Authors: Jan Brigden
‘Oh, bless his heart. It was Danny who told us about this place.’
‘Good man. Well, the queue speaks for itself, girls.’ He trained his eyes on Rebecca. ‘You the shy one?’
‘’Fraid so,’ she croaked, heat rising up her neck.
She flinched as he bellowed across her. ‘Sorry, pal. No trainers!’ The culprit, a man with a crew cut, further down the queue, began swearing back at him, his face taut with rage.
‘I’ll sort it,’ snarled Jermaine’s lofty colleague, lurching past them.
Jermaine ushered Rebecca and Abi inside. ‘Sorry about that. Catch you both later, yeah?’ He directed them to a woman standing behind a gold lectern, her hair as electric-blue as her lace cocktail dress.
The woman’s face didn’t crack. ‘Guest list.’
Rebecca didn’t know if she was being asked or told.
‘Er … we’ve booked a table in the restaurant,’ she stuttered. ‘Nine o’clock. Sorry we’re a bit late.’
The hostess raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow. ‘Straight ahead and down the stairs.’
Rebecca could hear the muffled thud of music filtering up them. Thank goodness this would all be over in six hours.
‘Ready to rock?’ said Abi.
‘As I’ll ever be,’ said Rebecca, taking a deep breath.
Split over two levels, the main arena’s lower balcony – on which they now stood – was swathed in red and gold with an extensive bar running almost the entire length of one side, preceded by the restaurant.
‘I love sunken dance floors,’ said Abi, swaying her hips to an R & B song Rebecca vaguely recognised, pointing out a few early birds already in situ, the overhead flashing lights illuminating their outlines.
‘It’s certainly different,’ said Rebecca, leaning over the elaborate balustrade. ‘Where’s the DJ?’
Abi pointed to a fluorescent green booth suspended from the ceiling.
He’s got enough gear in there to power Wembley stadium,’ said Rebecca. ‘Look at the size of those speakers.’
‘I know.’ Abi started jigging on the spot. ‘I’m telling you, this place looks as good as anywhere in London. I might have to grace one of its podiums later.’ Rebecca gawped at her. ‘I’m
They cut a diagonal path through some gold velvet bench seats towards the restaurant, to find four men blocking the entrance when they arrived.
‘Mamma mia,’ declared a thickset, rugby playing type, licking his lips at the sight of Abi’s cleavage. Rebecca had to sidestep around him, he was leaning back so far. Had he never seen breasts before?
The maître d’ – a short Turk with slicked back hair – stepped forward to greet them, confirmed their reservation, and led them to a candlelit alcove.
‘Wow! The concierge has come up trumps,’ said Abi, peering through the latticework border. ‘We can see everything from here.’
‘Your menus, ladies,’ said the maître d’, smoothing down the white, linen tablecloth. He gave Rebecca an oily smile. ‘Would you care to see the wine list, madam?’
‘House white all right with you, Abs?’ she asked.
‘Perfectly!’ Abi nodded.
‘Certainly, madam. Someone will be over to take your orders. Enjoy your meals,’ he said, bouncing back into the main restaurant.
‘This is cosy, isn’t it?’ said Rebecca, wedging her bag between her feet.
‘You can say that again.’ Abi indicated the young couple sitting at the next table with their tongues interlocked. ‘Do you think old Bernard specifically
requested this alcove for us? I mean the rest of the restaurant’s hardly duff, is it?’
‘I know. I was expecting a few chrome chairs and trestle tables with bowls of cold pasta and limp lettuce leaves on them.’ Rebecca opened her menu.
… in which decade did you last go clubbing?’
‘No comment,’ said Rebecca, grinning.
The waiter arrived with their wine, pen poised to take their orders.
‘Crab linguini, please,’ said Abi, giving him back her menu.
‘Same for me, please,’ said Rebecca, looking no further.
‘Excellent choice,’ said the waiter, pouring their wine. ‘Thank you, ladies.’ He scuttled back to the kitchen, clutching their order.
