“What do you do?” Mandi’s voice sounds a little choked, perhaps she’s feeling much more down about moving in with her parents than she let on initially. She seems bright, well educated. Surely she’ll get her break, even if it doesn’t seem like it right now. Anyway, what did she ask? Oh shit, what do I do?
“I’m a chef,” I finally say.
She stares at me for a moment, her eyebrows pulled together into a half-frown.
“A chef…” Then her eyes widen. Oh dear, there it is. The moment of recognition. “Oh fuck!” she exclaims, covering her mouth with her hand as soon as she catches herself.
“Sorry, I’m just… OK, now I get why that girl kept staring at you. Callum… Of course. God, I feel pretty silly now.”
I grin at her, hoping that the awkwardness will wear off soon enough. “Sorry about that, I should have been upfront with you earlier, when you asked-”
“Where I’d seen you before. It’s been driving me crazy, I couldn’t figure it out! I kept thinking have we met somewhere and I just didn’t remember it properly. TV didn’t even come into it.” She picks up her glass and takes a sip of wine.
“I didn’t want to be all ‘so I’m on TV’ and come across a total prat.”
Thankfully, my remark has the desired effect. She bursts out laughing and sets the glass down again.
“Yeah, that would have been weird. Point taken.”
Encouraged by her reaction, I decide to take the humour to the next level. “Anyway, it was refreshing, having to work for this dinner date. Thanks for that.”
In a fraction of a second, her smile vanishes and she just stares at me. Shit, that went too far, didn’t it? “What do you mean, work for it?”
“Uhm… You know… You didn’t make it easy, that’s all,” I explain, certain I’ve just dug a deeper hole for myself.
Then she grins again, brushing her hand past mine in the centre of the table. “Oh God, you’re so easy!” She takes another sip of wine and leans back into her chair, her eyes completely relaxed now.
“Well, you’re impossible.” I sigh, smiling back at her. This girl is something else. Hilarious, if only I wasn’t so damn off my game with her.
“Your food.” The flustered waitress is back, setting down our cold starters ahead of us. “Umm… If you don’t mind me asking…”
I look up only to find her staring at me with a look of adoration on her face. That’s what Mandi meant, she’s clearly a fan and I’m too used to it to realise how weird this must be for her.
“Yes?” I ask.
The waitress looks down at her hands, then quickly retrieves the notepad from the pocket of her apron. “Could I have your autograph? It would mean a lot. I watch your show all the time…”
I smile at her, then glance at Mandi, who is just observing the scene with an incredulous look on her face. “Sure.” I take the pad and pen and start. “What’s your name?”
To Maria, lovely to meet you. Callum Byrne
“Here.” I hand her the completed note.
“Thanks so much!” She grabs the pad and rushes back inside.
“I get it now, but that’s still so bizarre,” Mandi remarks.
“Sorry about that.” I smile, then lean forward, admiring the presentation of the food in front of me. Not bad.
“Full marks for being all nice about it, I would find it hard not to say something.”
“It’s been a learning curve, but I’m getting better at dealing with being recognised. Still very refreshing not to be though. Kudos to you.” I wink at Mandi, then pick up a fork, ready to attack the food. “Bon appetit.”
“Likewise.” From the corner of my eye, I see her hesitating to start on her own food. “You know, I’m sorry for commenting.”
“Not at all.” Lovely. The fresh flavour of coriander makes this salad stand out. The reviews were right about this place.
“No, I feel I must be totally honest. I was a bit annoyed earlier, before, you know. She was just staring at you and it was awkward. It makes sense now.” I look up, finding Mandi looking just a little bit flustered herself.
“Sounds like you were jealous,” I blurt out before catching myself.
“I wouldn’t say jealous per se.” Mandi looks away for a moment, brushing a lock of her blackish brown hair behind her ear.
“Yeah, you were!” I say, emboldened when I notice the slight curl in the corner of her lip. She’s all about the subtle cues which most guys would probably never notice.
“OK! Jeez. I give up.” She throws her hands in the air in defeat, then looks straight at me again and I know my gamble has paid off.
It makes sense now, I know what to do. Games won’t work on her, neither will self-censorship and false niceties. No, with her somehow I have to let the real me out for a change. Anything less won’t do the job.
Rather than feel out of my depth like before, I’m relieved. It’s time to take off the mask and let her see the Callum Byrne they’d never air on TV.
“This food is lovely,” Mandi remarks, as she takes another bite. “I probably shouldn’t be so surprised.”
