One of the interesting things about being a 36-year-old divorced man who’s decided that he’s had enough of the casual sex phase, and is now looking for a capital-R relationship, is that your female friends quickly reveal an extensive supply of cute, single, 30-something women friends whose existence had hitherto been kept a closely-guarded secret.
The ease with which said friends are able to recite concise yet comprehensive reviews of vital statistics, career highlights, favourite films and a surprisingly lengthy list of all the things each apparently has in common with me would put a recruitment consultant to shame.
Helen was my closest friend. Thirty-three, 5’6”, short black hair, piercing grey eyes and if you asked a random sample of people who know her to describe her, a good 95% of them would begin with the same word: ballsy.
She runs her own PR agency. It’s not a profession for wallflowers, and I took an instant liking to her because she is the only person I’ve ever met who is more opinionated than me, and on a wider range of topics. It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me that such a thing was possible.
We met on a marketing training course, and it wasn’t a good one. It was led by an academic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Academics have the freedom to pursue things that are interesting without having to worry about whether they will generate a commercial return (for which I envy them greatly), and that can often lead them to discover things that are both interesting and useful. But not in this case. The course presenter simply didn’t understand the nature of the business situations he was attempting to address.
The delegates from the corporates settled for either rolling their eyes at each other discreetly and waiting for it to end, or regressing to their schooldays and huddling in small groups making semi-audible commentaries on the value of the advice being dispensed.
But when it’s your own business, and your own money you’re spending, you want to see real value from it. So I stood up and, calmly and politely, expressed the view that the situation he was describing didn’t generally tend to work the way he thought it worked. He replied that every situation was different, and perhaps my experience wasn’t typical.
Which was when Helen stood up and, equally calmly and politely, pointed out that her experience was identical to mine.
At which point he tried to bullshit his way through. This would not have been a good idea with me, and was even less of a good idea with Helen. It wasn’t pretty.
So the course ended a little earlier than scheduled, and Helen & I went for a drink afterwards. Drinks led to a dinner, and thus began a close friendship.
I was happily married at the time. While there was admittedly a certain sexual energy between us, it never went any further than a bit of mutually enjoyable recreational flirting.
Now herself happily married, and enjoying her new role of matchmaker, Helen’s list of candidates was impressive.
“Why didn’t you mention all these friends before?” I asked. “Is it a summer special, or something?”
“Because you’d have fucked them and then fucked off.”
The first candidate was Alli, an expat American now living in London. Helen began reeling off the curriculam vitae …
“Hates her job, though, right? All the accountants worth knowing hate their jobs.”
“Has a 10-year-old son.”
“Hold it righ-“
“… who lives in America with his father.”
I am not what one might consider natural parent material. I like my life. I like my home. Specifically, I like the fact that neither contains green poo nor is subjected to random episodes of projectile vomiting. If I really have to be woken at 3am, I want it to be by a cute woman who is feeling horny, not by a screaming pink blob who is feeling hungry.
“She has a great sense of humour.”
Uh-oh. ‘Great sense of humour’ is usually code. It generally signals that one has to look beneath the surface because the surface .. needs to be looked beyond. I suggested something to this effect.
“No, no, it’s not like that at all. She looks fine.”
The lack of superlatives in what was clearly a sales-drive did not do much to allay my concerns.
“Do you have a photo of her?”
“Do you carry round photos of your friends?”
Helen can be annoyingly rational at times.
How best to proceed? I didn’t want Helen to think me shallow. We have, after all, had many Deeply Meaningful Discussions on a great many subjects. We have discussed politics, philosophy, religion, relationships, literature, art, theatre, Haagen-Daz flavours … Well, ok, perhaps the ice-cream debates are not strictly relevant here (though anyone who seriously considers black raspberry chip superior to the understated purity of caramel cone must, in my view, be considered a deeply troubled person).
Think, Adams, think. Ah!
“Sports?” This might at least give some clue as to whether she was, in the delightfully euphemistic terms beloved of Americans, HWP: height/weight proportionate.
“If you mean is she fat, no.” Helen always could see straight through me.
I decided to turn to logistics. “Where does she work?”
“Woking. She also lives there, and before you do the whole ‘outside the M25’ number, she does hate her job and is looking for one in London.”
“So, um, how does this work? I haven’t been on a blind date since I was about 13.”
