Stats: 38, 5’9”, brown/greying, Wales
Where: East London
Pre-date rating: 6/10
A good rule of thumb when browsing profiles is that if someone makes very bold personality claims, they usually mean the opposite. “I don’t believe in jealousy; it’s a wasted emotion” is shorthand for “I will try to strangle you for smiling at the checkout guy in the supermarket”. By the same token, “No hang-up, no dramas, I’m just me” means you are about to meet a one-man soap opera, commissioned for all eternity and eighteen hours per episode. And yet here I am on a date with Hugh, who, aside from his brazen “no hang-ups” claim, also tells me he is “very easy-going”. The alarm bells are so loud I can barely see, never mind hear, but I can’t spend another night with only the fridge’s rasping compressor for company. I need to look into the eyes of another human.
Hugh’s eyes are human all right, the very definition of sludge brown, and hidden behind spectacles with severely smeared lenses. The first thing to come out of his mouth is a moan that the bar I have chosen is too busy and that we’ll never get a seat. I smile wider than a final contraction and effortlessly guide him to the free table I spotted as I walked in.
Once we have settled with our drinks – G&T for him, pint for me – the second thing he says to me is that he forgot to mention a small detail about himself when we’d been texting. I briefly wonder what kind of surprise this bespectacled raincloud has been holding back. Is he actually Superman? Hopefully it’s the revelation that he has to be somewhere else in 20 minutes.
“I’m not 38,” he grimaces, his voice as melodic as a cow coughing into a harmonica. “I’m 42.”
“Oh,” I reply. “Well, that’s no big deal.” Though it kind of is, isn’t it?
I go on: “Why would you knock four years off your age?”
Now that I look at him in the pub’s faux-cheery light, he does look much older than his photographs and dating profile blurb suggested. Shaving four years off was quite brave, in fact.
“I did it so that I would show up in the search results on the dating site,” he responds, showing no sign of embarrassment. “People can be very ageist. Nobody searches for people over 40, so I thought I’d improve my chances.”
While I doubt age has been the only barrier to Hugh’s dating success, I sympathise and agree that dating can be difficult once you pass the magic age of, well, whatever it happens to be at the moment – usually whichever number I’m two years on the wrong side of.
“Well,” I smile, breezily. “Age shouldn’t matter so much anyway. You like who you like.” Not that this is an endorsement of my date, but he takes it as one.
“I’m glad you said that,” he replies. “I’m actually 44.”
I furrow my brow. “What?”
“I’m actually 44. I just said 42 to see what your reaction would be. You seemed to be OK with it, so I thought I’d tell you the truth.”
I sip my pint. “Um, and is this now the actual truth? Or are you just saying 44 to see what my face does?”
He thinks, swirling his gin round in its glass. I feel like the pathetic slice of lime within it. And, then: “I’m 45 soon.”
“OK. How soon?”
“Three months ago.”
“I don’t have a hang-up about my age or anything,” he lies. “But people do judge you on your age. It’s not fair.”
“This is true, sometimes,” I agree. “But aren’t you better off either being totally honest and so getting it all out of the way, or, erm, keep on lying a bit longer so that the age thing doesn’t take over the first date?”
“Do you think it’s taken over the first date?” he asks.
“What else have we talked about?”
“How busy it is in here, for a start,” he says.
“That was just you,” I smile. “It’s only a conversation if I reply.”
He is just about to respond when a haircut in a greasy apron appears at his shoulder. “Do you want to order some food?” it says, sweeping its fringe to one side, and plonking two dog-eared menus on the table.
Without checking whether I want to eat, Hugh ploughs on and orders a curry. This cheers me, at least. He won’t be approaching me for a snog at the end of the evening with curry-breath. Mind you, with this guy, anything is possible.
I don’t really want to sit and have a meal with him, but I don’t want to appear rude or totally change the tone of the evening by admitting this, so I glare at the uninspiring pub menu for what feels like infinite millennia while the waiter shifts from one foot to the other like he’s working a python down his trouser-leg.
I feel Hugh’s smudged specs trained on my face, so I select a stir-fry and hand back the pathetic sheet of creased A4 to the waiter.
“Any nibbles while you’re waiting?” he asks, clearly trying to build up his part. I lean toward him and glance over the menu again. I look back at Hugh and shrug.
He still has his menu. “Some of those, please,” he says, pointing at something.
“OK,” says the waiter. I am not to be let into this secret, it seems. I hope he hasn’t ordered oysters.
“So,” says Hugh, leaning in across the table, “does it bother you about my age?”
What is the right answer to this? Am I annoyed that he’s older than he said he was or the fact he lied in the first place? Or both? Although he has been less than scintillating company, I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
“Why don’t we talk about something else?” I offer. Hugh leans back in his chair and pushes his spectacles back up his nose.
The waiter returns with a huge black tray, in desperate need of a dishcloth’s attention. Here we go. But there are no oysters or champagne or, well, much of anything upon it. In the middle of the tray is a tiny dish of edamame beans. I smile politely as the waiter places it on the table with a flourish.
It is at this point the evening goes off a cliff.
I’m not sure the edamame beans are entirely what Hugh was expecting, as he looks at them with a mixture of suspicion and concern. As I put my hand out to take one, he suddenly grabs two and pops one of them – a whole pod of edamame beans – into his mouth and begins to chew.
What to say? Should I tell him you’re meant to pop them out of their pod before eating? Or just carry on watching him gamely chewing, his face a picture of grim determination? The minutes crawl by. Silence, except the sound of chewing. And more chewing. Finally, I can take no more.
“You all right?” I ask.
He nods and smiles. I see the green threads of pod between his teeth.
I gesture to the dish of edamame beans. “You’re not supposed to eat the pod.”
He stares back, before replying just a beat too late. “I know. I just like it.” He has the good grace to redden at this obvious lie.
I smile sympathetically. “You don’t seem to be getting very far with it.”
The night isn’t irrevocable. It can be saved, despite the ageing weirdness and, well, this. If he just spat out the edamame and admitted he’d been wrong, we could have laughed, clinked glasses and moved on.
Instead, he licks round his teeth and swallows the remains of the edamame. His eyes turn to glass as he says “Would you say you were a bit of a know-it-all?”
“Errr, I don’t know!” I quip, but it is lost on him.
His tongue flicks across his teeth again. “Cos I think you are.”
At that moment, our main courses arrive. My stir-fried vegetables look even limper and sorrier than I feel. I pick at them. Hugh eats his curry greedily, like he can’t wait to finish it and get out of here. I am thankful for this. We do not speak at all.
When he has finished, and I am barely halfway through my stir-fry, I catch the waiter’s eye – no mean feat with that mass of hair halfway down to his chin – and ask for the bill. Hugh looks up from staring at his empty plate. “Oh, I see,” he says. “I knew the age would be a problem. Younger men always think they know best.”
I don’t reply.
The bill arrives and the waiter hands me the debit card machine and I punch in my PIN, paying only half – I am not treating this weirdo to dinner. When it’s Hugh’s turn to tap in his numbers, he looks back over to me. “I think you’re making a big mistake.”
I push the dish of edamame beans over to him. “Here,” I say, in as gentle a voice I can muster. “Don’t forget to eat your beans.”
Out of sheer spite, or pig-headedness, he reaches for another and puts the whole lot in his mouth and begins to chew. And I don’t mind, because I know I will not still be sitting here to see him try to swallow it.
Post-date rating: 0/10
Date in one sentence: Man with personality of an edamame bean ages seven years right before my eyes.