Sunday, 25 March 2012

Duty and curiosity

The sudden chill was a reminder of a winter not yet gone. I shivered in my black merino Italian suit, wishing now that I had worn my long coat as well. But, it had seemed sunny when had arrived, and I always hated to be too warm …

“Too warm” would have been inappropriate, in any case. A certain chill is, I think de rigueur at a funeral. There had even been a few crows pecking around on the grass outside – or were they ravens? Death may be the one certainty facing us all, yet few of us care to contemplate what it conventionally involves. If we are lucky, it will be friends and relatives gathered for a brief service of remembrance: homilies said, tears shed, then off to the reception for sausage rolls and little triangular sandwiches.

Who would come to mine, I wondered? I was the youngest of my family, and so assumed I would outlive my siblings. There were my children, of course, and they would hopefully (assuming the unhappy event was sufficiently distant) have wives and children of their own by then. The Screaming Banshee? Probably only if she were allowed to dance on my grave. Then there were my friends, some of whom at least would be bothered enough to make an appearance, and (being optimistic) some really important people I hadn't met yet – the imaginary grieving widow? Think positive! And, being 20 years younger than me, there was also the possibility that Charlotte would still be looking pretty hot even by then. Black always suited her, too.

All things considered, then, I could see that Eleanor actually had a pretty good turn-out. Naturally, I didn't know a lot of them – I wasn't really close to the woman, and certainly not for the past 15 years – but I guessed that was the sister from Wales who used to get mentioned, and various friends from various stages of her life. Including my mother, of course, who was the main reason I was there – Eleanor Morrison had been one of her closest friends, and I knew she would want to be at Eleanor's funeral to say goodbye. I also knew that my mother would not have wanted to come alone, and so there I was. A son's duty.

That was not the entire truth. It was reason enough, to be sure – but I did have another incentive for making an appearance at Eleanor Morrison's funeral. An incentive which owed more to curiosity, and to my own past.

I'd known the Morrisons only vaguely while growing up. They no longer lived nearby; my family had moved away shortly before I was born. But, prior to that, the families had been close, and my elder siblings and the three Morrison girls were of a similar age and had a lot of shared memories.

Not my memories. But, fate can play the strangest of hands. Scroll forward to the 1990's, when I was living in London, with my career on a high and the single life treating me well. Perhaps not that well – I remember a succession of fleeting relationships that, while fun at the time, left me feeling dissatisfied and longing for something more. But, it was the high summer: I was young, I was going places, I had money in my pocket, a flat in one of the nicer parts of town, and a white Porsche 911 that I loved more than all the women I'd ever had rolled together, if that were possible. And, I also had my mother pop down for a visit, coincidently while Eleanor Morrison was visiting her middle daughter Anna in the south-west of the city.

So, it was natural to meet up at the daughter's house one evening for dinner. And, it was natural, thereafter, for me to keep in touch with Anna, as a family friend who lived just down the road, and completely unremarkable for Anna to invite me along to a party at one of her friend's houses a couple of weeks later.

It was a dull night, so I went, despite it being held in one of the outer London suburbs and my misgivings about probably being the youngest person there, allied to that fact that I wouldn't know anyone apart from Anna Morrison and her taciturn boyfriend. Although, Anna had informed me that
“Jenny will be there, and she's really looking forward to seeing you again”.

Jenny. The youngest of the Morrison girls, who also lived in London somewhere, but who I was straining my memory to remember. Anna was at least vaguely familiar from family weddings and the like, but Jenny I could only place through things that had been said about her. Jenny the rebel. Jenny the bohemian. Jenny the great worry on her mother's mind. Jenny who had run off aged 17 with a much older man, and who was then married and divorced before the the age of 25.

I didn't remember ever meeting Jenny at all, but I suppose I must have done at some point in my childhood, when I was probably a lot more interested in what Doctor Who was getting up to.

I took the Porsche. It offered the prospect of a rapid get-away if the party turned out to be too unspeakably awful, without having the long, awkward wait for a cab. Plus, in those magical days before speed cameras multiplied like bacteria, and every road was “improved” to be as pleasant to drive on as a cart-track, it was an opportunity to let her out for a bit, and enjoy the banshee-wail of the flat six boxer-motor.

I was wrong about being the youngest person at the party. But it was pretty unspeakable all the same, as the guests consisted of two age groups: the 45+ squad that included the hostess, Anna Morrison and the rest of the adults, and an extremely awkward gang of young teenagers, aged 12-15, built around the hostesses son. I felt like some strange exhibition piece, in my Hugo Boss raw silk jacket and Ralph Lauren polo shirt – a piece of urban sophistication cast adrift in suburbia.

