The Anti-Love Club
by Artemis Callaghan
Disclaimers: This is a work of original fiction, so the characters and plot belong to me, please don't use with out asking first.
There's no sex or bad language, which makes a pleasant change, I'm sure.
If you'd like to get in touch, please do Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Now, don't get me wrong, I think Christophe Rimaldi is a straight up bloke, even if his 'ow you say? accent is distinctly pony. The nearest he's come to his heritage homelands is Boulogne. It's amazing how English he sounds when he's persuading the Revenue men that a van full of wine is for a private party, but the accent is back, thick and cheesy as the slab of brie he's passing off as coming from his cousin's farm in the Dordogne. I'll give him this: the geezer has more front than Margate. But I won't hear a word said against him as he saw some potential in an inept waitress who didn't know her arse from her silver service, and before you could say City and Guilds in Hospitality Management turned her into a pretty fantastic restaurant and bar manager. Even if I say so myself.
However, there are times when Christophe Rimaldi pisses me right off, and this was one of them.
"I can't believe you've done it again, Christophe"
"What's that, my little chou-fleur?"
"Rostered me to work on Saturday"
"Saturday's a busy night"
"It's also Valentine's Day, you bastard"
Christophe did what he considered to be a Gallic shrug.
"Cut that out, you faker. You know it doesn't work on me"
He started to tap his fingers on the desk. This was a sign that I was pushing my luck, but I was too annoyed to back off. The last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by lovey dovey twosomes forcing their complacent coupledom down my throat. It was my idea of hell, but I'd be stupid to jeopardise a job I genuinely loved for the sake of a night of fluffy pink sweetness. It would set my teeth on edge but I'd have to swallow it. Christophe wasn't going to back down. Instead he was grinning at me.
"This year's going to be a little different. The place has been hired for a private party"
My heart sank even further. A private party was worse than an ordinary night. They'd feel entitled to stay as long as they wanted and I'd have to smile and like it. Christophe was oblivious to my misery. He steepled his fingers like some Bond villain and continued.
"Yes, they've booked the restaurant and the bar. And I'm bringing in a bartender for the night"
"What's wrong with Barney?"
"Well, he's hardly the Café de Paris, is he? But there's a little twist to the night that I think you might appreciate"
The smug grin was starting to get on my tit end. I sighed heavily and he took the hint.
"They call themselves the Anti-Love Club and they want an all female staff, which is why I need you, Anna. You're not just my best girl, when it comes to management, you're my only girl"
Okay, the pseudo-Frenchman had me there. The Anti-Love Club and an all female staff . That was intriguing and got more intriguing as the week went on. Maybe working wouldn't be so bad. After all, the alternative was stopping at home, and my flatmate was bound to want her girlfriend over for the night. She'd expect me to make myself scarce and twenty five is too old to be hiding in your bedroom. I might as well be paid and see what the Anti-Love Club had to offer.
By the time Saturday came round, I found myself in front of the mirror paying far too much attention to my appearance. I was wearing what I always wore: black trousers and a white blouse. I wasn't meant to stick out, I was meant to blend into the background; pleasantly and professionally unobtrusive. I had to wear make up, otherwise I'd look washed out, but it had to appear as if I wasn't. Christophe had very few rules but that was one of his cardinals. None of his staff, regardless of gender, should be sexually obvious. No tight trousers, shirts or blouses, no short skirts or high heels, and no tarty slap. I pulled my hair back into a short ponytail and undid another button on my blouse, liking how it looked until I realised you could see the lace of my bra, and thought better of it. The Anti-Love Club might be intriguing but they were still clients and if Christoph caught wind of me dressing like a slapper, he'd have my tits flambéd. Or maybe sautéd, with a little white wine. He'd probably get a Michelin star for it.
