Miles arrived a bit early, just like he did every morning, so he had some time to enjoy his morning cup of coffee at the bar. He was never really one for generic coffee brands, and he enjoyed watching Jennifer sorting out the different types of beans before any of the guests came down for breakfast. She knew his order, so most of the times they didn’t even speak. He thought she preferred it that way. So Miles just came in, wearing his three-piece suit, and they looked at each other and nodded in recognition. If he was late, she would sometimes say good-morning, out of habit, because she was on repeat from breakfast-guests, and then she made his coffee, extra strong.
Being surrounded by the rich and famous was not all it was cracked up to be. They dressed in brands Miles only met in shop windows and photo series in fashion magazines, but they never had the pretty faces. Looks didn’t matter when money showed. Rich men never shouted at their wives, rich women never nagged at their husbands. The ladies whispered as the men negotiated, and laughed in unison at jokes at no one’s expense. Shirts never creased and lipstick never stained on the teeth of the rich at the Ritz. The doors of the hotel opened on their own. Miles was simply part of the furniture. Never a speck of dust on the shoulders of his suit, his top-hat never dented, his shoes immaculately shone. He was never spoken to and so he never spoke. Whatever glimpses of conversation he caught were forgotten on the spot. He was a ghost with only a pay-check as gratitude. The seasons didn’t change his attire, the weather didn’t wipe his smile. He was the alpha and the omega, he opened and he closed. But for him there were many other doormen, just as capable, just as quiet. Perhaps just as replaceable, waiting for the automatic door to take over, so Miles made sure he was as irreplaceable as he was invisible. He bleached his teeth every other month to counter the coffee that helped him smile for eight consecutive hours. After finishing his coffee in silence, he didn’t go into a staff room to chat with anyone or smile at Jennifer. He simply took his hat from the chair next to him and went to his post, to blend in with the surroundings for yet another day.
Adeline added a bit of blush to her cheeks in the mirror of the backseat of her car. The driver told her they were almost there now and her heart filled with excitement. She had never been to Europe, and Papa had arranged they would stay in one of London’s finest hotels. Europe! Finally! She had heard all the stories about it, about it’s glitter and glamour, and the way they seemed to appreciate the finer arts more than any other people in the world. Even though Papa had only taken her along because he didn’t think she should be at home alone, she vowed to herself this was the perfect opportunity to make a change. She was in Europe after all, and where better to meet a tall dark stranger, to fall in love, to go on an adventure! She longed to see her favourite Monet painting in the National Gallery, the one with the bridge crossing over a Japanese garden somewhere in Paris. She had heard it was amazing, and she had seen pictures of it, but there was just something about paintings in real life. She didn’t know whether it was the atmosphere of a museum, where everyone young and old came to appreciate the craftsmanship of artists from all ages, or whether there was just something magical about being so close to something so old, yet so vibrant, as if the artists’ pencil had meticulously applied each stroke just the day before. Oh, if only she’d met someone so un-American, she would surely be happy or at least she’d feel alive. She would rather die than go back to America empty-handed. As she looked outside to watch the city rush by, she found her sight blurred by little white flakes dancing past her window. Snow! They almost never had snow in the South. As they pulled up in front of the Ritz, the driver opened her window, whilst Adeline did not take her eyes off the white gold falling from the sky. She pulled her cloak a bit tighter together to protect her puppy from the sudden cold, and loitered a little before giving in to the warmth of the Ritz’ lobby.
Young girls at the Ritz always smiled as they tittered inside. They smiled at their lovers, their drivers, their fathers, but this girl was something different. She stepped out of her car, pulling her fur coat closer with eyes like saucers, her lips a little parted. Snowflakes caught between her eyelashes and in her golden curled hair, but she didn’t wipe them away. She laughed brightly as her breath created little clouds of fog, and held out her tongue like a child to catch the snow. Miles almost forgot to open the door for her parents, who urged her to come inside with them. Hurriedly he grabbed the handle and let her parents in, who turned around at the doorstep.
‘Adeline, come on!’
Adeline made a turn, letting her coat and her dress spin and then she almost ran inside. Before she stepped into the lobby she looked Miles straight in the eye. Then she smiled a smile that made his polished one real. She nodded at him, and then she was gone. All she left was the scent all beautiful young women seemed to leave behind. It smelled, like always, of a combination of cedar, vanilla and opportunity. No one ever looked him in the eye. He allowed himself a few seconds of daydreaming about what would happen if this girl would ever talk to him, but soon forced his racing heart to calm down. He put his polished smile back on his face and continued to stand outside in the cold, waiting for guests to arrive or to depart. Luckily, Piccadilly was always an interesting distraction. Buses, taxis and cars drove by, and there was an unofficial crossing near his door, where people always took their chances shooting over and crossing right in front of the traffic. He’d never seen an accident, but it was probably just a matter of time. Tourists paced slowly, gazing at the Christmas decorations, whilst locals elbowed them out of the way on their way to work or home or school. Every now and again he would hear the faint sound of Christmas carollers singing on some close-by corner. Every time a blonde set of hair bobbed by Miles’ heart leapt even though he knew she must still be inside.
