Category Archives: Bad dates

The Ex at Stage Left

Stats: 31, 5’11”, mousey brown/blue, Worcestershire
Where: Columbia Road, East London 
Pre-date rating: 8/10 

Breaking up is hard to do. I know; I’ve done it. Relationships can be a long, languorous drive around winding country roads. The break-up is the huge tractor or speeding idiot who appears from nowhere, slicing through your cosy hatchback of coupledom. If you’re lucky, the end of your romance can result in a friendship that no amount of crashing and burning could ever break. Your ex will find somebody else and they will be happy, and that, in turn, should make you happy. But it isn’t like that for everyone. It isn’t like that tonight.

We have been at the bar about twenty minutes when my date – Dean, an estate agent from Kidderminster – looks out across the bar, his face freezing into a mask of horror and embarrassment. Naturally, my gaze begins to follow his, imagining he has spotted someone we can gently mock for the next minute or two (aww, c’mon… you do it too). Before I can fully turn my head to where he’s looking, he clasps his hand round my wrist and implores me not to look. I dutifully turn my head back to his original position and look Dean straight in the face.
There is a moment’s silence. Finally, I speak. “What’s wrong?”

His face is still frozen, like a Victorian mill-owner posing for a family portrait. He stares straight ahead for what feels like an eternity before turning back to me, ashen-faced.
“I don’t believe it,” he says slowly, deliberately.
I can’t imagine what’s going to come next. Is he going to reveal to me that he’s part of a terrorist cell, and his contact has entered the bar? Is his wife or mother in the room? I’m almost right. He speaks again.
“My ex-boyfriend is over there.”

Finally I get the chance to turn to look where Dean was gawping before, to see a guy who, if I’m honest, looks a hell of a lot like Dean, except shorter, glugging on a pint and laughing. He is with another guy and they look to be on a date – and it’s clearly not their first. The guy is tall, good-looking and around ten years younger than me. I feel for Dean right now.

“Do you want to go?” I ask, conscious that double-dating with one’s ex, even when they’re not aware of it, is probably not many people’s idea of a great night out.
“No, we can’t,” he hisses in hushed tones. “He’ll see. We’d have to go past them.”
I take a long swig of my drink. I feel a long night ahead.

The conversation continues for the next few minutes, but Dean’s mind is elsewhere. Just as I’m in the middle of telling him a frankly hilarious story about something that happened to me a few weeks earlier – a tale which really needs attention to fully ‘get’ it – his eyes robotically track to the left, where the ex is standing. I watch him do this around three or four times. He then drains his drink, the first of the night, and breezily exclaims: “Another?”

That his mission could attract the attention of his ex doesn’t seem to bother him too much, so I say yes and watch as Dean attempts to reach the bar with all the subtlety of a pig in stilettos on a treadmill. He looks back at me and makes the ‘same again’ gesture and I nod over-enthusiastically, my head turning just in time to catch Dean’s ex notice him. The ex rolls his eyes and then flicks them to me, looking me very quickly up and down before returning to Dean for one more weary glance and then back to his drink and his hotter date. It was a brief moment, but it was enough. This isn’t the first time the ex has looked up from a drink to spot Dean in his eye line, I now realise. Dean, of course, chose this venue.

Dean returns with the drinks. “Do you think he saw? Did he look?” he asks expectantly.
I sip my pint. “No,” I lie coolly, “he didn’t.”
Dean’s face falls and sets in stone. I do not see him smile again.

The second drink is even more painful than the first. Dean’s chatter has now been reduced to monosyllabic answers; I could slash open a vein in front of him and he would pay me no mind. While he hasn’t looked over at his ex again, I know that’s where his head is. His eyes are lifeless, his pretty mouth twisted into a scribble of pain and regret. I drink the last half of my pint far too quickly, but it has to be done. Enough.
“Shall we go?”

Outside, we manage to move a few steps before Dean asks if we can stop a minute and leans, half-crouching, against a wall. He looks up at me.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his eyes becoming moist, “I’m so sorry.”
I sigh. “It’s okay. It must be really hard.”
He nods piteously, like a child who has just dropped the last 10p of their spending money in a lake. “Yeah, it is,” he murmurs.
“Did you…?” I am hesitant to talk about exes on a date but it seems the situation compels me. “Did you break up very recently?”

And then it comes – a tsunami of emotion I was unprepared for. The tears fall heavily and Dean begins making a choking, moaning sound, somewhere in between a car engine failing and a tube train pulling out of a station. He is crying.
He talks at a million miles an hour, every word juddering and anxious, like they are surprised to find themselves finally being spoken after God knows how long whirring around inside his head.

“He said he wanted some space. He said I could stay and he would move out, but I wanted to go. I wanted to see if he would miss me. And then as I was going, he said he wanted to break up for good – that he needed to be on his own. Without anyone. But I’ve been back; I’ve been to the house. We used to live there together. But he’s not on his own. There have been others. Some looked, well, serious. Sometimes they bring in shopping bags. I see them out running together. He is everywhere. They are everywhere.”