Abi raised her glass in the air. ‘Cheers!’
‘Yes. Cheers!’ Rebecca raised hers too. Perhaps tonight wouldn’t be so gruelling, after all.
Alex Heath averted his eyes as bottle blonde number three, breasts spilling out of her top, gawped at him round the pillar. She was on her starting blocks, like her two predecessors had been, desperate for eye contact. He was used to the attention, but this was precisely why he rarely went clubbing. Now, thanks to Kenny, who was yelling at him from the bar, signalling for him to look at the entrance, Alex could have been stark naked and it would have attracted less interest.
What was all the fuss about?
Alex turned to see his teammate, Liam Tyler, posing by the stairs with his latest girlfriend.
Kenny whistled across the club at them. ‘
Mercifully, for Alex, they veered off in the opposite direction. He and Liam might enjoy one of the best on the field partnerships in the league, but off the field Liam was a nightmare.
Liam and Kenny ‘the double-act’ spelled disaster.
Alex watched Kenny strut back over in his pink floral shirt, clutching two bottles of Budweiser like he owned the place. ‘He was probably ignoring you,’ Alex said to him, winding him up as he took one of the bottles from him. ‘Cheers, Millsy.’
‘Yeah, cheers.’ Kenny clocked blonde devotee number three. ‘Worth a dose of bullshit,’ he muttered to Alex, winking at her. She turned to her mates and giggled. ‘So,’ he said, dragging his gaze back to Alex, ‘what’s the score with this aftershave advert you’re supposed to be doing?’
doing!’ Alex took a swig of his beer.
‘Why, what happened?’
‘Highlights and chest wax is what happened. Or at least that’s what the production staff wanted to happen.’
‘What, and you blew ’em out?’
‘Didn’t want to compromise your rugged masculinity,’ said Kenny, roaring with laughter. ‘I bet they were well pissed off.’
‘They were, but if they don’t know me by now, then that’s their problem.’
do it,’ said Kenny, casting the blonde another quick look. ‘Especially if it involved half a dozen semi-naked models wrapping themselves around me.’
Alex didn’t doubt that for a second. Yet another reminder of the ever-growing differences between them.
A part of him always felt guilty for thinking this. He owed Kenny a lot from their days together at lower league Kelsey Town before high-flying Statton Rangers had come calling. Kenny, being a newly qualified gym instructor, had worked at Kelsey during the time Alex had been battling to regain full fitness after a back injury. His move to Statton had hinged on it and Kenny had worked tirelessly with him, helping him to improve his strength and stamina, which had proved instrumental in Alex eventually signing for the prestigious club, hence the bond between them.
True, they could be doubled over with laughter together at times, but Kenny also had a reckless, irresponsible side, and Alex was getting tired of bailing him out.
And now here they were, sitting in the nightspot of the moment, in danger of causing curiosity overload.
Kenny had sprung it on him as usual. ‘We won’t stop long,’ he’d said. ‘I just need to see one of the bouncers.’ The way he was eyeing that blonde, though, Alex could well envisage them being there for the duration.
‘All right, big man,’ said Kenny as if sensing Alex’s discomfort.
Distracted, Alex glanced at the upper balcony to see Liam Tyler hanging over it, waving at them.
Now they’d never get out.
‘I knew he’d be up there,’ said Kenny, giving Liam the wanker sign. ‘He must have his beer goggles on. That bird he’s with looks like a fuckin’ geezer.’
‘Say it like it is, Millsy.’
The bloke could have anyone.’ Kenny indicated the gaggle of blondes, one of whom had bent down to adjust her ankle chain, exposing a canyon’s-worth of cleavage. ‘That lot for starters.’
Alex could tell that Kenny was itching to join Liam et al in the VIP lounge. But sit upstairs with that bunch of arseholes? Alex would rather run the gauntlet downstairs. Anyway, he had the car outside so he could always shoot off and leave Kenny to it. Although, Kenny did seem extra edgy tonight, so maybe he should stick around.
‘What’s up?’ he asked him, trying to catch his friend unawares.
