He’s sitting at the bar, sipping a Porn Star Martini, my usual drink of choice. Today, I’ve opted for a Strawberry Daiquiri, to give me a feminine vibe. If he was swigging a pint of beer, I’d know he was straight. The cocktail offers just enough doubt that I stay in my seat to do my detective work. My table is near the door and I’ve pushed my chair far enough back that the spotlight above me illuminates my knees onwards. If we were on the beach, I’d wear sunglasses, but here I’m taking advantage of the darkness to provide cover. His dark brown hair is lightly gelled into a quiff reminiscent of a 2000’s pop star and he swirls his glass for some time before each sip. He’s wearing a Ted Baker charcoal blazer with matching straight leg trousers and burgundy boat shoes. He must work in the City, probably at a hipster marketing firm where no one wears socks.
He runs his hand through his hair, then flinches and pats the quiff back into shape before pushing his hands under his thighs. He’s just left a difficult meeting where the boss asked him for a time-frame on a project he’s hardly started and, instead of staying late to write the specs he’d promised, he’s necking two-for-one cocktails at a grimy bar in Soho. He’s just finished a long lunch with his estranged mother at the restaurant on the 32nd floor of the Shard and needed a drink or five before heading home to his girlfriend. Boyfriend? Three cats and a cockatoo? The charcoal trousers show no sign of cat hairs, so, unless he goes at his legs with a roll of cellotape every morning, it’s a no to the cats.
If Stacey were here, she’d kick me right off this chair and glare at me until I approached him. I take a swig of my drink and put one foot in front of the other.
“Hi,” I say, “I’m Carly. Mind if I sit here?” He looks straight into my eyes and my breath catches in my throat. This is somehow already too intimate. He smiles and pulls the chair next to him out a little. “How are you?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer.
“Are you okay?”
Again, no answer. His voice is probably low, I think. Like Dad’s. Not as low as Carl’s. Carl’s voice used to sooth me. Now it whines in my head like a feral dog.
“Oh, baby, I’m just great, just left my secretary in the hotel room so I’m feeling fine.” Carl liked to emphasise every vowel. The result was that it took him fifteen seconds longer than the average person to get a single sentence out.
I shake my head and take another sip. No, low like Dad’s voice. With a slight northern accent, Sheffield perhaps? I walk towards the bar.
“Hello,” I say, “is this seat taken?”
“No,” he says, “feel free.” I catch the edge of his Sheffield accent and say, I hear a little northern in there, Sheffield perhaps? He looks at me. Who do I think I am, Sherlock Holmes? He’d only said two words.
I need to know more before I approach him. Hidden in the safe darkness of my table, I continue my stakeout. He’s finished the Porn Star Martini but is still swirling the glass in his hand. The cocktail waitress says something, and the movement of his head suggests he laughed in response. Was it a flirty laugh or a polite laugh? Does he find her attractive? It was edging on polite not hearty, lacking integrity. He sets the glass down and slides it towards the waitress. His hands move to his knees and his legs begin to bounce. He’s nervous. He’s not calming down after a long day at work or a hard family reunion, he’s readying himself for something that’s coming. I watch the door like a Beefeater at the Palace waiting for a terrorist to waltz through and blow up the Queen.
I’ll know the person he’s meeting the moment they walk through the door. Is she tall and blonde wearing one of those ‘boob tube’ tops to show of her brand-new DD’s courtesy of Dr Scalpel? Will a man saunter through the door, the same lightly gelled quiff and angular jaw and say Brother! Long-time, no see! What if Carl comes through the door, catches sight of me slumped in the corner nursing two Strawberry Daiquiris simultaneously and walks over to his old best friend to laugh heartily about the woman he dumped. They’ll roar at the memory of him leaving me for a younger woman, if eighteen even counts as a woman. Sure, it’s amazing that he walked the girl home at 2am when he found her at the end of my road, crying about a boy who had tried to put something in her drink, but she shouldn’t have been walking home alone at all. Not that I’m normally the kind to blame another woman, just that she should’ve taken the bus.
He stands up from the bar. I’ve missed my chance. He says something to the cocktail waitress, turns away from the door and heads to the toilets. The waitress is pretty, if you’re into blonde bimbos, which most men are. Her job interview probably consisted of a dress fitting, a bra two sizes too small okay for you madam? Although, she does make a nice cocktail, so maybe she has that going for her too.
Leaving one full Strawberry Daiquiri at my table, I go to the bar and ask for two Porn Star Martini’s. As the cocktail waitress places the drinks in front of me, he returns from the toilet. I take the stool two down from him.
“Thank you,” he says to the waitress as he picks up his drink. He smiles at me and takes his seat.
“Hi,” I say, “I’m Carly.” I almost say, mind if I sit here, but I’m already sat down. What if he’d said, yes, I do mind? He nods at me. The waitress picks up a cloth and leaves the bar.
“Aren’t these gorgeous,” I tip my glass towards him.
“Yeah,” he says. I’m not sure if his ‘yeah’ had a northern lilt, but then again, how much accent can a single syllable word contain?
“Rough day,” I say, “or rough night coming?”
He laughs a one syllable laugh. An arm reaches around me from behind and a pink drink is placed on the bar in front of me.
“I picked this up from your table,” the waitress says, “thought you might still want it.”
“So, who are you waiting for?” I ask him.
“Actually, my Uber is waiting outside,” he says, with a north London accent.
“Oh, I didn’t see you order it.”
He stands for a moment, eyebrows raised. Then he taps the bar a few times, cocks his finger at me, and heads for the door.
“I’m Carly, thirty-one, recently dumped by my boyfriend of six years,” I shout after him. “Is it a mother or boyfriend at home?” He’s already disappeared through the door. “Hey, 2001 called, they want their hair gel back!”
The cocktail waitress covers her laugh with a cough. Granted, not the best first impression, but it’s something. I order two Strawberry Daiquiris and settle in for the evening.