I was nervous. The taxi ride hadn’t done much to help matters. I slipped on the black raincoat over my jacket and fumbled in a pocket for the false beard and moustache. My fingers alighted on its soft texture and I pulled it out. A quick glance around, but the only activity was passing traffic. I ducked into a shop doorway. Using what little reflection I could make out in the window, I positioned the beard and moustache on my face. Next I pulled out the cheap glasses from my inside jacket pocket and put them on. The whole thing felt weird but I was taking no chances with this date. If she looked nothing like the bombshell on her profile I could make a fast exit without being recognised. A quick reconnaissance mission would put my mind at ease. I just had to hope my disguise would do the trick. For reassurance I pulled my mobile out and hit the camera app. I tapped the icon in the top right corner and watched as the image swivelled around to reveal my face. I looked a bit like a cross between Johnny Depp and a serial killer but I was confident the end result would fool even Cecil, had I run into him. My date would be expecting the clean shaven image portrayed in my online profile so, if she caught a glimpse of me, I felt confident I could carry it off.
I took a deep breath and headed for the restaurant. A waiter greeted me.
“Good evening Sir. Can I take your coat?”
In the bright lights, my confidence diminished. “Err, no... no thank you. I’m not... stay... I mean, not cold. Not hot, I meant. Err, cold... I’ll keep it on for now.”
The waiter nodded. “As you wish Sir. Do you have a reservation?”
“Yes. Have you a table booked?”
“Uh... yes, I mean... no, I’m meeting someone.” I peered over his shoulder hoping to catch a glimpse of my date.
“Very good, Sir. I’ll show you to the bar.”
“No... no. It's fine.” I needed to lose the waiter. “I just need to... to use your, erm... facilities... first. Freshen up, you know.”
“Of course. This way Sir.”
He was not for losing, but I realised that if I stuck close to him it would aid my cover. He walked ahead between rows of tables filled with animated Saturday night diners. I tried to stay focussed.
And then I saw her. She was sitting at the bar, legs crossed, one elbow lightly perched on the bar surface with what appeared to be a Martini held delicately between her slender fingers. Tall, elegant, immaculately dressed in a simple black evening dress that stopped just above the knee, her legs toned like a dancer’s, sheathed in black stockings. The whole image, professional, cool yet extremely sexy. A city lawyer and a stylish lady.
She looked round as we approached. She was stunning. Her profile pictures had not done her justice at all. And in that first fleeting glimpse my concerns evaporated. I hesitated, a wave of relief washing over me, a surge of euphoria following swiftly in its wake. I took a step towards her just as she glanced down at her watch.
“Hello,” I said.
She looked up. A flicker of a smile but no recognition.
“Sir, the lavatories are this way.”
I heard the waiter’s voice but I was mesmerised by the stunningly good looking vision to my left. I looked at him and said, “It’s okay. I’m meet... ” And then I remembered my disguise. “I am me. Yes... uh, I’m... look, sorry, I don’t want to go now. Thank you. It’s fine.”
Diana looked round at the waiter and then back at me. I realised I had to get out of the restaurant and ditch the disguise. I was already forty-five minutes late due to Real Libel cabs sending me the world’s most incompetent taxi driver. This was one date I could not afford to mess up.
I swivelled round and took a pace forward to leave. As I did, my trailing foot caught up in something and I pitched forward flat on my face onto the floor.
“Oh my goodness.”
I heard the sharp intake of breath. And then Diana was crouched next to me.
“Are you alright? I am so sorry. A stupid place to put a bag. Are you okay?”
“A bag?” I mumbled, as I rose to a sitting position.
“Yes, my bag. I put it on the floor with the strap hooked around the stool. You caught your foot.”
“Uh, yes. I’m... ” Up close she was mesmerising, sparkling blue eyes and a concerned frown creasing her brow, giving her an air of vulnerability. But it was the heady rush of her perfume that overwhelmed me and rendered me unable to complete my sentence.
“You look dazed. Did you hit your head?”
I was dazed but not through injury. “Err, no, I caught my ankle, that’s all. I’m... I’m good. Sorry about your bag. I didn’t see –”
“Goodness. Don’t apologise. Entirely my fault. Let me check your ankle.” She leant forward and reached for my foot. I pulled it away. “It’s fine... it’s nothing, honest.” I got to my feet, the waiter applying some half-hearted assistance.
“Let me get you a drink at least,” Diana said. “You look like you could use one.”
She was almost right. I could use several. And then I remembered I was supposed to be meeting her.
