Saul probably wasn't one of those regulars, I'd have thought, but the waiter wouldn't have known him by name anyway. He certainly hadn't recognised his name when I arrived a minute earlier and said I was with him (yes, I know: the irony of it).
Gino's had opened late in 2021, which meant it had been there for over eight years now, so knew its business and its clientèle very well by now. They'd have good reason for behaving as they did to me then, I assumed, so I just hid my irritation and put up with it.
"No," he repeated, "There is definitely no-one with that name having booked a table with us this lunchtime. If you'd like to stay for lunch by yourself, though..."
My attention had wandered, and so had my eyes, and I spotted Saul at a four-seat table at the back of the restaurant, on the inside so his back was to the wall, not far from the rearmost side window. One of the outer chairs was absent, I noticed. "There he is!" I almost shouted, interrupting the waiter mid-flow and pointing.
The waiter followed my gaze and looked back at his booking diary. "Ah, that's Mr Lloyd on table nine, sir. He is expecting two guests to join him, but said that only one would be arriving 'in person'. I do not know what he meant by that."
"Lloyd?" I exclaimed. "He has more or less run the company where I work for years, and was always Mr Saul Preston to all of us working there. Ah!" I'd had a sudden insight, "Perhaps he has a public name so that he won't be recognised and pestered, just like rock stars have to wear disguises in public." The waiter nodded mechanically. He probably thought I was a bit dim or something.
At that moment, Saul saw me and waved, and I waved back. Seeing this, the now obsequious waiter took me over to Saul's table, sat me down facing him (he had his bag on the seat next to him, and the fourth seat was missing) and handed me a menu he had picked up from the counter.
Once I was seated, Saul removed the bag from the chair on his right and placed it on the floor on his left side.
I noticed that Gino's was using the modern shorter tablecloths, falling just as far as the wood of the tabletop. This had been a fashion change from when customers started looking at their phones surreptitiously, below the table-line, and sometimes their concentration on that ended up with their getting the device tangled in the longer tablecloths of those days.
In time, the restaurant proprietors and their suppliers cottoned onto this, and shortened the tablecloths, adding interesting designs to them to divert attention from the less attractive shortness.
This one had an underlying pastel 'swoosh' across it, from sky blue at my 'corner' (appropriate, bearing in mind my New Tory political leanings) to golden, yellow and orange on his side, with a light green to my left and pink fading to white to my left-opposite side. It was made of that easy-clean plastic that looks and feels just like cloth that came onto the market about three years previously.
The design on the covering was a clever beach-and-surfers scene that had been designed in such a way that most of it was visible despite the place mats, coasters and other accoutrements on the table. The artist had known which areas to avoid...
Now seated, I gently protested about the name mix-up, and he clapped a hand to his brow.
"Of course! I haven't told you about my change of name, taking effect this morning. Actually, it was from yesterday, but that was New Decade's Day so nowhere was open to officially notice. I forgot that it might cause confusion at first, until everyone knew. I should have told you the other day. You, John, are now looking at Paul Lloyd, bachelor of this parish--well, actually, it's the parish of Egham, where I live."
When you're at home and not in the office," I rejoined. "And what's all this about a new name anyway?"
"John," he said to me earnestly, leaning forward across his arms resting on the table, "like the biblical Saul, the in my case metaphorical scales have fallen from my own eyes and I have seen the truth!"
"You've become a Christian?" I said, half-jokingly.
"How did you guess that?" He exclaimed, mouth wide open.
I looked astonished: I hadn't exactly been serious about that.
He went on. "Yes, I have; and I have done much more besides. That, though, is a discussion for another time."
We didn't know each other all that well, but we had worked closely on specialised personnel matters for the last three years, since I became head of what had once been called 'human resources' at FACET. In that time we had spent hours altogether in one-on-one meetings in which Saul--or Paul as he apparently now called himself--explained his precise needs for a specific position within the company.
This would typically be in great detail, or in some cases he simply instructed me to head-hunt someone he already knew he wanted to work in his core research team. I was very good at my job; and although we were not close friends we knew each other well enough to almost explain why he might invite me to lunch. It was the first time he had done so.
