Tuesday, August 4

Chapter 3

I spend about ten days a month working overseas, photographing newly-built properties. I shoot those ‘lifestyle’ shots that you see in the property brochures – glamorous-looking couples lounging around in their perfect apartments. The beautiful furniture is there for half a day, the glamorous couples about half an hour. After that, the properties are sold to retired bank managers whose taste in interior décor is on a par with their wives’ taste in fashion and coiffure.

There may be worse clients than property developers, just as there may be worse dinner party guests than a couple who have just done their own conveyancing, but in neither case would I be overly keen to have the possibility demonstrated.

Property developers like to get value from their suppliers, so a typical trip involves shooting around 15 properties in five locations spread across three countries. Schedules are drawn up without thought being given to such niceties as eating and sleeping, and the show apartments always seem to be on the top floor of apartment blocks which are scheduled to have power hooked-up to both elevators and air-conditioning systems a few days after the shoot.

Models are booked through local agencies selected by the client. In selecting a suitable agency, a typical commercial client will consider such factors as the number of models on their books, their tearsheets (the publications in which they have been featured), their reputation for reliability, their client list and their fees. A typical property developer will dispense with the first four criteria.

Did I mention that there are some projects I do to pay the mortgage?


I do at least get to fly business class. The combination of changeable schedules and all the gear I have to carry means it’s actually cheaper than flying economy given the extra charges I’d end up paying for flight changes and excess baggage.

The less-crowded airline lounges still have something of the feeling of olde-world flying about them. They always feel like the sort of place you could meet someone, everyone having nothing to do but wait, and to avail themselves of the free bar. The reality, of course, is that most of the transient residents spend their entire time on the phone, and I spend most of my time with my head buried in my laptop trying to get the last location’s photos Photoshopped before I arrive at the next. And even if you did get chatting to someone interesting, the chances are high that you’d live in different countries.

But just occasionally …

The BA lounge at Barcelona is large, light and airy. When BA announced a delay to the Heathrow flight due to (what else?) air traffic control problems over London, you could tell who else was on the flight by the ritualistic tutting, muttering of ‘Typical!’ and that strange half-smile half-grimace expression that is the required British response to such announcements. Two of us also took it as our cue to return to the bar for a top-up.

My fellow pragmatist was an attractive Japanese-looking woman with long, fine, black hair. I’d noticed her earlier, not just because she was attractive, but because she stood out from the sea of black and grey suits by wearing a flowing green skirt with orange blouse and green scarf. On some people, it might have looked out of place in a business setting; on her, it looked elegant and confident.

One of the benefits of adversity, even of the being-forced-to-drink-more-wine-in-a-lounge-for-an-extra-30-minutes variety, is that it becomes socially acceptable to engage complete strangers in conversation. I took advantage of the opportunity to say hello.

Given my self-confessed ineptitude at casual pick-up lines, I decided not to be too ambitious.

“I guess there are worse ways to be delayed.”

She smiled. “Yes.”

Ok, so it wasn’t the most effusive of responses, but her accent was English, and her smile seemed just a touch warmer than a polite smile - and anyway I needed the practice, so I ventured on.

“Is London your final destination?”

“It is. And you?”

“For me too. Business trip?”


“What do you do?”

I hate the question, but I’m English: I have no idea how to relate to someone until I know their occupation.

“I’m a buyer for a department store, here looking at some new ranges of women’s clothing.”

I decided to skip the obvious line about shopping for a living, but the effort was such that I actually said: “Ah, you must spend half your life travelling.”

Ouch. I always respond to that one myself with a slightly strained smile, and here I am inflicting it on someone. But she didn’t seem to mind.

“Probably more than half.”

“Care to pass the time chatting?”


“Sorry, I should have introduced myself: I’m Stephen.”


I at least managed to resist telling her it was a lovely name. I got my bag from next to my seat and wheeled it over to hers.

You know those times when you get on so well with someone that half an hour whizzes by in an instant but you can’t remember afterwards what it was you talked about? I genuinely thought we’d been chatting for about five minutes when the flight was called and I looked at my watch to see it had in fact been forty.

“Where are you sitting?” I asked.

Sumi checked her boarding-pass: “3F.”

“I’m 1C – we’ll see what we can sort out when everyone is on board.”

We were both taking it as read that we wanted to sit together to continue chatting. We walked to the gate together, went on board and had one of those tiny little moments.

I should explain. I grew up in quite an old-fashioned family, with a father who was, well, sexist isn’t really the right word. It wasn’t that he believed women to be capable of any less than men, but it was simply natural to him that men opened doors for women, carried their cases, held their chairs for them and so forth. The women in my family expected this, and so it never occurred to me that there was anything noteworthy about it; it was just the way of the world.

This was all fine until I hit my early teens. This was the time at which feminism reached the height of its aggressive phase, and suddenly a simple things like opening a door for a woman was considered sexist and patronising. At that age, this was all rather bewildering, and for quite some time I struggled with the conflicting messages I was getting from my upbringing and what had become quite a different world.

It made dating particularly challenging, as one never knew whether such gestures would be seen as charming or insulting. It was a confusing time.

Eventually, of course, things settled down, and my experience today is that most women enjoy a little old-world courtesy. But to this day, there is still a slight hesitancy about it for me.

Anyway, the tiny moment. I placed my bag on my seat and walked back with her. I just assumed she knew I would follow her to lift her bag into the overhead locker, and she did. She put it down on the floor and turned to smile and say “Thank you.” It was nothing much, but it just felt good that we were on the same wavelength.

The moment was only slightly tainted by the stern-looking 50-something guy behind me tutting as I apologetically turned around to walk back against the flow of passengers to return to my seat.

The cabin attendant closed the door, and I stood up to look back at Sumi’s row. Luck was on our side: there was no-one sitting next to her, allowing us to avoid one of those ‘Would you mind awfully?’ shuffles.

There are some people you just feel immediately comfortable with, and end up revealing quite intimate things about oneself. No, not those kind of things, but stuff like the kind of childhoods we had, those silly little thoughts we have and usually only share with one or two close friends, that sort of thing.

Flying into Heathrow in the early evening virtually guarantees a scenic, if repetitive, aerial tour of Biggin Hill (I have spent so long in Heathrow holding patterns over the years that I can now recognise each of the four main ones by sight), and for once I was welcoming the delay. But you can’t even rely on Air Traffic Controllers for consistent delays, it seems: we had a straight-in approach.