Adeline had been stuck inside for hours with her parents talking about politics and economics. She was bored senseless and wished she could just go explore the city already, but of course she wasn’t allowed out alone. She tapped her finger against her cup of hot chocolate and plotted her escape. During a particularly heated discussion, she seized her chance and casually mentioned she was going to get some air. Her father brushed his bristled lip, the way he did when he really couldn’t be bothered with anything besides what he was doing right now, and gestured his hand in a way that she interpreted as approval. She jumped up, grabbed her coat and cocoa and ran towards the door. She pushed the door open, which caused the doorman to stare at her in bewilderment for a split second, door handle in hand, and then starting to profusely apologize whilst she insisted it was her fault entirely. Through all this, she spotted the doorman from before, the one who had looked at her like she was the most precious thing he’d ever seen. She couldn’t help but go over there.
‘Have you got a light?’
‘Why yes Miss, here you go.’ He held out a golden Zippo, inscribed with the Ritz logo.
‘Oh. I didn’t actually count on you having a light. I didn’t think you’d smoke.’
‘I don’t smoke Miss, it’s just part of our uniform, for situations like this.’ She felt the colour in her cheeks starting to rise and hoped he would think it was because of the cold.
‘I don’t smoke either. I just wanted to start a conversation.’ He didn’t seem to know what to do with this information.
For a while they looked at the road together in silence, he was fiddling with something like a paper bag, she was fiddling with the fur on her cloak and took a sip from her drink.
‘What have you got there Miss?’
‘It’s your hot chocolate, spiked with a little rum. Ssht!’ He gave her a smile she didn’t know how to interpret.
‘Do you mind if I eat something, Miss? I am on my lunch break.’
‘Oh! By all means!’ Perhaps she should stop bothering him and go back inside to her parents and their friends, he didn’t really seem to want her there.
He got out a bagel out of the paper bag he was holding, and walked over to a homeless man Adeline hadn’t even spotted before. The homeless man accepted the bagel with gratitude, and started eating, saying nothing. Then the doorman walked back to Adeline, and started eating his own. No one else seemed to notice this act of kindness, all the Londoners walking by, briskly pacing, staring straight ahead, letting neither weather nor people stand in their way of reaching their destination. He looked at her nervously, with kind brown eyes, but there was something else behind that nervousness. A desperation perhaps, the kind she had felt locked up in manners and etiquette. She imagined it was not very different for him, although she was born into it and he had voluntarily chosen to work in it.
Miles tried to find a way to eat his bagel as fast as humanly possible without looking like someone who hadn’t eaten a thing in the past five days, or choking. The truth was, he was starving, and even though he’d wanted nothing more than talk to this girl, he had another six hours to go before his next break and he didn’t want to famish halfway through. He really should start having some actual breakfast rather than just forcing one piece of buttered toast down before making his way to the hotel each morning. Finally he wiped the last bit of cream cheese of his hands with a napkin and tried to act professional again.
‘Enjoying London so far, Miss?’
‘Please, call me Adeline. And look at it! All those buildings, the snow, the decorations, what’s not to love?’ She looked at him expectantly.
‘It gets a bit nippy sometimes, but sure Miss Adeline.’
‘Oh! Are you cold now? You must be freezing!’ For a bit it seemed that she was going to take off her coat, and Miles looked at her, horrified.
‘No, no, not at all! Please don’t. These jackets are quite warm, you see.’ She smiled one of those perfect smiles again. How could he feel cold if he looked at those rosy cheeks? She seemed almost angelic, so innocent and yet so curiously daring. He still didn’t really understand why she’d chosen him to talk to, but decided it was better not to question some things.
‘I can’t wait to show my Henry all this. Oh, what am I saying, I’ve hardly been around myself! Is there anywhere I should absolutely go?’ My Henry. Of course there was a my Henry.
‘I would recommend the National Gallery, Miss. Some of the finest artists are displayed there.’ He tried to compose himself, but he kept feeling his knees wobbling every time she looked into his eyes. If only they weren’t such a darned bright blue.
