|It’s hot. It’s the World Cup. But across London the dating continues…
If there’s no uncertainty, there’s no story. The uncertainty keeps us interested. Living the uncertainty is the tricky bit.
The Last Time
On Friday evening they meet outside the station then walk through traffic to a pub where the large rear garden is filled with the scent of fried onions. They can only find a table in the shade. He wishes they were in the sun because the shade is chilly and he knows this means they’ll only last a single drink before moving on – and he doesn’t enjoy venue hopping.
He’s wearing black flip flops. While she buries her face in her phone, answering a text, he looks at his feet and observes the dramatic contrast between the black footwear and his white toes. The toes are so white they glow. He can touch them from a standing position, if he wants to, and is so pleased about this trivial skill that he mentions it on his dating profile as a throwaway. But it doesn’t mean that he likes his toes. He considers asking what she thinks about them, but realises a question like that won’t go well.
Instead, he makes a joke about her black dress, says where’s the funeral?
Her nose twitches. He glances at the scar on the bridge that dates back to a childhood game of cricket. He looks at the dent in her skin and feels warmly towards her vulnerability as she surveys the tables of drinkers laid out before them. She says, There’s all ages in here. He shakes his head, There’s no one under thirty.
Those are. She nods in the direction of the two women with the colourful tattoos. He says they’ve definitely seen the last of their twenties.
Her nose twitches again. Anyway, how have you been?
My health is good.
It’s all good.
I never get sick.
Other than that, things are mixed. Some good, some bad. I almost had tears on the train yesterday listening to a song. I don’t know what that means. There’s always the football though.
She doesn’t ask what song. Why do you think you felt moved? She doesn’t ask that either. Instead she looks his way with a neutral expression and waits for him to speak further and in the empty space that forms, the gap of silence, all kinds of doubts pinball around, and then she suggests that they might want to go eat something.
He knew they’d only last one drink. They leave the pub and cross to a Thai restaurant, where he suspects the food isn’t going to be brilliant. But the effort of finding a brilliant meal without it taking up time, and too much walking around in the heat, when they could be drinking, means they settle for less.
They order cold wine. They speak about the anniversaries of Grenfell and Windrush and then in a pause he repeats about watching the football.
Oh I don’t do football, she says. Not any longer. Always goes wrong.
She looks down at her mini plate of spring rolls and then back up again. He can tell she’s weighing her words before releasing the next sentence.
The World Cup is a good time to meet women. You know that?
Who says I want to meet women? I already know how to meet women. Didn’t I meet you? He doesn’t say any of these sentences aloud, they just jump up and down in his congested brain.
It really is, she says. You go to the pub, you sit there, you watch the screen a bit, and wait for a man to speak to you. They all come to the pub for the game. But some, their eyes wander; and you’re sat there waiting for them when they do. I did it about ten years ago.
She says this with a perky voice, apparently still pleased with herself a decade later.
I went with friends to the pub for an England game. I don’t remember which game. Six of us, four women, two blokes, and I said before we headed out, I’m going to catch a man tonight. And it happened.
He looked at me.
And I looked back.
So, the football is of no importance?
I can follow the game and keep a look out – it’s just football! At half time, this man came over and started talking.
Was he nice?
Did you go out?
We went for a date. He wasn’t right though. He was much younger than me. I was forty and he’d just turned thirty.
Why was that a problem?
He was a good enough bloke, but he was living through a different stage of life. I didn’t see how we would fit.
There must be at least fifty ways to say No.
What does that mean?
Yes is harder to verbalise. He holds out his hands expressively, like he’s preparing to save a goal. It’s just a thought.
I do the same at parties sometimes. I get bored. Everyone’s so drunk and it is genuinely tedious. But also, I make sure to look and act bored and to keep watching out for blokes. And often you find a man looking back and if he seems okay, you return the gaze, and then he comes over and says, you look bored.
But what if he’s also boring?
Then you go to the loo. But hopefully he’s interesting to talk to and you get to go on a date. That’s how I met Mike.
Mike was the man you told you could never love him.
She nods wearily. So?
So you’ve got these strategies. But why?
What are you gettin’ at?
Strategies to what end? You don’t want a man.
Hmm. Maybe we should call you the Time Waster. Yes, that could be your tag.
She smiles. Lovely name.
Everyone should have a handle or tag, helps to organise the backstory. You wanted to call me The Fisher, remember?
