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She’s only going because it’s Thursday night and she hasn’t seen anyone since Tuesday. He’s Swedish, an inch shorter than her normal 6’2 lower limit, and has impeccable manners. Their conversation is very much surface level; they bonded over their mutual love of herbs. Sage in particular. They were going to meet up the week before, but she couldn’t face it when the time came, and cancelled very last minute, claiming that she’d got out the wrong side of bed that morning. What had really happened was that Instagram had suggested him as a possible friend, based on the fact that she had his number saved in her contacts – how are they allowed to do that? It seems such a violation of privacy – and she’d gone through all his pictures, right back to 2014, and didn’t like the fact that he used to have bleach blonde hair and did naked yoga.
But he sent her a well-timed text a few days later, saying, hi! how are you? having a better week? and that small show of kindness had been enough to thaw her.
She’s late, and warns him that she will be there at least fifteen minutes after the time they’ve agreed.
no worries. if i get there before you can i get you a drink?
‘Aw,’ she says under her breath. ‘That’s nice.’
She doesn’t have any wine or cognac in the flat, so will have to do the nice-to-meet-you dance completely sober. She checks her hair in the mirror and frowns. She takes it down and puts it back up again, much higher on her head. She pulls it tight and winks at herself. She applies a little lipstick and tries on two different jackets, settling on the one she wears every day. She looks like a slightly glossier version of her normal self. It’ll do.
She can either get the bus and be there in fifteen minutes, or walk and be there in twenty-five. It’s the first time she’s left the house all day and the fresh air is invigorating. She strides off towards Homerton with purpose. It starts to drizzle as soon as she passes the bus stop.
‘Fuckin’ell,’ she mutters.
She’s already decided she won’t fancy him. Still, she checks her face in her phone screen before she pushes into the pub: the Chesham Arms, which he’s been consistently referring to as Charms. She peers around the corner and sees him at a tiny round table right by the door. His hair is cropped and not bleach blonde at all.
‘Hi,’ she says, reaching across the table to hug him. ‘So this is the famous Charms!’
‘Sorry?’ he says, in a very pronounced Swedish accent.
She’s well aware that he’s Swedish, and yet his voice comes as a surprise.
‘I’m just saying we’re here, at Charms.’ She sits down and places a hand around the whisky and ginger she asked him for.
He smiles and nods. He doesn’t say anything.
Oh god, she thinks.
‘I’ve walked past this pub loads of times. I always think about coming in, but never do.’ She plays with a strand of baby hair on her forehead.
‘You’ve never been here?’
‘Nope.’ She told him that she’d never been here the first time he suggested the Chesham Arms, and also the second time he suggested the Chesham Arms.
‘I like it.’
‘So.’ She’s stuck. ‘Good day?’
‘Sorry?’ he says softly, leaning in to hear her better.
‘Your day. Was it alright?’ She tries to enunciate clearly. It’s always strange to be reminded that she has an accent herself.
‘It was quite shit.’
‘I had a nap at four thirty,’ she says, and isn’t sure why. ‘I couldn’t stop watching that video of Trump with the toilet paper on the bottom of his shoe.’
‘Have you seen it?’ she says.
‘No I haven’t.’ His face is expressionless.
She thinks of showing him the video on her phone, then decides against it, in case she gets a notification from the dating app while he has her phone in his hands. The dating app that she met him on.
‘Look it up. It’ll make your day. It’s definitely the best thing that’s happened to me today.’
‘Okay. I will.’
‘I meant now.’
He obliges, then places the phone on the table between them. The video takes forever to load and neither of them speaks while the wheel of doom goes round and round. Eventually, the seven-second clip plays, and he laughs the appropriate amount.
This leads to a political discussion she’s not in the mood for.
‘I read somewhere that we only viably have ten years left,’ he says, his longest sentence yet.
‘Before the end?’
‘I heard it was closer to eighty.’
He murmurs something, which doesn’t sound important enough to merit asking him to repeat.
‘It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if it’s true,’ she says.
He laughs, even though she wasn’t really making a joke.
‘Two of my friends have just had babies,’ she starts, and then wonders if she should really go down this road on a first date. She has nothing to lose, so continues. ‘It really affected me. I don’t know if I could cope with bringing a tiny new person into this mess.’
He sucks in a breath, agrees with her. ‘Children scare me,’ he says.
‘They’re just the same as grown-ups. There are some great ones and some less great ones.’
‘I’m learning how to be around them. When I was last home in Malmö, I hung out with my nieces and nephews and we had fun I think. I pushed them on the swings, did yoga with them…’
She raises an eyebrow and sips her whisky. ‘You like yoga?’
‘It’s good for me.’
‘Do you meditate?’ She’s thinking of the cyclist and the short-lived stint of meditation she tried herself in an attempt to feel closer to him.
‘I find what I need from yoga. I like to swim too.’
‘Where do you swim?’ Why is she asking him this? She’s never going to go there, wherever he tells her.
‘There’s a pool right next to my office. And when it’s warm I go to the lido at London Fields.’
‘I can’t swim.’ She always seems to find a way of inserting this into conversation on first dates, quickly followed by: ‘I can’t cycle either.’
‘That’s a shame. If you did, there’s a really nice pub along the river Lea I could take you to.’
‘Only accessible by bike?’
‘Well no, but it’s a good ride.’
‘I’m a pretty sedentary person,’ she says. ‘I like being inside.’
‘Do you want another drink?’ He points at her almost empty glass.
‘It’s alright, I’ll do it,’ she says, reaching into her jacket pocket.
