It was one of those gigs where the music went straight from my eyes to my fingers with almost no intervention from my brain. Simple classical pieces and the occasional bit of mild, inoffensive jazz - nothing to capture the imagination, at least for the performer. To the elegantly dressed punters at the Paragon Club, SW1, it was merely a pleasant background tinkling sound to accompany their evenings.
The piano I was playing looked fabulously expensive, and in a sense it was. It was the body of a Steinway grand - well suited to the not-quite-ostentatious opulence of the Club's main room - and it still contained the original harp and strings, dampened with an old rug under the lid. The hammers and keys had been removed to make way for a rather cheap-feeling digital piano - and that was what I was actually playing. I considered this a grievous act of vandalism, as would any musician.
Most of the candle-lit tables scattered around the huge space were occupied by couples, of course, it being Valentine's Day. In the brief pauses between tunes I glanced around the place, around the people, and wondered what dreadful occupations paid them the money to eat here. There were no prices on the menu, but the portions I saw the stiff-backed waiters carry past my little stage were so small and delicately arranged that they must be expensive.
I played on, daydreaming.
There was a bebop/jazz guitarist in the early 20th Century named Charlie Christian, and according to legend he'd made the comment which was now part of musicians' culture: the thing we call Charlie's Law. It states that there are only three reasons you should agree to play a gig: you're being paid; you're having fun; or you're "learning your thing". I wasn't having fun and I certainly wasn't learning anything. In truth I was mainly doing the gig as a favour to a friend, but I was also being quite handsomely paid by the Club. A Rule One gig through-and-through.
My fingers stopped moving as I reached the end of a piece. It took me a moment to even notice. I decided I would play just a couple more before taking my first break. I shuffled through my music, selected a jazz standard that didn't especially bore me, and launched into it. I knew it well enough not to need the music, so I glanced discreetly around the room as I played. I didn't really need to be discreet - no one was paying me the slightest attention. I was as much a part of the furniture as the piano I was playing.
At the time I'd been single for three years, and hadn't had sex in almost eight months (seven months three weeks and two days, not that I was counting or anything). Consequently I viewed the smiling, loved-up, staring-into-each-others-eyes couples with equal measures of envy and contempt. I noticed one couple who were feeding each other ice-cream, giggling - sickening - and another who were clearly pleasuring one another under the table.
"Bastards, the lot of them..." I thought to myself, throwing in a blatantly discordant flattened fifth just to annoy anyone who was actually listening. No-one was.
Then I saw her, and the rest of the room seemed to fade and darken out of all relevance.
She was standing in the wide, grand doorway that led into the restaurant from the bar. She was tall, shapely, and wore a long black figure-hugging evening dress that reached almost to the floor. Her skin was the colour of coffee with a little too much cream; her auburn hair glowed in the candlelight like dry rust in the setting sun. Her eyes were dark and wide, and even from this distance they pulled at me like the gravity-well of some massive, distant star.
She was standing there alone. It was difficult to read her expression, but something about her stance said she was annoyed about something. A waiter went up to her and bowed so low that his mop of hair practically wiped the floor, then led her to a table set slightly apart from the rest, near to the tall windows which looked out onto the terrace and, beyond, to the glittering London skyline across the river. She was still, just, within my field of view.
She ordered wine - red - and sat there taking small sips from a large glass. She looked right at me a couple of times, but I still couldn't read her expression. Each time I tried to hold her gaze I found my fingers drifting and had to turn back to the music. I made up my mind to walk as close as possible to her table when I made for the staff areas, and see if I could make more meaningful eye-contact. I don't know why - her wedding ring was clearly visible. Sometimes I like to torture myself, I guess.
I never got the chance. Her husband - I assumed - arrived breathlessly at her table a few minutes later. She didn't stand or hug him, but greeted him with a thin mouth-only smile, and allowed him to kiss her cheek. He sat down opposite her, gesturing and talking quickly. His suit looked like it had cost more than my car, and the gold watch I saw glinting from one wrist had probably cost more than my house. He was clearly apologising for being late, and she was clearly having none of it - only regarding him with a cold, hard stare, still sipping at her wine.
It amused me to think that, no matter how much money you have, you still cannot escape the icy, heart-rending bite of a woman's deepest scorn.
