She dressed with painstaking care because this evening he might propose. She hoped he would – had been hoping for some months now. So she was ready well before time, waiting by the window in her thin coat and re-heeled shoes, scanning the rain-swept road for his headlights. He drew up at one minute past seven and she ran to the door before he could ring the bell.
‘Hello, Raymond!’ She was breathless with excitement. Valentine’s Day, and she was actually going on a date. Alright, so she’d arranged it herself, but Raymond was so busy at work.
She stood, the hall light behind her, smiling, her face raised to his.
‘We’d better get a move on if you booked that table for half seven,’ he said, and walked away down the narrow path. After locking up, she hurried after him, the shrubs he brushed past flicking back and showering her with rain drops.
The Belvedere Hotel. She’d admired its Gothic opulence since she was a child and wondered what it was like inside. Tonight she would find out.
The waiter took their coats and led them to a dining room huge as a cavern, and as cold. Only two other couples were eating; their cutlery tinkled in the dusty silence.
‘Let’s skip starters and go straight to mains, shall we?’ Raymond seated himself and opened a menu the colour of blood.
He plumped for steak Diane and ordered a bottle of Tempranillo for himself, telling her she could drive back. She, trembling at the prices, chose chicken. There was a single white rose in a vase on their table. She looked at it affectionately and touched the petals before realising it was fake.
As Raymond ate, he informed her about his day: auditing, chiding errant secretaries, more auditing. He ate his food efficiently, scraping gravy onto his knife then licking it.
Towards the end of their main course, an elderly man approached selling real roses but Raymond flapped him away.
‘You didn’t want one, did you?’ he asked, after the man had shuffled off.
‘Goodness, no. You know me. Low maintenance.’ She laughed, placing her knife and fork neatly together on her plate then putting her hands in her lap.
‘Just because it’s Valentine’s Day they think they can swindle men. Well, not this one, no sir-ee.’ Raymond wiped sauce from his chin with the back of his hand. ‘I fancy some afters… I think I saw apple crumble on the menu.’
‘I’ll just have coffee, thanks. My diet’s going well, you know. I’ve lost nearly a stone since January – I couldn’t fit in this dress before.’ She smiled at him, pulling back her hair so he could see her neck and shoulders. ‘What do you think?’
He inserted a bony finger into his mouth, picked for a second, pulled out a grey morsel and ate it.
‘Well, I’m not on a diet,’ he said.
The crumble arrived and Raymond dispatched it in four spoonfuls, then spent several minutes scraping the bowl with his spoon until not a drop of custard remained. The sound was amplified by the vast room; waiters glanced at them with curled lips.
Finally, Raymond patted his stomach and belched. ‘That wasn’t bad grub.’
The meal was over and the night still young: this was it. Under the table, she dug her nails into her palms.
But they sat unspeaking, listening to one of the other couples arguing in whispers. After several minutes the pair got up abruptly and left, but Raymond still sprawled in his chair contemplating his empty pudding bowl. He began to hum a tune.
She dug her nails in harder, feeling the sting. ‘Raymond, I’ve been wondering… Whether, you know, whether you had any plans? For the future, I mean? We’ve been going out for nearly a year now, so I was thinking -‘
‘You know what my plans are. I’ve got to pass my accountancy exams.’
‘I mean after that… I was thinking about us.’
‘Well, I s’pose after my exams we’ll get married. Split the bill fifty-fifty as usual?’ A waiter was bearing down on them.
‘Yes, I’ve brought my cards… So – Raymond – does that mean… We’re engaged?’
He shrugged. ‘Looks that way. You can leave the tip – I haven’t got any change.’
She left arm in arm with him, under the blue neon lights of the hotel sign, walking on air.
The inspiration for the title and setting of this short piece came from this song, full of sadness and isolation.