Lucille and her Owner

Picture Credits: Stephen Griffin

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She can see his shaved head through the middle of the bar. She’s on one side, he’s on the other. He catches her eye and waves his fingers at her. She grins, pleased that he’s recognised her, and waves back. He meets her in the doorway between the two rooms. He’s holding a lead. He’s brought a dog. His dog, presumably. He’s not anywhere near as attractive as his pictures had led her to believe. She thinks, You don’t look 6’5.

He envelopes her in a big hug, plants a wet kiss somewhere near her cheek.

‘What are you having?’ he asks.

‘Wine, please. White.’

He’s served fast, probably a benefit of being the first person the bartender can see. He hands her her drink and they dither about where to sit for a few seconds.

‘Aren’t you going to introduce me?’ she says, looking down at the black and grey dog sitting obediently between his feet.

‘This is Lucille,’ he says.

She bends down and scratches her ears. The dog looks sleepy, has big muddy eyes, and is a sweetie. She heaves herself up onto one of the tall stools around the table they’ve chosen, while he slots himself onto his effortlessly.

‘So,’ she says. ‘Hi.’

He proffers a meaty fist, and she looks at it.

‘Give me some skin,’ he says.

She obeys. ‘I was with someone this afternoon who knows you.’

He keeps his eyes trained to the wall next to them. ‘Oh yeah? This’ll be good. Where do they know me from?’

She laughs.

‘Did I used to sell them drugs, by any chance?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Usually doesn’t come up until at least twenty minutes into a date, but might as well fill you in now.’

He has a flesh-coloured mole on the side of his nose, and the angle of his face means she can’t take her eyes off it.

‘Yeah, I dealt for five years. Was really good at it. Made a fortune.’

‘So you’re an entrepreneur, essentially?’

  ‘I am. It was a good life, I can’t lie. When you do something like that, you’re on the fringes of society, out of the real world, and I loved that.’

She murmurs to show that she wants him to continue.

‘And I was happy to be outside of the real world. But then I fell in love, and thought…’

‘You’d quite like to be back in the real world, after all?’

‘Exactly. God, heavy this, for a first date.’

She looks under the table. ‘She’s so good, I forgot she was even there.’

‘She’s the best.’ He leans right down and rubs his big hand over the dog’s face.

His trainers are huge. When they were messaging, he told her his shoe size was a sixteen. That’s almost three times bigger than hers. As the dog laps at water in a bowl, she takes a sip of her wine.

‘Do you have siblings?’

He whistles through his teeth. ‘Yeah. A few.’

‘How many’s a few?’

‘Not sure. My dad was a busy man back in the day.’

She laughs, loudly.

He laughs too. ‘How much of a red flag is all this? Are you completely put off?’

‘Not at all.’ She flicks her hand back, dismissing the idea. ‘This is fun.’

‘Good, I’m glad.’ He turns his face to her, holds eye contact for a few beats. ‘What about you? Siblings?’

‘None. It’s just me.’

‘Wow. And what was it like growing up in the midlands?’

‘More or less how you’d imagine. Safe, dull, fine.’ She pauses. ‘Aw that’s sly, I like my hometown. I had a lovely childhood.’

‘And then you came here?’

‘With some stop-offs along the way. I lived in France for a while.’

‘Oh yeah? Do you speak the language?’

She nods. ‘It’s a bit rusty, but it comes back when I need it.’

‘And Italian?’

‘Yep.’

‘I love Italy. All mental, aren’t they?’

‘Completely. My favourite thing is the old men. They take these plastic garden chairs, and put them in front of their houses, and just sit. Sit and watch. But sometimes their houses are in cul-de-sacs or whatever, and they have to wait for half an hour to see another person. And the person will go by, and they’ll both say buonasera and then the old man will just go back to staring into space until the next person comes by.’

‘We do a lot of work in Rome, and they have these outrageous requests. They’ll say, Eh we need a tiger. So we’ll sort it out for them, and then they’ll go, The tiger needs to be loose. And we’ll explain the dangers of that and why it’s not possible, and they go, Is okay, is okay. So we’ll do the shoot, and it’ll come time to pay, and they’re like, £100, is okay?’

She sputters into her glass.

For their second drink, talk turns to literature. He says he doesn’t read nearly as much as he used to. He worked in publishing after his drug dealing days were over, comes from a long line of writers and literary agents. He wrote poetry for a while, until he got sick of people assuming he was overemotional or depressed.

‘Who do you like?’ he asks.

