A short story about the travails of speed dating in London by Kelly Roberts
I sit alone in the bar, a book propped open in one hand, a cigarette held listlessly in the other, indicating the two most obvious of my addictions. I had been a devourer of books since my very early teens. The nicotine had come somewhat later, the last vestige of a relationship that had once consumed my soul and now simply threatened to consume my lungs.
The bar was one that would have been cutting edge a few years earlier. Nowadays it seemed slightly too metallic and minimalist, the drinks list and menu ever so slightly overcomplicated. I could have been anywhere in the British Isles, outside it could have been Dublin, Manchester or even Glasgow. It was however Battersea, London.
My props helped maintain the façade of a composed exterior, a mask covering the very real sense of dread developing inside. How had I let myself get involved in this, could the tattered shreds of my self-esteem suffer yet another onslaught…I had allowed myself to get talked into the newest craze sweeping the nation, Speed Dating.
It was Josh who'd convinced me to go. Josh the ever persuasive, a guy who at college had always been the one to make things go his way. You probably know a guy like Josh, he's the one who'll talk you into having that last drink even if you know you'll end up missing your last train or to lending him your last tenner.
For a while after graduation Josh and my life seemed to be on completely different trajectories. He went off and joined a large conglomerate as an accountancy trainee, trading a high salary for provincial life. There he acquired all the accessories of the young successful male of the 90's. The slight paunch, a memory of too many nights in the union bar disappearing under the onslaught of the corporate gym. His t-shirts and jeans giving way to smart suits and designer casual wear.
After a couple of years he appeared to have arrived at a fully formed young adulthood. A first mortgage, a steady girlfriend and twice yearly vacations (never holidays) to the more exotic long haul destinations.
Whereas Josh's life had been acquiring an increasing level of solidity, mine was an endless round of short lived jobs in short lived accommodation punctuated with brief rounds of unemployment and flight back to the parental nest.
I would run into Josh at some birthday or other for one of our college clique. He and Angela would be down in London, either kipping on a friend's floor or as time went on staying in some slightly out of the way hotel. At the time they were very much a unit, he would have his hand placed possessively on her bum and whilst holding court with jokes and anecdotes that would have sounded far less witty if uttered by any of the rest of us.
His persuasiveness though was still very much in evidence and I would find myself in bars, restaurants and once on a skiing holiday that I really couldn't afford and was ambivalent about going to in the first place. The accumulation of success and possessions had in no way dimmed the power of his personality.
It was with some surprise that I had heard six months previously that he had in effect walked out on much that I felt was defining about the post university Josh. He had left the shelter of his oversized employers and had taken a job as the accountant for a small film company in Soho. It was even greater surprise that I found myself agreeing to accompany on an evening that was as far removed from my idea of a good time as could be imagined.
I looked at my watch. It was about ten minutes past seven. The early summer sunlight streamed into the bar, reminding me I would have much rather been outside. Inside the rest of the thin crowd I presumed were going to be my fellow speed daters all seeming to have arrived in groups of two's and three's with a couple of other solitary looking blokes staring intently into wine or pint glasses.
I got myself another glass of wine, which would make two thirds of a bottle and escalate my credit card bill ever onwards towards its limit. The torment was due to start in another twenty minutes or so, and still no sign of Josh. I light another cigarette and turn another page in my old friend of a book.
I was lost in reverie as I contemplated Charles Ryder's first days at Oxford when I felt two hands push down upon my shoulders. Stifling a small grunt I turned to see the smiling face of Josh.
"Sorry about cutting it a bit fine, had to get home and get into something a bit less informal. Been waiting long?"
"Only about ten minutes," I lied
"You alright for a drink?"
"Another wouldn't do any harm." My second glass I was alarmed to notice was down to the dregs and I was feeling the need for more.
"Just be a sec," and with that he marched off to the bar pausing our first face to face conversation for over a year.