Well, you regularly fish for compliments.
Which I actually don’t.
You really do.
I blow my own trumpet sometimes – which is quite different to fishing. I once went out with a woman who gave all her lovers names.
What was yours?
The Occasional Smoker. I’d said in my profile I didn’t smoke. But really I did.
He nods. At least it wasn’t about my age. I told her on Date One about having the odd fag here and there. And as she got to know me she saw it was more than occasional. So the name was ironic. I suspect she coined the nickname to make a dig about my integrity.
Her nose twitches. Or possibly she was just being funny. So, I’m the Time Waster?
He shakes his head. No, never. Of course not.
I might just go with the name your parents gave you at birth. How’s your father?
She says her dad’s getting better, but also deteriorating. She says, he wandered off by himself the other day. I was getting my mum’s shopping. He was gone for an hour and half. I said, Where d’you go Dad? He said he was at the bus shelter.
The Bush Shelter, is that a bar?
No, it’s actually the bus shelter at the stop round the corner from their house. Fifty yards away. He sat there for ninety minutes. Alone.
She looks to him with an expression that asks that he allows these basic facts to sink in.
An hour and a half?
He only got as far as round the corner? The world gets smaller with old age.
This morning, I was round the house again. He says, are those three horrible women coming back? I asked, what three horrible women? It’s just been me and mum.
The three horrible women don’t exist?
Not that we’re aware of.
She talks some more about dementia and its horrors. He pitches in with some bits of his own. He shares something Thomas Pynchon wrote about memory and time and what he called ‘temporal bandwidth’. How we need our awareness to be greater than whatever’s happening this second, or we risk becoming attenuated.
What does that mean?
Pynchon claims the more you reach into the past, or look to the future, ‘the thicker the bandwidth, the more solid your persona.’ That if it’s all simply Now, ‘the more tenuous you are.’ But what I want to know is, How can we be sure the past is really our past? When I told you I listened to a song that made me sad on the train, I told you with real conviction. But as soon as the sentence was out of my mouth, I thought, Or did I dream it? Did the train ride really happen, or was I sitting on a train in my dreams, listening to the song on my headphones in my dreams, feeling moved, being glad for having my sunglasses on – all of this going on while I was flat out fast asleep in my bed? I’m sitting here and I don’t know which one is the truth.
She nods. I get confused. A bit hazy. I used to wake up convinced I’d argued with my boyfriend. But we hadn’t. I dreamed the argument so vividly. I’d open my eyes and immediately start apologising. He’d say, What you talking about? Nowadays, I could claim he was gaslighting me. Wouldn’t put it past him.
Except you dreamed it all.
Yeah, except I dreamed it all… I think.
He wondered if he dreamed about the the Spanish Artist. But this wasn’t the time or the person to bring it up with.
They settled up and left the restaurant. The sky was dark pink and blue. They returned to the pub. Inside, she declined his offer of another drink. He had a large one by himself and then went to the toilet. When he came back she was leafing through her diary. Just catching up on admin from work, she said. She yawned and checked her phone for train times while he glanced at the screen as Switzerland had just scored. And then he walked her to the station and cycled home up the steep hill.
Back home he texted her, What do you think of my toes?
What d’you mean?
I’m a woman of the global south – of course your toes are too white!
It was the last time they met. Expired. The email and texts declined rapidly and then ceased. No more WhatsApp. Six months of reams and reams of communication finally brought them back to silence.
The Spanish Artist
In the morning he wakes late and doesn’t want to get out of bed. The thought of coffee isn’t enough. Morning accidie detains him. He gazes at the white of the bedroom ceiling – vaguely, then intensely – hoping to extract something from the bright space suspended over his head.
He considers the puzzling case of the Spanish Artist. He knew for certain that she was real. Of course he hadn’t simply invented her in his head. Undoubtedly, earlier in the spring, he met with a woman from Andalucia on three separate occasions in different parts of London. And yet, from a distance of months, in this heat – when matter feels melted and barely real – her brief interjection into his life figures more as an absence than a presence.
They first met in a pub in an upstairs lounge overlooking a railway line. They were the only two people in the room and she told him about Cordoba, about her art, about second-hand markets and how much she loved south London and would never want to live anywhere else.
