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 …


  1. Nice work... I enjoyed it but I felt as though his conversation with Kathy moved a bit too fast... also I feel like there's too much conversation but maybe that's because I rarely have any in my book..which probably isn't right!

  2. Thanks, GW.

    On the speed of the conversation, can you elaborate a bit on that? Do you mean the individual sentences are too short, or that they covered too much ground in too short a time ... ?

    Interesting that you thought it was too much conversation! My natural tendency is towards much more narrative than speech, and it's something I work to overcome.

  3. I've very much enjoyed reading this today, having got here through a link elsewhere. Although I'm afraid I got lost in the coversation with Kathy - no idea who was talking, and there was way, way too much of it too. You are telling the reader too much when you could be showing more. Also: you don't describe anything around you. As a female reader, I want to know more about what people look like and the environment in which you find yourself. Also their body language: let us know she was not interested by showing her physical movements.


    ps For what it is worth, Kathy's summation of why women don't liek dating men who are anti childen is spot on. I'm not sure about children either, but I would never ever date anyone so adamant. Life is mutable.

  4. Thanks for the helpful feedback, LLG. I definitely need to at least add in a few 'I said' and 'she said' pointers here.

    More description, too, is on the to-do list.

  5. You're screwed. I mean that in a good way. No woman can honestly say I don't want kids EVER.

    Maybe hang around 'I can't have babies' help groups?

  6. Helen did suggest Stephen should start dating post-menopausal women ... But there are women who are definite about it, even though you're right that there are no guarantees. Google 'child-free'. :-)