It all seemed highly respectable and efficient on the website. There were pictures, each with a short description, a clear price list, and the whole thing was in a very classy spectrum of greys and taupes. Margaret had always liked taupe; it was understated yet warm and could be very flattering in a skirt, especially topped off with a cream blouse. There was a telephone number which said “open 24 hours” which made it sound serious and professional.
She had scrolled through the list of escorts while sitting comfortably at her Apple Mac with a cup of tea and a plate of custard creams. She thought it terribly annoying when a biscuit broke – a bit of the actual biscuit bit of the biscuit – leaving too much of the cream filling exposed. It made the whole snack experience too sickly. Possibly the Tesco own brand was an inferior product. She might try Waitrose. Big Bob looked nice with his wide smile and his hat. What did they call it? Cowboy thing. A Stetson. And he seemed to be wearing suede chaps which were very fetching although his rather too skinny legs detracted slightly from the ruggedness. Under the picture it said: “Big Bob treats the ladies mighty fine, maybe the rodeo or off to the saloon for a hoedown.” It all sounded a bit energetic and rural.
Suave Sebastian would maybe prove a better bet even though Margaret had always assumed anyone called Sebastian would be a gay. Not that she minded a gay at all; there was a lovely man who worked in the garden centre who was often talking about his “husband” and though it still felt a bit odd and unusual to hear a man talk about his husband, she was pleased that she was able not to let that show on her face when they spoke, and even asked about how ‘Derek’ was coping with the new hours at his job. She felt a little frisson of being terribly modern and with-it, to be on chatting terms with a man with a husband, and she was pleased that it was ok now for them to do that like everyone else, although she wasn’t entirely sure about the whole lady lesbian marriage thing. She knew this was inconsistent of her; but it was because she was a lady herself, and she hadn’t ever had the slightest urge to kiss another lady so couldn’t really understand who would have. That time in the third form, when she and Amy Harbottle had touched tongues under damp canvas on a school camping trip to Swanage, didn’t really count. Even then, she’d found the experience too wet and slimy to want to do it again. She and Amy hadn’t ever mentioned it after that. Suave Sebastian did seem to like the ladies, according to his little profile. “Sebastian is a Gentleman and always stands up when a lady enters a room. He likes to converse on subjects that may cover books and reading, or art galleries that he has frequented. He only drinks champagne and is looking forward to splashing out on a fine lady.” Sebastian was sporting a dicky bow and a sports jacket, and his hair was very neat and shiny. Margaret wondered if the bow tie was a real one that you have to tie yourself, or just the sort on elastic. He had lovely hair, real gentleman hair with a sharp parting. She thought it might get a bit boring if all he talked about was books and paintings. And presumably she’d have to be the one to buy the champagne.
Dark Dave was dressed all in black like the Milk Tray man, even down to the polo neck. He looked like he was carrying something but she couldn’t really make it out and didn’t think it was a box of chocolates. He had a thin but solid moustache that looked possibly as if he dyed it. Margaret mused on her grandmother who used to colour her hair with Camp Coffee, or gravy browning if they were out of coffee essence. She smelled like the County Stores in the high street in Taunton, all those open jute sacks of coffee beans. Very cosmopolitan for back then. There was a delicious aroma all through the shop where you could browse for quite a while among all the fancy jams and tins of biscuits, and even buy a small lavender bag if there was any pocket money left over. Grandma liked a ‘coffee dash’ on a Saturday, hot milk with a dash of Camp in it, which was why she’d often run out of the stuff and have to resort to the gravy browning for her hair which didn’t really do the job as well. Sometimes after shopping, her grandmother would take her to the Berni Inn further up the high street for a treat. She didn’t think the coffee at the Berni Inn was a patch on her Camp, and preferred on these occasions to get a pot of tea instead, to be on the safe side. Margaret supposed that the building the Berni was housed in had been listed and therefore unalterable, because it seemed unlikely that the large ancient shield of Hanging Judge Jeffreys and the display of manacles and other terrifying implements could really have been part of the steak-and-sundae restaurateur’s initial marketing plan.
Formerly the Assizes House, plaques detailing the brutal response to the Monmouth Rebellion and mocked-up news accounts in mahogany-effect frames lining the staircase to the ladies’ toilet made you hesitate before scooping up the raspberry sauce swirled over your Knickerbocker Glory. Even the glacé cherries and cheerful paper umbrella stuck in the squirty cream didn’t quite distract you from the realisation that people had actually been executed probably somewhere very near the self-service salad bar with its tantalising array of vinegary dressings. These outings were a bittersweet treat, Margaret found.