“I give you her phone number, you call her, you start ‘Hello, this is Stephen’.”
I really have no idea why I’m friends with this woman.
“Hello, this is Stephen.”
“Oh, hi. Uh … Helen’s friend, right.”
“Thought I’d check. Could have been an embarrassing conversation otherwise.”
“True. So, you’re in Woking?”
I was really showing off my scintillating conversational skills there.
So was she. This would be easier in person. Please god.
“How are you fixed for dinner next Thursday?” she asked.
Alli was clearly not one to hang around. Or, perhaps, like me, she simply had no idea how these calls with total strangers worked, and wanted to get back onto the rather more familiar territory of a conventional date. Anyway, she was friends with Helen, so that had to make her an interesting person. Worst-case we’d have a pleasant dinner with good conversation.
“Sounds good to me. You know the town, so you book somewhere and let me know where, ok?”
“I’ll meet you at the station. 7pm?”
“7pm it is. Wear a red carnation and meet me under the station clock.”
“I think it has several station clocks.”
“I’ll be wearing a black suit, black shirt.”
“How do you know what you’ll be wearing in 10 days’ time?”
I explained. There are people who can tell exactly what colours go well together, and who can buy a shirt knowing exactly which trousers it will go with. I am not one of those people. I thus have a very simple strategy for matching colours: my entire wardrobe is black.
Additionally, I hate shopping, clothes shopping especially. I have no patience for it. So when I find something I like, I buy at least three of them – including suits. So I had a fairly good idea of what I would be wearing in 10 days’ time.
Blind dates carry unexpected complications. You know those times you’re trying to find a slot to see a friend and you go through your diaries in that ‘Wednesday? Beer with the climbing club guys .. Thursday? Paula’s leaving do .. Friday? Got a date’ fashion? The date bit, of course, leads to the inevitable questions. The first of which is always ‘Who is she?’ and the second is always ‘How did you meet?’.
Which is when you look shifty and mumble ‘Er, we haven’t yet, exactly’. I would, to be frank, be glad when it was all over.
A fast train from Waterloo to Woking takes 38 minutes, or about four hours in subjective time if you spend the entire journey repeatedly asking yourself ‘Oh god, what am I doing?’. I recommend aiming to do this silently, or the person opposite you on the train will keep giving you sidelong glances with a slightly concerned expression.
I recognised her straight away. Partly because she really was standing under the clock, but mostly because my suspicions were right.
Alli was, as advertised, 31. About 5’5”, average build, long black hair. She also had the kind of face that even her mother would have been forced to describe as ‘plain’.
I admit it. Men are shallow creatures. Don’t believe us when we claim otherwise.
But hey, we were there now, and you can’t very well arrange dinner with someone and then change your mind for aesthetic reasons. And just because we weren’t going to end up in bed didn’t mean we couldn’t spend an enjoyable evening chatting. So I flashed her my best smile, gave her a quick peck on the cheek and offered her my arm.
I have a simple philosophy when it comes to getting to know someone: talk about all the topics traditionally banned from the dinner-table. Politics, religion, sex.
Politics was uneventful. In fact, I may have to scrub politics from the list as about 95% of the population appears to share the same view. The Labour Party is now somewhere to the right of Thatcher. The Tories can’t position themselves to the right of Labour as that slot is already taken by the BNP, so they have been forced to position themselves about where the LibDems used to be. The LibDems, having been evicted from the centre ground, have had nowhere else to go but to the left. Politicians of all hues are all equally trustworthy, which is to say not at all. We’d pretty much done with politics, in fact, by the time we reached the restaurant. She’d chosen a Bella Pasta somewhere in the middle of the identikit town centre that is Woking.
She left the choice of wine to me. I tend to the view that a first date has enough unknowns without adding wine to the list, so I played it safe with an Australian Cabernet Shiraz I knew to be drinkable in that ‘alcoholic Ribena’ way the Australians do so well.
Wine to hand and food ordered, I moved things on to topic two.
“So, having exhausted politics, where do you stand on religion?”
“I’m a Baptist.”
