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.