Josh seemed as always full of confidence as he made his way to the bar. I couldn't help but contrast his well-proportioned frame covered in designer jeans and a stripey shirt in this year's colours to my own paunchy self. In less time than it would've taken me to get to the bar he was back carrying the drinks. A blokeish pint for him and my slightly effeminate glass of wine. Our glasses clicked.
"Cheers, good to see you."
"Good to see you as well. What have you been up to since I last saw you?"
I felt tempted to hide the truth and big up my job in what is really the arse-end of publishing, ad sales. To cover up the squalor of my flat-share existence. In the end I simply dodged the bullet.
"Oh same old, same old. Not as much as you I bet."
"Yeah, been through a few changes. I guessed you worked it out about me and Angela."
Well you didn't need a rocket scientist to have seen that was coming, a happily attached man isn't about to book himself in for a night of speed dating.
"Well I'd presumed something was up. What happened, was it the distance thing."
"No, the distance was already between us before I made the move. I think we both realised that we'd ended up with something far too early that perhaps we didn't want at all."
This was a familiar refrain from a number of my friends, but not something I'd have expected to hear from Josh. Changing the subject slightly, I went on.
"So how's the new job"
"Fantastic, a real seat of the pants affair. No more worries about sucking up to the boss, just ten of us in the office. Money's OK as well."
"So would you have made any films that I'd have heard of?"
"I don't think we've made any films, but it's amazing how much you can make by just starting to develop an idea that one of the big boys then becomes interested in."
"So you been to one of these things before?"
"No, but a guy in the office has, he claims to have two shags out of it."
When your last shag was on a different calendar, your find yourself at a conversational disadvantage when compared with the regularly sexed. You can at this point either bluff it or steer clear.
"How'd you come to pick this place?"
"Oh I'm living just up the road, and drop in here every now and again. One night I notice that the bars doors are closed, but there are people in there. At this point I'm intrigued so have a mooch over to the door and see the advert. We're both currently single so I think of you. You are currently single?"
I'm currently as single as a ready-made meal for one. The only date I've had recently was at Christmas and came out of box.
"Yeah, seeing some people but nothing special." Yes I do see people, but only in the way of looking at them and sometimes conversing.
"Know what you mean. Haven't had any action for weeks." Knowing Josh this probably means about 10 days.
"So have you been seeing some people down here?"
"Well you know how it is, you meet some people at clubs and parties. Nothing ever comes of it, but at the moment I'm glad of that." I nod in agreement though the only people I seem to meet are bouncers or people I already know.
"Your round I believe." I had hoped to avoid this, my remaining credit I had planned to squander on food and shelter.
"Quiet please ladies and gentlemen, we're about to begin." Saved by the bell. It was with mixed feelings that I presumed the main part of the evening was about to begin. The announcer was a chap I guessed to be in his very early thirties, dressed in a smart suit sans tie. I had met him earlier when registering and had thought at that point that his main interest in organising evenings like this was that it gave him the opportunity to meet hundreds of single girls.
"You'll notice that your name badge is individually numbered. This number indicates your starting table. If you could make your way to your starting table."
My number is seven, Josh is number twenty three, presumably indicating the difference in our arrival times. With a quickly mumbled 'Catch you at half time,' we make our way to our respective starting positions.
When I arrived at my table it was already occupied by an attractive brunette who'd I'd guess was slightly younger than me. Bottling up my trepidation I did the decent thing and introduced myself.
"Hi there, I'm Alex"
"Cath," she replied shaking my outstretched hand. I sat down just as the announcer continued.
"You'll see on the form that you have three choices. Yes, no and friend. Match two yeses and that's a yes match, match a friend and yes or two friends and that's a friendship match. In both cases we'll forward your contact details. If either party says no, then that is I'm afraid a no. Each date will last three minutes. At the end of three minutes you'll hear a whistle and its time for the gentlemen to move on to the next table. So if your starting position is table three, that means for you it'll be time to move on to table four. Is everything clear?" No one muttered and objection. "OK then time to start and good dating"
So this was it how would begin. Sensing a conversational vacuum, I start talking.
