You trying to get me pissed?
Might be, yeah. Am I succeeding?
Might be. Trying to loosen me up?
Maybe I smile, I don’t know, but whatever, somehow Jen divines an answer. She fixes me with an unblinking stare, her over-full wine glass poised before her lips.
Why’s that then? she says.
I have to look away, and use cutting the last of my veal into two as an excuse. It gives me thinking time too, and I need it because I’m starting to feel muzzy.
Well, you know, you’re going to move in with me at the weekend. It’s all happening very quickly. We don’t even know if we’re compatible. You know.
I risk a look up. Behind the still-poised glass, she is smiling.
You’re worried because we’ve only ever kissed, is that it?
So you thought you’d get me pissed and take me off to the back seat of your car, did you?
A few glasses of the old vino and you thought we’d be fucking like bunnies, is that it?
This feels like a shout, even though Jen is almost whispering, her voice a subtle murmur with a range so short it can traverse the table but surely no further, especially given Cena’s background noise. Even so, heat prickles around my collar. My eyes dart around – I am convinced that our waiter is close by but for once he is not. I can’t think of anything to say, so take a sip of my wine as slowly as I can, just as Jen puts her glass down.
Well eat up then, she says, and we’ll skip dessert.
After what can only be a couple of seconds, but feels longer, I realise I should probably close my mouth. A couple of seconds more and I catch up, realisation spreading slowly over my face in smile form. Jen returns the smile, though there is something cold, maybe even clinical about hers. She cradles her wine glass, the stem balanced delicately between index and middle fingers, then takes a sip.
Nice as it is, you don’t need this to loosen me up.
And with that, she places the glass on the table and pushes her mostly empty plate away.
Come on, she says, dessert is waiting.
I thought you said we’d sk- oh, right.
I feel foolish, feeble, floundering. And I am keen, really, to see whether this fledgling relationship might work. But I don’t want to leave my veal Milanese. Or my valpolicella. Especially not here.
I look around and catch Annoylingly Handsome’s eye. Although it’s not something I’d usually do, for him I make an exception and beckon him over with a raised hand, forking the last of the veal into my mouth at the same time.
Is everything alright with your meals?
Yes but we’re done, I say. I’ll have the bill please, quick as you can.
Quick as you can? Is it the wine or Jenny that’s turning me into the kind of arsehole I despise? I resolve to leave a large tip, if my wallet is up to it. Half a meal or not, Cena is not cheap. Speaking of which…
Drink up, I say, scooping my glass up with what I hope is a confident flourish. This stuff isn’t cheap, you know.
Our glasses are empty by the time the bill arrives. I balk a little at the bottom line, and revise my tipping plans somewhat. As I count notes out onto the little silver tray the bill is on, I experience a gentle wave of déjà vu, so subtle that I cannot locate its source.
Let’s go, I say, gathering Jenny’s shopping as I stand.
But as we turn towards the door I am stopped dead in my tracks. The couple that have just come in are being greeted by Annoyingly – he offers them menus and then, with an expansive sweep of one arm, indicates that their table is towards the back of the restaurant. The waiter sets off, and the couple trail obediently behind, the woman first, the man with one hand resting gently at the base of her spine, just below the V of her open-backed dress. I stand back in the gap between two tables to let them pass. She catches my eye and smiles but says nothing. As he draws level he finally notices me, and performs a near-perfect comedy double-take. He pulls his hand back, and his companion stops a pace ahead.
Peter! Didn’t know you were coming here tonight. You two.
He inclines his head towards Jenny.
Likewise, Alan, likewise.
And then, even though I know I shouldn’t, even though I know I should just pretend to look away and get out of there as fast as possible, I say it anyway.
Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend?
She steps back towards him, as if on cue, and Alan, my boss, my very-much-married boss, loops a casual, avuncular arm around the waist of this woman who is not his wife. To his credit, he delivers the line without hesitation or blushing.
This, he says, is my niece, Laura.