I tried to put all thought of her out of my mind, and quickly reached the end of the last piece. I closed the old wooden lid over the new plastic keys and stood up. I took one last look at the auburn-haired woman and, to my shock and near-horror saw that her husband was sitting sideways on his chair, turned away from her and talking on his phone. A Valentine's meal with his stunningly beautiful wife, and he was taking a call. Her eyes looked like they should be boring holes into the side of his skull. I shook my head, disbelieving.
I realised that I had been standing there staring for some seconds just as a voice hissed into my ear: "Randall!"
I turned to find the head waiter's sneering, oily face very close to mine. "Stop fucking gawping and get your arse into the kitchen!" he snapped quietly. "Thirty minutes and you're back on."
I bristled but said nothing, and made for the staff areas. I felt the man's gaze on the back of my neck, and made a point of walking quite slowly.
Once through the double-swing doors the atmosphere changed dramatically. Soft lighting became harsh neon strips; plush wooden panels became bare, whitewashed brickwork; quiet, elegant charm became rough-and-ready chaos. I tried my best to stay out of the way, but soon had to make my way outside, to the tiny little patch of terrace that was allocated to the serfs.
I had, technically, quit smoking a few weeks earlier. Nonetheless I'd had a feeling this would be a stressful evening and there was an emergency pack in my jacket pocket. I ripped it open, lit up and inhaled, and sighed with relief as I breathed out a thin plume of smoke.
I was alone on the terrace - even the wide, multi-level area available to the Club's guests was deserted on this crisp February night.
I finished my cigarette and dropped the butt into a bucket of sand. I stood out there a moment longer, admiring the view over the river and the stars above, and delaying my return to the kitchen. Just as I was about to head back in, I heard a door open. Clipped footsteps came out onto the terrace.
Somehow I knew it would be her, and it was.
I saw her in profile, and slightly above me, as she came out onto the terrace and walked to the thick iron balustrade at the edge of the top-most level, about half a metre above where I stood, maybe three metres away.
Her figure was stunning - slender but not-too-thin waist, long legs, and a generous bust perfectly balanced by a shapely backside. She swung her hips in an easy, sensual way as she walked, her stiletto heels clacking on the stone tiles. Her long hair ran down over her shoulders in a shimmering cascade of deep red-gold.
She reached the railing and leant forward onto her elbows, pushing her bum out towards me and seeming to wiggle it provocatively. I wondered if she knew I was there watching, if the motion was somehow for my benefit. I'm sure I was flattering myself.
I also wondered how much longer I could get away with being out here, admiring a different kind of view now, before My Oily-face came out to find me. I had only five minutes left of my break.
The woman straightened and rummaged in a handbag. She still had her back - and deliciously pert rear - towards me, so I couldn't see her face. I guessed that she had found a cigarette and placed it in her mouth, and was now searching fruitlessly for a lighter. I saw my chance.
The staff area of the terrace was separated from the main part by a rope, which I quickly stepped over. I went up a short stairway, glancing around to make sure no one else was there, and approached her from behind. She turned with an unlit cigarette between her full, red lips.
"Need a light?" I said, proffering a clipper.
She regarded me for a moment, seeming to size me up somehow. Her face was as beautiful as her figure - her eyes, again, pulled me in.
"Yes," she said at last. "Thank you." Her voice was precise and refined, very English but with the merest hint of something more exotic. She looked only a couple of years older than me - mid thirties, I guessed.
I lit her cigarette, then pulled out my own pack and lit another one for myself. The woman's eyes did not leave mine. We both inhaled for a moment in silence, looking at each other.
"Charlotte Christchurch," she said, holding out a hand. "You can call me Charlie."
"Delighted," I said, taking the hand and kissing it softly. Her name seemed appropriate somehow, but for a time I was unable to place why. "Daniel Randall, but please call me Danny."
"Well Danny," she said. "If I may be so bold, you don't look like you're having the time of your life up there at the piano."
"I'm not," I said with a shrug. "But a gig's a gig."
She nodded. We inhaled, exhaled. The smoke twisted around us, close in the cool, sharp air.
"If I may reciprocate your boldness," I said, "you don't look like you're having the best evening yourself."
