I consider pressing the bell for a second time but decide to count to ten and see what happens.
This is obviously a wind-up. God, how embarrassing. I polish my shoes behind my trouser legs and, in the process, nearly fall backwards down the steps. I steady myself on the railings and look round discreetly to see if anyone has seen this ridiculous manoeuvre. Fortunately they haven't.
Come on. It can't take that long to get to the door. Unless she's on crutches. Or in a wheelchair. Or she's 105 but with the mind and libido of a twenty-year-old. What the hell am I doing?
It's still warm outside and the last rays of the sun are playing gently on the back of my neck. The smell of my hair gel begins to blend with my Chanel Gentleman's Cologne. Oh, Christ! Perhaps it's all a bit too much -- less is more in these situations. She'll probably think I'm a poof. Probably thinks we all are. The smell will probably put her off. She'll be totally freaked by the whole thing and say "Er, listen, I've been thinking. Thanks but no thanks. Hope you understand." Course I do. Don't blame you. I've got dressed up, spent seven quid on a taxi because I was terrified of being late and all for nothing. Course I understand.
Oh, come on.
I do a quick nose and fly check and push my tie up again.
Another ten seconds and I'm out of here. Forget this ever happened. Ring Jonathan when I get home and tell him.
Call it thirty seconds.
I've decided to be conservative in my dress and go for dark grey trousers, blue blazer (without gold buttons -- that would be too much), a pale blue shirt and a dark maroon spotted tie.
Forget it. I'll just wander casually back along the road.
Suddenly the door is opened by a woman with a mass of thick, back-combed hair. She has a drink in one hand and a phone in the other, the receiver clamped under her chin. She looks at me for a second through dark eye make-up while the person on the other end is talking and then she walks back down the hallway leaving the door open.
That's it. I'm definitely out of here.
Oh, Christ! What if she rings Jonathan and complains? I follow her in. The house smells of her perfume and her dog. I hear it barking madly at the back of the house and wonder whether it's on its way out to savage me and prevent its mistress from making a fool of herself with a younger man but then the noise stops.
We go into what people living round here would call a drawing room. Bookcases either side of a huge fireplace. A portrait of a woman above it. I do a double-take -- is it her? No, the woman looks slightly different. Mother? Sister? I sit down on a hard leather Chesterfield settee. In front of me is a very seventies brass and smoked-glass coffee table. I look around the room. It's an odd mixture of posh and naff: an antique wooden sideboard with silver picture frames and candlesticks next to a plastic garden chair stacked up with old copies of Tatler and Harpers & Queen. Across the room is a highly polished grand piano and underneath it a dog basket littered with chewed toys. I look back, not wanting to seem nosy.
She is still on the phone. The person on the other end is giving her some strong advice.
"OK, OK," she says. "Look, I must go, Mummy. OK, OK. I must go but I'll see you at Susie's. Yup, lots of love. Bye."
She puts the receiver down and starts on at me. She looks like an actress -- strong cheekbones and a large, sensual mouth. Have I seen her somewhere before? One of those three-part mini series on TV, perhaps? The ones my mum watches and then says, "How silly. I was really only waiting for the news." Her face is lined with tension and her eyes dart around the room. The small wrinkles round her mouth are like streams flowing into a large dark lake. I realize I'm staring.
"I just want to talk, OK? Just talk." She shrugs her shoulders and I nod, not sure what to say. She is obviously quite pissed already. "I don't want anything else, OK? I don't even want to know what kind of things you get up to with some of the women you see. I just want to talk, OK? I just want to go out and have a drink and a chat and leave it at that."
"I know, you told me." She looks at me blankly. "You said when we spoke on the phone, earlier."
"Exactly," she says quickly. She told me that she was very embarrassed about doing this and she had never done this kind of thing before but she'd read about this service in the papers and suddenly thought this evening that it might be a good thing to check it out or "give it a whirl," as she had put it. So here we are -- me and Diana. On a date.
She flops onto the sofa, kicks off her shoes and runs her hands through her hair, staring at the ceiling. She looks tired but psyched about something. I get the feeling she spends a lot of time like this. "I just want to relax a bit, go to a nice restaurant and have a night off. You do understand, don't you, er, Andrew? It is Andrew, isn't it? I'm sure you understand what I'm saying. We're not talking at cross purposes, are we?" She avoids looking me in the eye or, for that matter, having a conversation with me. I put it down to shyness. Or coke. Or madness.
"No," I say. "I know what you mean. That's fine with me." Is that right? I wish I felt as confident as I sound.
She gets up and is off again. "I've never done this sort of thing before. I don't know what kind of women usually do this. Probably sad old things." She laughs nervously, a deep, forced, humourless laugh that shakes her shoulders. "I expect you're gasping for a drink. God knows, I could do with another."
I ask for a Scotch because that is what she is drinking and she puts it down in front of me, spilling it slightly on the coffee table. Then she looks at me again.
"You're a bit young, I must say. I would have thought they'd have sent someone older." I'm about to say something -- God knows what -- when she starts again. "Look, I'm going to get changed. There's the phone -- you book somewhere. I don't know where, I really don't care. Where do people eat these days? We used to go to the Mirabelle. Is that still going?" She walks out without waiting for a reply.