Their first meeting came in the same week she found out she’d won an art prize. She was beaming. Plainly there was much she wanted to tell him, but her English was limited. She said she spent too much time with Spanish friends and needed to be with ‘the English’ more. She smiled at him. He sat opposite, across the table, tilting his head left then right, pushing his lame ears to do better with what she was saying. They were a painful pairing to observe. It had to be the one of the most exhausting dates in London that night.
But they persevered. The second time they got together for a curry. The Spanish Artist told him the third time they met, over tea and cake in an art gallery cafeteria, that in her first career in Spain she’d been an economist, and then she switched to making art in her thirties. But one continuous theme in her adult life, she said, was that she’d never been with anyone longer than three years.
She started to giggle. Said she gets to three years with a man and something always happens and they break up. She told him this without dressing it up with an explanation. She stopped speaking to finish her cake. He wondered if he heard this correctly as always three years sounded odd. Arguably she was being discouraging sharing this information, or maybe she simply supplied a straight answer to his question.
They left the cafe and went down the broad stone stairway to the gallery spaces below. They looked at the art without any plan or direction, drifting through the white rooms as he made intermittent comments about materials and perspective and the interesting questions being posed and left unanswered. She seemed to agree, but maybe she was humouring him, or didn’t understand his English. Occasionally she became gripped by some item in a cabinet, or drawn by an information panel, and wrote about it in her notebook. A lot of the art though she barely gave a second glance.
They shuffled through a dispersing crowd into a smaller side room featuring paintings by Tuymans, Dumas, Richter and Doig. He said he liked blurry artworks and the look of fog. She told him her first name means clouds. She said she likes her name a lot and that she believed being called Clouds had affected the way she views the world. He said, I think that’s called nominative determinism. She wrote it down in her notebook. Her brown hair was long – and several strands fell across the lined pages. She said her favourite weather is snow.
After their first meeting she’d sent him links to her art – a dedicated website and a page followed by thousands on Instagram. The website listed places where her work had been exhibited – galleries and countries across the world.
Her sidebar bio describe her vision as experimental with an analog spirit, using collage and mixed media. She deploys models for some of her photographic pieces, but most often situates herself in the frame as the subject of her own work. All of the humans in her photos are presented without a face, their head having either been left out of frame, or cropped, or obscured, or concealed by a separate object. In her compositions, all of the subjects are camera shy, turning away from the lens, facing into cracks in the wall, or looking to disappear into the shadows. Sometimes their heads are effaced and scribbled over.
He says there’s a lot of erasure in your work. (This is him putting it mildly.) He says this as they stand side by side staring at a painting by Peter Doig called Ski Jacket. The Doig painting is smudged, a snow scene with pines surrounded by streaks of white and pink and a yellow that almost glistens. She thinks about his statement on erasure. She replies in a low voice with a response that is entirely lost on him.
In another room they look at some pieces by Francesca Woodman. Woodman died young, she took her own life. A lot of her work features set-ups where the artist is trying to hide or seemingly to lose herself, to dissolve or disappear from view. Suddenly coming face to face with these images of absence is entirely by chance, but feels as if it might have been set-up. He has to ask the Spanish Artist if she likes Woodman, even though it is clear that she will say Yes. He asks if Woodman is an influence – which is perhaps too pointed. She nods and then they leave and go for a meal where she tells him all about her mother and he talks about his son.
The fourth meeting gets cancelled at the last moment with the suggestion that they’ll try to reschedule. But they don’t try very hard. The days after slide by without communication. There are lots of things going on in his life; and with plenty of other stuff on his mind, his follow-up text goes out late and is left dangling for days without reply.
He doesn’t follow-up a second time when she fails to respond. Things flare up and they fizzle out. He doesn’t know whether to consider this a disaster, incompetence, or just how things are.
More time slips by. After a week or so of inattention, he realises the Spanish Artist has dropped from his active consciousness. He’s almost forgotten her, as she, it would seem, has forgotten him. And then sitting at home one evening, suddenly The Spanish Artist returns to the centre of his thoughts, and he wonders where she went. Briefly it becomes an urgent matter. He checks his phone. As he thought, he was the last to text. Although the non-communication was mutual and inexplicable, he was relieved that their drift into silence was not directly on him.
Where did she vanish to? He returns to her website to flick through the thumbnails of her artworks. Is this what she wanted – that he’d come looking, maybe even find her among all those headless photos? Perhaps her ethereal aesthetic, featuring compositions of people not quite there, could be interpreted as a desire to be located and made sense of, like someone missing in a story is traced and discovered.