As she’s planning her answer, she feels Lucille nuzzle her ankle. She tells him who her favourite writer of all time is, and he gives her a sly smile.

‘I used to sell her coke once a year, on New Year’s Eve.’

‘No!’

‘Yes. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in real life. Present company excluded.’

‘That’s one person I’m happy to fall short of.’

She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Once there, she feels no need to text any of her friends, not even Kelly. While she’s sitting on the toilet, he texts her two book recommendations.

‘I like talking to you about books,’ he says, when she rejoins him.

She sort of hears him, but sort of wants to hear him say it again. ‘What?’

‘I like talking to you about books.’

‘I could do this forever. It’s my best.’

He’s relaxed into himself now, she can tell. He’s meeting her eye more, cracking more jokes.

‘Another?’ he asks, pointing to her half-empty glass. His own is almost finished.

‘I’ll nurse this for a bit longer. I haven’t eaten, I’ll be pissed.’

‘Some bar snacks then? Crisps? Pork scratchings?’

She shakes her head, grins. ‘I’m good.’

While he’s at the bar, Lucille jumps up at two women at the table next to theirs. The women lose their minds over her. She really is a lovely little dog.

‘Do you wanna eat?’ he asks once he’s back. ‘We could go somewhere.’

‘I’ll be okay. I have reserves.’

He peers down at her, unconvinced. ‘Where?’

‘Legs.’

‘You know, you don’t seem like you’re five three.’

‘Well I am.’

‘Stand up, let’s see how small you really are.’

So they’re playing this game. She does as she’s told, and he stands up too.

‘Are you wearing heels?’

She lifts her foot, shakes her flat boot at him. They both sit back down. The dog is confused and sniffs her owner’s shoe.

‘You have a tall face,’ he tells her.

‘Oh?’

‘It’s elegant. You have a very elegant face.’

‘I don’t think anybody’s ever called me elegant before.’

She waits for him to expand, but he doesn’t.

***

‘Come and see my house,’ he says, forgetting to put a question mark in his voice.

She’s in control of her faculties and hasn’t decided, even at this late point in the evening, if she’s attracted to him. All she’s sure of is that she would like to hang out a little longer.

The flat is only a few streets away, which was clearly part of his reasoning behind picking that particular nondescript pub. The block is ex-council, unexciting from the outside. Lucille leads the way up six flights of stairs.

‘After you.’

‘I don’t know which one it is.’

‘Here.’ He puts his key into a red door and opens it onto a scene of mild destruction.

The floorboards are bare, but not in the chic, sanded-down, varnished way she admires in other peoples’ Victorian conversions. In the threat-of-splinters way. He leads her past the kitchen. She cranes her neck to peer inside and says, ‘Nice.’ It’s a pretty standard kitchen: a bit messy, personality-less, beige appliances, a plastic cereal box brimming over with dog biscuits, Lino on the floor, curling in the corners. The front room is where he’s headed, and there’s not a lot she can say about this either. The walls are beyond bare. They’ve been dug away. The wiring is on display, and inexplicably, he has hung one solitary painting in the middle of it all. It’s the face of a very unattractive man, done naively.

‘Who’s that?’ She nods at it.

‘This musician I made a film about.’

He doesn’t want to talk now, she can sense that much. He has placed his beefy hands on her hips and is doing a slinky thing with his own hips to close the distance between them.

‘Let me kiss you,’ he says, as he’s already leaning down.

She’s slightly concerned about all that beard, worries it’ll be coarse, uncomfortable, will leave her with stubble rash in the morning. It was difficult to tell in the dingy pub, but she’s aware now that his mouth, like the rest of him, is oversized. Cushiony. His tongue darts around hers and he pulls her closer.

She disentangles herself to look up and say, ‘Let me see the rest, then.’

Lucille runs up the stairs first, and they both follow her. There are two rooms, one filled almost entirely with cardboard boxes full of books, the other the one he clearly sleeps in. In his bedroom, he sits on the edge of the bed.

Here we go, she thinks.

He pats the spot next to him. ‘Sit down.’

He hasn’t left her much room.

‘Where?’

He points at his lap, and she slides onto one of his legs, which is practically the same width as the whole of her. She fits neatly in the space between his thighs. He kisses her with intention, and she finds herself suddenly hyperaware that she is in a complete stranger’s flat, locked in, and that most of their interaction thus far has revolved around him stating in various ways how much more of him there is than of her, and her responding by echoing that yes, she is very little, and he is gigantic. She places a hand on the wide expanse of his chest and pushes gently.

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘You haven’t shown me the dining room yet.’

