I decide on what to say. It’s a line, I know, an awful line, something that Alan would say to one of the office girls after one too many drinks on a night out. But I feel bold. She’s flirting with me. I can flirt right back, and then some. Despite this bravado, I still have to clear my throat before I can say anything though, and give a light cough; then, without turning back towards this mystery woman, I try my blatant line.
Sometimes it’s fun to go deep though, wouldn’t you say?
The reply is not what I’m expecting.
I’m sorry, what? Are you talking to me?
I fight the urge to say well I’m the only one here, and instead turn to face her with what I hope is an obvious look on my face.
She is sat primly on the end of the bench, as she was when she first arrived. She’s still holding the book open on her lap. Her skirt is not rumpled up her thighs, nor is it especially short. She is achingly beautiful, I got that much right at least... but what about all the rest? The obvious look falls from my face, and I imagine I must now look vapid.
You said something, she says. Were you talking to me?
I look again at the book – it isn’t even Vox. I can’t see the whole title but it’s something something and Molecular Biology. A textbook.
That – I point – looks pretty deep.
Oh. Not really. It’s an introductory text. Stuff I’m supposed to know already.
I try to think of something else to say, something that might make me look less like an old man trying to pick up girls half his age in public parks. I fail, and say nothing. She turns back to her book and, it may only be my imagination but I don’t think so, she pivots slightly on the bench so that her back is more towards me.
I check my watch again, this time more deliberately, making a show of having somewhere else to go.
This won’t do, I say to no-one in particular and, with an equally deliberate exhalation and blowing out of my cheeks, stand up. She doesn’t look up, so I just walk away, careful not to go around her end of the bench.
By the time I’ve walked to Cena, I feel decidedly grey. Tiredness, the relic of last night’s hangover, and the displacement of an encounter in the park that, if I’m honest with myself, simply didn’t happen... put it this way, I’m early but am happy to wait at the bar because it means I can legitimately have a stiff drink. I order a vodka and lime on the basis that it looks innocuous. Besides, I really don’t need the caffeine that comes with having coke as a mixer.
At 7:40 Jenny arrives, laden with shopping. Her carrier bags proclaim boutique names that I have never heard. I am at the tail end of my second vodka and, after a perfunctory swill of ice at the bottom of the glass, polish it off. I place my glass delicately down on the bar, holding the rim between my thumb and the tip of my middle finger as I do so.
You’re late, I begin.
She laughs, and deposits the bags unceremoniously.
Only a couple of minutes. We said seven thirty-ish anyway, and it’s still ish. Come on, buy me a drink.
I do, a double vodka and coke and another with lime for me. When Jen balks slightly at her double I explain that she has some catching up to do.
An annoyingly handsome waiter in a crisp black shirt appears and informs us that our table is ready, if we’d like just like to follow him. I’m about to do just that when Jen places a hand on my arm. I almost shrug it off. She gestures to the floor.
I could use a little help with these?
Right, I say, but before I can pick up the shopping Annoyingly Handsome has dived in with an oh please, allow me. The ‘s’ in please stretches out – perhaps he is Italian. Perhaps a cod-Italian accent generates more tips. Perhaps he has a lisp.
The three of us troop off to our table, which I am slightly dismayed to discover is right by the entrance. I feel somewhat exposed, sitting beneath the spotlessly clean picture window that opens onto the street, sitting here having an intimate dinner for two with someone else’s fiancée. Whilst Annoyingly is waiting to take our drinks order, I ask if there’s another table we can have. He tells me he is sorry (sssorry) but nothing else is free, they’re very busy tonight. In fact, he adds, we were fortunate to get anything, booking so late.
Aren’t we the lucky ones? Jen adds, helpfully.
I mumble and, without consulting Jen, order a bottle of valpolicella.