Thomas Watson is a writer-slash-analyst living and working in his hometown, London. For the past year he has been focussing on a series of short stories and he is now concentrating on his first novel. He has read at Brixton Book Jam. He tweets, but not prolifically. He has attended creative writing classes under Maggie Hamand and Sean Levin. Thomas has lived in Japan, France and Central America. The Cafe at the V&A is his first publication.
The Café at the V&A
Winner of second prize in the 2012 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
The café at the museum was crowded, even for a Friday night, with animated office workers and louche artistes hunkered over white circular tables, cherry picking stories from their respective weeks. Roger sat with his back to the room, listening to the chatter from neighbouring tables as he thumbed the patterned swirls engraved upon his silver zippo. He preferred to eavesdrop on a discussion concerning the geographical imbalances of the labour market rather than contribute to the conversation at his own table that Marie was dominating. A waitress appeared at his shoulder as an unexpected tirade of expletives escaped from the kitchen and tinkled off the decorative Victorian wall tiles like notes from a glockenspiel. “Something else to drink, sir?” she asked.
Roger hooked his elbow over the back of the sculpted plastic chair and twisted in his seat to get a better view of her. “Same again please.”
“Manhattan – two cherries – in a tumbler?”
He nodded and watched her until she was lost in the opulent fog of the Gamble Room. The café retained many of the gaudy features from the original Victorian refreshment room and the modern touches in most instances complemented the aesthetic. Only the three oversized orb-shaped chandeliers struck Roger as being out of place—too ethereal against the robust practicality of the marble fireplace at the far end of the room. He pulled a small plastic tobacco pouch from his jacket pocket and turned back to face the group. A dozen of them were crammed round a table set for eight; mostly they were people he knew vaguely or not at all, Marie’s friends. Mark and his girlfriend Tess were the exceptions; he still laid claim to them in his mind.
Marie sat across from him, she had decided to wear her silver wig and the hairpiece glinted in the light of the chandeliers. Roger saw that it sat lop-sided and smiled at her crooked fringe as he set to work on his roll up. When they were out just the two of them he would look for the compassioned looks of strangers who failed to realise that his girlfriend suffered from nothing more than what he had begun to call a forced eccentricity.
The waitress returned with the second round of aperitifs. Marie received her champagne without breaking from her conversation. “I’m so happy for you Serge. Happy for you both.” She placed a hand on Serge’s arm, smiled up at Guillaume, and raised her glass. “Here’s to a fabulous engagement—to the most handsome couple in the room. Salud.”
Roger set his half-rolled cigarette on the table and took up his tumbler as crystal champagne saucers clinked about him. His was the only drink not brimming with bubbles and he enjoyed a long swig. With a toothpick he skewered one of the red cherries and bit down on the gelatinous fruit. The taste of sweet morello tinged with vermouth flooded his mouth as he watched the waitress continue her circuit.
Marie took a small tortoise shell disc from her clutch, flipped it open and adjusted her wig in the reflection. “Warhol? Don’t get me started on Warhol.” She clapped the compact mirror shut like a castanet and placed it beside her soup spoon. “I know he’s some kind of hero to you, Marcel, but come on dear, he’s so clearly a fuckwit.” Murmurs of discontent threatened to disrupt her flow, but Marie talked over them. “Anyone here could take an image, brighten the colour palette and mass produce it until the meme permeates the subconscious and someone has the ludicrosity to call it social commentary. I mean even… ” She looked at Roger, thought better of it and returned to her champagne.
Her condemnation provoked a stern response from the table as half a dozen voices jabbered at once—Lucille led the dissent, keen to defend her husband’s appreciation of the avant-garde. Roger kept his head bowed and wondered if ‘ludicrosity’ was a real word. Outwardly, he remained focused on constructing his cigarette: rolling the paper into a cylindrical pipe until it enveloped the leaves within. He moistened the join with his tongue, tapped the bottom twice on the edge of the table and, content the tobacco was evenly packed, tucked the cigarette with the black curls behind his ear.