He laughs wistfully, her body still caught between his various limbs. ‘Do you wanna sleep here?’ he says. ‘We don’t have to fuck.’

She furrows her brow.

‘What? I can make us a cup of tea. I won’t try anything.’

Lucille is sniffing the rug next to their feet.

She doesn’t speak for a moment, then says, ‘I feel weird now. Why did you have to say it like that?’

‘I’m being honest. Let me put the kettle on, we’ll go downstairs.’

She doesn’t feel like she’s in any real danger. Lucille is a strange comfort in that respect. If the dog thinks he’s okay, he must be.

Back in the kitchen, he fusses with mugs and teabags, and she tells him she doesn’t want a cup of tea after all.

‘I mostly just wanted us to come back downstairs before you got too excited.’

‘Sure? I’m gonna have one.’

‘Positive. Thank you.’

He takes his cup of tea, and her, upstairs to his bedroom once more, and asks her if she’d like something to sleep in. This is a game she’s familiar with. It goes like this: the boy gives you a t-shirt, turns the other way while you put it on and get under the covers, and within seconds he’s taken the t-shirt off you, and you’re in your underwear in his bed. Still, she goes along with it, telling him not to look as she shrugs out of her own t-shirt and pulls his one over her head. It doesn’t smell particularly clean. It falls to just below her knees. She takes her trousers off, and leaves her socks on.

‘Okay, I’m decent,’ she says.

He removes his jeans, and, even though she’s already had them wrapped around her, she’s shocked by the sheer size of his bare legs. He leaves his jumper on and lifts the duvet to clamber in. The bed is only a double, the same size as hers at home. With a groan, she is lifted over his chest, and placed in a seated position on his stomach. She is self-conscious about there being a spectator. Lucille is still in the room. He scrunches the fabric of the t-shirt he’s given her all the way up to her neck, but doesn’t take it off.

‘Let me see you,’ he murmurs.

He has that manic, faraway look in his eyes that men get once they’re lying down, and she’s sad that there won’t be any more talk of books or childhoods or past adventures tonight. He rubs himself against her.

‘I really want to fuck you,’ he whispers, as though she can’t tell.

She looks down and sees flesh poking up from the window in his boxers, where he’s threaded himself through the gap. Apart from this cross section of skin, he’s still completely covered and she wonders whether he’s self-conscious about his body. But that’s part of this whole set-up, surely? The bigger, the better. The XXL t-shirt is whipped off her and thrown to the floor, and he gazes at her in her entirety again.

‘Your arms are so sexy,’ he says, rubbing his palms up and down them. ‘You’re minute. Look at your hands.’

Her hands aren’t especially small. She actually has pretty long fingers.

‘Do you like feeling big?’ she asks him.

‘Yeah,’ he breathes. ‘Do you like feeling small?’

She rolls her shoulders back, shrugging him off, then reaches down over the edge of the bed, feeling blindly for fabric, anything to redress the balance. It’s her own, familiar top she plucks from the floor and she’s grateful for this. 

‘I should put this away, then?’ he says, nodding at his crotch.

‘I think so, yeah.’ He falls asleep quickly, then. She squeezes her eyes shut, breathes in hard and tries to pretend she’s in her own bed. He begins to snore, softly at first, then louder and louder. It’s a wet snore, a beer snore. It rattles around his mouth and catches, each time in a slightly different pattern so that it won’t ever settle into white noise. She sighs. He has one arm underneath her and it’s digging into her back. She extracts herself from him, turns the other way. He should still be trying to impress her, not lying exposed in this way, mouth hanging open, nostril hair vibrating with every exhalation. She lies there quietly while he makes an absurd amount of noise. At one point, he mutters, ‘Who’s got the pills?’ and she looks around in dismay. She elbows him. He snuffles, rolls over, and the snoring begins again. At the exact moment she decides to leave – no matter how long the journey home – a weight lands on her feet. Lucille hops over her legs, prancing along the bed to find a space big enough to house her. She wriggles her little dog bum down and sinks precisely into the curve between the two human bodies.

Lucille and her Owner is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on.




Souvlakiland

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The DJ is a lover of voice notes. In the two days since they started talking, he must have sent her at least fifty, each one longer than the last. He rambles, tells her all the intricacies of his day. He’s currently in a five-star hotel in Montenegro, at the hotel’s expense. 

‘I can make you jealous with trays of hams and cheeses right now. But I won’t do that.’

Within five minutes, there’s another one.

