It’s become a tradition now with my old chum E and I – a red cup Gingerbread Latte at any given Starbucks pre Christmas, and this year we were at E’s local deep in the heart of the City of London.
My exuberance for this event has me leaping out of bed – not easy when one is unused to the hideousness that is the London rush hour.
“It’s okay for you corporate worker bees” I said to E in the queue, “You do this every day.”
“Excuse me S, I prefer to refer to myself as an engineer of the capitalist revolution – although I’m not quite sure how relevant that is anymore.”
“What a great term E! I’d write it down but I can’t find my pen.”
“Digital revolution S? Remember that? Put it in your ‘phone!”
Behind us was a long line of sombre faced workers. My efforts at snapping some sparkly pics were not going down well. Meerkat type looks sidelonged me; these were people thirsty for their first fix of the day. E was fidgety and looked embarrassed as he placed the order. “Don’t forget my Starbucks name E – Bruschetta!!”
“From a girl in your position, I expected better lies.”
I looked at Kate over my glass of water: “Don’t quote Rossini to me in the interval” I practically cried with laughter. “I merely read you a text I sent to our fellow gardener choir friend to say that the window boxes she had planted for you had died.”
“Yes! But what’s with the little blushing emotocon next to it with the rolling eyes heavenwards?!”
I giggled uncontrollably, in fact my stomach hurt.
The Barber of Seville had us in stitches, but in fairness we were off to a flying start with a pre-opera drink at Dukes Bar. You know winter has truly arrived when you find yourself with a cocktail trolley table-side and Alessandro the master barman conjuring up a couple of killer martinis.
“I’m going to seat you up at the bar” the manager said when I booked Bocca di Lupo. “I think you’ll like it, you’re overlooking the kitchen and there’s always a bit of drama going on.”
A and I met at 8pm and took our places. High stools at a high bar in front of which we could see grills, deep fat fryers, cooking on gas and four intensely focused chefs. One in particular caught my eye. He never looked up not even when he was called to produce another rack of lamb and mountain of rocket. Just a ‘Yes Chef!’ and the sound of a hatchet striking bone followed.
“I haven’t got any ID with me by the way” my 21 year old City trader companion for the evening remarked as we headed out for drinks.
“Well – what’s the age now? Isn’t it 18? Aren’t you legal?” I asked a little clueless on not having come up against this issue for a while.
“Yes of course, it’s just sometimes I get asked.”
Chiltern Firehouse was our destination for the evening. Ah, like an illicit lover she carelessly drew our attention – all charm and good looks, subtly seductive with the attention to detail that makes us weak at the knees and powerless to resist.
There’s no other word for it really – or words if one is being precise.
E was taking me out for a belated birthday dinner at Bocca di Lupo. I’d fancied going for a while, so when he asked me to choose the restaurant I didn’t hesitate.
We looked at the menu as the waiter appeared. “What should I have to drink E, I just don’t know” I asked with a concerned expression.
“I don’t know S, glass of champagne?”
“Perfect, that’s exactly what I’ll have”
We giggled. Off to a flying start on the silliness we checked out the various dishes. Lots of ceviche, sage leaves rolled in artichokes – or was it the other way around? Cornish anchovies, Guinea fowl, Tuna tartare, baked scallops and lo and behold a ‘B.Y.O. Truffle’ menu.”
“What do you mean he’s not here?!!!” I shrieked. “Where on earth is he?!!”
PJ the bartender looked slightly taken aback. “Um, he’s in Ireland drinking Pina Coladas.”
“What! Doesn’t he care about his London restaurants anymore?!!” I demanded.
Anna sat on the bar stool beside me – just smiling, a bit too smugly I thought. When she’d suggested a late night viewing of Rubens and His Legacy at the Royal Academy with an orchestra and cocktails, I had immediately agreed. It was only on arriving at the exhibition and being handed a single pink rose and a matching chocolate that it hit me: Valentine’s Day.
Oh well, in for a penny, in for an evening of pink and red and all the accompanying schmaltz.
