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Five minutes in and already Geoff has that sinking feeling, is wishing he could bail out. He smiles widely to cover the treacherous thoughts and asks another question, allowing the woman – Samantha – to continue talking, on and on, about her work, something in the legal department of a major pharmaceutical. Both of them are wearing office uniform. White blouse and black suit for her, with a chunky gold chain adorning her pale neck. Striped shirt and navy suit for him, a brighter tie than usual.
The waitress interrupts the flow of work-speak. ‘Are you ready to order?’ Neither of them have taken time out to peruse menus or discuss what to drink. They bat back and forth – should they share a bottle, and if so red, white, rose? – while the waitress taps her pen. Her shapely calves provoke a sexual flicker which is markedly absent from his date.
‘Might as well order by the glass, go for what we really want,’ Samantha says. They can’t even compromise on wine-colour or commit beyond 175ml it seems. They order from the set menu, which limits the options and promises quick service, and already he can feel the relief of flight.
He is home too early for a Friday night, heavy with the weight of one more failure. Why does he even bother?
At work, a hi-tec consultancy, the women are mostly in admin roles, all too young, or old, or too thoroughly married. Of a weekend he goes cycling with a club: blokes, plus the odd dragged-along partner. Online dating is the practical solution to the fact that he meets no one new. He brings his own page up on the site for young professionals which he chose after careful dithering. His photo and profile present an image of solid dependability. In seeking dates, he sets sensible search criteria. Similar attainments in education and career. Close in age. Similarly ranked in the attractiveness stakes.
He is not going to worry about whether Samantha will contact him again. Does not need to log in now.
His fingers itch at the thought of information hanging suspended in hyperspace. It will only take a second.
He has two new messages.
Samantha: Thanks again for a great evening. Maybe cool things for a while.
Like things have ever been remotely warm.
He replies with return nonchalance. Likewise, lovely meeting you. Some other time perhaps.
The second message is from someone called Evelina.
He clicks. Her image appears. She is younger than him by some way and has a movie actress gloss. Long blonde hair contrasts with a low-cut black top. She has a toothpaste advert smile and a deep tan which it seems unlikely she has acquired naturally, not in London. Her eyes are big and wide, or made-up to look that way.
Not a match at all. Well obviously.
Her personal message is short. Hi, I think you’re really cute and would love to get to know you. View my profile to find out more about me. Hope you’ll get back to me soon. The message is signed off with kisses and a smiley face.
One of two things is clear: either she’s messaged in error or it’s some sort of scam.
He thinks of the emails caught by his spam filter that – in moments of weakness – he sometimes opens. Beautiful girl from Russia is waiting to hear from you, accompanied by a photo not dissimilar to the one gracing his screen now.
Except this can’t be the same. The site has processes to ensure legitimate users only.
He clicks through. Her profile has nothing about her career or educational background, nor does it list worthy interests.
I’m a fun loving girl.
Fun is not something that he does.
I’m looking for a sweet-natured guy to wine and dine and romance me.
Clearly not his type at all.
You’ll find I’m easy company, game for a laugh, wanting a special someone to snuggle up with in bed.
The combination of photo and the word bed provokes the reflex of desire, the same reflex as those other sites he sometimes resorts to. He wonders what mix of search terms she can possibly have entered to bring him up as a potential date. Can she really want someone a decade older than her, averagely good-looking, but earning a decent income, and – if so – why?
Anger pulses: she’s taking him for a fool, and it’s working. He should report her. Except for doing what exactly?
He reopens her message and presses reply and stares at the box in which he’s invited to type something.
Then he logs out, closes his laptop and goes to the kitchen to pour a stiff drink, hoping to numb the dullness of his night.
Friday afternoon is drawing to a close and he’s gut-tight with tension. Just another date and likely it will be as unsuccessful as the rest. But what really does he have to lose?
His stomach grumbles unhelpfully.
He doesn’t have to go, can log in and make some excuse, or simply not turn up at all. Yet Friday night seems long and lonely and despite his misgivings, he is curious. This is an experiment, nothing more.
He arrives early, giving himself time to settle at the table, providing him first viewer advantage. He orders a double G&T.
She is five minutes late.
Ten minutes. He is poised between relief and disappointment.
The door opens and he recognises her immediately. Long blonde hair, turning darker at the roots. Closefitting clothes which hug and display her body. A glossy mouth breaking into a smile, which she bestows on the waiter.
He blushes stupidly. She will be disappointed. Or perhaps has turned up precisely to humiliate him.
Approaching his table, the smile springs up again, no hint of let-down. She is a little older and more worn-looking close up, the glamour seems more painted on. ‘Hello, you must be Geoff.’ Her accent has a trace of something foreign, East European he thinks. Her clothing is cheap-looking and scanty for an autumn evening; he pictures all the men here – the grey, uniformed men – watching with envy, or scorn.
