Looking down at his watch, James realised he was going to be late. 7.23, plus five minutes because he still hadn’t gotten round to correcting the time, and he was a definitely more than two minutes away from where he thought the restaurant was. Bad times.
Striding out of the almost empty shop (why they stayed open until eight on a Thursday was a mystery) he resigned himself to having neither time nor money for a present. He normally prided himself on his ability to find the perfect gift, and indeed this time last year had probably been his best performance ever. Of course, it was slightly more difficult to come up with the perfect gift for your ex-girlfriend.
As he fought his way into the icy wind he wondered to himself why he was even bothering to come. Matt would have told him that it was a hopelessly optimistic attempt to persuade her to take him back, but that wasn’t really true. Not that he would have said no, he just didn’t hold out any hope that she would give him a chance to.
And to make matters worse, it wasn’t just going to be Lucy, or even just Lucy and her insufferable family. (“Oh, you study drama? How lovely! You know I thought about being unemployed once too…”) No, this was the first time he was going to be confronted with Nicky. Lucy and Nicky. Licky, as Matt had gleefully portmanteaued.
Only as he turned into
East Street did he see the huge grey puddle on the side of the road, and the bus bulldozing towards it. Clearly his luck was in tonight, he moaned inwardly, bracing himself and turning away from the road. But the splash didn’t come. “Great. Even the bloody bus pities me,” he muttered sullenly.
Still inwardly cursing to himself, James finally made it to the restaurant. A ridiculously shaped creature glared down at him from above the entrance, its angry red eyes perfectly contrasted with the puerile discoloured tongue. It would have been funny, except he knew that he would have had to starve for a week to have taken Lucy for a meal here.
Late, he didn’t think to wait before going straight in. The restaurant had a curious scent of lemon, and the noise coming from round to the left told him the direction he needed to go. Ignoring the joyless grin of the waiter on the door, he headed to meet his fate.
It astounded him, in the era of Facebook, that there could be so many people around a table and he could know so few of them. At the head of the table Lucy’s mother was fussing, looking splendidly ridiculous in a supposed-to-be gold dress, while her father stood next to her, glaring at the Chinese lettering on the wall as if certain it was a deeply personal attack on himself, his family and Margaret bloody Thatcher to boot.
The subject of Lucy’s mother’s fussing must be Nicky, James surmised. Taller than him, thinner than him, with the rolled up sleeves of his prissy pink shirt revealing biceps even bigger than his hard-earned chicken wings. Lucy’s mother was apparently concerning herself with brushing a stain from just below his left hip. Get a room.
And there, watching this deeply incestuous act of cleaning, was Lucy. With a sudden surge of joy he noticed she was wearing the white jumper he had bought her last year, the one he had always teased her made her look like he must be her servant. It was long and tight, curving round her hips and covering the tops of her skinny jeans, which in turn ran down her long legs to a pair of shiny black heels. She was talking to her mother, her face twisted into what she always hoped was anger, but to him could only ever be adorable. He remembered the last good conversation they had had, back on their trip to
, and – Dublin
“And who are you then kid?” The deep Scouse (probably?) voice brought him back to reality. He tore his eyes away and brought them to rest on a curiously obese man, giving him a not unfriendly look. James didn’t recognise him.
“I’m – I’m James,” he faltered, dreading what was he had to say next. “I’m a – a friend of Lucy’s.”
“Oh aye?” (Was it Scouse? Now it sounded more like Pirate.) “From University I supposed? You
types eh.” Oxford
“No, not from
. I knew her from when we were at school actually.” And we used to date. And she told me she loved me before she realised she preferred men whose names and fashion senses suggested they always wondered why they had a Y chromosome. Oxford
The man paused, clearly conscious of his mistake, but not troubling himself to look overly guilty about it. A glimmer of recognition flashed across the man’s eyes.
“Oh, right, James, of course. Yes well you probably wouldn’t remember me, but I live next door to the Higgins’s, I remember you driving round to see her eight nights a week. Red Vauxhall Corsa, right?”
James blushed to almost the colour of the car and nodded. The man smiled sympathetically.
“Well it looks like the only seat left is next to us, so you’re more than welcome to slot in here. If you don’t want to go give Lucy her present…”
James felt his cheeks burning still darker. “I didn’t manage to get her anything in the end…” He hovered momentarily, weighing up whether to go and say hello or not. He should do, he realised, but wouldn’t it just be awkward for everyone? And surely she would come over later anyway. Conscious of the genial Scouse Pirate’s watching gaze, James moved as if to go, swayed back, and finally surrendered into the waiting seat. The Scouse Pirate smiled knowingly, although he didn’t seem like he was going to share that knowledge with anyone.
“The name’s Eric. And this is my wife Veronica.” A still fatter woman on Eric’s left smiled up at him, gesturing that she would say hello but she didn’t want to risk losing one of the prawn crackers in her mouth.
“You might be wanting this,” said Eric, pouring James a large glass of an expensive-looking Merlot. James smiled and swigged. Deeply.