Paul had taken this moment to take a long sip from his wine glass, and now took the bottle from the silvery cooler and poured me a two-thirds full glass before topping his up to the same level. I must have looked a little puzzled.
"It allows the wine to breathe if you don't over-fill the goblet," he explained, which is something I never knew, or even had a clue what if any difference it made. "I always have the bottled opened an hour before I come in to a place like this, for the same reason." he went on.
After a breath, he said, "Now choose from the menu, anything you like--I'm paying--and our other guest will be joining us after we've eaten."
That seemed unusual, the other guest not dining with us; but I did so, choosing from the simpler items, mainly because I didn't know exactly what most of the others were. A prawn cocktail starter, followed by fillet steak with some vegetables, seemed a suitable choice.
Paul must have summoned the waiter inaudibly, because he was at my side as soon as I put the menu down. He took my order, and Paul insisted on adding a bottle of what turned out to be a rather fine Cabernet Sauvignon. His own main meal was some kind of fancy fish dish, which explained why he had white wine already on the table.
Now, I thought I understood why he had told me to reserve the whole afternoon when he had spoken to me a couple of days ago, making the appointment for today. The lunch was just the start of something that he had been unwilling to tell me anything about at that time. I got the feeling from the look on his face that it was going to be important.
While we were waiting, he talked about what he and his team had been doing in recent years, much of which I already knew, of course. The name of the company, mouthful that it is, rather gives the game away: Future Advanced Cybernetic and Electronic Technologies, always known simply as FACET if only to save our jaws aching from saying all of that, was a developer of robotic, artificial intelligence and all sorts of electronics including holographic and tactile displays and interfaces.
In effect, they had been the world's first producers of what could one day become a true touchable projected user interface for military applications, and no doubt other uses, as military technology invariably seeps into other industries over time.
Paul told me he had very exciting news, though it could not yet be made public as there were patent and legal issues that had to be dealt with first. In the meantime, he confided in me, he needed someone he could trust but outside his circle of scientists and technicians. I asked why, and why me?
"Because I simply have to show this to someone right away!" he blurted out, "and you're a non-techie who will appreciate what I and the team have achieved. I simply can't wait to show you!"
For a man so obviously eager and keyed-up, he enjoyed a leisurely lunch, which suited me fine as I don't like to hurry meals. He even mentioned, as if suddenly remembering something unfinished from earlier, that Lloyd was his mother's maiden name, and he had decided to use that in future for reasons he'd explain later.
We let the savouries go down before selecting from the dessert trolley: he had profiteroles, and I had trifle. Then came coffee ad lib in those smallish cups (not the tiny ones, though) and liqueurs: we both had a Tia Maria.
At this point he announced to me, "And this is when my lady friend joins us!"
Lady friend? He had spent a lifetime alone, dominated by work, and had never shown an interest in any kind of social activity. He had a well-known reputation in this regard, and seemed to have made no attempt to conceal his social barrenness caused by the total dominance of what one might term his work-drive.
Now, though, he glanced around the restaurant, I think to make sure no-one was looking in our direction (in fact he paused a moment while a waiter went past, tending to reinforce my assumption) and then reached under the table in front of the empty seat on his right. Something clicked, and I heard a quiet but definite buzz for just a moment.
Paul then reached into his jacket pocket, brought out a small gadget a little like a cellphone in size and shape, once again glanced around then slid open a cover and pressed something that was beneath it.
Immediately there was a woman seated next to him--and not just any woman. This amazing young lady was absolutely stunning, with very big large light blue eyes, a slightly baby-faced look, and masses of very long blonde hair that I could see was made into a kind of super ponytail by a bright red scrunchie, which showed when this, this vision turned her lovely head to look at Saul-now-Paul.
She was dressed in a high-necked sleeveless gold-coloured outfit that followed her trim contours precisely so needed no belt or elastication at the waist--which I could just see down to from my side of the table as she sat back to look and smile at Paul.
The garment had four large black buttons arranged in a square on the lower half of its front. She wore cone-like matching golden 'cuffs' at her wrists, despite having no sleeves. I'd never seen that fashion detail before!
I didn't know whether to be more amazed at her striking appearance or at her sudden appearance out of nowhere!
