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`Thank you. Thank you indeed. Yes, we have you with a table for six tonight. Yes, in a booth. Look forward to seeing you.'
Judith Delves, in the neat inconspicuous black suit befitting the manager of a major West End restaurant, presented raincoats and umbrellas to the expensively dressed pair of young men just leaving the restaurant. It was a brilliant September afternoon, intermittently streaked with rain, and the Café de la Paix had been full that lunchtime. The tourists, who sustain all big London restaurants, were going home to Paris and New York, but the regulars, the Londoners working in the big office blocks in St Martin's Lane and the Strand, were coming back from their holiday houses and big hotels in foreign countries.
The Café was a long ground-floor space running the full width of a large office building and the design challenge had been to avoid the look of an oversize village hall. A skilful mixture of heavily gilded large mirrors and huge 1930s posters against a pale gold background and booths broke up the space without having involved enormous cost. The real money had gone into a long, curving bar, equipped with every storage device a barman could want, and a modern, beautifully equipped kitchen. The Caff, as its regulars called it, could seat 250 and, at lunchtime and after curtain-down in the surrounding theatres, mostly did. Judith Delves turned and with the restaurateur's eagle eye saw instantly that two tables at the back had not been cleared and signalled a busboy, in the long white overall over black trousers that signalled his status.
Selina Marsh-Hayden, her partner in the restaurant, bright blonde, model slim, turning all heads in her cherry-coloured suit with its exiguous pleated skirt over long legs, pushed through the heavy glass door.
`Hello,' Judith said, trying not to sound accusing. Selina should have been present two hours ago to deal with the lunch reception, but this was not the moment to say so.
`I tried to ring.' Selina made a pretty gesture of helplessness, indicating histories of unavailable telephones and broken-down lines. `But then I thought, anyway, we had to talk face to face. Can someone look after the place just while we have coffee?'
`I'm not sure there's any point, Selina. I'm not going to change my mind.' Angry as she was, Judith still observed that every last one of the men sitting over their coffee at the bar was watching Selina's legs more or less overtly.
`Yes, but darling, that's the thing, you see. I've changed my mind.'
Judith stared at her and put both hands on the reception desk to steady herself. `You've what?'
`Judith, do come over and sit down and I'll get coffee.'
They both waited until they had before them a cup of the Café's exquisite cappuccino, the milky foam only just not overflowing the top of the heavy earthenware cup, and grated chocolate a sharp brown on the top. `You were right,' Selina said, when the waiter had gone. `We can do better and I've decided not to sell my shares in the Caff. So we'll be able to stop a sale, won't we, just like the lawyers said, because we've got thirty per cent between us.' She beamed at her friend, fresh and beautiful, her looks enhanced if anything by the faint milky line of cappuccino on her upper lip.
`Thirty per cent does block a sale, yes, just as we've always been advised,' Judith agreed. `But what's made you change your mind? I've asked you often enough to stand by me and told you we could do better.'
`Oh. Various things.' Selina pressed her hand. `Mostly I remembered -- bit late, I know — that you're my very best friend, and have been since we were babies.'
Judith contemplated her, not unaffectionately. `You were quite clear you wanted out. What happened, Selina?'
`I told you. Various things.' She took her hand away and dug in her handbag for a cigarette and glanced around. `We are in the bit for the pariahs who smoke, aren't we? Good.' She smiled, lazily, at the young waiter who had sprung to her side with a light. She drew on her cigarette, giving her friend a considering look through the smoke. `Well, Richard for one. He still wants to sell, of course, because we're absolutely bust. This morning, the laundry actually wouldn't give me this week's lot until I paid cash for three weeks back. I only had £20, so I had to look in all Richard's jackets for the other £30. But the trouble is, Judith, any money we get has to go to the bank, and it's a joint account — I mean, they'll take mine too. So there isn't much point in selling.'
`Did you not realise you — or Richard — were bust?'
