The call rang out across the pub and she homed in on Sarah, waving from amongst a huddle of work colleagues.
Jaq threaded her way through the dense Thursday evening crowd, already regretting saying yes to this invitation. She’d been bemoaning her single state via text a few nights ago to Sarah, who was about to get married.
Come to my work engagement party, she’d messaged. We have loads of nice looking single men.
She would know. She was marrying someone she worked with. Seeing her best friend marry made Jaq feel like she was missing out.
One by one, everyone she knew at school had got hitched. But as long as Sarah had remained single, she’d been okay. Now she was the last in their friends’ group.
She wasn’t usually influenced by social pressure, but she’d kicked into overdrive on this one. It proved her desperation that she’d agreed to go to this party and now it was too late to back out.
‘Guys, this is Jaq, my best friend since primary school, and soon to be my maid-of-honour.’
‘Hi,’ Jaq said and waved to encompass the large gathering.
As to be expected from a marketing agency, they all looked trendy, half on the artistic side with colourful hair, tattoos and piercings, the other half in sharp suits, although they had all loosened their ties. They’d taken over an and area that included a booth where the artistic people had settled. The rest huddled around Sarah, who reeled off their names.
‘Don’t worry if you can’t remember them,’ a friendly woman with a nose piercing, who’d been introduced as Liz, said. ‘There’s far too many of us. I’m terrible with names as it is. I’ll probably have forgotten yours within the next five minutes.’
‘I think we all have that problem,’ Jaq said, although for her it was a lie.
As a police officer, a detective in the serious crimes squad, she never forgot a name. Not that she was going to mention that, or her job. It put people off, especially prospective boyfriends.
‘Here, sit beside me.’ Liz squidged up along the frayed red velvet bench, forcing the man beside her to do the same. ‘This is Simon. He’s the best designer in our team, and going to stand in for Sarah while she’s on honeymoon.’
Simon gave her a polite, but not very interested, smile. That was okay. She’d already dismissed him as a potential boyfriend. He was good looking, dark eyes, long eyelashes, a mop of slightly overlong, wavy brown hair, but thin, far too thin.
That either made him one of those men who was an obsessive runner or gay. In her experience, gay men were as fixated as women on their weight. This was further reinforced by the fact that he was nursing his pint. He was only a third of the way through, with another two pints lined up beside it, while the rest of the party were knocking their drinks back in style.
And another thing, it was hot in the pub, yet Simon was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt. Only people with scars on their arms did that when everyone else had their sleeves rolled up and were dabbing at flushed, overheated faces.
In her line of work, Jaq had come across a lot of drug addicts. They were classic long sleeve wearers. That might not have been Simon’s issue, but it was another mark against him. She wanted someone law abiding, someone who had always been law-abiding.
She had her standards, after all, even if she was desperate. And it was a strength to be able to cut people out immediately. After all, she didn’t have time to waste. Her work was too demanding to be distracted by an angsty love.
She needed something clean and simple, someone who could support her as she would support them, somebody with whom she could have a meeting of minds. Somebody handsome that she could show off at parties would be a pleasant bonus.
‘So tell me, Jaq,’ Liz said, using that technique of repeating a person’s name to remember it. ‘What line of work are you in?’
Damn, straight off the bat. Jaq had her stock answer, though.
‘I’m a civil servant.’
‘What does that even mean?’ Simon said, much to Jaq’s surprise.
People rarely bothered with a followup question. Civil servant sounded so boring most people just changed the subject.
‘You could be anything from a nurse to a Whitehall Mandarin,’ Simon continued, like an interrogator who wasn’t about to let anybody off the hook.
‘Nothing as exciting as a Whitehall Mandarin. Although I wouldn’t mind their salary.’
‘Wouldn’t we all?’ Liz said with a laugh.
Jaq used that to break eye contact with the too inquisitive Simon and change the direction of the conversation to Sarah’s wedding. Liz was happy to go along with that. She launched into how surprised she was that Sarah was marrying Aaron, who was in Sales. Jaq gathered from the friendly ribbing that the people in Sales were a different tribe. They were the suit wearing contingent of this group, and a not altogether popular one.
Aaron, though, was well liked. A crowd surrounded him as he regaled them with a story of how he messed up a drop kick in his latest rugby match. Sarah was clinging to his arm, laughing, which brought on a wave of irritated jealousy in Jaq.