We continued chatting as we walked back through passport control, baggage hall and into Arrivals. She was being met by a company car and I had to retrieve mine from the business car-park. I gave her my card, she gave me her mobile number, we arranged that I’d call her the following day to agree a date for dinner and said our farewells.

I have never understood the concept of love at first site (lust yes, love no), but I was, at least, rather taken with her.

It was as I turned out of the car-park the wrong way and almost drove into a BAA minibus that I decided I’d better temporarily put Sumi from my mind and concentrate on my driving.


“Am I a bit old for a silly crush on a woman I’ve just met?” I asked Helen in a phone call made almost as soon as I made it safely home.

It’s one of the great things about a good friend – you can skip the ‘Hello, it’s me’ and ‘How are you?’ formalities.

“Is this one post-menopausal?” she asked. She’s such an old romantic.

I filled her in on the details.

“Stephen, you don’t do silly crushes. You’re a pragmatist, not a romantic.”

“The two are not mutually incompatible.”

“You can be a pragmatist and have a loving relationship, but you can’t be a pragmatist and a romantic – they are fundamentally different mindsets. May I remind you of your view on the nature of lifelong relationships? That is not, I would most respectfully suggest, a romantic one.”

“I disagree. Pragmatism is an attitude, romance is a process – it’s something you create in a relationship.”

“Buying flowers?”

“Buying flowers for a first date isn’t romantic, it’s more .. well, traditional. Buying flowers after 20 years of marriage for no particular reason, that’s romantic.”

“And believing the 20-year-marriage couple are probably only staying together from laziness is the view of a romantic?”

I decided I needed to come up with a better pitch for that one.

“Ok. There is no such thing as a perfect person, and thus all relationships involve compromise. Fair?”

“I’m listening.”

“Even the most devoted couple can still find themselves wishing their partner were different in at least some minor respect or other. True?”

“I’m still listening.”

Helen is a hard sell.

“So it’s all a matter of degree. We look for some percentage match. If the big stuff is right, we decide the small stuff doesn’t matter. Otherwise we’d all be living alone while we waited for the fictitious perfect person to wander into our lives. The one who is telepathic and whose sole aim in life is to make us happy.”

There was a brief silence at the other end, and I could picture an amused look on her face.


“Stephen, it’s not that anything you’re saying is unreasonable. I don’t disagree with any of it.”

“So then why the ‘Aww, sweet’ attitude?”

“Because it’s not what you think that’s unromantic, it’s how you think. You have an almost mathematical view of relationships. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s probably entirely sensible – it’s just not an approach that can be considered romantic.”


“Well, anyway, I appear to have a most unmathematical crush.”

“And yet you phoned me to analyse it rather than phoning her.”

“She might not even be home yet.”

“You have her mobile number, don’t you?”


“So call her.”

“It’s too early to call. I arranged to call her tomorrow.”

“See? Mathematical.”


“It’s Stephen.”

She laughed: “I had a feeling you wouldn’t wait until tomorrow.”

I felt it best not to mention the circumstances behind this decision.

“Are you home?”

“Yes, just settled in with a large cup of lemon tea.”

“As in … real tea, or herbal?” I tried to keep the suspicion out of my voice.

“Real tea.”

“Oh good. I have a bit of a thing about that.”

“About tea?”

“Yes, tea is very important. I’m on a one-man mission to inform the world that tea, by definition, is made from the leaves of tea plants. Herbal infusions are not tea. I shall not rest until the phrase ‘herb tea’ is forever eradicated from our language.”

“I do like a man with a clear mission in life.”

Some conversations are interesting to relate later to others. Other conversations, however enjoyable they might have been at the time to the parties involved, do not entirely meet the exacting standards for third-party entertainment.

Suffice it to say we discussed, among other things, the worst karaoke evenings we’d endured, the etymology of karaoke (‘empty orchestra’), the bizarreness of the cult of celebrity, the weirdest journeys we’d ever made, the differences between male & female perspectives on a range of different cars, great books that had been turned into terrible films, the utter unacceptability of doing a remake of The Italian Job, her love of Asiatic lilies, the- well, actually, I don’t suppose the list of topics is any more interesting to relate than the conversation itself, but we talked so effortlessly and enjoyably, there was almost a dreamlike quality to it. Three hours passed and we arranged to meet for dinner on in two days’ time.


It was a Thursday night. I’d booked a table at the Butlers Wharf Chop House for 7.30pm, and we’d arranged to meet outside Tower Hill tube at 7pm, leaving time for a leisurely walk across Tower Bridge and a drink in the bar. I’d called in at a florist to buy an Asiatic lily, and had asked the restaurant to have an empty vase on the table for it. Helen would no doubt consider it mathematical romanticism.

I got there 10 minutes early and sat on the wall by the steps, being entertained by the guide for a walking tour that started there. Londoners are probably the least-informed people in the world when it comes to our home town because we never do things like go on walking tours. I learned of the Tower’s multiple roles over the centuries: fortress, palace, prison, execution spot, armoury, treasury, zoo, mint, public records office, observatory and, of course, home of the Crown Jewels – the latter since 1303, apparently. I felt well-equipped for a pub quiz.

By 7pm, the walking tour had departed and there was no sign of Sumi, but I had a vague recollection that the punctuality rules for dating were that the boy had to be there on time and the girl could be 10 minutes late.

By 7.20pm, there was still no sign of her, and I began to wonder whether there had been a mix-up over the time or place. I called her mobile, which went straight to voicemail, suggesting she was on the tube.

7.30pm arrived, and Sumi hadn’t. I called her mobile again. It rang once, then diverted to her voicemail. Odd. I sent a text asking if all was ok, then called the restaurant to let them know my companion was delayed and to ask whether we could make the table 8pm; that was fine.

The text tone sounded while I was on the phone. It was Sumi. A very strange message: ‘Sorry! I don’t know whether I can do this. I got off the tube early and am sitting crying. Sorry.’

I had absolutely no idea of what to make of it. I tried calling her, and it went straight to voicemail. Communicating via text is less than ideal when one has no idea what is going on. I sent a reply: ‘Sumi, whatever it is, just talk to me. No need to go to dinner if you don’t want to. Answer the phone, ok?’.

Twenty minutes passed. I phoned the restaurant to let them know there was a problem and I’d have to let the table go and then call them again if my companion made it. I tried Sumi again; voicemail.