I was, in fact, contemplating a swift exit, when Anna tapped me on the shoulder and announced that Jenny had arrived.

“Hello Ben.” Jenny seemed to recognise me. The feeling wasn't mutual, but I didn't care. Rationally, I knew Jenny wasn't that much younger than her sister, and was therefore a lot older than I was, but she certainly didn't look it. She was tiny, barely five feet tall, with delicate, bird-like features and huge brown eyes. Shoulder-length, chestnut hair, and a sophisticated rock-chick ensemble of black jeans, black leather jacket and cropped t-shirt (oh, that midriff!) completed the picture. Suddenly, the prospect of spending the rest of the evening at that party didn't seem to awful at all.

Jenny and I didn't leave each other's side for the remainder of the party. The sexual attraction was intense, electric and overpowering. I drove her home at the end of the night, and she practically squirmed with pleasure in the Porsche's leather bucket seat. When we kissed, I was consumed with wanting her.

And so it began. There was, to be sure, a frisson of guilt about the whole thing, what with her being older and (in theory) an old family friend. But any doubts were soon cast aside once I had taken her to bed for the first time – the sex was terrific. And, Jenny was sweet, affectionate, and fun to be with, and certainly didn't act like a more mature woman. A bit scatty at times, in fact, but that seemed like no problem in the early haze of deep lust.

Eventually, we moved in together – a first for me at the time. Now, it wasn't exactly love's young dream – more a practical solution to Jenny's financial problems – but it seemed great at first. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn't coming home to an empty flat, with last night's detritus lying exactly where I had left it. I wasn't waking up alone on a quiet Sunday morning and feeling the day yawning emptily ahead of me.

But, after a while, problems began to emerge. Our families found out, and mine was distinctly disapproving. Also, the trouble with being a rebel and a bohemian in your youth is that you end up still working in a shop when you are in your 40's, and Jenny continued to take a very traditional view of male/female relationships when it came to paying for things. I started to resent the fact that I was paying for absolutely everything, not just the exotic holidays and expensive nights out, but the weekly shopping and the mortgage and the utility bills as well. I also began to question whether this was really it – didn't I want to get married someday, to someone with a similar age and education to myself, and who wanted to have children at some point?

There was another factor, too, which only really emerged towards the end of our relationship …

“Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end” - the movie Cocktail does include a few words of wisdom. After a couple of years, Jenny and I did end badly, and in a way that left me with a serious legacy of guilt. I was the one, after all, who called time and chucked her out.

And that was it, for some 15 years, during which I loved and lost, got married and divorced, became a father, moved out of London, saw my life hit rock-bottom and and then start to move forward again, although what it was now moving forward towards I had no idea.

And there I was at her mother's funeral, and there was Jenny with her sisters on the other side of the chapel, and I didn't know what the hell I was going to say to her.

Curiosity about Jenny, of course, had been my strong incentive for coming. I hadn't set eyes on her since that awful day, 15 years ago, when she had taken the last of her things (and quite a few of mine, favourite CD's in particular) and left my flat for the last time. One thing she left behind was a silly soft toy boa constrictor, which I had bought for her in a moment of high spirits on a day out somewhere. “You can keep the snake,” were her final, telling, words.

So, what was she like now? Had she got over me (oh, the vanity we all share that ex's never do!)? Had she found happiness? Was she married, content, settled? And, perhaps most of all, what did she look like now? She must be pretty ancient, I thought – I never did find out exactly how old she was, but she was certainly in her '40's when we were together, which must make her pushing 60 by now. And, no one looks good at that age.

Except for Jenny. Looking across the chapel, I was amazed how virtually nothing seemed to have changed. The long chestnut hair was now a cropped blonde bob, but it really suited her. She had certainly not put on any weight, and was elegantly clad in a black velvet suit and cream blouse. Her face had not changed at all – the delicate, bird-like features seem to have barely added a wrinkle.

It was later, at the reception, that we actually spoke. There was an initial, polite exchange: my expression of sympathies, her thanks for my attending. Jenny was upset, naturally, but her mother had been sick for a long time, so her death hadn't come as a shock. And, after the catharsis of the service itself, the general mood at the reception had lifted. After all, funerals share with christenings and marriages the common feature of people who have not seen each other for years becoming reacquainted.