A woman who made artworks about states of disconnection might prefer her dating life to be intriguing and complex. Even enchanting. And he hadn’t been any of that. Is that why she went silent, waiting, and waiting, then waiting a bit longer, holding out for something beguiling to come her way? Or at least for something more than another bland text saying let’s meet soon?
Intriguing, beguiling, enchanting… Dating in wonderland. That wasn’t him.
He wondered if there was a larger lesson to be learned. Perhaps he’d missed a crucial plot strand in the dating narrative: in which the search wasn’t over simply because you clicked on a hyperlink. Perhaps it was only just begun. Was he only just figuring this out? Having put themselves on display – online, in plain view – people needed to be restored to an unmediated, three-dimensional state. To start to come alive in real life, to take shape as individuals in the beam of a lover’s curiosity.
He re-read his last text to her. It lacked curiosity. It was vague. It was lukewarm. And it was bland. But also, he’d been quite stupid. The text had two parts to it. Part One, he suggested that they ought to make a date to meet again. Boring. Part Two, he made an utterly crap joke. An outstandingly lame stab at humour. It was difficult for him to read it now. A quip about preparing chard for his dinner – chard, not The Shard. Ha-ha. God, that was awful. He remembers he was preparing the food over the sink and from the kitchen window you can see the top of the Shard. And for a second this wordplay seemed amusing. And in the moment he incorrectly decided it was worth sharing. Now to read his text was toe curling. Maybe she concluded she could find someone funnier.
Scrolling rapidly through the texts they’d exchanged over their few weeks in contact, their words flipped past his eyes as plain and anonymous. Scrolling faster, the words losing their substance, becoming a small blizzard of blurry, indeterminate pixels – the idea of communication seemed implausible, unreal, or only half there, just like the headless characters in her sepia-tinted photos were only half there. All these ghosts lined up in rows. Skimming through her gallery of phantasmagoria only deepened the sense that the Spanish Artist might have been a passing illusion, more figment than fact. But then again, let’s not forget, he knows for certain that on the third date they ate a late lunch at a Carluccio’s near the river. If it had all been a dream, really, would they have gone to Carluccio’s?
He shakes his head. He thinks not. He starts to follow the Spanish Artist on Instagram. The images she makes are infrequent but good to look at. Maybe he should’ve told her at the time her art was interesting.
Conversations with Women
Having taken a mid-season break, he returns from his dating hiatus ready to explore some new plot-lines.
He’s back at basecamp – truly entry level, where new contacts can be numerous and simuldating is ordinary practice. But simuldating should never be continued beyond two dates. This is his order of things, that after two promising dates, with a third meet-up in development, it is far better all round that the narrative becomes focused. He’d like to believe that his system is largely fair and also commonplace. (He suspects however that it is not widely shared. This is, after all, the Wild West.)
In the coming week he has three nights of phone dates: one, two, three evenings in a row. The schedule is to be co-ordinated with each evening’s World Cup group match – meaning the dialling starts after nine pm.
The first woman he calls is having problems with her builders. She’s driving home having just been to check on the day’s progress on a property that’s half way through refurbishment. The state of the works is not to her liking. She is also negotiating the traffic and it is clear to him that she is not fully engaged by their date conversation. He is also not gripped, made anxious by her choosing to talk while driving. The thought of her having an accident, that the last thing she hears is one of his disposable lines, sort of hinders his flow. The conversation drags. (He’s never been big on phones.) Then they get disconnected.
She calls back and resumes with the subject of the building work, almost as if he’s taken on the role as the shoddy contractor. She valiantly tries two times to talk about something else, but it’s the builder who’s all over her mind, in particular the new damp course. And then they’re disconnected a second time.
He waits for her to get back to him. It’s that typical stretched-out moment, almost tense with waiting, assuming they’ll call, while wondering if they’re actually waiting for you to do so. The micro stresses of contemporary communication. If I call her now and get engaged – probably in the act of calling me back – I’m therefore actively stopping her from getting through. Worse, I’m sending her to voice mail. Please no voice mail, he mutters. Just the thought of voicemail exhausts him, let alone having to listen to the message.
And soon it’s two minutes, stretching to three minutes of silence, before five minutes have gone by and still the phone doesn’t ring. And no text. He calls her and she doesn’t pick up. It rings several times. He tries again. No joy. He waits and then he texts. Still nothing. And that is that. She’s gone. Disappeared.