I felt concerned for Sumi, but also annoyed at being left in the dark like this, then guilty at feeling annoyed when she was clearly in distress about something.

At 8pm, I tried again. Still voicemail. Concern and irritation doing battle. I didn’t want to abandon her, wherever she might be, but I couldn’t do anything to help if she wouldn’t even answer the phone, and there is a limit to how long one can hang around outside a tube station clutching a flower.

It was another unworthy thought, but there is nothing in the world that signals ‘Stood up’ so clearly as a man hanging around outside a tube station for an hour with a flower in his hand. I focused on trying to portray via my body language that I’d only just that minute got there and was, in any case, early.

When I concluded that fidgeting wasn’t helping, I decided to go for a walk along the river. I texted her to let her know, and that she could call me when she was ready to. I set off towards Tower Bridge.

I tried to formulate theories. Was there something about me she didn’t like? That wouldn’t explain the tears. Was she in a relationship and intending to have an affair with me, then had second thoughts? That might explain the tears, but she’d told me she wasn’t seeing anyone special, and we’d had a three-hour chat when she got home that would hardly have been practical with a partner lurking in the background. And in any case, she'd said she wasn't involved, and I believed her.

My theories grew increasingly elaborate and bizarre. She had six months to live, didn’t want to spend it alone but didn’t want to hurt anyone by starting a new relationship. She was a secret agent who didn’t want to drag anyone into her dark and dangerous world. She was a serial killer who picked up men in airport lounges and- Ok, I didn’t quite know how to finish that particular theory.

Walking across Tower Bridge with my flower in hand, it was a bit like a movie scene where the guy has just broken-up with the girl and every other person who passes him is part of a couple clearly head over heels in love. I decided it was time to ditch the flower: I left it on the handrail of the bridge. Perhaps someone else would have an unexpected romantic moment by spotting it and handing it to their partner with a flourish. Or perhaps it would spark a terrorist alert as a suspicious spores-dispersal device – who knows, these days.

By 8.30pm, I had walked the path between Tower Bridge and London Bridge twice. I’d decided to give Sumi some space by not calling or texting her again, but I really couldn’t hang around all night. Whatever was going on, her behaviour was at least thoughtless. I decided to walk back to Tower Hill, try calling one last time and then, if I still couldn’t reach her, text her to say I was going home and she could call me if she wanted to.

Voicemail again. I tapped out the text: ‘Sumi, going home now, hope you’re ok, call me if you want to talk’.

It was a strange feeling returning home at 9pm, having spent two hours doing nothing but wait and wonder. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to be concerned or pissed off, couldn’t find a way to do both simultaneously, so compromised by alternating between the two at about five minute intervals. There was a sort of rhythm to it: the more concerned I felt, the more I felt she should realise I’d be worrying about her, and how thoughtless it was of her to leave me feeling that way; the more irritated I felt at her showing such disregard for my feelings, the more guilty I felt at such selfishness when she was so upset, diffusing my anger and replacing it with compassion.


By the time I got home, I’d managed to persuade myself that there was not much point feeling anything at all about it until we’d managed to speak and I’d found out what was going on. I switched on my laptop and downloaded my mail. One mail jumped out at me:

From Sumi Yoshida, Subject: So sorry

I was momentarily confused, as I hadn’t recalled giving her my email address, then remembered I’d given her my business card.


I’m so sorry. You must think terribly of me. If you don’t want to see or speak to me again, I will understand.

Since my last relationship ended badly, I have been closed to the possibility of another. That must have been somehow obvious in my manner, as it has been some time since anyone has even asked me for a drink. The few who have, I have always said no.

You were so unexpected. We got on so well that I didn’t even hesitate to give you my number, and that phone call made it natural that I would have dinner with you.

I was carried away in the feeling. I didn’t think. It was only when I was on my way to meet you, on the tube, that suddenly it felt like such a big thing. I am so used to being in my own little world that I was not sure I wanted to leave it. And I felt that, with you, I might.

And my second thought was what if I do want to leave it with you, but you don’t want to see me again?

I didn’t know which was worse, and the next thing I knew, I was in tears. I just had to get off the tube and walk. I don’t even know where I walked to. When you called, I had to divert the call because I couldn’t talk. I just sent the text and switched off my phone. I didn’t even think about what it must be like for you.

I’m so, so sorry.


My earlier torn feelings now felt like a mere dress rehearsal for what I felt at that moment. How could I read that and still feel annoyed? It was impossible not to feel compassion for her.

It was also impossible to avoid hearing the faint sound of alarm bells. I mean, yes, we had got on really well. Incredibly well, in fact. But, looked at objectively, we’d had one enjoyable conversation during an otherwise boring journey, and one enjoyable phone call. Such an extreme reaction was surely out of proportion?

Hmmm. Perhaps Helen was right about my mathematical perspective. But most people, well, most men, at least, would agree there was at least a faint feeling of bunny-boiling about it.

Half of me wanted to reach out to her, and half of me wanted to run away. Both halves agreed that it was time for a glass of wine.

Wine in hand, I distracted myself by dealing with the other emails before returning to stare once again at Sumi’s mail.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did at least know that I didn’t want her to go to bed without a reply.


Thanks for explaining. Let’s talk tomorrow?


It allowed me to sleep on it.

Friday morning. I had lots of photo-processing to get through, so dived straight into that. At lunchtime, I checked my email. She had replied at 1am.


I’m glad you’re still speaking to me. Yes, I’d like to talk.

Sorry again.


I was out with friends that evening, so suggested I call her on Saturday morning. She replied a short time later to say that was good for her.


Saturday morning. I still wasn’t quite sure how I felt, but talking to her was going to be the best way to find out. Lines from a Harry Chapin song ran through my mind:

We talked ‘cos talking tells you things
‘Bout what you really are thinking about
But sometimes you can’t find what you’re feeling
‘Til all the words run out


I caught myself. I always greet friends by name, it’s always ‘Hi whoever’, never just ‘Hi’. Just ‘Hi’ means I’m annoyed.

“Hi Stephen.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say next. I hadn’t formulated a plan for this call.

“Are you ok?”

Well, better than nothing, I guess.

“Yes. Well, I still feel terrible at standing you up like that. It really wasn’t my intention, I just wasn’t thinking straight.”

“It’s ok. I understand.”

Did I?

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give me a second chance?”