“Marie, Marie,” said Guillaume. “Come on now. What about Sierra?”
“The Spaniard? Tattoos Cubans and calls it art? Overblown.”
Serge leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Excuse Guillaume, he’s just back from Berlin. Took a peek at the Boros collection while he was there. Obsessed with the man.”
Guillaume continued in his heavily accented English. “All he does these days is make little models of his art, then he gets his little tinkerbells to run round cities with the oversized versions. They do the heavy lifting. To me, these days, he is the greatest. And to him, the art, it is just the idea.”
Marie shook her head. “Art is more than that.”
“Is it?” asked Guillaume. “If you believe that, then maybe this is not the business for you.” He drank from his wide-rimmed glass.
“It has to be more than the idea alone, more than a concept. As artists, we have to execute as well. Otherwise… ” Marie looked at her champagne saucer; it was nearly empty.
“Look. Artists are not CEOs, or middle managers—delegating should not come in to it.”
“Tell that to Michelangelo,” said Serge. “The Sistine Chapel is not the achievement of one man. No, he had assistants mixing the paint, running the ladders—and I tell you… ”
“I tell you Serge, in that case, he’s a fuckwit too.”
Roger looked up and reread the line from Ecclesiastes inscribed high in the decorative frieze: 'There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy the good of his labour.' Too right, he thought, and taking up the heavy bottomed tumbler he finished his drink.
Behind him the waitresses milled about the overspill of seated customers, slaloming between the four iconic columns that dominated the room. They moved with an efficiency that echoed the simplicity of their outfits: black ties on white shirts, black skirts and spotless aprons; their shoes pattered across the burnt red earthenware floor as they brought out the starters. Roger considered his ham hock terrine and wished he’d gone for the red onion tart. Across from him Marie reached for a bread roll, bangles jangling on her arms.
“God, autumn menus in this town are so very depressing,” she said as she seasoned her soup. “If there was a blight on butternut squash there would be pandemonium in kitchens from Goodge Street to Portobello.” She reached for the pepper.
“At least it’s not Campbell’s.” Roger said, after a pause.
A hush descended around the table.
“What was that, Roger? Something to say?” Marie’s eyes, sticky with thick lines of make up, swallowed him like quicksand.
“I said: least it’s not Campbell’s… ”
“Oh Roger, Roger, how witty. You truly are a proponent of bons mots.” She clapped her hands together. “Congratulations on overcoming l'esprit de l'escalier,” she continued. “You know darling, you are wasted in admin. Table, another toast: to our dear Roger—the Cream of Warhol”. Marie looked about at the fellow diners and raised her glass. Serge looked at Guillaume. Guillaume looked at Tess. Tess looked at Mark who made sure to look at nobody.
Roger held her stare, reading the diagonal cuts in the tumbler with the tips of his fingers. Marie clinked her champagne saucer with Lucille and took a sip. Setting her glass back on the table, she brushed a hand across her cheek, freeing a couple of stray synthetic hairs that had caught in the corner of her mouth. Roger noted a small glob of orange soup clumped around the tip of one the silver strands. Turning to Mark, he took the silver lighter from beside his steak knife, flipped back the lid and sparked the flint twice. “Cigarette?” he asked.
Mark nodded in confirmation and chewed on a mouthful of onion tart. “’Be right behind you.”
Roger’s footfalls echoed back at him from all sides of the quad as he skirted the leftover puddles from an earlier downpour and headed away from the glow of the refreshment rooms. The late autumnal chill was severe and he lifted the collar of his blazer for warmth as a soft drizzle fell. Along the wall, a narrow rain shadow formed where the balustrade created a slight overhang. He leaned against the dry red brick, wedged the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and lit it. Exhaling slowly, a steady stream of blue smoke muddled the damp air. In the middle of the garden the oval water feature was all but empty and had the forgotten look of a shallow paddling pool in winter.
