Jay looks up to her and is captivated. She is divine.
She is Natalia Petrova – an extremely alluring second-generation British Russian in her mid twenties with captivating blue eyes. She has an effortless composed aura behind the reception desk, which gives the restaurant an added jolt of elegance.
She notices Alan and Jay approach and smiles invitingly at them. ‘Hello,’ she says in a sweet but practised voice, which shows no hint of Russian, but instead a refined English accent. ‘I’m Natalia …’
‘I know,’ Alan confidently interjects. ‘I’ve been here a few times.’
She smiles softly at Alan, and then glances to Jay, and in that moment their eyes meet and their gaze lingers on each other for almost a moment too long before she turns back to Alan.
‘Do you have a reservation?’ she asks.
‘Yeah. Matthews. We have a couple people waiting for us already.
She looks down at the screen on the desk, and Jay turns to Alan in surprise – he wasn’t aware they were meeting people – but Alan doesn’t acknowledge him.
She looks up at them with her smile and says, ‘Please, follow me.’
Natalia leads through the fully occupied restaurant, which is just as darkly lit and sophisticatedly decorated as its reception.
‘Who’s waiting?’ Jay whispers to Alan as he subtly scans the restaurant, but Alan ignores and takes a quick step ahead to Natalia.
‘Natalia, what are you doing tonight?’ Alan smoothly asks. ‘I’ve got a table at ON ANON if you are interested. Bring friends. I guarantee a bloody good time.’
‘I’m Alan, by the way,’ he continues.
‘Thank you, Alan, but I’m working early tomorrow.’
‘Very well, some other time then.’
‘Sure,’ she says with a well-practised and oft-deployed polite smile.
She stops and gestures to a table ahead with Stephen Aziz – a cleanly bald cheery man in his mid thirties with the body frame of a former body builder who’s let himself go – and Derek Blair – mid twenties, skinny, upper middle class and looks the part.
Jay notices Stephen and smiles happily. He walks past Alan towards the table and Stephen and Derek stand.
As Jay approaches, Stephen performs the Royal Navy salute to him, and he stops and returns the salute. Stephen then takes a step to him and bear hugs him.
Natalia smiles as she watches them, and Alan also proudly watches them as he walks to sit on an empty chair at the table.
‘Enjoy your meal,’ she says, maintaining her smile. ‘Your waitress will be with you in a moment.’
Alan briefly watches her walk away and then returns his attention to Stephen and Jay as Stephen finally relaxes his embrace.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were coming back?’ Stephen asks Jay.
‘It happened fast,’ Jay says.
‘Oh, okay. Well, it’s really good to see you.’
‘Really? I wouldn’t have guessed,’ Alan jokingly interjects, but with a straight face.
‘Fack off,’ Stephen says, and chuckles.
‘Could you introduce me so I can sit?’ Derek says to Stephen.
‘Sorry,’ Stephen says, and gestures to Derek. ‘Derek, my brother in-law.’
Jay steps to Derek and gives him a firm handshake.
‘Nice to meet you, Derek.’
‘Likewise,’ Derek says.
‘He works with your douchebag of a brother too,’ Stephen says.
‘Wait, what?’ Alan questions. ‘Douchebag, I accept, but working WITH this shithead? No. He works for me. I hired him.’ He turns to Derek. ‘Didn’t I? Right?’
Derek laughs and nods.
‘So if shithead here talks out of turn, let me know, I’ll fire him on Tuesday.’
‘Whatever, douchebag,’ Derek says.
‘What!’ Alan exaggeratedly exclaims.
‘Shut up, Alan,’ Jay says in jest, and turns to Stephen. ‘Sorry I missed the wedding. Couldn’t get time off.’
‘It’s okay. Was shit anyway,’ Stephen says.
‘Damn right, it was,’ Alan says.
‘Oi!’ Stephen scolds, and laughs. ‘I get to say that, you don’t.’
Alan grabs the menu and Stephen, Jay, and Derek sit. Alan is about to speak, but their young waitress, Vera, arrives with a large plate of starters and gently places it on the centre of the table.
‘I ordered a platter of starters for everyone,’ Derek says.
‘Are you ready to order now?’ Vera cordially asks the table.
‘No,’ Alan says. ‘I fucking just got here.’
‘Easy,’ Derek mildly scolds Alan.
Vera is visibly uncomfortable and tries to look away from Alan at the others, and Jay stares sternly at Alan, who continues to look through the menu.
‘Sorry about that,’ Stephen says to her. ‘He has one of your forks …’
‘Two,’ Derek interjects.
‘Two of your forks up his bum,’ Stephen continues. ‘Give us another five minutes.’
Vera nods and walks away, and Stephen is the first to enthusiastically reach for the platter.
‘I can’t help but ask this,’ Derek says to Jay, and gestures to Stephen. ‘How exactly did you carry the fat man a hundred metres or whatever it was?’
‘Oi! I’m not fat, I’m burly,’ Stephen says, and they laugh.
‘Adrenaline, I suppose,’ Jay answers.
‘Oh, yeah, with the bloody Taliban motherfuckers shooting at your head, there’s no telling what you’re capable of,’ Stephen says between a mouthful of food. He’s eating fast, closely followed by Derek – if you didn’t know better, you’d think they were competing.
‘I remember it like yesterday …’ Stephen continues, fuelled with excitement.
‘Oh, you fucking got him started now,’ Alan says.
‘No need for war stories,’ Jay says, and laughs – but he’s not amused, he really doesn’t want to reminisce about war.’
‘Oh, no, let him tell it. You saved his life. Least he can do is tell the story EVERY FUCKING TIME your name comes up. Again and again and again and again …’
The others laugh.
‘I’d like the burly man to tell it. So he can at least leave some food for us,’ Derek says.
‘Fack off, I want to tell it,’ Stephen says and leans back into his chair, ‘So, we were …’