After a while, I sought her out at a quiet table and we really talked. “I wasn't sure I should come,” I admitted, “But I wanted to ensure that my mother did. And, I did want to see you again. I just want to know that you're … all right ...”

Jenny was all right. She had moved on, as one might expect in 15 years. Oh, she wasn't married or settled or anything like that, but there had been other relationships. And, she said, when one of her sister's had shown her some of my wedding photos, “I realised that was the right thing for Ben.”

I allowed myself a short, bitter, laugh. “Well, it wasn't, I can assure you of that. Biggest mistake I ever made.”

“But you've got your boys, now, surely you don't regret them?”

Of course I did not, and that led to showing her some of the photo's on my phone, which she then reciprocated with shots of her dog – a little, black, squashed up thing with an evil expression on its face.

“That's Pugsly,” said Jenny, “I've only had him a few months, but he's absolutely lovely. He's a Pug, you know, and he's ever such good company”.

As the day drew to an end, we exchanged vows of friendship, and also phone numbers. And I found myself saying the fateful words: “It would be great to see you again sometime, Jenny”.

“Yes, Ben, yes it would”.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

It can get worse?

There should be a word for it: when you become disillusioned with something, give it up, and then find the alternatives so god-awfully dreadful that you go back to the first thing again. Maybe there is. Maybe it's called despair.

I had not, of course, entirely deleted all of my online dating profiles, but I had ceased bothering to check my inbox for the odd missive from 56 year-old tattooed grandmothers, and hadn't run a profile search to check the latest batch of fresh meat in quite a while.

So, I don't know why I bothered to open the message I received from “Oksana918”, once the notification had been forwarded to my phone. Maybe it was something to do with the thumbnail photo, which showed a slim, willowy blonde with most of her face hidden by a bunch of flowers. Ok, who am I kidding? It was all about the photo – she looked seriously fit.

The message, and the profile behind it, was predictably brief. And, the grammar was even worse than the norm, which is saying something in the modern age of text-speak functional illiterates. Something about the phrasing screamed “Eastern Europe” at me, despite her home town being allegedly just up the road. Well, that was certainly possible – there were plenty of East European girls here nowadays, and maybe she was a lonely Latvian nanny stuck in some company director's spare room, with nothing to do once his kids were put to bed?

She wasn't a full member of the site, but asked if I would email her directly so we could chat further. So, what did I have to lose? I sent the mail, but kept it brief and cagey.

I didn't have long to wait for a response:

Hello, Ben. Thank you for writing to me.
My name is Ekaterina. I am 29 years old. But I look much younger than his years.
I have not used the Internet to explore before. I did not know about it. I told this to a colleague at work. He met a girl who is now his wife. I am so embarrassed to write to you. I do not trust the internet, but decided to write to you.
I'm lonely. I want to start a family. I'm looking for a spiritual friend. I'm looking for love.
I think we should tell the truth. If you are here, then you are alone. We are both looking for their second half. Do you agree? I trust people. I hope you will not deceive me.
I live in Russia. For me, the distance - it's not a problem. And for you? I want to know you. We all have a chance at life. We are building our future. I like you, and I want to communicate with you.
I'm sending my photo to you.
Tell me about yourself. Ekaterina

And there was the photo. No flowers in the way this time: she was facing the camera, hands behind her head and back slightly arched, in that classic glamour pose that pushed her pert breasts toward the lens. She was, absolutely, unquestionably, Kate Moss-a-like model-girl stunning.

Russia, eh? That home town up the road was a lie. Well, that was not a good sign. Modern Russia is perhaps second only to Nigeria as the spiritual home of the internet scam, and the odds of this knock-out babe being anything other than a lure to reel in the sad, desperate and lonely seemed slight indeed.

Was I really so sad, desperate and lonely as to fall for it? Well, I was intrigued, obviously. And so the process of self-justification began: “Obviously, this is a scam,” I told myself, “But it'll be interesting to play along for a while to find out what it is. Will she suddenly have a sick mother who needs money for an operation? Or will I have to wire her the cash to buy a plane ticket to come and see me?”

Really, of course, what was going on in the back of my mind was the desperate, desperate hope that, against all the odds, she somehow might just be genuine. A beautiful, sensitive girl, stuck in some backwoods Russian hell-hole and surrounded by woman-beating alcoholics, who dreams of a better life with a kind, attentive, slightly-less-alcoholic westerner. Obviously, she'd mainly be interested in the money and the visa, but was that really so different from the British women I'd had relationships with? Gold-digging users almost to a girl.