He never hears from her again. It happens. It really does happen. He wonders if in this specific case it happened for a reason. That they were never meant to be and the fact of getting disconnected twice was the proof. Perhaps there is a synchronicity in the universe.
Or, could this be a Sliding Doors moment? If they hadn’t been disconnected; or if she hadn’t been so preoccupied with her dumb building works, while also driving at dusk, then maybe they could’ve started something wonderful. This possibility is an experience he will never get to explore. Sometimes in the evening, or in breaks at work sat on the toilet, flipping through the profiles off the dating site, he wonders, did I just flip past and miss her – her, you know, The One. Did my mind wander off at the crux moment and I swiped past the person I might have shared the rest of my life with? He then reminded himself that actually this isn’t how it works.
The next evening brings the second dial-up date. A fresh contact, or Like, to share some phone with. Today’s date is quite clear that he must call after ten pm. This seems very long into the evening to be making contact, let alone romancing a stranger. Not only is he an early-to-bed person increasingly, but for years he’s always had a ten pm cut-off rule on phone calls. The rule’s become second nature. To dial any later feels feels like a violation. And committing a violation is a desire killer and therefore not the way he’d choose for tonight’s phone date to begin. He must put his misgivings to one side though and submit to her after-ten requirement.
He leaves it until ten past ten. She picks up on the fifth ring, just as he’s about to hang up. She sounds surprised to hear from him. Did she forget he was calling? He wouldn’t forget. He’d be sitting close to the phone, all set to go. He’d have been to the loo and also prepared a glass of water. In fact he did both before making this call. She said she’d been so busy all evening that their phone date had completely slipped her mind. For a moment he wonders is this mind games, then he remembers his new rule on not over-thinking stuff, to keep in mind what the Time Waster urged about avoiding negative scripts.
The woman on the phone grew up in a hot country. She has a soft accent from her homeland. She has lived in the UK since the turn of the millennium and tells him she adores London so much, but that she never connected emotionally with her husband. He listens carefully. He’s wearing his hearing devices which means the woman’s voice is actually inside his head and he likes the intimacy. She asks some questions and he answers; and he asks a few questions back and she answers; and then she tells him that in the hot country where she grew up she did two years national service, but liked it so much, she stayed on for an extra year.
He says, have you ever killed a man with your bare hands?
The line goes quiet. She clears her throat. She says that defending your country means that you do things you never imagined yourself capable of, actions that continue to surprise her to this day.
He thinks, not for the first time, what a sheltered life I have led. He knows not to ask her to elaborate on what she did during national service. And anyway, she is already happily embarked upon a long anecdote concerning a yoga retreat she went on with her last lover where they didn’t speak for ten days. It’s a good story. He likes her and she tells him she feels the same in return. Inside his hearing device he senses a connection. They get along well. This is great. It’s a moment when the wide offerings and freedom of choice provided by modernity plus technology is a cause for celebration. In an earlier period in history, with relationships largely dictated by family, religion and village, their paths would never have crossed.
They agree to meet in real life. Soon. He says he’ll get his calendar. She says, Oh, she’s far too comfy on the sofa to go get her diary just now – that it’s been such a tiring day. (She is also currently having building work done.) Won’t you just should text me some dates, she says, and l’ll let you know? He replies, fine, I’ll do that. He’ll text her.
As he hangs up he wonders if he’s already given too much ground. He’s sure, roles reversed, he’d have gotten up from the sofa, retrieved his diary and penciled something in. These thoughts are a product of the madness of rapid dating. He knows he must stop thinking this way.
On the third night of phone-date week, a woman with an even softer voice answers her phone. She also sounds surprised. She says she forgot they’d arranged to talk. More mind games? How could the idea of doing a phone date not register? She so completely forgot that she’s in the bath, she says, with a glass of wine and about to listen to a podcast.
But it’s fine, she says, we can talk. I’ll put you on speaker.
He hears the sound of water, some gentle splashing, and then a tap running. She says she’s just finishing up on hot water. He’s adjusting to the scenario he’s passively become absorbed into – the squeak of the faucet and a low woosh, as presumably she settles back to soak.