Aaron was a great catch: tall, well built, blond, outgoing and earned plenty of money. Jaq was losing her best friend to that great hunk of muscle. Still, he was friendly enough, and she’d be able to relegate him to husband status and not have to see him very much once they were married.
Jaq took her pint glass, murmured something about catching up with Sarah and hurried back to her side.
‘So, how do I tell the singletons from the rest?’ Jaq said into Sarah’s ear.
In her experience, not having a wedding ring was no indicator. Sarah looked around, weighing up the crowd.
‘I’ll introduce you. Don’t bother with those three for a start,’ she said, pointing discreetly to three men, one so obviously camp he had to be gay, another rather nice looking Asian guy and Simon.
‘The first two, yes. Simon,’ Sarah shrugged. ‘Nobody knows.’
That was such a strange comment that it piqued Jaq’s curiosity.
‘What do you mean?’
‘He doesn’t seem interested in anyone, men or women. We all like him, and he will chat with whoever’s around. He’s also a hard worker and chips in on projects if we need him, but he keeps to himself.’
Jaq stepped sideways to give herself some room as she was constantly being jabbed in the back by some woman’s handbag.
‘Keeps to himself? In what way?’
Jaq’s detective instincts always kicked in when she heard about oddballs. It made her wonder what they were up to.
‘Never having a partner, I guess, or interested in having one,’ Sarah said as she took a meditative sip of her beer and stared at Simon, currently chatting to a young blond guy with green highlights on the other side of Liz.
‘And he socialises but only to a point. He’s always one of the first to leave. He’ll buy a round of drinks and then go, without touching all the pints that have stacked up before him.
‘We call it the Simon bonus. We just share his lot out with whoever’s still around. He’s the same at work. He leaves on time. I don’t think he’s ever been the last out of the office.
‘And he doesn’t like one-to-ones. He’ll go out in a group, but if it dwindles, he leaves. I’ve never once seen him having lunch with just one other person. It’s a group or not at all.’
‘Huh, that is unusual.’ But since Jaq couldn’t find a criminal angle for that kind of behaviour, she lost interest. ‘Okay, so show me the best of what’s still available.’
‘Artistic or materialistic?’ Sarah said with a laugh as she waved a hand that encompassed the crowd.
‘What difference does it make?’ Jaq asked, but gave it some consideration as she looked Aaron up and down.
He was very well built, and good looking. His colleagues were similar, men who spent lunchtime at the gym. All with short crew cuts and their subtle signs of wealth, such as the name brand watches and the darker guy with the gold signet ring.
‘I always thought I’d go for someone artistic like me,’ Sarah said as Aaron slipped his arm around her waist while still chatting with his mates. ‘But the sales guys earn commission, so while they have the same basic salary, they can more than double it in a good month.’
‘I didn’t know you were so materialistic,’ Jaq said, well aware that Sarah wasn’t attracted by the money.
‘Love at first sight,’ Sarah said as she leaned up and gave Aaron a peck on his cheek.
He turned around and gave her a much longer kiss on the lips that made all his male friends give a roar, half of approval, half a demand to stop. Jaq sympathised. It was cringy to watch such a loved up couple.
‘Talk to Rob,’ Aaron said, grinning at Jaq over Sarah’s shoulder. ‘He said you looked fit.’
It didn’t thrill Jaq to hear she’d been a part of the men’s conversation, but she supposed it was fair enough if they were also looking to meet someone.
‘Him,’ Sarah said as she pointed to the man with the signet ring.
She also rolled her eyes, a warning to Jaq, but as Rob was making his way towards them, Jaq closed the gap, and said, ‘Fancy getting some air?’
‘Do you smoke?’ he asked as he took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and started pushing his way through the crowd towards the doors.
‘I don’t,’ Jaq said, as they got outside and joined the people standing about, pint in one hand, cigarette in the other.
Since the indoor smoking ban had come into force, the smokers were now relegated to huddling outside. Fine on a comfortable spring day, but not great throughout the wet and windy winter.
‘I started when I was thirteen,’ Rob said, flicking the bottom of his pack till a cigarette rose sufficiently to grab it between his lips. ‘If there was one thing I could tell myself if I went back in time, it would be to leave the cigs alone.’
‘So you’ve tried to give up?’
Jaq’s father was a smoker, so she was used to it, although she would have preferred that a potential life partner not be a smoker.
‘Hundreds of times,’ Rob said, and Jaq decided he had a nice voice, despite the cockney twang.
Maybe this evening hadn’t been a complete waste of time after all.