When the Crystal Palace was still standing, when people had come from miles and miles to see the colossi of Abu Simbel and the tomb of Beni Hassan, there had been two ways to get there, via the High Level line or the Low Level line. The High Level line was no longer in use; it was the Low Level platform on to which Melissa and Michael disembarked, climbing the many steps up to the street after a rustling, verdant journey (the foliage thickens and closes in around the tracks along the way, as if you are going into a different world). Dutifully hand in hand they emerged on to the street, into this rolling, hilly town on the far south edge of London, where from the pinnacles of the steeps the city centre is a shimmering, distant valley view of many coloured lights. You can hear seagulls, possibly bound for Brighton, it is so far out, it has a seaside sensation, and they and other birds soar amidst the peaks of the two Eiffels, the taller standing in the park on the flat plane of Crystal Palace Parade, the shorter at the top of Beulah Hill towards Thornton Heath. Up they walked in the frizzing wind towards Westow Hill where all the restaurants were. There were lots of people about, spruced up for Saturday night, people who had moved out here for affordable places to live, thus joining in with the endless expansion of the city, bringing Kent and Bromley into the party, making Brixton central and Dulwich hip. With these people had come the trendy furniture boutiques and wholefood juice bars, the vintage clothes shops and Paperchase, and the indigenous folk, those who had watched all this happen, carried on in their own sweet way, the boys who came down from the tower blocks with their dogs, the old folk who couldn’t believe the price of a flannel in Sainsbury’s these days. There were other couples too, walking hand in hand more naturally, peering at the menus in the windows beneath the awnings.
The place Michael had booked was one of those chic and stately modern places with elegant chairs and no music, where the food is considered the only music necessary and actual music an unnecessary distraction. There was gold panelling around the doors and windows, light grey tablecloths. A stern, unsmiling host placed them next to a pillar in the centre of the room, neither discreet nor intimate, and they struggled in this classy sterility to vibe. Melissa ate wood pigeon for the first time in her life and didn’t feel right about it. They tried hard not to talk about the children, but it was difficult, and they ended up talking about the mice. Between intermittent silences they sipped from their different wines, his red, hers white. At the next table sat an old couple who also had nothing to talk about and had given up trying to make it look as if they did, both of them with tight looks on their faces and deadened eyes.
"You look beautiful," Michael tried at some point between the mains and the desserts. At exactly the same instant, the candle in the middle of their table went out.
"Thanks," Melissa said. A deep melancholy was rising within her. She wanted to be miles away from him. But they were here. And here was her chocolate cake. It had a bitter orange-peel edge, a dark chocolate cream running out of it. She ate it with a grave and absolute absorption. When the desserts were finished, Michael checked his watch.