Writing

Bad Date Diaries #3: Beard

It’s my first ever online date. Michael suggests an All Bar One in Covent Garden, near the Actor’s Church. He’s an actor, you see. I think this was what first attracted me to his online dating resume, along with his numerical maturity (thirty-one) and a hope that he knows his Beckett from his Bennett.

He greets me outside the tube station at the junction where too many people loiter, causing a bottleneck and untold misery for all. I have never had a grown man interested in me before, and it’s a little overwhelming. He could maybe pass for twenty-seven, which is still an advance on my twenty years on the planet, nineteen of which have been spent on a tiny island.

I don’t really listen to what he’s talking about as we walk down the street; something about drama lessons. The London Actor’s Centre Is Better Than Pineapple For Movement Classes, he is saying. I run over the line in my head, banking the information for later in case he asks for my opinion.

We cross the road and enter the chain bar, sitting down at a table suitable for at least another four people. He asks if I’d like a drink, and I order a gin and tonic, which I’d only recently started getting the hang of.

“Hendricks, please, if they have it, with a slice of cucumber.”

He comes back with a Gordons, the plasticky botanicals are jarring. It’s alright that he went for house gin, I think. He’s not earning much, being an actor.

Michael asks what I study at university and I begin to tell him some things about my degree course. His eyes dart around a lot as I speak, so I focus on his beard. A tiny cluster of black fibres is caught in the bottom of his blond beard hair, and I look at it for a while. I wonder if I should make a joke of it, point it out to break the ice.

You’ve got some of your scarf on your face.

or

Your beard is a little overdressed, perhaps it’d like to take off its coat.

or

You’ve got fluff in your chin crack.

I decide not to mention it. I ask him who his favourite actor is instead.

“Oh, well,” he says. That’d have to be Al Pacino. What a talent.”

“Do you like Benedict Cumberbatch?” I ask.

“What?”

“He’s a good actor, no? In Sherlock. Do you watch it?”

“I’ve seen an episode or two. Taxi Driver, though, what a great film. Great film.” He shakes his head.

“I haven’t seen it,” I say.

“You haven’t seen it? I thought you were a film student?”

The fluff in his beard has migrated to the other side of his chin.

“No, I read music. Bach and Mozart and stuff like that. I take a class on synchronising sound to film, though.”

“Hey! I’m walking here! Ha ha ha. I can’t believe a film student hasn’t seen Taxi Driver, Jesus.”

“Isn’t that a quote from Midnight Cowboy?”

“What? No, it’s definitely Taxi Driver,” Michael says, looking past me at a slim blonde woman leaning against the bar. I realise that my G&T is almost finished. We have only been here forty-two minutes, and Cosmopolitan.com said if a date lasts less than an hour, it’s a ‘grade A disaster’.

“Can I get us another round?” I ask, standing up. I’m not sure if “round” is the right word, since it’s just the two of us, and I feel my cheeks burning.

“Sure.” He glances at the clock on the wall, shifting his eyes away from the blonde woman’s cleavage long enough to conceptualise time. “I can probably fit another one in.”

I return with two pints of cloudy-looking ale, which are tepid and smell like soggy haystacks. He says “thanks” while staring at his phone. I imagine he’s telling his mate about the attractive woman at the bar he isn’t currently on an internet date with, but dearly wishes he was.

“Hey, so my mate is on Southbank so I’ll finish up here and head over, if that’s cool?”

“Oh, sure, don’t let me keep you,” I sip my expensive pint, trying not to breathe through my nose. “Cheers.”

The black fluff has headed north to his left cheek. I can’t take my eyes off it. Michael continues looking at his phone, ignoring me. I venture some further conversation to break the silence.

“Did you always want to be an actor?”

“Nah, I just wasn’t very academic so it seemed like a good idea after I left school.”

“I thought I might go into acting, maybe musical theatre–”

He made a snorting sound, his head snapping up, eyes lingering on my torso.

“I mean, you have to look a certain way to do that.”

“How’s that?” I feel my eyebrows shoot into my hairline, hidden by my massive fringe.

“You know… have the right type of body.”

I inhale slowly, tracing my fingers up the damp pint glass.

“I see. Well, thanks for the advice, you saved me the bother of many rejected castings.”

“No problem.”

I pull a face, again mostly concealed by my hair. Did he think I was being genuine, when he’d just…

“Listen, my mate is actually keen for me to go and meet him now, do you mind?” Michael looks earnest, glancing at the door.

“No, go ahead.”

I’m desperate for him to leave. Michael stands up, six quid-worth of disgusting pint untouched.

“Nice one, my dude.” He fist-bumps me, and leaves.

I sit back in the chair, feeling my whole body relax, and catch the eye of the blonde woman by the bar.

“Bit old for you, isn’t he?” She smiles, and I extend the corners of my mouth sideways in response. “Wonder why he can’t find someone his own age. You probably had a lucky escape, there.”

Writing

Bad Date Diaries #2: Norwegian Wood

I meet him at improv class, which at twenty-three I think is exceptionally cool. I’m impressed by the fact I can tell my friends back home that his dad used to be on the television, or at least gets a writing credit at the end of my favourite eighties sitcom.