“It's okay. I... I’m supposed to be...” I hesitated. I could hardly mention a date, a subject too close for comfort given the circumstances. “... you know, to be… err... and I’m sure you have to be... as well and –”
“You sound confused. Are you sure you’re okay?” She stretched out a hand and placed her red tipped fingers lightly on my arm. “I won’t take no for an answer. A good stiff drink will do you the world of good.” She glanced at her watch. “And anyway, it looks like I’ve been stood up. I had a date but he’s now nearly fifty minutes late. So join me for one at least. I hate to drink alone. What will it be?”
At the mention of her date my senses slipped into stall mode and I had a sudden overwhelming need for pure oxygen. I actually felt my face change colour. Diana’s voice arrested my freefall into catatonia.
“Look, are you sure you’re okay? You look a little dazed. Perhaps I should call an ambulance?”
“An ambulance? No, no. A drink will be fine... err, whiskey.” I didn’t really care what drink I had. My focus was now on rescuing the date, especially now Diana thought she had been stood up and to do that I had to ditch the disguise. “Look, Di... err... ” And then I realised that I shouldn’t know her name. “... I digress. I mean... look, I think… I… err, need the gents. I won’t be long.”
She smiled. “Okay. Whiskey you say? Any particular one?”
“No... just, you know... malt.”
I headed for the lavatories.
Once inside I pulled off the false beard and stuffed it into the coat pocket along with the glasses. Then I took off the coat, scrunched it into a ball and placed it on top of the cistern in one of the cubicles. Next, I checked my look in the mirror. All seemed okay. I took a deep breath and decided to go for it.
I opened the lavatory door and took a surreptitious peek into the restaurant. Diana was engrossed in conversation with what looked like a very officious staff member who sported incredibly bushy eyebrows and a Hitleresque moustache. A good time to make a discreet entrance.
I swallowed hard, nerves jangling, and headed towards the bar.
“Hello. Diana? Is it you? I’m Matthew. I’m really sorry I’m late...” She turned suddenly and it threw me. “Err, delays on the... the... mini cab, taxi thing.”
“Matthew. You made it. I’d given you up as a lost cause. I’m not used to being made to wait so long I have to say.”
“I’m so sorry. The tube... I mean, the taxi... it was, you know...”
She smiled, her whole persona cool and unruffled. “Well, never mind. Glad you made it.” She glanced at the barman and then looked back at me. “Would you like a drink? I have a tab going.”
As she said it the barman placed a glass of whiskey on the bar. “Your Dalmore for the gentleman, Madam,” he said.
I needed a drink. I reached out, grabbed the glass and necked the contents in one. Diana’s reaction was almost as instant as the whiskey blaze that hit the back of my throat.
“Matthew. Excuse me. That was for my friend.”
“Your friend. Err... I am... he is... ” I took a deep breath as I realised my error. “I’m really sorry.” I pointed at the barman. “Uh... he said it was for the gentleman. I assumed –”
Diana raised an eyebrow. “A gentleman never assumes, Matthew. My friend has gone to freshen up. He won’t be long. I’m just making sure he's alright. He had a minor accident. Anyway, lovely to meet you. I’m delighted to say that you look exactly like your profile pictures. So refreshing. So many men on these dating sites are extremely false.”
I gulped but tried to style it out. “Err, and you look very like... well, like you too.” I was saved from further bumbling when Hitler moustache intervened.
“Are you ready for your table Ms Twist?” he asked.
“No, not yet James. I think I should like to make sure that that young man who tripped on my bag gets his drink and is okay first. Speaking of which, can I get another Martini.”
“I’m sure he'll be fine,” I blurted out, anxious to dismiss the thought from Diana’s mind.
“With respect Matthew, you can’t say that. The poor chap took a tumble and may have hurt himself. Men are so silly, putting on a brave face. All very well until you have concussion. I need to know that he’s well.”
I bit my lip and wished I had another whiskey at hand. But I knew there was no option other than to sort my alter ego if I was going to have a successful date with Diana.
“Excuse me a moment,” I said. “Just need the... the, err, lads’ room.”
Diana smiled and turned back to the bar.
I reached the toilets and headed for the cubicle where I’d stashed my disguise. I pulled out the raincoat and slipped it on. Next I took out the false beard and moustache and placed it on my face. Then I put the glasses on. I buttoned up the coat and checked the mirror. The image that stared back at me blew any modicum of confidence I had into tiny pieces. Diana wasn’t stupid. She was too cool and too... too... legal. I looked like a pantomime villain. But I knew I had to sort out the ‘friend.’ If he didn’t come out of the toilets Diana would fret. I needed her attention. I took a deep breath, stared at the bizarre image and decided to style it out.
I strode back into the restaurant determined to sort the issue I had created. I approached Diana, my intention to thank her for her concern and take my leave. But she beat me to it.
“Ah, there you are,” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Err, yes. Fine. Look, I have to go. I need to –”
“Have your drink first.” She picked up the replacement whiskey from the bar and handed it to me. I necked it in one, the sensation causing my eyes to squint involuntarily.