Selina and the Hon. Richard Marsh-Hayden had been married for several years, and Judith had been chief bridesmaid and a regular guest in their house, but had always understood that she had no idea how that marriage worked.
`Oh, you can't tell with Richard. He always says he's broke but mostly he isn't. Only this time he is — I looked at some of his letters. He owes money everywhere, not just to the bank.' Selina drew on her cigarette, irritably. `You are lucky, you know, with Michael. All those chaps at Marshall Deneuve are making a fortune in bonuses, Richard says, and I bet Michael's got it all safely tucked away.'
Judith found herself blushing furiously. `Selina, we're not ... I mean, we only just ... I mean, I don't really know how Michael feels about ...'
`You've fucked him, though.'
Judith, scarlet, nodded, as always appalled and cheered by Selina's directness.
`Was it OK?'
`Oh yes. Yes.'
`Mm. Have you seen him since? I mean, apart from here.'
`And done it again?'
`Yes. And we're going away this weekend.' She saw, incredulously, that Selina's lip was drooping, disconsolately. `Selina?'
`Oh hell. Just don't get married, it ruins everything.' Selina stubbed a cigarette out crossly.
`We're nowhere near that,' Judith assured her, battening down the fantasies which she was determined not to allow to surface. She hesitated and crumbled a piece of sugar into her coffee. `I wondered, you know, whether it was because ... well, if he was doing it because he wanted to persuade me to sell my shares. He wants to sell his and get on to the next thing. But he didn't have to do that — I mean, when I was the only person holding out, I only had fifteen per cent, so I would have had to sell.'
`Yes, but you were making his life more difficult.'
Judith stared at Selina, stricken.
` Don't look like that, darling, it's just that you've known each other — well, at least since Richard and I got married. I know you've always rather fancied him, but he's never ... well, has he? Sorry, sorry, Judith, it's just that men are such bastards, and you've always been sensible and kept clear of the worst. Look, anyway, it doesn't matter, you and I aren't going to sell, no matter what any of these bloody men say, are we? All we have to do is tell them.'
Judith took a long swallow of her coffee to steady herself. It was perfectly true that Michael Owens, director of Marshall Deneuve, four years her senior and a very personable six foot two inches hunk of man, had never reciprocated her tentatively offered admiration until the last month. But as Michael pointed out, he had never seen her very much and certainly not registered her as a person until the discussions about selling the restaurant had started. It had been Richard Marsh-Hayden, temporarily flush, who had originally agreed to put up money to enable Selina and Judith to start a restaurant together. They had found, rapidly, that on the basis of the most hopeful budgeting exercise, their own funds were inadequate, and Richard had therefore persuaded Michael Owens, an old school-friend and rising banker, to put in the rest. Michael had only started to take an interest when it became worthy of a banker's attention, and not long after had begun to pay real attention to Judith.
She sneaked a look at her oldest friend who was looking downcast and pettish, and decided in a rush of confidence that all this was, unbelievably, jealousy. Richard Marsh-Hayden, despite his undoubted glamour, was a selfish and boorish husband and had now added insolvency to his other faults, quite unlike the well-mannered, well-off Michael Owens.
`Brian Rubin is going to be very cross though, Selina. It's been in the papers — that the Gemini Group are about to make an acquisition.'
`Well, that's just too bad, isn't it? I'll just go and ring Peter — my solicitor, darling, you know — and get him to ring up Mr Rubin, so he can get sworn at.'
`The cow. The bloody cow.'
`I'm sorry, Richard, I know it's your wife I'm talking about. But fuck it.' Brian Rubin was shaking with temper, the olive skin flushed unbecomingly up to the dark, thick, curly hair.
` I'm just as pissed off with her as you are.' The Hon. Richard Marsh-Hayden, an elegant blond thirty-eight-year-old graduate of Eton, Balliol and the Welsh Guards, habitually spoke as if reared on one of the rougher North London council estates, all the consonants slurred or missing altogether.