Her face hardened, and I wondered if the apparent familiarity had only been in my head. Perhaps the camaraderie of cigarette smokers did not cross class boundaries after all.
"No," she said. "You're quite right about that."
She took a few more drags on her cigarette, in a silence I wisely thought better of trying to fill.
"My husband," she almost spat, "is a cheating bastard."
"Oh," I said, not really sure what to say. "I'm sorry."
"Why?" she asked sardonically. "Is he fucking you as well?"
"No, I... I just meant..." I stammered.
"I know what you meant," she said, her face and tone softening a little. "I didn't mean to be so sharp. I'm sorry."
"No, no," I said. "I'm sure it must be... difficult."
"You have a gift for understatement," she said with a humourless laugh.
"How did you find out? Did he tell you?"
"No," she said, shaking her head with a sad smile. "He doesn't know that I know. Not yet. There were signs for a long time, and for a long time I wouldn't let myself see them. Mystery phone calls, late nights at the office, sudden business trips. I thought about reading his e-mails, but in the end I didn't have to stoop so low. He came back from a trip and left his suitcase open in the study. There was a pair of knickers wrapped round a memory stick - right on the top, like he hadn't even tried to hide them. The knickers were two sizes too small and several degrees too slutty to have been mine, and on the stick I found a video of him sticking his weasely little prick up his secretary's arse."
My mouth made an 'O' shape, but I didn't say anything.
"And then tonight," she went on, her eyes glistening and her voice cracking slightly. "Tonight of all nights he suddenly has to rush back to the office to deal with something Important." She sneered that last word.
"He's left you here alone?" I said in disbelief.
Charlie nodded. She took a final drag on the cigarette, dropped it on the tiles and ground it out with one stilettoed foot.
"He's an idiot," I said. "You are far and away the most beautiful woman here, in a club full of beautiful women. You have a strength and grace that outshines them all. If he prefers some slutty secretary to you, then he doesn't deserve you."
Charlie's eyes sought out mine, and I found myself drawn hypnotically into the dark brown depths. Suddenly she leaned forward and kissed me. Her full lips pressed against mine, our mouths opened and my tongue wrapped around hers. I reached a hand around her waist and pulled her close to me, my already half-hard dick pressing into her abdomen. I could feel the heat of her body against mine, a warmth radiating out from between her legs, electrifying us both.
She moaned very softly as my hands found her bottom, and gripped her firm, round cheeks as she ground herself against me. I could clearly feel the lacy outline of her panties under the dress. She lifted one knee up the outside of my thigh, opening herself to me through the fabric, then suddenly drew back.
I felt flushed and disarrayed. She looked more calm and composed than she had before. She looked at me appraisingly, and somehow I got the impression I had passed some sort of test.
"Meet me in the bar after you've finished playing," she said. "I prepared a Valentine's treat for Mister Bastard, but if he will insist on sodomising his secretary instead then I think I will give it to you." She raised an eyebrow at me, a small lopsided smile playing across her red lips. "It would be a shame to waste it."
Without another word she turned and went back inside. I stood there for a moment, stunned, then rushed back down to the pleb's entrance. I found the head waiter cursing my name inside, ignored him, went back out into the restaurant and sat at the piano. Charlie's table was empty.
I can remember almost nothing about my second set. I know I played for ninety minutes - it says so on my payslip - but all the while I kept thinking about Charlie, her delicious body and her sharply beautiful face, and what an absolute fucking moron her husband was.
When I finally finished playing, one person applauded. That's the other memorable thing about that evening - someone was, after all, listening. I took a mock bow and went out to the staff area to collect my payment. The manager handed it over without a word. I made to leave by the staff exit, but when no one was looking I doubled back and went nervously out to the bar.
I tried to lurk in the shadows, but the barman noticed me immediately and signalled to a burly security man lounging off to one side. I couldn't see Charlie anywhere, and I almost panicked and ran for it. The security man came up and grabbed me roughly by the shoulder. The oily-faced waiter appeared from somewhere and walked right up to me.
"What the hell do you think you're doing in here?" he said in a clipped, offensive whisper. "This area is for guests only! You've played your silly little piano shit, now get the fuck out! You're done here, you hear me Randall? Next time we're hiring a real professional!"
