|Vast: A Novel
Ch. XI: The Belvedere
by Nicolas Travers ©
The Belvedere must be one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world, carved from the remains of an ancient country house in the middle of Holland Park, isolated by a belt of gardens from Kensington's urban confusion.
Karim and his Bat Group guests arrive in a stretched white Mercedes of simply enormous proportions that has swallowed the Sultan's man, Twister, Batten, Colin, Valerie Sweetdreams, Wendy and Nat's secretary Sheena - swept in by Nat as a last minute consolation - behind darkened one-way windows in deep cushioned comfort. Karim is important in front, next to a uniformed chauffeur, talking purposefully in a low voice to a satellite telephone. The Bat Group team sit behind him, isolated by a sound-proof partition, in a double row, Twister and Bat with their secretaries on one bench seat, Colin matched with Valerie at the back.
The editor of Life Beautiful is less than happy as the Mercedes purrs into the Holland Park carpark. "I'm not going to sit next to that man." She keeps her voice down, and her mouth close to Colin's ear, because she fears the Mercedes may be bugged, with Karim close to a loudspeaker.
Colin feigns not to hear. He is not sure he wants any part in Valerie's problem, but the touch of her hair against his cheek is quite entrancing, and she wears a crisp cream silk trenchcoat over her brown silk shirtdress that is seriously tempting him to daydream.
"He's a footsie man, I know it." Valerie sheds a sandal and strokes a toe against Colin's calf to make her point. "He's probably a groper as well."
Colin waits expectantly, but Valerie apparently considers this to be sufficient illustration. "I want you on one side of me, and Tim on the other." Her tone is decisive. "We'll probably get that man facing us, but with luck he'll have Wendy on one side of him and Sheena on the other, so he'll have plenty to keep his hands busy." She pauses for thought. "And I also want you to keep your legs well stretched out, and hack at anyone coming my way."
Colin feels that this is rather a lot to ask, and hesitates. "But I can't kick him, it'd be more than my life's worth."
"Oh, but you can, darling." Valerie lowers her voice to a whisper, and her lips brush Colin's ear lobe. "We're both on the same side."
The Mercedes stop at this point, booting Colin's mounting hopes into cold storage. Karim skips out to stand gleaming at his guests, and leads the way into the Belvedere and up a flight of stairs to a restaurant looking out over a garden filled with rosebushes bright with blooms. The restaurant is busy with smart people lunching expensively, and a small host of eyes watch curiously as deferential waiters pull chairs back from a large table with a nice sense of priorities. Karim tries to jockey into position next to Valerie, but she already has one hand hooked into a reluctant Twister elbow, and the other firm on Colin's arm.
"No, no." Karim looks a little irritated at this initiative. "I like you to sit next to me, with Colin also next to me, so I am between journalists."
"No, no." Valerie is sweetness itself. "I think you should have two pretty girls on either side of you." She smiles at Wendy and Nat Batten's secretary, who both look demure, but hover a little way behind Karim, waiting for their lords and masters to decide. Twister and Batten seem a little bemused.
"Tim, you can sit here." Valerie pats a chair, taking command of the situation. "Nat, you go there." She waves directively. "Then we'll all be facing Karim, so he can fire lots of questions at us."
The Sultan's man frowns, and Tim Twister seems most unhappy to have Wendy exposed to temptation, but Valerie is in control, and hovering waiters patently want them seated, and so they settle a little stiffly into place. But Karim soon regains his good spirits - possibly, Twister suspects, because he keeps his left hand well out of sight, and because Wendy has the look of a girl with great expectations - and food arrives, and wine starts to flow, and the lunch suffuses with well-fed cheerfulness, though Karim confines himself, on religious grounds, to fresh orange juice.
Colin eats, and drinks, and keeps a cautious leg stretched in front of him, and once, but only once, a questing shoe probes against it, and Karim looks hopeful. But Colin stages an exclamation of surprise, and the questing shoe retreats immediately.
Karim talks a great deal, and laughs a great deal, and is altogether most charming: patently measuring Batten and Twister, building links with Colin and Valerie, and very probably essaying some low-level physical probing into the bargain, for sometimes his left hand vanishes from view, and Wendy looks mightily pleased with herself, whilst at other times his right hand is gone, and Batten's secretary looks a little irritated, and appears to make brushing movements under the table, as though pushing something unwanted away.
First course plates disappear, and Colin looks around. Belvedere customers seem to mix a nice degree of prosperity and fashion: some lunchers are middle-aged and look rich, some are rather younger and smart in a casual way born of generous budgets and chic boutiques. Waiters return with main courses, and Valerie admires the way the Belvedere's kitchen has set out her grilled salmon, while Twister attempts to convince Karim that Britain knows best in the final months of colonial rule in Hongkong, and Batten tries to restrain his secretary from doing something bad-tempered, when Colin starts.
A group of new arrivals is making its way towards a large table in a privileged position next to a window: a tall, slim blonde girl in the lead, followed by two older women, one tall and silver-haired - probably the girl's mother, the second redhaired and rather smaller, and two men. Colin stares at the second man, tall and very like the girl, possibly her father. He knows the man's face, and he is sure that he has seen him very recently, but he cannot for the life of him remember where or how or why.