Diana smiled. “Well, nice to meet you. You be careful now. Watch your step and I’ll make sure I place my bag somewhere sensible in future.” As she said it she glanced at my feet. “Nice shoes by the way.”
I was pleasantly surprised by the compliment and for a split second forgot myself. “Thank you Diana. I bought them especially for –”
“You know my name?”
My face flushed beneath the beard. “Uh... No... I mean, no... Not exactly... I –”
“But you just said it. That’s precisely my name. Diana. You could not have been more exact.”
I faltered for a moment, my instinct to run. There was no point in arguing with a lawyer. And then I said, “Someone told me it.”
“Err... Yes. It was... it was the man in the gents... The toilets. We got talking. He said he had a date. I told him that I’d been offered a drink by a... a very nice blonde lady at the bar. And he said that it might be you and asked if the name was Diana. I said I didn’t know but that you had a black dress on and he said that it sounded like his date, Diana.”
Diana smiled. “I see. Well, speaking of my date, I wonder why he’s taking so long. He was late in the first place. Would you take a look, make sure he’s okay?”
A wave of panic shot through me. “Uh... I’m sure he is. I mean what can go wrong in a toilet?”
She placed a hand on my arm. “If you wouldn’t mind. You never know. I’ve been looking forward to this evening and it has got off to a strange start.”
I nodded. The sooner I solved the problem the sooner I could enjoy my evening. I headed towards the lavatories and then I noticed a short corridor to one side with double doors at the end. Each door had a glass panel at the top. I went along the corridor and stared through the glass. The restaurant kitchens. And an idea popped into my head.
I pushed one of the doors open and was immediately confronted by one of the chefs.
“You can’t come in here, Sir,” he said.
“Sorry. I... are you the Head Chef?”
“No. If you’ve got a problem with your order you need to speak with the Maître d’.”
“No, no. Nothing like that. Can I speak with the Head Chef? It’s urgent.”
The guy was not of a mind to co-operate but we were interrupted by one of the other staff members.
“What’s the problem here? I’m Head Chef. It’s my kitchen,” he said.
“Of course. Sorry to barge in but I’m a customer who’s trying to surprise my friend... a special occasion. Have you got a back door? Out to a yard or something? I have another friend... the lady’s brother. He’s come a long way... err, from Australia. I’m trying to smuggle him in to surprise her.”
“You should see the Maître d’ for that,” the Head Chef said.
“The guy with the moustache, out front.”
There was no way I’d get Hitler moustache to co-operate. “No... no, he’s busy. If you could just leave the back door open so he can come in through the kitchen. It will be a huge surprise as she won’t see him coming.”
The Head Chef frowned. “We have a back door, sure, but it’s for deliveries.”
I pulled out my wallet. “There’s a drink in it for you.”
“A drink? How much?”
“Err... twenty quid.”
He laughed. “There’s four of us here. A hundred and I’ll open the door for you.”
“A hundred?” I gulped. “But that’s more than twenty each?”
“You want it opened or not?”
I did. “Okay. Here.” I pulled out five twenties and handed them over. “My friend is about my height, dark suit, white shirt. Looks a bit like me. Oh, and shoes very like mine too. His name is Matthew. He’ll be five, ten minutes. Okay?”
“Okay.” He rolled up the notes and stuffed them in a back pocket. “He got a beard too?”
“You said he looks a bit like you. He got a beard?”
I kept forgetting about my disguise. “Err, no… no, clean shaven. I meant that if he did have a beard… which he hasn’t, he’d look a bit… a bit, you know… like me.”
I turned around and went back out to the corridor and emerged into the restaurant from the direction of the lavatories. Diana saw me coming.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Yes. All good. Your date will be out soon. He’s, you know, just sprucing up. Difficult journey he said. Anyway, I have to run. Nice to meet you. Thanks for the drink.”
I didn’t wait for a response. I headed straight for the front exit.
Once outside I pulled off the beard, glasses and the coat. I wrapped them into a tight bundle and walked to the corner of the street. I figured that if I went around the block I would end up at the back of the restaurant. I turned right. Midway along the street there was an alley lined with green wheelie bins. I turned right into the alley and realised I was behind the main block where the restaurant was. I followed it until I was somewhere in the vicinity of the restaurant. I opened one of the wheelie bins and found it was filled with flat packed cardboard. The top two or three pieces had the names of catering suppliers printed on them. I lobbed my rolled coat into the bin and walked towards the back of the building through a small fence-lined courtyard that had two cars parked in it. At the end of the courtyard, partially hidden by the fencing, there was a large white door set off to one side of the building. I pulled it open and found a wide corridor stacked with empty produce boxes on one side. At the end, a see through plastic curtain filled the door frame. I walked through and found myself in the kitchen but this time at the far end. Immediately the Head Chef spotted me.