He takes me to a pub at the top of a hill in Bristol, one with a fashionable wood-burning pizza oven in the middle of the room that makes the air thick with acrid smoke.

We don’t eat, I’m too nervous. It’s a bad habit I’ve developed on dates that I don’t realise is a problem yet. With nothing to line my stomach, I get too drunk. But not tonight, because I’m driving home.

He doesn’t ask me much about myself, but tells me in great detail about his degree – History and English Literature, joint honours – and lists all of the poets he enjoys. He even quotes me some verse from an old notebook he keeps in the interior pocket of his waxed jacket. I’m flattered by this, and it all feels very romantic and strange. He says he doesn’t often share his own work with other people. I choose to imagine that’s true.

He asks me what music I like; I say, old. He says, so do you like the Beatles? Ha, I say, who doesn’t, I’d hate to hang out with that person. What’s your favourite song, he asks.

I sit back on my chair and say, hmm, that’s a tough one. I like the ones nobody else likes, the ones about broken relationships and madness. You’d expect girls to say ‘Blackbird’ or ‘Eleanor Rigby’, but my favourite is ‘Norwegian Wood’.

You’re right, that’s a bit niche, he says. I like that about you, you’re surprising.

We finish our drinks and he asks me if I’d like to go back to his place for a bit, in the grand, old part of the city which houses most of the university. It’s a crisp autumn night and I’m enjoying his company, so I say yes. Plus, my car is outside the Student’s Union.

We walk along the row of shops towards the village and he stops dead. Hey, you hear that? He looks at me, wide-eyed, disbelieving.

I stop by tripping over a loose flagstone, and listen. No, I say, that’s ridiculous.

All that pizza oven smoke must be making us hallucinate, he says. There’s no way that’s what I think it is.

We press our ears against the glass door of the wine bar. A guitarist plays a slowed-down version of ‘Norwegian Wood’ to an audience of five or so, plus the two of us standing outside.

I can’t believe it, he says. What a coincidence. We look at each other, then, and I wonder if he’ll kiss me. He laughs and shakes his head. We keep walking.

Ivy-covered houses bear down on us, pale relics of colonialism curving around crescents and circuses. This one’s mine, he says, stopping outside a dark mansion with at least four floors. The woman who lives on the ground floor is such an old bitch, she’s always complaining about the noise.

He leads me up a huge flight of stairs onto the landing and I follow him into a small kitchen. Did you hear about that fresher girl who got raped? Walked home drunk and some local guys attacked her, dragged her down an alley or something.

The word has a sharpness and makes me flinch.

Yes, I saw it on Facebook. The SU put out an alert. The advice was stupid, they said the female students should avoid walking by themselves at night. That’s just victim blaming, if you ask me.

Ah, he says. It’s sensible advice, no?

What do you mean? I take the glass of tap water he offers me, wiping the soap scum off the rim with my sleeve which I hope he doesn’t notice.

Like, they said she was so drunk she could barely stand. She was stupid to wander off at night by herself in that state. He’s frowning now.

Surely the only thing causing sexual assault is the men who carry it out? I say, hoping I’m not coming across like too much of a feminist. I’m not sure if I’m one of those, yet.

I guess, he says. He sounds grumpy. I want him to be smiling again, I’ve made him uncomfortable. You sure you don’t want a glass of wine? He reaches into a high cupboard and I hear the clink of glass against glass.

I’m driving home, remember. Or would you rather I walk all the way back to Redland and risk being attacked?

He seems to think I’m making a joke, because he laughs. I badly want to change the subject. He pours himself a large drink.

We go into his room and his mood changes again. Hey, can you play guitar, he asks, or says.

I can, a bit. He hands me an expensive, vintage Stratocaster and plugs the lead into a large amp in the corner of his bedroom, turning up the main volume dial.

Won’t your neighbour get annoyed? It’s pretty late. We could just sit and listen to music instead, I say, eyeing a record player on the floor.

If you won’t play, I’ll show you something, if you like? He takes the guitar out of my hands before I can reply and plays a fairly easy riff, the sort of thing teenage boys play at house parties. It’s an anticlimax, but at least it isn’t Wonderwall, I think.

Are you into musicians?

I like creatives, I say. I like writers, artists. Comedians.

Comedians are often depressives. Do you know, my godfather is one of the most well-loved comics in the country, but he’s been on Prozac since the mid-seventies. Had complete mental breakdown about ten years ago but his publicist managed to keep it all out of the papers.

He continues playing the same four-bar riff over and over, raising his voice to a shout which only adds to the cacophony. I want him to turn it down, but I don’t know how to ask.

He’s pretty good-looking, I think. Quite delicate features, pale hair and high cheekbones. I wonder why he hasn’t tried anything yet, and cross one leg over the other after I sit down on the edge of the bed.

He keeps playing for a long time, and I start to wonder if I should leave. The situation is confusing, and I don’t have enough experience of this sort of thing to know what to do.

Hey, um, I might head off, I say.

What? He frowns, raising his chin.

I said, I might head off. Tonight was fun, we should hang out again soon.

Oh, sure. He puts the guitar down and the feedback vibrates in my eardrums like an itch.

He does kiss me, then. I feel myself lean into him and want to stay like this for a bit longer. He shows me to the door of the flat, and doesn’t ask for my number.