The lift wasn’t working that Thursday morning, so by the time Em had climbed to the fifth floor offices she was gasping for a cuppa.
The kitchen was empty, the kettle too, so she filled it and put it on to boil, then slumped against the windowsill and looked down. Five storeys below, the narrow streets of Covent Garden sprawled comfortably in the sun. Here, at the junction of West Street and Litchfield Street, there was always a lot of toing and froing and plenty to see, and for the observer at the kitchen window, there was a delicious thrill in watching and wondering about the people below, safe in the knowledge that nobody was ever likely to glance up and break the spell.
As Em gazed out, a taxi pulled up at the entrance to the offices and a smartly dressed businessman climbed in and slammed the door shut. The taxi moved away and two dark-haired women rounded the corner from St Martin’s Lane, their languid arm-in-arm stroll betraying their Italian origins. Across the road, a young Japanese couple stood outside the New Ambassadors theatre, heads bent over a folded newspaper, while next door, outside the St Martin’s theatre, a motor cycle dispatch rider adjusted his helmet and revved up his machine. Em leaned forward and watched as his bike shot off up Litchfield Street, past the Ivy.
As she spooned instant coffee into a mug and rooted in the fridge for a carton of milk, her thoughts turned to the restaurant. The Ivy was a puzzling presence in the street below. Haunt of the rich and famous (only yesterday The Times had published a photo of Madonna leaving the premises), it guarded its privacy fiercely. In the eighteen months since Em had begun her ‘London Thursdays’ she had never seen any sign of activity there. No taxis had pulled up outside and not a single mysterious figure (film star? top politician? business tycoon?) had slipped in or out of the sombre doorway. Four times a day Em walked past its multi-coloured stained glass windows and wondered idly who, if anyone, was inside. She often worked late into the evening and still the Ivy remained silent and enigmatic.For the hundredth time she asked herself what she would do if she saw someone famous going in or out while she was standing at the kitchen window. Supposing . . . just supposing she looked out one day and saw her all-time favourite film star, the unutterably gorgeous Keanu Reeves, stepping into a taxi outside. Would she bang on the glass and wave a tea towel to attract his attention? (No point in trying to open the windows - they were sealed shut.) Would she dash on to the office floor and shout the amazing news to everyone within earshot? Or would she rush straight out and gallop down five flights of stairs (forget the lift - it had a mind of its own) in a desperate attempt to reach him before he disappeared? And what on earth would she say if they came face to face . . . ? Oh well, enough of daydreaming. Hefting her rucksack on her shoulder, she picked up her mug of coffee and set off to look for a free desk.
The trouble with ‘hot-desking’, Em found, was that you always felt somewhat of an intruder. First she had to locate an empty desk and check with anyone sitting nearby that its owner was away. Then she had to move any paperwork and other clutter (mugs of cold tea, orthopaedic cushions, favourite woollies) carefully out of the way, and at last she could spread out her own materials, crank the chair down to a comfortable height and settle down to a day of reading and report-writing, occasionally interrupted by puzzled strangers looking for someone else. If she was lucky, she might find herself in an office overlooking Nelson’s Column or the London Eye, but more often than not she was stuck in the main body of the building, with no windows nearby.
Today was a windowless day and Em was glad to leave the office at midday and spend an hour wandering the streets of Covent Garden, threading her way through crowds of chattering French teenagers, watching the street entertainers and browsing among the market stalls while the voices of music students singing operatic arias drifted up from the lower level of the Piazza.
Another couple of hours of concentrated work and it was time for a break, so she made her way back to the kitchen, pausing briefly to look out of the window on her way to the kettle. A crocodile of schoolboys dressed in green sweatshirts crossed Litchfield Street, all turning their heads to stare at a couple locked in a passionate embrace on the corner. On the opposite side of the road a slightly-built girl with long red plaits was walking slowly along with a huge cello case slung over her shoulder. The Ivy, as always, stood impassively in the afternoon sun.
By 6.30 it was time to call it a day, so Em packed up her things and wandered into the kitchen for the last time. As she stood at the window drying her coffee mug a cloud passed over the sun and the first drops of rain began to fall. She put the mug away in the cupboard, hung the damp tea towel over the window catch and made her way out of the offices to the landing.
As the lift made its slow progress to the ground floor, stopping at each level to collect more passengers, the door of the Ivy opened, a voice called ‘Your taxi, Mr Reeves’, and a tall, lean and impossibly good-looking American movie star emerged from the restaurant. Glancing up at the rainy skies his eyes were caught by a red checked tea towel hanging at an empty office window several storeys up. Turning up the collar of his long black leather coat, he stepped into the taxi and it sped away towards Charing Cross Road. The revolving doors at the entrance to the office block turned and a handful of workers emerged. Em looked up at the skies, opened out her umbrella and hurried past the Ivy on her way to the bus stop and the long journey home.