It was obvious she was going to ask that question, but I honestly hadn’t known how I was going to answer it.

“Of course.”

I blinked. I’d said that before I’d even had the chance to consider the question.

“You will? Really?”

I couldn’t exactly change my mind at that point, and anyway, I found I didn’t want to.


“I don’t suppose you’re free this afternoon? I know it’s short notice, well, no notice, but I want to put things right as soon as I can?”

I was. I always try to keep a day free when I get back from a trip as I’m often too exhausted to do anything but read and laze.

“That would be perfect. 3pm?”

Who the hell was that man who kept answering on my behalf?

“When was the last time you went to the Tower of London?”

I thought. “When I was about seven, I think.”

“Shall we go?”

“Why not? Ok, I’ll meet you at Tower Hill at 3pm.”

Arranging to meet at the same place didn’t feel ideal, but we were committed now.


There was an unpleasant feeling of deja-vu as I emerged from the tube a few minutes early. I had thought that, if she were truly remorseful, she would have been there half an hour early just to be safe, but no, there was no sign of her. At least this time I was free of flora.

Three o’clock arrived. And departed. I wasn’t impressed.

Five past.

I decided this time she was getting ten minutes and that was it.

It was a beautiful day. Clear blue skies, warm, just about perfect. Aside from the fact that I was spending it once again hanging around the same damn tube station.

Eight minutes past. No text. No call. Two more minutes, then I was gone.

I debated whether I was going to call her or just leave. It would feel terribly rude to leave after only ten minutes, but it wasn’t ten minutes: it was two hours, one wasted evening and ten minutes.

But it wasn’t me, just walking away like that, so I decided I would call.

Ten minutes. I called. It rang for a time then went to voicemail. I tried to keep my tone neutral, but made no attempt to avoid terseness. “Sumi, it’s ten past three, you’re not here so I’m leaving.” I hit disconnect.


Some friends lived about ten minutes’ walk from here, so I gave them a call on the off-chance they were in, but they weren’t. Now what?

Well, the plan had been to visit the Tower, and while I wasn’t entirely in the mood, I was even less inclined to just go home after another wasted journey. I fought my way through the throngs of tourists as I walked through the underpass and round to the ticket booths. Massive queues and crowds. I’d spotted a tourist shop by the tube that sold tickets, so I walked back there to buy one (probably at a premium, I didn’t care) then lasered my way through the crowds and in through the main gate.

As I wandered round the Tower, I tried to decide what my response would be when she called. I realised that one of the most annoying feelings in the world is not knowing what to feel. I mean, by rights I am entitled to feel roundly pissed-off as I’ve been stood-up twice. But there is always a chance that she’s laying under a bus somewhere. Or she set off two hours early only to have some Clockwise-style fate befall her.

Ok, if she called from the tube in ten minutes and had a really good reason, I’d meet her; if she called in 30 mins with a lousy excuse, we’d be done. Hmm. Seemed Helen might be on to something with that mathematical business.

She didn’t call at all.

I’ve always admired those people who can completely put something from their mind; they would simply shake it off and immerse themselves in the Tower. I tried my best, but it really wasn’t working. By the time I set off home, I was fuming. No email, however heart-rending, was going to work this time.


It was another email.


I can’t believe I blew it. You gave me a second chance I didn’t deserve, and I blew it.

I left my mobile at home. I was in such a rush to get there early. It was only when I got there that I realised. Your number was, of course, in my mobile.

I figured I’d spot you, but it was so crowded. I went back and forth between the ticket booth queues, to the entrance, the gate by the road, the path from the underpass, everywhere I could think of, but there were just so many people. I waited there until after four, and by that time felt sure you would have given up on me.

I got your voicemail when I got home, and wanted to call but you sounded so … final … in your message that I knew that was it.

I’m sorry. I know there’s no chance now, but I really am sorry.


Fuck. I was sure I’d said Tower Hill rather than the Tower. If she’d thought we were meeting at the Tower itself, she would surely have asked where exactly. Though with mobiles, it’s not really an issue. If you remember to take the bloody thing with you. Damn her.

Now what? I mean, we’ve all left our mobiles at home sometime or other, and it’s usually on a day when it’s guaranteed to cause maximum hassle (the last time I did it, my car broke down in the middle of nowhere and it took me 15 minutes to flag someone down to borrow their phone). But surely nobody in their right mind agrees to a third meeting after they’ve been let down twice?

I debated the matter with myself. Looked at objectively, she’s failed to show twice, and therefore is hopelessly unreliable and absolutely doesn’t deserve a third chance. Looked at subjectively, her first reason was .. well, a bit odd, but otherwise hard to fault, and her second reason was just one of those unfortunate things. And we had got on really well.

I read some excellent advice about decision-making many years ago: the trivial stuff, you examine the pros & cons and reach a conclusion; the important stuff, you let your gut decide. My head was quite clearly saying no, but my gut was, to my surprise, saying yes.

Ok. But I was not risking the slightest chance of hanging around like a stray dog a third time. As I didn’t entirely trust myself to be sufficiently stern on the phone, I responded in kind: by email.


I’ve been debating with myself, and it seems my head lost. So, let’s try one last time.

However, my head did succeed in imposing conditions, so here’s what I’m offering. I will tell you where I am going to be and at what time. You can be there or not. If you’re not, I won’t even wait one minute, I’ll just go home, delete your details from my phone and we’ll be done.

So. Thursday afternoon, I have a corporate shoot with a CEO in Broadgate at 4.15pm. The shoot won’t take more than a few mins, so by the time I’m packed up and out of there, it will be 4.30pm. I’ll meet you by the huge metal sculpture outside the Broadgate Circle entrance to Liverpool Street (this is the one with the sunglasses shop at the end). It’s at the bottom of the steps below the junction of Eldon Street with Blomfield Street.

I thought I’d better be 100% clear! I continued:

I know it’s still in the working day, but I’m sorry, I’m not willing to wait around so that’s the best I can offer.

I apologise for being so hard about this, but I think you can probably understand where I’m coming from after two failed attempts?

You don’t even have to let me know whether you will be there: if you are, you are, if not, well, no harm done.


I clicked Send before I could change my mind and water it down. She replied almost immediately:

Thank you! I don’t deserve it. I will be there. Definitely.