Of course her grandmother would be spoiled for choice nowadays since they have that frothy coffee done apparently all sorts of which-ways. They are pretty much just a coffee dash by any other name, however, and a three quid price tag.
Margaret quite liked a moustache, even if it was an unnatural colour. It stated that Dark Dave would beguile her with his mysteriousness and his deep penetrating eyes would see through to her soul. Dave sounded a bit like Rasputin the Mad Monk and she wasn’t sure that this was altogether attractive. Although hadn’t it been Christopher Lee in that film? She’d always liked him. Wouldn’t mind his eyes penetrating her soul. He’d also done Dracula.
She wasn’t certain, but Dave looked a bit like Big Bob only with a moustache, although it was difficult to see Bob’s whole face properly under the brim of his cowboy hat. She looked again at Suave Sebastian’s picture and noticed that he looked rather like Dark Dave but without the moustache. It didn’t matter, she had made her decision: she’d go for Dark Dave and his polo necks. He didn’t really have to look like Christopher Lee but if he did that eye thing, or if he presented her with chocs, well it would be a bonus.
The webpage with the prices on it listed various tariffs: there was the Basic which was just drinks (“Petty cash must be arranged in advance and added to the standard fee so that your Gentleman can treat you to beverages without any awkwardness on the night”); the Dinner Date (“Let yourself be wined and dined in style at a pre-selected range of restaurants boasting an array of mouthwatering menus. Choose at time of booking your Gentleman from Italian, Classique Français, or All-you-can-eat Oriental Buffet (exclusions may apply and limits may be set on plate replenishments)”. Margaret liked pasta. It was a safe bet, and if you chose carefully, opting for the spiral ones for example, they were easy to eat without risk of accidental mess on a dry-clean only dress. And she’d be able to find something she liked on the menu which wouldn’t necessarily be the case for a French restaurant where you never understood what the dishes actually were. There was the danger of picking something terrible, like snails, by mistake. A day trip to Boulogne had been ruined by having lunch in a restaurant behind the Mammouth hypermarket. At first she’d not seen anything immediately identifiable on the menu that she might want to eat. Then with relief she’d spotted marmite de rognons de coq thinking that at least she knew that coq was chicken, and while it sounded a strange combination, she also liked Marmite so she’d be on safe ground. When a vast bubbling pot with dark things bobbing in a rich-looking gravy that tasted nothing like Marmite was put in front of her by the waiter, she could have cried. She’d swooshed the floating lumps around with her fork and dunked a bit of baguette in to have a taste, but she couldn’t identify the sauce except that it had a bit of a suspicious tang and too much red wine in it. She’d eaten all the bread in the basket on the table. They hadn’t provided butter.
There was a much more expensive option, the Spoil Me, Spoil Me, which included pick-up in a chauffeured car from home or hotel to the pre-selected restaurant and back again. It seemed a bit of a waste to go by car when all the listed restaurants were in fairly close proximity to where she lived anyway. Nothing wrong with taking the bus or having a brisk walk. There was little about the experience of being chauffeur-driven which appealed; Margaret had travelled by Uber on occasion. They had those silent cars which nearly ran you over when you crossed the street as you never heard them coming. And the air fresheners. A cardboard pineapple with a smiley face and the pungent aroma of Toilet Duck’s ‘Limousine Collection’. She wasn’t paying a hundred quid extra for that.
Margaret wasn’t a great spender of money really, although she went to a nice hairdresser every few months and occasionally treated herself to some Roger et Gallet soap if she was feeling extravagant. She actually had lots of money. She hadn’t always of course; things had been not exactly tight when she was growing up, but her mother’s Naval widow’s pension was always invoked whenever Margaret asked for some new thing, money to go to a matinee, or if she accidentally ruined an item of clothing in the wash. The modest pension, which was carefully eked out after Margaret’s father had died following a not terribly distinguished career that had ended ignominiously on a fishing trip when he’d been on shore-leave, was always a stick with which to jab her:
“I have been all alone with you young lady since your father was gathered. Keeping a roof over your head doesn’t come cheaply and you seem to eat money.”