I feel dumb, awkward. While my heart goes out to him, he should be with friends now, not a stranger. I put my hand on his shoulders, but in the midst of his heaving sobs, he shrugs it off. He finally stops and looks up at me. I replace my hand on his shoulder and this time he lets it rest there.

“Dean, can I ask you a question?” He doesn’t speak or look at me, but nods sadly. I ask: “Did you know he was going to be here tonight?”
There is silence. Then, a man in a nearby flat coughs like he is about to lose a lung, and the tableau melts.
Dean nods. “Yes, I knew he was going to be here.” He looks up at me, his eyes like puddles, his face wretched and blotchy and pained. “I bet you think I’m a right stalker now, don’t you?”

I look at him, an emotional disaster in chinos. Somebody’s son. It would be easy to think him a stalker, but this isn’t insanity or obsession. This is grief, heartbreak.
“No, no, I don’t. But I do think you have to stop being where he is. Go out and have adventures of your own.”
“You think?” he sniffs hopefully. “Will I ever get over it?”
“Yes, you will,” I smile. “There are plenty of people out there to help you do just that.”
His eyes begin to dry. “And you?” he says. “Are you one of them?”
I can’t fix him; I don’t have the skills. At best, I would be a sticking plaster, not the complicated surgery it would take to put Dean back together again. But now is not the time for home truths and confessions. The ‘telling it like it is’ will have to wait.

“Yes,” I say gently. “I might be.”

Post-date rating: 4/10
Date in one sentence: Dean cries a river over me, but not because of me.

The Quizmaster

Stats: 37, 5’8″, brown/green, London
Where: South bank, London
Pre-date rating: 6/10

No. It’s a simple enough word to say. Just the solitary syllable, after all, and one I always delighted in spitting out as a child when asked to do something. And it’s the word I’m focusing on as I sit opposite Alistair, a good-natured, OK-looking civil servant who’s been sitting bolt upright in front of me for the last two hours.

However did we get here, to this date which has very quickly turned into a hugely unsexy business meeting? He is nice enough – inoffensive, polite, clean. But there is no charm, no flirtation. I thrive on flirtation on dates; it’s the plutonium I need to get me to the end of the night. From him, however, there is none. Usually I’d put this down to nervousness or shyness, but that’s not the case here. He exudes a kind of bland confidence; he’s not brash or assertive, just, well, a bit boring.

The chemistry between us borders on nonexistent, but it doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He doesn’t say much, but when he does speak it’s in an even, emotionless voice. I feel compelled to get up from my seat and look at the back of his neck to see if there’s a flap where batteries would go.

Alistair is a man with a formula. He asks a question, gets his answer and before I can ask one back, he asks another, and another and another, pausing only to talk about something else unrelated to him, or indeed anything. Every question I answer is met with “Yes, yes. Of course. Yes” but no further detail or exploration. He jumps straight on to the next question, like he has a list of checkboxes in his head. I feel like I’m being assessed for a mortgage.

What is he hiding? Is there a big secret? Either he lives a double life and is scared of revealing the truth or, much more likely, he’s a dullard and is scared his answers will give him away. At each lull in conversation, he springs up and offers to go to the bar, bringing back a different drink every time, claiming they didn’t have what I asked for and I should try this much more potent, brightly coloured cocktail instead. The Long John Silver of insipid is trying to distract me with his garish parrot. I should say no before he makes his way to the bar, I know, but don’t.

He talks about his life and his job as if reading out instructions on how to plumb in a washing machine, the monotone almost sending me to sleep. Add to that my wooziness from the cocktail, and I start to feel like I’ve been the subject of a chemical-free spiking.

I soon realise I should call time when he expresses interest in the fact I live alone. It’s the one time his voice ever changes pitch from its air-raid siren drone and gets slightly more excitable. I’m slightly incredulous; all we’ve done is sit at the same table for an evening, with absolutely no sign of mutual enthusiasm whatsoever. Suddenly, now the night is drawing in and the bus stop is calling, he’s pulling an attraction out of the air. I don’t believe for one minute he’s remotely interested in me. I make noises about having to go, and hope I’m making it clear I’ll be doing that alone. His voice quickly returns to its natural, flatlining state. If he’s disappointed, his poker face doesn’t show it.

Yet he hasn’t been a totally awful date. He hasn’t been an arsehole, or upset me, or been dismissive. I won’t be walking away from the date thinking I’ve had a lucky escape. I feel uncharitable for thinking him dull; what’s wrong with someone just being a nice guy?

So when the date is finally over – just as I finish counting the freckles on his face and arms for the twentieth time – and he asks me whether I’d like to do it again, I don’t say no. I don’t make up excuses about being busy with work or having to go away a lot. I don’t smile weakly, shake his hand and say that while he’s a sterling guy, we’ve nothing in common and our time together made me feel like I was drowning in a litre of magnolia paint. Instead, I grin widely, give him an enthusiastic hug and ignore “no” in favour of its destructive evil twin. “Yes,” I say. “That’d be brilliant. Yes!”