I got to Rimaldi's just before six. Christophe had said that the Anti-Love Club didn't want the full kitchen. They wanted canopies and nibbles, that sort of thing. Mostly they were concerned with drinking. My job would be to make sure that everything ran smoothly, that the waitresses were efficient and polite, plying everyone with as much champagne as they could. Good stuff too, he said. And there was also the bar and the promised bartender. I'd given her no real thought, but when I walked into the bar and saw an unfamiliar woman making herself at home amongst the optics, I was stopped in my tracks and all professionalism went out of the window. I stood and watched as she reached up and leant down, the muscles in her arms stretching and contracting. I love watching people do what they've been trained to do and are good at. It gives me a thrill that borders on the carnal. I was so wrapped up in watching her that when someone spoke behind me, I almost jumped out of my skin.
"You must be Anna"
The statement was followed by a chuckle at my surprise. I turned round to face a woman who was probably in her late forties and looking very good on it. She was very unsubtly appraising me; more than that, she was checking me out. A knowing smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. A hand was held out, which I automatically took. She had the firm handshake of someone who played a lot of racquet sports; squash, I reckoned, although with her sleek, well heeled good looks she could easily have been a stalwart of the tennis club.
"Christophe told me to look out for a pretty redhead"
O Christ, I was blushing like a virgin in a whorehouse. Matters weren't helped when the woman behind the bar turned round and watched me being flirted with. And she was every bit as stunning as her back implied. Her dark brown hair was neatly cut, flopping slightly into a pair of devastatingly blue eyes. Her face was lit by a smile that was amused in tone. I realised that I was still holding the other woman's hand and remembered where I was and what I should be doing.
"Hello, yes, I'm Anna. You must be …"
"Raquel. President of the Anti-Love Club"
"Well, I have to say thank you for choosing Rimaldi's tonight"
Raquel's smile had developed a slightly predatory edge that made me a little nervous.
"O, I'm sure we'll have a high old time"
She gave my hand a squeeze. I managed to extricate it without flinching and gave her what I hoped was a friendly, but not too inviting, smile.
"It's great to meet you, Raquel. Would you please excuse me? There are some things I need to sort out at the bar. I'll make sure we catch up again once we're underway"
"I'll look forward to it, Anna"
The bartender was standing behind the bar, her arms braced against the counter, her expression still amused. Charming as she might be, I had to assert myself a little. After all, I was in charge. I raised an eyebrow at her.
"Hello, I'm Anna, the bar manager"
"Yes, I guessed. Christophe told me to look out for a pretty redhead"
I shot her my sternest look, which only resulted in her laughing, but I found it hard to be cross with her, it was a lovely sound: rich and warm. And like Raquel, she reached her hand over the bar to take mine. It was as strong as Raquel's but she had nothing to prove with her handshake.
"Have you got everything you need?"
"Yes, it's a surprisingly well set up bar"
I let that go with another raised eyebrow and was rewarded with a brilliant smile. Even though I should be checking things in the restaurant, I found it hard to pull myself away from Sasha. A couple more minutes wouldn't hurt, I reckoned. As she carried on setting up things the way she liked them, I took my time to cop a good look at her. In her black waistcoat and neatly knotted red tie, she managed to be both professional and attractive. I've always had a thing for the soft butch, the tomboy. They make me go a little weak at the knees and forget myself. Add that smile, that laugh and those eyes and I was a goner.
But I was sworn off women. Good and proper. I would not let myself get suckered by a gorgeous woman in a waistcoat and tie simply because she looked bloody good in them, my hormones could rage around my body as much as they liked. I was a grown up and could rise above it. I would remember how my heart had been stomped on more times than I cared to count by tomboys with cute smiles and nice biceps. Unfair, perhaps, to lump Sasha in with them but I couldn't think of that now, not when she was so tempting and I had a job to do. But that was no reason to be rude or unfriendly.
"So, how do you know Christophe?"
"I met him when I was working at the Savoy "
"The Savoy ?"
She looked at me quizzically, as if she thought I didn't believe her, before leaning down and retrieving some glasses from under the counter.
"Yep, I've worked all over. Hong Kong, New York, Paris "
"Are you still working there?"
"No, I'm at the Duke of Manhattan. Do you know it?"