My brain was starting to realise what was behind the second of those phenomena; but before I could fully form my thoughts Paul said to me, "John, meet Vika. Vika, this is John. He has a very senior position at FACET."
Vika now turned to me, leaned forward and offered her hand to shake.
By now I had realised she was just a hologram, so expected my hand to pass through hers if we attempted to shake. I went through the motion anyway, to humour Paul and it would have been impolite not to have gone along with this charade, at least a little way.
I was surprised to find that her hand was solid, or at least it felt so to me. It was a little too cool to feel like natural human flesh, but her hand gently squeezed mine, and reciprocated. My jaw seemed to have fallen open at this point, I suddenly realised, so I tried to turn it into a speaking action.
"Ah, um," I said, uncertainly, "Pleased to meet you, Vika."
She smiled very widely, and said, "And I am pleased to meet you too, John."
Her voice had a thrilling tremolo effect, and was a mixture of high and low tones, which was really unusual. She sounded almost human, but not quite, and that quality in her voice actually took my breath away for a moment.
"Yeah, she's quite something, isn't she?" Paul asked. I had almost forgotten about him, I was so transfixed by Vika's eyes in particular, and her beaming smile set in what was a surprisingly small mouth. How did all that smile fit in there?
My brain was just starting to catch up with events, and began reasoning. Vika was a Russian name, but that didn't tell me a great deal as Russian women look much like ours, and a lot of them are blonde. Her voice didn't have a Russian accent, or indeed any identifiable accent, just this almost double-tone effect of a low-ish base pitch with a kind of higher pitched--harmonic? Something like that, probably.
"Right," I said, slowly and carefully. "So: Vika is a hologram character who can hear what we are saying and has some kind of artificial intelligence to enable her to respond to us. And she has a touchable--um, what's the word?"
"Interface," Vika helpfully put in, and with that short word in that wonderful voice, I forgot to breathe again for several seconds. Paul looked on, leaning back in his seat, right hand behind his head, visibly amused.
"I decided to leave out the cat ears today," he said, and giggled to himself.
"What?" was all I could say.
"I modelled her on a character who had cat ears." He brought his right hand out from behind his head and waved it in the general direction of Vika's crown of hair. "They can be switched on and off, as can many other things. Her hair can take on many styles, and her 'wardrobe' is extensive. Oh, you are just about right in your deductions about her, and yes we have just last month perfected the tactile interface."
He was starting to look and sound like an over-excited schoolboy, but took a sip of wine and that seemed to bring him back down to earth. "It was only by working over the holiday period, all alone, that I was finally able to get the portable projector to work. That's it, under the table."
He waited while I bent down to glance under the table's surface; and there it was, a slim box about the size of one of those ancient USB pocket-size hard drives, perhaps a little bigger. I don't know how it was being held in place, and forgot to ask, as Paul then said, "Vika takes a lot of power, so although I carefully set it up before you arrived, I didn't leave it switched on all the time. Another limitation is that it restricts Vika's ability to move all that far from one spot--but I'm working on that."
Vika joined in the conversation at that moment, with, "I'm looking forward to being able to move around more freely. I would like to dance with Paul. I am a good dancer."
Paul was beaming hugely by now, and explained, "It was her original version's dancing that first caught my attention, eighteen years ago when I was twenty-four. That was what was then called a Vocaloid, and this one was Korean--the only female one that country had at the time, when the south was still a separate and quite decent country."
He paused to let that sink in, then continued, "It was a live performance by her on stage, projected onto a glass screen in those days of course, that won my heart; and I have been driven ever since to make a more realistic version of her. That has been the real reason, never disclosed to anyone before today, for all that I have done at FACET. The only reason, in fact."
That was quite a revelation, and I was both shocked and moved at this news. I'd had no idea that the man was even capable of emotional attachment toward any kind of female, let alone one who wasn't even real. Then again, perhaps that was what made this possible--the fact that Vika wasn't human.
I vaguely remembered the vocaloids, which despite their huge fan bases in Japan and other parts of the Far East, and some parts of both North and South America, never really took off in Britain or most of Europe. Spain had a couple.