‘I’m having a very Spinal Tap moment in the hotel. I’m lost. I went up some stairs and I’m like, I don’t recognise this, and I think I’ve found myself on the other side of the resort…’

He sends her pictures of the guy he’s working for, and the table where he eats his breakfast, and his feet in a bubble bath. He talks her through his journeys around the corridors of the hotel.

‘Ooh 2001, my room number, and also the vibe of Montenegro so far, I’d say.’

He says Montenegro in a weird accent, which she finds endearing. He has a bit of a lisp, and she finds this endearing too.

He quickly becomes a part of the texture of her day. It’s the kind of obsessive chatting she used to do with boys in school, when she still had to be mindful of not using up all her ten pound credit. Those innocent days when she’d have to sneakily borrow her mum’s Nokia, ending each message with the words, tb to my phone! 

She wakes up worried. She dreamed that she had a conversation with her downstairs neighbour and he asked her, ‘How long are you planning to stay here?’ And she didn’t have an answer for him. She picks her phone up and tells the new boy via voice note about this dream, with her eyes still half-closed. The two blue ticks pop up within seconds.

On the third day, he sends her a voice note which says, ‘I feel if I don’t try to lock something down then we won’t meet up because – well, I DJ quite a lot, actually. I have a few residencies around town and I play Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And I also do radio once a month, and that’s Wednesday. So as you can see, along with the old nine to six with my day job… Long-winded question is I was wondering if you’d like to just keep it simple and meet up and go for a walk on Saturday, if you’re free? And if you’re not free, maybe I could work around what you’re doing. I thought I could walk you along the canal. Yeah, I’d really like that, so let me know if you’d like to do that. Cool.’

She texts her reply. I’m v flattered that you suggested a weekend date, but I’m up north this weekend, visiting my friend Kelly 

It’s because I actually think I might like you. I just remembered, I get home early on Wednesday. You around 6/7?

Should be!

Let’s try it. Shall we… not talk tomorrow? To keep this al fuego? Or am I talking nonsense?

I’m gonna talk to you if I feel like it

You’re grand.

The day they’ve planned to meet up is hot. She checks the weather forecast on her phone and sees that it’s scheduled to be thirty-four degrees at six. This significantly limits her outfit options. He sends her a video of him on the plane which is bringing him back to London. He’s wearing a grey t-shirt, and thick black-rimmed glasses. There’s turbulence, and he pulls faces as he’s jiggled around. At the end of the video, he grins and she sees that he has a tiny gap between his two front teeth. This is the most excited she’s been to meet someone since the cyclist. She puts on a black vest and black shorts with a zip that runs up the middle. She’s ready an hour early. She has a small glass of cognac, and waits.

***

After their date, she types his DJ name into Google. It doesn’t take long to find his radio show. He told her his slot starts at ten. It’s nine forty-five. She makes tea, and gets herself comfortable. The quality of the link she’s found isn’t great, but soon enough, she hears his sweet little lisp, introducing his set. She grins. She’ll never tell him she did this. She probably won’t even tell Kelly.

‘This is not the best use of your time, is it?’ she whispers to herself.

Chaos show! he texts her. Pissed off!

It sounds alright to her.

Oh no! What happened?

Getting a beer and getting focused. Brb.

Within seconds, he sends her another text. Usually I can tell within about 2 mins if someone fancies me. With you, I was none the wiser after 90

This bothers her quite a lot. What did he expect? A love declaration after one date?

I bought two scratch cards earlier for our date, you know, he writes. It felt like a lucky day. But as I said, I didn’t really have much idea if you were feeling it or not.

Stop! she thinks. You’re spoiling it!

He calls her then, and they talk nonsense for an hour and a half. They arrange to meet for lunch the next day to continue their chat. Her eyes and face hurt after she hangs up.

***

She picks up lunch for them from a vegetarian place halfway between her house and his house. He leaves her waiting on his doorstep for too long, and she’s hot and on edge by the time he comes down for her. He gives her a big smile and looks her up and down with appreciation. In his room, he tries to give her a tenner, and she bats it away.

‘Aww! Your treat? That’s so nice. Thank you, how sweet.’ He’s overdoing it.

He lowers his face to look up into hers, and she turns away, suddenly shy. When he smiles, his eyes get very small behind his glasses.

His room is stuffy and smells like vinyl cleaner. He has one of those open wardrobe rails, and she can see lots of patterned shirts and jackets. He has a short-sleeved shirt on, which she usually can’t deal with. On him, it looks jaunty. Inexplicably, in this heat, he is also wearing socks, little oatmeal-coloured ankle ones. There is nowhere to sit except the edge of his unmade bed, so she perches there, and awaits instruction.

