My Australian girlfriend Shirley looked at her porterhouse steak and said: “That’s a real beaut, Colin.”
The lump of meat which overlapped Shirl’s huge dinner plate was the same shape as South America – broad at the top, narrowing down to a tip. It was cooked so rare I half expected to see the thing twitch. It had a kind of fierce red which made it look as though it had been out in the sun too long rather than under a grill.
A rivulet of blood oozed from one side – roughly where Sao Paulo would be – and merged with a slice of grilled tomato. As though the steak had been served with a blood clot on the side.
I said: “Don’t you Aussies believe in cooking your food?”
Shirley seized her knife and fork and made an incision in the steak close to Venezuela. “If I were back in Adelaide, I’d have slapped this on the barbie so quick it would barely have had time to brown its bum.” She forked a lump of the meat into her mouth and chewed contentedly.
We were sitting at a corner table in Antoine’s Sussex Grill in Brighton’s Ship Street. The place had oak-panelled walls, a green carpet, and dusty chandeliers. It was like being in a baronial hall on the baron’s night off. In this case, on everyone’s night off. Shirl and I were the only diners.
But that suited me just fine after the day I’d had in the Evening Chronicle’s newsroom. Twenty minutes before the afternoon edition deadline, the Press Association ticker spewed out the news that the Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, had announced that the long-awaited 1964 general election would take place on the fifteenth of October. That meant a tasty little front-page splash I’d conjured up about a jewel heist in Lewes got bounced to an inside page.
And with politics dominating the news, my byline – Colin Crampton, crime correspondent – wasn’t going to appear on the front page much before polling day in just over three weeks’ time.
Not that I’d have much time for proper journalism. Not with the special assignment my news editor Frank Figgis had handed me. But I wasn’t going to trouble Shirley about that.
Not just yet.
Shirl wiped a dribble of blood from her chin with a napkin. She cut a slice off Ecuador and stuffed it into her mouth. She pointed at my own plate and said: “What’s that? It looks like bits of a dead rat.”
I said: “It’s jugged hare.”
“I’d rather eat a juicy steak than a mouthful of hair.”
“It’s not hair with an A I R. It’s hare with an A R E,” I said. “You must have heard the story about the creature that got beaten by the tortoise.”
“Guess the bludger should have spent less time snoozing by the road. Then he wouldn’t have ended up in the pot with all those vegetables.”
I reached for the bottle of Burgundy we’d ordered and refilled our glasses.
Shirley hoisted her glass and had a generous slurp.
“Still, this is ace tucker. I’ll hand you that,” she said.
I cut some of the hare’s tender stewed flesh from a leg bone.
“It should be,” I said. “This place is owned by a bloke who used to be head waiter at the Ritz hotel in London before the war. Made a name for himself by cooking crêpe Suzette at the table for Winston Churchill.”
Shirl made a long cut in her steak somewhere near the Atacama Desert.
“I bet the old boy’s never eaten here, though,” she said.
“Not likely to now. He’s retiring from Parliament at this election. But he may have eaten near here when he was a kid.”
“How come?” Shirley asked.
“He was at a school in Hove for two years. Sent there by his mum and dad after they’d discovered he’d been savagely beaten by a sadistic headmaster at his previous school. Never happened to him here, though. The Hove school was run by two maiden ladies – they were sisters. I think someone told me their name was Thompson. According to the stories, Winston loved it here. I suppose anywhere would seem good after your bum had been whipped until the blood ran down your thighs. Anyway, he later went on to Harrow, the posh public school, so I guess the Misses Thompson must have done him some good.”
“Guess so,” Shirley said.
“Anyway, speaking of blood, I don’t remember seeing that blob before.” I pointed at Shirley’s steak. A little red lake had formed in the Amazonian rain forest.
Shirl brushed it to one side with her knife. “Probably released from inside as the meat cools,” she said.
A fresh drop of blood landed in the Argentinian Pampas.
“But that wasn’t,” I said.
“Jeez,” Shirley said. “I’ve never seen that before.”
We looked at each other for a couple of seconds. Together, our necks swivelled back. Our gaze travelled up to the ceiling.
A round crimson patch, like a carnation in bloom, flowered on the plaster. Our eyes widened and our jaws dropped. We watched blood ooze through the ceiling. It formed into the shape of a teardrop. For a moment it swayed gently from side to side. Then it detached itself, slowly as though reluctant to leave its resting place.
It fell like a solitary raindrop. A scarlet raindrop.
It landed on the tablecloth and splattered like a gunshot wound.
“Antoine’s not going to be thrilled by the laundry bill,” Shirl said.
I switched my attention back to her. “It may be a laundry bill down here, but what’s the damage upstairs?”
Shirley dropped her knife and her hand flew to her mouth. “I must be as dumb as a box of rocks. What’s up there?”
“It’s an apartment over the restaurant. Nothing to do with Antoine. I don’t know who lives there.”
“And I guess he hasn’t just dropped a raw steak on the floor. Not for that amount of blood.”
“No. I’m going up there to find out what’s happened.”
I pushed my chair back from the table and stood up.
I looked at Shirley. Her eyes had glazed with concern.
“What a way to end the day,” she said. “It couldn’t be worse.”
“Not worse?” I said. “I’m not so sure. Not after what happened earlier today at the Chronicle.”