Yes, I knew the Duke of Manhattan. It was a cocktail bar for the ü ber cool and ultra hip. I am neither. Half a Stella in the Dog and Duck is more my speed; sticky carpets and cigarette machines rather than mood lighting and mood music. My lack of sophistication suddenly depressed me. I could tell my smile was forced even if she couldn't.
"And Christophe managed to lure you away for the night?"
"He knows that with the right incentive I can always be encouraged to moonlight"
"He must be paying you a packet then"
Sasha's expression could only be described as enigmatic when she looked me straight in the eye.
"Sometimes there's more to life than money, Anna"
I swear to God I blushed more that night than I had in the previous twenty five years of my life. This wasn't like me. I didn't let women get to me like this. First Raquel's overt interest and now Sasha's cryptic but pointed remark; both had me ridiculously flustered. I straightened the collar of my blouse in an attempt to regain a little dignity, and smiled politely at Sasha.
"If there's anything you need, let me know. One of my regulars will be working alongside you, Julie. She's a sensible girl, though sadly not a globetrotting cocktail bartender"
Sasha's answering smile was sardonic.
"Well, we're like nuns. Many are called, few are chosen"
I could tell I'd offended her but I didn't know how to make it right, and didn't have the time. Guests were starting to arrive; I could hear Raquel greeting them. I had to settle for a tip of the head and hope she took it as the apology it was meant as.
The Anti-Love Club was an interesting group. As I'd suspected, they were all women, I'd say most of them were straight but you can't always tell. They were boisterous and good humoured, greeting each other like the old friends they evidently were. In age, they ranged from a thirty five year old accountant called Clare to Myrna, an eighty year old retired nurse who had come over from Jamaica in the 1950s. Myrna had snow white hair and a twinkle not dissimilar to Raquel's, and had seen off four husbands, she told me, lousy, cheating bastards to a man. She grabbed my arm and gave me a winsome smile.
"Maybe I should get a pretty girl and have some fun"
For the third time that night my face was burning, and Myrna laughed so loudly most of the group turned round to grin at her, making me colour even more.
"Myrna, I'm flattered but … "
"Hush, child, you na' want to be saddled with an old bat like me"
"It's not that … "
"I said hush na'. Let me see, there's someone for you here I'm sure"
Myrna eyes scanned the room until they fell on Sasha, and a broad smile cracked her wrinkled brown face.
"How about that handsome boy behind the bar"
For a moment I wondered if I should tell Myrna that Sasha was a bird, but the glint in her eye told me that she knew damned well. Naughty old woman. I raised an eyebrow and wagged my finger at her, which only served to make her laugh even louder and harder before patting me on the cheek and moving on to her next victim.
After Myrna had gone, I stood at the back of the room and watched the "handsome boy". She was mixing something incredibly colourful for Raquel, who was sitting on a bar stool, chatting easily with her. When they both laughed at something Raquel said, I felt a quick stab of unreasonable jealousy. Squelching the feeling, I tried to view them dispassionately. In some ways they were quite similar, certainly in build. A little over average height, they were both in excellent shape and clearly their time in the gym was well spent. Raquel had the gloss that money can bring; her trousers and blouse were elegantly tailored, her jewellery expensively understated. Like Sasha, her hair was short and tousled. On Raquel, it looked as if the only person who had run their hands through it was her stylist; Sasha, on the other hand, looked as if some horny waitress had dragged her into the stock cupboard and had her way with her. Judging by the hungry glances Stacey, the usually voraciously heterosexual waitress, was giving her, I wouldn't have been surprised if that was the case.
Both Raquel and Sasha exuded a confidence that I envied and coveted. I could talk the talk but the walk was another matter entirely. I've always been drawn to self assured women, knowing they can look after themselves and maybe look after me too. Of course, I had too much pride to admit being so vulnerable, certainly not to a woman like Raquel. She'd eat me for breakfast. I chewed on the skin around my thumb. Her confidence was hard won, that was evident. She was the epitome of the self made woman; she had money and she had class. Given her profession, Sasha would never be a millionaire but she inhabited her body with an ease that equalled Raquel; in fact, surpassed it. Underneath her aggressively flirtatious manner and finger crushing handshake ran a vein of anxiety, a fear of being caught out in a lie. Give her credit, she hid it well, and realising it was there made me like her more. Sasha, on the other hand, had nothing to hide. I watched as, with an economy of effort, she splashed measures of different spirits into a shaker I didn't recognise. She did none of that flash flinging around that people associate with cocktail bars. She simply fitted a glass over the top and shook it before pouring the liquid into an already prepared cocktail glass. No fuss, no muss. I could feel myself getting wet just watching her. Suddenly, she looked up, directly into my eyes and gave me a slow, sexy smile and I couldn't breathe. Realising that my eyes were every bit as avaricious as Stacey's, I looked away.