He stands, is more or less level with her given her heels. Her grip on his arm is firm as she leans in – her chest nudging his – to leave greasy lip-stains on his hot cheek.
‘I hope you have not been waiting long.’
‘No, not at all.’ What on earth are they going to talk about?
But she seems at ease both with herself and his dumbstruck silence as she peruses the menu. ‘Why don’t you order?’ she says.
Never in his entire dating history has a woman suggested this.
He proceeds to interrogate her on her preferences, but all she will say is, ‘I am pretty easy to please. I like most things.’ Her heavily mascara-ed eyes look directly into his, as if in challenge.
He orders more extravagantly than usual and not the things he would usually go for. Women tend to prefer white wine and he orders something classier than house. Chicken is too commonplace, dark meat too rich; the fish – accompanied by lime, chilli and herbs, and wrapped, for some reason, in a banana leaf – sounds lighter, more exotic.
Gin long downed, he drinks the wine quickly, finding himself swept along on a wave of intoxication. She asks him dozens of naive questions about his work. ‘Really,’ she keeps saying, eyes widening ever more, ‘that sounds fascinating.’ She has little to say about herself.
‘I am not very interesting,’ she says, mouth forming a scarlet moue. Until recently she worked at a call centre. Not quite a young professional then; he bites the thought back. She lost her job amidst recent redundancies and is currently claiming benefits. ‘Not for too long, I hope.’ She is camping out on a friend’s sofa. ‘Until I find something of my own.’
‘That must be tough,’ he says, failing to imagine an existence in which only the charity of a friend keeps him off the street. Which of his friends could he impose on? What would he do with his accumulation of stuff, never mind the need for comfort and privacy? She shrugs as if nothing is unusual. He thinks of his own good fortune in rising above a working-class upbringing in which no one expected him to amount to much and his father positively opposed his going to uni. He finds himself telling her a little of these things, when normally there seems no reason to disclose his background.
Service is slow. They take their time with eating, despite the portions being teasingly small. He is talking far too much, breaking the unspoken rule of equal airtime. Dessert over, they order coffee and then liqueurs. He has no idea where the evening is going.
He finds himself offering to pay and she smiles sweetly as he gets his credit card out. The bill is higher than he expected, though he doesn’t double check the individual items the way he normally would.
Outside, the wind is keen and he puts an arm around her as they stroll towards the tube station. They stop at the entrance and just as he’s starting to thank her for a lovely evening, her arms reach warmly round his neck and her lips press against his. His whole body snaps alert and he is kissing her like some hormone addled teenager, tongue thrusting, groin pressing against her. As suddenly as it started, she is pulling away. She looks at her watch in dismay. ‘Oh no, I will miss the last train.’
One part of his brain is at the ready to question which train could possibly cease running at just after eleven o’clock. But another part is directing his hand to reach for his wallet to give her the cash for a taxi. And only as he is descending deep underground, does he wonder if he could have offered the alternative of her accompanying him. Unlikely. Unlikely, he will even be seeing her again.
Several Fridays later and he is simply heading home.
The tube is packed and he stands, hanging onto a rail, body swaying with the rhythm of the train, the press and shove and stale odours of end-of-day people all around. Evelina will be waiting. Anticipation buzzes alongside misgiving. He runs through the arguments that have been churning all week.
It won’t be for long. Helping her out does not imply any responsibility towards her. Not like there isn’t an upside too.
Things have happened so quickly. He has no idea what he is doing, remains alert to the obvious alarm bells. But there have been no falsely fulsome declarations of devotion. No sob-story involving ever increasing amounts of money. No sure-thing business deal which just requires a small injection of cash. He pays for things when they go out. Provides small handouts for ill-defined purposes. That’s all.
Now she is moving in.
Only temporary, helping her out of a fix.
Her friends have finally run out of sofa space, or patience. Her alternative options seemed vague and already he is anticipating how the few days will be extended, he’s seen it before, the way things get pushed beyond the initial parameters.
But he will draw the line if he needs to.
He opens his front door and calls out; it feels strange doing so in his own home. He hears the rustle of her clothes and the tapping of heels, which leave pockmarks on his wood-effect floor. He should remind her of his shoes-off policy. Again. Her smile is wide and her kiss warm. Her perfume over-heady. ‘You see, I hardly take up any space,’ she says.
He goes into the bedroom to get changed. A few floaty garments hang alongside his sober work gear in the wardrobe. The drawer he cleared for her has been left partly open; it overspills with knickers and a tangle of tights. A slippery nightshirt lies strewn across a pillow, the side of the bed he prefers, though he has never established this on the nights she has stayed over.
