If there is a vacuum, fill it with your imagination.
By Ian Douglas Robertson
“Hello! The Old Forge. How can I help you? …Lord Hamforth! How nice to hear your voice. How have you…and Lady Hamforth… been since last year? …That’s very good to hear… Same time? … Yes, number thirty-two. By the window overlooking Arle Street… I’ll have it set for two as usual … Yes, I’ll inform Jean-Claude. He’ll be delighted …Rimauresq Cru Classé? … I’m sure we have some in the cellars. If not, I’ll have a case delivered. 2015? … Yes, it was a very good year.” Clive laughs politely. “Quite right! Every year in Provence is good. Well, we look forward to seeing you… both. Goodbye for now.” Clive puts down the receiver and writes Lord Hamforth (for two) 7.30 in the ledger on the mahogany table.
Jenny enters with an armful of immaculately ironed and folded table cloths.
“What are you brooding about?” she says, with a slight arching of the eyebrows.
“It was Lord Hamforth. He rang to confirm the booking for their wedding anniversary.”
“It’s the 25th already. For two as usual?”
Clive continues to stare pensively at the ledger. “A bit sad, really, don’t you think?”
“The way he sits there chatting away ten to the dozen. She couldn’t get a word in edgeways, even if she tried.”
“I think it’s very romantic.”
“If you say so. I wonder what he talks about.”
“Their holidays in Provence, no doubt.”
“What’s the point of talking to someone when they don’t reply?”
“I’m sure he knows what the answers will be.”
“Why on earth should he?”
“After you’ve lived with someone for so many years, you can virtually predict what they’re going to say.”
“How tedious? Do you always know what I’m going to say?”
“More or less,” she says.
“Why bother talking then?”
“It’s called communication, my dear… Not that you’d know much about that,” she appends.
“I feel rather guilty, not to say a little ridiculous, colluding in this pretence.”
“Why? As long as it makes him happy.”
“Is life just one big sham then?”
“Sorry, darling, much as I’d love to discuss the meaning of life with you, we’re rather busy at the moment. Can I leave Lord Hamforth in your hands then? Don’t do anything silly now, will you?”
“Jenny, how long have you known me?”
“And have I ever made a hash of things?”
“Not often. But you find Lord Hamforth’s wedding anniversary somewhat unnerving.”
“Well, don’t you?”
“I suspect it’s the highlight of his life.”
“But it’s just a charade.”
“And we are merely the players.”
Recognizing the reference, Clive sculpts a half-smile.
He places the pen back on its stand. “No time like the present,” he mutters and heads towards the kitchen.
“Clive is unsure whether his lordship is trying to be funny or not, so he chuckles ambiguously.”
He hesitates for a moment in front of the swing door before entering the sanctum sanctorum of the Old Forge. Jean Claude is belligerently territorial about his kitchen.
The place is abuzz, sous chefs and assistants dashing hither and thither, recklessly carrying sizzling saucepans and flaming frying pans. Clive tiptoes between the stainless steel benches, dodging personnel seemingly unaware of his presence.
Jean Claude is busy working on a creation, his brow creased and slightly moist with concentration.
“Bonjour, Jean Claude, ça va?”
Jean Claude does not answer.
“It’s Lord Hamforth’s wedding anniversary. Thought I’d better remind you. Bouillabaisse for starters, followed by Daube with polenta for him and ravioli for her.”
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la mȇme chose,” says Jean Claude dryly.
Clive isn’t quite sure what Jean Claude is getting at. Is he making some profound philosophical statement? Or doubting the worth of his profession?
Watching him bent over the bench, a look of manic intensity in his eyes, Clive envisages Jean Claude as a medieval alchemist on a quest to discover the elixir of life.
“So, can I leave it up to you then? 7.30.”
Jean Claude throws a fractious glance in Clive’s direction.
Just as Clive is about to turn, Jean Claude straightens up with an audible creaking of his spine. “It’s a terrible waste of haute cuisine,” he mumbles.
“Not at all,” says Clive, though he secretly agrees.
“I burst my kidneys to make a creation pour épater le monde only for it to be left on the plate.”
“The customer is always right. You know that, Jean Claude.”
“Oh, you and your customers!”
Clive smiles. Jean Claude has a somewhat deprecating view of the customer. “Comme jeter des perles aux pourceaux,” he once uttered in a fit of rage.
“Has Lord Hamforth ever complained? He has nothing but praise for your culinary skills. What more do you want?”
