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.