Henri permitted himself a small smile as he led his favourite couple to their table. He had been guiding them to this same spot on the first weekend of August for more than twenty five years now. The menus may have altered over the years, but Thomas and Diane - yes, he thought of them in first name terms, almost as if they were friends - had remained the same; polite, courteous and delightful.Their first anniversary weekend had been a daunting experience for the newly hired Henri. He remembered how his hands shook as he poured their wine, hoping they didn’t notice the sharp rattle of bottle on glass. If so, they did not embarrass him by mentioning it.
‘Monsieur, Madame, please sit. May I take your drink order or would you like a few moments?’
Thomas looked at Diane and raised an eyebrow.
‘Chateauneuf du Pape?’
Henri knew that Diane would agree. He had a bottle ready for them, brought up from the cellar that morning in anticipation of their order. He looked at Diane. She had aged with dignity. She neither smothered herself in makeup, nor had that vacant, immobile look betraying Botox injections. She remained herself, expressive, calm and beautiful, her greying hair swept into a neat knot resting on the nape of her neck. Henri nodded, as it was no longer deemed appropriate to bow, and left them to fetch the waiting bottle.
He loved his wife and children dearly, but knew his love was far less obvious than that of these two. Every shared look, every touch of fingers showed how much they cared for each other despite the passage of time. Henri had a few white strands himself, but unlike Diane, he was vain and no stranger to a bottle of dye. Thomas’s hair was more white now than grey, but his smooth complexion and bright eyes kept his looks youthful.
Henri uncorked the wine and breathed in the first aroma of deep purple fermented grapes as it escaped the bottle. The first sniff proved that it was worthy of the two about to partake of it. He stood for a moment and observed them. There were other couples in the restaurant, it was true, but most were distracted by mobile phones or occupied themselves by indulging in an in depth scrutiny of the menu. It seemed as if each person were avoiding contact with the other. Thomas and Diane had dressed for dinner, he in smartly pressed trousers and a shirt, she in a shimmering blue dress. Henri’s lip curled slightly as he surveyed the other diners, the majority clad in jeans and wearing trainers.
Thomas and Diane, in contrast to their fellow diners, were deep in conversation. Henri’s heart was warmed at this further evidence of the couple’s closeness. He was ashamed to admit, if only to himself, that he occasionally lingered longer than was strictly necessary in order to overhear their words and to learn a little more about them. It was rare in the world of hotel hospitality to recognise faces, but Thomas and Diane had been as loyal to the hotel as Henri himself. One weekend each year, reliable as Christmas, they arrived mid-afternoon and partook of this anniversary meal, departing early the following morning.
After the first few years, Henri found himself eager for their arrival. He found their genuine love reaffirming, and he went home to his wife determined to prove himself to her once again. He had spoken to her about them, and he suspected that she also looked forward to this weekend. He was always kinder to her for a few weeks afterwards. Thomas had Diane were unaware that their love was infectious.
‘Excuse me, Monsieur, Madame, may I pour the wine?’
‘No need for me to test it, Henri. Just pour for us both, please. You’ve never let us down yet.’
Thomas smiled at him as Diane said, ‘I’m sure everything will be perfect, as always.’
Whether she referred to the wine, the food, the restaurant, the hotel, or to Henri himself, he acknowledged the compliment, allowing the nod to dip a little lower. Still not a bow, but close enough.
‘Are you ready to order, or would you like a few more minutes?’
‘A few minutes more, please, Henri. Thomas has already decided but I am torn between the Dover sole and the rustic chicken.’
Henri moved away, making an excuse to linger at the next table, hoping to catch a word or two and learn more about them. He could easily predict their order. Thomas would have the rump steak, medium rare, with new potatoes rather than chips, and seasonal vegetables. Henri wondered if he was watching his weight or perhaps his fat intake, as ordered by a doctor. Not a heart condition, he hoped. He felt a frisson of fear - how would Diane cope without Thomas if anything untoward were to happen? Would she still come to this table every year to honour their anniversary and mourn his passing? He shook his head to rid himself of this unpleasant thought. Diane would plump for the Dover sole. She always chose fish for the main course, even though it should, of course, be served with white wine. They never had a starter, preferring to choose from the selection of delectable delicacies created by the talented pastry chef.