“Someone to eat my food.”
“You can’t have everything.”
Stefan is laying the starched tablecloths Jenny brought up from the laundry room.
“Stefan, a word.”
“Yes, Mr. Clive.”
Why does he insist on calling me, Mr. Clive? Mr. Montford or just plain Clive would do.
“Lord Hamforth’s wedding anniversary. Table 32 as usual. You remember the drill, I presume.”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Clive. He will be with his wife, no doubt.”
Clive does a double-take but instantly regains his composure. “Yes, absolutely.”
“Lady Hamforth will taste the wine first. Right, Mr. Clive?”
“Right, Stefan. And you will wait an appropriate length of time for her to express her opinion before half-filling the glass.”
“Of course, Sir.”
“Now, everything must go swimmingly.”
“Seamlessly,” Clive clarifies, immediately realizing that Stefan probably doesn’t know that word either.
“Please remind me, Mr. Clive. How should I address her?”
“Your ladyship, Stefan.”
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“Yes, of course.”
“And how many times should I ask her if she is enjoying her meal?”
“Once is sufficient. Well, maybe twice, just to be on the safe side.”
“And don’t forget to comment on how beautiful she is looking. That always goes down well with his lordship.”
“Of course, Sir. How wonderfully beautiful you are looking tonight, your ladyship!” says Stefan woodenly.
It is seven o’clock. Tension is mounting.
Clive is aware of feeling edgy as if he is about to perform in a play that has been inadequately rehearsed. He dreads the thought that he may have to improvise.
Through the front window, Clive recognizes Lord Hamforth’s Mercedes as it pulls up outside. Bob Rollins, the liveried chauffeur, gets out to open the back door for Lady Hamforth to get out. Allowing some time for this to happen, he then goes around to the other side and opens the door for his lordship.
Watching them mount the steps to the entrance, Clive can’t help noticing how happy Lord Hamforth looks, his long white hair shining silver in the subdued evening light, his back as straight as a rod. Clive rushes to open the front door. “Good evening and welcome!”
Lord Hamforth waits for his wife to enter and follows closely behind.
“You are looking splendid tonight, both of you!” says Clive gushingly. “And may I say her ladyship is looking especially stunning.”
“Yes, she is, isn’t she? It’s our fiftieth wedding anniversary, you see, Clive. Very special. Do you like the gold necklace I bought her?”
“Magnificent! Magnificent!” says Clive, making a show of admiring the opulent piece of jewellery. “Well, we shall have to make this a night to remember, won’t we?”
“Indeed we will. Thank you, Clive. You are always so willing to please.”
“Just doing my job, your lordship.”
“No, I would not hesitate to say that you go beyond the bounds of duty. And I want you to know that her ladyship and I greatly appreciate it.”
Clive ushers them to their table, pulling back her ladyship’s chair to allow her to sit.
“May I get you and her ladyship an aperitif?”
“As long as it’s from Provence.”
“Of course, your lordship!”
“What do you say, my dear? Shall we be devils?” Lord Hamforth looks across the table expectantly and waits patiently for a response. “I think it’s a yea, Clive. What do you recommend?”
“May I suggest the RinQuinQuin, a delicate flavour of peaches and peach leaves? I think it’s just up to her ladyship’s street.”
“Her cup of tea, you might say.”
Clive is unsure whether his lordship is trying to be funny or not, so he chuckles ambiguously. “Stefan will be here shortly to take your order, your lordship.”
As Clive withdraws, he hears Lord Hamforth strike up an ardent conversation, if it can be called that, with Lady Hamforth.
Stefan arrives with the bottle of Rimauresq Cru Classé. “Good evening, your lordship,” he says, and then turning in Lady Hamforth’s direction, adds, “I must say you are looking wonderfully beautiful tonight, your ladyship.”
Lord Hamforth beams with delight and pride. “I told her so myself, but she is so modest, Stefan. I am so glad someone else appreciates her beauty.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that, your lordship. We shall miss you.”
Stefan is slightly stuck for words, so he holds out the bottle of Rimauresq Cru Classé, “Slightly cooled, isn’t that right, your lordships?”
“Perfect, Stefan. Exactly as her ladyship likes it.”
Stefan uncorks the bottle and pours a small amount of the pinkish wine into her glass. He waits patiently, as he has been told, eyes expectantly wide in anticipation of her approval. He counts the seconds, but before the time is up, his lordship intervenes. “I think she likes it, Stefan. Thank you.”
