Four of them at the table. He sat rigid in his seat, as tense as a John le Carre cold war warrior making a mid-winter illegal border crossing. He moved to wipe a thin film of perspiration from his forehead but froze as he caught the eye of the man sitting opposite, the man who was challenging him to take the risk, to venture into the unknown.
He hadn’t wanted this, but his wife, his wife of fifteen years, his wife who never took no for an answer, had persuaded him that it would be a pleasant evening out with two good friends, friends they had known from before they were married, friends she believed would do them no harm.
He had resisted at first – he had a terrible headache (take an aspirin, said she), he needed to complete a report for the PM (it can wait, said she), there was a red box to sort through (mañana, said she). It’s a three-line whip, said she.
He waited until the man opposite swallowed a mouthful of wine, watched his reaction, before he himself took a sip. Always careful, always vigilant, was his mantra; they had drummed that into him. He didn’t know this restaurant, was sure it hadn’t been here last week, didn’t like the look of the sommelier. He carefully rolled the wine around his tongue before swallowing; tasting, testing as they had taught him how.
Surreptitiously he studied the waiters. They looked innocent enough; no holster straps visible under their well starched spotlessly clean jackets, not a one poisoned umbrella in sight. But were they reliable, loyal? Which flag would they salute? He couldn’t tell. After all, they mostly seemed to have a foreign twang to their speech, even the maître d – perhaps from Serbia or Russia.
He looked at the other woman. She was, as usual, impeccably made up, expensively dressed, a cold, chiseled beauty used to wielding power, used to having her own way. She was smiling now, smiling at him. “Do it,” she said.
“Do it,” said his wife.
The man opposite narrowed his eyes, leant forward. “Do it,” he said. No smile there.
His peripheral vision captured a group of three scruffy men seated two tables away on his left. He turned casually in their direction. They pretended that their interest lay elsewhere; he noted the camera and the sophisticated recording equipment on the table.
“Fleet Street, bloody red top scumbags,” he muttered. “Waiting for me to use the wrong bit of cutlery, to spill my drink, to fail to tip sufficiently. Bloody parasites.” He flashed them a smile and a friendly wave.
“Do it,” said his wife. “Do it now, before it’s too late.”
“It’s time,” said the other woman, “Into the unknown.”
“Into the unknown,” said the man opposite.
Five years in the Special Forces followed by ten years as an opposition MP and three years on the front bench had prepared him for this. He could feel his spine stiffen, his jaw tighten. The bulldog spirit kicked in. He braced himself.
Slowly, carefully, he lifted the shell to his mouth, slurped up the flesh and the juice, paused, chewed. He gasped, his senses more alive than ever before. The smell of seaweed and of rock pools at low tide, the taste of the Pacific mixed with citrus, with melon, with smoke, came close to overwhelming him. He swallowed.
Eyes wide open, a smile transforming his usually stern features, he said, “Yes. Yes. Yes. More, please.”
The man opposite and the other woman exchanged knowing glances.
His wife smiled quietly to herself. There would be no more talk of headaches for a while, that much she knew.