lovelife, midlife, screen, sleep

While We’re (Not So) Young

Where are you?

I’m on a first date in a dark bar in a part of London that used to be rough and ramshackle and then was made over. It was so ramshackle you wouldn’t have noticed, because you wouldn’t have come here. But now people flock to another refurbed urban quarter for after-work drinks. And first-date drinks.

I didn’t flock, just got here by tube, but missed my stop. And although the bar is dark, I can make out several couples apparently romantically absorbed. Is this a date bar my date’s brought me to? Are date bars a thing? The near dark is fine by me. That it’s also not loud gives me an outside chance of hearing what my date is saying. Earlier, my hearing aid fell out. (Never dreamed one day I’d write that sentence.) A pop-out listening device is not the coolest dating accessory. And yet, the pop-out is set to become a repeating feature at forthcoming meet-ups. Most days in most ways my aural support stays snugly housed and out of sight. On dates nights, inexplicably, the plug goes rogue, disengaging it slides down my earlobe like a chubby fat worm.

Why? Drawing attention to itself, perhaps – flagging ‘old man alert’ at the women sitting opposite. (We are tirelessly creative in finding fresh ways to undermine ourselves.) 

have a date

I’m telling my date about the bad thing that happened to me in bed last night. It’s a bit edgy as a conversation gambit on a first meeting, and so questions might be asked about my motivation.

She says, you have a lot of bad dreams, don’t you?

Average, I reply. Why do you say that?

You already told me about another one. You wrote about it.

I’d forgotten this exchange. But that dream, that wasn’t bad, more like over-enthusiastic. Or only bad in that stretching to complete a slide tackle I fell out the bottom of the bed and kicked the wardrobe. She’s onto something, though, twice mentioning dreams seems disproportionate. 

We’ve been in contact for a few weeks and have messaged back and forth several times. And now belatedly (she’s also a parent) we’re having our first real world meeting.

I came straight from the office. But, before heading off, I took myself to the disabled toilet for a rapid survey of the state of the estate. I removed my T shirt and took in the armpits. They were fine.To be fair, they usually are. But why not anyway, I figured, and ran some water from the tap, wetted the paper towels, squirted some liquid soap, and did a quick, top-half version of what Ex No2 (Vela) used to call an ‘Englishman’s bath’.*

Drying off, I looked in the mirror and noticed a large fresh bruise on my left shoulder.The skin was broken and grazed. Where did that come from? I screwed up my eyes and considered the possible origins, and finally the concluding piece of last night’s nightmare slotted into place.The shoulder must have taken the brunt of my curious incident. 

I’d woken abruptly around 4am with a huge bang on the head and finding myself sprawled across the floor beyond the far side of the bed. I never normally venture over to the far side. This is the part that’s remained empty since the end of Vela; a vacant position I’m hoping to fill at some point – hence the dating. (It’s funny how we often keep to our section of the bed even when we’re solo.) 

Beyond the left flank lies a corridor of pristine carpet, followed by the outside wall and the window. The wall is made of concrete wrapped in brick. Hard solid concrete and brick that you need pro drills to penetrate doing DIY. So, when you hit a wall as tough as this, you feel it.

a red brick wall, colour photographI must have leapt straight from the bed and into the wall. It’s a painful way to start the new day – one that I wouldn’t recommend. 

I lay there, sore and confudled, my long legs collapsed under me like Bambi. I checked my head for blood. But there wasn’t any. It didn’t make sense. The force of the hit, the way the head felt, you’d expect blood. I showed Annoying Son the bump over breakfast, and he said it was a small hole really, like when one of his spots burst. 

There was something about what had happened in the night that didn’t make sense. I remember hearing the loud slap-bang-wallop as my head hit the wall. But, can you have a memory as a conscious event if you weren’t awake when it happened? It’s almost a philosophy puzzle. Descartes would be pleased – but would have said it in Latin. 

The fresh bruise cleared up the confusion: I’d gone in first with my left shoulder – the boney ridge taking the worst of the collision – and the head-slap would have followed a nanosecond after.

But what was I dreaming to make this happen? (I couldn’t remember.) And where will I jump next time – out the window?

I started to wonder and worry. On the tube ride over to the date, I got wrapped up in thinking about sleep, and dreams, and sleep disorders, and missed my stop. I got off at the next station and had a long walk to the bar and was almost late arriving. 

panel of 12 photographs of a man on a horse galloping
id and ego in harness

I was puzzled by this. I never miss stops. And I’m not a late arriver. Perhaps there was something to be inferred from this rare stuttering. Maybe there are times when a missed tube stop is more than just a missed tube stop. 