`She agreed to sell.' Brian Rubin threw himself into a chair. `I've been trying to do this deal for six months and I can't tell you what it's costing in fees. Ah, Judith.'
He rose awkwardly to his feet as Judith Delves, a little flushed, the heavy jaw in the square face set, came in. Richard Marsh-Hayden rose too.
`I'm sorry,' she said, breathless, `but we were finishing the service. Chef is just behind me.'
Tony Gallagher, a heavy-set blond Irishman, his dirty white tunic unbuttoned at the neck, walked in looking hot. He glanced round the group and said, unapologetically, that the laundry was late, so he had to go on in this jacket, then threw himself into a chair and lit up a cigarette. He made to put his feet up on another chair, but a look from Judith stopped him.
`So where is Selina?' Brian Rubin asked, rudely.
`She'll be back soon.'
Judith sat behind her own large desk which took up a good quarter of the available floor space in the cramped office. A PC sat to her right, and that part of the desk was covered with piles of bills held together with rubber bands. Three heavy board-covered day books lay to her left near a small office switchboard. There were two more desks in the room, both smaller, one as tidy as Judith's, the other wildly disorderly, with flowers, papers and two Harvey Nichols bags jumbled together on the top.
Richard went over to look at his wife's cluttered desk, and burrowed through papers and bags until he found her diary. `Nothing at all for today except Hair. And she'd had that done. Where is she?'
`She doesn't put everything in that diary, Richard.' Judith spoke without looking up.
`I bet she doesn't.' It was explosive and angry and Tony Gallagher applied himself to be soothing.
`She'll be back. She knows this is important. Where did she go, Judith?'
`To pick up her shoes from that place up the road.'
`Well, about ten minutes ago, but she did say she had other things to get.'
Richard Marsh-Hayden made an impatient noise and Judith shook her head slightly at Tony. It was after all Richard's wife whose conduct they were seeking to excuse.
`Michael is on his way,' she said, feeling herself going pink.
`Oh good. We'll have one major shareholder who is making sense.'
Tony Gallagher stubbed out a cigarette savagely and reached for another, catching Richard's attention.
`Sorry, Tony, but your five per cent is about as much use as a fart in a thunderstorm.' He swung round to look out of the window. `What's the silly bitch doing?'
Judith began to sort the pile of bills on her desk, treating the question as rhetorical.
`Look, for God's sake, Judith, go and find her, we need to sort it out right now.' Brian Rubin was rattled and didn't mind showing it.
Richard Marsh-Hayden swung round from his furious contemplation of the street below. `Or you'll do what?'
`Or I'll go and buy some other place where the owners can make up their minds to sell.'
`Get off. You need this deal, you'll run out of cash if you don't get a rights issue off.'
`You don't know what you're talking about.' The response was immediate but defensive, and everyone in the room heard that.
`Yeh, I do. Talked to a man in a brokers this morning.' Richard Marsh-Hayden jabbed a pencil in the air by way of emphasis. `Look, bugger it anyway, most of us want to sell, there's no disagreement about that. Just don't be too ready to tell us how you could go and buy something else tomorrow. You couldn't, you're fucked if you can't buy us, so let's start from there, OK?'
Brian Rubin opened his mouth to protest but Richard Marsh-Hayden had swung back to look out of the window again, both hands flat against the glass, frustration in every line of his body. Tony Gallagher's mouth had dropped open and Judith felt as if hers had too.
`You mean that after all this Mr Rubin here can't afford to pay us for the restaurants?'
Richard turned to her, slowly, in an elaborate display of weary patience. `Thought we'd gone through all of this months ago. Brian is going to raise the money by issuing new shares in his company to the punters on the stock market, yeh? Only you can't do that unless you've got something to buy. He's got a lot of restaurants but no cash. Now, we've got two restaurants. OK, and not a lot of cash either, but put the two together and you get a group in which he can sell shares, so he can get cash to keep going and buy some more. But he has to do a deal, or he runs out of cash. Soon.'