CEO headshots are worse than weddings. The whole point of being a CEO, I suppose, is that you can delegate the boring stuff to underlings, but posing for their photo is one task they can’t delegate. You typically get a 5-minute slot, usually booked several weeks in advance. They walk in, expect you to take the photo within 30 seconds, are bored within two minutes and have left the room within five. You don’t get any second chances, so everything has to be perfect.

I don’t leave anything to chance. I arrange with their PA to have the use of the boardroom for an hour prior to the shoot. I identify two places in the room that will work (usually one spot at either end of the table) and set up two identical lighting systems. I have two identical camera bodies with two identical lenses. I agree with the PA that one of the CEO’s support staff will be available 40 minutes prior to the shoot so that I can use them for the test-shots, testing both cameras and both sets of lighting. I also agree that the marketing or PR exec will be present to preview the test-shots on my laptop to ensure that they are happy with the result. Then as soon as the CEO arrives, it’s just a question of sitting them in one of the two spots, suggesting a few poses and pressing the button. So far, I’ve never needed any of the backups, but you can guarantee that something would fail the moment I got complacent about it.

At 3.30pm, I was all set up and waiting for the assistant to arrive for the test-shots when my mobile warbled: a text message. Sumi. She was taking no chances and was already there. Great. I switched off my phone (you definitely don’t want any interruptions during a shoot).

4.15pm on the dot, the door opened and the CEO walked in. She was unusually chatty and cooperative. I generally have five suggested poses and am happy if they will do two of them; this one did all five. By 4.19pm, we were done. Everyone was pleased. I promised them they’d have the finished photo by lunchtime tomorrow.

I packed up my kit, said my goodbyes and walked the few hundred metres to Richard Serra's dramatic sculpture, Fulcrum. I checked my watch as I got there: 4.29pm. There was no sign of Sumi as I walked down the steps. I walked all around the sculpture. Nothing. I checked the steps all around it. No. I even walked inside the sculpture – she wasn’t there either.

It was 4.30pm. I circled around the sculpture once more, checked the steps again, checked the balcony above: she was definitely not there.

That was it. I didn’t care what had happened that time, I was not waiting around a third time. We were officially done.

It wasn’t until I got home that I remembered my mobile was still switched off. I had a momentary pang of guilt, then decided it made no difference: the deal was very clear, she had to be there at 4.30pm on the dot, and she wasn’t.

As I switched it on, I got a text and a voicemail alert. The text was from Sumi, and timed at 4.20pm:

Just need some tissues! Sniffling here. Back in 5 mins.

There were two voicemails, both from Sumi. The first:

Sorry, stuck in a stupidly long queue in Smiths, but just 30 seconds away! Meet me here if I’m not at the statue?

The second:

I guess not.

Then I did feel guilty. But still, the deal was the deal, and she hadn't been there.


Helen had become my co-conspirator. Actually, being happily-married, I think she was getting a vicarious thrill from my dating adventures.

“Am I crazy for not even waiting five minutes?” I asked her. “What if we were perfect for each other?”

Helen has a surprisingly black-and-white view of the world, for a woman. “She’s a flake. Maybe a delightful one, but a flake all the same. You and a flake just wouldn’t work.”

It was hard to disagree. To me, a promise is a promise, even a trivial one. If I say I’ll do something, I do it, and I expect the same of those around me. It’s perhaps a weakness to set so much store by things that don’t matter so much, but I can’t help it – it’s the way I was raised.

“You know,” I said, “it’s astonishing the tiny things that might stand between one life path and another. A queue in a newsagents. Maybe we would have been great, and this would be that funny story we’d still be telling in ten years’ time.”

“True,” Helen replied, “but it’s equally likely that wasting time with a flake for a few weeks would have you miss out on hooking up with your future partner. You can’t second-guess yourself all the time, you can only make your decisions as best you can. Some will be right, some will be wrong, one or two will be disastrous, but that doesn’t change no matter whether you choose path A or B. Sheldon Kopp.”

‘Sheldon Kopp’ was shorthand for what Helen knew to be my favourite quotation. Well, ‘favourite’ isn’t quite right, as it is a rather bleak quote in some ways, but it is a quote which I feel very succinctly summarises the nature of life:

I do not mean to imply by this that a man can determine just what his world or his life will be like. A man, after all, is only a man. He stands somewhere between absolute freedom on the one hand, and total helplessness on the other. All of his important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data. It is enough if a man accepts his freedom, takes his best shot, does what he can, faces the consequences of his acts, and makes no excuses. It may not be fair that a man gets to have total responsibility for his own life without total control over it, but it seems to me that for good or for bad, that's just the way it is.

It felt particularly poignant at that moment.

Monday, July 27

Chapter 2

It was a strange sensation, being single again. For 12 years, so many decisions had been joint ones. When even which brand of coffee to buy had been a committee decision, the idea of choosing a house, then decorating and furnishing it, without anyone else to consult felt alien in those first few weeks.

I’d see a particular paint colour and instinctively turn to the empty space next to me to seek agreement.

But within a surprisingly short time, it felt liberating. I could, for the first time in a long while, be utterly selfish. There were only my preferences to consider. Only my tastes to reflect. Only my needs to meet. It was quite thrilling.

I mourned the marriage much less that I’d expected to. I think most of my mourning had already taken place. Helen had given me possibly the single best piece of advice I’d ever received: that I shouldn’t end my marriage without first going all-out to save it. Doing that, and failing, meant I really could be sure that ending it was the right thing for both of us.

I’d never been unfaithful, not once. I felt unreasonably proud of the fact. It was, after all, a simple matter of doing what I’d promised to do. Or not doing what I’d promised not to. But sex is different for men. For us, scratching a sexual itch really can be as meaningless as having a hamburger when you’re hungry. But it’s not that way for most women, and not for Isabel, so it didn’t matter what it wouldn’t have meant to me; it mattered what it would have meant to her.

So being single was liberating sexually too. It was like being a teenager again, only without the angst.

The first time with another woman had still felt strange. Not entirely devoid of latent guilt. But that feeling didn’t last long, and there followed a phase of hedonistic indulgence I’d expected to last maybe six months before I’d once again feel ready for another relationship.

Six months stretched into two years. But perhaps men and women are not so different after all. Meaningless sex is fun for a while, but I was, I realised, at heart, monogamous. Two years in, I didn’t want to chase another night of adventure: I wanted to wake up next to someone I loved. I was now officially Dating With Intent.