"Is this your first time?" Oh God, how lame. I should have thought up some more interesting questions
"No I've been once before, and had a great time. How about you?"
"Got dragged down here by a friend. Have to admit I've been dreading it."
"Oh you shouldn't its great fun, just go with the flow and let yourself enjoy it. So what do you do?"
"Oh I work in publishing." Out comes the great lie
"Really, I'm in ad sales myself." We both laugh.
"I can't pull a fast one on you then. How'd you get into it?"
"Oh after university I just seemed to fall into it. A recruitment fair, a good looking bloke on the stand and no other job offers."
"Same for me, though I think mine was a good looking girl." This wasn't so hard after all.
"So what do you like about the job?" Uh oh, foot straight to mouth, I'd gone to sounding exactly like an interviewer, next I'd be asking what her friends would say her three greatest strengths were.
"I think it'd have to be the fact that I probably couldn't do anything else. And you?"
"Unlimited personal email." That's it, keep it irreverent.
"So who was your favourite character in 'Scooby Doo'?" I ask trying to seem a little wacky.
"The plain girl, Velma? She'd be the one who'd work everything out. I know that she was in the background mostly, and everyone's meant to like Scoob and Shaggy, but if I was in an haunted abandoned amusement park, I'd prefer to have Velma around." Nice answer, Cath was very nice as well.
"I see you're reading Brideshead." The book cover was sticking out of my jacket pocket
"For about the seventh time. It's one of those books I can dip in and out of." Just then the whistle went. Three minutes already, I'd barely started.
"Lovely to meet you." I say and mean it. She is really lovely, way out of my league.
"And you, maybe catch you later?" What was that, did she mean it.
"That'd be great." With this limp rejoinder I make my way to table eight and to Bridget.
We get through the preliminary introductions OK, and I'm glad to see that she too is a smoker and we both light-up. Our table seems to rival the legendary steel mills of Pittsburgh in it's level of smokiness, and we appear to be more interested in our respective fags than each other.
"So what's your favourite film?" I ask in an attempt to delve deeper into this girls psyche
"Oh I wouldn't say I have a favourite film, but there are some that I love to watch over and over."
"So what's the one you enjoyed most recently"
"Have you ever seen the Piano?" Well this isn't going to last, I've only seen the film once and hated every single maudlin second of it. The highlight for me was when Holly Hunter falls off the boat, and we all think that she's going to drown.
"Oh yes, I really liked the music." Well actually that much is true, I even have the soundtrack buried in my CD collection somewhere.
"Would you like another drink?" A third voice has entered into the conversation belonging to a rather bored looking waiter.
"I'm fine for the moment" Bridget responds
"Large glass of dry white wine for me." I count out the coins from my pocket not wanting to risk any more damage to my credit. The conversation limps on, like a beaten looking prize fighter in the last couple of rounds, and it's with a great sense of relief that the whistle blows just as the wine arrives.
At this point I see that I'm not going onto to another table but into a waiting area, where I bump into Jeff, number 8.
"So what's going on here?"
"There's too many blokes, and so we have to wait two turns until the next spot's available."
"I'm Alex by the way."
"Pleased to meet you. First time?"
"Yeah dragged down by a friend." I glance over to where Josh is sitting. He seems to doing alright, more than alright in fact since he has his arms round the back of the girl that he's talking to.
"Not for me, got a freebie, they couldn't sell all the places."
"So why are we waiting"
"Always the way, blokes seem to turn up. Some girls get cold feet or probably enjoying themselves too much in a bar down the road."
"Did you get many matches last time?"
"A couple, didn't follow them through though, couldn't really remember who they were." I think that this could be a serious problem for me since the amount of wine I've consumed has meant the room has acquired an unreal dreamlike quality. The whistle blows and Jeff number 8 moves on to be replaced by Dave number 6.
