‘God, don’t you hate this place’ says Shiraz (‘But you can call me Raz’ she said when Ruth introduced us. ‘Rich and fruity, that’s me.’ I point out that Shiraz is usually described as oaky. Raz gives me a look.)
Raz comes sideways at us, hands full of glasses, struggling to squeeze between the other travellers seated at their tables, eating their lunches. ‘I mean what’s the point?’
She arrives and puts the glasses down – a white wine for me, red for Ruth, a fizzy water for Lisa and a large vodka and orange for herself.
‘Everybody on the caviar and asparagus, quaffing the Château Neuf du Pap ‘67 or whatever the hell it is. We used to pay a fortune for that stuff.’
‘The point, I suppose, would be the amazing flavour’ I suggest. ‘It’s pretty good. You should try some.’
‘Caviar doesn’t taste that good sunshine, trust me...’
‘Actually I rather like it’ says Ruth. Lisa looks slightly disgusted. She’s on the ruccolla and artichoke salad.
‘You don’t imagine people eat caviar because they think it tastes nice do you sweetie? Now here we are and I find that everybody and anybody can have some. Makes me sick.’
‘What are you having?’ I ask.
‘Oh I’ll stick to the meds if you don’t mind. I know it’s early but what the heck. Chin-chin.’
Well I’m enjoying my salmon anyway. The food here really is bloody amazing. I don’t know how they do it. I suspect the whole thing’s imaginary in some way but can’t be bothered to work it out.
Nor am I sure how it happened that I’m sat with these three. Ruth seems to have been very busy making friends. She’s one of those people it’s just too much hassle to argue with, so you do as you’re told. Lisa I know less about. She has extremely long brown hair, big sleepy eyes and puffy lips, and an unfocussed, apprehensive look about her - friendly enough but rather young. Under different circumstances I think I’d have been very attracted to her and I can’t believe I can even be considering it, after everything that happened. Actually she reminds me a little of my girl back home. Actually, everybody and everything reminds me of her. I put my knife and fork down and sit back and collect myself.
‘So...’ begins Lisa, rather hesitatingly, ‘were you one of those girls that was named after types of wine back in the nineties, like Chardonnay and er...?’
‘Excuse me sweetie, do I look like a footballer’s wife?’
‘Well, you know...’ Lisa looks like she wishes she hadn’t said anything.
‘It’s a place in Iran darling. Dad was there before the war. And that’s all the hints you’re getting concerning my true age sweetie’ eyeing Lisa as if she’s been very sly, but Lisa just looks mortified.
‘But that wasn’t what I ...’ She says, almost in tears. She’s totally out of her depth.
Raz at least appears to be in her mid twenties and is in tee shirt and trackie bottoms. She used to wear Prada she says but here everybody’s so well dressed what’s the point? She’s not a great looking woman especially, but you can tell she was used to making the best of herself and carrying it off with sheer brazen good humour and a dirty laugh. Now she freely admits she’s going to thoroughly let herself go and sod the lot of them.
‘Cheer up sweetie’ she says to Lisa, patting her knee.
‘I’m alright’ says Lisa, waking from her daydream ‘What do you think that person over there is going to do?’ she says, pointing across the room. We all turn to look. Across the room a tall man in a dressing gown is standing on a chair. He opens the front of his gown and waggles his equipment at everyone. ‘You see?’ he shouts, ‘It doesn’t matter any more!’ He drops the gown and does a little dance. ‘Wahey!’ he says and then he bends down and picks up his pudding and begins to smear it all over his ample frontage. Evidently it’s still quite hot and he seems a little taken aback by this unforeseen discovery, but, no matter, he picks up the wine bottle and liberally douses the area. A few diners applaud, one of the people at his table says loudly that he’s putting him off his banana cheesecake, which gets a laugh. The rest of us either look on quizzically or pretend nothing’s happening.
Raz leans in conspiratorially and says ‘Maybe it’s just the embalming fluid talking but suddenly I can see the point.’
‘It’s quite a substantial point’ says Ruth appraisingly.
‘You’re telling me’ says Raz. ‘Now if he can just lay off the jam roly-poly he might be in with a chance’ and she does that magnificent cackle we’ve all come to know and secretly enjoy. ‘Excuse me’ she says and disappears.
I sit back and look around. I’ve always liked hanging out with women. On the one hand it means I avoid all the petty (supposedly good natured) one-upmanship that characterises male bonding. On the other I am largely exempt from any bitching among the girls. And although it isn’t essential, it’s actually better if I fancy the women just a little. I used to enjoy hanging out with my wife’s friends. They were a good bunch and I was content to take a back seat and hear about what their friends were up to and who with, and what the repercussions were. If I went out with the guys it was all about the latest, most obscure 60s garage punk LP they’d found in a charity shop or else it would mean computer games all night.
Raz is back in a trice, transformed and radiant. I’m impressed.
‘There don’t seem to be any labels on anything. Do you suppose they’re knock-offs?’ she says.
‘Perhaps they’re just beautiful clothes’ says Lisa.
‘Oh she’s so sweet don’t you think? Bless’ says Raz.
‘Men don’t know the difference, not unless they’re gay’ says Ruth. ‘Look, he’s getting away.’
‘Oops, better run’ and she gulps down her drink and heads out.
We squirm in tacit admiration as she catches up with him, drops her bag and gets him to help her pick up her things. Masterly.
‘Do you think he can tell?’ muses Lisa.
Once again that laugh rings out and the man, six foot six and built like a stone privvy smiles and leads on, gown flapping casually.
‘She’s probably offered to get the custard out of those hard to reach areas’ says Ruth.
‘I’d never have had the nerve to do anything like that’ says Lisa, almost disapprovingly but not quite.
‘Got to hand it to her’ I say.
‘But you wouldn’t fall for that would you?’ she says to me. ‘I mean, she’s just so... obvious.’
‘I don’t know. I mean, I wouldn’t have been naked on a table in a restaurant in the first place, and I never thought food was very sexy...’
‘Oh, I don’t know. A nice dollop of Cherry Garcia in the right spot...’ says Ruth.
‘Ruth!’ says Lisa with a shocked smile on her face and they both giggle like teenagers.
‘Sorry Gabriel’ says Ruth, covering her nose to stop herself snorting with one hand and gripping my hand with the other.
‘Don’t mind me’ I say. ‘I’m not that easily shocked.’
‘I bet. What’s your secret weapon then?’ she says raising a suggestive eyebrow. Lisa cracks up again, exhaling her fizzy water. I can’t help feeling that Lisa’s a little too excited. I wonder what her story is.
I hold up my hands ‘No way. I’m outnumbered here. Maybe another time.’
‘I’ll hold you to that’ Ruth says meaningfully.
Lisa looks at us with a suddenly serious expression on her face and I realise that this is not at all like hanging out with my wife and her friends. She isn’t here to rescue me for one thing.