THE LONG-STANDING ARRANGEMENT

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Once a year I meet Gilbert. He’s the man who does my tax. We have dinner, and afterwards I procure his financial services once again. It’s a long-standing arrangement. The dinner is probably unnecessary, but like many such traditions, it continues unaccosted and intact.

I suppose we must have been acquaintances of some sort before Gilbert started to do my tax. Otherwise, how did we reach such an arrangement? But then, how we first became acquainted isn’t important here. In the way of these things, we were introduced somewhere, at some time, and that’s all that matters.

This, then, is our routine: We meet at Grady’s Chop House, early in the evening. It’s always been Grady’s, and at the time we arrive, the family diners are starting to clear out, but none of the night crowd has arrived. I suppose we might be called the middle sitting.

Gilbert drinks whiskies at the bar, then wine with his food, and a brandy afterwards. He always asks me if I mind his drinking. He’s checking to see if I’m comfortable with it. Each time I assure him it’s very thoughtful of him to ask, but not at all necessary. (On one occasion, I said that it was sweet of him to ask, and there was a ripple as the unfamiliar word hit the air.)

‘How’ve you been?’ he’ll say, squaring his shoulders and looking me right in the eyes, smiling large and bright, his manner corporate but warm. ‘It’s been quite a year. Doesn’t feel like it’s been a year. Where does the time go?’

In this way, we’ll sit at the bar until he’s finished his second whisky, and I my espresso coffee, and then we’ll follow the waiter over to our table.

The talk flows as Gilbert’s manner loosens along with his tie, and in my usual compliant way, I mirror his mood. We have a whole year to catch up on, so there’s never any shortage of topics to discuss. Around us, as we talk and eat, the restaurant begins to fill.

At the end of the meal, I’ll ask for the bill. I’ll pull it towards me, shielding the total, even though he’s already clocked it. ‘I’m getting this,’ I’ll say. He’ll try to give me something for the liquor, but I’ll resist.

‘Same again this year?’ he’ll ask, meaning our usual tax arrangements. I always feel a strange flutter at this moment. An opportunity seems to beckon, but it’s elusive. Gilbert’s colour is high. Our space is suffused with his businessman’s cologne. We’re two adults, holding our futures in our own hands. We can do whatever we want. The real night, loaded with purple mystery, is still ahead of us. So I’ll pause while I’m trying to fix these skittish impressions in place. But then I’ll simply nod, and say yes, same arrangement. ‘I’ll call you Monday, then, and we’ll work things out,’ he’ll say.

Outside the restaurant, we’ll talk swiftly, winding the evening down. It’s usually chilly by that time, so we shake hands to get away. ‘Good to see you,’ he’ll say, holding my gaze, his eyes shining in the street light. ‘And I’ll speak to you Monday.’ Then he’ll hunch his shoulders and pull his collar up and go along the street in one direction. I’ll watch after him a moment, ready for him to turn and wave. He never does. Then I’ll go along the street in the other direction, even though I need to go the same way he does.

I like this routine we have. I enjoy meeting Gilbert. I like his company. Once or twice I’ve considered contacting him at an unusual time of the year, to suggest having dinner outside our tax arrangements. But I’ve never done this, and I probably never will. I suspect that we wouldn’t know how to behave under alternative circumstances. That there might be an element of uncomfortable uncertainty as we enter the thrill of an unscripted night.

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