‘Do you think Ollie will cope with university?’
‘I think so. He’s never been away from home though, so student accommodation will come as a shock to him.’
‘Libby settled quickly. She loves it. Ollie will be fine.’
‘I hope so.’
‘He has your genes. He’s a survivor. He’ll be ok.’
So, two children. Both clever enough to go to university. Henri was pleased for
them. His own children were not academic, but he could hardly blame them. They had his genes. He was proud them; his son learning his craft behind the bar, and his daughter following his footsteps into the restaurant, where she was determined to become the first female maitre d. She wasn’t working this shift, so Henri was free to enjoy his time with Thomas and Diane without her watchful eyes and gentle teasing.
He headed back to the table, beaming at them as they made their choices. He had been right about their order and felt absurdly proud that he knew them so well. They barely noticed him, of course, and that was as it should be. Henri’s role was to be attentive rather than intrusive. No, Thomas and Diane’s attention was only for each other.
Every time their hands touched, Thomas entwined his fingers with hers and they held hands like love struck teenagers. The menus removed, they continued to converse, each listening to the other with rapt attention. Conversation was a dying art, mused Henri, but not for these two. It was encouraging that they found things to talk about after all these years. He was too far away to hear their words, but was able to surreptitiously watch them as he moved from table to table.
Between mouthfuls they placed their cutlery down and gazed at each other. Thomas reached out and tucked a strand of Diane’s hair behind her ear. Henri was charmed to see that she blushed. Her reddened cheeks were clear to see although the candlelight was designed to hide such things. They watched each other even when eating. Henri loved his wife’s grey hair and deepening wrinkles, but could not remember a time when he gazed at her with such open adoration. It warmed his heart. He must try to be more like Thomas.
As soon as their plates were cleared he swooped in, waving away the waiter who was nearer the table. He was greedy to bathe in the glow of their devotion. It made him optimistic. They were inspirational.
‘Was everything to your satisfaction, Monsieur, Madame?’
Though Thomas spoke to Henri, he did not take his eyes from Diane’s face. She had regained her composure somewhat and was pleasantly pink of cheek rather than crimson.
‘May I interest you in dessert?’
‘Definitely, Henri. I hope you haven’t lost your chef.’
‘Indeed no, Madame, she is still with us.’
He waved to the waitress to bring the dessert trolley. It was a tad old fashioned, perhaps, but Henri liked the hotel’s traditions. He watched Thomas and Diane indulgently as they struggled to make a choice, each eventually picking two or three sweet treats.
‘I’ll have to go to the gym more often to burn this off, but it’s worth it.’
‘Don’t go losing weight for my sake. I love you as you are.’
From anyone other than Thomas the words would sound false; those of a man idly placating an anxious wife, but there was no doubt that Thomas’s sentiments were true as he looked at Diane’s soft curves with appreciation. It was Henri’s privilege to serve someone who truly appreciated food and did not hanker to resemble a stick insect.
Diane reached across the table with her serviette to wipe a spot of cream from Thomas’s chin. He caught the hand, removed the serviette and brought her fingers to his lips. Delightful. Henri beamed.
‘See, we’re proof that first love can last,’ whispered Diane, so quietly that Henri had to lean across another table to hear her words, wiping a non-existent spillage.
After their meal he watched them walk hand in hand towards the stairs. There no doubt that they couldn’t wait to be alone for a night full of love. He wished them well.
Henri was not on shift the following morning, so missed seeing his favourite couple
check out. He did not see them head to their own cars, parked side by side. He did not see Diane reach up to kiss Thomas, or see him put his arms around her.
‘Saying goodbye is agony. I hate it,’ he said.
‘I know. I hate it too. But I have a husband who needs me. And you have a wife.’
‘You’ll be here again next year?’
‘Of course. I’ll always be here for you.’
Her car followed his. Thomas indicated left, Dianne right and, until the same time next year, they parted company.
© Kathy Goddard