So, I replied, somewhat less cagily this time. A few details about myself, but nothing too specific. A couple of photo's that weren't already on my dating site profile. And I asked her about where in Russia she lived and what it was like.

Once again, I did not have to wait long for a reply:
Hi, Ben. Thank you for having responded to me. Very nice to get a letter from you. I am very interested to meet you.
Ben, I live in Russia in the city of Tyumen. My city is not very large. It is home to about 580,000 people. Located on the banks of the River Tour. Distance from Tyumen to Moscow in 1725 km. I am far from the capital of Russia.
I'll tell you about yourself. I am 29 years old. My height is 1.67 m I'm blond with big green eyes. I was not married and I have no children.
I am very pleased that the distance between the two countries does not bother you. The Internet allows us to communicate with each other.
If I am writing to you with errors, do not scold me. I teach English to their own and with a tutor for about 2 years. I like this language. Sometimes I look in the interpreter, if you do not know how to translate.
I graduated from university on a specialty "Management of the organization." I loved to learn. After my studies I worked as a manager in a commercial firm. I enjoy my job.
And where are you working on? Do you like your job or you'd like another job?
I do not have much free time. And this time I like to be at home playing with my cat. His nickname Fluffy. I also have a rabbit. I love animals. Do you love animals? Do you have any pets at home?
I'm sending you my photos in the workplace. Even sending photos of his rabbit and the cat pictures.
Waiting for your letter.
Kisses, Ekaterina.

The cat and rabbit aside, the photo's Ekaterina sent this time were, if anything, even more stunning than the first. The girl was sensational (if she, in fact, existed), and I could feel my helpless longing for it all to be true starting to overcome my better judgement.

The only thing for it was to seek a second opinion. I sent copies of her hottest photo to my friends Bernie, Nick and Charlotte.

Bernie's opinion was typically unhelpful. While he agreed that Ekaterina did indeed look hot, his personal recommendation was to go for something Brazilian or Spanish. Ever the latin-obsessive, that was Bernie.

Charlotte's opinion was much simpler: it was a scam. All of these foreign women were a scam. Through some less-than-devious hacking (she had guessed his password as being their daughter's name), she had gained access to her ex's email account, and could see all of the foreign women has was in touch with. Every one had been a bitter disappointment, and several had left him severely out of pocket. “Don't be as sad as Seb, Ben!” was her final word.

I found out what Nick thought the next time I ran into him at the Horse. Apparently, he had shown the photo to Julie, who had recognised it at once. One of her male friends had been messaging the exact same girl (or, more likely, someone claiming to to the exact same girl), for several weeks. And he had been stung big time.

It was identity theft, pure and simple. The purpose of all the emails and all the questions was to find out enough information to use the victim's identity in bogus credit applications and the like.

And, once more, the cynical side of my nature was proven correct. At least I had the self-respect not to mail “Ekaterina” again (most probably a 15 stone scam artist called Boris, with a bad personal hygene problem and a whole stack of photo's stolen from some girl's Facebook page). If something seems to good to be true, that's simply because it is.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Speed Humiliation

Desperate times, desperate measures indeed. The year was still not going well. I was disillusioned with the dating websites, my attempt to get fixed up through a friend had come to nought, meeting anyone through “normal” social interactions looked as unlikely as ever, and, despite her recent heartache, Charlotte showed absolutely no sign of coming to her senses and realising I was the best thing she had ever had.

Perhaps worst of all, I had lost my number one wingman, Nick, to the charms of Julie and a more adult version of life than the retarded second adolescence he had been enjoying with the likes of me. It was becoming difficult to imagine how things would ever improve, or what my next move should be. One thing was for sure: every night I spent in my room I grew weaker, and each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter.

There are basically two solutions to a situation that appears increasingly bleak and limited in options:

  1. give up, embrace the darkness, and try to avoid sobriety as much as possible;
  2. roll the dice, and move outside your comfort zone.

As I wasn't quite ready to become a functioning alcoholic, it was time to try something new. Something I had considered in the past, but had never before been quite able to work up the nerve for. Something a little more face-to-face than the singles websites: speed-dating!

I'd been to an official “singles night” once before, up in town, with both Nick and Robbie as wingmen. It had been dire: for once, I had felt like one of the youngest there, surrounded by embarrassing dad dancing and more mutton dressed as lamb than the meat section at the Happy Shopper. We left pretty sharply and ended up having a good night trawling round the more regular bars. But, the point is, even had the clientèle been more the cut of my jib, it would still have been like anywhere else, where you have to make an approach and try to engage a stranger in conversation. Even these days, I still don't find that the easiest thing in the world.