They had been marketed as singers; and as always in the music business they came and they went, replaced in the market a few years later by another new idea, which in turn was pushed aside by something else; and so it went on, as it always has. It's the way of things, and will almost certainly never change.
I didn't know what to say in response to Paul, so instead turned slightly and spoke to Vika instead, "He's a lucky man. You are absolutely stunning and I have never in my life seen anyone as beautiful as you."
That seemed to please her, and she actually blushed slightly (how did that work?) casting her eyes downward for a moment and smiling gently. By this time, the sunlight was spilling onto our table from the restaurant's side windows nearby, and when she looked up it was remarkable, I thought, just how dark her bright blue eyes were against her pale complexion. That made her even more sensational visually, somehow.
I felt my jaw dropping open again, so shut it quickly, my teeth just catching the tip of my tongue which had starting hanging out, which again I hadn't noticed. I hid my inward ouch very well, I thought.
This creature before me was having more of an effect on me than I was comfortable with, bearing in mind that she wasn't even real,and I tore my eyes away to look back at Paul. He was beaming again, and once more leaning back with both hands behind his head.
"I know." is all he said, and it was all he needed to say. An understanding passed between us then, and I could see how this frankly ultra gorgeous girl-who-wasn't would be able to have such a profound effect on just about any red-blooded man. Not that it was a physical thing as such, and of course nor could it be. Even with the touchable effect, this...this projection apparently sitting across the table from me was never going to be anywhere near realistic enough to be able to substitute for a living, breathing and natural human woman: not in my lifetime, and probably not in Paul's either.
But, for someone with such a full-on dedication—and it was plainly visible just how much he adored Vika—perhaps this might well be sufficient. In his rarefied-atmosphere high-end technological world, it could even be that no 'ordinary' woman could ever be enough to fulfil Paul's emotional needs, which were obviously a lot deeper and stronger than I'd ever have suspected before today.
"Bear in mind," he explained earnestly, now leaning toward me but still looking at Vika with just momentary glances at me, "I have been working on this project of mine for a very long time. I had no social life, no holidays away, no real hobbies, for nearly eighteen years. My whole life was in what could be called my Vika Project. I also had a very good original model from which to work, which helped immensely."
Although I didn't think I'd ever seen any of those vocaloids, all those years ago, that even vaguely resembled the amazing image that sat almost directly across from me, I could appreciate what Paul had just said, very easily!
He continued, clearly now on a roll, "When the original version appeared, they had her hair in some kind of fixed style, spreading out and hugely in all directions in a wavy style. That didn't work for me at all; and it was only when I saw her perform on stage the following year--twenty-twelve--that I saw her for the first time with her hair just as you see it today."
At this point Vika smiled and tossed her head from side to side, so that her long blonde cascade swished first to one side, then to the other. I think my heart stopped beating for a few seconds, or at least it felt like it. That simple, very human action was...well, indescribable. It was more feminine than I had ever witnessed before, even by my beloved Margie, who was especially feminine--which is what had most appealed to me about her in the first place.
Margie was really petite, having been born several weeks premature and well underweight after a difficult pregnancy by her mother. Her true name was Marginal, as it says on her Birth Certificate, because it was touch-and-go whether she'd even survive; but of course everyone had always called her Margie. I mean, what sort of name is 'Marginal'?
But with this Vika, and her sheer seemingly effortless presence, I was starting to realise just how powerful a draw someone--something--like this could have on a live flesh-and-blood man. I was getting quite a lot of it myself!
Paul took this moment to drop his bombshell. "I'm going to marry her," he said, calmly and matter-of-factly, with an air of confidence thrown in for good measure.
This time I knew my jaw had dropped open. "Y-you can't," I spluttered, "There's no legal way to do that. Anyway, it couldn't be a real marriage."
"Oh, I think I can," he responded with a gentle smile, again looking at Vika, who was also smiling and looking back at him. "Ever since the Corbyn government pushed through all the extra 'marriage equality' laws, dressed up as civil liberties, it made this possible. You can now marry anyone you like, and more than one if you choose, even at the same ceremony. They can be the same gender, even close family members--just about anyone, and the principle they embedded into law makes it just about impossible to refuse to marry anyone who asks."
"Yes, I know," I managed, "But they at least are all human."