‘Nothing man. I’m cool.’ Kenny dropped his gaze. ‘Same again?’ he asked, necking the last of his beer.
‘My shout.’ Alex had taken all of three steps, when the head barman signalled to him that he’d send someone over. This pissed Alex off enormously. He was a footballer, not royalty. Sure, he enjoyed certain trappings of his wealth. Who wouldn’t?
He also fully appreciated that his presence had caused more than a ripple or two, but the whole celebrity thing, he hated, unlike Kenny, who positively thrived on it.
Not that Kenny was a sponger. He might not be in Alex’s league, financially, but with the salary he earned from his gym interests plus personal training fees, he was hardly destitute. Most of his clients were minted. Full of gratitude, too. Especially the women, from what Alex had heard.
The young minion who’d been dispatched with their drinks power-walked his way over.
‘There you go,’ he said, placing two beers down on the ledge next to Alex, staring at him as if he were the messiah. Then, in a noticeably deeper voice, and checking that his boss couldn’t see him: ‘Would you mind autographing my pad for me, Mr Heath?’
‘Sure,’ said Alex.
Flustered, the barman rummaged for a pen. ‘It’s for my g-girlfriend,’ he said, running his eyes over Alex’s expensive jeans and shirt.
‘Boyfriend, more like,’ mumbled Kenny, turning away, grinning.
The barman almost bowed down at the sight of Alex’s signature. ‘Thank you.’ He backed away. Then, clearly as an afterthought: ‘G-good luck for next season.’
‘Cheers,’ said Alex, shaking his hand.
‘Girlfriend, my arse,’ said Kenny, the moment he’d gone. ‘If he’s straight, I’m an Arsenal fan. I thought the two of you were gonna kiss each other for a minute.’
Alex flicked Kenny’s diamond stud. ‘Feeling left out, were we, Millsy?’
He noticed the most pneumatic of the blondes edging ever closer. Sure, he appreciated the view, but it wasn’t what he was looking for any more. It was the mental connection Alex craved, not someone he suspected would shag him simply for being a footballer. The split with his ex had damaged his faith in commitment for far too long. He was ready to love again. He missed caring for someone; the loving intimacy of a relationship, however challenging at times his profession might make things.
He just wished he could stop thinking about a specific woman he’d met yesterday …
He watched Kenny test drive the ‘Millsy patter’ on the blondes, deliberating how long it would take them to fall for it, when a sudden almighty jeer went up. Some old buffer was hip grinding in front of the restaurant.
‘Oi, Alex! Check out the dancin’ dinosaur!’ cried Kenny. ‘Gotta take a closer look at this.’
Alex couldn’t help laughing as Kenny bounded over, neck craning, towards the alcove to see who the poor guy in question and his mates were attempting to impress.
Kenny turned on his heels and bolted back over to him.
‘That dark-haired bird sitting in the alcove,’ he said, consigning his budding conquests to the touchline. ‘I swear she was sitting by the hotel pool today.’
‘Was she? It’s so dim in there, I can’t see her properly,’ said Alex, squinting.
‘Oh, come on. I pointed her out to you, remember?’
‘You’re always pointing out women, Millsy.’
‘Yeah, but this one was class.’
Alex tried to look again, but was prevented from doing so by a young man snapping his picture on a smartphone.
‘Cheeky bastard,’ said Kenny, watching the chancer merge back into the crowd.
Three bouncers closed in, forming a loosely protective ring around them.
Alex couldn’t stand all that minder shit. ‘Let’s move,’ he said, spotting some spare seats in a less exposed area nearer the restaurant.
Before they’d even sat down, the doe-eyed barman reappeared, depositing two more beers on their table. ‘On the house,’ he mouthed, despite Alex’s protests that he wouldn’t be drinking any more alcohol. The barman loitered for a second as if hoping the three of them might chat awhile, and looked seriously put out when some buck-toothed guy on the next table collared him for an order.
