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Saturday, 28 November 2009

Reflections on brief encounters.



Viewed through the mirrored wall of a restaurant, a man holds a woman in a passionate embrace and kisses her. It is Paris. It is the City of Lights and Love. It is not what it seems.

There was a time when Alison thought it not uncommon for men I didn’t know to stealthily approach, kiss me and then leave. She had twice been witness to such acts of male audacity. The first occasion was in Paris. We had taken the ferry over to France in order to explore the capital. On our final night we went to Montmartre and the Restaurant Chartier, much favoured by students and poor tourists like ourselves and which had remained little changed since it first opened its doors in the closing years of the 19th century.

Having dined rather well but we bought cups of black coffee to round off the meal. We then started to take pictures of one another. I felt very sophisticated as I toyed with my coffee cup, dressed in my plain little black dress adorned only with a long string of knotted pearls. Had I ever smoked, I would probably have had a Gauloise cigarette dangling from my fingertips to complete the illusion of Parisian chic. We then took it in turn to take photos of the other standing in front of the mirrored wall. As I posed for my picture, a waiter sidled up to me, pulled me down in an embrace and kissed me. All the while Alison continued clicking away. What looks like the very image of romance when seen through the mirror is anything but viewed from the front. Caught unaware by the sudden embrace, I am absolutely rigid; fearful I will lose my footing and fall to the floor. I hold onto my string of pearls with grim determination as if they can somehow protect me from surprise ambushes by amorous Frenchmen After he had kissed me and set me upright again the waiter had the gall to ask for un pourboire (tip!)

Restaurant Chartier


The next time Alison witnessed something untoward happening to me was at the 30th birthday of the Household Name (HN).Alison and a friend of the HN’s decided to play at being matchmakers and urged me to gate-crash his party, which was being held in a restaurant in Mayfair. Alison and I had been driving back from a mutual friend’s wedding in the country when she first told me all about her plan. She mentioned that the HN was a barrister but she never told me whar his surname was. As my long dead father had also been a barrister, I always found myself inexorably drawn to men working in the legal profession. The HN did not seem unduly concerned that he had an extra uninvited guest and we joined the others around the tables. The whole restaurant had been hired for the night for the exclusive use of the HN and his friends. I found myself seated next to the HN’s best friend, a chef and possessor of a private trust fund. He asked me if I would like to fly out with him the following weekend to Spain as he had two spare tickets. I told him I was too busy studying for my professional exams. He said I could take my books with me and study during the day and he would join me again in the evening. Somehow we got round to the subject of drinking. It seemed he drank a lot and I drank rarely.
“Then there is little point in my tagging along,” I said. “You’re going to have drunk far too much to be able to have your wicked way with me by the time we did get together again in the evening.”
I then asked him what he would have done, had I accepted his proposition.
“I would have had to hurry around to the travel agents and buy air tickets,” he confessed.
The HN’s friend was charming but I was there to meet the host. Furthermore, I have always tried to keep clear of people who drink excessively as I have known alcoholics in my childhood and seen first hand the damage they do to themselves and others.
It was whilst as I chatting away to the HN’s friend that some man’s face suddenly appeared from underneath the brim of my large straw hat, kissed me and then retreated back to his own table.
“That’s always happening to her,” Alison commented dryly.
It rarely happened to me. It was just that Alison had witnessed it in both Paris and London and assumed it was a regular occurrence.

I recall going to a special black-tie event in a Park Lane hotel ballroom. I had changed in the showers at Paddington station as I had just returned from a business trip and didn’t have time to slip back home first. I wore my phoenix ball-gown, so-called because it was the first item of evening wear I bought after the fire when all my other clothes had been destroyed. It was sleeveless, made of crimson velvet and had a sweetheart neckline. It fitted me like a dream and had the same effect as a corset, thanks to the clever tailoring. I was also wearing black velvet kitten heels and felt especially glamorous for someone who had got ready in the far from alluring confines of a metropolitan railway station.
A man I had only ever known professionally had taken a table in front of my own. As I rather fancied him, I was able to discreetly look at him from time to time without it being made obvious to my colleagues. When I returned to my seat, he had vanished. It took me some while to realise that he had moved his chair behind our table so that he could observe me looking all around, trying to work out where he had gone to. Later when I was standing in the queue to collect my coat, he came across to wait with me. Then he kissed me on the lips twice before saying goodbye and disappeared into the night. We never met up again.

As a schoolgirl, one of the most romantic evenings of my life was spent strolling arm in arm around Red Square with the son of a French diplomat. I was in Moscow on an exchange trip. In the days of the Cold War, the exchange was only ever going to be in one direction. We went to Russia. The Russian school children never did get to visit us in England. I haven’t a clue how I came to be in the company of the young Frenchman, other than that foreigners tended to gravitate towards one another, anxious for news of what was happening in the West. We were so cut off we began to believe our hosts when they told us the whole of the London underground network was flooded. It seemed incredible but with no access to foreign media at the time, it started to seem feasible after a while. When the Frenchman explained where he lived in Paris, I remarked that I had heard of that particular Quarter as one of my mother’s favourite perfumes was named after it: Rive Gauche by Yves Saint Laurent. Unlike the waiter in Montmartre, this young man knew how to conduct himself like a gentleman and the memory has always stayed with me because it was so exquisitely brief.


By contrast, an incident at a wedding remains the epitome of excruciating embarrassment. My colleagues and I were invited to the evening reception of a former colleague. The wedding ceremony had taken place earlier in the day, followed by a sit-down luncheon in the afternoon for close friends and family and by a drinks reception in the early evening on board a boat moored on the River Thames. It had been a year or two years since the young groom had worked for me so I was rather surprised to have received an invitation. Nevertheless I was happy to accompany my colleagues there. After I had been on board for about half an hour, I left the saloon to make my way to the loos.
The bridegroom waylaid me in the corridor as I was returning back.
“Are you leaving?” he asked.
“No I just popped out to the ladies,” I replied.
He suddenly held me tightly in his arms.
“I just wanted to say that I have always fancied you and I won’t let you go without a kiss.”
I tried to free myself and then let him have his kiss. Once he released me I silently vowed to steer well clear of him for the rest of the evening, which thankfully proved easy enough to do.
When it was time to leave, I could not avoid going up to where he was sitting and bid him farewell along with my colleagues. As I walked past him to leave, he grabbed me by my waist and forced me onto his lap. I made to get up and he pulled me down again. This time I lost my balance. Someone recorded the picture for posterity. As  we both tumble to the ground, I clutch frantically at the nearest thing that comes to hand which proves to be a particularly unfortunate part of his anatomy. In the top left hand corner, his bride is caught in profile, her mouth agape in astonishment. I never did find out if that marriage lasted longer than a day.