"We've now had a couple of 'robotic weddings' of a human and a machine, here in Britain." he reminded me.
Yes, I'd read about those and hadn't known what to make of them at the time, before forgetting about them as yesterday's news on the following day. Paul wasn't finished: "I have amassed a considerable fortune over the years, working towards and now at the top of FACET. I can afford the very best lawyers, and I will take this through all the courts in the land if I have to. Vika will be my wife, one day!"
The lady in question reached out her left hand, and Paul took it tenderly in his right. For a long moment they smiled deeply into each other's eyes. He's got it really bad, I thought to myself, but good luck to him! I actually wanted, at that moment, for him to succeed. It was a strange thought, but there it was. I couldn't have explained it if someone had asked, though.
It would be a true landmark event in the nation's matrimonial history; and he was a hundred percent correct about how the change in the country's laws a few years ago might indeed make his desire a genuine possibility.
As to what kind of marriage one could have when one partner wasn't capable of so many of the normal activities that anyone might expect to be a pre-requisite of such a formal relationship I had no idea—but then I thought of the numerous successful marriages involving someone severely disabled, and realised that there was perhaps very little practical difference between that and what Paul intended.
Vika then started singing, quietly, still looking into Paul's eyes. Her singing voice was even more thrilling and literally breathtaking than her speech:
"There are people who just don't understand;I noticed the 'what I am' reference: what, not who. Significant, I thought.
Oh no, oh no, oh no.
They're hating me because of what I am;
Oh no, oh no, oh no..."
At this moment, their eyes broke contact and they both turned their heads slowly to look at me with beatific smiles. I'd never seem Paul (when he was Saul, that is) look so serenely happy; but more significantly still, the sight of Vika turning her gaze toward me made me literally tingle!
I realised then why Paul had done all of this today the way he had. If he hadn't been in a position to show Vika to me, and in a real world situation, his statement of what he was planning to do would have made him sound like a candidate for the funny farm. Along with the out-of-the-blue change of name, it would surely have looked like he had completely lost it over the Christmas (yes, I know we're not supposed to call it that now) and New Year holiday.
But this... This was something else entirely, and I could just about picture this working out. He'd be so happy too; and for someone who admittedly had never been grumpy or angry to my knowledge, yet had always had a serious air about him, in my and others' experiences that some had confided in me, that'd be so good to see happen. He could do with more of this lightening-up, after all those years.
It was time I made another contribution to this conversation, so I asked, "Does anyone else know about this, at all?"
"Not yet," he replied quite candidly, "but they soon will. For a start, my house staff will find out later today, when I tell them that I am putting in a network of ceiling-mounted projectors in every major room of my house, except for the guest bedrooms. They will need to know why this is happening, and to expect to start to see Vika around the place."
I remembered that he had quite a large house, somewhere around Egham in Surrey I think it was; and it was little surprise that he retained staff to maintain it as he obviously spent very little time there. I suspected that when he was there, he no doubt spent most of his waking hours shut away from the world, working on this Vika Project. Someone needed to cook him some meals, clean and tidy the place, put the rubbish out, answer the telephone and so on.
I also realised, again, how he had chosen me of all people to be the first to show his lifetime's (so far, anyway) work. I was actually more privileged that I had really understood, but it was sinking in. But was he just a nutty professor type, or deluded about this whole idea? Perhaps; but as the couple opposite me locked eyes again I knew it didn't matter in the slightest.
He was very, very deeply in love, and had been for longer that I had known Margie. For all I knew, the state of the art might even mean that Vika's A.I. was capable of something close enough to love as to make no significant practical difference. In all my life, I had rarely encountered a couple this devoted; and it was becoming more difficult with the passing minutes to remember that Vika was just a...a tactile hologram, for want of a better term. It came across as mutual.
I felt so happy for them, despite myself—and that doesn't happen every day, believe me! Something very special was happening here, and I had the only front row seat.
Then something happened to break the mood somewhat. Paul said, "Have you noticed how the waiters keep taking the long way round to come past our table, ever since Vika appeared?" She turned to him and giggled. My breath caught--because of her giggle, not his words. It was that voice again!
