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‘Flight 141 to Barcelona now boarding from Gate 51,’ the announcer announced.
‘That’s us,’ said Rich. ‘Drink up, boys.’
Jack and Sean raised themselves off their bar stools and necked the remaining quarter pints of fizzy liquid from their glasses and reached down for their travel bags.
It was only 9 in the morning, but the airport bar was full, brimming with men like them. Off the leash of responsibility, be it work or relationship, for a day and night of drinking and ogling, lairiness and lechery, dressed up in the not-very-cunning disguise of male bonding.
Jack was trying to get in the party spirit, but the upbeat mood was eluding him. Something about Sarah was gnawing at him. He felt she’d been distant, aloof, since he quit his job. Oh, she’d said she’d forgiven him after listening to his reasons and he thought he’d convinced her that just because he wanted a change of career didn’t mean he was lacking ambition.
‘Just think of the brilliant review I’ll be able to give your new restaurant on the opening night,’ he’d said, cajoling her into a half-smile.
‘If it ever happens,’ she’d said.
‘It will. You know it will, because you will make it happen. You’re the most driven person I’ve ever met.’
‘But I thought we were going to give it a go together,’ she’d said.
‘You don’t need me, not in that way,’ Jack had replied. ‘Not in the kitchen. You need me out here, working contacts, generating PR for you. That’s what will make us a great team, and you a massive success.’
She seemed to grow weary of his lightheartedness but he’d managed to pacify her again, just like he always managed to do when Sarah’s hot temper reach volcanic temperatures. That’s what made them so good together: she was fiery and passionate; he was laid back and level-headed. What he didn’t quite get was that it was often his jokiness that caused Sarah to erupt.
He sent her a text from the queue at the boarding gate: ‘Just boarding. Text you on the other side.’
A reply came back in an instant. He smiled, feeling smug as he looked at his phone. She did care!
But his heart sank when he saw it was Helen!
‘Have a gr8 time. Remember our secret!’
Then another message, from Chloe! ‘Counting on you x’
Now what Jack should have done was tell his friends that their wives-to-be were texting him behind their backs. What he should have done was reply to Helen and Chloe that if they didn’t trust their husbands-to-be, then they shouldn’t be marrying them in the first place. At the very least, he should have pressed ‘delete’ instead of ‘reply’, and then write to them both (without the other knowing): ‘It’ll all be fine. Keep you posted.’ For once, he was in no mood for flirtation.
He reasoned that he felt loyal to all four of them and believed that being the hub for their spokes he would be able to keep the wheels of their relationships turning. By keeping them all in the dark, in their compartments, he would be able to control the outcome, and make it a happy one for all concerned. That’s what he reasoned, anyway!
The flight was smooth and uneventful, aside from the cock-waving, tit-flashing, antics of the other stag and hen parties on board. The friends stepped off the plane, instantly feeling overdressed as the heat from the Barcelona Airport tarmac hit them like a hot, wet blanket in stark contrast to the icy air conditioning they’d had on the plane.
Jack sent a round-robin text to Helen, Chloe and Sarah.
‘Landed,’ he wrote.
He still hadn’t heard anything from Sarah.
They breezed through Customs and found a taxi. After a 20-minute journey they pulled up outside their hotel, in a side street, just off the bustling La Ramblas. Its modern smoked glass front looked very corporate, but the friends didn’t expect any more for 80 Euros a night. It was called SleepEze because it was easy on the wallet. But, ‘we won’t be getting much sleep!’ Rich joked.
Inside, the hotel had more appeal. The lobby was bright and open with polished marble floors surrounded by soft leather settees and glass coffee tables, on which were placed copies of the morning newspaper.
A desk clerk with huge brown eyes and a smile as wide as the lobby beckoned them forward.
‘Inglese?’ she asked.
Jack felt disappointed. He had hoped they looked anything but!
‘Si!’ Rich said.
None of them spoke any Spanish and the clerk sensed it, so she moved seamlessly into perfect English.
‘Welcome to Barcelona,’ she said.
She was utterly stunning, Jack thought. Olive skinned, long, thick, jet-black hair, and a smile that made you feel like you were the only person in the room. She looked at each in turn, as if seeing the mischief inside them, and Jack swore that all three of them blushed.
