At five to five, Ms Mona Ackerman pulled up to Restaurant Opus, for her daily, evening meal.
True to form, she was chauffeured in her boisterous Maybach, to the gleaming eatery on the corner of Merchants Mews, despite living only two blocks away. Predictably, she wore a long-collared, untucked shirt beneath a fading, check, double-breasted blazer, matching skirt and a pair of scuffed penny loafers, as was her way; a daily uniform adhered to with a near-obsessive rigidity. Ms Ackerman, a large, spoilt woman, whose physique and indifference toward wealth was balanced with glints of literary brilliance and acts of generosity, was if nothing else, a woman of routine. Yet, that evening, something was off. In fact, many things were. A faint look of solemnity hung about her usually passably personable face, beneath trademark, feline Prada shades. A reddish flush of irritated skin hung about her neck, beneath a brace of bluish, priceless South Sea pearls. Even her middle-parted, silver-tipped, frizzy hair seemed to buzz about itself above a head, slightly hanging with burden, as she was quickly ushered inside beneath an umbrella, despite the absence of rainfall.
As reserved as the heiress usually was, the maître d', Billy, could sense something in his mistress that suggested all was not well. In a single glance, he could’ve sworn that her smile was an inch and a half smaller than its usual, daily offering. He felt, with a great deal of certainty that each of her swaying strides dragged two seconds longer than every day previous. He cast aside the doubt in his mind surrounding the faint clamminess upon her forehead, her skin lined with the kind of sweat that only a fever could conjure. Though he could neither verify nor ratify, in his mind, there was nothing for it. There was a problem with Mona Ackerman.
At forty-eight years old, she had been dining at the restaurant for thirty years, having been endowed to her on her eighteenth birthday by her father, Frank Ackerman (famed, serially successful restaurateur, or camera-shy mobster middleman, depending on who was asking). Like all of the Ackerman women, Mona did not need to work, and yet she was the only one who did— a revered, largely enigmatic editor, offered more work than she cared to say yes to. Perhaps the term spinster would be a tad rude, or outdated to describe Mona Ackerman, but indeed she was one in the most literal, accurate sense of the word, having conjured no husband, nor life partner, nor borne any children. She had few friends, fewer vices and fewer still regrets for that matter. Mona Ackerman was a conspicuous enigma; a woman who had dedicated her life to working, for reasons that often escaped even her.
‘Halibut?’ she asked Billy, as he whisked her up a short flight of chequered tiles straight past a dictaphone-wielding reporter, toward her sacred booth.
‘Excellent today, Miss A,’ Billy replied. ‘Fresh from Dover.’ There, he was being true to their daily script, and as every day they had such an exchange, his statement was truly honest.
The restaurant, nearly at a third of its capacity when its owner arrived, was alive with chatter and clatter. A duo of waiters upped, ushered and reseated all surrounding patrons to new, distant tables, creating a buffer of vacancy, as the heiress was seated. Once upon a time, Mona would have blushed at such special treatment, but more than a decade of being hounded for autographs had long-numbed any potential twinge of embarrassment. Before Billy could remove her jacket, her personal bottle of Japanese whiskey was bought over on a tray by the brand new, teenaged mousey waitress, Chloe, along with a basket of freshly baked boule. Uncharacteristically nervous, Billy said the first thing that came into his mind. The air smelt corked; fruity and over-fermented.
‘I read your article earlier, on the new Ai Weiwei exhibit, Miss A,’ said Billy. He was a young man; early twenties, with an ever-so-slight Parisian drawl and white-blonde hair that made him seem both edgy and desirable. Mona had in time learned that he had both a boyfriend in Toulouse, and one fianceé in Glasgow, and found it to be quite amusing. As always, she admired the large, spindling scrawling of ink on his neck. ‘It was sub— lime. He is a genius, isn’t he?’ he continued.
Raising his hand, he signalled to the general manager, Margaux, a denim-clad, runnerbean-like woman, who in turn signalled to the cherubic Chloe, who stood, lost in thought. She marched towards the pass.
‘You read it?’ quizzed Mona, with earnest surprise, agitating her tumbler. Billy felt tested.
‘Sure did. You know, I don’t know how you do it, Miss A. All these great minds. It must be a lot of pressure. You’re a natural.’
‘You know, sometimes, I’m not so sure myself… I mean, it didn’t come easy. That is to say, I’ve been doing it for a long time. A real long time.’ There was a pessimistic, near-existential vacancy in her voice, as she trailed off. The ice in her tumbler clinked, as it began to melt.
‘I am so sorry, Miss A. I meant that as a compliment. You—’
‘He is a kind man, Ai. I have known him for many years; through the good times, and the bad times too. He is a kind man. Unfortunately, like all geniuses, he is flawed. They are all flawed. That’s something the people don’t realise.’
‘Especially the ones that make it. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps you have to be extra flawed, to make it. Maybe that’s the secret ingredient. I see it all the time. There’s something amongst them. A correlation, if you like.’
‘But you’ve made it, Miss A, and you are not flawed.’
‘You’re too kind, Billy.’
Something about the positioning of her shielded face; the sharp suck of Japanese-made liquor through her Turkish-made teeth; the angle of her posture as she looked around the room, made her the maître d' feel embarrassed. He felt exposed, there, standing beside the millionaire. There was a steep descent in his mistress’ words that felt lead-lined, ready to be cast into a bottomless gulf.