He imagines a waterline up to the chin as he sits down on the sofa. First he perches on the edge of the cushion and then he eases back into the seat, as he looks out the window at the late evening sky while it cycles through the colours of the blue hour – dissolving from orange to pink to violet, then mauve, indigo and deep blue. The trick, he says to himself, the trick is to admire the spectacle of the midsummer dusk and not to think about the fact that the person on the other end of the phone is naked and splish-splashing about in a bath tub and being flirty, while simultaneously running through her current list of favourite podcasts, and confessing to recently having fallen in love with audiobooks.
Her splish-splashing, the isolated echo of the drips and the drops, as well as the occasional ripples from volume displacement, have an authenticity you’d expect from a BBC radio drama.
He tells her this. He asks if she’s ever worked as a foley artist. He says, your bathing has a high level of verisimilitude. She says, only if this is fiction, which it isn’t, but, Thank You. Listen, I’m just about to wash my face, she says, so don’t speak for a moment as I won’t hear you.
She resurfaces and tells him to continue. He asks if she has candles.
Oh, always. Are you typecasting me?
No. Well, maybe.
She tells him her evening bath is an essential daily ritual. So important that occasionally when friends drop round to visit they must come and sit and talk with her while she soaks.
But, you’re naked.
No, I wear a swimming costume in the bath. Don’t you?
I never have baths.
Do you smell?
I don’t like baths. I’m tall and my knees sit out of the water and they get cold and sad.
Do I really want to go on a date with a stinky man?
I shower. I don’t smell. I cycle. I have to shower.
Showers are for the morning. Baths are for the evening.
You don’t need to have a shower and a bath. How could you possibly be that dirty?
And you say you’re not stinky? Should I believe you? Will it be safe to meet?
He laughs. He wonders if the conversation has gone astray, or is headed in the right direction.
All my exes said I was fine.
Hmmm. But then, they’re exes.
She warns him that the water’s getting a bit chill. She’ll have to get out soon. She says this, but then admits she’s just topped up on hot again and she’s actually fine.
They speak for almost an hour. She asks about his cycling. She tells him she goes for long walks – whole weekends by herself in Wales, where she borrows a friend’s cottage. He tells her he went walking in a field of bluebells recently. It was in Kent. The way she describes her walks, it sounds as if she goes up and down the side of real mountains, so he’s aware this expedition to Kent doesn’t compare. But sometimes you’ve got to hang in there. He inflects his bluebell story with a self-deprecatory tone. The aim is for something like: look at me trying to impress you with my pitiable small potatoes nature trail – and yet, semi-seriously, since you dig walking so much, surely my jaunt in the bluebell wood suggests some sign of compatibility and that clearly we are meant to be. He wonders if his narrative skills are as good as they were ten years ago.
She tells him she finds peace in walking and considers herself woken. She explains on being prompted that woken means she is at peace with herself and the world.
He wonders how could anyone be at peace with the world. And as for being at peace with oneself, assuming this is an achievable state for anyone, which he doubts, what would you do with the rest of your life? But that’s not what he’s going to say. He doesn’t wish to sound sour or spoil bath-time. He simply mutters something about how much he values the phrase I don’t know. Three little words, he says.
At this, he clearly hears her shift in the bath, like an interlocutor might shift in their seat during a TV interview as they close-in on a key point. She says, what is your internal weather like?
Windy is a word that comes to mind. But he tosses that. He plays for time and asks what do you mean?
Are you spiritual?
What kind of weather do you experience in your head? What kind of climate do you bring to your close relationships, stormy, or sunny?
She’s speaking riddles in a language he barely understands. Obviously he’s not going to say stormy weather. Variable he says, having rejected infernal, as well as temperate. Although he thinks temperate is an undervalued weather system – undervalued like sanity – he suspects that describing yourself as such sounds dull.
She says it’s time to get out of the bath. A big surge of splashes and then she announces that she’s drying herself and he may need to repeat himself. He wonders if any man out there in the datersphere could get away with streaming a first phone date live and naked from their bath. An image of Harvey Weinstein flashes up in his head and he misses something she says about food. Sounds like vegan.
She continues and says last year she turned vegan and isn’t sure if she could date a meat eater. It’s an ideal prompt for him to reveal how lately he’s become a reducetarian – that he ate so much meat at a Brazilian restaurant a while back that he’s barely chewed on flesh since.*
What’s a reduceitarian?
People who stop eating meat without meaning to. It’s a newly identified thing.
I still eat crisps, she says. I like wine. I’m not a lentil.
My ex used to say lentil.