But with speed-dating, there is a greater degree of organisation. As I understood it, the idea is that you have to talk to an array of girls, each for a few minutes at a time – and they have to talk to you. So, basically, what you have is a mechanism for removing approach anxiety, and ensuring that you interact with women who (in theory at least) are actually interested in meeting a man.

It has to be better than the websites, too, I reasoned – you actually get to meet them, and I firmly believe you can find out far more about someone from a few minutes face-to-face than you can in a dozen emails.

So, it only took a few minutes of online searching before I discovered a speed-dating session scheduled for the near future, at one of the trendy bars up in town. The fee was not exorbitant – indeed, it would work out a lot cheaper than taking a dozen girls in succession out for a drink, or one month's subscription to one of the fee-paying dating sites, which had rarely yielded more than a single hit in that time. Booked and sorted!

I told Charlotte about it. She was still my best friend, after all, and despite the pain she had put me through it seemed natural to tell her about anything important in my life. Plus, I felt, it would help to demonstrate my confidence, and maybe (just maybe) she would start to see me in a different light again if I scored with a succession of hot babes. There was another, slightly more pathetic, reason to tell her as well – she would make me go. No way would I be able to wimp out of turning up if I knew Charlotte was waiting for a full field report. I feared her almost as much as I adored her.

Charlotte proved to be both extremely excited and jealous. “I want to go!” she squealed. “It's a great idea - you MUST tell me all about it!”

As the day approached, nerves naturally started to rise. This was to be a solo mission: with Nick all loved-up and Robbie going through one of his odder phases, neither were available for moral support, and most of my other friends had partners as well. But, one thing I have learnt in this life is that no one else will live it for you – it's down to you to make things happen, and that will often mean stepping outside your comfort zone. Way outside, if necessary, from curling your toes in the fluffy shag-pile to walking barefoot across hot coals and broken glass.

Then there was the issue of getting there. To drive or not to drive? While taking the car would be easy and convenient, it also ruled out the possibility of a few drinks. And some social lubricant was definitely required on this occasion.

Even with the benefit of a “wee sharpener” before I arrived, approaching the bar was still an occasion for raised anxiety. The email from the organisers had told me to make myself known at reception. So, I was required to expose my sadness right from the start: no, I'm not here to meet all my cool friends, I'm here, on my own, at an organised event for the pathetically lonely.

But so be it. The unbelievably gorgeous girl on reception was brisk and business-like: “The speed dating sir? If you'd just like to see that gentleman over there”. If she was secretly sniggering at all the saddo's, she hid it well.

The slightly shady-looking bloke at the small table had a collection of paperwork and cheap pens. He smiled conspiratorially as I approached. It helped. “Hi, I'm Ben Willard”, I said in what I hoped was a forthright and confident manner.

“Sure, Ben”. He scanned a printed list of names in a loose-leaf binder. “Have you been with us before?”

“No, first time I've tried anything like this. How does it work, then?” Talking through the mechanics of something, anything, was re-assuringly bloke-ish. And I think I rather preferred to be a speed-dating virgin than seen as an old hand.

“Right”. Time for the practised spiel. “You wear this sticker [it read my first name and a number], and take this form. We'll be starting at quarter-past, so get yourself a drink and be ready to move up to the VIP area at the back for then. The way it works is that you start with the girl who has the same number as you, and you have five minutes before the whistle blows. Then you move onto the next girl for another five minutes, and so on until you've talked to them all. On this form, you write your contact details at the top, each girl's name and number down here, and then tick Yes or No in these boxes depending on whether you are interested in meeting up afterwards. You give me the top copy at the end, keep the pink one for yourself, and we send you an email in a couple of days, listing your matches where both of you have ticked Yes. Ok? Do you need a pen?”

I took the pen. I already had one, but, what the hell, I wanted my money's worth. And a back-up pen is always handy to have. The sticker I affixed discreetly to my shirt, hidden behind my jacket so that my sadness was not immediately visible to the obviously mixed crowed milling around the bar. Time for a beer.

There was an immediate bit of business involving checking out the form, and entering my name, email and phone number in the spaces at the top. But after that I was left with my beer, in a bar full of strangers, and with a desperate need to start exuding confidence and relaxation. If you need to be sociable, you have to start acting sociably. So, I leaned back against my pillar, took a deep draught of cold lager, and looked around at the assembled multitude. Who else here was in the same boat as I?