I met Kathy at Paddington Station. It was perhaps the most clichéd meeting possible: she was struggling to lift her case on board the train, and I offered to help. Whilst I would not claim that her attractiveness passed me by, I would like to point out in my defence that I am equally quick to offer assistance to little old ladies.

I never was any good at guessing ages, but I put her in her late twenties. Slim. Long, straight hair. Pretty face. A little short for my tastes, at about 5’4”, but not outside the range of possibility.

She gave me a delightfully genuine smile of gratitude.


“A pleasure.”

“Nice to see the age of chivalry is not entirely dead.”

“One does one’s best.”

Have you ever found yourself trapped inside one of those conversations where it feels as if the entire exchange was written in advance and you can’t quite figure out how to set about departing from the script? I knew how the rest of it went. Where we were each going. Whether it was business or pleasure. Whether we knew the place well. I really didn’t want to run through the whole thing, but I wasn’t quite sure how to switch into something more meaningful within the 15-20 seconds it would take for one of us to reach our seat.

If it had been a Hollywood movie, the train would have been a glorious old steam train on a journey to some romantic city, and we’d have found that we were sitting opposite each other as the only passengers in one of those delightful compartments in days of old.

Instead, the diesel train was the 09:42 to Swansea and our reserved seats were at opposite ends of the carriage. This was distinctly lacking the Hollywood touch.

We reached her seat first, I put her bag in the space between the seat-backs, she thanked me again and I told her she was welcome, smiled and wandered down to my own seat towards the far end.

Hollywood had failed me. In a Brit film, our cases would have been identical, and there would have been a charming mixup resulting in us opening each other’s bags in our hotel rooms only to find that we are staying in the same hotel. We’d laugh about it then go to dinner.

But Brit films were failing me too: her case was an enormous green suitcase and mine was a small black rollerbag.

I’m not a shy person. Most people who know me would describe me as one of the more confident people they know. But I’ve never been one of those fortunate guys who can smoothly execute a pickup of a perfect stranger in a public place. So for the first few minutes I attempted to formulate a plan. What convincing excuse could I come up with for going to speak with her?

‘I just realised, you’ll probably need a hand off with your case at the other end – where are you going to?’ Way too lame.

‘Train journeys are very boring and since we’re both travelling alone, care to pass the time with some conversation?’ Might have been ok if I’d suggested it at the time, but a bit more desperate-looking if I have to go back five minutes later and that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.

What would a Hugh Grant character (well, the Hugh Grant character, really) do? Hmm. He’d approach her in a very bumbling fashion and stumble over his words while saying something like “I’m terribly sorry to trouble you, but I don’t suppose you’d- No, no, of course you wouldn’t. It’s just that- No, sorry, I’ll, er … sorry, sorry.’ Then he’d sort of half-turn to return to his seat, and she’d find his shyness charming and rescue him with a witty remark, inviting him to join her.

In real life, she’d think I was a bumbling fool and stare at me until I went away. Unless, perhaps, I looked like Hugh Grant. Which I don’t.

The movie industry really wasn’t proving much help.

Oh sod it. She’ll be asleep by the time I think of something. Let’s just go for it.

“Hello again, I was just on my way to the buffet car for a tea, and wondered if I could get you anything?” Not exactly going to win whatever the Pulitzer Prize equivalent is for pickup lines, but it was the best I could do at short notice.

“Oh! More chivalry. I had a cup of tea at the station, but thank you anyway.”

This was going to be a very short conversation unless I took executive action.

Telling the truth with strangers can be considered either refreshingly endearing or downright weird, depending on one’s point of view. I do try to resist completely unprovoked examples; I mean, I don’t wander up to complete strangers in the street and attempt to engage them in Deep And Meaningful Conversation. But, under the circumstances …

“Well, actually, that was the best I could come up with in terms of an excuse to come and talk to you.”

“I realised.” There was a faint smile there. Amusement? Invitation?

“Did it work?” I always was an optimist.

“Maybe. Have a seat and I’ll send you away when I get bored with you.”

This girl made me look like an amateur in the candour stakes.

“I’m Stephen.”

“Kathy. Do you make a habit of hitting on girls on trains, or am I a special case?”

“Is there a convincing answer to that?”

“We’ll see.”

We chatted. More briefly than expected, as she was only going as far as Reading, but I wasn’t despatched back to my seat in that time, and I was sufficiently interested to ask for her phone number.

She reached into her handbag and gave me a neatly-folded piece of notepaper with her mobile number scribbled on it.

“Do you make a habit of preparing for men on trains to hit on you?”

“I wasn’t sure how brave you were going to be; if not, I was going to give it to you as I got off the train.”

One of the dating rules I didn’t know was how long one was supposed to wait before calling. It would presumably be seen as over-keen if I called too soon, and rude to leave it too long. But what was too soon? What was too long?

I almost called Helen to ask, but thought that seeking dating advice quite so soon after The Woking Incident might be inadviseable. I settled on two days.

Diary coordination is always a nightmare, and business travel definitely doesn’t help. Dinner was going to be about a month away, which seemed silly. Kathy lived in West London, and I was seeing friends in Windsor the following Sunday, so we settled for afternoon tea there.


Afternoon tea is a much under-rated British institution. It has to be done properly, of course. Real china. A generous-sized teapot with separate jug of hot water for replenishment. Sandwiches cut neatly into four triangles. Everything served by a white-haired old lady. If doing the whole cream tea number, the scones must be warm, the whipped cream real and the jam served in little cut-glass bowls.

There is something about the ritualistic nature of it. The clink of china. The embroidered napkins that would be hideous at home but are somehow just perfect in this context. It’s almost impossible to savour the experience without a feeling that all is right with the world.

Jacobs was such a tea-shop. My local friends had introduced me to it many years ago, and I swear that nothing had been changed since about 1970. It was a tiny place, and it was a sunny day, so I’d called in on my way to see my friends. Tea-shops do not, of course, offer table reservations, but a cheeky request accompanied by a charming smile can often work wonders, and so it had proven on this occasion. When I arrived back at a few minutes to four, Kathy was already there and sitting at a table with a hand-written Reserved sign.

“Good afternoon.”

“Hello. They told me this was your table.”

“It is, yes.”

“That’s somehow more impressive than knowing the Maitre’D at the Ritz.”

I recalled Helen’s words, and we talked inconsequential things.

“What music do you enjoy?” I asked.