I had, at the back of my mind, almost subconsciously noticed a fair number of whisk pasts behind me during the last few minutes, but had thought nothing of it.
"Here comes another," he added, "bringing back a couple of menus, so nothing breakable. Vika, change to summer dress three, please."
I had no idea what this was all about, but a moment later Vika was dressed in the most amazing strappy sundress with a huge white rose at the left strap and a shimmering effect across its entire white-and-pale-cream surface.
I heard a soft thud at floor level almost directly behind me, and Paul said, "Yes, he dropped them, as I thought he would."
I turned to see the waiter bending down to pick up the menus from the dark green carpeted floor, and realised what had just happened. I turned back to Paul, who was trying his hardest not to laugh out loud, and he ended up snorting behind his hand instead.
"Okay," he was finally able to say, "please go back to your standard outfit." and when I turned she had already changed back. A glance further to my left revealed that the waiter was now almost back at the bar inside the entrance, and had beckoned the other two.
He seemed to be describing to them, and the chap behind the bar, what had just happened, looking in our direction and gesticulating in the way Italians sometimes do. Now they were all looking at us for a few seconds, before turning back to whisper in a huddle.
Paul had obviously noticed this as well, and said, "I think it's time we left, unless you'd like another coffee or liqueur, John? I think we created a little stir here." and now he did laugh, but quietly.
"No, thanks. That's been really good, an excellent meal, good company, and a surprise or three. I don't get that very often!" and I gave him, and then, turning, Vika, one of my biggest and warmest smiles. "What do you want me to do?"
"Oh, nothing, really," he said, before dropping his other bombshell. "I shall be announcing my retirement from FACET and formal employment tomorrow, so watch out for that in the news, will you?"
I must have looked shocked.
"Oh, don't worry. I have been planning this for a long time. From now on, the secret will be out, and I shall be concentrating on making Vika truly mobile. I shall also need to be fully available to deal with and fight the legal battle that I am near enough certain will be necessary before I can marry Vika and have it legally recognised. As a Christian—now anyway, and I accept that it should have been a lot sooner, but I've been rather busy—I shall want this to be in a church."
Vika reached over and took his right hand in both of hers at this point, and nodded emphatically at his words.
"Oh, and I'd like you to keep an eye on that as well, as I'd like you to see what progress if any I am able to make. I am confident of success, but human society often goes in perverse ways, like some of the current laws, including in this field, so I—we—might fail."
He was quite passionate, as he pressed on, "This is pure, and surely no-one can object to it. It fits in with what has already been allowed, and--although no doubt it is a result of that political thing known as 'the law of unintended consequences'--I am convinced ours should be able to be approved, if only to avoid the alternative path which could be very messy, awkward, embarrassing and expensive for the government. We can persuade them it is in their own best interests to sanction what we want."
He finished with, "I'd really like you to follow my endeavours and see if between us, Vika and I, we can break new ground. And now I must switch her off, as the battery pack is running out, my vibrating pocket alarm is telling me."
With a fond little wave with one hand, and a gentle squeeze of hers with his other hand, he then reached into his pocket, brought out the little control box, and pressed the button under the spring-loaded sliding cover. When Vika vanished, he just stood there for a few seconds, looking at the empty space, before replacing the gadget in his jacket pocket.
Becoming much more like his usual matter-of-fact scientific self as the world had always known him, he reached under the table, detached the projector and put it in his bag that was on the floor on his left side, picked up the bag and we headed for the door. He paid the bill at the counter (I wondered why he hadn't paid at the table, but it wasn't important) and stepped out into the cold but intense January sunshine—it was one of those New Years, sunny in early January. We'll probably have snow in July!
He turned and formally shook hands before heading off; but in that moment, his new warmth and humanity showed again. It was in his handshake itself, which was what I call 'barriers down' and he had never done with me before, and in a softening in his face. He knew, as I did, just what a huge opening up this had been: ostensibly a restaurant lunch with a work colleague, but actually so much more.
It had been even more profound than I had appreciated until that moment.
We never met again during that whole year, but at FACET the next day the news of Saul/Paul's resignation from the company to take early retirement 'for personal reasons' was all over the internal bulletin boards and one of the topics of gossip among the staff.