‘That’s handy,’ said Kenny, encouraging Alex to look at the alcove again. ‘They can’t see us from here. Get a load of the babe in red. You must recognise her now, surely?’
Alex did. He also recognised her blonde companion. She looked different with her hair splayed out across her slim shoulders, but every bit as gorgeous. He’d hardly dared linger when he’d caught sight of her earlier by the pool, especially seeing her in her swimsuit, and now she was here …
‘Do you know them?’ Kenny had obviously seen his expression change.
‘Yeah, I met Rebecca, the blonde one, briefly in reception yesterday.’
‘Fuck me! This calls for action, my son.’ Kenny whistled back the barman.
Alex saw Kenny mutter something in his ear. The barman grinned at him, tapped the side of his nose, and scurried off to the bar.
‘What are you up to, Millsy? Rebecca’s married. I clocked her wedding ring yesterday.’
‘What do you mean,
‘Well, her husband’s not here now, is he?’
Alex shook his head. ‘I thought it was her mate you liked.’
‘It is. But if you’re not interested, I might keep my options open.’
As usual, the thought that neither woman might fancy him hadn’t entered Kenny’s brain, so Alex saw no point in commenting further.
‘Here we go,’ said Kenny, kneeling up on his seat as the barman minced towards the restaurant, tray aloft.
Somehow, Alex knew when he saw the two of them exchange a crafty smile that things were about to get messy.
Rebecca wanted the floor to give way beneath her. The thickset rugby playing type who’d earlier leered at Abi’s chest had sought them out, together with his mates, one of whom had been showing off his excruciating dance moves to them for the last half an hour. Now he was blowing kisses at them through the latticework, drawing even more ridicule.
‘Silly old buzzard,’ said Abi, sipping her wine. ‘He’s at least thirty years older than everyone else in here. Just ignore him and finish your pannacotta.’
But Rebecca couldn’t; she’d lost her appetite. Then again, Abi was right. Why should she let that dork and his childish chums spoil her evening? They’d not a beat of rhythm between them.
She took a mammoth slug of wine. What would Greg say if she sounded drunk later? She scrabbled under the table for her bag. Perhaps she should take Abi’s advice and text him to say she’d catch up with him tomorrow.
‘What are you up to?’ said Abi, seeing the phone in Rebecca’s hand.
Abi’s expression changed to one of horror. ‘Shit! The waiter’s bringing over an ice bucket.’
’ Rebecca turned round as he plonked it beside their table.
‘Compliments of the dancing dinosaur and co, ladies,’ he said, lifting out a bottle of champagne. ‘Not my words … naturally.’
‘You’re kidding?’ said Abi, grinning up at him.
‘Nope.’ Somehow remaining straight-faced, he started filling two champagne flutes. ‘That’s what the barman who asked me to deliver it told me to say.’
Abi’s hands flew up. ‘Well, they might be creeps, but they’ve certainly got a sense of humour,’ she said, raising her glass towards the latticework, to thickset one’s delight.
‘Stop encouraging them,’ said Rebecca, grasping the table.
‘Oh, yummy! This is Laurent-Perrier,’ Abi yelled, examining the champagne bottle, prompting several head turns.
‘I don’t care if it’s Sainsbury’s own. Keep your voice down,’ Rebecca hissed.
‘I’ll leave you to it, ladies,’ said the waiter, sidling off.
‘Ooh, it’s lovely,’ said Abi, knocking hers straight back.
Thickset and his pals eyed them, hawk-like, through the latticework, pressing themselves against it, hanging out their tongues, requesting a ‘slurp’ as they put it. Rebecca noticed that two of Dinosaur’s lower shirt buttons had popped off, exposing a wodge of hairy gut.
‘Let’s get the bill,’ she said, fearing she’d barf.
But Abi was already pouring herself another glassful.
‘Look, they obviously don’t mind sending themselves up. If the fools want to buy us expensive champagne,’ she said, ‘the least we can do is drink the damn stuff. It is
free, after all.’ She took another big slug and raised her glass to them again. ‘Nick’ll wet himself laughing when I tell him about this.’