I turn round and pick up the phone. I ring directory enquiries and ask for the Mirabelle. Thank God they've got a table for two in half an hour. Perhaps I'll tell her that it was tricky but I know the maître d'. Would she believe that? Unlikely. Anyway, the Mirabelle. Should be fun. Except that I've got to entertain her for two hours. Think of something witty to say. Like what? Oh, fuck! Never mind. Better than sitting at home watching telly.
"This place has changed," she says as she sits down. I suppose I should have known where she'd like to go from the extensive database of restaurants filed in my brain.
"When were you last here?" I ask her, suddenly realizing that this is not a tactful question.
Sure enough she looks at me for a moment and then says: "Probably before you were born."
I try and think of something charming to say like, "Oh, I can't believe that," but I'm not quick enough off the mark so I have to let that one go rather ungallantly.
"Well, this is all looks delicious, doesn't it?" she says, holding the menu at a distance.
"Yeah -- "
"What on earth is arugula? You see it everywhere these days, don't you? Is it a type of fish?"
"I think it's rocket, isn't it? Type of salad or something?" I say, glad to be able to explain it to her as if I know a lot about food and restaurants and what to eat.
"Oh, good. I love fish. I can never be bothered to cook at home. It's hardly worth it for one, is it? Do you live on your own? Well, I suppose you must in your line of work. I just live on toast and Marmite unless I'm having lunch with someone..."
I nod and smile. Well, if nothing else happens, at least I got here.
We have quite a giggle even though I can't really follow a word she says -- something about her husband having an affair with some "Euro trash totty" he met when he was working in Frankfurt but she isn't that bothered -- two months after they had got married, she took up with a painter they had employed.
"What? While he was painting your house?" I ask. She looks surprised.
"He was painting my portrait."
She also tells me about her mother having something done to her conservatory in Herefordshire as well, I think. She drinks two bottles of red wine on her own. I give up when I begin to feel my lips go numb. I have to stay sober for obvious reasons. I make her laugh a bit towards the end of the evening and we are almost the last to leave.
Outside I successfully hail a cab (thank God!) and we go back to hers.
"That was fun," says Diana, as if to confirm it. She flops down on the settee and I stand for a moment, wondering whether I should make some sort of move on her. I know this isn't necessarily part of the deal and I can't say it feels right, but somehow I feel I should offer it.
So I wonder whether to sit next to her, which would mean twisting my neck round to talk to her but would be better for the Next Move, or whether to sit opposite her, which would make conversation easier but would mean I would have to cross the room at the appropriate time should the situation arise.
"Yeah," I say as casually as any man caught in this dreadful dilemma can. Fortunately she gets up and walks over to the drinks cabinet.
"Now, how about another whisky, or a brandy?"
"Thanks," I say, still standing. "I mean brandy would be great."
"Sit down," she says and gestures to an armchair. Phew. That's that decided, then. I think.
As she chatters away about a holiday she had a few years ago in Mustique or somewhere like that where there was absolutely nothing to do but fortunately a girl she was at school with had the hut next to hers, I find myself waiting anxiously for some indication in her manner that she wants something else, whatever that might be. But -- thank God -- just before midnight she yawns and says she has to get up early the next day to walk the dog. She signs the credit card slip once she has found her glasses, slips me ten quid for my cab home and says we should do it again some time. I ring Jonathan when I get home and he sounds very pleased.
But then he always does.
That was the first one I did, I think. I can't remember now. It all seems a long time ago.
As usual, I'm the last one in at work. Sami, who sits opposite me, is already on the phone. She winks and smiles. I give her an exaggerated, goofy "Hi." She giggles. I hang up my jacket and cast an eye over the no-hopers I share an office with. They too have taken the bait. "Media Sales" said a siren voice from the Media, Creative and Marketing bit of the Guardian. "Move into advertising. Starting salary up to £25k+. If you're a self-starter with a good telephone manner and work well under pressure in a small team then Media Sales is for you. Clock-watchers should not apply."
Oh, and neither should anyone with any sense.
But we all fell for it -- the prospect of entering the promised land of advertising and the media and working in an office in Soho with those settees in the shape of giant lips and ultra thin plasma screens showing our latest surreally artistic adverts for bottled beer or aftershave to wowed clients.
Personally I have to say that it was the salary that caught my eye -- oh, of course it was. This is the kind of job you do when it finally sinks in that you aren't bright enough or sufficiently driven to go into the front line of the Law or finance and mint it, but you do want to earn some decent money. Anyway, it's like my dad said: "Everyone has to sell to someone." Good, eh? I think he read it in a book.
In our office, on the second floor, Sloaney girls mix with young lads from the North who are still attached to their mum's apron strings via a pay phone in the draughty hall of their bedsit block and a saver return ticket on a Friday night from Euston or King's Cross.
There are twenty or so of us non-clock-watching, self-starters on the phone eight hours day, flogging 3cm-high spaces in a national newspaper's classified pages to people renting out holiday apartments or promising to improve your memory in six weeks or your money back -- provided you can remember when you started the course.
There is an older guy (someone told me he was a disillusioned teacher -- as if teachers were ever anything else) who started last week. Apparently he was once on Countdown. He is so enthusiastic that he still shouts "Sale!" when he persuades someone to sign on the dotted line as we were all instructed to do on the training course.
"Wanker," I mutter, just loud enough for him to hear. He turns round and I smile sweetly. What's he going to do about it? Put me in detention?
Copyright © 2002 by Simon Brooke