Balancing a Danish and a cappuccino, Paul manoeuvred the door open, stepped into the street, surveyed the three pavement tables with a practised eye then headed towards the woman in the cream business suit reading the ‘Times’. Sizing her up as he approached he felt his luck was in. She looked about thirty, small and svelte with chestnut hair and large amber eyes.
“Do you mind?” He gestured at the empty chair.
Eve looked up to see a young man of medium height, stockily built with tightly curling black hair. He wore a smart suit, white shirt and striking tie.
“Not at all.”
For years to come his face would burn when he recalled what happened next. The chair was too narrow and his cup too full but by dint of steel-eyed concentration he contrived to seat himself without mishap. Then he made his mistake. Attempting to pull up his chair he gave the table a sharp jerk with his knee. As in a slow-motion replay, he watched his coffee leap from its cup, heading for her ‘Times’. The Danish shot from its plate, skidded over the metal surface of the table and fell onto the pavement directly under the nose of a spaniel sitting sunning itself at the kerb. With remarkable presence of mind the spaniel seized the pastry and dived under a neighbouring table. These tragedies however were minor compared to the catastrophe occurring across the table. As her own cup tipped, Eve attempted to swing her legs to the side but the coffee was too quick for her. The cup was less than half full but a little black coffee goes a long way on a cream suit jacket.
“Oh God! What a mess. I’m terribly sorry.” He was beetroot red.
She stood up, removed the jacket and began mopping it with a tissue. “That’s all right. It could happen to anybody,” she said. “How damnably clumsy,” she thought.
“Will it… I mean, the stain, will it… er… come out?”
“Probably.” She didn’t add that she would never be able to wear the suit again for the office.
He was on his feet, handkerchief in hand, caught between a pathetic feeling that he should be doing something and the indelicacy of too close proximity.
“Please, let me get you another.”
She bit back her reflex response - that he’d done quite adequate damage with the first cup, thanks - and, seeing his embarrassment, accepted. When he returned with two more cups she resolutely resisted the urge to stand up until he’d got himself settled.
“My name’s Paul, by the way.”
He searched for a continuation. He was quite fluent with the Newcastle girls but something in Eve’s clear, steady gaze ruled out provincial small-talk. He pointed to the sign in Italian on the café window.
“Does that mean this is the best coffee in London?”
She followed his finger. “Yes, it does.”
“And is it?”
“That rather depends what you do with it!” she said, pointedly.
He blushed again. “Yes. I meant to drink. And I did say I was sorry.”
He was looking at her with a strangely searching expression and suddenly she saw something behind the gauche exterior and regretted her remark.
“Yes, you did. And now I’m sorry. Truce?”
He sipped the cappuccino. It was good, he thought.
“Are you a regular here, then?” He was determined to keep the conversation going.
“Not really. I don’t have time most days - just settle for the office brew.”
“The worst coffee in London?”
“It’s a contender.”
“I’ve not been here before. I don’t live in London, you see.”
“Ah, I thought perhaps not,” she said, solemnly.
“Now you’re laughing at me. I suppose you could tell.”
For the first time she smiled and his pulse leapt.
“Yes, I did guess. What brings you to London?”
“I’m here for a job interview.”
He drew a piece of folded newspaper from his pocket and passed it to her. “Can you sell?” it read. “Thriving computer company seeks dynamic London-based salesman to open up new market for exciting software product. Knowledge of computers an advantage but not essential.”
“Hmm. And are you?”
“Dynamic? Yes, I am actually.”
He saw the cool, questioning look in the devastating amber eyes.
“OK, not when I’ve just thrown coffee all over the most beautiful girl… woman I’ve ever met. But you should see me in front of a prospect. I… come alive then. It’s like I was born for it. Selling, that is. In the office they call me…” He stopped suddenly, blushing yet again.
“Yes?” Her voice was quietly insistent.
“Superman. Bloody silly name, isn’t it?”
“Is it? Then why…”
“Because… because I’m the best bloody salesman they’ve had in twenty years in the business, that’s why.”
“So you think you’ve a good chance - of getting the job?”
“Yes. Well, maybe. It’ll depend on the interview. Just listen to this. He fished again in his pocket, produced a letter and read a paragraph: “‘We note that, although you have an excellent track record, your experience is exclusively in the provinces. We therefore have some reservations as to your ability to operate in a highly sophisticated market viz. London and the Home Counties.’ Arrogant rubbish!”
“You think selling in London is no different from what you’re used to?”
“Not if you know what you’re doing, it isn’t. Selling’s about people - Londoners, Northerners - it’s all the same psychology. You just have to watch and listen.”
“Hmm. Do you think you’d fit into a company with such an… arrogant attitude?”
“Oh, that’s just the Personnel Manager. My interview’s with the Sales Director. He’ll see sense.”
“How do you know it’s a man?”
“I don’t really. The letter didn’t give a name. But most directors are men”
“Not where I work they aren’t. The Managing Director’s a man, as it happens, but three of the other five are women, including the Sales Director.”
“Are they now?” He grinned mischievously. “And are they any good?”
She smiled but the reply was uncompromising.
“The best in the business.”
Before he could take up the challenge she stood up.
“I have to go.”
He struggled out of his chair.
“Have dinner with me.”
She looked at him coolly, saying nothing.
“Oh, sorry. A bit blunt, eh?” Theatrically he cleared his throat. “How about - nothing, dear lady, would give me greater pleasure than your company at dinner this evening?”
That smile again; he felt light-headed.
Then she was gone, swallowed up in the bustle of Old Compton Street.
“‘We’ll see?’ What on earth did that mean?” he wondered.
The secretary ushered him into the Sales Director’s office. “Mr. Paul Marshall.”
A cup of coffee sat on the desk; the executive chair was empty. As he hesitated he became aware of a figure at a row of filing cabinets in a corner alcove, and then the familiar, beautiful voice.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Marshall.”
He turned to face her.
“It’s you! You’re a woman… I mean the Sales Director’s…”
“I know what you mean.”
A flash of the smile he thought he’d never see again.
“Please sit down. And try not to spill my coffee this time.”
© EdwinAlexander 1996
Causes Ted Davison Supports
Médécins sans Frontieres [Doctors without Borders]
Various animal charities