Post-date rating: 6/10
Date in one sentence: Mr Cellophane just won’t stick.

A truncated version of this post first appeared in GT magazine, where I write a monthly column about my dating experiences. Find out when the next issue is due on the GT website.

The Saint

Stats: 36, 5’8”, blue/brown, London
When: Summer 2010
Where: South bank, London, SE1
Pre-date rating: 7/10

Going for a date by the river is always a risk. No matter how limpid a pool the baby blues, greens or browns across from you might be, one lull in conversation is all it takes before your own peepers wander over to take in the Thames in all her glory, rippling in resplendent muddy brown while your date tells you about a pony trekking holiday he took when he was 7.

It’s 7.30pm, it’s a Thursday evening and I am sitting scratching my name into a wooden table outside the Queen Elizabeth Hall while my date enters his twentieth minute talking about his job. Oh, this happens. The problem with asking people what they do for a living is that they tell you, and, unless you break in with a new topic of conversation or dash your drink in their face, they go on telling you all about it – every email sent, tea run completed and pat on the back from the boss is documented before you.

He works for a charity, which would be very impressive were he a bit more humble about it. He just wishes there were more he could do. He knew from the minute he could talk and walk that he wanted to devote his life to the service of others. I bite my tongue and thus do not ask him why he didn’t become a priest, perhaps, or take up a role at the window of a drive-thru McDonald’s.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve helped people,” he trills.
“Oh, that’s good,” I reply, “were you in the Cubs or Scouts, then?”
“Well, no, because I didn’t really like the uniform and they tended to do stuff at the weekends and I wanted to be playing out on my street,” comes the astounding retort.
“So what did you do?” I ask, twirling my straw around in my gin and tonic with enough force to start a quinine-based tsunami.
“Well, I was always on hand if anyone needed anything. ‘Mummy’s little saint’, my sisters used to call me.”
I bet they did.

I can just see him now: the pint-sized archangel popping round to his elderly neighbour’s house to trim his hedge and make him his tea; arriving home to help his little sister with her geometry homework and then slipping a fiver in his mum’s purse so she has enough for her lunch the next day, before trudging up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire for a lengthy slumber, dreaming of cocks in every hole.

The niceness of his profession – and he is at pains to run me through the figures of how many people he’s helped over the last year – seems to curdle with the perceived selfishness of my own. “I mean,” he says, “it’s great to do a job where you can really make a difference to people’s lives.” I try to imagine how many existences I’ve changed just by tapping away on a keyboard. I draw a blank.

“I have to raise my hat to you, though,” he says, with all the sincerity of a doctor’s receptionist wishing you a Merry Christmas, “I’m not sure I could work in such a corporate environment.” Corporate environment? Sitting at my kitchen table? And I suppose his own workplace is like backstage at Live Aid, right? I smile serenely and look away to the river.

He’s a good guy, I get it; the world is full of them. But surely the very best of all the good guys don’t like to go on about it? Bruce Wayne donned the bat ears for a reason, after all. It’s clear he has a big heart – with a head to match.

He asks about my job in more detail, but with each nod of the head as he strains to listen to each point, I’m starting to feel more and more superficial, a fraud and phoney. Nothing I do really helps anyone. But not everybody wants to be helped 24/7. I also want to move off the subject of work; the world of the 9–5 isn’t something couples should share all the time, and I’d rather my beau were more interested in me after I clocked off and kicked off my shiny office shoes (figurative footwear, of course – I am, as ever, in Converse morning, noon and night).

But when it comes to a social life, my date has little to say. He thinks I should volunteer at the weekend – he’s obviously changed his tune since his days of being desperate to play out as a boy – and wants to know why I don’t give my bank account details to charity workers on the street looking for direct debit regular donations. I roll my eyes.

“It’s almost like you’re doing a PR job on me,” I laugh.
“Oh, haha, well, er, of course, I’m not,” he smiles. “But.” He pauses to reach down under the table. Forward. Oh no, hang on; he’s grabbing his despatch bag. He pulls it out and rests it on the table, laboriously unfastening the Velcro on the dog-eared flap. “If you ever change your mind,” he continues, pulling out what looks like a leaflet, “a little really does make a lot of difference.”

He places what I see now is a thin, brightly coloured brochure before me. The gin I spilled when swishing my straw soaks into it and begins making its way across the printed surface.

“I know it’s a cliché,” I say, looking up from the table and back to my date, before finally settling my gaze on the river one last time. “But, for me, charity really does begin at home.”

And that’s exactly where I go.

Post-date rating: 5/10
Date in one sentence: This goody-two-shoes was in serious need of a cobbler.

The Dark Mirror

Stats: 33, 5’10” brown/blue, northern England
When: Winter 2011
Where: Soho, W1
Pre-date rating: 8/10

You would think I’d have long banished any first date nerves to the recycle bin, such is my vast experience of dating. I’ve walked into so many bars over the years, each time not knowing what kind of evening – or man – awaits me, that I should be a seasoned professional. But the jitters never go away. The situations may be familiar, but each date is a new person, different from the last, with a slew of brand new insecurities to discover and, of course, meeting me for the first time. As anyone who has read me for longer than ten minutes will know, I come with my own set of problems and insurmountable difficulties. I’m no picnic, and as much as I try to be the very sweetest of apple pies on my date, sometimes a piece of rotten fruit will sneak in beneath the pastry. But enough clumsy baking analogies; let’s get on with the date.