In the living room, he finds her in full command of the sofa. Magazines, her bag, tissues, a precariously perched mug, her feet and shoes: all belong more soundly on the coffee table or floor.
‘Anywhere for me to sit?’ he asks, and she doesn’t seem to pick up on the annoyance in his tone. No wonder her friends got sick of this.
She smiles and makes a space beside her.
‘You’ve made yourself at home?’ As if that isn’t obvious.
Her expression is pleasant and bland; he has no idea what she is thinking, but then who really ever has access to another person’s thoughts? ‘It is very comfortable here,’ she says and he thinks, I bet it is, compared to what she might be used to. Guilt pulses, the thought unworthy; constantly she provokes these swings.
She has settled in, but not made any attempt to buy food; his online delivery is tomorrow and he has his purchases finely honed, meaning he is running out of everything.
‘A takeaway?’ he suggests. ‘Maybe a film?’ On demand gives access to the latest releases.
‘If you like.’
His underlying tension mixes badly with a curry that is hotter than he expected. He proposes a must-see film, one with popular young actors, one he would not normally watch himself. ‘OK,’ she says, as if she is the one doing him the favour. Partway through and she starts to fiddle with her mobile phone.
‘You’re not interested.’ He fails to keep the accusation from his voice.
‘Sure. I don’t need to watch every minute.’ As always he fails to ruffle her veneer, to glimpse what might actually lie beneath.
Another Friday night. Perhaps it’s the force with which he looks forward to his end of week that triggers the inevitable letdown. Earlier, he proposed a post-work drink with colleagues, but everyone else has somewhere else to be.
It’s a relief really. Generating non-work chit-chat is exhausting, finding things to say without disclosing anything. His fling with Evelina feels temporary and uncertain. Not only has she never met anyone he knows, they don’t even know of her existence.
The flat is empty. Evelina is out with some of her friends. ‘If that is OK with you?’ she’d said.
Would it have made any difference, if he’d said no?
‘Some girlfriends,’ she clarified, reassuring him or explaining why he was not invited, he wasn’t sure.
En-route, he’s picked up a gastro-pub microwave dinner for one, together with a bottle of wine. The flat feels empty, yet his own unclutter is littered with small signs of her presence. It isn’t a big deal – shouldn’t be – removing her jumper from the sofa and putting her coffee mug in the dishwasher. Placing her brand of sugar-laden cereal back in the cupboard and a pair of shoes in the hall. She moves things if asked, but never changes for next time.
The meal emerges dried out, unevenly hot and saturated with sodium, which he is supposed to be cutting down on. The wine might have been better left to breathe, would certainly have been better shared. He fails to settle on anything to watch, finds himself restlessly channel hopping, something he hates when Evelina does it.
Several days has stretched to several weeks. When he asks about her plans, she always asserts, ‘I can find somewhere else if you want,’ placing the need for decisiveness on him. Apart from mild chaos, she is not difficult to have around, neither helping with nor adding much to his chores.
For all they are living together, they are in each other’s company relatively little. He gets up early on workdays and leaves her sleeping, limbs sprawled, hair fanned out over the pillow. Often he is back late. Sometimes – like tonight – she goes out and returns in the early hours. His weekends are packed tight with catching up on sleep and household things, with his cycling club and meet ups with old friends, to which it never seriously occurs to him to invite her. Times they are both home, they operate on parallel lines. He’ll grab something to eat, when she’s already eaten earlier. He’ll be playing online games while she watches TV, or if he turns the TV on, she’ll be social networking on her tablet.
Their main point of connect is in bed, the sheer animal pleasure of it, the anticipation and aftermath reverberating through his otherwise arid life.
It is the ideal relationship; it is irredeemably flawed. It cannot continue. Surely not.
Yet another Friday night. He sees the woman as she enters, knows it’s her, though certainly her photo was a flattering one.
Come on. Give this a proper chance.
He has learned from his mistakes, well obviously.
He forces himself to mirror this woman’s smile. Charlotte, she is called. Her profile ticks all the right boxes.
He pitches himself into the evening with more enthusiasm than he feels and he seems to be eliciting a warm enough response. They discuss recent films and books. They understand one another’s corporate world.
The evening progresses. They linger over coffee and flavoured vodka. The woman tells him about her previous partner and regales him with tales of online dating disasters and he pictures being dissected this way in due course.
‘What about you?’ she asks.
He thinks of Evelina. He doesn’t say anything. Obviously not. Yet images continue to occupy his mind. Her look of resignation as she packed her bags. His sense of being such a bastard when he said no to allowing her to stay on just a few days more. The feeling of utter emptiness of his neat and tidy flat. The loneliness of his king-sized bed.
And he still cannot judge, not really, the basic source of error. Whether it lies in dating Evelina, or in ditching her.