‘Oh I absolutely can’t wait to go there! I absolutely adore Monet’s work, and I can’t wait to see Peter Paul Rubens’ Judgement of Paris! And what about at night?’ He was startled for a bit, he had never met anyone with such a similar taste in art as his.
‘The Ritz itself of course has a fully-stocked bar, but there are a couple of other nice places if you walk towards Piccadilly Circus.’ He would love to take her for a drink. He imagined she drank cocktails, only the best of the best, and he would make jokes after which her head would fall back in laughter, her curls dancing around her ivory skin. Afterwards he could take her dancing, and her head could rest against his chest as they slow danced until the band played their final tune.
‘Will you show me?’ She looked at him with a wicked grin, and suddenly, despite her beauty, her appeal faltered. He was an honourable man.
‘I think that would be inappropriate, Miss. Now if you excuse me, I have to get back to work.’
Adeline didn’t understand what she’d done wrong. She didn’t even get to know his name. Had she been too forward? She had heard about the stiffness of the Brits, perhaps she should’ve heeded in some more small talk first. She had just asked him for a drink, not invited him to bed. Maybe she had misinterpreted the way he looked at her, maybe he just wasn’t used to people smiling at him. After all, most of the people who went here had atrocious sympathy for lower classes. A large number of guests were part of the nouveau riche, and they simply didn’t understand that behaving nicely to everyone would get you a lot further than exhibiting your wealth and stepping over everyone in the way. Adeline had always been taught to be nice to everyone, regardless of their occupation. But she’d really thought there was something there, a spark, a connection maybe. He even pointed her towards the one place she really had wanted to go in London! Surely that couldn’t have been a coincidence. Or was she well and truly going mad now? Was she imagining things? Perhaps it was time she let go of her silly dreams and accept the fact that she would marry some rich American boy with a start-up or a decent inheritance. Adeline went back up to her hotel room. There lay her little puppy on his pouf, half asleep, but his ears went up as he heard her calling. He ran up to her as she squatted down to scratch him behind his ear.
‘Hi Henry! Hi my little smoochie, you must feel really royal here right? I felt like a princess too, but I guess I’m going to have to wait a little longer for my prince. Perhaps you could be my prince?’
Henry seemed all too happy to oblige, as he panted, tongue out of his mouth, and cuddled up at her feet while she petted him. After a while, she supposed it was time to get back to her parents for dinner, where she could continue to pretend to be interested in the stuffy stories her parents and their friends had to tell her. She sat through the entire dinner where no one actually spoke a word to her, beside her mother telling her to sit up straight.
Miles took off his hat as his colleague took over. He went inside for a cup of coffee behind the bar, and asked Jim to spike it a little. Jim seemed surprised, but obliged. Miles had a bit of a walk ahead of him, as he wouldn’t be thinking of taking the Tube this time of day. No, he would much rather be cold than be squashed like a little sardine in the Tube’s rush hour. He downed his coffee like the heat had no effect on him and then walked outside without looking around. He didn’t want to take any chances of seeing Adeline again. He didn’t know why he felt so bad. He didn’t even know the girl. But the way she had spoken about the Judgement of Paris, wasn’t that a sign? Perhaps not. It was just his luck, really. He never really met any girls, and the girls that he did see were all equally as desirable as they were unattainable. Imagining the heat of the coffee and the liquor was all that surrounded him, he walked through the murky snow. Christmas lights were reflecting on the patches of white that hadn’t been affected by the mud yet, illuminating every street he walked past. The country was in high spirits, ‘the most wonderful time of the year’. Miles walked home alone. By now he had become unaffected to the kissing young couples, by the families with cheering kids who still believed in love and magic and Santa, and the old couples holding hands. He knew that was just not what was in store for him. Christmas always meant a store-bought turkey for one with cranberries and whatever Christmas movie or show was on TV. He preferred to let it pass in peace. The next morning he got on his usual attire and walked his usual route to work. As he arrived, he smiled at Jennifer at the bar and she nodded at him. He was halfway in a nod before he opened his mouth.
‘Actually…’ Jennifer stopped pouring coffee beans in the machine and looked at him in anticipation.
‘May I have a hot chocolate?’ Hopefully the sugar would give him the same rush as the caffeine usually did.
Jennifer looked at him in surprise for a split second, then made him his hot cocoa. Maybe after work today, he would go to the National Gallery to view his favourite paintings.
About the author:
Franca Duym is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of Westminster. Born in the Netherlands, she loves discovering the city by cycling or walking, finding art in unexpected places and food in every way and form. She finds stories everywhere she goes and aims to share some as she moves along.
Photograph © Matt