I’m in a bar waiting for tonight’s contestant. I’m not thrilled about having arrived first. Dates I have to wait for don’t turn out too well, usually. I automatically feel wrong-footed and awkward. When they arrive, should I stay seated or stand to say hello? A kiss on the cheek or a manly shake of the hand. Somehow, I fall into a more natural rhythm when I’m second to arrive; I’m so busy breezily saying my hellos that I don’t worry about what to shake and where to kiss. But here I sit, waiting, shifting awkwardly in my seat like I’m waiting to go through customs with a balloon full of cocaine up my bottom. Mr Tonight could break the run of bad luck, however. On paper – or screen, at least – we get on very well. Each time I send off another email full of good-natured barbs and what I hope are sharp wisecracks, her replies fairly soon after with a similar amount of zingers. He’s clever, funny and just the right side of self-deprecating without self-flagellation. He sounds a little surer of himself than me, but confidence is certainly a turn-on, so long as it doesn’t nosedive into cockiness. Looks-wise, he seems okay. His photos have all been fairly terrible, whether subjected to bad angles, poor light conditions or him just pulling the wrong face at the wrong time. I’m not exactly photogenic myself, so prepare to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, you can’t have a relationship with a Polaroid – all that really matters is flesh and bone. Especially the bone. If anything, he looks slightly familiar. If I haven’t met him before, I’ve certainly seen him out and about. The gay village just shrank another kilometre.

I’m gazing absentmindedly into the window, wondering if that’s the humble beginnings of a spot I can see under my nose. Suddenly, there’s another shape reflected, an apparition by my side. It’s my date, he’s beaming a big smile and has his hand outstretched. I stand up from my stool, which bangs into his knee, and shake his hand. He then leans in for a kiss on the cheek and we collide ungraciously. I’m relieved to sit down again. My date takes my drink order – a glass of wine as my hand is shaking too much to cope with a full pint – and slinks off to the bar. All is good from behind, but as he turns round and smiles at me while he orders, something bothers me. What is it? Usually within 20 seconds of meeting my date, I know whether I fancy them or not. In this case, nothing. I don’t find him repulsive, nor does my heart start thumping. I’m just indifferent. Weird. I dismiss it; it’s entirely possible my feelings can change as the night progresses; they certainly have before. Plus our personalities are so well-matched – so far – that it would be silly to write off the entire evening just because there was no coup de foudre.

I go back to that window again paranoid about my potential skin eruption. As I peer into it, my date returns, but instead of embarrassment at being caught out in a mad moment of vanity, I feel a churning sensation that I recognise as horror. I look from the window to my date and back again as he sits down. It becomes clear why I don’t fancy him at all, why the fireworks failed to materialise – he looks like me. Like, spookily. He begins to tell me about his job, his background, his family – all the usual subjects – and while I am sure he’s interesting, I can’t concentrate on what he’s saying. I simply look blankly into his eyes, MY eyes, and occasionally sneak a look at the rest of his face. His hair, the same kind of dishwater brown and even greying in similar spots as mine, is styled as if he used me for a mirror. His mouth and its mannerisms aren’t a million miles away from mine either. I’m on a date with myself. I reach out and touch his knee to make sure I’m not having some kind of breakdown and talking to a mirror. This, of course, comes across as me being hopelessly forward and he casts my eyes – no, I mean HIS eyes, of course – down to my hand, those peepers widening in thinly disguised dismay. And did I just see what I thought I saw? An eye roll, no less. Behold my world-weary reflection. I compose myself and withdraw my hand. Get it together, Guyliner.

My date seems to think my weirdness is linked to him doing all the talking and turns the focus onto me, earnestly asking me loads of questions. I burble my answers pathetically, unable to form complete sentences. My nerves have almost got the better of me but I do my best to keep my head, even though I feel like I’m babbling at a slightly skewed self-portrait. As I navigate the niceties and undoubtedly bore him to death with the details of my upbringing and career highlights so far, I let my imagination wander. I fantasise about introducing him to my friends and watching them comically, quizzically look from me to him. I imagine him leaning forward to kiss me accepting his tongue into my mouth. It would be like kissing my own hand. And then I picture him undressing me and getting into bed beside me. The ultimate narcissist’s accessory – a sexual encounter with a doppelganger. A boyfriend who looks just like me isn’t the ideal, believe it or not. Vain as I am, I don’t fancy myself. Honestly, I don’t. Sharing my life with a lookalike would be the most elaborate, pointless masturbatory experience in the world.

