'OH, CHRIST,' Bertie screamed as he tumbled head-first between packed tables.
'Sorry, I'm so sorry,' he said, repeatedly pulling himself onto his feet. Diners brushed noodles from their clothing. Bertie was lucky; he would be mopping up blood from a punch on the nose in England. Here, people accepted accidents and a refreshed bowl of limp noodles.
His shirt smelled like a filthy kitchen after a night shift. He wrung cold soup from the once crisply ironed cotton. It was no longer the pristine white as it was when it came from its box that morning. The creases in his suit trousers appeared limp, and the military attention was lacking.
'Christ,' he said again as he slumped in the last empty seat. Looking around, he noticed the woman refilling her canvas shoulder bag. 'Her fault, not mine.'
Glaring at her, she looked up, offered a weak smile and hastily went to pay her bill.
Hand-made leather soles offered little or no grip, he discovered. Nike offered a better solution, but they didn't match the office gear Bertie chose.
'Christ, where the hell is she? I must stop taking the Lord's name in vain.' A chuckle hastily covered a split in his grimace.
He lifted the single sheet of the menu from the table. 'Brilliant, it is all in Thai.' Looking around for some service, he elbowed an empty bowl. The plastic bounced from the tiled floor, and any sound was hidden by the excited chatter of office workers escaping their daily grind. Bertie left it where it landed, and so did the staff if there were any.
'Ah, there you are,' he said to his guest.
'I'm on time.' They both looked at their watches.
It was five past, and neither commented. Bertie had been long enough in "The Land Of Smiles" to know near enough was close enough. He tutted anyway.
'We are here now, let's eat,' said Pang.
'Are you sure? It doesn't look very clean.'
'What, this place is famous,' she answered.
'Famous for what, I wonder, did one of your lousy actors eat here once?'
'Don't start on Thai TV stars again. Come on, what do you fancy?'
'I fancy going to a decent hotel and eating in there.'
'Oh, don't be so miserable. Have their signature dish, you'll love it.'
'Dare I ask what it is?'
'Let me surprise you. Would you like a beer to go with it?'
'I don't know what it is, so how do I know a beer would suit?'
Bertie looked at the stained ceiling.
'How does that get so filthy?' He pointed up.
'Oh, stop it please, just enjoy the meal,' Pang said.
'I haven't got my dish yet, in case you haven't noticed. Is yours good?'
'I've ordered this for us in case you don't like yours.'
'Come on then, what is it?'
'You will be having a special dish eaten in the northeast. The owner of this restaurant, who happens to be my uncle, has a few dishes sent down, and he prepares the feast for "special" guests. Me and you.'
'Okay, but what is it?'
'It is called "Soi Ju", raw beef and uncooked offal, cut in delicate slices, then you dip them in "jaew bitters". I'm unsure what that is in English, but it's a spicy and flavoursome sauce. You'll love it,' Pang said as her smile lit their little corner of the restaurant.
'Are you serious? No,' Bertie burst out laughing.
Pang's face dropped. 'You asked me for lunch. What did you want?'
A circular tray appeared and slid across the table, and other diners gawped in envy. The pungent aroma attacked Bertie's nostrils; spices crept behind his eyes, tears bit into his cheeks until a sneeze rattled the dishes. He blew his nose, and his eyes bounced between plate and date.
Pang dipped a slither of liver into the almost vibrating bowl and offered it to Bertie, whose lips remained sealed like the envelope with a winner's name.
'Go on, try a bit, you'll love it.'
She forced his mouth open just enough to slide the morsel in. He coughed and emptied his mouth of the fiery portion into his handkerchief; sweat in droplets raced down his face. Gasps of neighbouring diners were stifled as they ducked red-faced towards their plates.
'What's wrong?' asked Pang.
'I can't eat that.'
Pang slid her plate of "som tam" across to him.
'You know I can't eat that too.'
'You invited me for lunch to discuss something. What was that?'
'We have been secretly dating for three months, and I think it is time we let the world know about our romance. I'm happy to meet your father in true Thai style. What do you say?'
'I also wanted to talk to you about something that has been upsetting me recently,' said Pang.
'Don't tell me it is because I can't eat raw bits of beef belly, is it?' Bertie laughed.
She fiddled with something in her lap, looking down, and remained silent.
'While you're thinking, let me fill in the TripAdvisor report about this joint.' His phone appeared on the table. She grinned, looking up. A sly sneer knocked the smile from her pinched lips.
Bertie's eyebrows locked as if fighting, puzzles battered across his pudgy jowls.
'What?' he said.
'Do you want to show my uncle his points on your TripAdvisor report? It is up to you; nobody takes any notice anyway.'
'I don't think we should do that. It may upset him.'
'It may indeed. I want to return the ring you gave me.'
'It is clear we were not made for each other.'
Bertie's face dropped. His failure to understand was apparent for all to see.
'One of the young office boys saw you enter a topless go-go bar. He filmed you performing with the girls on his phone. He showed me. Me or them? It was obvious, so I will continue my life alone.'
'Don't try to make excuses. You gave me a beautiful ring, and I'd like to return it.'
'Not here with so many prying eyes. I don't want to cry in public. Come out the back door.'
They squeezed past the kitchen staff and her uncle and exited the back into a dingy ally.
Pang fiddled inside her shoulder bag. Inside was a smaller pouch.
'Close your eyes and root around in here,' she passed it over, 'You will feel leather. Flick the catch, and inside, you will find the ring. Please take it. I know it was expensive, and I can't bear to say goodbye. I know I don't deserve it.'
Bertie studied her serious face, frozen away from him. Holding the large cloth bag and rooted for the more petite leather one. He clicked the catch…
'Ah, what the hell?' He screamed, dropping the holdall. Pang moved quickly to gather her belongings.
'I'm bleeding. It hurts,' wailed Bertie. 'It has ripped the skin from my hand.'
'I didn't mention tonight's main course, a Caspian Cobra. You've probably got thirty minutes at most.'
Two kitchen staff grabbed his arms and refused to let him run.
Pang pulled a small glittering ring, flashing a cluster of diamonds from her pocket.
'I decided to keep it.'
She waved cheerio, thinking about tonight's feast.