The women you couldn't tell. They were all in their tight little girlie-clusters, chatting animatedly away like they do everywhere. But, with some of the guys, at least, it was painfully obvious. It seems I wasn't the only one to come alone, and the awkward body language and furtive eye movements said it all. Let's do someone a mutual favour, I thought, as I headed back to the bar for my second pint.

“Got all your details filled in, then?” I said to a nervous-looking guy at the bar beside me, and who I had spotted going through his form a few minutes earlier.

“Yeah, pretty much”, he replied with a grin, obviously pleased to talk to someone – anyone – in a place where he knew nobody.

“Have you been to one of these before? It's my first time, so I don't really know what to expect.”

“I have been to one before … a long time ago ...”. It sounded like an obvious lie, from someone not keen to admit he was down here every week. But, that was ok. I wasn't about to call out a fellow dude, and I'm sure I'd have said the same in his position.

“One thing you need to do,” he continued, “is to write down their name and number as soon as you meet them. Otherwise, if you leave it till later you'll forget which one was which.”

Sound advice, I thought. We continued chatting for a few minutes, and then drew in another, obviously here-on-his-own, bloke to the conversation. It was his first time, and he was glad of the “write down the names” tip as well. He also had an excellent cover story – he'd found himself at a loose end that evening, seen the speed-dating ad online, and thought what the hell else am I doing tonight? No big deal – just a normal bloke out for a laugh. I didn't buy a word of it – you had to register several days in advance, as the organisers had to balance the numbers and send everyone an acknowledgement mail. But, again, I wasn't about to call anybody out. Whatever works for you, man.

Hooking up with the other guys was a good move. I no longer felt like an isolated weirdo, but already one of a band of valiant brothers, ready to enter battle against that most dangerous and difficult of adversaries – women.

And then the bomb dropped. “Hi Ben! I thought it was you!” A slim, boyish figure, with short dark hair and make-up which looked like it had been applied by a five year-old, approached me. Mel threw her arm around my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek.

My game was thrown so completely I could barely speak. Mel, that single friend of Nick's bird who I had been on a blind date with less than a week before. Mel, who was perfectly pleasant and sensible and who, I am sure, my mother would have thought an ideal match for me, but who I could never fancy in a million years. Mel, who I had thanked the next day for a lovely evening, but also said I was really busy at the moment with work, getting back to the gym, having my house decorated, extracting my nostril hairs, etc. …

So, not so busy tonight, eh, you bastard? More like desperate, isn't that the truth?

I was saved by the sound of a whistle. Mr Slightly-Shady and his (somewhat) glamorous female assistant were organising everyone.

“Speed-daters, would those of you in the 20-35 age group go with Sandy through to the front lounge, and those in the 35-50 group come with me up to the VIP area”. Did he really say VIP area or was it OAP area? When did I suddenly get so old?

“Oh, I'd better go,” said Mel with a smile. “Talk to you later!” she continued, as she headed back to her girlie-cluster. Depressingly, I realised that I'd have to.

No one seemed to be in any desperate rush to follow instructions. “Someone you know?” asked Mr Spontaneous-decision-to-come-here-my-arse.

“Yeah, a bit embarrassing really.” May as well be honest. “She's a friend of a friend who I went on a blind date with the other day. Nice girl, but not really my type, so I told her I was really busy with work and stuff, and now she sees me here. This sort of thing never happened when I lived in London – you never see anyone again there unless you want to.”

“Could have been worse.” Mr Only-been-to-one-of-these-before-yeah-right. “I met up with this girl once through – she didn't have a photo but sounded nice. Turned out to be my ex-wife. So, we go ahead and have a drink, and then she starts laying into me about money and stuff, the whole shrieking and screaming routine. One of the bouncers comes over to sort me out, but when he hears the story, he's totally sympathetic. Nightmare.”

Indeed. I was heartened to realise that, unsettling as meeting Mel here had been, it could have been much, much worse. I think that an appearance by the Screaming Banshee would have seen me bolt the room.

“Right, suppose we'd better make our way up there.”

The VIP area was laid out with little tables and a mix of stubby stools and plushly comfortable sofas. Mr Slightly-Shady had been round and placed small plastic numbered signs on each of the tables; numbers which corresponded to that of the sticker of the girl who sat at each. As I swiftly discovered, the girls don't move. Speed-dating reflects the ancient conventions of our society: the girls get to sit regally in their own little space, while the guys move from table to table on command, trying their best to ingratiate themselves in their allotted five minutes. The girls get the comfy sofas; we get the stubby stools. Another exercise in supplication.