`Not that soon.' Brian Rubin had recovered himself, but Richard Marsh-Hayden was implacable.
`You're in trouble, Brian. Don't feel bad, we've all been there, but don't give us any crap either.'
`What sort of trouble, excuse me?' Tony Gallagher, thoroughly alarmed, was looking from face to face, and Richard turned on him in vicious impatience just as a buzzer went.
Judith jabbed her finger on the door release and looked gratefully at the tall man, with a thick mop of dark blond hair, who was pushing the door shut behind him.
`Michael. You up with the latest situation? Right now we're just waiting for my bloody wife. She's gone shopping, would you believe.'
Michael Owens nodded to Richard, kissed Judith who had risen to greet him, and shook hands with Tony and Brian Rubin, carefully lowering the temperature of the meeting. He looked doubtfully at a small cane chair, decided against it and perched on the edge of Judith's desk. `Could we have coffee?'
`Of course.' Judith reached for a phone to order it.
`Tell him to be quick an' all. No one's got all afternoon to sort this out.'
`Richard, you're talking as if Selina will agree to sell if you just shout at her.' Judith had been up since six, as restaurateurs have to be. `She only agreed in the first place because you were pushing her. She really wants the same as I do, to be left alone to run the two Caffs we've got and to open a couple more. Then we could raise money ourselves on the stock market.'
Brian Rubin, uncomfortably seated behind Selina's crowded desk, had turned scarlet. `That's dishonest. And unbusinesslike. She agreed, you all did, and I've spent a pile of money, not to say three months' hard work, to get this deal.'
` I never agreed,' Judith said, angrily.
`No, but you've been professional about it. Up to now that is, when you've helped to bugger up the whole thing, excuse my French. You could be sued, you know. Interference with a contract.'
`I didn't do any of that. I tried to persuade Selina not to sell her shares right at the beginning, but we never even talked about it again until yesterday.' She looked to Michael for support, and he took her hand.
`You've been absolutely consistent, darling, from day one. But Brian's right, we're too far down the line to go back now. It's just not fair to him, or sensible. So, Richard, do you know why she's suddenly thrown a wobbly?'
The question hung in the air and everyone in the room considered Richard Marsh-Hayden, whose relationship with a wife fully as wilful and strong-minded as he had never been smooth. He opened his mouth to be rude but closed it again in the face of Michael's gently enquiring expression. `No. No, we didn't have a fight, nothing like that. Hardly saw her yesterday. No idea what's itching her, but I agree, she'd better forget about it.'
Michael Owens nodded, plainly having expected nothing more revealing. `Judith, could we shift this stuff? I haven't got a seat and there's nowhere for Selina to sit either. Can we get someone to take it away?'
`Sorry, Michael, but please not. It's the new tunics and I must check them for fit before they get marked.'
Michael Owens picked up a white chef's tunic that lay half out of its cellophane wrappings on top of the pile. `It is marked, surely. It says Café de la Paix on the pocket.'
`I didn't mean that. We're going to mark jackets with the names of the chefs and kitchen people.'
`Why?' Richard Marsh-Hayden asked, belligerently.
`Because we keep losing tunics — or at least that's what's been happening while I've been over starting Caff 2.' Judith Delves was sounding ragged. `So everyone is going to get four, as before, but with their names on, and their pay gets docked if they lose them. Or sell them, or give them to friends, or whatever they've been doing.' She looked round at a sullen and unpromising audience. `Actually, since we're all waiting, could we check the sizes and then I can get them into the back office ready for marking when Mary is in tomorrow. So Tony — Chef — would you try the large? And I'll try the medium.'
Tony Gallagher didn't move, plainly in a bad temper, and Brian Rubin reached for a package.
