Keenly anticipating the indulgences ahead, not least the Squash and Spinach Rotolo, Woodrow turns into Meredith’s street. He imagines stooping to kiss her, her face flushing as she asks how his day has been.
“Well,” he’ll say, “picture me at 6.30 am in a rain-sodden gutter, cradling a lifeless body, thinking – as disasters go, this one is at least manageable.”
Then he’ll tell her how his phone spent its last night on earth in an icy puddle outside a restaurant. And how, briefly, it appeared to be returning to life.
“But of course the colours started bleeding, like a sponge caressing the drizzles of a nouvelle cuisine dish.”
Woodrow closes the car door with some satisfaction, commending himself on that image. That will impress Meredith! He’s decided that this freezing February night will be forever significant as he’s moving their relationship to the next level.
And he’s leaving nothing to chance.
That’s why he stopped by The Rocket Plant last night. Booking the corner table by the window was easy. His directions for background music, Chopin or Satie, were more contentious. But the manager understood when he explained that he’d be sharing the evening with someone special.
“Ah…. if music be the food of love –”
“Rave on!” Woodrow interjected.
The manager was pricklier on the subject of specials, but Woodrow stuck to his guns knowing he held two trump cards: his indisputable knowledge of cuisine and his value as a high-spending customer.
“Firstly, I can’t stand salmon,” he said. “I wouldn’t even want her ordering that! And secondly, you can’t only offer two fish specials! You’ll have pescatarians picketing outside!”
“Vegetarians!” the Maitre D’ snorted.
Woodrow requested the Rotolo, which on a previous visit had been a revelation. “That night, guys, you taught me the genius of salty feta riffing off butternut squash!”
Yes, it was just as well he’d visited the restaurant, even if he had managed to drop his phone outside.
Woodrow approaches a Victorian property converted into flats. He scans the names alongside the buzzers. Meredith! Just seeing it in her handwriting produces internal flutters and a soaring of his spirits. He has never dated anyone quite like Meredith, anyone so confident; so eloquent on so many topics. Robespierre, the sixties, the feeding habits of sloths – what can’t this girl hold forth on at the age of 28?
Pressing the button produces a satisfying purr. He wonders if she’ll be wearing those jeans again; so tight-fitting, she might have just been skinny-dipping in a sea of ink. He takes two slow breaths to steady himself. Last week they’d seen Mamma Mia. Keen to establish his cultural credentials, the musical was his suggestion. The evening had been entirely platonic, but her ready agreement to meet again was enough to fuel a few spicy fantasies.
“About time!” Meredith’s voice snaps from a small speaker.
“I’m actually one minute early!”
Woodrow waits to be buzzed in. Instead the door opens and Meredith’s eyes flash at him accusingly.
“What’s going on?” – her breath is steaming as she speaks. “We’re now ridiculously late!”
“Hold on…” he begins. She’s decked out in something that looks like it was last worn by Emmeline Pankhurst. “I could ask you the same –”
“Where’s your car?” she interrupts.
Woodrow is astounded. The restaurant isn’t booked for an hour. They even have time for an aperitif. He unlocks his BMW.
“And why have you been ignoring me all day?”
Realisation dawns. “My phone died last night. I had back-to-back meetings from 7.30am.”
“For frick’s sake,” Meredith says, climbing into the passenger seat. “There’s a change of plan. We’re going to the Lea Valley.”
A mad dash to East London follows. Meredith explains that she’d forgotten her best friend Grant’s thirtieth. She’s been leaving messages all day saying he must arrive earlier.
“Cancel the restaurant then – here’s their card.”
Yes, Penny’s gone to enormous trouble, she says, dialing – and, no worries, her friends are all gorgeously friendly.
“Who’s Penny?” Woodrow scowls at a Give Way sign.
“Grant’s partner!” – spoken as if to an idiot. “She said to bring you along.”
With instructions to abandon the Sat Nav’s route reverberating round the car, Woodrow is concerned by developments. He thinks back to an argument earlier on with a CEO regarding a damaging story that was breaking. He normally relished such spats – surfing the swell of adrenaline and stress. Today he was distracted by thoughts of the evening ahead: the luscious food, the growing rapport, the flirtatious touching…
“Park the bloody car, anywhere you can.”
They get out and Meredith is marching ahead, constrained only by her matronly skirt. Then she stops, turns, pulls his head down and kisses him almost aggressively on the lips.
“Thanks for being so understanding! Good things come to those who wait…”
She leads him down to the canal, all the while speaking on her phone.
“Yes, a bridge, trees – and a bloody great gasworks!”
Receiving further instructions, she scurries along the tow-path followed by Woodrow who calls, “Where are we heading?” She doesn’t respond. When a man in an Edwardian suit waves flamboyantly from the deck of a canal boat, it’s clear that the situation is complex.
“Is this a fancy dress party?” he ventures, as the boat manoeuvres towards the bank.