I made a conscious effort to stay away from the bar, drifting between the kitchen and the restaurant. The Anti-Love Club was mostly drifting too, constantly shifting between rooms and groups of people. It was like being in the middle of a river, and I was happy to go with the flow as it kept me busy and my mind off my lower regions. It had been a long time since I'd been this twitchy about a chick and it unsettled me, so I distracted myself by keeping an eye on the waitresses. It wasn't necessary, they were a good bunch and could be trusted to get on with their jobs without that much supervision. I did catch Stacy hanging around the bar making eyes at an apparently oblivious Sasha. When that didn't work, she leant over the bar, provocatively showing a certain amount of cleavage. This was in direct contravention of Christophe's rule and she knew it judging by the guilty look that crossed her face when she caught me scowling at her. Dipping her head, she scuttled away with a tray of champagne glasses. I heard a chortle behind me and turned to face Raquel.
"You can't really blame the girl, can you?"
You guessed it, I blushed, and Raquel laughed again.
"Not my type, of course, but I can see the attraction"
I coughed to try and cover my sudden discomfort; Raquel saw straight through that little ruse, patting my shoulder before taking a glass from Stacey's tray.
"I'll have to make sure we have her in the future. A definite bonus"
I shot her a sidewise glance. She grinned.
"As are you, Anna. You've made everything completely painless"
I smiled politely.
"Perhaps you could let Christophe know"
Raquel's smile was genuine and friendly.
"I will that"
She downed the rest of her drink, gave me a wink and wandered off.
The rest of the night went smoothly, most of the guests had left by one am, everyone except Raquel by two. She was back sitting at the bar with Sasha as the other woman washed and dried glasses. I'd sent Julie home along with the waitresses, planning to sort out things myself. I slipped behind the bar and took the cloth out of her hand.
"You shouldn't be doing that"
"I don't mind"
"Maybe not, but I do"
"Anna, come and sit down and let Comrade Handsome here make you a drink"
"How did you know that?"
"I asked her"
I looked at Sasha who simply shrugged her shoulders.
"Alright then, tovarich, I'll have a vodka martini"
"Good choice. Want to make it yourself?"
I couldn't help the grin that broke out and nodded. Sasha handed me her shaker, laughing when I peered into it.
"It's not going to miraculously appear, you're going to have to help it"
"Yeah, yeah, smart arse. You need to tell me what to do"
"Fill the shaker up with ice then"
It was hard to concentrate with Sasha standing just behind me in a confined space, close enough that I could smell her scent: clean and fresh. I had an almost overpowering urge to bury my face in her neck and breathe it in. Instead, I forced myself to concentrate on her instructions.
"Don't drown the vodka with vermouth, it's meant to just be a hint. Okay, now give it a shake"
I held tight to the glass and the shaker and tried to agitate it the way I'd seen Sasha do all night.
Her voice was a hot breath in my ear and its proximity made me shiver. When I glanced up, Raquel was giving me a gentle, if knowing, smile. I decided to deflect attention off me.
"So, Raquel, what's with the Anti-Love Club?"
"Are you going to drink that, Anna, or just ponce about with it?"
I raised an eyebrow.
"Stop evading the question, missus. Cough up"
She tapped her glass.
"Fill my glass then, girlie, and I'll tell you"
I poured her another glass of champagne, marvelling at the prodigious amount of booze the bird would put away and still be compos, let alone upright. I couldn't work out why she was stalling. Eventually she took a sip and then sighed.