‘Cutlery?’ he asks.

‘I don’t really fancy eating hummus with my fingers.’

He laughs loudly and heads off to the kitchen.

She stands up and gives herself a tour of his bedroom. He has nice things. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is crammed with vinyls. My dad would’ve liked this, she thinks. There’s a postcard depicting Brighton on top of a set of drawers. She flips it over and then feels guilty and flips it back, without reading it. She can hear the DJ laughing with his housemates. She briefly contemplates going out to say hi, then immediately decides against it.

On his bed, she’s hungry, but wary of spilling hot sauce on his covers. She’s a little wary of being in his bedroom at all. They haven’t kissed yet and it’s hanging over them. He has made various jokes about it. He keeps making lingering eye contact or touching her bare arms for no reason.

Let’s get it out the bloody way, she thinks.

She puts the box of food down on a swivel chair next to his desk and feels him relax.

‘Lie down?’ he says.

It’s a tightly choreographed routine and she knows it well. She inches herself down into the crook he’s fashioned for her out of his body.

‘That’s better,’ he says.

Better than what? Finishing their lunch and finding a way to make contact naturally?

‘Mmm,’ she says.

She is stiff. He’s closed his eyes.

‘You’re more shy than I thought you’d be,’ he says. ‘It’s cute.’

What he’s really saying is, How come you’re not instantly champing at the bit at the prospect of a lunchtime quickie with me, when we’ve had all these days and days of false intimacy over text?

‘It takes me a minute,’ she says.

He has his hands laced across her stomach and inches one under the fabric of her top, murmuring a little as he touches skin.

Her head is positioned at a weird angle and is all she can think about. She’s not crazy about lying flat on his bed at one thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. He’s told her he has less than an hour before he has to get back to work.

‘I like that,’ she says, pointing to a framed print above the chest of drawers.

‘I like this,’ he says, his finger stroking her silver belly ring. ‘Retro.’

She laughs. ‘I know, I’m so tacky. I got it when I was sixteen.’

‘It’s cute.’ He nuzzles his face into the fold of her neck.

She sits up, leaning on one elbow. He copies her. They look at each other. He closes his eyes again and inhales. She will not make the first move. He lifts his free hand and caresses her cheek with the back of his fingers.

‘So soft,’ he breathes.

‘Aren’t most faces soft?’

‘Yours feels like velvet.’

This comparison reminds her of when her high school boyfriend described his feelings for her as ‘his heart being wrapped in velvet.’ She was confused then and she’s confused now. Velvet doesn’t even feel nice.

‘I’ve been dying to…’ the DJ says, leaning in and grazing her lips with his ‘… do this.’

***

The next day, after work, the DJ asks to meet her in Hackney Downs. He says he’s picked up ‘fancy’ apple juice and crisps. She ties her hair at the nape of her neck and puts on her coral lipstick. The sun has given her cheeks a reddish tint, which looks quite attractive in some lights, and quite terrible in others. She knows he’ll say nice stuff to her regardless of what she looks like.

Wearing some questionable blue shorts, he texts. Was gonna change out of them and then thought ‘she can take me as I am!’

She spots him from about ten metres away. He is half-lying against a tree, legs crossed, ankle to knee. He is doing that thing that she often does herself: making a conscious effort to look unselfconscious. The blue shorts are less of a problem than the fact that he is wearing trainers in the exact same shade of blue. She can see the shape of his bunions through the material of his shoes.

‘Hello knees,’ she says, leaning down to give him as much of a hug as she can manage.

‘Do you hate them?’

‘Not at all. You look very jaunty.’

‘Eee. Not the look I was going for…’

She plonks down next to him and helps herself to a handful of crisps from the open bag.

‘Nice to see you waited for me,’ she says.

‘I didn’t.’ He does an exaggerated wink.

He looks completely different today. She misses his smart Acne joggers. He lifts his leg and uses it to surround her, then pulls her over so that she is leaning on him. She’s trying to convince herself that she’s not giving him a fair chance and that he has more qualities than she’s giving him credit for. She’s not willing to admit their incompatibility yet. Before they met, it was increasingly intense and exciting and she’s waiting to see any evidence of this in the actual real person draped all over her right now.

‘So, are you down for getting some food?’ he says, tickling the inside of her elbow.

‘Always down for getting some food.’

‘I was thinking… souvlaki.’

He says souvlaki in a strange accent which doesn’t belong to him – the same way he pronounces Montenegro – and it makes her not want to eat souvlaki with him.