Rich tried to take command, but this was Jack’s gig. He elbowed his taller, meatier friend out of the way and assumed control. Smile and eyes on full beam.
‘Hi…’ He looked at her name badge on the lapel of her deep maroon uniform. ‘…Manuela. I’m a friend of Zoe Annunziata’s. She’s booked us in.’
He leant his chin on his hand and looked up at Manuela, batting his lashes in mock flirtation. If Sarah’s going to be all arsey, I might as well have a good time, he thought.
‘Ah, Zoe! Yes, yes. She has made all the arrangements. Please say ‘hello’ to her when you see her.’
She looked at a computer screen and with long brown fingers tapped in a few letters and numbers, then looked back up at Jack.
‘You’re sharing?’ she asked.
‘Yes. One big happy family room. We’re very close,’ Jack smiled.
‘And we won’t be there much, anyway,’ Rich chipped in.
Sean leaned across the desk. ‘Do you have internet access?’ he asked.
Manuela fixed her gaze on Sean. ‘Yes. Down the corridor, on the left. There’s free internet there.’
‘Back in a mo,’ Sean said, and left.
Jack and Rich looked at each other, knowingly. Jack turned back to Manuela.
‘I think we’ll need three keys,’ he said.
‘Yes, definitely,’ Rich added.
‘I’ll need your passports,’ Manuela said.
Jack and Rich handed over theirs.
‘And can you fill these in?’ She pushed three checking in forms towards them.
Sean came back, looked at his friends. ‘All good,’ he said.
‘Good,’ Jack said.
‘Good,’ Rich added.
‘Bueno,’ said Manuela, filing the forms and passports.
‘Yes, very bueno,’ Jack smiled and winked.
She laughed. She thought he was cute, he could tell.
Jack, Rich and Sean entered the cramped lift, with mirrors on every wall and, inexplicably, an ashtray by the door, and pressed the button for the fourth floor. The lift juddered into action, then slowly ground its way through the shaft of the building for what seemed like hours. The friends looked at each other in mock terror. ‘If we’re going to die, we might as well die together,’ Rich laughed.
Finally, the door clunked open and they spewed out onto a narrow lobby with sticky brown carpets lit by strip lights running down the middle of the ceiling. An arrow pointed them to room 409 to the left.
Rich opened the door with his swipe card, then kneed it open and swung his Samonsite case through and dropped it onto the polished conker-coloured wooden floor with a loud thwack.
‘Blimey!’ he said, his mouth open like a gormless Spaniel.
The huge room looked like a porn film set. Three double beds
faced into the room, covered with black satin bedspreads. Each headboard had a theme. Rich launched his case onto the bed with the tiger skin board; Sean claimed the leopard; Jack was happy with the zebra.
He texted Zoe: ‘Amazing room! Thanks.’
She replied immediately: ‘Thought you might like it J’
The friends took it in turns to shower, with Rich at the head of the queue, as always, followed by Sean, then Jack. They were dressed and ready to go within 15 minutes. They wore knee-length shorts, Ted Baker short-sleeved shirts with hiking sandals. Very English, but smart-casual. Jack draped a small backpack over his shoulder, containing a bottle of water and a walking map.
He texted Sarah – ‘All OK over there?’ – then put his mobile phone in the pocket of his shorts.
His phone beeped. Sarah – at last.
‘All fine,’ she wrote. ‘Enjoy yourselves.’
There was no sign-off kiss, but at least she’d been in touch.
‘Miss you x,’ he wrote back.
But she didn’t write back.
Busy in the kitchen, Jack thought.
Jack and Rich went down to the hotel bar, with Sean following on after a visit to the internet room.
He walked into the bar with a glum look on his face.
‘Murray’s out,’ he said.
‘Out of what?’ Jack asked.
‘The Open. Cost me a ton.’
‘You need to knock that on the head. Mug’s game,’ Rich offered, pointlessly.
‘Leave it out, Rich. I’m in no mood for lectures.’
‘Seriously, though, Sean,’ Jack added. ‘It changes your mood. When you’re up, you’re as happy as Larry, whoever Larry is. But when you’ve lost, you’re a right miserable git. Look at you now.’
‘Yeah, look at you now,’ Rich chipped in.
‘Just give me a beer, will you. It’s on a ton.’