`I'll give it a go — I can tell whether it's right. We use tunics like these. And we mark them, you're right there, Judith.' He pulled off his elegant Armani jacket and hauled on a chef's tunic, cursing at the buttons. `Bit big if anything,' he said, hunching himself into it.
`Nah.' Tony Gallagher reached for another packet and helped himself and replaced his tunic with one of the new ones. `About right. You need the room in the shoulders, see, if you're working rather than modelling.'
`The medium size is OK.' Judith sensibly ignored the last part of the sentence.
`Hadn't you better try it on a bloke?' Richard Marsh-Hayden asked.
`They're unisex, and I wear medium, that's why. But do please try one, Richard.' She watched as Richard unpacked another jacket and put it on. `Comfortable?'
He struck a model pose, shoulders twisted round. `Yup. Not bad at all. Come on, Mike, you got one too.'
Michael Owens took off his jacket and found a large size and put it on, over immaculately cut trousers, and lunged forward, neatly and fast behind an imaginary foil.
`Fits well,' Judith said, professionally smiling at him, admiring the quick athletic movement.
Tony Gallagher, upstaged, jabbed a finger towards the door, and they all heard the click of high heels accompanied by a rustling of paper. Judith pressed the lock release button and Selina Marsh-Hayden was in the room in a cloud of Diorissimo and a rustle of bags.
`I really, really am sorry. There was this huge, huge queue, and I had to have my shoes back, they've been there months and there's this little notice that says they'll shred them or something if you don't take them away.' She smiled round the group, unapologetically. `Goodness, what are you all dressed as? Is this a game? Can I play?'
`Be my guest. I've lost a day so far on this nonsense, I may as well waste a bit more time.' Brian Rubin had had enough.
Selina picked up a packet labelled `small'.
` Do try it on, Selina,' Judith said. `Then I can put them by for marking. There's no point marking the gloves or the towels — everyone uses them, so they can go down now, please, Tony. In the hoist,' Judith added as the service lift rattled up, loaded with coffee and biscuits, and Tony Gallagher, with poor grace, exerted himself to unload it and substitute packets of rubber gloves and piles of tea towels for the journey to the kitchen.
She looked in appeal at Michael Owens, who nodded reassuringly and took off the white tunic he was wearing and organised the other two men to carry through tunics to the small inner office.
`It fits fine. Bit loose but then I'm quite small.'
Selina was wearing her tunic over the short cherry-coloured skirt, and looked, Judith thought wistfully, like the model she had once been, the top buttons becomingly undone in a way which would have got her fired at once from the Café de la Paix kitchen.
`Get it off, Selina,' her husband said, testily. `We need to get shot of this nonsense.'
Selina took off the jacket, taking her time, handed it regally to Tony Gallagher and took the chair he had been sitting on, leaving him with the rickety bentwood chair on which he sprawled, legs splayed, in an open bid for dominance. The three other men in the room, after a single annoyed look from Richard, ignored him and fixed their attention on Selina. She hooked a strand of blonde hair, delicately highlighted, behind one ear and gazed back at them. `Well, I'm sorry I didn't do this earlier but then there are lots of things I didn't know before.'
`Like what, for fuck's sake?' her husband snarled.
She tucked the blonde hair in again, and addressed herself to Michael. `I was talking to this friend, who's a very successful businessman. Anyway, he said that we — Judith and me — would be mad to sell, everyone loved the Cafés and we ought to go on and build up a chain. Why let someone else do it?' She looked under her eyelashes at Brian Rubin who was sitting, hunched and tight-lipped, behind the bookkeeper's desk. `He asked what profit we were making and when I told him he said it wasn't enough for somewhere like the Cafés and something must be wrong with the costing, or we weren't being careful enough. But we could sort that out, he said.' She blinked sweetly at them all, inviting them to share her conviction, and her husband drew a breath in through his teeth. `And, as I've always said, haven't I, Judith, it's so much more fun running our own business than working for someone else — although it's been very kind of Brian to offer — that I thought I'd rather stay as we are.'