“I’m a bit of a jazz buff. Do you like jazz?”

“I love some of it, hate some of it, and would be hard-pressed to tell you what makes the difference.”

“What do you love?”

“Well, Nina Simone-“

“That doesn’t count; everyone loves Nina Simone.”

“I guess the same is true of Billy Holliday, right?”


“Does Fats Domino count?”

“I’ll let you have that one.”

“Thank you. And you were supposed to be telling me about your musical tastes, actually.”

“I like Dexter Gordon - heard of him?”


“Thelonious Monk?”

“Um, no.”

“Cannonball Adderley?”

“Uh, so, besides Jazz, what do you like?”

“I always start with jazz because it sounds cool. My other tastes are a little too Radio 2 to admit to straight away.”

“Ok, then we can be embarrassed together – I have some very dodgy musical tastes too.”

“Such as?”

“You keep throwing my questions back at me.”


“Ok. Well, I generally refer to my music collection as ‘eclectic’ as it sounds more cosmopolitan than ‘dodgy’. Everything from Bach to Billie Holiday.”

“Neither of those qualify as dodgy – who aren’t you admitting to?”

“Well, I grew up in the 70s …”

Kathy gave me an amused look and raised her eyebrows.

“Well, you know.”

“No, do tell.”

“Um … I’d like to point out that, at the time, Fleetwood Mac was very cool.”


“Though I admit Jeff Buckley probably never was.”

“Now the truth is coming out. But I have to confess to that one too.”

“Ok, then perhaps I’ll let you come back to my place and rifle through my iPod.”

“That’s the beauty of iPods, you can flick through them anywhere.”


We did books and films, too; Helen would have been proud.

This time it was Kathy who shifted things onto more meaningful ground.

“Do you have a plan for your life, or are you just meandering through and seeing what happens?”

“Are those the only two options?”

“As far as I can see, yes.”

“Hmm. I’m not sure that I have a plan, in the ‘single theory of everything’ sense. I have some goals, and I have concrete plans to achieve some of them, but beyond that … Aside from the sheer number of variables and surprises life throws at us, there’s also the fact that what I want from life changes over time.”

“When did you first formulate your plan; I assume you have one?”

“No deflections. Tell me about your goals.”

My immediate thought was what an intimate question it was – rather an ironic thought, given my own approach.

My second thought was how difficult it is to describe one’s own goals without them sounding trite or superficial on the one hand, or pretentious on the other.

I always thought the idea of taking a deep breath before answering a tricky question was just a saying; apparently not.

“Well, my business goals are clear: I want to earn more money from the most interesting projects, so that I have to do fewer of the least interesting ones. Perhaps it will sound unambitious, but I have no desire to grow the business, as such. I enjoy being a photographer, and have no wish to become a manager instead. Most of the work is fun, but there’s a percentage of it I do only to pay the mortgage – it would be good to lose that.”

“Ok, and I guess that’s one you have a plan for?”

“I do.”

“Ok, next.”

“This is like a job interview. Well, like I imagine a job interview would be – I’ve only ever had one, and that was in a pub.”

It was true. I got into photography as a kid, and there came a point where there was no doubt about what I was going to do for a living, only how I was going to get started. I went to university less for an education and more because it seemed like a fun way to spend a few years before knuckling down to work. I’d acquired an overdraft and a wife. At 22, the ink barely dry on my degree, I started phoning round local photographers looking for one who would take me on as an assistant. About the tenth one told me to meet him at his local pub at lunchtime. By the second pint, he’d offered me the job and I’d accepted. I worked with him for a year before setting up on my own.

Kathy smiled, and waited patiently for me to answer.

“I have a rolling list of things I want to experience. As I tick off ones I’ve done, I add new ones.”

“What was the most recent addition?”

“Ah. That’s a slightly strange one: to travel from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I have no idea why, other than I like both cities, and it sounds like a romantic way to travel between them. In reality, it will probably be nine days of stomach bugs from dodgy food and nine nights of fitful sleep on a wooden bunk, but hey …”

“I like that one.”

“Ok, then I can tell you the crazier ones.”


“I want to climb Everest.”



“Do you climb?”

“I do. It’s within my technical level – Everest is a climb more demanding of stamina than technical ability – but it would require a lot of training and preparation to reach the level of fitness required.”

“Do you still have Sherpas these days?”

“Most people join an organised expedition. It’s not cheap, but everything is laid on for you, so all you have to worry about is personal preparation.” I smiled. “I say ‘all’ like it’s a small thing. It would take some real commitment. Oh, and about thirty grand.”

“That’s an expensive holiday.”

“And you don’t even get room service. But I think I’ve earned the right now to hear your craziest one.”

“Ok. I’m going to drive round the world in a VW Camper van.”

“Aren’t parts of the globe a little damp for driving?”

“It does involve some ferries, but it’s surprising how few if you plan your route well.”

“What a pair of adventurers we are.” I looked around the tea-shop. “Well, armchair adventurers, at least.”

It was again Kathy who moved the conversation along. Sorry, I don’t mean to keep mentioning that; Helen has made me a bit touchy about the subject.

“Have you been married?”

“13 years.”

“You make it sound like a sentence.”

I smiled. “No, most of it was good.”

“Why did it end?”

That directness again.

In soap operas, the ending of a marriage – returning home early and catching the spouse engaged in extra-curricular activities – is sudden, definite and with a single clearly identifiable cause. The ending of real-life marriages is generally none of these things.

Isabel and I had met when we were 20, moved in together almost immediately, married when we were 22. We married because it was what two young and in-love people did after they’d lived together for a couple of years. I don’t mean we did it without thought – we both knew then that the promises were big ones – but we were sufficiently young and romantic to believe the relationship was for life, so expressing that belief in a public fashion didn’t seem too great a stretch.

When you separate from your wife, you have to tell a lot of people, and I’d reduced it to a convenient short-hand: “We developed different interests and priorities. What we each wanted from life had become too different.”

After a while, the two sentences tripped off my tongue so readily I might almost have had them printed on a laminated card. But what do you tell people? You can’t talk them through what happened to each of you over ten years, even if you knew. Social situations demand shorthand, and after a while the shorthand is all you have left.

There was one big reason: The Baby Thing. There are many areas in life where compromise deals are possible; a baby isn’t really one of them. There are no trial periods or part-time babies. So when one of you desperately wants one and the other adamantly doesn’t, there aren’t too many options.