‘A hundred quid, just like that. Lost. And you just shrug it off?’ Jack said.
‘A hundred? Ha,’ said Rich. ‘That’s the bloody tip of the iceberg. You must be thousands down by now, eh, Sean?’
‘And the rest,’ he confessed.
‘No wonder Chloe’s always kicking off at you,’ said Rich.
They headed outside, and a few yards down the street turned into La Ramblas. It was like entering a circus. Street traders rubbed shoulders with fortune tellers; cages of live, colourful squawking birds sat alongside vibrant flowers stalls; human statues competed with jugglers and pavement artists for tourists’ attention. And wending their way through the crowds, barely noticed, were pickpockets and scam merchants. But the most eye-popping sights of all were the women: nut-brown, big-breasted; round-bottomed; long-limbed. They sat down at the first table they came to outside a pavement café, ordered beers and watched the world go by.
‘This is the life, eh?’ Rich said.
‘Indeed. Cheers,’ said Sean, raising his glass of lager. ‘I wonder what the girls are up to?’
‘Are they having their hen nights tonight?’ Jack asked.
‘Yes. Spa and a facial. Usual girlie stuff,’ Rich replied. ‘Isn’t Sarah going?’
‘I don’t think she was invited. She’s not really part of their crowd.’
‘She’s best out of it,’ Rich said. ‘All they seem to do is gossip and whine.’
‘Yes. Mainly about you,’ Jack said.
Affronted, Rich said: ‘Helen does all right by me, matey, don’t you worry. Who do you think it was paid for big house, that blinding Beamer, those holidays to the Seychelles?’
‘Yes, Rich, we know you’re rich!’ Jack said.
‘Too bloody right we do,’ Sean added, sounding envious.
Sean had always felt in competition with his closest friend. He’d spent six years training as an architect, but the only job he managed to find was working in a town planning department out in Hertfordshire, for which he was paid a relative pittance, compared to Rich’s bonus-enhanced salary.
Rich, on the other hand, had left college with a bogus degree in business studies and immediately landed on his feet through his City broker father’s connections. He started on the ground floor at Europound Finance, but made £100,000 in his first year, and it just grew and grew from there. By the time Sean got his job in the architects’ department, Rich was homing in on his first million.
‘Haven’t you got a bet to place?’ Rich snapped, ever the Alpha male.
As Rich and Sean bickered, Jack toyed with his mobile phone. He was going to text Sarah, but decided to leave things as they were. No point showing her his neediness with constant communication. If she wanted to know how he was getting on, she’d ask. Instead, he sent a joint message to Helen and Chloe, making sure the other didn’t see the other recipient.
‘Hi. How are you? Just to let you know your betrothed is snogging a Spanish flamenco dancer as we speak! Jack x’
He tuned out of Rich and Sean’s mutual character assassinations and stared at his mobile, willing a reply.
Chloe’s came first. ‘Seriously?’
She wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box, Jack thought.
He wrote back: ‘Of course not seriously. He’s behaving himself, aside from have a tattoo across his face with your name on it.’
Hopefully she’ll get that joke, he thought.
Helen replied next. ‘Nothing would surprise me!’
Jack replied: ‘Now he’s having sex with a parrot tamer.’
Chloe came back: ‘What abt gambling?’
Jack replied: ‘No. All clear. Nothing to worry about. Have a nice time tonight x’
Then Helen: ‘That sounds like Rich. Thanks for the update xx’
Jack replied: ‘Everything’s fine. Don’t worry. Have a great time tonight. I love you. I’ve always loved you xx’
Helen: ‘And I love you too, mickey-taker x’
He looked at his friends as he typed. They didn’t have a clue, did they? There he was having intimate chats with their wives-to-be and they were oblivious. It gave him a strange feeling of power. Don’t abuse it, he thought.
They finished their drinks and set off in the direction of the Sagrada Familia.
‘Yes, Rich, it’s a church,’ Jack said, answering Rich’s protests. ‘I know you’re not a big fan of culture, but you’ll like this church. It is massive, over-the-top and grotesque. You’ll feel right at home.’
His phone beeped. He hoped it was Sarah and it was.
‘Nothing to worry about,’ she wrote. ‘but when you get home, we need to talk.’
Nothing to worry about? Now he was very worried.