But this wasn’t the whole story, far from it. Margaret’s mother was pretty comfortably-off; her own father had been some kind of chemist-inventor maverick who had struck lucky in one of his off-duty experiments using the handy facilities of the laundry soap manufactory for which he worked. When an alteration in the recipe for this basic washing powder – the substitution of a cheaper element in order to make the product go further at no extra cost – had resulted in chemical burns for some unfortunate housewives, the team of chemists of which Margaret’s grandfather was one had to roll up their sleeves and find a corrector to this unfortunate cocktail but, still, without the factory bosses having to spend a penny more. It was a tall order. But on one of the nights when, like a mad scientist, he sat up among the bell jars and distilling flasks experimenting just for his own interest, he had discovered, quite by accident, a compound which could be used in the industrial stripping of varnish from wooden floors, furniture, even from pianos. The happy accident of knocking over a beaker onto the veneered bench whose varnish had immediately dissolved without destroying the wood had been the turning point in his family’s fortunes. He and his wife had just the one child – Margaret’s mother – and when he settled a patent for this wonder chemical and found a willing investor in a rival factory who would make up the new product and make it a commercial venture, their comfortable future was assured. Sadly, very soon after Veneri-O, whose tag line ran ‘Cheerio with Veneri-O’ (a slogan which perhaps had not been explored thoroughly enough as to its potential for misunderstanding), was launched with startling remunerative results, Margaret’s grandfather suffered an accident in his home laboratory which was never fully explained, but which precipitated his early death at the age of just 51. His widow collected the dividends from the global sales of this product for decades and this accrued wealth trickled down the generations, finally ending up in Margaret’s pocket after her mother had passed away at a cantankerous 94. Margaret had quickly put the large, forbidding, red brick house that she had grown up in on the market and bought herself a bright, modern, street-level flat in a new development which was part of the urban regeneration of a formerly unlovely part of town. The flat had underfloor heating and a steam oven.
She dialled the 24-hour number on the website. It rang and rang, and Margaret was on the point of hanging up when a girl, mid-laugh, answered: “Elusive Escorts, how may I help you?” Her laughter trailing away, she sounded bored.
“I’d like to book an escort please”, Margaret said, more confidently than she felt. “I’d like to book Dark Dave.”
There was a muffled snort at the other end of the line and then, clearer, though through squelches of what sounded like bubble gum, “Dark Dave is very popular and comes at a premium”, more laughter, this time in the background.
“I know what he costs, thank you”, said Margaret slightly tartly, “I’ve looked at your website.” She booked the Dinner Date package with the Italian option and flexed her credit card for the ‘float’ for expenses so that Dark Dave could complete the fiction that he was taking his date on a night out, his treat.
“You will have to sign an indemnity waiver at the time you meet your escort, he will bring the form with him.” Indemnity? How much damage did they think a pasta supper and a glass of that wine which comes from wicker-clad bottles could cause? She had, however, once read in a copy of The Lady that those bottles were called fiascos, so maybe they had a point. Dave would pick her up at her house and they would walk to the restaurant. Then after dinner he would walk her home again. The girl on the phone said something about any private arrangements the client and the escort should enter into at the end of the booked date beyond 23:00 in the evening, would be with the escort as a sole trader, but might incur a 20 per cent surcharge to the agency, which would be taken off her credit card. Margaret didn’t question their policy and nearly said that money was not an issue but thought better of it.
Margaret hadn’t had a huge amount of time for men. She liked them but wasn’t very bothered. Her mother had expected her to stay at home with her (“I’m a poor widow and all alone”) and after school and then a secretarial course, Margaret hadn’t found the energy or ambition to fly the nest. She worked, of course, paying her mother an unnecessary but expected rent, as a receptionist in the local dental surgery. Apart from the two dentists and the patients she didn’t meet many men, and it was hard to find someone attractive when you knew about their gum disease and congenital halitosis. She had friends from school whom she kept up with, and occasionally went to the pictures with a lad, a brother of a friend, but on the whole her life trotted along fairly efficiently without a boyfriend.
So, there was Dark Dave on her doorstep. He had the polo neck jumper and some tight black slacks but the moustache was gone. Margaret wasn’t sorry. She was also relieved that he’d rung the doorbell like a normal person as she’d harboured a slight anxiety he might try to enter through the window or something. He was clutching a bunch of mixed carnations, not a flower Margaret was especially fond of, and the Co-op label was visible on the crumpled cellophane. As it turned out, Dave was quite short, and on the lower step in front of the door he resembled a friendly little penguin, albeit without the white bib. The evening street was dim but Dave sported a pair of sunglasses and seemed reluctant to take them off.
“Got a sty”, he said, awkwardly. “Stress. It’s either that or cold sores. Sometimes I get irritable bowel.” Margaret felt this was perhaps a little too much information too soon, but just said, “Shall we go straight to the restaurant? I’ll get my coat.”
They walked through the quiet streets with a good distance between them. Margaret thought, he’s not even shaken my hand yet. Dave seemed to find his confidence on their walk and began a tour guide routine to the local area, mainly concentrating on which soap stars had been seen going in or coming out of Boots. When they arrived at O Sole Mio, the Italian restaurant option on the agency’s list, Margaret felt a slight whooshing of her blood in her ears, the beginnings of excitement or enjoyment at something a bit new, a bit different. The restaurant – all red-checked tablecloths and candles stuck in bottles – was empty as it was still only early evening. They were ushered to a a table in the window and Dave held the chair while Margaret sat down. It was a gentlemanly thing to do, she thought.