‘Sure,’ she says.

‘You don’t want souvlaki, do you? I can tell.’

‘No, I do. That sounds great.’

‘There’s this place in Homerton which just opened. It’s meant to be amazing.’

‘You can’t argue with amazing.’

They meander over to the souvlaki place, which is imaginatively named Souvlakiland. On the way, he stops to buy a beer from the corner shop. While he drinks it, he says, more than once, ‘I’m really enjoying this beer.’

At Souvlakiland, they order three wraps: two chicken, and one spare pork one, which he assures her he will eat in the morning. He pays, and says, ‘You’re very welcome,’ when she thanks him.

The food is truly excellent. The meat is salty and hot and the tzatziki sauce is fresh and tangy on the warm pitta. She digs in with pure abandon. As they walk and eat, she almost forgets he’s there. Every time she gets the extra surprise of a crunchy chip, she is thrilled. She looks behind her to see him struggling to fit his mouth around the generous wrap. He looks cute under the streetlights and she feels playful now that her belly is on the way to being full.  

They run into someone he knows a few feet from his house. A short boy with long, dark hair and a tank top. The DJ doesn’t introduce her, and she stands awkwardly while the two men talk. They do a weird handshake when they say bye.

‘Who was that?’ she asks, softly.

‘My old housemate. I hate him.’

‘Oh.’

They are standing on the DJ’s doorstep now. He leans against the door, and tells her the ins and outs of why he hates the man they just ran into so much. It’s a long story, and she doesn’t really care about hearing it. Why can’t you tell me this inside?

He hasn’t reached for his key and his body language is all off. Realisation hits. She’s not going to be invited inside. For whatever reason, he’s decided the night is over. Her time is up. It’s not even eight yet. She doesn’t have any other plans.

‘Well,’ he says, at a natural pause in the narrative. ‘I’d better go and sort my records for tomorrow.’

She rocks back on the balls of her feet and says, ‘Kay. Night.’

They don’t hug, and they certainly don’t kiss. As she walks herself home, she pulls faces into the night air.

***

‘Morning!’ A voice note from the DJ sent at 7:30am. ‘Thanks for coming to Souvlakiland with me, what a Friday highlight! I think you’re a little babe, and you make me laugh, but I don’t think we have enough common interests to keep this fire burning. Good luck with the writing. I don’t need to read your book to know you have talent, so please keep pushing your work, you will get there. Un bacio!’ He says un bacio in a strange accent which doesn’t belong to him.

Souvlakiland is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on.




Queen Awkward

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The Irishman has twinkly blue eyes and a freckly forehead. His hand shakes a little when they clink their glasses together. Conversation flows. He writes too, loves to read, is in a band. They talk about how their respective parents met, their favourite authors. She mentions an obscure artist she’s been researching, and he audibly gasps.

‘Henry Darger? No way! I’ve been fixated with him recently.’

They buy round after round. Last orders are called way before they’re ready to leave.

‘Ah man,’ he says. ‘Guess that’s our cue.’

She shrugs sadly and follows him out. Her stop is right next to the pub, and he waits with her for the 56. When it arrives, they’re still chatting a mile a minute.

‘Thanks for coming out,’ he says, as the doors slide open.

‘Of course!’

He leans down and they kiss. She touches his tongue with hers for a second. It’s a good kiss. 

***

She finds that she’s excited to see the Irishman again when the time comes. He’s waiting for her on a pub rooftop, and looks handsome in the low evening light. With a wide smile, he excuses himself to go and buy their first beers of the night. She relaxes. She enjoys most first dates, no matter who they’re with. Having a drink with a stranger is exciting, a fun social experiment, and anyone can be on their best behaviour for two hours. Second dates show you who you’re really dealing with.

The Irishman reappears and presents her with a pint of pale ale.

‘Thanks.’

‘So,’ he says. ‘I have some friends staying with me this weekend, and we were thinking of going to this jazz night later.’

She frowns. He’s already making an excuse to leave early. He has other plans.

‘And I don’t know much about your taste in music yet, but I thought you might like to come too?’

Her eye is watering and he leans across the table to wipe the tear away with his thumb, an intimate gesture that she likes.

‘Sounds good,’ she says. ‘I could do a jazz night.’ 

He talks non-stop, lengthy stories about his schooldays and his childhood friends and all the trouble he got into as a teenager. He makes her belly-laugh. It’s mostly his accent that does it. The things he’s saying leave less of an impression than the way in which he says them.