But you can't include that in the shorthand because it raises the obvious question of how the hell you get to be married for ten years with that incompatibility. The truth was mundane: we'd met when I was 20. I was young. I assumed that one day I’d want kids because, well, that’s the prevailing assumption. I knew at the time that I didn’t want them then, but assumed this would change. It didn't.

I tried the shorthand, not expecting to be allowed to get away with it. To my surprise, Kathy merely nodded.

“And you?”

“Never married.”

“Serious relationships?”

“One.” The tone didn’t invite further enquiry. Perhaps that was the reason she didn’t pry further with me.

“What about after the adventuring?” she asked. “Where do you see yourself living in ten years’ time?”

“I’m a classic Londoner, I’m afraid. Other places are fun to visit, but I can’t ever see myself living anywhere else. You?”

“I like quite a few places enough to live in them, but London is one of those.”


I had that job interview feeling again, but at least that was an easy one to answer.

“Absolutely not.”

“You seem rather definite about that.”

“I am.”

I gave her the spiel about green poo and projectile vomiting.

“That stage doesn’t last long – your thinking on the subject must have got beyond the first couple of months, surely?”

I liked her style.

“Ok, that’s the cocktail party one-liner. But I really don’t see myself as a parent. I’m too selfish.”

“That’s another cocktail party cliché.”

Well, I quite liked her style.

“True, but it’s also the reality. I like my lifestyle. I like the freedom of it. I couldn’t live a life where I’d lose that freedom. Having a child is a massive, long-term commitment. Other than photography, I don’t know that there’s anything I could give quite that much commitment to.”

“Including a partner?”

Ouch. I was liking her style a bit less.

“That’s unfair. But really, several close friends have had kids, and it really is a completely different life. It’s fine if you want that life, but I really don’t.”

“What if you met that one perfect woman, and she wanted kids?”

“Then she wouldn’t be that one perfect woman, unfortunately. I take it you want kids?”

Her answer took me completely by surprise.

“No, not necessarily. Not even probably. I think I probably won’t ever choose to have them. But I could never have a relationship with a man who was so closed to it.”

I tried, and failed, to make sense of that.

“Ok, I think you’re going to have to try that in words of one syllable.”

“I’ll try, but I’m not sure whether a man can really understand it. I don’t need kids. Probably don’t want them. But I could never be as absolute about it as you are. The possibility of having kids is part of what it is to be female, so rejecting that possibility is like rejecting part of who I am as a woman.”

“But if it’s a decision made before someone met you, it can’t be a rejection of part of you – it’s a position reached without even knowing you.”

“I know, but you’re viewing it from a purely logical perspective, and feelings – especially fundamental ones – aren’t logical.”

It would have been easy to dismiss this as an irrational quirk on the part of one woman, but I felt I should try my best to grasp this one. A key reason for my divorce was the joint realisation that there was never going to come a time when I would want kids, and I’d made the decision to be 100% up-front about this so that I didn’t end up going down the same path again.

I refilled our cups, then poured the jug of water into the tea-pot.

“Ok. I would like to understand it, though, if I can.”

“For me, part of the deal of a relationship is being open to the whole of your partner, all that they are or could be.”

“I agree with the core of that, but … none of us are really open to every possibility, are we? I mean, if someone is a city person and they meet someone who wants to live in rural Spain, that’s not going to work. If one can be definite about that, why can’t one be definite – one way or the other – about the kids issue?”

Kathy sipped her tea while she figured out a way to explain it.

“You have to understand that a lot of who a woman is is biological and hormonal.”

“No argument there, and actually, it’s just as true of men. We’ve just had the advantage of defining the baseline for a few centuries, so we defined what our hormones make us as normal and what women’s hormones make them as different.”

“There may be hope for you yet.”

“I’m very enlightened in my chauvinism.”

Somehow I’d slipped into banter mode by mistake. I think it’s partly that I’d spent the last week in an almost wholly male environment, and men communicate with each other almost entirely via banter. Flippant remarks are the lingua franca, and just like returning from a trip overseas, sometimes you have to consciously remind yourself to switch back to English.

“Sorry. I don’t mean to be flippant. I do want to get to grips with this.”

“It’s ok. So even when a woman has made a rational decision that she doesn’t intend to have children, it’s not like flicking a switch. The decision remains a provisional one. You take the most ardent anti-child woman and let her fall pregnant accidentally, and it’s almost certain that she’ll agonise over the decision.”

I nodded. I did, in fact, know someone who’d done exactly that. She didn’t, in the end, have the child, but I was surprised how long it took her to make that decision, a decision that had seemed to me to have been made a long time before.

“It’s different for men. You can never face that decision, at least, not in the same way: it’s not your body that would have something growing inside it.”

“I can understand that, intellectually, at least. But I’m still not sure I understand the idea of rejecting part of you – the generic ‘you’, that is – simply by stating that I’ve made a decision not to have kids.”

“You can’t understand it intellectually. But if you say that to a woman in such a definite fashion, even to one who has, for now, made the decision not to have a child, part of her will be closed to you. Part of her will feel that she can’t share the whole of herself with you. And what will limit the kind of relationship you can have with her.”

Hmm. I was struggling to fully comprehend what Kathy was telling me, but there was a level at which I did understand. Which presented something of a dilemma.

“Thank you. I think I do get some sense of that. But it leaves me wondering what to do. Realising I didn’t want kids was one of the reasons my marriage ended. In a sense, and entirely unintentionally, I misled my wife. I don’t want to mislead anyone else. If I soften my stance, that’s what I’d be doing. Someone who really, really wants kids may think they can change me, and really, they can’t.”

Kathy gave me a level look. “I didn’t say there was an answer.”

We finished our tea.


Afterwards, I sought Helen’s input on this. Typically, she had a simple solution: “Stop dating women in their 20s and 30s, and start dating post-menopausal women. Really. It’s the only way. You can’t predict the biological clock. You can meet a women who’s 35 and convinced she doesn’t want kids, then she hits 37 and wants to be pregnant by sundown. You can’t tell. Really.”

This dating-with-intent lark is more complicated than it seems. I hadn’t, at that point, realised just how complicated it could get, but I was about to find out …

Wednesday, July 22

Chapter 1

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.”

“Fair point.”

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.

“Do I?”

“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’m sorry.”

“It’s ok.”

“I think you’re great.”

“It’s ok.”

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.