Mark emerged through the double doors and spotted Roger down the terrace. He walked over and removed a cigarette from a pack of Camels. “Miserable night, eh,” he said.
Roger nodded and handed Mark his zippo. He drew a deep breath and watched the tip of his cigarette flare against the clouds above—themselves tinged with the orange of streetlamps from Exhibition Road.
“What’s with Marie?” Mark spun the wheel against the flint; the spurt of flame distorted the shadows on his face as he raised the light. “Everything alright?”
“Not exactly.” Roger took another drag and shook his head. “We’re calling time. Six years. Time to tap out.” He looked in to the middle distance.
“Holy cow. And Canada?”
“Not going to happen. Well for her at least. Doesn’t seem to be much point heading off to build a new life together when she’s shagging around here.”
“Damn…mate.” Mark looked at the floor and scraped the soles of his shoes across the Italian paving. “Any idea of the, er, bedfellow?”
“Lautrec?” Mark shuffled his weight on to his left foot and cocked his head, studying Roger’s face. “You sure?”
“It’s got to be. And if it’s not him… well, she’s definitely getting her bread buttered at some other table.”
“Damn.” Mark blew smoke upwards in to the air.
“I mean, he’s all she ever talks about. It’s all Lautrec thinks this and Lautrec said that. Hell if I care, but if that’s not swooning, I don’t know what is.” Roger flicked ash in to the gutter. “You know she’s been spending more and more time at the gallery? Tess mention that to you? He asked to see her portfolio about a month back, which by the way is round about the time we last fucked. He’s building her up, filling her head with bullshit ideas, telling her to keep painting, to stay in London.” Roger shook his head, dragged on his cigarette. “It’s a total line and she’s paying out for it.”
Mark drew a lung-load of smoke and shrugged. “Tess mentioned he’s a bit of a sex pest. Nothing explicit, just always comes across as a bit of a creep. You know, he reminds me a little of Brando in Last Tango in Paris. Fatter and pervier, though. Bigger nose, as well.” He tapped Roger’s arm with the back of his hand. “Hey, you don’t think he’s been asking her to ‘pass zee butter’?”
Roger moved his arm away. “Thanks for the image.”
“Ah c’mon Rog. If you want a sympathetic ear, you’d be talking to your priest, your mother or the Samaritans, so don’t play that card.” He cupped his hands together and blew hot breath in to the air pocket. “This is a good thing. I mean, better you find out now, than a year down the line, knee deep in snow and misery in B.C. Don’t waste your time moping. Move along.”
“Gee Mark, you’re a regular fucking 8-ball.”
“Yeah. Well... ” Mark shrugged and pulled his arms tighter across his chest. “Anyway, isn’t he supposed to be here?”
“Running late I guess.”
“You going to say anything?”
“You sound like Marie. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin the night for Serge and Guillaume. Tempted to slash the tyres on his Jag, but I figure that can wait a week.”
Mark nodded. “Good lad.”
On the opposite side of the quad a kitchen porter emerged through a side door, casting light across the garden. He sat in silhouette on an upturned yellow mixer crate and removed his cap.
Roger lowered his voice and went on. “Three fucking years we’ve been planning this move and now she wants to go off and find herself like bloody Pocahontas or something.” He tossed the stub of the rollup into a plant pot.
“Mate, you’ve got your analogy all wrong there.” Mark waved the tip of his cigarette in the air as he spoke, jabbing at the half-light. “Pocahontas was wild from the get go—it was only when she was seduced by Captain Smith and his wily colonial mercantilism that she shunned her tree hugging ways.”
Roger looked up at him from under a raised eyebrow.
“You’re welcome to borrow the DVD anytime.”
“Give me one of those, will you.”