The man scans the restaurant for a moment as he prepares to sit down, and looks at Colin idly, then frowns as though caught in the same trap of recognition, and Colin is dumbfounded. He swallows hard, and looks away in embarrassment: the Belvedere is really the last place in the world where he expects to find his tattooed Saturday car boot saviour. But the man is the same, no doubt about it, though now elegant in a white linen shirt and white slacks, for Colin takes a second look, though rather more discreetly this time, and recognition is sure.
The tattooed man smiles faintly, acknowledging acquaintance, and then loses himself in conversation with his companions. Colin feels a nudge in his side.
"Who's that?" Valerie Sweetdreams has finished her fish and feels ready to take an interest in the world around her. The man in white is dishy and looks prosperous, and Karim - for reasons best known to himself - seems to value Colin much more highly than Batten or Twister. She is consequently intrigued, and wonders whether a colleague, for so long relatively insignificant in Sweetdreams rankings, might now prove a rising star in camouflage.
Colin beams. He is eating steak, very rare, with a freshly filled glass of good claret, and life is generally brilliant. "He did me a good turn yesterday."
"Nice friend." Valerie purrs as a waiter tops up her glass. She is drinking rather a nice Sancerre, and glows internally. Karim has just sent a waiter off for fresh bottles, and it is both plain that he plans to drown the Bat Group team in attractive alcohol, and plainly a time for friends to carouse just a little.
"I could do with a few more." Colin rolls his eyes. He can sense Valerie emitting a new warmth, and the claret makes him bold. "I need some charm in my life. Something dishy, preferably silky."
He looks at Valerie hopefully. The Belvedere's claret is really very fine, possessed of quite magic powers for loosening tongues.
Valerie Sweetdreams giggles, and rests her fork on her plate to pat his hand. "Colin." Her tone is a mix of reproach and flirtation, and her eyes are bright with challenge. "I think you're being forward."
Colin holds on to her fingers. "Hope fills my heart."
Valerie's fingers deftly extricate themselves. But she smiles, and Colin smiles as well, because the exchange paves a way forward to promise.
However Karim scowls at this little display of comradeship, for it runs quite counter to a plan resting at the back of his mind. He still entertains hopes of luring Valerie into bed, possibly teamed with Wendy, and the prospect of having to make do with a second choice is a little galling.
Twister also observes, and observation pains him nearly as much. He has tried sweettalking Valerie many many times, but never progressed beyond friendly kisses. He has also noted Wendy's growing self-satisfaction, suspects that his secretary may be contemplating a new allegiance, and wishes that she might display some of Sheena's evident virtue.
But Nat Batten helps himself to another glass of claret, and beams. He knows the value of loyalty, and Sheena is plainly loyal.
Valerie realises that the table has fallen silent, and casts about for a quip capable of sheltering her cosy tete-a-tete. Her Sancerre has made her quite gay, and she decides to provoke.
She pats Colin's hand again, and this time leaves her fingers resting on his. "Colin and I are planning company cars. Big shiny ones."
Batten and Twister both gulp.
"With nice little shiny ones for secretaries." She winks joyously at Wendy and Sheena.
Karim frowns, and wonders if too much wine has become threatening.
Valerie raises her glass high. "And we shall all be rich when Karim takes us over."
The wine waiter returns, and Karim motions him quickly to refill glasses. It is time for drastic action. He must make do with Wendy, and render everyone else tight as fast as possible.
Journalists relish challenges, and Valerie and Colin drink with a will. Valerie leans close to Colin, and learns of his plans to pave a political pathway, and decides to foster much closer links. She is a smart girl, and can scent a gathering wind of success.
She also suddenly realises, with the deep instinctive perception that flows best from a leisurely meal and a good bottle, that she secretly has rather a soft spot for wimps with hidden talents.
Desserts arrive, small caramel baskets filled with strawberries and covered with cream, and coffee, and large brandies, and Karim signs a slip, and the lunch breaks up in a flurry of well-nourished plenty.
Karim's stretched Mercedes waits in the carpark. But Valerie holds Colin back as the Sultan's man leads the way towards its well-polished gleam.
"We can walk." Her voice suggests much more interesting pleasures. "My flat's just up the other side of Holland Park underground. You can catch a train from there to Waterloo."
Colin's heart lifts. But then he remembers that he is expected at Beaconsfield, and feels a small sharp blade of depression.
Valerie notes this flash of gloom, and is immediately sympathetic. "What's the matter?"
"Family Sunday." Colin makes his words sound like a gateway to hell. "My wife's gone to her parents at Beaconsfield. They're expecting me."
Valerie is not to be deterred. She smiles conspiratorially. "You can pop in for a cup of coffee, then catch a train from Ladbroke Grove. They'll never know."
Karim has now shepherded the rest of his little flock into the car and is growing impatient. But Valerie holds back and flashes him a most dazzling smile.