And with the mention of his ex, that notorious tripwire, she says it’s getting late and they agree to end the call. She says thanks for sharing my evening bath with me. They agree to meet soon. They say it. He means what he says. She also seems committed. But will they actually meet?
A week later, Brazil are playing Serbia and he’s not seen the former world-beaters once so far in the tournament. He is sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a fantastic pub in the part of London that has probably changed the most of all inner London’s districts in the last two decades. He’s on a date with a woman who’s been away with her work, and then on holiday, meaning that this is their first opportunity to meet. This is not the Bath Lady or the Ex-Military. This is not one of his phone dates.
The football is playing across the other side of the room, projected upon a giant, rolled-down canvas screen. If he turns his neck this way, he can see a quarter section of the game – the bottom right hand segment of the game. It’s not much of a view. He has to concede that dating during this early stages of the World Cup, attempting to balance football and romance, is a serious challenge that might well be beyond him.
Then again, his date just started talking about football. Football from the 1970s. She says when she was very young she was in love with Stan Bowles of QPR. She had Bowles pasted across her bedroom wall. And John Richards, she says. I was in love with John Richards.
An unexpected overlap has been discovered. He says, I also loved John Richards. But differently.
It’s true what he says, but at first she doesn’t believe him. He smiles as momentarily his head is seized by a soft focus involuntary memory from when he was little.
The memory is a first person point-of-view seen through his seven-year-old’s eyes. He is looking down at a glossy photo of John Richards, a double page portrait in a football comic laid out upon a section of blue carpet. Perhaps it was Shoot, which was more of a magazine than a comic. For a while, Richards had a column in Shoot.
The first person reverie dissolves to a third person memory, with the seven-year-old him featured side on in medium shot – sat on the bedroom floor, holding a pair of scissors while preparing to cut out Richards and pin him on the wall next to his bed. The light in the bedroom is thin and diffuse. He has a straight back and curly blonde hair and is wearing beige shorts and a stripy top in narrow bands of cream and green – the colours reminds him of soup.
He wakes from the brief flashback and tells the woman across the dark brown table that he supported Wolves as a child. They were my first ever team, he says. It was the club closest to where we lived at the time. John Richards was their star player. There was one season where he couldn’t stop scoring goals.
I know, she says.
But then we moved out the area. My parents relocated to London, he says. And obviously, being their children, we went with them. My dad made me switch to Chelsea. I didn’t want to. And then Chelsea were relegated my first full season, which didn’t help. But I’ve got to take my hat off to the old guy, over the years moving to Chelsea FC has paid back in trophies.
They stop reminiscing about 70s football and switch topics to discuss what people write about themselves on dating sites. She says you can tell a lot about a person from a dating profile, and that she really liked many of the things he’d written on his – that his words made a lot of sense.
He hears her say this and inside he flinches. He has this immediate urge to publicly disagree with his own profile, to tear strips off his own lines. He wants to say to her, Careful: it’s a sale pitch, not a window to the soul. It’s come to this – at war with his own dating profile. Is it the Groucho Marx joke, the one about distrusting any club that would have him for a member?
She says this is her first date off the site and his heart sinks. He wonders what kind of a warning to offer a newbie. That we can’t know someone from their clever lines, for sure, or from the blizzard of email and texts and calls that accelerated dating sometimes bring forth. Dating is an epistemological paradox where meeting new people, the pleasures of getting to know you, butts up against the deep suspicion that we never truly know anyone. ‘Man is a creature that cannot emerge from himself,’ wrote Proust. Persons are but ‘a shadow which we can never succeed in penetrating, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge’.
We tell ourselves in the moment that we do know this person by their words, but we really, actually don’t. And then you meet in a bar, or from the train, assuming off the back of all that romantic texting to and from that it will be just amazing to slot together in real life; and that you’ll be married in a month. But then something they say in the first few minutes, or something you say, reveals in moments that you don’t fit, that this isn’t going to work, none of it is going to happen, and surreptitiously you both check the time. He wants to share some of his disasters as cautionary tales – when high hopes turn to dust in a blink and you find yourself in a polite stand off, faced with a gruelling couple of hours, nugatory time endured together, with both parties knowing, but not saying, that there won’t be another meeting after this.