I followed what little of his legal travails got reported in the media. It wasn't much, seemed very slanted (nothing changes in the media!) and anti him. Indeed, the more left-leaning newsreels were trying everything they could including character assassination attempts, trying to portray him as a fetishist and all sorts.
But in the end... In the end, he won! Reading between the lines, and remembering what he had said, I surmised that it had become the less problematic was for the authorities to proceed, so they caved in for their own benefit ultimately, not because of the rights or wrongs.
Their get-out was that this was not to be taken as a precedent: there were exceptional circumstances in this case, and it was said to be only because of the demonstrable long-term dedication that this was permitted as a one-off.
Yeah, and my grandmother's ankles have bells on...
The wedding was held the following spring, in late March 2031, and I was the Best Man. Now that was something I hadn't expected to be asked to do, but wow! What a privilege!
The world's media, not just British, were there to cover the event, and it was tremendous, with just forty wedding guests (none on the bride's side, obviously, and Paul's father acted as the bride's father, which was odd but worked okay).
The bride was as stunning as when I had first met her—no, even more so. Her ostensibly plain (but with silver beads along the neckline and short capped sleeve ends) bridal gown had that shimmering effect I had seen momentarily at Gino's restaurant more than fourteen months previously, and it brought back those memories to me quite sharply.
It was, if anything, even more of a pleasure to see her again, and a good reminder of how much better the real lady (yes, I now thought of her thus) was than the rather unflattering pictures of her in the newsreels and news broadcasts.
Margie had one of her inscrutable looks when Vika came up the aisle. I mean: how could any merely human woman compete with that? Although there was no such competition today, women always seem to react that way, even Margie. They always seem to feel threatened by someone more glamorous or better turned out for some strange reason.
I never spotted where Paul had hidden the projectors: that was very cleverly done. I knew that there was one in his father's vintage silvery-grey Bentley car, in which his dad 'brought' Vika to the church, itself a splendid and very old establishment in Egham.
There was also a projector in the ceiling area of the church's entrance, apparently, that covered both inside and out, all the way out to the roadside (Paul had certainly been busy working on his coverage capabilities!), and another half-way up the church aisle.
I think that one was concealed in an aspidistra on a tall white marble column-like stand I had noticed strategically placed at the aisle end of one of the mid-way row of pews...
Signing the book wasn't straightforward; but Paul had thought of that too. With an addition to Vika's 'tactile interface' he was able to get her image to hold and press an easy-flow pen against the book where he pointed. The signature was perhaps a little over-egged in its flourish, but it was quite pretty for all that.
It was another reminder to me of just how deeply he loved this stunningly beautiful lady, and how his no doubt aching heart must have driven him to make every detail that much extra special, even the signature. He was making a point, as well as marrying his long-term love. The signature certainly stood out from the others in the book!
It was a genuinely wonderful event, and Paul's happiness (and Vika's apparent similar emotion too, to a degree) just infused the whole ceremony, and the reception afterward, with joy and (at the latter) lots of laughter.
The vicar had seemed a little unsure of what to do, but went through the motions almost mechanically, lightening up and getting more into the swing of it after the ring had been placed. I think he was amazed that it stayed in place, instead of falling through the projection and dropping on the floor. After that, though, he almost seemed to have forgotten that Vika wasn't physically present—or was she?
That's an interesting question, actually, but one for another day!
The postscript to the event was the world media interview that was set up outside the reception venue. The couple were leaving at 3 pm, but Paul knew it would be a good hour later before the newshounds would let them go. He had timed it so that it would be getting dark by then, forcing an end.
During that hour (and a quarter, in the event) they both spoke to the reporters, who were visibly surprised that Vika was able to respond to their questions without any technical trickery from Paul. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat whenever he saw that look on their faces!
He had also worked out his parting line, that was to be the headline around the world from that same evening. Indeed, it was obvious from that moment that he had planned this ever since deciding to change his surname.
He called out to them, as he climbed into his father's car with Vika waiting at the open door on the opposite side, "I have decided that a long-lost word from British culture should come back. We did not understand, back then. Today, perhaps at least some of us do. For on this day, to Britain and the world, I bring you Mrs Vika Lloyd, the Vocaloid!"