My waiter places the plate of Chateaubriand steak before me and wishes me ‘bon appetit’. I’ve been waiting all day for this and my stomach gurgles in anticipation. As I place my napkin on my lap I glance up to the entrance and see a familiar figure in the doorway of the restaurant. Well, I think so anyway; I instantly feel that I know him, but for the life of me I can’t recall from where or when. He’s talking to the head waiter who nods and points at me. The man’s head swivels in my direction and I am uncomfortably pinned into immobility by his stare, his eyes large within their sunken sockets. A smile flashes across his face and he sets off towards me, negotiating the clustered tables without taking those eyes off mine.
His hair is thin and grey; like his face; like his clothing. As he approaches he offers his hand and I notice that it too, is the same. He appears to have been drained of blood but moves with surprising elegance, his feet lightly brushing the floor.
“Richard Bancroft!” he exclaims. “So good to see you again.” I am aware his hand is still held out towards me. I shuffle backwards in my chair to stand and shake the corpse-like object. Unsurprisingly, it is cold. But then again, it is practically November. “How is retirement treating you?” he continues.
“Oh, well enough, thanks.” I still can’t place him. Was he one of my employees from the paper? Or a jaded hack from one of our rivals, hoping for a good word. Or some ghastly liberal human rights do-gooder wanting to ruin my meal. Surely I would have remembered such a ghoulish character well enough to frame the context of our association. In the end I recover my composure and say, “I’m dreadfully sorry, I’m afraid I can’t recall your name.”
He beams his toothy grin at me once more, still shaking my hand with a measured pumping motion. “Pluto Smith. We have met several times although I can understand that you wouldn’t necessarily remember me.”
“Well, Mr Smith, as you can see I am just about to tuck into my meal so please don’t let me detain you from your evening.”
To my horror, he actually sits down in the chair opposite me. He eyes the steak sitting on my plate. “I say, that looks good. Do you recommend it?”
I remain standing, looking around for a waiter and wondering how easy it would be to eject this disagreeable stick insect from the restaurant. “I haven’t actually taken a bite yet. I appear to have been somewhat interrupted.”
His head slowly tilted up to face me. “I do apologise, but this won’t take long. Some contractual affairs that need immediate attention now that you’re no longer with the company.”
“Oh,” I say, “I thought that everything had been sorted out back in the summer.” Somehow, I find my knees bending and my backside connecting with my chair. I reach for my wine glass, filled with a rather expensive Cabernet Sauvignon. I haven’t had chance to taste that yet, either. A flat grey hand appears over the top of the glass, preventing me from lifting it from the table.
“I’m sure that it’s absolute nectar but I think a clear head is called for here, don’t you?” says the interloper.
I withdraw my hand but my eyes are still fixed on the glass and the inviting rich red wine within. A muscle in my cheek gives an involuntary twitch. I haul my attention back to the man opposite me. He must be from Legal Affairs or the company’s contracted solicitors, which explains why he looks familiar. He pulls a cream-coloured envelope from his jacket pocket and teases it open. A fly buzzes past and lands on the edge of the table to my right, mid-way between the two of us; a grotesque black dot on the pristine tablecloth.
I’m aware of the meaty aroma of the food sitting under my nose and my mouth salivates so much I have to swallow. I pick up my fork but before I can attack my steak his right hand is holding my left down.
“I’m so pleased to have this opportunity to talk to you in person,” he babbles. All I can do is stare alternately at his grey bony hand and his grey bony face. All I can think is “get off!” and a tremor of agitation ripples from the back of my skull down my spine to my legs. He’s talking about a final signature or something. I’ll sign anything just so long as he lets go of my hand and I can get on with my meal. I am so hungry! And parched. I gaze at my wine and lick my lips.
He lays the final page of the document in front of me with his left hand. His right is still preventing my fork from lifting. My right hand shakes as I take the fountain pen he now offers. I don’t know what I’m signing and frankly I don’t care.
As soon as the pen withdraws from the paper he briskly gathers his stationery together and in so doing releases my fork. I stab the steak and scrabble with my right hand for my knife. I glance again at my wine and decide I need a drink before taking on the rich, tender steak. My hand reaches out, still stupidly clutching the knife, and knocks the glass over onto the white cotton tablecloth. I watch in mortification as the precious liquid is absorbed, never to be drunk. The fly that had been sat nearby has taken to the air once more and buzzes around our heads.
“Oh dear,” says Smith, staring down at the dark red stain. “Still, I’m sure you can order another. You’ve made enough money on the back of lies and manipulation.”
I stare at him with incomprehension. The buzzing seems to be getting louder.
He leans forward and continues: “You had the opportunity to great things, but you brought out the worst in people. Selfishness, paranoia and hatred. You gave up your soul. And I,” he says, waving the document, “am here to collect.”
The buzzing stops and I see that the fly has landed on my steak, scampering around and exploring it, enjoying it before I had a chance to take my turn. I don’t care. I may have lost the wine but the food is still here in front of me. All I have to do is cut a piece and deliver it to my mouth and taste the rich flesh, the tang of iron from the blood that will gently seep once my knife has sliced through…
A grey hand slams down on the fly on my plate, crushing it. As the hand is removed I see yellow goo from its abdomen smeared across the meat, along with a crumpled wing and crushed leg. I’m aware of a whimpering noise and realise that it might just be me. With trembling fingers I reach for the steak.
The plate is abruptly removed by a waiter muttering apologies. My eyes follow the plate as it disappears from sight, tears of frustration beginning to form. All I want is some food and drink, for Christ’s sake! I’m aware that Smith has stood up and is grinning vindictively down at me. “Until next time,” he says, “and then we’ll really start to crank things up.” He turns on his heels and oozes back towards the door. There is a roaring in my head and a tear falls from my cheek.
I am so incredibly hungry. And thirsty. I’m just about to reach for my wine glass when the waiter arrives with my steak. A fine Chateaubriand, medium to rare. He wishes me ‘bon appetit’ and I place my napkin on my lap. I am really looking forward to this meal; it feels like I haven’t eaten in days. I glance up and notice a familiar figure in the doorway of the restaurant. At least, he feels familiar. A striking chap with a very pale complexion, almost grey.
The man’s head swivels in my direction and I am uncomfortably pinned into immobility by his stare, his eyes large within their sunken sockets. A smile flashes across his face and he sets off towards me.
Written in response to the prompt “in the doorway stood a familiar figure” by the Fosseway Writers’ group and influenced by the recent workshop given by Alex Davis, the approach of Halloween and a nice little story written by C.A. Brown.