It wasn’t that Alfie had ever wanted to own a restaurant. OK, he had, but only in his more unrealistic daydreams where he also had a Bugatti and maaaaaaaybe lived on Mars. In those daydreams he owned a building where nothing ever went wrong, the plumbing never backed up, the alcohol licensing fee was actually really reasonable, and ‘liking to cook and making a really good chowder’ was enough to make you a chef.
In reality he knew better than that. He might not be ‘in the trade’ himself, but he did the accounts for enough failing bistros, Irish-Mexican fusion places, and ironic gourmet junk food cafes to connect the dots.
So what the fuck–Alfie glared at the bowl of a ladle polished clean enough to use as a mirror–was he doing in a rundown, Cornish sea food restaurant between the middle and the ass end of nowhere? His reflection, dirty blond hair in need of a cut stuck up in tufts around his thin, made to be an accountant face, glared back at him out of metal because they both knew what he was doing here.
He’d followed his heart–or his dick, same difference now although at the time he’d have sworn there was a way to tell them apart–down here. His boyfriend had wanted to open a restaurant–
Another restaurant, the unforgiving voice of hindsight pointed out. Unforgivingly. It sounded dispiritingly like his grandfather who had dryly predicted he’d be back with cap in hand before two years were out.
Greg had wanted to open another restaurant, since they’d met when Alfie had closed out the accounts for a pub that sold only crisp sandwiches Greg and his previous boyfriend had been partners in. So, hindsight pointed out, it wasn’t as if Alfie shouldn’t have realised this was a bad idea.
Alfie groaned and tossed the ladle down on the counter. The dick had just been so good, and in the beginning he’d only provided seed money. A loan. Bought in when Greg’s other partner had dropped out suddenly and disappeared into the night.
Much like Greg had once the Cornish Trout started to stink like week old fish.
“I can’t do this,” Alfie groaned as he buried his head in his hands. “I’m not a chef. It’s possible I’m not even a good cook. Who’s going to actually tell someone at a dinner party that their chowder tastes like feet.”
Miranda slapped the back of his head.
“Well, you definitely won’t do it if you don’t try,” she pointed out. “Buck up, for fuck’s sake.”
“Thanks,” Alfie muttered sarcastically into his hands.
Miranda was Greg’s cousin, the supposed-silent partner who Alfie had quickly realised even talked in her sleep. She’d have gotten on his nerves if she wasn’t the only person in town who’d actually talk to him.
Nobody liked a blow in around here, especially some posh prat from London who’d bought up a local business and was obviously going to fuck off the minute it went toes up. That was fair enough. Alfie would have absolutely fucked off by now if he could afford enough gas to get him to Devon.
“We need tonight to work,” Miranda said. She poked him in the ribs until he gave in and peeled himself off the counter into a standing position. Once he was upright she straightened his collar and grabbed him by the apron strings. “If this critic gives us a good review, gets some bums on seats, we might be able to actually sell this place to some other idiots.”
Nobody in town would buy it. They’d asked around, approached other restaurants, even tried to talk some sous-chefs into trying their hand at running their own kitchen. All it got them was slow blinks and smiles, like particularly assy seals. People from around here knew that all they had to do was wait and they could pick it up cheaper at auction.
No, what they needed was…them, from fourteen months ago.
“What’s he like?”
When Alfie didn’t answer immediately Miranda jerked on his apron.
“…Lobster,” he said.
“What do we have?”
“Lobster,” Alfie said with a sigh. When Miranda’s pale green eyes narrowed, always a danger sign of another rant, he straightened his back and put some pep in his voice. Before she could tell him to. “Fresh caught, wild Cornish lobster, the best in the British Isles. It was scuttling around the sea this morning like some giant sea bug.”
Miranda pulled a face. “Maybe leave out that last bit,” she suggested acerbically. “The lobster is good. Even the locals come and eat here when we have lobster. You make good lobster. You’re the lobster whisperer. Now do it, because if I have to share that flat upstairs with your sad ass for one more month? I will. Kill. you. With a pillow.”
She patted his cheek, gave her hair an aesthetic tousle, and swept outside.
Alfie sighed and rubbed his forehead with the back of his head. What he needed to do was channel Greg. His ex had more confidence than any one man deserved. He would have been sure he could do this.
Fine. Pretend to be Greg, he told himself. He’d not have any doubts he could pull this off.
One deep breath and Alfie pulled himself up straight. Months of sleepless nights and worry made him feel almost delirious with the pressure of it all as he laid a grim eye on the trussed lobster laid out on the counter. There were others, but this was the biggest, the freshest, and the one that was definitely going to save the business.
Long enough for them to off-load it at least.
Alfie pointed a knife at the lobster. “You’re going to be delicious,” he told it.
The lobster….lobstered…back at him. He felt like they were on the same page. The stock pot was already full. Alfie grabbed it and man-handled it over to the stove, sleeves and shoes sodden by the time he got it there. He turned the gas on, set the timer, and turned to make the honey garlic butter.
He hummed as he worked. It didn’t actually sound calm and confident, more like an anxious bee in the back of his nose.
The timer went off and Alfie spun around to find the pot at a fine bubble. The lobster waved its tied shut claws at him as he picked it up and Alfie felt a twinge of guilt. Before Greg had run out on them, the closest he’d gotten to killing anything was when he might have hit a duck on a country road. He’d had nightmares about that for weeks.
“Look, it’s not up to me,” he told the lobster. “You’re just what the people want, and we can’t let them down right?”
He hoisted the lobster up over the pan, lid ready in his other hand since he was always afraid that one would just…leap back out. Just before he dropped it the lobster…popped.
Alfie yelped and jumped backward. His foot skidded in something on the ground and he smacked back into the sink.
There was something wet and goopy dripping off his hand, and splattered over his apron. More worryingly there was a naked man, skin ruddy and steaming, stood in the middle of the kitchen.
“What. the. Fuck?” Alfie muttered to himself. His ears rang and the inside of his nose felt dry and salty.
The man picked two elastic bands off his wrists and gave Alfie a cocky grin. He looked familiar, like someone that Alfie had seen around. Short dark hair and a round, good natured face with clever, dark eyes.
“You probably think this is pretty weird,” the man said. He sounded local too. “But I can explain.”
There was a lot to unpack here, too much for Alfie to take in. His brain discarded all the unnecessary bits and bobs to focus on the most important, survival based facts.
Largely that the lobster needed to…
“Get in the pot,” Alfie said. He grabbed a knife from the rack and waved it at the lobster/man who held his hands up warily. “Get the fuck back in the pot now. I promised the critic the best lobster in England and he’s going to have it.”
The man squinted at him. “Not a lobster, am I?”
“Impossible though, innit?”
It was. Alfie thought about that for a second and decided it didn’t matter.
“I told you to get in the pot,” he said, his voice breaking, and jabbed the knife at the man. “And be a fucking lobster.”
The man scratched the stubble that had just grown in on his jaw. “Doesn’t seem like it would be healthy does it? Turning into a lobster, right in front of a pot of boiling water.”
“I’m going to cook something,” Alfie said determinedly as he stumbled forward. He poked the man in the chest with the knife. “I don’t care if its you on the lobster, get in the pot!”
He poked again, the man dodged this time, and Alfie just…kept going toward the floor. The last thing he remembered before he face planted into the tiles–which were not as clean as they should be–was someone grabbing him by the apron.