2017: two-glasses Chablis confident. His tall body twelve percent alcohol by volume euphoric. Anything was possible. Until the grape short-circuited limbs, mind and memory. Cain Bell didn’t take chances. Perrier diluted the wine. The question must be popped straight. Pissed was pathetic. Once Little Miss Red Dress gave him the thumbs up he would swing into action. Only he couldn’t see her: that worried him.
He sipped water and wine. Thirty quid retail. He paid full price. Like every punter. House rules. No freebies. No discounts. No exceptions. Every transaction tracked by an electronic point of sale system time-linked to CCTV. The digital combo eliminated theft. Kept people honest. Every receipt and invoice double-checked and cross-referenced. Every menu and margin interrogated. April Sands’ obsessive attention to detail was mirrored by his own.
He loved her OCD instincts. He loved every inch of her, inside and out. Watching her sent shivers down his long spine. Released rioting butterflies in his stomach. She stood there loud and proud, larger than life on a small music stage.
Next to her was the queen of free scran, the supersize food editor of the evening newspaper who never turned down second helpings of pudding, or anything else you could swallow. She was a heavyweight hedonist legend. What she didn’t know about scoffing could be written on the left wing of a bumble bee.
April clutched a bronze capital M embedded in a square wooden dining plate. Thanked Manchester for naming the Red Manifesto its best restaurant. Made a promise. ‘This time next year we want a Michelin star. You live in the best city in the world and deserve the very best.’
Everybody cheered. April milked the applause. Paused her speech until the clapping subsided. Cain knew he was looking at the most wonderful woman in the world.
He often told his mates his words could never do her justice. He was not a good enough writer. They laughed at his Mancunian humour, although he meant it. He had a question but needed the approval of Little Miss Red Dress: where was the little tyke?
He scanned the restaurant. Madam was playing hide and seek. He checked the crowded staircase. Standing room only. He was annoyed. Little Miss Red Dress should share the moment: silly girl, not her fault, nothing was.
‘Daddy.’ A half-heard whisper drew him back to the staircase. She was standing between two of his security guys. Pyramid-shaped chaps with thick necks. Scoffed steroids like smarties. She waved at him. He smiled. Raised a glass of Perrier. Toasted her good health. She grinned. ‘It’s OK, Daddy. I love April very much.’
He silently mouthed he loved her too. The security chaps grinned back. Gave him the thumbs-up. Semi-took the piss as men-children do when their measurement of strength was the number of times you could lift your body weight on a bench press before you shat yourself.
Approved, Cain stood up. His chair scraped on the wooden floor. The unexpected noise temporarily stopped her words. She turned and glared to see who had dared interrupt her. Looked straight at him. Head slightly tilted to compensate for her blind left eye. A flash of anger was replaced by a reassuring wink. Like a true pro, she adapted her acceptance speech without missing a beat. ‘There are lots of people involved in the Red Manifesto project who can take pride in this award but none more so than my business partner and best friend, Cain Bell. Join me on the stage.’
‘No, it’s your moment,’ he said, as he took several steps towards her. ‘Your achievement. Your idea. Your hard work.’
‘Without you, it’s nothing,’ she replied. Her smile as bright as a lighthouse beam warning ships about dangerous rocks hidden under calm seas.
He stopped. Glanced over at the staircase. Little Miss Red Dress encouraged him. Excitement was written large across her pretty face. He looked back at April, eyes on the grand prize. ‘Will you marry me?’
Immediately, the gob-smacked pan-American restaurant guests were transfixed. The stakes were upped from an ugly trophy to matrimony. She said nothing. Looked as surprised as they did.
‘Wow,’ said a lone voice in amazement.
‘As a humanist I don’t believe a woman should take a man’s name, but this feels so, so right.’
‘Double wow,’ said another voice.
Cain navigated the chairs and tables between the bar and the stage. As he reached the last three steps, self-doubt bit him on the bum. They had never discussed marriage. Never even joked about tying the knot during early morning breakfast and broadsheet chats in their penthouse.