Freud once used the analogy of rider and horse to explain the relationship between the ego and id – between the person’s conscious sense of themselves and their more unconscious desires – where the horse provides the locomotion, while the rider determines the route. But trouble arises, Freud suggests, should the horse have a different destination in mind. Perhaps this getting tangled up in thoughts on the tube is a case of the unconscious not being sold on where we’re heading, saying maybe we don’t actually want this date after all, sunshine.  

But I do want this date. Dates are fun. 

My first date with Vela (Ex No2) was plenty fun. (Admittedly, if the first date is dire, then you’ve got problems.) It’s over nine years ago since we met for the first time. It was from outside Vela’s work. She walked me over to a restaurant she’d booked that afternoon, along a busy street of restaurants in central London. 

There were so many places for Vela to chose from. And so many more on the adjoining streets. And yet, she’d unwittingly plumped for the only place on the strip where I’d eaten before. 

It was a Thai restaurant that I used to go to with Ex No1. Vela led me down the pavement and up to the front door and my heart sank. Of all the Thai restaurants in all the cities in all the world, we walk into this one.

This kind of bad serendipity noticeably happened a lot during this time. It put me off London for a period. Idly, occasionally I dreamed of leaving and starting fresh; escaping a city loaded up with decades of memories, over-filled like a saturated, dribbling sponge. Didn’t matter whether they were good or bad memories, really, it just felt like the city owned me, and I was suffocating. These days though, another decade further up the life line, I find myself drawn to my past in the city, almost eager to go seek it out – the lost cinemas, the places you used to visit, the buildings that got knocked down. 

The Thai restaurant is still standing today, but some of the surrounding streets are currently building sites. Me and Ex No1 used to come up when J (Annoying Son) was a baby. We would get the train into town and wander around the shops; and a few times we came here for lunch.

album cover to Moby, Play, Moby jumping in the air
‘In my dreams I’m dying all the time’

Moby was always on as background music. But this was true of every restaurant in London that year. On its release, Play started out as a cool, enjoyable record, but came to be loathed through overkill. A friend who lived in America told me he read a funny newspaper article warning people not to travel to London, as the city had been taken over by Moby.

By the time of Vela, the restaurant had switched to playing bamboo music and the interior had been revamped. We took a window seat and before finishing my first glass of wine I’d ditched all the memory baggage – superseded by thoughts of the near future. This was undoubtedly the alcohol working, but also Vela’s cleavage. I didn’t gawp. But I knew it was there, having peripheralled it on a couple of occasions. Later, Vela said I was too polite, too British – that I should’ve just looked. Who was it there for after all? (Me, I think was the correct answer.) Additionally, the frontal composition for the evening was structured to lead the eye in a particular direction – including a crucifix necklace (err, didn’t you tick ‘atheist’ on your profile?) dangling towards, and then between, the articulated hills of desire. 

We were packing the wine away, and all that guzzling meant I had to use the toilet twice. The second visit I was washing my hands, when someone whispered anal sex. I looked around to confirm that I was the only one in the room. I checked the cubicle. It was empty. Definitely just me and the soft lights, with the gentle bamboo music and the trickling of the marble water feature over by the towels. And then I heard it again, anal sex. 

Looking back now, I have to think that the voice was in my head. I ignored it and returned to the table for the rest of my first date with Vela, onwards to the eight years of us that was just about to begin.

But the voices in our head. What are they? Or is this asking the wrong question? Why are they, might be a more productive query. Here I am, in a dark bar on my first first date in nine years, launching into a description of my night terrors, saying maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this, it might put you off; while the voice inside is saying, but isn’t that why you’re telling her? You’re putting her off. You’ve already decided that though she’s nice, friendly, attractive, this isn’t going to be; and telling her about thrashing and crashing in the night is a subtle/unsubtle way of signalling, underlining, that we both know that what we have here isn’t kismet. 

She asks if the bad dreams have ever been a problem with partners. I once elbowed Vela in the teeth in the middle of a dream. I don’t think I’ve ever said sorry so many times. There was also another football dream, where I swung my leg so hard to kick the ball the momentum propelled me out off the bed – rolling down onto the carpet. I woke up on my back, with no clothes on, staring at the ceiling. Vela peered down at me in the semi-dark and said, what are you doing down there? 

I ask the first date, so, what do you think I should do? About the bad dreams? 

Do I need a bed restraint? Maybe. She sips her wine. She laughs. Says, you get those things they make for toddler, for when they fall out of their starter bed. They sell them at Toys R Us. Inflatable landing mats.  


colour photo of a statue of a man sleepwalking in his underpants
just another selfie

We swap stories about our kids as babies and toddlers. The shock and joy of the very early days, and their terrible vulnerability. She mentions the space between the bones in a newborn’s skull, but we can’t remember the word for it.** She gets out her phone. 

I’ll google it.

I say yeah, but no, we should try to remember for ourselves.

It’s better for the brain? Alzheimer’s?