`We can't do that, you silly witch,' her husband exploded, and she stared back at him.
`I bloody say.'
Tony abandoned his sprawl and crashed forward on his chair. `I told you, Selina, I want to work for a bigger group. You won't have me if you want to go on on your own.'
Selina, cool again, pushed bags aside and rested her chin on her hand. `You have to give up your five per cent if you go, remember?'
It was quite clear from Tony's expression that he remembered all too well. `That's not fair.'
`Yes, it is. And it's in the shareholders' agreement.'
Michael Owens had sat absolutely still while battle raged, waiting his chance. `Selina, I invited Brian to join us because he has a major interest in all this, but if this is a discussion better held among us as shareholders, I am sure he would rather leave us to it. We do need to understand better what has prompted you to change your mind. You've far too much sense to have abandoned a route we all agreed just because of a chat with someone.'
This appeal to reason silenced the group, as it was intended to. It was Richard Marsh-Hayden who took charge. `Tell you what, Brian, it would be better if you left us to ... to discuss among ourselves, yeh?' Judith made to protest but Michael touched her hand and she stopped. Tony did not speak, but his expression suggested he was seeing the last lifeboat starting its motor, as Brian Rubin left, angrily expressing a hope of a successful outcome and a quick one.
As the door banged behind him, Richard swung on Selina but she faced him down. `What this man actually said, darlings, was that on our turnover we ought to be making a lot more margin and we would find we had a leak somewhere.' She looked round the group who were all staring at her. `Don't you see? We may be selling the Caffs far too cheap. I mean, I'm not saying I'll never sell, but Judith and I have worked our butts off and I'm not selling for less money than we ought.'
`Selina. We can't afford to go that way. We need the fucking money.' Richard Marsh-Hayden was only just keeping his hands off her.
`You mean you need the money.'
`Hang on.' Michael was sitting still, in contrast to everyone else in the room. `The business needs the money. We are close to breaching our banking covenants. Which means, Tony, that we are close to giving the bank every excuse for calling in our overdraft. So either we have to put up more money — and that may not be convenient for all of us — or we're bust. Can't pay our bills.'
`You could put up some cash,' Tony said, sullenly.
`I could. But equally we're being offered a good price and there's always an alternative investment.'
`And one which'll pay off a bloody sight better in the long run.' Richard Marsh-Hayden was too anxious to leave the point alone.
`This one will pay off if we just wait a bit and find what's happening to our profits,' Selina insisted.
`Maybe so,' Michael said, calmly. `But we are where we are, and I have to say I don't think we can get round this corner without a cash injection. Which I would be unwilling to provide.'
`And me,' Richard said, grimly.
`I couldn't,' Tony confirmed, watching Selina.
`Well, I could put up some,' she said.
`Don't be so bloody silly,' her husband said, violently. `You're overdrawn on both accounts, so unless you're selling your favours you can't either.'
Judith cleared her throat. `I would be prepared to put up £20,000 just to see if we couldn't do better.'
Michael's left hand jumped convulsively and he turned to look at her. `I don't think you've taken this line before.'
`I know, and I'm sorry. But it's my money from Dad. I don't want to sell now, you all know I don't. I agree with Selina, we're selling too soon and for not enough cash.'
`I'm not going to give up. We can get by with Judith's cash.'
`I see.' Michael shook his head at Richard and Tony, then sat, in thought, refusing to hurry. `In conscience then, I think we must tell Brian Rubin that the deal is off. Thirty per cent of the shareholding — Selina and Judith — don't want to sell, so we can't deliver enough votes to get any kind of special resolution through.' He looked round to make sure he had everyone's attention. `I have to say that I think we may face legal action from Rubin. He's spent a lot of money.'
`Well, too bad,' Selina said, rudely, releasing tension. `I'm sorry you're pissed off, boys, but you'll be glad in the end, I promise.'