Despite playing goody-goody to my evil twin, he’s a nice guy. Were I not totally freaked out by being on a date with a mirror, I’m sure the conversation would be flowing freely. As it is I’m talking far too much, worried that any gap in conversation will leave enough room for me to exclaim “Can’t you SEE how much we look alike?!” Maybe it’s just me, but the similarities are staring me in the face, not to mention trying very hard to charm me. Shit, I think he fancies me. I can’t. I just can’t

“Are you all right?” he says, looking at me with concerned eyes.
What do I say? “Well, yeah, I’m fine, but I feel like I’m in a really bad porn movie – with my brother!” Psychoanalysts the world over are sharpening their pencils and rubbing their hands in glee at the potential revenue from this pseudo-fraternal pairing.

“Yes, of course sorry,” I finally reply. “I’m a bit tired; it’s been a long day.”
He looks straight at me, his oh-so-familiar brow knitted in frustration. “Yeah, I’m pretty tired, actually.” He looks at his empty glass. Politeness says I should offer him a drink in return for the one he bought me. Should I? I know that if asked, I would say yes. Well, if he looks like me he probably thinks like me.
“Look, well,” I say, “how about one more for the road? And maybe we can try again another time when we’re not so knackered?” I know this is a lie, and he probably suspects as much, but I don’t want the night to be a total disaster.

He accepts the offer of a drink – well of course! Twins in mind as well as face! I walk over to the bar, my cheeks burning crimson. As I order the drinks, I turn round to look at him. He’s not staring after me; he’s checking himself out in the window. He then slowly looks from his reflection in the window to me. CLUNK. I hear the sound of a million pennies finally drop. He takes out his phone and starts to text. No prizes for guessing what he’s saying to his friends, the tone of horror mirrored in his eyes as he taps away at the illuminated screen.

I take the change from the barman and walk back toward my date, knowing this drink will be downed fairly swiftly – before the night ends and we both make haste to our rightful sides of the looking-glass once more.

Post-date rating: 6/10
Date in one sentence: The Guyliner very nearly finds himself at last.

The Bittersweet Goodbye

Stats: 33, 5’11”, black/blue, Hampshire
When: Spring 2011
Where: South bank, London
Pre-date rating: 8/10

Endings are inevitable and they seldom surprise. Even the most twisty and turny horror movie will stagger toward its eventual, obvious conclusion. So here I am sitting alone on a crisp spring day at the south bank, waiting to be told it’s over – even though I don’t know it for sure yet. Is over the right word? Was it ever a thing? There’s never really been a sense of us being ‘together’ but for a short few months, I haven’t been seeing anybody else. I have had offers, which I have politely refused, because of some sense of loyalty to this Guy. If that is a relationship, I guess I’m in one.

Our polite, relatively chaste courting has been fairly uneventful. We have sat next to each other in an array of theatres, enthused over shared dinners in a slew of restaurants and kissed drunkenly in a roomful of strangers, but the whole thing has lacked any depth. In searching for that connection, I feel I have forced it somewhat. I have shapeshifted and tried to be accommodating in an effort to make it feel more natural. It has had quite the opposite effect.

We have slept together only twice, the last time such an amazing display of sexual incompatibility it should have been sketched for a textbook on how not to do it. I was left with merely an aching arm and a throb I had to alleviate alone. Since that Earth-shattering event three weeks previously, a civil dinner in a sparse chain restaurant has been our only contact, save for the odd breezy text. He’s been busy working, and then ‘away’. Somewhere just out of shot, a priest waits with all the paraphernalia necessary to administer the last rites. This looks terminal. I wonder if I’ll care. I have been turning down offers, yes, but maybe I don’t want to any more. I’m quite the traditionalist and don’t like stirring more than one pot of porridge at a time, so infidelity is out. But is my faithfulness misplaced?

I am usually the dumper when it comes to my short-term affairs of the heart, although I have experienced the fist-clenching agony of being ditched too. My stomach lurches. Today is the day I find out where this is going.

He arrives – a vision in last season’s colours – with an air of bogus cheeriness. His chapped lips graze my cheek and he looks me square in the eye and says he’s pleased to see me. This may well be true, but those are not the eyes which burned into me while he unbuttoned my shirt for the first time. A light has gone out. We talk lightly of this and that and all the way through I steel myself for him to open a sentence with “Look, I’ve been thinking…” but it doesn’t come. We sip wine and sit side-by-side, staring out at the river like two old dears on a day trip from the nursing home. Everything feels like a neat and tidy room, to be kept ‘for best’, which is nice enough, I suppose, but it can’t continue – sometimes the urge to tip an ashtray onto the floor is too strong.

After two drinks, I reach into my bag and say I have a present for him. It’s the book of a film we saw recently; at the time I lied and said I’d be interested in reading it. I thought it would be a nice gesture. As he takes it appreciatively, I scan his face for a sign that this makes things awkward for him. Is he wondering whether it’s appropriate to euthanise the relationship if I have just given him a gift? I see his grin falter for a moment, but there’s nothing else. He suggests we go for a late lunch. I accept.

