stalk her.’

‘All the time. I used to walk the streets at night wearing nothing but a long raincoat but my wife sewed up the pockets and it spoiled all my fun.’

She stifled a grin and raised an eyebrow. ‘Your wife?’

‘Is as fictional as my raincoat.’

‘I’m disappointed,’ she said. ‘You mean you’re just… normal?’

‘Have dinner with me. Then you can judge.’

She gestured towards the chair.

They ate. After two hours all she knew was that he was an articulate man who looked about forty, was greying at the temples, dressed well and… She didn’t know. He didn’t wear a ring, but she had learned to discount this as an indicator of anything. She knew nothing, nothing that could be of any use to her. She liked it.

It was time to see if he’d chase, to see if he was going to do any more for her than entertain her for a few hours and buy her a dinner.

‘You look tired,’ she said. He didn’t. ‘And I have to get back home before my evil stepmother scolds me and makes me scrub all the floors.’

‘Have another coffee, it’s bad form to fall asleep during a scolding.’

‘It goes quicker if I’m asleep.’

‘Have another coffee anyway,’ he said. ‘I’ll keep you out a bit longer so you’ll still sleep through your scolding.’

‘No.’ Come on, she thought. Work for me. She leant back in her chair and crossed her arms.

He put his elbow on the table, rested his chin on his fist and looked into her eyes. ‘You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you,’ he said. ‘Look, we can have these few hours together and I can buy you dinner and we can part ways and never see each other again. Or we can defy that wicked stepmother of yours and stay out late and I can give you a tour of Oxford in the dusk. It’s a lovely night.’

‘It’s getting chilly,’ she said. ‘I’d need your jacket.’

‘Is that how it works? What if I get cold without my jacket?’

‘Then you fail as a man.’

‘Come for a walk with me.’

‘How do you know I’m not from here?’

‘I’d have noticed you before.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I’m about to get a parking fine that costs more than this meal. I’ll go and get another ticket and by the time I get back you’ll have decided if you want to stay or go. Deal?’

She said nothing for a short while, she simply blinked. ‘How long will you be? I need to time my decision-making.’

‘Five minutes.’

‘Okay. Watch out for tourists.’

He smiled and walked out, gesturing to the maître d’ on his way with an open hand indicating ‘five.’

She’d decided before he left. There was so much she wanted to know. She wanted to find out naturally, slowly. She wanted something more than she’d learned to expect. She promised herself she wouldn’t do what she’d learned to do, what she had been taught to do. This time she’d stay. This time she’d give him a real chance. She waited.

After five minutes the waiter brought the bill. She hadn’t asked for it. She pushed it to his side of the table and waited. Seven minutes. Eight. Ten. She waited.

At twenty minutes she pulled the bill towards her and looked at it. ‘You bastard,’ she said. ‘You absolute bastard.’ The maître d’ hovered nearby. She gestured to the waiter.

‘Hi,’ she said, and smiled.

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