He shoos her hand away and stands up. She’s pleased. As much as she considers herself to be a feminist, a free drink is a free drink. She peers up at him while his back is turned, assessing him. He has an impressive build, his shoulders wide, and everything in proportion. She can’t make her mind up about his face. He has those very light brown eyes which look almost grey in some lights, and a sweet little mouth. His nose is a good nose. He has a full beard, and it’s so long on his face that she can’t tell how thin his upper lip is. Quite thin, she thinks. He purses his lips while she talks to him, and it makes him look pretty, feminine.
He comes back to the table and hands her her drink. The first one has worked its magic and she’s determined to enjoy herself. She asks him about his job.
‘I like it a lot. There are some good days, some bad days, but it’s good to have both,’ he says.
‘What was your worst ever job?’
‘Yeah. I worked as a bartender while I was in college, and was so shit at it. I once gave a whole football team out-of-date Heinekens and one of them noticed and complained and I had to give them all free ones for the rest of the night.’
He cocks his head to the side. ‘I had a job in a factory for two years, cleaning parts. I’d go home and cough up black stuff every evening.’
‘I used to be able to listen to the radio while I did it though.’
He stands up abruptly and walks outside.
‘Bye,’ she says, under her breath.
Came out with that Swedish guy, she texts Kelly. Am bored to tears. Should’ve stayed home
I thought you said you were gonna watch the whale documentary tonight!
Stop pushing that bloody documentary on me
He reappears. ‘Wanna sit outside?’ he says.
In the pub garden, a beautifully-behaved black and white Whippet is weaving in and out of people’s feet, and provides the perfect distraction. Her collar says NINA.
‘Hey cutie,’ she says, stroking her ears. ‘Who’s so lovely?’
It starts to rain again, quite heavily this time. The smell of wet earth rises and changes the mood of the evening. She relaxes. He’s sweet, attentive; she’s out the house.
Enjoy yourself, man, she thinks. Be present.
‘What’s next for you?’ he asks, after a few moments of quiet.
‘You mean in my life?’ Her heart rate quickens at this question that she’s been dodging for weeks now.
‘Yeah. What will you do?’
‘Ah. I don’t think I can answer that. Do you know? Does anyone?’
He reaches his hand out from under the awning to feel the rain on his skin. He smiles, dreamily. ‘I’m quite happy where I am.’
She feels jealousy burning her cheeks. How novel to be content, to not want, wish, daydream about being somewhere else, in some other situation. She senses him looking at her nearly-empty glass. He’s finished his.
‘You want another?’ he says, right on cue.
She shakes her head. ‘I should get going, actually. I can’t have a headache tomorrow, I want to get up early to write.’
He doesn’t try to hide his disappointment. ‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Okay.’
She picks up their two glasses, and stands. He doesn’t move. She looks over her shoulder at him as she makes her way back into the interior of the pub. He gets up slowly, takes a long time to button up his jacket, then bends to pet Nina. From her vantage point, she examines him again. He’s not for her. Not her thing at all.
Eventually, he follows her. She exits the pub before him, then waits to see which direction he’s going in. He points towards a lamppost where a bike is chained. She accompanies him to it. It’s the polite thing to do.
‘It’s so skinny,’ she says.
‘Yeah, really streamlined. I’m into it.’
He places a hand on the handlebars and strokes them.
‘So,’ she says, watching him set the bike free. ‘I’m going the opposite way to you.’
This is the worst bit and she wishes she could skip it. He abandons the bike, lets it fall back against the lamppost. She has the unwelcome thought that he’s about to take her by the shoulders and lower his thin upper lip towards hers. She’s not in the mood to dodge a goodnight kiss, so she pushes herself up on her tiptoes and reaches for a hug. He hugs her back, and his arms feel comforting in that way that she misses.
‘It was really nice to meet you,’ she says.
‘Yes. It was.’
She thinks again how mismatched his soft voice is with his large build.
‘Well.’ She begins to edge away.
‘This is for you,’ he says, with no preamble, putting his hand inside his jacket. He pulls out a bunch of leaves and hands it to her.
She gazes down at it, confused, before she realises what he’s given her. It’s a bunch of sage. It’s so thoughtful and unexpected she can only look up at him and smile. A real smile.
‘It’s from my parents’ garden in Malmö. I brought it back for you.’
‘I thought you’d like it.’
She holds it against her chest. ‘This is so nice, thank you.’
She almost wants to give him another hug, then decides it against it. ‘Get home safe,’ she says instead.
‘You too.’ He looks at her wistfully, the corners of his eyes wrinkling up.
He mounts his bike and she hurries round the corner, the cold air painful as it hits her fingernails. As she walks back to her flat, she keeps looking down at her gift. She grins the whole way home.
She’s already in bed when his text comes through.
i was so nervous meeting you today. not sure why. probably because i haven’t been dating for 6 months and i had high hopes about this one. i’m sure you noticed :) i think you’re really cool and i liked you a lot. it would be fun to do something again but maybe in a different setting, nature or something maybe. what do you say?
She forwards the message to Kelly, and writes, Babe! What am I meant to say??
Just be honest?
She doesn’t want to be honest, but after fifteen minutes he sends another text.
it’s also totally fine if you don’t want anything more. just let me know
He can see that she’s read both messages and is online. And she knows all too well how shit and confusing it is to be ghosted after what you thought was a great date. She drafts a text, and sends it quickly, without thinking too much about it.
The next day, she tears a handful of the furry leaves from the stalk, and chops them finely. In a frying pan she melts some butter, and fries the sage with a generous sprinkling of salt. She mixes the concoction with some pumpkin gnocchi and eats it on the sofa, her feet on the coffee table.
Sage is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on