She’d chosen her best blouse – plum coloured – teamed with a navy pleated skirt, so any sloppage from the tomato sauce of her pasta would not show. Dave seemed to increase in confidence and had finally taken his dark glasses off. She could see the red swollen eye and decided not to mention it as he was obviously self-conscious. Wasn’t it pure gold you were meant to put on it? Maybe that was mouth ulcers. They had some wine and Margaret could feel her whole body warming up in a delicious way. Dave seemed to have something important written on a piece of paper which he kept taking out of his pocket and referring to. It was possible it was a list of suitable Dark Dave topics of conversation, but she couldn’t see what was written on it. He certainly seemed to keep up quite a stream of talk, from plots of films she hadn’t seen, to Manga comics about which she knew nothing, to the possibilities of Arsenal signing a new star. He occasionally asked her something about herself: was she enjoying her pasta? Had she ever been to Italy? Did she like the Eurovision Song Contest? She didn’t mind that the talk was anodyne and the questions fairly impersonal; she was enjoying being in someone else’s concentrated field of vision and sharing a meal and drinking wine. He was telling her something about a school trip to France when he was a teenager and how after he and his mates had shared a bong with a lad called Serge they had had fits of hysterics while having lunch at a motorway café called Flunch – the name rendering them incapable of speech for what seemed hours. His best mate Gavin had wet himself laughing and had to sit in his underpants all the way back in the coach. Margaret found herself giggling at this story which, it had to be said, Dave told rather well.
When it was time to leave the restaurant, she slipped her arm through his and they walked companionably but quietly back to her flat. She let them both in, the unaccustomed few glasses of wine making the aim of her key toward the lock a bit uncertain. And then they were in the hall and Dave said something about her looking lovely, and he touched her face with surprisingly soft hands. Margaret felt full and pleasantly unsteady; they’d had ice-cream that the waiter had called gelato after their pasta and then little glasses of limoncello which they were told was “on the house”. It tasted of the lemon curd she used to enjoy at her grandmother’s house, only this had a kick like an alcoholic mule.
And then his hands were everywhere and so were hers, and his trousers were off and her skirt had been discarded. And she laughed a bit and tried to say something but he put a finger that smelled strangely of cloves to her lips. There was that little electric charge that she vaguely remembered from way back, low down and warmly spreading. Her skin felt alive and the feel of Dave’s tongue on her tongue was soft rather than slimy, and his leg pushing between hers which was friendly and a bit rude but after the wine and everything and anyway she was paying and she had pots of money it didn’t really matter what they bill was later, she could lose herself in this moment, no, in this evening, and her body was responding to the rubbing of his bare thigh against the gusset of her knickers and then the knickers were gone too and the pop socks, which if she’d given a damn at this point would have embarrassed her that she was wearing, but it was all she could find in her tights drawer that didn’t have ladders, and Dave didn’t seem to mind and good God then he was fingering her and she loved it and could hear herself saying all sorts of things she never thought she’d ever utter while his one finger was joined by another and then a third and he seemed to be throughly discovering every inch of the inner parts of her, and then more more more she was moaning and then oh yes that’s it like an exquisite itch a sneeze a – oh my. She lay sleepily, wetly and spent on her soft brown sheepskin rug entwined with Dave or whatever his name was, tangled up in his legs with his arms around her.
She woke in a shaft of sun flecked with motes of silvery dust coming from the window whose blinds she had not closed. She was still on her rug but the duvet from her bedroom had been carefully tucked round her and a pillow placed under her head. Her mouth was dry but she felt warm and cat-like wrapped in the soft quilt, and, yawning stretched out her legs deliciously and pointed her toes. She felt as though she had had the best sleep in years. Someone had placed a glass of water beside her.
Turning her head sideways, she saw that the flowers that Dark Dave had brought had been arranged prettily on a table in a blue glass jug. There was a note propped up. Margaret clutched the duvet to her as she leaned over to reach it.
“Thank you for a smashing evening. I didn’t want to wake you, so I sneaked out. There’s some coffee in a teapot in your kitchen (couldn’t find a coffee pot) but it may be cold by the time you get to it. All the best, Dark Dave. (P.S. My real name is Alan.)” He’d put two kisses.
With the quilt round her she waddled to the kitchen. She found a teapot full of coffee still warm to the touch, one of her best china cups and saucers, a small jug of milk, and a box of Milk Tray. A puddle of sunlight on the granite work surface looked like liquid gold.