We order cocktails and peruse the menu – everything very courteous, but about as romantic as receiving a bank statement. I look him over. He’s handsome all right, and cultured and bright and witty, but there is a sheen of efficiency rather than sexiness. I fear I am too random for him. I can pretend for so long, but what happens when all the crazy can no longer be contained and it comes spilling out? I think he’s sensing this too. I drink my drink too fast and so does he; it all feels a bit like we’re dangling from a cliff in a Winnebago. After we’ve eaten he insists on paying the bill and I thank him.

We step out into the warm sunshine and I think once again about the other guy who has asked me out for a drink later and to whom I said no. The no will remain a no on this occasion, but I need to identify whether there’ll be scope to say yes to someone else someday.

Suddenly bolstered by the martini, I spin round to him in the middle of the street and take his arm. Rome is burning, but I shall fiddle no more.
“Look, can I ask…?
His mouth opens and then closes again without any sound coming out. I continue. “What is happening with us exactly? Is this…” I pause and weigh up the right thing to say. “Is it ‘friends only’ or likely to be more?” He looks at me, with an expression I can’t place. Pity? Maybe he feels bad for making me ask the question. Finally, after what seems like a lifetime, he speaks.
“Yes, I think. Well. I think we get on really well and I enjoy being with you, but I think, I just…”
I nod. No water comes to my eyes, but my throat feels thick and I gulp. I’m grateful, I think.
“Er, yes, friends would be good,” he concludes.

I don’t ask why; it doesn’t matter. What will I learn from this? I wasn’t being myself throughout anyway. The next minute or two is something of a blur; I just know I have to get out of there. We make tacit plans for dinner ‘soon’ and when the fog clears, I am hopping on a bus, phone in hand, lightly tapping away on the keypad and lining up my next disappointment. Forward. Always.

Post-date rating: 5/10 (well he did dump me!)
Date in one sentence: I put myself out of my misery by asking the question nobody really wants to ask.

The Aspidistra

Stats: 34, 5’9”, mousey brown/blue, hometown unknown
When: Summer 2011
Where: South London
Pre-date rating: 6/10

I’m not really a fan of slogans. They belong to cheesy adverts and the kind of T-shirts I used to wear in the early 2000s. If I’ve something to say, I prefer to say it directly; mottos, maxims and proverbs are not my thing. One slogan I do have a fondness for, however, is ‘shop local’. It’s nice to keep things in the neighbourhood, to contribute to the good of the community, and so it is that I find myself in a bar not a 20-minute walk from my house, waiting for the next Guy. I’ve spread the Guyliner magic – or should that be tragic – far and wide, but I don’t want the boys next door to miss out. They deserve to see why I’m so utterly ineligible for themselves.

Local boys are usually sourced via Grindr; GPS doing all the hard work and the instant messenger-style chat ensuring you dispense with the formalities early on and cut straight to the chase – not that anybody is running particularly fast.

Tonight’s Guy, however, has been found the new old-fashioned way, from the dating site. We’ve paid to meet each other, which has to be a good sign, right? Well, let’s hope so. While the chat between us, over email, has been light and polite, when it comes to arranging somewhere to go, we meet our first hitch. He really doesn’t want to decide where to go on the date. I understand his trepidation to a degree; the venue you select can say much more about you than any amount of electronic chitchat can do. A poor choice of location can speedily reveal the personality flaws you are so eager to conceal. I don’t press the issue, and, as he lives quite near me, choose a delightful pub equidistant from our homes, with ample space and a good drinks menu. Our date is midweek, so it’s important not to meet somewhere too dead. An essential part of a date is people watching. If the endless chat about your families and pastimes starts to dry up like reheated shepherd’s pie, you can easily move on to a running commentary on the crowds around you – as long as there’s a crowd to talk about.

He agrees the pub is a good choice and I look forward to the date. Within an hour or two, however, he’s back in touch. He’s decided he doesn’t like the venue after all, as he won’t be able to get a direct bus there. I see. Am I wrong to feel a little irked? The pub is practically walkable from where he lives, and if he really likes me surely he would save his nitpicking for another date – not to mention that he couldn’t be bothered choosing somewhere more convenient himself in the first place.  Finally, he suggests somewhere else, and I acquiesce, as it’s a slightly handier place to get to for me. But why didn’t he just propose it earlier?

So here I am. I have never been particularly fond of this pub. The menu is fish-heavy and the scent of it hangs in the air. Its clientele are making the awkward journey over broken glass between hipsterville and settling down; they swig guest beers and share platters of dough sticks and potted haddock and try not to think about their biological clocks. I, on the other hand, have a regular old pint in front of me, much-dwindled thanks to my date being 20 minutes late. There have been no texts or calls to explain why, but if he’s in a hurry to get here – and he’d better be – he won’t be stopping to text pleasantries.

Just as I’m wondering whether I should get another drink in so it looks like I just arrived, he comes through the door, wearing a crumpled T-shirt, faded jeans and a frown. He walks over to me, looking neither disappointed nor particularly thrilled. He just is. I eagerly await his first words.