"It started as a bit of a joke, that's how most of the members take it. An excuse to get together and get pissed with no blokes, no romance and no pressure. As you saw, they have a great time with their mates. There's a bit of flirting but that's as far as it gets"
"It means more to you that that, doesn't?"
"Why are you down on love?"
"Why are you?"
"How did you … ?"
Raquel tapped the side of her nose, and then her expression became serious.
"When you get to be my age, then you can be jaded. Men are bastards, women aren't much better. I'm old enough to be cynical, but you're way too young. So tell us about it"
Both women were looking at me expectantly. I frowned at them.
"Romantic disappointment doesn't have a lower age limit you know"
"What was her name?"
It was my turn to sigh, taking a gulp of my drink, the pure spirit hitting the back of my throat.
"Stop being insightful, Raquel, you're doing my head in"
Laughing, Raquel raised her palms in surrender. Instead she turned her attention to Sasha.
"And what about you, heartbreaker?"
Sasha seemed genuinely puzzled.
"Are you telling me you don't realise the effect you have on women?"
Sasha was shaking her head. Raquel burst out laughing a split second before I did. Only half an hour earlier I'd seen the extreme disappointment on Stacey's face when I'd sent her home.
"God, woman, that makes you even more dangerous. So are you as anti-love as our little friend?"
"I never had the time, too busy working, trying to establish myself. I guess it was something I'd think about later"
There was something about the set of Sasha's body, her face, that made me feel sad. An impression that she realised she'd missed out. I found myself leaning into her slightly, enjoying the warmth and firmness of her body. She stiffened slightly in surprise, and then relaxed, her hand coming to rest in the small of my back. I could feel the palm burning through the cotton of my blouse.
Raquel's gaze switched between Sasha and me. She filled her own glass.
"I started the Anti-Love Club because every time Valentine's Day comes round it reminds me of a part of my life that I've not succeeded in. I hate that. I work hard and late so that when I get home I'm too worn out to think about how lonely it is"
"The Valentine's before last, Christophe let me go early so that I could surprise Stevie. It certainly was a surprise. I caught her in bed with another woman. Stevie was livid, screaming at me like it was all my fault. I didn't own her, she was free to do what she wanted, and I just stood there and let her rant at me. I'd thought it was about love but as far as Stevie was concerned, it was just sex. Thing is, she might've been the worst but she wasn't the first, I have terrible taste in women. After the business with Stevie, I decided that was it. No more women"
The second that last sentence slipped out my mouth, I regretted it. Sasha's hand dropped from my back and when she stepped away it felt like a wrench. Eagle eyed Raquel noticed, I could tell, but she didn't comment. Instead, she pinned Sasha with sharp brown eyes.
"Got a revelation for us, handsome?"
Sasha shook her head.
"Not really. I guess by your standards I've had a rather dull life. As soon as I was old enough I got a job in a bar and set out to learn everything I could. By the time I was nineteen, I could've run a pub by myself, well, apart from the book keeping. That never interested me. But I know drinks, I know what works with what. All I wanted to do was get as much experience as I could, so I seized every opportunity and job offer that came my way"
Raquel poured herself another drink. How she wasn't slumped in a corner dribbling down the front of her silk blouse was beyond me. I'd have been comatose, but Raquel was every bit as sharp as she was at the beginning of the night. The only difference was that she was less full-on, mellower, and that was a change for the better. I was starting to like her a great deal. Her focus remained on Sasha, who seemed a little uncomfortable being the centre of such concerted attention. She was fiddling with bottles and glasses but not really doing much of anything. Eventually she gave in and blurted.
"I've never been in a proper relationship"
"You're not a virgin are you? Cos that would be a crime against humanity"
It was Sasha's turn to blush, sending a rush of protectiveness through me.
"Leave it, Raquel …"
I warned, but Sasha touched my arm.
"It's okay, Anna. No, I'm not a virgin"
It must be hard to make that statement with dignity but Sasha managed it. I wanted to run my fingers through Sasha's hair but contented myself with brushing the back of her hand. When she looked at me with big, surprised eyes, I smiled, hoping to be reassuring. She spoke to Raquel but looked at me.