“It’s themed – you’d know had you picked up my messages.”
Woodrow mumbles an Anglo-Saxon expletive. The Edwardian gentleman narrows his eyes as he regards Woodrow’s burnt-orange Ted Baker fleece.
“I see you’ve adopted a fairly wide interpretation of Titanic fashion,” he says, dryly.
Woodrow elongates his lips into something resembling a smile.
“Meet Grant!” Meredith says.
“Welcome aboard the unsinkable liner!” He’s pulling them both firmly – the boat rocks as Woodrow plants his foot on deck. “Although, you may not actually fit inside. How tall are you?”
“Six foot eight,” Woodrow says as he scrapes the top of his head on a door frame. Wincing, he descends into a tiny room. Three faces look up expectantly from a table laid lavishly for dinner. What a nightmare. Woodrow tenderly touches his head. Behind the table is an unlikely smorgasbord of images: passengers boarding the fated ship, Kate Winslet – arms joyously outstretched, stiff family groupings, the ruined hulk on the sea-bed. Piano music tinkles from an unmanned keyboard, as if the pianist has abandoned her post, leaving only a spirit behind.
“I’m Woodrow,” Woodrow says, shaking the hand of a sea admiral.
“Yuk!” – the man springs up. “You’ve put blood on me! – you’d better not have AIDS.”
Woodrow is passed kitchen towel while Grant explains the set-up.
“So, we’re all people from the Titanic – actual people. That’s Captain Smith in the toilet, washing your blood away. Who did you go for, Merry?”
“Annie Clemmer-Funk at your service. I’m besotted by that name!”
“I just discovered the theme so I don’t have a character,” Woodrow says.
“You can be my husband’s personal valet,” a commanding lady says.
“That’s Penny,” Meredith whispers.
“Time-travelling valet,” the Captain scoffs, sitting back down.
Woodrow doesn’t wish to be anyone’s valet, least of all Grant’s. But to dissent would be inadvisable. He must keep in mind his aim of emerging unscathed from this hideous event. And then his prize awaits – Meredith, and a night of passion.
“What do you do, when you’re not boarding luxury liners?” a lady with a Marcel hair wave asks.
“I’m in PR – disaster management effectively,” Woodrow says, touching his head and discovering more spots of blood.
“Perfect,” says Penny. “Anyway, you’re our servant today. You’re allowed to sit down by the way.”
“Keep topping up my wine and don’t jabber,” Grant adds.
Fortunately for Woodrow, he’s wearing a white shirt under his fleece, so, from the waist upwards, he looks the part. Even better news is that the conversation has moved away from his clothes and his bleeding head.
The first class menu had ten courses that calamitous night, Penny explains. Obviously she couldn’t replicate everything.
“However,” holding aloft a tureen, “I’ve selected the highlights. Consommé Olga!”
“Mmmm – that clarity, that depth of colour!” Woodrow says, sniffing the broth. “Did you use beef or veal stock?”
“Impressive!” Grant says, and Meredith pinches his arm approvingly.
The soup is surprisingly delicate – a promising start. And the white wine is crisp and delivers a decent bouquet.
“A slight hitch,” the captain announces. “Not all our passengers have first class tickets. So, technically –”
“Fessing up!” the Marcel lady says. “Rhoda was in third. But she lost both sons so perhaps you’ll allow her? They jumped into the water together.”
“You know,” Penny says, “it’s fascinating what people did when they were really up against it. In Extremis. Colonel Astor here helped me to a lifeboat then gently asked if he might join me, saying, ‘My wife’s in a delicate condition.’ He was told, ‘Women and children only!’ So he stepped away and calmly met his death.”
“Annie was about to enter a lifeboat,” Meredith says, “but was pushed aside by a woman calling ‘my children, my children.’ She took the last place and Annie perished.”
“Your head’s still bleeding,” the Captain says to Woodrow. “Someone pass him another towel.”
Woodrow sips his soup while dabbing at his head. He is beginning to feel woozy, something not helped by drinking only wine and the constant talk of death.
“What do you do, Penny?” he asks.
“Lawyer – matrimonial,” she says flatly.
“Matrimonial, that’s… to do with… mothers, isn’t it?”
Laughter erupts around him.
“Classic!” Grant screams. The Captain can barely breathe for hooting.
“It’s divorce, cretin!” Meredith whispers into Woodrow’s ear. Mortified, she excuses herself.
“I worry about Merry,” Grant says. “I wonder if she’ll ever recover.”
Feeling increasingly reckless, Woodrow asks what the hell he’s talking about. Meredith has nothing wrong with her!
“You don’t know about Adam and the skiing accident?”
“Her fiancée? Less than a year ago?”
“And Meredith’s only true love.”
“She’s struggling to cope with that tragedy.”
“And ends up taking all sorts of risks with people like you…” Grant’s sentence tapers as Meredith returns.