Mark took the Camels from his shirt pocket and shook the box lightly until one of the filters broke ranks. Roger removed it from the carton and stuck it in the corner of his mouth. He patted down his pockets. “You got that light?”
Mark took the zippo from his trouser pocket and raised the flame, holding it steady as his friend drew in the heat until the tobacco caught. He snapped the lid shut with his thumb and offered the lighter back to Roger. “Nice lighter,” he said. “Careful, or I’ll run off with it.”
“Keep it. It was from Marie—I’ve no want for it now.”
The porter came over to them and as he moved into the light Roger saw his brow was lined like a basket woven of wicker. He asked if they could spare a smoke and Mark obliged. Roger watched as he shuffled back across the paving, waiting until the old man was again perched on his makeshift stool before continuing.
“You know she actually said she needed to let her creative side breath.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Christ almighty. Forget Pocahontas, she sounds more like Yoko Ono.” Roger chuckled, the snigger graduated into a cough as the tar tickled his throat and he covered his mouth with a fist. “And how can you take seriously anyone who goes to work in a pink wig. What is she, in disguise or something?”
Roger wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “To tell you the truth, I kind of liked the wigs. They come in handy, you know, least they did in the beginning.” He flicked ash in to the gutter. “Everyone’s got to have their thing. Set themselves apart.”
Mark grinned. “So Marie’s thing is wigs, being delusional and a total slut.” He extinguished the cigarette on the brick wall and tossed the twisted stub into the gutter. “She sure scores high on those fronts.” He folded his arms across his narrow chest. “Hurry up with that,” he said, “I’m starting to freeze out here.”
Back in the Gamble Room their main courses were waiting for them and conversation had settled on the unveiling of a new installation at the Tate Modern. Roger removed his soggy blazer and slung it on the back of his chair, his hair was saturated and tussled, his cheeks ablaze from the change in atmospherics. Mark sat and tugged at the damp patches of his shirt around the shoulders where the cotton was almost transparent. He set to work on the lamb shank, easing the meat from the bone and covering it in gravy. Roger leaned over his plate and took a deep breath; scenting the bitter carbon he figured his steak was overdone. Across the table Marie was talking animatedly in to her phone, drawing scowls of disproval from diners at adjacent tables.
“So Serge, Guillaume,” said Mark, gesturing with his fork at one and then the other. “Going for a December wedding; church-based I take it?”
“Don’t be an ass,” Tess said slapping him on the arm.
Serge laughed. “No Mark, it’ll be in Richmond Park. You know the lodge by Ham Gate?”
“Oh Mark, you should see the view,” said Tess. “You can see halfway across London from up there.”
“Well, the view, it looks west,” said Serge, “so you can see half of London, but it’s mostly Heathrow. Maybe Staines on a clear day.”
Mark took another gravy-laden bite as the table laughed. “Sounds perfect,” he said.
Marie finished her call and returned her phone to the bag hung on her chair. “That was Lautrec. He’s just finishing up. Should be down in about a half hour.” Mark looked at Roger and raised an eyebrow.
The champagne and heavy food began to take their toll and conversation waned. Only the sound of Roger’s steak knife grating against the porcelain was audible over a neighbouring table cooing as they received their crème brûlées. Roger cut a small strip from the porterhouse, pronged it with the tip of his fork and used his knife to coat the morsel with mustard; the steak was medium-well at best. Mark selected a seeded roll from the communal basket and looked across the table towards Marie. Roger knew she wasn’t wearing anything beneath the body-hugging knitwear, and from the lingering nature of his friend’s gaze it was apparent this was not lost on him either. Using his thumbs, Mark parted the warm doughy roll. “Marie,” he said, “would you be a darl’ and pass me le buerre.” Roger sat motionless, watching his friend and girlfriend exchange creeping smiles. Obligingly, she handed him the ramekin of soft butter. Conversation resumed, flittering about Roger, and as he chewed the cindered meat, mustard burned in his throat.
©2012 Thomas Watson
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