It’s what can happen. This is the risk. He remembers it all in his head in a flurry. It’s the kind of thinking the Bath Lady would call negative weather. He knows he must keep it to himself. You can tell people it’s fun and exciting; but not that it might hurt. We’re grown-ups, after all, taking our own course. He gently blows out his cheeks and stares at the table, at the beetroot roses in the half-pint glass, and then he raises his eyes to his date and smiles. She smiles back and says, you’re my first date in thirty years.
She tells him she was with her last partner for three decades. I don’t make a huge fuss about it on my profile, she says, but my partner died last year. We weren’t married, but we lived together for thirty years.
She says widow just as there’s a loud roar at the football. But their eye contact holds steady. He’d noticed she used widow on her profile. The term provoked sympathy, but also felt weighty in the bright and sunny context of online dating. He wondered at the story to come. But hadn’t expected it would come this early.
When did he die?
A year ago.
Are you sure you want to talk about this?
Yes, I do.
She repeats that they weren’t married.
Because that’s just how we were, she says. Marriage seemed a bit silly to us and also unnecessary. Not our kind of thing. But of course we were the silly ones, she says. She starts to explain about the inheritance tax she’d had to pay. She said it nearly wrecked her financially. She goes into some detail with the problems she had sorting their affairs.
He says, And of course at the one time in your life you don’t need more problems.
She says it’s terrible. That it shouldn’t happen. I had to rely on the goodwill of his family not to contest and then I also had to beg strangers to be flexible – you know pension companies, banks. We need a change in the law.
He listens to all of this and wonders how did she get so caught out.
Was it very sudden?
His death? She pauses. She nods. Very sudden. He committed suicide.
This he hadn’t expected.
Yes, he took his own life. She says, Are you okay with me talking about this?
Her words start to tumble. It was a complete shock, she says. I knew he was unhappy. The depression would come and go. He would have bad spells. But I had absolutely no idea he’d take his life. That such a thing might happen. He gave no sign. I realise now he had a private space separate from me, and from us. I had no awareness of this. And in this separate space of his own, he had decided he didn’t want to continue living.
She tells him more. He listens. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t ask how.
I don’t blame myself. I don’t feel there was anything, or any things that I might have, should’ve done. I think this was beyond us, beyond him and me, and really all about him.
She tells him her dead partner’s best friend took his life a few years before and perhaps something had started there, something a bit copycat. Well, not copycat, but with his best friend’s demise somehow death became possible, or was enabled. She never says her dead partner’s name.
After a pause, he offers the obvious, that she’s had a terrible few years.
She says, Yes, but my existence isn’t simply terrible. I doesn’t feel that way. I really enjoy life and the future is very important to me. You build up resistance. Well, I did.
Yes, you must.
What I mean is that my mother also committed suicide. When I was in my twenties. She’d always had a lot of problems.
There’s another roar over at the football as she talks again with enthusiasm about the future.
At the end of the date, she walks him to his train – which is partly on her route home, but also a deviation. She tells him in the ticket office that she had a lovely evening and hopes they can stay in touch. He says, Yes. He runs up the stairs to the elevated platform. (He likes to run up the stairs at train stations, it makes him feel healthy.) He gets on the train, which is sitting idle at the platform.
It’s confusing. The destination for the train is wrong. It says Battersea Park. But Battersea Park isn’t a stop on this line. The train is having an identity crisis and the two young Americans sitting opposite him are worried. One of them is wearing just a vest, revealing coat-hanger shoulders and muscles like Popeye. The one in the vest says I don’t know where we’re going. The train is still being held at the platform and the two men bicker about the wrong destination and whether to stay, or to jump off and find another train.
He smiles and leans over towards them and says we’re all going on a journey to somewhere that doesn’t exist. He turns to the young woman sitting next to him and asks where does she think she’s going? The woman is reading a French novel and has large glasses. Home, she says.
He leans back in his seat and thinks he should read something, listen to his phone – some music, or a podcast – or at least check his notifications. He closes his eyes instead. Objectively the evening has gone well. But something isn’t right. He knows, but isn’t ready to admit it yet. Not ready to speak about the matter – not even to himself.
It would have to wait.
A few weeks later, France won the World Cup.
* Each week the dating site emails him a list of ‘matches’. Recently, with his reduceitarianism on the rise, he noticed an upswing in vegetarians listed in his ‘matches’ – almost as if the algorithms read his mind.
The weekly matches email arrives on Sunday afternoon. He wonders at the psychology of Sunday afternoon, the emotional drawstrings.