He slowly rips the paper, but I can’t look. I stare into my champagne glass, feeling like crying. Five thousand pounds. It would have changed my life. It would have solved everything. I would have written out checks immediately to Suze, to VISA, to Octagon. . to all of them. Then I would have taken this check and presented it to Derek Smeath on Monday morning. Perhaps I wouldn’t have cleared every single penny of overdraft, but I would have made a start. A bloody good start.
Tarquin reaches for the box of matches on the table, sets the scraps of paper alight in the ashtray, and we both watch as they briefly flame. Then he puts down the matches, smiles at me, and says, “Do excuse me a minute.”
He gets up from the table and heads off toward the back of the restaurant, and I take another gulp of champagne. Then I lean my head in my hands and give a little sigh. Oh well, I think, trying to be philosophical. Maybe I’ll win £5,000 in a raffle or something. Maybe Derek Smeath’s computer will go haywire and he’ll be forced to cancel all my debts and start again. Maybe some utter stranger really will pay off my VISA bill for me by mistake.
Maybe Tarquin will come back from the loo and ask me to marry him.
I raise my eyes, and they fall with an idle curiosity on the Coutts checkbook, which Tarquin has left on the table. That’s the checkbook of the fifteenth richest unmarried man in the country. Wow. I wonder what it’s like inside? He probably writes enormous checks all the time, doesn’t he? He probably spends more money in a day than I spend in a year.
On impulse, I pull the checkbook toward me and open it. I don’t know quite what I’m looking for — really, I’m just hoping to find some excitingly huge amount. But the first stub is only for £30. Pathetic! I flip on a bit, and find £520. Payable to Arundel & Son, whoever they are. Then, a bit later on, there’s one for £7,515 to American Express. Well, that’s more like it. But I mean, really, it’s not the most exciting read in the world. This could be anybody’s checkbook. This could practically be mine.
I close it and push it back toward his place, and glance up. As I do so, my heart freezes. Tarquin is staring straight at me.
He’s standing by the bar, being directed to the other side of the restaurant by a waiter. But he isn’t looking at the waiter. He’s looking at me. As our eyes meet, my stomach lurches. Oh, damn.
Damn. What exactly did he see?
Quickly I pull my hand back from his checkbook and take a sip of champagne. Then I look up and pretend to spot him for the first time. I give a bright little smile, and after a pause he smiles back. Then he disappears off again and I sink back into my chair, trying to look relaxed.
OK, don’t panic, I instruct myself. Just behave naturally. He probably didn’t see you. And even if he did — it’s not the hugest crime in the world, is it, looking at his checkbook? If he asks me what I was doing, I’ll say I was. . checking he’d filled in his stub correctly. Yes. That’s what I’ll say I was doing if he mentions it.
But he doesn’t. He comes back to the table, silently pockets his checkbook, and says politely, “Have you finished?”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I have, thanks.”
I’m trying to sound as natural as possible — but I’m aware my voice sounds guilty, and my cheeks are hot.
“Right,” he says. “Well, I’ve paid the bill. . so shall we go?”
And that’s it. That’s the end of the date. With impeccable courtesy, Tarquin ushers me to the door of Pizza on the Park, hails a taxi, and pays the driver the fare back to Fulham. I don’t dare ask him if he’d like to come back or go for a drink somewhere else. There’s a coldness about my spine which stops me uttering the words. So we kiss each other on the cheek and he tells me he had a delightful evening, and I thank him again for a lovely time.
And I sit in the taxi all the way back to Fulham with a jumpy stomach, wondering what exactly he saw.
I say good-night to the taxi driver and reach for my keys. I’m thinking that I’ll go and run a hot bath and sit in it, and calmly try to work out exactly what happened back there. Did Tarquin really see me looking through his checkbook? Maybe he just saw me pushing it back toward his place in a helpful manner. Maybe he saw nothing at all.
But then why did he suddenly become all stiff and polite? He must have seen something; suspected something. And then he’ll have noticed the way I flushed and couldn’t meet his eye. Oh God, why do I always have to look so guilty? I wasn’t even doing anything. I was just curious.
Perhaps I should have quickly said something — made some joke about it. Turned it into a lighthearted, amusing incident. But what kind of joke can you make about leafing through someone’s private checkbook? Oh God, I’m so stupid. Why did I ever touch the bloody thing? I should have just sat, quietly sipping my drink.