Ticklish butterfly wings flapped inside his guts. Vertebrae tingled up and down his backbone. What if April turned him down? How embarrassing would that be? Especially if the failed public proposal went viral. At least one customer would have filmed his humiliation. Millions would laugh at him.
He dropped lightly onto one knee. He held her hands in his. Hoped the contact would yield a clue to her answer to his repeated question. ‘Will you please be my wife?’
To be honest, he felt totally out of his depth with April Sands. She was headline news. A celebrity chef and former global Madchester party girl once married to a Hollywood film producer. Had her own Wikipedia page. She reflected modern Manchester: a sassy, sexy European hub. Owned property in Manchattan, the intended home to half a dozen giant skyscrapers that would redefine the city’s skyline.
Cain mirrored the dirty old town of the sixties and seventies. A post-modern ironic refuge bumming the price of a cup of Earl Grey. Cain didn’t have his own Wikipedia page. Wasn’t mentioned on hers, either. One of life’s natural born wingmen. The journalist reporting on people more famous. The PR man standing in the shadows, pushing others into the spotlight. A former father watching other men play with their young children.
None of that mattered.
He had seriously misread the situation. Her silence spoke volumes. He was fun, a laugh and good company. Not the type to marry. Normally he planned things better: both in his day job as a public relations officer at Global Manchester — and his side-hustle, marketing the restaurant to the city’s well-heeled elite. Momentarily, he hoped Little Miss Red Dress had returned to save him from public humiliation.
‘Yes,’ she said. Did he hear her right? Yes, she would, or yes, she wouldn’t? Play it again. ‘Yes. I’ll be honoured to be your wife, Mr Cain Bell.’
Applause bounced off exposed brick walls. ‘I was so excited I forgot the ring,’ said Cain. He would tell her the truth later. They had no secrets, or so he thought. He had only decided to propose earlier in the day. Not even had time to discuss it with anyone apart from Little Miss Red Dress.
‘All I want is you,’ she said. They kissed. Phones captured the moment; images and videos posted, liked and shared on social media the instant their lips touched. She leaned into him. Spoke only for his ears. ‘I must tell you something before we makes promises to God we cannot keep.’
‘Don’t understand,’ said Cain.
‘Should have told you ages ago.’
‘Why didn’t you?’
‘Never the right time.’
‘And now is, when I’ve just proposed?’
‘If you want us to marry, yes.’
‘Whisper them to me now, quickly,’ said Cain, thirty quid a bottle Chablis confidence flushed down the pan. Something was up. She had secrets in places where he thought they only had unconditional love.
‘Not in public. At home. Will take more than a couple of rushed sentences to explain. There is so much to tell you. You might not love me as much, once you know the truth. You deserve better than my lies.’
She pulled away. Broke the embrace. He let her. He felt awkward and confused. He squeezed her hand hard. Can he edit the action so it played out more to his liking?
Something he won’t like? What was that meant to mean?
Nothing she said could diminish his love for her. He had to tell the world.
‘I am proud to be here in front of you, my friends and colleagues, fellow Mancs. Same pride I felt when my daughter was born.’
‘I’ve lived life hard and fast. I’ve always worked with a tab in one hand and a glass in the other. Great lifestyle when you’re a stick insect without a care in the world … not so smart when you are a lard in your forties. Would have paid the ultimate price but for this wonderful lady standing by my side. She literally saved me when the old ticker stopped in protest at my hedonistic lifestyle. She glued my head back together piece by piece. She has given me purpose. Hopefully, I can repay her faith.’
That was a fine speech. Words were his forte. His weapon of choice. Protected him when he needed to defend himself. But misused words could knock the stuffing out of you. Just like the words delivered by April. Why would he hate her after she told him the truth about herself?
The applause had subsided. He held April’s hand aloft to ramp up the volume. There had to be an explanation.
What could she do to make him hate her when he knew she was the most beautiful woman in the world?