Ooo-kay. This isn’t good. Not only is she a theist and a Christian, but she takes that so much as read that she doesn’t even see the need to mention the fact, she just dives straight into the brand. Why the hell didn’t Helen know about this? She would surely have warned me if she had? (She informed me afterwards that normal people talk about books and films and music on a first date, they don’t jump straight into fundamental belief systems. I asked her where the fun was in that, and she gave me The Look.)
I readily admit that I’m an intellectual snob, and the religion question is partly a disguised IQ test. It’s not that I’m looking for some correct answer, more that, whatever someone’s position, I need to know it’s a considered one. It’s been my experience that very few people who answer the question with a specified brand of Christianity meet that criterion.
Though Dawkins describes my position as ‘default athiest’, I always describe myself as an agnostic. Partly because it seems to me more intellectually honest simply to say that we don’t know, and partly because it is difficult to form an opinion about something which has no agreed definition. Anytime anyone asks me whether I believe in God, I begin by asking them to define the term.
“What does a Baptist believe?”
“We believe in the bible.”
“As in .. a philosophy of do unto others? .. Metaphors? .. The literal word of God?”
I deliberately left that one ‘til last in the hope that she’d laugh and call me silly. She didn’t.
“I believe that the bible describes real events, yes.”
This was not going well, and the starters hadn’t even arrived yet. I decided it was time to segue into something trivial.
“What other books do you enjoy?”
Happily, this diversionary tactic succeeded, and we discovered a mutual admiration of Kate Fox’s excellent study of Englishness (actually, mostly a study of middle-class Englishness), Watching The English. I enjoyed it because one defining characteristic of the English is our love of laughing at ourselves. Alli enjoyed it because even after living here for five years, she felt there were many aspects of English society that it’s hard for an American to grok.
A highly enjoyable conversation about our respective takes on various countries we’d visited led to discussion of food, cookery, home décor and finally relationship criteria.
Before you jump to any conclusions, I should like to point out that it was Alli and not I who introduced the subject. But by this point, we were getting on well, the wine and conversation flowing equally freely, so when she asked me about mine, I gave a relatively succinct and lighthearted list. I decided to bury physical attractiveness somewhere in the middle.
“Attitude to life is a key one. We all have our cynicisms, of course, but I look for people who have a basically positive ‘life is what you make it’ approach. Intelligence. I love to discuss and debate, so could never be in a relationship with someone who didn’t enjoy that. Physical attraction has to be there, obviously. Enough shared interests to-“
“So do you?” she asked.
“Find me physically attractive.”
That one took me by surprise. It’s possible that, with a bit of notice, and perhaps availing myself of the ‘Phone a friend’ option, I might have come up with a good response. All I could think of immediately was to deflect the question.
“You didn’t quiz me about attitude or intellect.”
It wasn’t a terribly successful deflection.
Well, it is a blunt question, and you don’t ask it that baldly or insistently unless you want an honest response, I guess.
“Um. Sorry. Afraid not. I like you, though,” I added brightly.
My cheery addition didn’t help. I realised as I answered that the only reason she’d asked the question that directly was because she thought she already knew the answer, and it wasn’t that one. Damn!
Things went very quiet. We were only about halfway through the main course and the wine.
At a moment like that, you can either continue the embarrassed silence or take the ‘Meet trouble head-on’ approach. I hate embarrassed silences.
“You were expecting a different answer.”
“Damn. I should have realised that. Sorry! I can be a klutz sometimes.”
“It was just, with you asking the question that directly, I didn’t know what else to say. I’m a crap liar.”
Alli resumed eating, so I did the same: it did relieve us of the need for immediate conversation, but also removed the option of taking the easy way out and asking for the bill.
“I think you’re great.”
About a week went by before she put down her knife and fork. I did the same and signalled to the waiter for the bill. It took about a fortnight to arrive. I paid it without looking at it.
“Well, it was good to meet you, anyway.”
Oh god, was that really the best I could do? I considered the matter for a moment. For several moments. Yes. Yes, it was. It really was.
Fortunately there was a taxi-rank about two minutes’ walk away. What was the etiquette for such a parting? I decided one didn’t do the kiss on the cheek thing. And yes, I admit it, I really did repeat the “Nice to meet you” line. Well, it had been, prior to That Question.
A firm resolve was reached that evening. I would never, ever again arrange to meet a blind date for a meal. It would always be for a drink, then any repetition would be mercifully brief.
Helen didn’t speak to me for about four days.