“You’re here,” he says plainly.
I ignore the obviousness of his statement and thrust out my hand, offering up my name and a “how are you?” to show that his lateness hasn’t bothered me, although he doesn’t seem particularly concerned by it himself. He slumps down on his bar stool so, as I’m still standing, I offer to get him a drink and he tells me what he wants. I slope over to the bar, disheartened that he doesn’t even bother turning round to watch my arse as I walk away from him.

It’s clear from the get-go that this Guy isn’t accustomed to dating, at least not the normal kind. Sure, he asks questions, but they’re all a bit weird, like he’s reading them out from a sex quiz or is on his seventh round at a speed-dating evening. What kind of car would I be? What kind of meal would I cook for the Prime Minister? The dreaded question about my wish list of dinner party guests alive or dead and, weirdest of all, what kind of potplant I would be.

These questions would be more charming toward the end of the evening, if we were a little drunk perhaps, but it’s 7 on a Wednesday, this is my second drink and he hasn’t even asked where I’m from and what I do yet. I never realised I’d miss those bog-standard, drivelling questions until they didn’t show up.

I’m still ruminating over the potplant question. What should I say? Venus fly trap? Cheese plant? Deadly nightshade? Maybe the questions would work better if he threw in some jokey suggestions or kept talking while I chewed them over, but for each one he stares in silence until I come up with my responses. Finally, having mentally taken a trip round every garden centre I can ever remember visiting, I come up with my answer: a spider plant. I’m fairly adaptable, don’t take too much looking after and even when you cut a bit off, I can thrive.

The last part is a joke, obviously, but the look on his face makes me think he is now imagining I have lost my penis in a horrible accident.

“And what about you?” I say, desperate to somehow get off this whole topic and, if I’m honest, away from this date, which is going nowhere at a rate of knots.
“I’d be an aspidistra,” he quips immediately. He answers all these questions far too quickly. He’s been practising. I try to visualise an aspidistra. I can’t think of a remarkable feature about them. I then look back at my date. OK, it fits.
“Why an aspidistra?”
“Well, I’m thoroughly middle-class,” he says proudly, “and every living room should have one.” Perfectly rehearsed.
I laugh. “Great answer!”

I decide to move things back into normal mode. I know that he’d make beef Wellington for the Prime Minister and that he’d have Che Guevara and Lauren Bacall at his ideal dinner party but I know nothing about his job, his life, anything.

“So what do you do?” I ask brightly. This proves to by my fatal error. He works on a classical music magazine and is a music teacher. You’d think that music must be his passion, but neither metier seems to fill him with inspiration. He hates his colleagues, his students, classical music, playing music, musical instruments, music fans, and people who don’t like music. He loathes publishers, journalists, awards, the charts, singers, failed musicians, venues… the list goes on. The one thing he will admit to liking is Whitney Houston. Once he’s done with serving up his bile, he sits back in his chair, with a poker face welded to the front of his head. He folds his arms and nods his head. “So that’s me,” he says finally.

At that moment, the barman comes to collect our empties. “Another drink, gents?” he says amiably, oblivious to the iceberg slowly forming across the table. My date shrugs. I look from him to the barman, and back to my empty glass.

I begin to shake my head, but stop myself. My date has just unloaded all his woes and dislikes onto me like a dumper truck at a landfill, and all I had to say was that I’d be a fucking spider plant? Nuh-huh, I don’t think so. It’s been a long hour. Now it’s my turn to spout.

“Yes, thanks,” I say, “beer for me.” I gesture my head toward my impassive date. “And this smiler’s buying.”

Post-date rating: 4/10
Date in one sentence: A local potplant learns his lines wordperfect but fails to photosynthesise his way into my affections

The Boy on the Beach

Stats: 23, 5’11”, brown (on his photo, at least)/blue, London
When: February 2012
Where: A pebbly beach on the south coast
Pre-date rating: 7/10

When your lake becomes devoid of fish – or you’re sick of catching the same old ones – you must cast your net farther. To the sea, even. And so I find myself in a seaside town, firing up a dating app (allow me the indulgence of fooling myself that the men on this app are only looking for dates and nothing more intimate) and seeing who’s available. The circumstances which have brought me here are sad ones. My godfather has died and I am in town for his funeral, which is in a couple of days. Grief is an odd emotion. While its primary characteristic is sadness, there’s a strong undercurrent that’s quite life-affirming. You want to do things which confirm to you that you’re alive: drink a pint, jump up and down and laugh, make noise, punch a wall, scratch your eyes out, fuck somebody. I pace around his home, smiling at old photographs and wishing there were more I could do. His family need some time together to talk about the funeral, so I decide to get out of their way and go for a walk on the beach. As I leave the house, I idly scroll through the dating app, the eager mugshots all melding into one great big welcoming face. And then, a ping. And so it begins.

