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I’m by Boots! Can’t wait for a £20 beer!
They meet at Euston, and Kelly offers up one of her rare hugs. The plan for the day is to stay in the flat, drink, chat and giggle. If they go out, it won’t be for long. They make these trips to each other’s cities about twice a year, running across platforms to meet at a station Burger King or Paperchase. Silvia looks forward to the easy company, the in-jokes, the relief of being around someone who’s known her in all her various versions.
When they let go of each other, Kelly says, ‘Aren’t you going to offer to wheel my suitcase? Such a shit host.’
‘Give it, then. Did you bring your curling wand?’
‘I’m not doing your hair.’
That evening, Kelly curls both heads of hair: her friend’s dark one and her own white blonde one, and they venture to the pub closest to the flat.
They stopped bothering with the trip into central London a long time ago. They’re just as happy on the sofa as they are in a cocktail bar. Happier. Given half the chance, they’d still spend their time together in their childhood bedrooms, singing along to Ciara songs on MTV and writing messages to one another’s love interests on MSN.
‘You need to get back out there,’ Kelly says, propped up against the bar. ‘What about him?’ She points to a tall, bearded man, reading a newspaper.
‘Why’s he on his own on a Friday night?’
‘He’s been stood up. You can comfort each other.’
They order vodka sodas and set up shop at the booth closest to the newspaper guy.
‘Can you see which paper it is?’
Kelly slinks down in her seat with all the subtlety of a cartoon detective. ‘It’s a big one. Looks serious. Definitely not the Metro.’
‘He looks brooding. Like he’d do well on Countdown.’
‘I’m going to pee.’ She pushes her drink closer to Kelly’s. ‘Don’t do anything.’
When Silvia gets back to their table, approximately three minutes later, it’s empty. She walks over and stands awkwardly next to Kelly at the newspaper guy’s booth, waiting for a break in conversation. They seem to be talking about Brexit.
‘Oh. You’re back,’ Kelly says. ‘This is…’
The boy tells them his name in a strong Scottish accent, then sighs. ‘I’m waiting for my mate. He’s the worst. He’s just text me that he’s on the wrong bus.’
When the friend arrives ten minutes later, he’s compact, of indistinguishable age, and dressed in pilly, well-loved jogging bottoms. He has salt and pepper hair in a stiff little quiff and greets the girls as though they’re old friends.
‘We should get moving actually,’ Kelly says. ‘We want to get to that bar, don’t we, babe?’
The guy with the quiff says, ‘Maybe we’ll come too.’
‘Mate, you just got here,’ the newspaper guy says.
The quiff guy grins, revealing a set of impeccably white, straight teeth. He gives off car salesman, estate agent vibes. ‘Girls, shall we get together later then? At Farr’s?’
The bar story is a lie. The girls want to go and get pizza. It’s eleven and they’re hungry and have got their content for Instagram. For them, the night is drawing to a close.
Kelly takes the proffered phone and taps away at it. ‘There. Let us know.’
‘Bye!’ They all call to each other.
Outside, in the cold, Silvia narrows her eyes and says, ‘You gave my number to the wrong fucking one.’
It’s three weeks later when she eventually texts him back.
Ready for that drink now, if you want?
He replies within minutes and suggests a tiny pub in Stoke Newington for the following Friday.
Thursday? she tries. She’s in no hurry to give up a Friday night to a man whose face she can barely recall.
Let’s do it!
When the Thursday in question comes around, she’s nervous. She has two whiskies in a row and calls Kelly incessantly. Together, they decide that she shouldn’t dress up, so she puts on a red jumper and her Levi’s.
As she’s about to leave the house, a text comes through.
Running late! Sorry! Can we say 8:30 instead?
She looks around the room in dismay. They scheduled the date for seven thirty, and it’s seven, and she’s tipsy, and already has no desire to go.
Are you serious?
Need to quickly shower!
She’s furious. Let’s just leave it, shall we?
I don’t want to leave it! I can try for 8:15!
You needed to try for 7:30, mate
Are you actually annoyed??
Lateness is my worst ever.
Gosh! In that case I can do 8 I think!
She pours herself another whisky. She already hates being ‘back out there.’
She gets to the pub for ten past eight and can tell immediately that he’s not there.
You’re late to the already rescheduled later time of 8pm?
She doesn’t think she technically has the right to speak to this stranger in this way, and presses send anyway.
She sees him from afar and realises with a jolt that she might actually be taller than him. And she’s five foot three. As he approaches, offering a jaunty wave, she notices what he’s wearing. It’s a tweed three-piece suit, with a red silk cravat popped just over the waistcoat. His quiff is erect and ready for action.
He kisses her on both cheeks and doesn’t apologise for the fact that he’s this late because he was spending half an hour putting on formal wear.
‘Didn’t you say you were working from home today?’ she says, nodding at his apparel.
‘You’re a bit… smart.’
He pushes the pub door open and motions for her to go inside before him.
‘I only have two variations – joggers or full suit.’
He greets everyone behind the bar as though they’ve known each other for years, and they probably have. He’s a lot older than she remembers, looks to be in his early forties. She thinks very clearly to herself, What are you doing here?
‘Vodka soda?’ he asks her.
‘I’ll have a whisky actually, please. With ice.’
The shorter the drink, the shorter the date.
As they wait to be served, he begins to tell her a long-winded anecdote about why he hates pubs that don’t have bins by the tills. It is an incredibly boring anecdote, and she thinks, I am bored out of my fucking mind, to make herself laugh.
Every time she finishes a drink, he jumps up and comes back with two more. He doesn’t leave any gaps for her to speak. He tells her about three separate friends he went to college with, in vivid detail.