But, it has to be said, I was generally impressed with the quality of the merchandise on offer. I had spent some time down in the bar trying to work out which women were here for the speed-dating, but had given it up as a hopeless exercise. They all appeared attractive, articulate and confident – no low self-esteem girls to be seen. And, it was simply a subsection of the bar up here. Apart from Mel, an initial glance showed them all to be well-worth a date, at least. Maybe I could just tick my form now and hand it in?

The whistle blew again. It was time to begin. I banished any hint of nerves, forced what I hoped was a welcoming smile, and approached my first table.

“Hi, I'm Ben.”

“Vanessa,” she replied, offering a delicate hand. She was a petite blonde with long flowing hair in tiny ringlets, a slightly mocking smile and simply beautiful big blue eyes. I instantly felt that familiar combination of hopeless longing and embarrassed discomfort that so many men experience in the company of an extremely attractive woman. But I was determined not to show it.

“I have been told,” I said, “That the key thing is to note down everyone's name and number right from the start, to ensure you don't forget anyone. But, somehow, I can't imagine anyone forgetting you ...”

She was a teacher, it transpired, here with two friends (who were also teachers – not a lot of men in the teaching profession these days!), and she actually lived quite near me. All good stuff, but I was conscious of my limited time and the need to make an impression, which surely meant talking about something more memorable that all the usual boring guff about jobs, homes, hobbies, etc. So, I briefly covered my earlier embarrassment at meeting Mel (“lovely girl, but just not my type”), and made it into what I hoped was an amusing war story, which also allowed me to demonstrate a degree of value and pickiness. In truth, the whole artificiality of the situation helped – take two strangers thrown together who have to talk to one another, and the adrenaline carries you through.

As it did with all the other women at the other tables. After a while, the response to the whistle blasts became quite Pavlovian, and it seemed almost natural to break off and move onto the next one. The bit about writing down the names and numbers was sound advice though – the women were all very attractive, but even very attractive women blur into one after chatting to half a down in rapid succession.

There was a ten minute break half-way round, and then back to it. When it came time to talk to Mel, she was of course perfectly pleasant, but it was by far the most awkward conversation of the night (although, chatting to her two wing-girls, who made it very clear they knew who I was, wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs either). I got through it by talking about Nick and Julie most of the time, and once more said I looked forward to seeing her in the Supershed. But, that whistle couldn't come soon enough.

And then it was over. The very last girl I spoke to was a statuesque blonde called Olivia, in a red dress that showed off the most fantastic curves, and who worked in recruitment consultancy and had a miniature Schnauzer. I told her I looked forward to seeing it one day, and there seemed to be a bit of a spark going on, as we continued chatting long after the final whistle. Then, she excused herself by saying she needed to visit the ladies, and I realised that the gents would be a good idea for me as well.

It was on the way back from the toilet that I suddenly felt deflated. The adrenaline rush was wearing off, and I was coming down from an intense natural high. I'd had a couple of drinks, too, but was far from drunk. But I felt totally exhausted.

Two choices, then: I could stay, try to chat to Olivia or possibly the other honeys some more, or even hook up with my two putative wingmen from earlier. Or, I could hit the road now – always leave them wanting more, and if I was crashing now, how much better an impression would I continue to make? In the end, the fact that I could get public transport home now, and save myself a fortune for a taxi (if I could find one) was the deciding factor. I handed over my form to Mr Slightly-Shady, and hit the road.

It was early the next morning that Charlotte got in touch, eager to know how the previous evening's expedition had gone. I was swimming along on a wave of confidence, pleased with my performance and how Mel's presence had failed to unsettle me. I'd even turned the situation to my advantage, by making an amusing anecdote out of my embarrassment. Naturally, I had ticked yes to all of the girls, except for Mel and her two friends (who were actually rather nice, but I thought it would be cruel to Mel to go for her friends and not her), so that was ten possibles dates for me. Simply by the law of averages, surely I'd get three or four hits at a minimum. That'd show Charlotte all right, when we meet up and I've got a hot babe like that Olivia on my arm. You'll regret chucking me then baby!

It was later that day when the email from the event organisers arrived. They were very sorry, but I had had no matches this time. They would, however, send me a discount voucher for a future event.

So, absolutely no reason to get drunk and lie sobbing on the kitchen floor, then.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

February's verdict on the year so far: bag o' shite. But it was gratifying to see good things finally happen to good people.