We all look this happy when we’ve had one of Enrico’s dry Vodka Martinis with a twist at Duke’s Bar in St. James’. Christmas has got nothing to do with it. I don’t know ANYWHERE in London that makes such a good or strong cocktail. One can only have one and even that’s pushing it.
I was meeting a friend of a friend – new to London having lived in Italy for the previous so many years. As you do when you first meet another woman – any woman, you talk work, men, marriages, divorces, children, and life now when you know you’re not 25 anymore but you still feel it.
It was the kind of night you go to bed after with all your make-up on. Those nights are rare and possibly the skin care routine that has to follow should be billed to that notorious place which counts Ian Fleming as its most famous patron.
Half a glass down and the mists were beginning to form. I tried to stay with it. Julia started talking Italian to the chief bartender which resulted in us being invited behind the legendary bar itself for a momentous snap. Alessandro and Enrico remained calm, I wish I could say the same for the two of us.
“It’s just occurred to me. Why don’t you come to Italy for New Year? I’ve got my daughter’s house, it’s by the sea – we could have a lovely time.” A generous invite from someone you’ve only just met indeed.
Julia called our mutual friend Fabienne on the phone and handed it to me. “Fabienne, we’ve been invited to Genova for the New Year – isn’t that sweet?!” “Yes! I could pick you up from the airport after dropping the kids off!”
We hung up and chinked glasses. It was all looking very promising. A gentleman at the next table leaned over: “New Year in Italy?” “Come if you want!” exclaimed Jules. “Where do you live?” I asked. “Actually not too far away: Southern Switzerland.” “Perfect” I said. Julia let’s get his card and we can invite them. His wife looked on knowingly as she sipped her Tiger Tanaka.
“How are you getting home?” her husband asked. I giggled. “Really? You really want to know?” Julia and I carried on chatting and presently she settled the bill. “Are you going to be okay getting home?” Mr Switzerland asked again. “Of course!” I replied laughing.
We put our coats on. “Are you getting a taxi?” he enquired. We said our goodbyes and walked out past the twinkling Christmas lights as he called after us: “Good luck on your journey!”
“Breakfast?” asked my local shopkeeper as I rolled up at the cash desk with a packet of Shreddies and a pint of milk. “No actually. It’s dinner.”
Twelve O’Clock at night and what are you supposed to do when you’ve been out since 7pm carousing at a birthday party under the vaults with copious champagne and a good prosecco. The thing that finally hits you on that fifth glass is that your very own celebration is imminent, plus you need to smuggle a cake into the Groucho Club in between.
Despite someone calling me a ‘generic’ example of my age at said party, I felt rather not that. I didn’t have any peers in fact who would rock up to the birthday celebration of someone they’d only met twice – and the second time being entirely by accident – on a Friday night.
On my third cigarette (only with champagne; only for my birthday celebrations) I ran into a couple of fellow Bloggers. “We’re from ‘Le Guide Noir” one of the Spanish duo told me. Wearing identical outfits – pink furry coats, matching tights and Spanish accents, they informed me they were dressed as the Barbie sisters. I took a photo as Toby and I descended the staircase in time for cake.
I noticed Anna had left the number off and there were only four candles. Good girl, I thought. Let’s leave it to the imagination.
Soul music predominated. “What is this?” I asked the barman.
“Fat Freddy’s Drop.” He told me. “They’re a New Zealand band – kind of a retro sound, actually they’re pretty old, ex crayfish fisherman.” He shook his cocktail shaker and poured what looked like steam into two glasses. “It’s hickory smoke” he told me and showed me the implement he used to produce it.
I was offered birthday cake. “But I wanted you to have some of mine!” I said to the belle of the ball. “I’ve got half a one here from today at work, fresh cream, chocolate, banana, strawberries… I can’t have any right now anyway because of my teeth.”
“Oh, you have Invisalign” a dentist nearby interrupted.
“No, they’re retainers actually. You’ve had yours whitened haven’t you?”
“Yes” she said.