"Colin's going to walk me up through the park to Holland Park underground."
Karim stares at her, his mouth open, obviously more than a little taken aback, and shakes his head insistently. "No, no, I will take you there, it's no problem." He speaks urgently - he still nurses hopes on the Valerie front, and is not a man willingly to accept defeat.
But Valerie has retreated, and is now safely out of reach. "No, no, the fresh air will sober us up." Her voice is almost mocking.
Karim stares hopefully at Colin, who shrugs deprecatingly, a mere spectator. The Sultan's man digests this impasse for a moment, and then shrugs in his turn, but with rather a grumpy expression on his face. However it is plain that he is defeated, and after a moment he gets into the Mercedes, and the huge car purrs gently away.
The afternoon is now warm, and the sky pure unclouded blue. Valerie and Colin stroll through Holland Park, and find that they are holding hands, and smile at each other in the warm, well-fed and well-watered, euphoria that comes with successful truancy and matchless expectations.
They divert for a moment to explore the Japanese garden, but it takes time that might better be devoted to other explorations, and they move on impatiently.
Valerie lives in a large Victorian house, subdivided into flats, just beyond the park. It is suitably elegant, with an exterior fresh in cream paint, and a large gilt-framed mirror on the wall of the ground floor hallway. They pause to admire themselves, Colin standing close behind her, and he can feel his hope fleshing into an embarrassing bulge, and now he is very impatient indeed.
Valerie half turns to look up at him as they stand together, and lurches against him with her movement, and giggles at the contact.
"Oh, my." Her voice trills with a surprised and delighted exclamation of acknowledgement, and she rests against Colin, and presses on him, and suddenly they are kissing, and Colin is holding her against him with his hands under her armpits, and now they are both on fire.
"No, no, not here." Valerie struggles free after a long heated moment. "We don't want the neighbours watching." She fumbles in her purse and takes out a key as Colin stands pressing his legs together in his expectant frustration, and unlocks a door, and he follows her up a flight of stairs to a landing and helps her struggle out of her coat, and they embrace again, but this time with more abandon, secure in their privacy and concealment.
Then she breaks away to take a breath and backs towards a door that opens onto a large comfortably furnished room with tall windows, a huge mirror over a marble fireplace, and a couple of large armchairs and a sofa square around a low coffeetable. She is drawing Colin with her, holding both his hands, when suddenly she lets go, and stops dead.
A man in a dark suit is sitting on the sofa reading a Sunday Times colour supplement. He looks up at them, and smiles quizzically, but his pale blue eyes hold no welcome.
Valerie steps back against Colin, and he feels her shiver. Her warmth and fire have gone, and now she is tense.
"What the bloody hell are you doing here?" She stutters her words, sounding almost speechless with anger.
"Had to come to town, need to iron out some details." The man's voice is hard and clipped, and his smile does not falter. He seems to find the confrontation highly amusing. "Why don't you introduce us?"
Colin is lost, totally bewildered, uncertain whether to look fierce, or flee. Valerie is still quivering, seemingly on the verge of an explosion, and for a moment the three of them are frozen in a tableau vivant of expectation. Then he feels Valerie take a deep breath, and her hands grip his.
"Colin, this is my husband, Ralph. Ralph and I are separated, we're getting a divorce, but he still has a key."
The man nods affably. "I live out in the country, but I've got a kind heart: I still pay part of her mortgage, until our decree nisi comes through." He inspects Colin quizzically. "Who are you? Her new Sunday afternoon stud?" His tone suggests that he does not rate Colin very highly.
"Colin works with me, we've been to a business lunch at the Belvedere." Valerie's voice is less confident now, shifting towards defence and uncertainty.
"So you thought you'd both come back here for a ... nap?" Now the hard voice is openly mocking.
"Oh, Christ." Valerie spits the two words out. But she is plainly giving ground.
The man shrugs. "You can park him in the bedroom, if you like, we shouldn't take long: just a couple of bits of paper."
"Oh, bloody hell." It is a surrender. Valerie turns to look up at Colin. "I'm sorry, I really am."
Colin sighs, all his ardour totally deflated. He feels foolish, and shamed, and wants only to escape. His magic day has turned to dust and ashes in his mouth.
"Take him onto the landing, less embarrassing." The hard voice hammers home its advantage.
Valerie pushes at Colin gently, making him back out of the room, and catches at his arm as he starts to descend the stairs.
"I'll cook you a meal, some evening when he's out of the country - he travels abroad quite lot." Two small rivulets of tears, darkened with mascara, now stain her cheeks.
Colin nods wordlessly. He can think of nothing but flight.
A hand touches his cheek. "You will come?"
"I must go." He knows as he answers that he is being a coward, but it is the only thing he can think of saying.
"Remember me in Beaconsfield."
Colin swallows hard, and lurches blindly down the stairs. His big game has dealt him a disaster hand, and cleaned him out, and now he must face an angry wife, and lie in his teeth, and all his omens presage bleak, bleak misery. Gourmandise may be a potent support for lechery, but hangovers do nothing but hurt.
To Be Continued...
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