Portly and puce like a sunburnt halibut, Harry was sitting at the window as usual, a bottle of rosé in an ice bucket on the table in front of him. A few other customers had been into the little Italian restaurant during the evening but Harry’s and mine were now the only tables left.
The owner was telling my guest how busy the place used to be and how illustrious the clientele, listing the former ministers, MPs, judges and bureaucrats and a local lord and lady.
“Actually, she’s dead,” he said.
“He’s dead too,” his wife said.
It had not been a bad evening by current standards but when I asked how many were in the previous night, he said there were none.
“There was one takeaway,” his wife said.
“They stood on the other side of the street and they were afraid to come in because of the rule of six. But there were only four of them.”
They would boom across the table at one another, sharing robust, right-wing views on current affairs and exchanging bruising banter
The rule of six, which was introduced in England two weeks ago, means that in general no gathering indoors or outdoors can number more than six people. Boris Johnson got confused when he was asked to explain it this week, apologising later for getting it wrong, and the takeaway customers apparently thought it meant that there could be no more than six people in any public or private space.
“Bloody ridiculous,” Harry piped up from the window.
For years, Harry came here every Monday and Thursday with another man, a heavy-set figure with slicked-back hair who looked like one of the Kray twins gone seriously to seed. They would boom across the table at one another, sharing robust, right-wing views on current affairs and exchanging bruising banter.
It was while listening to one of these rough exchanges one evening that I noticed the way Harry took a mussel off the Kray twin’s plate and realised for the first time that they were a couple.
I learned later that they had been together for more than 40 years but on Valentine’s Day last year, which was a Thursday, they didn’t come into the restaurant.
“I knew right away something was wrong,” the owner said.
The Kray twin had taken ill suddenly at home and went into hospital where he died six days later.
For months afterwards, I would watch the owner joining Harry at the little table outside where he liked to smoke a cigarette with his Irish coffee after dinner. Harry was beyond consolation at first but after a few months he started to come in with a neighbour he called Her Ladyship.
“Another limoncello for Her Ladyship,” he would say.
They swapped books and shared reminiscences and they dined together at the restaurant at least once a week and Harry would come in a couple of other evenings on his own.
When the lockdown came in March, the restaurant closed and Her Ladyship started shielding. Harry occasionally meets her for a coffee outdoors now and they talk twice a day but they no longer have dinner together and her habits have changed.
“She’s an early riser, in the bath at half-past six,” he said.
“There’s nothing left of her by the evening.”
Back in business
When restaurants were allowed to reopen in July, our little Italian was back in business and Harry was back at his table in the window. But almost nobody else came in and after a week, the owner decided to close and to try reopening in August.
The two waiting staff have gone, there is just one person working in the kitchen and the owner’s wife shares all the other duties. Drama at Westminster in the past few weeks over the treaty-breaking Internal Market Bill and the coronavirus restrictions brought some of the old customers back in to gossip and plot.
But the 10pm closing time for bars and restaurants introduced last week has seen business take a dive again. On the few busy evenings, everyone arrives at the same time, stretching the restaurant’s tiny team. And customers are slow to go to restaurants after 8pm in case they have to rush to finish up in time for the curfew.
MPs on Thursday debated the 10pm rule, with many complaining of its ruinous impact on the hospitality sector as well as the questionable benefit to the fight against coronavirus of turning drinkers out onto the street at the same time.
Harry is worried for the restaurant and for himself if it closes again and he loses regular access to the warmth and affection of its owner and one of his few, remaining social connections.
“Another lockdown will be the end of everything,” he said.
“There’ll be nothing. Nothing.”