The wind whips the smoke away as soon as it leaves Tom's mouth. He's freezing his goddamn bollocks off out here, but he can't smoke in the car – against company policy. The client can smoke if he or she wants to, but not the driver. No matter how cold he is, he isn't going to break any of the myriad policies his boss had drummed into his head:
"No smoking or eating in the vehicle. No personal calls during working hours. Maintain a friendly but professional demeanor. Smile and offer a friendly 'hello' but do not try to initiate a conversation with the client. Have a customer-centric, service-oriented attitude at all times. Open the door for clients, stow luggage and answer questions. Exercise absolute discretion." Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Pretty basic but he's just gotten this job. He needs this job.
He takes another puff and checks his watch. A few minutes after six. Students start to exit the building in front of him. Tom drops his cigarette and grinds it out with his shoe, straightens up. He stands by the rear door of the black Mercedes, waits, ignores the sideways looks a few students give him as they pass by. He can't blame them - probably not a lot of art students have a chauffeured car waiting to pick them up. Not even St. Martin's students.
He waits. And waits. The stream of students peters out fairly quickly but he hasn't seen the client come out yet. Has he missed her? He'd just met her this morning, yeah, but he's fairly sure he'd recognize her. And she wouldn't have missed him, standing there right in front of the building. Does he have the wrong time? The wrong building?
He digs into his coat pocket for his phone, about to double check the pick up details, when a lone figure wrapped in a short leather jacket and oversized cashmere scarf pushes through the building's doors. There she is. Sybil Crawley. Lady Sybil Crawley, he corrects himself. Lady. Lest he forget.
He opens the car door and pastes on a pleasant smile as she strides towards him. "Good evening," he says when she's near. She doesn't respond, doesn't even glance at him, just slides into the car and waits for him to close the door. He resists the urge to roll his eyes. She'd done the same thing this morning when he picked her up – ignored him completely. But should he expect otherwise? She's an Earl's daughter and he's just the hired help, after all. Never mind it's 2017, not 1917 or whatever.
He knows her type. Too much money, too much time on her hands, not enough sense, gets whatever she wants, has never had to struggle or go without a day in her life. But she could be less of a snob about it, frankly.
He rounds the car and climbs in behind the wheel. He checks the sat nav – just in case. He knows how to get to St. James's Square from here, but he doesn't want to louse it up on his first day. He pulls the car away from the curb, glancing at Lady Sybil in the rearview mirror. She's looking at her phone, the bright screen lighting up her smooth, pretty face. He resists the urge to say something (god knows what), resists his natural inclination to buck policy and so-called social rules. Instead, he focuses on the road ahead.
They travel in silence. Traffic is typical, pretty stop-and-go this time of night. It's central London, after all. His mind wanders. What is he going to have for dinner tonight? He has a pizza in the freezer but that's about it and he doesn't fancy it. He might have to stop at the Tesco on his way home. Although...maybe he could get a curry instead-
"I want to live like a regular person," Lady Sybil says from the backseat, disturbing his thoughts. What? He checks the rearview mirror, assuming she's on the phone with someone. But no – she's not on her phone, she's looking right back at him in the mirror.
"Pardon, miss?" he answers, pretending he didn't hear.
"I want to live like regular people. I want to do whatever regular people do. I want to sleep with a regular person like you," she answers plainly, seriously.
He raises an eyebrow, glancing at her in the mirror. She'll throw her head back and start laughing in a second. Like a child laughs at her plaything. But she doesn't. She just looks straight back at him. Waiting, apparently, for a response or an answer of some sort. So he's the one who laughs, disbelieving, a humorless chuckle escaping him.
"I'll see what I can do, miss," he answers wryly and looks back to the traffic ahead, shaking his head a little. Good god. That's the rich for you, eh? Fucking crazy.
"I know, I know. I'm a fucking joke," she says bitterly, miserably.
He takes a little pity on her. "No, miss."
He hears her shift, sitting forward, leaning against the passenger seat beside him. Her voice is much closer when she goes on, "It's just that..." She trails off and in the rearview mirror he catches how she bites her lip.
"It's just that... I mean, I've never been to a supermarket, I've never even been to a fish 'n' chip shop," she says in a rush, like it's a dirty confession.
"You what?" he blurts, amazed. They're stopped at a red light so he looks over his shoulder at her. She blinks at him. "You've never had fish 'n' chips?"
She rolls her eyes. "Of course I've had fish 'n' chips. I've just never been in one of the shops before. You're going to laugh at me again." He doesn't laugh, but he does ask her why she's never been in a chippy before. "I don't know, it's just never something we did! Mrs. Patmore always made us fish 'n' chips."
He's surprised she actually knows his name. "Yes, miss?"
"Take me to a fish 'n' chip shop."
Which is how he comes to be parking the Mercedes in Soho in front of a brightly-lit but slightly dingy-looking chippy that he happens to know serves pretty good fish 'n' chips. Not the best in town, but it'll do.
He turns the engine off and gets out of the car, circling around to open her door for her. She gets out but hesitates on the pavement, not going inside. "Come with me?" she asks. For what, moral support?
"I should wait here, miss."
"You haven't had dinner yet, have you?"
"My treat, then," she offers. She smiles at him, a little shyly. She has light blue eyes, he notices. "Please?"
Which is how they come to be standing at the counter together in the overly-bright chippy, where it takes her an age to order, for some reason, and of course she doesn't have any cash – and the shop doesn't take plastic – so he's the one who actually ends up paying.
"I'll pay you back," she promises as they sit on wobbly stools by the window and unwrap their greasy packets.
"Forget it," he dismisses.
In silence, they drink Cokes and eat piping hot cod and crispy chips and watch the foot traffic through the window. He's pretty sure this is against company policy, eating with the client, but, at the same time, wasn't he told to be customer-centric and service-oriented?
"So is it everything you hoped it'd be, miss?" he asks after a spell, waving his hand to encompass the whole of the tiny shop.
"Is it 'regular person' enough for you?" he asks. She bows her head and puts down the chip she was about to eat. He's embarrassed her or hurt her feelings or something. But frankly it was an outrageous thing to say – I want to do whatever regular people do, I want to sleep with a regular person like you. Who says that?
"Today, I overheard some of my classmates talking in the hall after class," she starts slowly, still looking at her lap. Her voice is tight when she goes on. "Talking about me, I mean. They were calling me a dilettante. Saying I wasn't really an artist or anything. Just a little poseur wasting my parents' money and taking the place of someone with actual talent."
Now he does feel bad. "They shouldn't have said that, miss."
"'How can she ever expect to have anything to say about the world when she knows nothing about it?' That's what one of them said."
"They're just being petty—"
She lifts her head, something fiery in her eyes. "But the truth is they're right! I don't know anything about the real world! I've been so sheltered and-and spoiled and coddled. I mean, god, who the hell hasn't been to a fish 'n' chip shop before? Who hasn't been to a supermarket? That's pathetic. I'm pathetic."
She looks down again and he knows there's nothing he can say to make her feel better. Not that it's his responsibility to make her feel better. That's way, way above his pay grade. He's just the help.
He chews on a chip.
But he's not made of fucking stone, is he?
"You know... There's a Tesco right around the corner," he tells her.
She looks up at him. "Be my guide, Branson?"