His photo isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but it’s not a bad storefront. He has big blue eyes. That’s the first thing I notice. I look at his age. 23. A child! His lips are quite thin. My mother always told me never to trust a man with thin lips, but I’m not going to give him my bank details, or perhaps even my real name, so I don’t need to have very much faith in him. We get over the initial hellos and how-are-yous fairly quickly. My flirtation is mechanical, direct and, from my perspective, deeply unsexy. What a great proposition I am for this young buck. But he is curious and, crucially, bored out of his mind on the greyest of Sunday afternoons, so he takes the bait. I tell him I’m on the beach and he says he’ll join me. I breathe out slowly, the freezing air turning my breath into an ice sculpture, not of a swan or a pretty crystal, but words. They say, “What on Earth are you doing?”  but I turn my back on them. Continue reading

The Associate

Stats: 5’9”, 31, brown/brown, London
When: Winter 2012
Where: Soho, London
Pre-date rating: 8/10

One shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, they say, but it is a redundant cliché. Many of us needn’t be warned: the only pleasure a lot of people take from their work is skipping right out of it at 6pm. If you are the kind of person who derives gratification from their metier, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to find it in the groins of your colleagues or other pursuits in the workplace. As tantalising as Ken from the High Wycombe office may be, there are much more exciting temptations awaiting you outside the revolving doors of Day Job plc.

I’ve never had the misfortune to date anyone from the workplace and I’ve no intention of dipping my toe in that stagnant pool now, so it is with some bemusement I accept an ex-colleague’s invitation to go for a drink. When he contacts me – over LinkedIn, Facebook’s serious, data-obsessed, social leper of a sister – his message is fairly straightforward and not particularly chatty. It’s hardly blokeish, but it’s matter-of-fact. How have I been? Would I like to go for a drink? I have no gaydar to speak of. Usually I don’t realise a guy is my way inclined until he has his hand on my rump or his tongue down my throat. Plus, I’ve seen the back covers of enough chick lit novels to know that workmate-dating is right up there with having sex at a funeral when it comes to inappropriate things to do, but the working relationship is over and, crucially, I misread his invite. I’m uncharacteristically unprepared, and really quite reluctant to go at all, but I have an evening to kill and sitting at home stirring the cherry in a cocktail only looks good on TV. So I say yes, assuming he just wants to talk at me about his workplace woes or his girlfriend. The usual. Continue reading

The Marrying Kind

Stats: 32, 5’ 10”, grey blue/auburn, London
Where: South London
Pre-date rating: 5.5/10

The old saying goes that the Devil finds work for idle hands, but he also seems to run an interesting sideline in spicing up long, boring afternoons. A day off with nothing to do can be a dangerous void stretching out in front of you, and sometimes the only way to plug that gap is to half-heartedly stumble around social media applications until something happens – a potential inferno in search of a spark. It is one such afternoon, sunny, bright and cheery outside yet hot and oppressive in my bachelor pad, that finds me indolently scrolling through Grindr, any distinguishing features of the gallery of thumbnail pictures lost as I whirr through them with the enthusiasm of a toddler watching a documentary on the Holocaust. I’m not looking for anything in particular – the idea of having a stranger awkwardly undress in my kitchen having lost its novelty since my encounter with the Colombian last year – but perhaps it would be nice to talk to someone, anyone, out there if only for half an hour before I get up out of my seat to make that scheduled cup of tea, which I won’t drink. Not since I was a teenager has the unbearable feeling of boredom and waiting for something to occur been so exhausting.

Ping! The silence is broken by that infamous alert. Someone has something to say to me. I look at the picture of the guy who has sent me a message. He is shirtless, yes, and appears to be posing in the mirror, but I can at least see his face, all too rare in a world where the muscly bumps on your torso are all you need to get attention. As I’m examining his picture, another message comes through. I silently hope he’ll have something more to say than “hello” – a totally unreasonable expectation, given that even the most stimulating conversations have to start off with the blandest of introductions. One final check: he’s OK-looking, has a nice ‘body’ and I’ve nothing better to do. I click through to his messages. Continue reading

The Straight-talker

Stats: 28, 5’10”, brown/brown, Cornwall
When: March 2012
Where: South-east London
Pre-date rating: 7.5/10

One can spend what seems like a lifetime wading through the deep and meaningful in search of love, or whatever your approximation of that is. As I have learned with the majority of my pre-date wooing, sometimes the build-up isn’t worth the final result. You’ve spent all that time laying foundations, only to run out of budget for your skyscraper before it’s topped out. With this in mind, and reluctant to hand over more subscription money to the dating site only to meet clones of the cardigan-enthusiasts I’ve dated before, I turn to iPhone apps to find my latest beaux. They’re free, fast and, I hope, uncomplicated. The apps, that is; I imagine the suitors will be anything but.

Thus our story of this latest contestant begins. I am idling at home browsing through those 1cm-square thumbnail images, searching for something to take my mind off the recession. And there he is: local and, as I don’t recognise his face, I’m assuming a relatively new addition.  I click through. He is fairly handsome, but looks ordinary, approachable, safe. It’s hard to tell from just a photo, but there’s an innocent charm there. I’m intrigued. I can see that he too is currently online. I wait five minutes or so to see if he messages me (I am always loath to take the initiative), but he does not. I stare at the screen a while longer, and then shut the app down and vacuum under the sofa. Continue reading