As I do on my birthday weekend, I feel a bit like I’m on holiday. Like it’s Monopoly money and all bets are off. However, talk of teeth made me think about mine, eating and how I was unbelievably hungry. “I’ve got to go” I said, “I have to be at The Groucho in the morning at 10.”
It’s got to be one of my favourite months of the year. My birthday, the change in seasons, crisp cold winter days, burnt orange leaves and sparkling lights everywhere signpost festive frivolity and hunkering down.
September and October have passed and one has – with a bit of luck – now settled in to some sort of other weatherly routine. Saturday night TV takes on new significance, the eternal sound of fireworks, at least in London, carries on into December and a few more chunky layers of clothing are added. It’s cosy, with a kind of mystery and magic that darker evenings and earthy bonfire scents bring.
I headed to my local wine shop around 7.30pm to get some champagne for the big day. Stepping out into a fresh evening wearing a wool scarf for the first time this year and some boots, I was almost there when the phone rang.
“I want to get a date in the diary for our combined birthdays” Rosie told me. I couldn’t have agreed more and jotted it down immediately for a few weekend’s time. “I’ll see if my brother can get us in somewhere nice.” “Lovely” I replied. “Ask him about Loulou’s? I love it there. It’ll take you straight back to Oxford Poly in the 80’s.”
The door of The Winery ding dinged as I opened it to the soft glow of mellow lighting and a real fire flickering in the hearth.
“I’ve come for some of your finest Amyot” I said. “Oh yes. An excellent champagne – best kept secret and all that” Dan said with a smile.
A couple of opened red wine bottles stood on a tall barrel and I was offered a taste. I savoured my first sip of the season.
The door bell tinkled again. A blonde girl entered and looked at me: “I know you. We met at that Greek restaurant in the summer – remember?” I did indeed. We talked birthdays: “It was mine yesterday” she said. “No way! Happy Birthday!” I said. “Actually I’m having a party in a couple of weeks time. Would you like to come? It’s in Marylebone.” “Love to – thanks!” I replied as she took my number.
I glanced at the diary for November. From lunch and dinner with old friends and family, a couple of parties, The Dream Boys and Los Hermanos Cubanos; it was looking pretty damn fine.
It goes by so fast. ‘The only way you can slow it down is to travel’ a friend of mine used to say.
The Northern Belle pulled into the station. Heads and hands of the steward and his crew poked out of the windows cheerily waving and wishing us ‘Good Morning!’ Like a scene from a movie, or something that sits in the recesses of your mind – so familiar but you’ve never actually seen it in the flesh.
A red carpet paved the way to our sumptuously upholstered carriage. Plush seats took the weight off our legs as we settled in for the duration admiring the decor of this lovely old 1930’s Pullman train.
A pear bellini at 9am reminded us that we were on a ‘special’ train journey – one that would take us to Lake Windermere with some fine dining on the side.
The morning wore on as we all got to know each other in advance of E’s imminent wedding. The champagne flowed with the chat becoming more hilarious so that by the time we boarded the coach to The Lakes we were in flying form.
We journeyed further into the pine woods surrounding Windemere as our ‘compere’ gave us a running commentary: “If you want to spend a penny in Bowness, it’ll cost you 40p. If you can wait until Lakeside it’s 20p. Better still if you can ‘ang on ’til you get back to train – it’s free!”
Silence reigned on the coach. I tried to nod off but it was impossible. “‘On left ‘ere you ‘ave one of the largest garden centres in Cumbria”. E glanced at me quizzically. “What about The Lakes, E? Do you think we’re going to hear how they were formed?” “I’m not sure, S” he replied, closing his eyes.
We heard how someone in the Beatrix Potter Museum had been a ‘treasurer’ but we weren’t sure what of, or if indeed those skills had been transferred to his new role: ’Showing people Beatrix Potter’s little animals.’
The boat cruise was a highlight – wind and sun on our faces as we stood at the bow taking in grand skies, green islands and small yachts winging their way across the water gaily.
Dinner back on the train cemented a harmonious jolly day with confidences exchanged and personalities shared in a way only real time spent together allows.