It’s strange, this online dating thing, isn’t it, how people just sort of expect to meet the love of their life through a device that didn’t even exist a decade ago. If you’d told me I’d be using a tiny pocket computer to meet women in 2017, I would’ve asked what on earth was wrong with me, but here we are, and you seem nice. You’re very pretty. I haven’t been on too many dates recently, work have me by the bollocks, you know how big corporations can be. They say your job will never love you back but they still keep giving me my Christmas bonus, so I keep turning up every morning. Actually, we need another few minutes, thanks so much… I’ve barely even glanced at the drinks menu, too busy talking. I hope she doesn’t come back too quickly, I’ll need a minute or two to consider my options. I sometimes come here for after-work drinks, they used to do this great Manhattan cocktail but the standard has gone downhill recently, you don’t even get a maraschino, or an olive, if you’re into those. I’ve actually been reading this great novel about the Prohibition and it goes into quite a lot of detail about the sort of drinks that were available, or weren’t available. I’ve got so many books on my bedside table which I haven’t even read yet, but there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, and of course it’s hard when you’re out running or at the gym, because audiobooks don’t count as reading a book, I don’t care what people say. I’ve got twenty thousand words of my own book written, it’s a sort of coming-of-age novel based on the year I spent working with refugees in Lebanon when I graduated from New College. Someone my father worked with offered me an internship at his corporate bank in Johannesburg but I just didn’t feel like that would be rewarding enough. Who ever wrote a novel about the summer they spent photocopying end of year accounts and making instant fucking coffee for balding investment bankers, precisely nobody. So instead I flew to Beirut and helped these Syrian refugees, which in the end was the right decision for me at the time. This guy called Arwad told me, through a translator obviously, this incredible story about a neighbour who was about a hundred years old, lived through all kinds of shit in the twentieth century, he was a soldier at some point too. Anyway apparently he refused to leave his house, even when the fighting was literally on his doorstep and everyone else had evacuated. Arwad had no clue what happened to him, it’s crazy to think this old man just, like, wouldn’t save himself. Imagine being that stubborn. We’ll have two dry martinis, but can you make one with vodka instead of gin and can I get that with a twist of orange, thanks. I sometimes ask for no vermouth, but then I can’t really claim it’s a martini without the vermouth, though Coward said it didn’t matter. You seem like a really introspective person, it’s strange. From looking at your photos you seemed quite outgoing but perhaps you’re just nervous. I’m usually quite shy too, I find it hard to let my guard down and really talk to people sometimes. When I first downloaded the app last year I found I wasn’t getting many matches, then one of my female friends told me my biography section was too wordy and that all women really care about is that you’re tall and you have a job, so I literally changed it to say this and then I started getting a few more matches. Women in London are so shallow, no wonder they’re all single. I bet you enjoyed my second photo, the one of me standing in front of the colourful buildings in Copenhagen. I went there last year for a stag, one of my oldest friends from school, he’s divorced now which is hilarious. He caught her cheating with his best mate, the marriage only lasted seven months or something. You’ve probably seen him on the app, he’s gone a bit off the rails, poor fuck. Best avoid him if he pops up, really. Thanks very much. Good, she remembered the orange twist. The martini was actually invented in San Francisco. I ordered these because I’m reading this chapter in my book about the Prohibition which said that since gin was relatively easy to distil, it made the martini the most popular drink the US during this time. I really hate gin, hence the vodka substitute. You look deep in thought, I hope I’m not boring you. I spend a lot of time writing, well, thinking about writing. Or thinking about thinking about writing is probably more accurate. I come up with ideas and jot them down in this little notebook. I dabble in poetry, but it’s probably so awful I wouldn’t share it with anyone. Not yet, anyway. I look at my friends in relationships and wonder how they manage it, there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, not here, not in London at least. I’ve been in love twice, once when I was at university and then my ex, who I broke up with a few months ago. She just hated living in London so much and I didn’t stop her leaving, didn’t make the effort to convince her to stay. I hope it’s not weird me talking about this. They say avoid politics and exes on first dates so I’ve fucked up fifty percent already. The weird thing about love is you often don’t realise you feel it until it isn’t there anymore, like if your right arm suddenly fell off one day, or maybe your left arm if you’re not right-handed. Anyway, I’m talking shit now. So, tell me about yourself?
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.
Your beard is a little overdressed, perhaps it’d like to take off its coat.
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.
“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.”
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.”