The candles tottered in their holders as he rushed around the little walnut dining table, straightening silver knives and forks for the second time. She would be here soon and he wanted it all to be just so.
What had he forgotten? Champagne! Out of the freezer, into the fridge. Whew.
Flitting like a swallow, he removed a tray of miniature pastry cases from the oven, carefully tipping out the piping-hot baking beans. How glorious they looked! Returning them briefly to the oven, he busied himself peeling and slicing a pile of figs he had earlier plucked from the garden. This small labour of love complete, he whisked the now lightly-browned pastry cases from the oven, carefully spooning a creamy concoction flecked with specks of salmon into each one and pushed them back in.
His appearance, shirt tails flapping over Labrador-print boxer shorts, tangled brown hair bouncing anxiously into his earnestly furrowed brow, threw an air of playful whimsy over these fervent preparations. One got the impression that even if the evening was not absolutely a success, it would at least make a good diary entry.
Bernard had been looking forward to this evening for some time. In fact, he had been looking forward to it ever since he last kissed the angelic object of his affections farewell, following a blissful week together in Antibes that summer. They had both been staying at the same small hotel, he with his two younger sisters, she with a rather formidable maiden aunt. Their mutual desire to escape, he from dawn-till-dusk yacht parties with minor Bulgarian royalty, she from the tyranny of The Times cryptic crossword, had thrown them inexorably, and inseparably, together.
Ah! the heady magic of the Côte d’Azur. The distant mountains, the rocky outcrops, and the mysticism of the deep blue sea, together formed an enchanting backdrop to a courtship which was all the sweeter for being rather short.
They cycled for miles along the coastline together, kicking their shoes off on empty beaches and burying their feet in the hot sand, feeling the warm kiss of the sun on their neck and cheeks. They lunched on baguette and chilled Chablis, and bought sun-dried tomatoes in local markets. Inspired by a visit to the Picasso museum, he even tried, most unsuccessfully, to paint her, drawing forth peals of laughter from the deep well of her good humour.
Keeping their trysts secret from their aunt and sisters who had in common, if nothing else, a deep curiosity in the affairs of other people, further added a titillating gloss to the whole affair. They parted at the end of the week with gentle assurances and an intoxicating mixture of melancholy and anticipation for the future.
For the next month however life, as the souvenir tea-towel has it, stubbornly got in the way. On short notice he had to travel to the Isle of Skye to continue his ornithological work. For two weeks he attended assiduously to a pair of white-tailed eagles which had, after months of patient coaxing, suddenly taken a fancy to one another. The contrast between his charges’ infatuation and his own romantic isolation was to Bernard as an icicle plunged into his heart. He beguiled the tedious hours of the return journey writing page after page of impassioned letters, describing how he must see her immediately. Agnes, for that was her name, replied as demurely as one can when in the grip of strong passion. She made clear that her feelings were unchanged, admitting that she too was counting the minutes till they next met.
Again, however, fate had other ideas. Agnes had taken a junior role on the committee of a charity Christmas pantomime. The senior members of this commendable production, as generous with their own time as they were with other people’s money, insisted on regular, and extremely lengthy, evening meetings. It was only by considerable force of will that she extricated herself from their clutches.
But tonight was theirs! he thought as he laid out side plates with one hand and tugged on his trousers with the other. Any moment now, she would be here. He imagined her stepping gently up to his front door, tucking an Alice band over her russet hair and pressing the door bell. His heart fluttered at the thought. How her pearl earrings would dimple in the light of the hall!
For theirs had been no ordinary summer fling, Bernard assured himself firmly. And this evening, he thought, well this evening could be the start of the rest of his life. Just as the trees after a hot summer of vigorous greens were now turning red and gold in sequence, so too would their relationship change and grow. Amidst the warm coats and crisp mornings of of winter they would become ever closer. He would cheer and whoop at her pantomime, and call her a great success. In time perhaps they would journey together to far off lands in search of condors or albatross.
The near simultaneous ringing of a kitchen timer and the front door pulled him up with a snap. She was here!
Laying the quiches carefully on the marble counter, he cast his eye around the room once again. Satisfied, he strode into the hall to open the front door.