This was a little too much for my pride to bear. I am only good at two things in this life: playing the piano and performing oral sex on women. Despite the overshadowing presence of the security guard gripping my arm, I opened my mouth to say something that would probably have earned me a bruise or two, at the least.
"Excuse Me!" said an angry female voice. It was Charlie, thank god! "What on Earth do you think you are doing to my good friend?"
The security guard looked uncertain, but quickly released my arm. The waiter's face contorted into a comical parody of suppressed anger with a slapped-on coat of obsequious politeness. If my life were a cartoon, steam would have been coming out of his ears.
"Your fr...?" he stammered. "Well I... I... I assure you that I really would..."
"I don't care what you really would," said Charlie haughtily. It was like being in the presence of a duchess. It suddenly occurred to me she might actually be one. The Paragon was that sort of club. "My friend and I are leaving!" she said, glaring hard at the man.
The waiter's cartoon self would, at this point, have melted like an ice-cream under a sunlamp, collapsed into a little puddle with two watery eyes, then dribbled down a handy drain.
Charlotte stormed out like an angry gale, the bewildered stares of the other guests in the bar swept up after her like dry leaves. I lingered just long enough to lean close to the waiter and speak my mind.
"It's Doctor Randall to you, you pretentious little tit," I said in a low, quiet growl. "And please tell Miss Townsend that the next time I do her a favour I will require a significantly greater remuneration to compensate for the insubordinate incompetence of the waiting staff."
The waiter looked like he'd just had a pineapple inserted somewhere that a pineapple really shouldn't be able to fit. I walked away quickly to catch up with Charlie, leaving him to ponder my name-dropping the Club-owner's eldest daughter (she and I had been best friends for many years, but that's another story entirely).
I came out into the cold February air and walked down the wide stone steps at the front of the Paragon Club, looking around for Charlie. She was nowhere to be seen.
"I believe you'll be joining us here, sir," said a very polite male voice.
To my right, as I reached street level, a suited, booted and peak-capped young man was waiting beside the open door of a long black limousine. He saluted as I reached him, smiled in an eager-to-help way, and gestured at the door. I climbed into the dimly-lit interior of the limo, and he closed out the cold night behind me.
As my eyes adjusted, I saw that the inside of the limo was decked out for the season. The leather seats were covered in plush red fur-covered cushions, and there was a sensual, oily smell in the air - ylang-ylang and ginseng and something else I couldn't identify. There were no heart-shaped boxes of chocolates or anything cheesy like that - this was a grown-up sort of romance. The windows were blacked out, and we were separated from the driver by an opaque screen.
Charlie was sitting on the wide rear seat, leaning back with her legs crossed, one finger toying with a long strand of her hair. I knelt down on a cushion on the floor in front of her as the car began to move. I had a feeling we might be about to fuck.
"There are rules to this, Danny," she said in a serious voice. "Rules that you must follow."
"Okay," I said. "What are they?"
"Firstly, you must make me orgasm at least twice before entering me."
I nodded, feeling my heart start to race. We were definitely about to fuck.
"Secondly, when you orgasm you must do so inside my body. I am not some slutty porn-star and I do not enjoy having semen on my face or tits. Understand?"
I nodded again.
"Finally, throughout the evening you will follow every instruction I give to you. No questions. What I say is law."
"Charlie's Law," I said, smiling. "I will obey to the letter."
"Good," she said with a curt nod. "Now... kiss me."
She lay back fully across the plush back seat, and I climbed on top of her. Her legs opened as much as they could within the long, tight dress, and I moved between them, pressing my now-solid penis into her crotch. Our mouths met once more, and opened to one another. She moaned gently as I circled my hips and pressed harder against her.
I reached my hands behind and beneath her and moved one slowly down her back to her rear. I moaned into her mouth as my hands explored the perfect curves of her bum. My fingers dug into the firm flesh of her buttocks, and I felt the well-toned muscles there tighten as she angled her hips towards me. My other hand found the zip at the back of her neck, and I slowly pulled it down while at the same time pulling up her dress. The zip stopped at the small of her back. I drew back a little as she pulled the front of the dress down.