I stood in front of the mirror in the £61-a-night hotel room in Paddington, buttoned my polyester dinner jacket and straightened my bow tie. The last time I’d worn a dinner jacket was nearly three years earlier, I remembered, at the Cigar Smoker of the Year. What a night that was. I dug through the pockets in case there was any MDMA still hanging about. I found a dog-end and a 100mg tablet of Indian-made Viagra. I took a selfie in the mirror, picked up the gift-wrapped birthday present and card, switched off the studio-quality strip light, and closed the door behind me. As I tripped down the front steps of the hotel into the velvet September evening, headed for Taki’s 80th birthday party at Loulou’s, life felt pretty good.
‘Fancy a nice time, dearie?’ said a small plump woman with a shining round face as her step fell seamlessly in with mine on the lamp-lit Victorian paving slabs of Norfolk Square. ‘I’m sorry. No. I can’t,’ I said. ‘I’m on my way to a birthday party and I’m late already.’ ‘Where is it?’ she said. ‘Loulou’s in Mayfair,’ I said. ‘Do you know it?’ ‘Never heard of it, dearie. So what about a nice blow job then before you go?’
I looked sideways at her face. She was English, from the north. Late twenties. Short black hair slicked smoothly over her scalp completed the impression of roundness. In return, I got a cross between a saucy smirk and an embarrassed wince. I liked her — of course I did. How could one not admire the courage, the fatalism, the capitulation. I liked the ready sense of humour façade. Her retro belief that a man wearing a dinner jacket and black tie is generally more open than most to offers of this kind, I also liked.
Paddington has been renowned for street prostitution for 100 years: I felt the hand of history on us. I wondered if a love of old London was what had first drawn her to the area. ‘It’s ever so kind of you,’ I said. ‘But honestly, I’m already late for the party. How much?’ ‘Fifty,’ she said. We had reached the corner of Norfolk Square. Available taxicabs were cruising London Street. ‘Fifty!’ I said. ‘Forty,’ she said. I searched the traffic with my eyes for a cab with a light on. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘Why don’t I put a nice dress on and come to the birthday party with you? It wouldn’t take me a minute.’
I looked at her again and tried to imagine the consequences if I took her with me to Loulou’s and said to the host, ‘Taki, this lovely young lady I met ten minutes ago as I was leaving my Paddington hotel. Would you mind if she came to your birthday party?’ I am 100 per cent certain that the great man would have welcomed her warmly, gallantly introduced her to the King and Queen of Greece, and that I would have shot up in everybody’s estimation. Failing dismally to seize the day, however, I said, ‘But it’s an invitation-only sit-down dinner with a guest list and a table plan. I couldn’t bring you without giving the host a bit of notice.’
Then I had a word with myself. This honest woman had stopped me in the street and offered me the keys to her kingdom for a small consideration. Our short relationship had from the first been characterised by refreshing frankness. She deserved better than that. So I added truthfully: ‘And anyway, I hope to get lucky at the birthday party.’ I thought she might have been put out by this further rejection. However, she wasn’t remotely possessive. ‘Well, let’s make an arrangement for later just in case you don’t,’ she said. ‘What time will it finish?’
She was like a terrier persisting in shaking a rat long after it had died. And I strongly objected to her last question. I was stepping out suited and booted, free as a bird, and in a party mood. And here was this woman trying to get me to make a plan, keep to a timetable, tell her what time I’d be back. I replied by lifting a forefinger at the windscreen of a passing taxicab, which pulled over adroitly. I hopped in the back. Before I could shut the door, she leaned in. What was she going to suggest now, I wondered? Margate? ‘If you change your mind, I’ll probably still be working when you come back,’ she said. ‘Loulou’s, please, Chief,’ I said to the driver. There were no hard feelings. She stood back and laughed pleasantly and waved me on my way.
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