Since New Year, Nick and Julie's relationship had blossomed. Nick looked happier than I had ever seen him – not that I saw him all that much. He had already reached the “who needs mates” phase. But Julie was definitely good for him.

Perhaps she could do some good for me? After all, she was until recently a single woman, and single women often have single friends …

So it was that I broached the subject with Nick. And, yes, Julie did indeed have a single friend or two. One in particular: Mel, who was (in the language of the playground) gagging for it.

One of the myths of growing older is that you acquire more confidence. You don't: if anything it's the reverse. Every time you look in the mirror, and see those ageing features and expanding waistline, it knocks you back. Every time you reflect on the utter fuck-up that is your life, with all the failed relationships and hopeless one-sided infatuations, you realise how unlikely your dreams are ever to be realised.

But what you do acquire is the ability to not give a damn'. You have no faith whatsoever that that hot babe is going to want anything to do with you, but what you do have is an utter indifference to what the world at large thinks about you. Especially if you are a parent, you will have done all sorts of ridiculous, self-abasing things to amuse your children, then the prospect of a knock-back or a somewhat embarrassing situation with another adult is really nothing at all. That's what us old bastards mean when we say youth is wasted on the young. I know: most of mine was spent paralysed into inactivity, terrified by the thought of looking stupid.

So, when Nick told me about Mel I was already biased towards action. The obvious thing would have been to engineer some sort of social situation, in the course of which Mel and I could have met “naturally”. But, for various reasons, that proved to be a difficult call. So, the solution was obvious: let's have her number, and I'll call her up and ask her out for a drink. No messing.

None indeed. Obviously, Mel had heard about me, One of the key features in any courtship is the process of checking out each others friends. The nice, safe, stable couples who you can arrange civilised double-dates and dinner parties with. And the wild-cards: the singles, who will want to pull your partner away for dangerously unattached nights out, the ones who you fear will always seem to be having so much more fun …

If you can get them tied down, so much the better. If it's with one of your unattached friends, then it's double bubble – a potential threat removed, and another stable pairing created that you can safely spend time with.

So, I was not in the least surprised that Mel knew who I was. Nor was it surprising that she was game to meet up with a total stranger, given that we were of the same generation, and had both been through the divorce and dating mill.

Mel sounded refreshingly upbeat and straightforward, with none of coy evasiveness you get from some women. She also had the huge advantage of living just up the road, which meant I could see her at very short notice and take her somewhere extremely local, such as … the White Horse? I think not. You really do not want to take a first date to your local. Especially not if you have “friends” like mine who will make it their mission to throw you off your game and embarrass you as much as possible.

The date was swiftly arranged. I'd pick her up from her house at 8pm, and we'd go for a couple of drinks in one of the nicer local pubs which for some reason I had never spent much time in. No big deal, and no raised expectations on either side.

Of course, getting to pick her up and drop her off did offer a couple of advantages. As well as allowing me to play the gentleman, I also had the ideal venue for making my first move – the snug, private interior of my Alfa Romeo. If things went well, it would only be natural to enjoy a parting kiss when I drove her home – something that can be difficult to engineer if you both make your way there in your own cars.

So, when I say there were no raised expectations, that's not entirely true. I was, as usual, allowing my imagination to run away with me – picturing Mel and I together, picturing Mel herself …

When I did collect her, therefore, Mel unfortunately had some living up to do. I say unfortunate, because Nick had only filled me in one the most basic of details – she was forty-ish, slim, with dark hair and a penchant for leather boots. The latter detail had me expecting someone who's tastes perhaps ran to a little S&M; unfortunately, the reality was somewhat different.

The no-nonsense attitude should have been a warning. Mel was one of those women who didn't have time for a lot of things. Things like make-up, hair-styling, fashion, or any general girlishness or femininity. She was one of those girls who were very into netball or lacrosse while at school, and perhaps now played in a women's football league. She was, probably, very handy with a screwdriver, and (it transpired) drank halves of real ale with enthusiasm. I could picture the utter sensibleness of her underwear drawer; I doubted there was a single item from Agent Provocateur or Ann Summers (Charlotte's favourite, I remembered with a heavy heart).

Oh, she was by no means unpleasant company. The evening was anything but awkward or dull. But, it was just like going for a drink with some bloke, and at the end I had no desire to do anything other than drop her off and head home as quickly as possible.

I made my excuses the next day. How I needed to focus on getting back to the gym, and how busy I was going to be with my job for the next few weeks. And how great it would be to run into Mel at Nick's next party in the Supershed.