Exactly. I saw this film recently, While We’re Young, this couple, they couldn’t remember the word ‘marzipan’, but they refused to look it up on their phones…

Oh I saw that film, it was…



She shakes her head, like it’s a bad memory in there. Don’t tell me you liked that film. 


Noooo! Just tell me one good thing about it?

I pause and run up an internal list. I could say smart satire concerning the faultlines between the generations. Or the hilarious bad fashion. Urban flux. Midlife emotional turmoil. The dangers inherent to renting out your soul. Or, how about the Rosemary’s Baby reference early on being pretty clever given the ‘impregnation’ scene to follow at the core of the movie – when the fortysomething couple, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, take part in a shaman Ayahuasca ceremony, and the young hipster ‘devil’ (Adam Driver) sort of takes ownership of Stiller’s career. But all this sounds, well, clever dick.

I smile. I’m struggling to think of something apt.

C’mon. See, it was terrible.

It was funny.

No it wasn’t.

It had Ben Stiller!

I didn’t laugh once.*** 

strike a pose

I grin at her and she grins back. The exchange is loaded. We sip our wine. It wouldn’t do to say, but we both know what we’ve just done – we’ve found our unbridgeable gap. We are clearly quite different people. She’s lovely, smart and attractive, with a lot going for her, but we’re worlds apart, and this dispute over a comedy (a funny comedy, ok!), epitomises this, is a carrier for that mutual awareness. In wrangling over a Ben Stiller vehicle, we’ve found our irreconcilable difference. 

Two days later, we exchange friendly texts restating this much, as we jointly agree that we won’t be pursuing the matter. We wish each other well and it’s genuine and quite sweet, really. For a few hours, I learned so much about this woman – her life, her kids, her exes, parents, friends, job, lifestyle, quirks, tastes. And I’ll never see her again. It was a brisk, fleeting dip into another individual’s life. It is people tourism, and quite fun.****

Eve hearing the voice

But what about those voices in our head?***** 

I’m out on another first date, in a pub beer garden in south London, discussing the phenomenon of interior speech. 

All these voices, I ask the woman sitting opposite, where do they come from? Do we all have interior speech? 

Fortunately, my date appears to be more engrossed, than bothered, by this unexpected shift in the conversation. She explains with impressive clarity and concision what she thinks is going on. There’s the interior monologue – we pretty much all have that. And then there are the unwelcome voices, the loud and sometimes destructive voices, that only a few of us hear. And the people who experience the second kind of voices, often consider them to be a problem. 

Having completed her definition, she looks at me. Maybe the look’s neutral, but I worry it’s inquiring, and perhaps I over-compensate.  
Right, I don’t have those, I say – you know, the unwelcome voices. Just the regular monologuey drone – if anything at all really.

I start laughing. I can’t say why. But the laugh I hear coming out of me isn’t my usual laugh, it’s somebody else’s laugh. So I get up and go to the bar for a fresh round of drinks.

The date ends amicably. She texts me the day after to say the conversation flowed naturally and was rich. But so far we haven’t met again. 

Dating takes practice. 



*Ex No 2’s not from here originally, she hails from distant shores. But she loves England; and has certainly paid enough tax to have earned the right to poke fun at our island ways. It’s actually amusing and instructive seeing your culture through other people’s eyes. I got it a lot as a child from my (German) mum. ‘Only the English could come up with something so stupid’, is an occasional refrain I recall from growing up. Don’t get her started on the inanity, indeed insanity, of the sash window.

** The soft spot of a newborn’s skull is the fontanelle.

*** Admittedly, no one in the cinema laughed when me and Ex No1 took the Annoying Son  to see While We’re Young earlier in the year. Certainly not him.. It felt like me and the ex were the only ones laughing. After, the Annoying Son said he was embarrassed to be sat between us. Obviously we were the correct audience for the comedy, while the rest of the folk at the screening were watching the wrong film.

**** Dating is fun. Being a big fan of the Stella Grey mid-life ex-wife column, I won’t be doing any more dating posts after this. (Or I will. But not always.)

***** In an episode of the radio programme Jon Ronson On, about hearing voices, the writer and broadcaster listens to academic Eleanor Longden’s account of her startling descent into a psychotic abyss in her early college years. After the misguided intervention of mental health professionals, which pathologised the young woman’s relatively harmless interior voice-narrating of daily events into a symptom of schizophrenia, Longden wound up in a mental health facility beset by several competing interior voices that were angry and menacing. Her life in pieces, she tried using a power drill to clear her head of the voices inside. It took much torment, tears, and tracking down the right kind of care, before Longden got the pernicious voices back inside the box. Now, she finds ways to use the voices that remain, rather than feeling controlled by them. And then, one day at the seaside all of them stopped, silence at last. But she missed them. Shortly they returned, and she was glad.