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.

Confessional, Personal

Algorithm

Welcome to LoveApp! Log in with Facebook?

Sign in, upload a profile photo, set the parameters. Is 25 too young? Is 35 too old? You’re now of an age where marriage and kids don’t seem like such a terrifying prospect. You’re still not sure about the big, white wedding thing, but you doubt anyone younger will want that any time soon either, and your fertility has already begun its decline. Don’t waste your time on 25. 27 to 34. That seems reasonable. Dan Stevens is 34, and if he wasn’t already married, you’d be trying to meet him at a press night to get his number.

Distance is trickier. What if the love of your life lives in Staines-upon-Thames? That’s nearly 30 miles away! You think about how you lived two miles from Staines for three years of your life and never found true love at the Wetherspoons on the high street, so it’s probably unlikely now. You decide 12 miles sounds reasonable. About as far away from your house as Highgate. Lovely Highgate.

What are your interests? You don’t want to come across as being too much at this early stage. Maybe don’t mention the novel you’ve half written in your biography. He can find out about that later. You decide to include the bit about being a PR and a singer; those are relatively vague, non-threatening, feminine traits. You include a quote from a Netflix original you love. If they pick up on that, you at least know they enjoy that one show. It’s such a good show, you think, remembering how the comedian said he probably won’t write another series. End on a high.

Additional photos. Men are dreadful at uploading pictures of themselves in huge groups of other men, which means you can never tell who this ‘Jeff’ is. You don’t think you have any group photos anyway. Just plenty of individual shots taken by a patient friend before a night out, and classic, only-child holiday photos taken by your Mum. Do you look too unfriendly here? You like the way your cheekbones look, so it stays. Better have a full-length one, too, just because… you’re not sure why. You wouldn’t date anyone who didn’t like you for being overweight, anyway. You forgot to eat dinner again. Your jeans are feeling a bit loose.

You put down your phone and exhale. What are the chances that an bit of computer code can find a partner who is in every way perfect for you? What if your ideal man is actually 24 and living in Berkshire, and so outside of your self-imposed parameters? You smile grimly and remember that one guy who was the literal embodiment of perfect. You remember how badly it hurt when he told you he was leaving you for someone else. Perfect is overrated, anyway, you think. It’s about much more than limitations and preferences.

You remind yourself that in a huge, international city like London, the chances of meeting The One on your commute are pretty minimal. Besides, nobody makes eye contact on trains, and you usually listen to a Spotify jazz playlist and plough through whatever book you’re reading that week. You can’t think of anyone you know who met their significant other on public transport, but plenty who made it to Serious Relationship Status on a dating app. This gives you hope. You pick up your phone again and open the app.

A face pops up. It’s a photo of a smiling man, who you establish by looking at the black writing underneath the face is 29, and called Tim. Hmm. You don’t really see yourself with a Tim. There’s something imperceivable about him that makes you think of a funeral undertaker, perhaps in the way his hair is parted to the side. Your finger hovers momentarily over the (X) and taps down. In less than five seconds, you made a decision that Tim was not the man for you. You blame the algorithm. Surely it would know that you would never date a Tim with a silly haircut?

But what if you met Tim in a bar, or at a wedding? His friends have no idea why he is single, because by all accounts he’s awesome. He’s been hurt by an ex-girlfriend who strung him along for months before announcing she’d been sleeping with a co-worker, but he’s over it now and ready to commit to someone deserving of him. He doesn’t want to mess about. He has gentle eyes the colour of sea glass, but you couldn’t see that because of the poor resolution of his profile photo, or maybe you were immediately put off by his undertaker hair and didn’t care to look. Tim comes from a kind, liberal family and has a sister called Genevieve who loves karaoke and walking her little dachshund, Rigby, on the Kent Downs.

You won’t ever meet Tim. He was right there, in the palm of your hand. The algorithm thought you two would have a great time! The algorithm saw two, good-looking young people who both enjoyed literature and American football and did its level best to hook them up! In five seconds that connection was broken, because you made a snap decision based on a couple of tiny bits of information about that living, breathing human being.

The way people meet and fall in love is undeniably changing. Perhaps your reluctance to get on board with dating apps is generational, because you can still remember very clearly being told by your teachers and parents to never, ever meet someone from ‘the internet’ in the real world, or get in an unlicensed mini-cab. In a world where one of the sweetest things your date could do is summon an unlicensed mini-cab from the internet and send you home alone and slightly hammered, it’s not surprising you’re a little overwhelmed by this seemingly rapid u-turn in expectation.

Another face pops up. Jonathan, 31. This time, you give this profile a thorough read-through, and think of a future of possibilities based on a handful of photographs, and a few lines of text. You momentarily think of Tim, and how you were too quick to dismiss him. Or was it the idea of him? Your hand moves left. (❤️).