Stefan breathes a sigh of relief and half-fills her glass. He then goes to the other side of the table and fills his lordship’s glass.
As Stefan places the bottle in a cooler on an adjacent table, he hears Lord Hamforth say, “Here’s to us, my dear!”
Ten minutes later, Stefan brings the bouillabaisse and serves it into two bowls.
“Bouillabaisse. We first had it on our honeymoon, Stefan. It’s been a favourite of ours ever since.”
When it looks as if they have had enough soup, Stefan removes the plates. “It was to your satisfaction, I hope, Sir, and your ladyship.”
“Oh, most definitely, Stefan. My wife wishes to send her compliments to Jean Claude.”
“Most certainly, your lordship. I know he will be very pleased.”
Stefan brings two plates of Daube, with ravioli for her and polenta for him.
“Oh, the aroma,” exclaims Lord Hamforth ecstatically, breathing in deeply and allowing his eyes to half-close for a fraction of a second. “It brings us right back to Toulon, does not it, my dear? You remember that little bistro just off the quays? Now, eat up, dearest. We don’t want Jean Claude to think we’re not appreciative of his culinary brilliance.”
Stefan pours a few more drops into Lady Hamforth’s glass. “Are you enjoying your meal, your ladyship?”
“Oh, indeed she is, Stefan. Thank you for asking. We could very well be in Aix itself, the Mediterranean air wafting in through the open door.”
Stefan quietly sniffs the air, but all he can discern is a slightly unpleasant odour of boiled fish, which has somehow escaped from the kitchen.
When he is aware that they are nearly finished, Clive approaches their table. “I hope you and her ladyship enjoyed the meal, Lord Hamforth.”
“Thank you, Clive. It was exquisite, was it not, my dear? Jean Claude has really excelled himself tonight.”
“He will be elated, I’m sure.”
“Now, would you be so kind as to get us our coats, Clive?”
“What? You are leaving so soon, your lordship. Won’t you stay for dessert? You must try Jean Claude’s latest creation.”
“Thank you, Clive, but I think not. Her ladyship is rather tired. She has been very silent tonight.”
Clive brings Lord Hamforth’s coat and helps him on with it.
As they approach the door, Lord Hamforth turns. “I wish to thank you for everything you’ve done for us. But we won’t be coming back next year. Her ladyship and I have agreed that enough is enough.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that, your lordship. We shall miss you.”
“Yes, indeed. And here is a small token of our appreciation.” Lord Hamforth discreetly thrusts a wad of notes into Clive’s hand. “It’s for all the staff, you understand.”
“Oh, yes, of course, your lordship.”
“Well, you’ll have to get over it quickly. We’re drowning in here.”
Clive suddenly feels awkward. He is going to have to improvise. “Well, it was a pleasure indeed to have you both. Good night, your Lordship.” Then, turning and bowing gracelessly, he adds, “And a very good night to you too, your ladyship.”
Clive stands and watches as they descend the steps to the waiting car. Bob is in attendance with the back door already open. He withdraws to allow her ladyship to get in but is visibly taken aback when his Lordship gets in instead.
Clive can just hear Lord Hamforth’s voice through the open door. “It’s all right, Bob. Her ladyship won’t be joining us again.”
Clive watches as the shiny Mercedes moves off into the night with a marked air of finality.
A wave of melancholy sweeps over Clive.
“Did it go all right?” says Jenny anxiously, sticking her head into the hall.
“Well, what are you looking so glum about? You look as if someone’s just died.”
“Who, for goodness sake?”
“Her ladyship? She’s been dead for eight years.”
“That’s what you think.”
“Well, you’ll have to get over it quickly. We’re drowning in here.” Jenny turns and hastily re-enters the dining room.
Like a tourist on a foreign beach, Clive stands in the hall, looking in at the sea of faces. He allows the waves of chatter and laughter to wash over him for a few moments before taking the plunge.
As he moves towards the dining-room door, he recites to himself, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their entrances and their exits and one man in his time….”
Ian Douglas Robertson is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and has lived much of his life in Greece, where he works as a teacher, actor, translator and writer. He recently co-authored Larger Than Life (Karnac London) and Before You Let the Sun in (Sphinx) came out in May 2018. In Search of a Father’s Footsteps and other dramatherapy stories, his latest book will be published in August 2021.