She tells him about the week a couple of years ago when she thought she was going blind.

‘I was sitting on the bus, on my way home from work, reading, and the words on the page started to swim, and I felt super dizzy and faint. So when I got home, I put bags of camomile on my eyelids and lay still all afternoon, but I still felt shit, so my housemate told me I should probably go to the GP. The doctor did a million tests on me, and sent me to the optician and to get an ECG and stuff, but in the end he had to tell me there was nothing wrong. Turns out I was just stressed. My body was trying to tell me to have a break.’

‘That reminds me of when I thought I was going blind.’

It seems quite an unusual coincidence that they’d both had a period of worrying they were going blind.

‘What happened?’ she says.

‘Well, I kept getting these floaters in my vision. I tried not to panic, but I was scared shitless.’

‘Was yours stress too?’

‘Not exactly.’ He pauses to snake a hand around her waist. ‘I had quite a lot of facial hair at the time. In the end, I worked out I could just see bits of my beard from the corner of my eye.’

She chokes out a laugh.

‘Serious business. I had no idea what was happening to me.’

He makes an excuse for them to go back to his place before the jazz, something about his phone charger.

***

At his house in Dalston, they run into one of his housemates on the stairs.

‘Oh, hey,’ the Irishman says, cheerily.

The housemate grunts something in return.

‘Would you like some wine?’ the Irishman asks her, once they’re in his bedroom.

‘I think I’m set,’ she says, but he mishears her and comes back a few minutes later holding two tumblers of red wine and a half-empty bottle of Echo Falls.

He pushes his bedroom door closed with his foot, and she thinks, Oh-oh. Walking around the room, she feigns interest in a few of his possessions, until she sees one that truly does interest her.

‘Tom Petty?’ she says, holding up a DVD. ‘He was my dad’s favourite.’

‘Ah no way. I was in a Tom Petty tribute band for years.’ He peers at the cover. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever watched that.’

He flops onto the bed, and she follows suit. They kiss gently, their free hands tracing shapes on one another’s arms, pausing only to put down their wine. He pushes her shoulder softly so that she falls flat, head on the pillow. From her new angle, she notices a shiny brown hair pin on his bedspread.

Feeling her tense, he lifts himself off her and asks, ‘Shall we take it easy?’

She nods. ‘I’m pretty slow.’

His phone rings and she listens to him make plans with a very tipsy-voiced girl to meet in the pub around the corner.

‘Okay, we’ll be there in ten.’

His friends are Irish too, two girls with huge grins and easy laughs, who have clearly been drinking all afternoon. She takes to them immediately, enjoys their company so much that she almost forgets she’s on a date with the Irishman and not them. 

‘We’re bladdered,’ one of the girls declares after half an hour. ‘Walk us home?’

The Irishman looks at her for approval and she nods.

‘We’ll come back out and get food afterwards,’ he promises.

Once they’ve dropped the girls off, they go to a cashpoint and then a kebab shop, which he claims does the best shawarma in Haggerston. They eat hungrily at an outdoor pub table, facing each other.

‘There are so many pretentious readers out there,’ he says, ‘that will struggle through these huge modernist tomes, just so they can tell their friends that they’ve read them.’

‘Ugh, I hate those people. Like, who genuinely enjoys Infinite Jest?

He stops mid-bite. ‘I genuinely enjoyed Infinite Jest. It’s good, you know.’

She rolls her eyes and he laughs with gusto.

Tugging a piece of chicken from his wrap, he says, ‘I’ll lend you my copy, then we’ll talk.’

‘You’re expecting to still be talking to me in three months? Because that’s how long it’ll take me to get through it.’

‘A boy can hope.’ 

A sliver of red onion gets stuck to the roof of her mouth and she runs her tongue over it. She tilts her head to the side and looks at him as he continues to reel off books whose reputation precedes them.

Once the tin foil in their hands is empty, he offers to walk her home.

‘It’s a long way,’ she says.

‘I don’t mind. Let me get you halfway at least.’

As they make their way towards Hackney Downs, he reaches for her hand. She holds onto it like a child would, clutching two of his fingers with all of hers. There is a faint worry in the back of her mind that the cyclist will happen to be passing on his bike and see her holding another person’s hand. She’s not sure whether he would care, or even if he’s in London, but either way, the thought makes her squirm. Hand-holding is something of a statement for a second date. She becomes quiet, giving only one-word answers to the Irishman’s questions. He turns to her, just before her local pub, and kisses her. She really panics then, anyone could see them.

She breaks their contact and says, ‘Are you leaving me here, then?’