“And you are?”
I searched rapidly for an Australian twang, hoping something of Neighbours or even Skippy had rubbed off.
“Err... g’day cobber... erm, sport. Ahm Matthew from Oz. Ma mate said it’d be fair dinkum to come through yer... err, uh... billabong... kitchen. Good onya. Come to surprise the Sheila out front there. My mate cut ya some... err, some buckeroos I hear so we’re... uh, bonzer?”
The Head Chef shot me a strange look but said nothing. I strolled through the kitchen trying to give it as much swagger as I could. Just as I reached the door that led out to the restaurant, I heard the Head Chef call out.
“Hey, Matthew. Where’d you and your mate get them shoes?”
I stopped as the word ‘shoes’, linked with ‘mate’ in the same sentence, sank in.
“Yeah, you both got the same shoes. I like them. Where’d you buy them?”
I turned, unable to say anything meaningful, my mind focussed on the implications of ‘same shoes.’ “Err... same shop,” I blurted out and headed through the door.
Back in the corridor that led to the restaurant I stopped to collect my thoughts. If the chef had noticed my shoes were the same as the other guy’s then Diana must have done. She would have noticed them on my disguised persona too. I had fallen over right in front of her. I remembered that she had tried to look at my ankle. So she would have seen my socks - black, with a thin blue stripe. Not distinctive, but noticeable. She was a lawyer. She spotted things.
I turned and headed for the lavatories. Once inside I stared for a moment at my mirrored reflection. I needed this date to go well. How likely was it that two guys in the same restaurant had identical shoes... and socks? I couldn’t risk it. I had no choice but to ditch the shoes. I pulled them off and stuck them on top of the cistern in one of the cubicles. I hesitated for a moment, a storm of wild thoughts blowing through my head. Should the socks go too? No, barefoot was a step too far. I could come up with some rational explanation for no shoes but no socks was a tricky one. Shoes were being left on the road all the time. Nobody had a clue how they got there. So it wasn’t unusual to lose your shoes. The socks would be... co-incidence. My decision had been made, helped by the two large whiskeys. Time to style it out and get to know Diana.
I went back out to the restaurant. She was still at the bar.
“Matthew. Goodness you were ages. I thought you’d got cold feet and escaped.”
At the mention of feet I decided to go for it. “Oh, no. Nothing like that. I’m looking forward to our date. I... I, err... lost my shoes.”
Diana giggled and stared at my feet. “Lost your shoes? How funny. How did you do that?”
I asked myself the same question. “Well... I... it’s a long story. Err... tarmac... look, I don't want to bother you with the details. Shall we get another drink?”
“Of course. We can get another drink. Whiskey?” She nodded to the barman. “And then you can tell me about your shoes. It would be a lovely ice breaker rather than all that dating small talk. And they were very smart, classy shoes I have to say.”
I gulped. “You... you saw them?”
“Of course I did. I’m a woman. We always make a point of looking at a man’s shoes. And his watch. They say things about a man. Shoes are detail.” She raised her glass and winked. “And, of course, they are a good indicator of the size of his feet.” She sipped her drink and then said, “They can’t be far away Matthew. You had them on when you came in.”
The barman placed a glass of whiskey on the bar.
“Err, yes... yes, I did. But I... well... ” I grabbed the glass and necked the contents in one.
Diana smiled, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Tarmac.”
“Tarmac?” I repeated.
“Yes, you said something about tarmac.”
“Tarmac. Err... yes. Well... I... on the way here, I stood in some wet tarmac. Accidentally. Road works near the restaurant... I didn’t see it. I stepped out of the taxi... dreadful journey. Wasn’t thinking... and my shoe went in it. So I decided to try and clean it off in the lavatory but it was really tough and... I needed more... err, loo paper and as I was getting some I accidently dropped the shoe into the actual toilet.”
“Really? Why didn’t you just pull it back out?”
“I was going to but the floor was wet and I slipped as I went to get it out. As I fell forward my hand hit the flush lever and it... it got flushed away.”
Diana laughed out loud. “Must be a very big lavatory to flush away your shoe. So what happened to the other one?”
“The other one?”
“Yes, your other shoe.”
“Oh, I left it there. No sense in walking around with one shoe.”
“Well, what a disaster. I hope you haven’t left sticky footprints on the carpet.”
“Uh... no, I don’t think so. I was careful.”
Diana turned away and picked up her drink. I felt a sense of relief. My story had rambled on. It was off the cuff but I considered that it may just have been plausible.
I picked up a bar menu and browsed for some Champagne. Diana interrupted my thoughts.
“I do hope that young man that tripped up earlier watches his step. He had identical shoes to yours. A shame if he stepped into wet tarmac too.”