"As I said, it was something I thought I'd have time for in the future. When I had a bar of my own then I'd think about finding someone"
"You want your own bar?"
"Yes, I've always wanted that. Nothing flash, just my own place"
There was a sudden change in Raquel's demeanour. The teasing smile had become calculating, as if she was working something out. Sasha was fiddling again, twisting the shaker between her hands. It looked well used, slightly battered, and I wondered where she'd got it. I pictured her in a high rise bar, the bright lights of Hong Kong spread out below her, mixing Manhattans for braying city boys who acted as if she wasn't there. How many rich people had looked through her the way they'd looked through me? I guess it goes with the territory, but the thought of them slighting Sasha angered me. I was so lost in thought that I was startled when Raquel spoke.
"Sasha, give me your number. You too, Anna"
"Why, what's up?"
"I might have a good idea"
She looked at her watch.
"But no time to discuss it right now. My cab's due any minute"
Even as she spoke, there was a tap at the door. Raquel slipped off her stool and indicated we should come round and join her. She pulled Sasha into a bone shattering hug, tapping Sasha's cheek with her finger tips.
"I'll call you in a couple of days, handsome"
Sasha was obviously as puzzled as me, her eyebrows knitted, but she returned Raquel's squeeze before letting her go. I walked Raquel to the door.
"Anna, it's been a pleasure. I'm going to recommend Rimaldi's to all my associates"
"Christophe will be overjoyed to hear that"
Then it was my turn to be bear hugged; Raquel's lips brushing my cheek, she spoke softly.
"I'll call you in a couple of days too, sweetheart, and for the record I don't think you'll need membership to the club any time soon"
I leant with my back against the closed door looking at Sasha who was looking right back at me. God's sake, my heart was fluttering like a teenager's. She was so beautiful, now there was no one else around, I could admit it.
"What was that all about?"
I shook my head, partly in answer to her question, partly to clear my head.
"Not a Scooby doo. Raquel being deliberately mysterious?"
Head tilted to one side, she gave me a hundred kilowatt smile.
"Make you a drink?"
"Yeah, go on"
"Come and sit down then"
I loved watching her, the happy hum of her body as she did everything in a precise order honed through plenty of practice.
"What are you grinning about?"
She asked but was grinning herself.
"I was thinking that I like that you don't throw bottles around"
"I'm a cocktail bartender, not a circus side show"
She removed the glass from the top of the shaker and filled my glass. I took a sip. This time the drink was sweeter, less sophisticated but perfect for how I was feeling. Sasha knew I didn't want to pretend any longer.
"Hmm, I could get a taste for this"
"Steady, it has more of a punch than you might think"
I waved her off and swallowed a mouthful. She was right, of course; I could feel the alcohol warming me, feel it slide down nice and easy, firing me up and breaking down my inhibitions. I sat back a little and copped an eyeful of Sasha. She really was a bit of alright, and was giving me an amused smile.
"See something you like?"
I emptied my glass and slide off my stool to join her on the other side of the bar.
She raised an eyebrow but refilled my glass without comment. I took another swig, shifting so that I stood very close to her.
"Now everyone's gone I can ask you"
"Ask me what?"
"If it wasn't cash, what incentive did Christophe offer you?"
Sasha leant against the counter, folding her arms across her chest. She didn't say anything for a moment, as if trying to decide whether telling me was a good idea or not. Then she let her arms drop to her side, looking away.
"He told me that he had a very pretty bar manager who I might like"
Her words proved to be as incendiary as the cocktail that whooshed through my bloodstream. Small explosions were going off all over my body, mostly concentrated on my belly and working lower. I was losing all sense of propriety and couldn't have been happier. I moved into Sasha's personal space, pleased that she didn't side step me.
"And was he right?"
She met my eyes.
I moved even closer, my voice as croaky as hers.
My hands found her shoulders at the same moment hers found my waist. She pulled me in near enough for me to feel her hot breath on my skin.
"I thought you were off women"
Our lips were so close they almost brushed when I spoke.
"So did I"