‘No,’ he says, confused. ‘I just wanted to kiss you.’

***

For their third date, they agree to go to the cinema, where they’ll sit in the dark for two hours, unable to chat, both on pins until one of them is brave enough to reach for the other’s hand.

She picks out a cropped jumper and high-waisted flares, and slicks on some coral lipstick. She ties her hair back and spritzes her neck with Tom Ford.

She sends a photo of herself to Kelly and texts, Do I look okay?

Is that hair clean…?

Yes!!

Doesn’t look it

Well it is

It’s mild outside, so she decides to walk to the pub they’ve arranged to meet at. She slows her breathing as she walks past Iceland. Google Maps tells her she’s a couple of streets away. She tries to picture the Irishman’s face. Last time they met, they joked about how when you don’t know someone very well you forget what they look like in between hangouts. When you think of them, you have to focus on one feature and build up the image of them from that. For him, the one feature she works from is his silver tooth. He has that freckly forehead too and a few strands of grey hair running through the black. She is thinking about his salt and pepper hair when she sees a tiny, grey French bulldog. It’s a beautiful puppy, and her gaze runs up the lead attached to its leather collar to see who the owner is. Her heart bangs against her ribcage. It’s the cyclist. He’s in shorts and his beaten-up black Vans, and hasn’t seen her. He’s waiting to cross the road. The lights change to red and she stands still as he strolls across to her side. She can’t move. He has his earphones in and is looking down at his phone. Not for the first time, she reflects that there must be some people in his life who he replies to immediately. As he approaches, she peers up at him, giving an awkward little wave.

‘Hey,’ she says. ‘Hello.’

There is no sign of recognition as he politely says hi back, and then his features fall into a smile.

‘Hello you!’ He leans down and kisses her, square on the mouth. ‘I was just texting you.’

It seems highly unlikely, but she says, ‘Well here I am.’

I wanted to see if you were free to hang out.’

That’s all she wants to do, all she’s wanted to do since they started talking all those weeks ago. Now he’s right in front of her, out of context, like seeing your schoolteacher in the supermarket. She peers over his shoulder. She can see the pub, and the Irishman standing outside it, waiting for her. Please don’t look over here, she thinks, furiously. Keep your head down, don’t look up. Her face is hot; she’s sure she’s blushing.

‘Erm,’ she says. She shifts from foot to foot. The dog is looking up at her, enquiringly. ‘God, he’s cute.’ She ducks down a little, goes to pet him, changes her mind.

‘Why are you being weird?’ he says. ‘Do you want this to be weird?’

She exhales. ‘No, of course not.’

‘Are we cool?’

‘Yeah, I’m just awkward.’

‘So what are you doing now?’

She’s sweating. She’s a few minutes late to meet the Irishman, and now she might have to do a lap of the block to put some time and distance between the two men.

‘I’m just meeting…’ she says, and lets the sentence trail off. She can’t lie. She wouldn’t know what to say.

He runs his eyes over her, her bare midriff, her lipstick. He raises an eyebrow and grins. ‘I see.’

‘Maybe tomorrow?’ she says.

He dips his head and kisses her twice.

‘Have fun!’ he shouts over his shoulder, as he walks away. ‘Queen Awkward!’

She’s flustered when she greets the Irishman. He leans down, aiming for her mouth, and she gives him her cheek.

For the first twenty minutes of their date, she hardly pays attention to a word the Irishman says. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom, and, once there, checks her phone.

Call me! Maybe after your date ;) She cringes, feels a shiver of unease run down her spine. She clicks on the thumbnail picture of the cyclist, enlarges it, zooms right in. She has it memorised, knows exactly what he looks like without having to focus on one particular feature.

Queen Awkward is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on. 




Open

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.’

‘Great.’

‘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.

2 mins!

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.

‘Yeah, why?’

‘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.’

‘Right.’

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.

‘I have.’

‘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.’

‘Okay.’

‘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.’

Jesus.

‘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?’

‘Nope.’

‘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.’

‘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.’

What mood?

‘Were you going to try to kiss me?’

‘Probably.’

‘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.




Sage

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.’

‘Shit?’

‘Chilled.’

‘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.’

‘Oh?’

‘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?’

‘Yeah.’

‘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?’

‘My worst?’

‘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.’

‘Grim.’

‘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.

‘Oh. Sure.’

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.

‘My bike?’

‘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.’

‘No!’

‘I thought you’d like it.’

She holds it against her chest. ‘This is so nice, thank you.’

‘You’re welcome.’

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