‘So Dan gets up and starts pacing,’ he says, standing up and demonstrating. ‘And then he goes back over to the bed and picks her up.’ He mimes picking a woman up. ‘And they just start fucking again,’ he says, jerking his hips back and forth with gusto.
She feels her face getting hot. His hips are still doing their mad dance.
He pauses and looks down at her. ‘I’ve been talking a lot, haven’t I?’
She nods, and he takes his seat.
‘Tell me about your day,’ he says.
‘Eh.’ She’s past being polite, if she was ever there. She checked out as soon as she saw his suit.
‘Your friend told us the other night that you’d just broken up with someone,’ he says.
‘Still in love with him?’
‘What kind of question is that?’
‘The reason I ask is -’
Here we go.
‘- my situation is a funny one.’
She places her chin in one of her hands. ‘Go on.’ She couldn’t care less if he tells her about his situation or not, but it can only be an improvement on hearing about Dan’s sexcapades. She takes a big swig of whisky and readies herself.
‘I’m open,’ he says, and waits for a reaction. ‘Well, we’re open. Me and my girlfriend.’
‘How does that make you feel?’
She shrugs. ‘It doesn’t make me feel anything. Good for you.’
‘So you’re cool with it?’ He beams. ‘Amazing.’
‘It’s your business.’
‘Not the jealous type, then?’
She clears her throat. ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’
She pushes her chair back and stumbles off to the toilets. After she pees, she takes stock of her reflection in the dingy mirror above the sink. She tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear and bites away a flake of dry skin from her bottom lip. She’s left her handbag with her comb and lipstick in it on the back of the chair.
She makes her way back out to him, an excuse ready. She has an early morning, her mum just called, she’s made a resolution to not drink more than five whiskies on a weeknight… Anything to leave.
‘Hey, so -’ she starts.
On the table in front of her, there is a fresh glass of whisky and a small shot glass, brimming with clear liquid. He’s grinning, excited at the decision he’s made.
Fuck. She’s shaking her head, involuntarily.
‘I have work in the morning,’ she says, feebly.
She picks up the shot and sniffs it. The familiar scent makes her stomach flip. The mere whiff of aniseed makes her gag. She gags now. He laughs, loudly.
‘What are we toasting to, exactly?’ she says.
She can’t believe that this fully-grown man can possibly think this date is going well.
‘Being open-minded!’ he says, running his hand through the front of his hair, and flashing his big, square teeth. He gingerly lifts his shot for her to clink with her own.
She can think of few things less appealing than cheersing to his open relationship with shots of sambuca, and yet she finds herself doing exactly that. The drinks have been bought. She’ll finish them off, make sure he doesn’t wander off to the bar again, and then leave for real.
‘Would you say you fancy me?’ he says, with no preamble.
‘Oh god.’ She sips her whisky. ‘Really?’
He nods with vigour.
‘No.’ She leans back in her seat and maintains eye contact. ‘No, I can’t say that I do.’
‘Oh.’ He blinks fast. ‘I might grow on you?’
‘I’m pretty instinctive.’
He exhales, his breath pungent with alcohol. ‘That’s disappointing.’
‘I think this might be a good moment to get going,’ she says.
She’s immeasurably glad that it’s not a Friday. She’d be absolutely furious if she’d spent her Friday night doing this.
He gathers up his wallet and phone, and makes a big song and dance of shouting goodnight to all the bar staff.
As they make their way outside, he dares to say, ‘Sure I can’t tempt you with one for the road?’
He’s easily spent sixty, seventy quid on this strange failed evening, and doesn’t appear to be bothered about it in the slightest.
‘I’m going this way,’ she says, pointing in the opposite direction to the one he came from.
‘I’ll walk you.’
‘You don’t know where I’m going.’
‘We’ll go wherever you need to be.’
‘I’m really fine.’
‘You’re going to walk the whole way? It’s late.’
‘I always walk home.’
‘Let me put you on the bus.’
‘Fine.’ She picks up the pace. There’s a stop right around the corner.
‘I live in a converted church, did I tell you that?’
‘I think you’d really like it. Wanna see?’
‘A photo?’ She already knows the answer, but wants to see if he’s stupid enough to say it out loud.
‘In real life. It’s only a few streets away.’
‘I’m not coming to your house.’
He takes her arm, gently. ‘Not for any seedy reason. I genuinely think you’ll appreciate the architecture.’
She hasn’t expressed an interest in architecture or houses or churches or, really, anything in the three hours they’ve been together. There is no reason for him to think she’d like his converted church.
‘No,’ she says. She jerks to a halt next to the M bus stop.
‘So you don’t want to quickly pop in?’
She turns to face him, pats his forearm, and says, ‘Night!’
He begins to shift from foot to foot and she thinks, Please no. Please don’t. He rolls backwards and forwards on the balls of his feet.
‘Don’t what?’ he says, smiling.
‘Try to kiss me.’
The expression on his face changes instantly. ‘Why did you say that?’
‘I just didn’t want to have to dodge it.’
‘Fuck,’ he mutters. ‘Well that’s changed the mood.’
‘Were you going to try to kiss me?’
‘So no harm done, right?’
The 106 is pulling in, and she’s ecstatic at the sight of it.
‘I’ll text you over the weekend,’ he says. ‘We should hang out again.’
‘See you.’ She does a half-jog to the open door of the bus.
As she makes her way up to the top deck, she breathes out, hard. She peers out the window and sees that he’s still standing at the bus stop.
Why did I want to get back out here again? she texts Kelly.
Open is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on. Read the first instalment of this column, Sage.