“We’ve got a few minutes,” Penny announces. “Let the dancing commence!”
“It just gets better,” Woodrow mutters as the three couples rise. Penny touches the keyboard and Ragtime music issues forth.
“There was, of course, no formal dancing in first class,” Grant points out.
“Titanorak of the night!” the Captain shrieks.
“The Castle Walk,” Penny calls. “Weight on the toes – one – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight, and….”
Meredith attempts to lead Woodrow around the cramped floor. “It’s basically walking!” she hisses.
Grant peers at Woodrow as he passes. “Oh look! – a daddy-long-legs playing basketball.”
“That’s fine,” Grant says, pulling away from Meredith. “I’ll sit this one out.”
“Don’t be like that,” Rhoda says.
“In any case,” Penny adds, “our main course is ready.”
“I can’t wait,” Grant says. “Best thirtieth ever!”
Penny and Rhoda carry in two serving platters.
“Right, potatoes. And Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce.”
“Salmon?” Woodrow says. “Is there a choice?”
“ It’s not à la carte!” Meredith says.
Woodrow, with his lifelong aversion to salmon, is now surrounded by five people eating salmon, the aroma of salmon, a conversation about salmon, and his own plateful of salmon. He attempts to down a few mouthfuls, glugging wine with each, thinking he might then last out the rest of the course eating potatoes. But waves of nausea are engulfing him and the boat feels like a see-saw.
“You never even bothered doing proper introductions!” Woodrow complains. “Not that you’d care but I don’t even know –”
Suddenly, his sickness crescendos and he dashes outside onto the deck.
When Grant catches him up a minute later, Woodrow is on his knees, vomiting copiously into the river.
“Good thinking – let the salmon be returned to its natural habitat,” Grant says, lighting a cigar.
Woodrow groans and emits a further stream of putrid liquid.
“The next course is Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly by the way. “It has a consistency exactly like –”
The sound of Woodrow heaving echoes off the far side of the bank.
“If you’re up for it, that is,” Grant continues.
“Sod off, Grant” – Woodrow manages and slowly stands.
“Listen Woody,” Grant’s arm wraps around him, “we all met at Durham and we’re like a family. And families, you’re either inside them or you’re not. Anyone who dates Merry, is effectively dating us lot too.”
“Cut the crap, Grant. What’s your point?”
“You’re wrong for Merry. And for us. Personally, I’d rather bunk up with Jimmy Savile.”
Woodrow looks down at the smug face puffing its cigar and, without properly weighing up the options, launches a massive punch in its direction. Grant dodges the blow and Woodrow, connecting only with the evening breeze, wobbles and teeters. Glancing over his shoulder he sees Grant, smiling, as he assists Woodrow over the edge.
And towards the water.
Freezing! Drowning! Swallowing lungfuls – bubbles of death rising. Body assault – a heart attack, yes, Woodrow succumbs – surely dead now – arse bouncing on the silty bed – so how did he feel that? –rising now, arms pumping, hands grasping – then, piercing the surface, Woodrow breathes.
And hears whooping.
Floundering on the water, he looks up. They’re all on deck.
“Nice one, Woody!”
“No one could accuse old Wooders of not taking the role-playing seriously.”
Woodrow swims, hauls himself on to the bank, rolls uselessly on the grass, then rises to his sopping feet. “You’re all a bunch of shits!” he shouts.
The passengers continue baying from the boat.
“You haven’t finished your salmon,” the Captain points out.
“Don’t bother calling,” Meredith concludes.
Covered in silt and slime, Woodrow can feel his jeans encasing his testicles, transforming them into two frozen peas. He continues his retreat, slinking along the tow-path as the howls of derision finally fade.
Okay. If he were his own client, what would the advice be now? Things didn’t go perfectly… There might be reputational damage. But resist the call to act immediately. No need to Tweet or change Instagram bio. A period of reflection and wound licking is in order.
He stands like a frozen kipper outside his car. Amazingly, the remote actually opens the door.
And there, lying on the passenger seat, is a burgundy purse. Meredith’s purse. Perfect. He’ll head straight back to the canal and give the bloody thing a watery grave.
No, do the honourable thing. Contact Meredith, tell her he’s found it. And she’ll have to meet him one more time. And then, who knows…?
The bitch can make an appointment to collect it from his PA.
Woodrow collapses heavily into the leather seat. He swills some water and spits it out the window. No longer nauseous, he removes a dark chocolate and sea-salt bar from the glove compartment, kept there for dire emergencies. Unwrapping it slowly, he surrenders to the silkiness of the cocoa and the sharpness of the crystals. Sighing, he starts the engine. Chocolate has rarely tasted this bitter and never this good.
James Woolf writes prose scripts and adverts. He has been published twice in Ambit magazine, both in 2017, and shortlisted for the Bridport short story prize, the Exeter short story prize and highly commended in the London short story prize. Various other stories have been published or short listed. Website: woolf.biz