“They don’t just keep me around for my charming personality and good looks, you know. I do know my food.”
“I wouldn’t know, I don’t really like cooking shows.” Ouch, her honesty is refreshing to the point of bluntness and I like it. What a change from the women I usually end up meeting, who are already impressed before I even say a word. It takes a lot more than cheap fame to impress Mandi, yet I’m not discouraged, far from it.
She glances at me through her thick, black lashes, her gaze lingering on me just a little bit longer than before. My eyes are drawn to the curvature of her full lips, before I catch myself.
“Fair enough.” I take a sip of wine, then return to her lingering eyes again. “What do you like? What do you do for fun?”
“This is going to sound really stupid.” She plucks off a piece of bread, before dipping it into the juices left on her plate and putting it in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Again, those inviting lips, how they beg to be kissed. It takes a lot for me stop staring and continue the conversation.
My glass is halfway between the table and me, when I put it back down again without taking a second sip. “Wait, what?”
“Told you it’s stupid. But I really enjoy it. It’s creative as well as useful and it relaxes me.” Is she joking? She looks completely serious this time.
“Not stupid at all when you put it like that, but just not something I imagined someone like you would enjoy. My grandma used to crochet.”
She shrugs, then smiles widely at me. “I’m only kidding.”
“Really? You totally had me.”
“I don’t think crochet is stupid. Funnily it was my grandma who taught me, actually. I spent a lot of time with her when I was little.” She grins at me, clearly unapologetic about her unusual hobby. Though she is undeniably beautiful, it’s her confidence that makes the biggest impression on me. She seems completely comfortable with who she is. And that smile… I can’t get enough of her smile.
“Oh well, I have no right to talk. Growing up, I was the boy who would rather lock myself in the kitchen than go out and play football with other kids.”
“So uncool,” she teases.
“Oh yeah. Very. Lucky for me it turned out OK.”
“A toast. To us, being really uncool.” Mandi raises her glass, and I follow her lead. Refreshing indeed.
“I’ll drink to that. How was the wine anyway? Ready for another bottle?”
She nods. I feel like I’m getting better at reading her, or perhaps that’s just the wine, deceiving me. Either way, she looks like she’s enjoying herself, which is a relief.
I’m not used to worrying about what people think of me. Tonight though, I not only want to be my uncensored self, I want her to like me.
“So you and your grandma were close, then?” I ask, for lack of a better question.
“Still are. Mum and Dad were always busy working.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I start, hoping she won’t take my question the wrong way. Her inquisitive eyes encourage me to continue. “Where are you from?”
“Langley, near Slough. Born and raised.”
I nod, I’d spent some a short while living in Slough after coming over from Ireland. “And your family?”
“Punjab, India.” She looks away for a brief moment, making me wonder whether she did find my question uncomfortable.
“Beautiful country,” I remark, remembering mainly the food I’d sampled on my various trips to India.
She just shrugs, then looks me in the eye again. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never been?” I exclaim, almost offended on her behalf.
“Well-” Mandi starts, but we are interrupted by the presence of the same waitress from before, along with a man dressed in a chef’s uniform, one looking even more flustered than the other.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” the chef starts, while wiping his hands nervously on his apron.
“Not at all,” I say.
“I was just wondering if the food was to your liking, Mr. Byrne?”
“Very nice. I enjoyed it very much, how about you, Mandi?” I ask, noting she’s again very subtly showing signs of disbelief or frustration, I can’t quite tell yet which, perhaps both.
“Amazing,” she says, while folding her hands and looking up at the two intruders.
“Thank you, thank you, I’m glad to hear it. I was just wondering something else… Ehh…” He scratches his forehead, then fidgets with both of his hands. “This is just a small family business, you see, and I was wondering if Maria here would be permitted to take your picture? We have a whole wall inside with photographs of previous guests, and we would love to capture this moment right here, with you… and your lovely companion.”
I smile patiently and nod. It’s not the first time, neither will it be the last. I don’t doubt they do have a wall of photographs in an effort to cosy the place up, but even otherwise, it’s not an unusual request when I go out for dinner in establishments that aren’t affiliated to me in some way.
“Wonderful, please smile!” the chef says, while the waitress takes out her smart phone and awkwardly takes a shot of Mandi and me. As I look over, she’s not only not smiling as requested, she looks like someone’s about to pull a tooth or worse. Shit, this is uncomfortable, dragging her into the weirdness of my everyday life.