"Enjoying it," asks number six.
"Well it's a different way of spending a Monday night. You?"
"Yeah, I think that you've always got to put yourself out to do different things, otherwise you end up just sitting at home wondering why nothing ever happens to you." Wise words indeed from someone I wouldn't put any older than about 24.
"Good point, I'll drink to that." We clink glasses, though at the moment I'd probably drink to anything including the mail arriving.
"So had any luck?"
"It's difficult to tell. I saw a programme on telly the other day about this. They followed some guy and girl and saw the difference in the ways they reacted. The girl always appeared to be open and interested, and was picked by practically everyone. She only picked three blokes though. I think it's a numbers game, if you even vaguely like someone, put them down." An interesting point of view. As the whistle blows again, I resolve to be more open minded as I make my way to table 11.
"Hi I'm Alex, pleased to meet you." God, it's only my third date and already I feel like I'm doing this by rote.
"I'm Karen. Enjoying it?" Is everybody male or female just going to ask the same questions?
"Very much, all I'd be doing otherwise on Monday night is sitting home trying to avoid soap-operas." Now that makes me sound really fascinating
"So what do you do?" An obvious parry from me
"I work in travel." That's almost as vague as me saying I work in publishing
"Does that mean you get great discounts?" I bet that makes five blokes out of five who've asked that
"Sometimes," this conversation is stalling as much as a Virgin train at rush hour.
"Which character in literature do you most identify with?" Oh uh, a question from a wackier media-style interview.
"Daisy Buchanan, you know from the Great Gatsby."
"Oh you know, she's caught up in this life she didn't really want to live. It just happened to her. How about you?"
"Funny you should say Daisy, I've always seen myself as a bit like Nick Carraway."
"Why's that then?"
"Oh you know, it's like he's pressing his nose up against the glass of life. He meets people like Gatsby, Tom and Daisy and even Jordan Baker, but he sees what happens to them rather than anything really happening to him."
"So you think your friends are having all the fun?"
"Something like that."
"I know what you mean, though Nick did end up going out with Jordan, he just didn't talk about it much." She's right, she remembers the book better than I do.
"You're right," I laugh. The whistle blows again, just as things are getting interesting.
I try this line on the next couple of tables with Miranda and Sarah. Miranda doesn't read enough to have an answer, whereas Sarah feels she's most like Holden Caulfield, which leaves me a trifle confused. The next whistle is followed by a 15 minute break and more drinking time. The idea of more alcohol is both appealing and dangerous. I'm already over a bottle of wine, and much more won't leave me in much of a fit state for whatever tomorrow brings.
"I believe it's my round matey." Josh has staged a reappearance by the bar.
"I think I'll pass," or pass out more likely
"Oh come one, it's early days yet." I look at much watch it's only just gone 8:30, plenty of time for one more and then sobering up.
"OK then, white wine. How's it going"
"Having a great time, don't know whether anything'll come of it, but that's not the point." He raps a coin on the bar in a way that'd usually ensure I got served last. Through my alcoholic haze, his shirt appears to be looking even stripier and multi-coloured than ever. Joseph's amazing shirt of many colours I think to myself.
"Got a light?" Bridget has somehow managed to manifest herself by my elbow
"If you've got a cigarette." I appear to have been involved on some internal fumigation project and the packet of ten that was meant to last all evening has disappeared under the onslaught.
"Sure." She hands me a Silk Cut from a well-supplied pack.
"Did you really like The Piano?" I ask her
"No not really, it was one of those films you're meant to like, everyone else goes on about how brilliant it is. I was just teasing you."
"What other films are like that?"
"Oh my favourite film not to like is The English Patient. It's terrible."
"Yeah, I thought Cold Mountain was a bit like that." Whilst I'm talking to Bridget, my eyes are searching through the crowd for Cath, but all I see is Josh coming back with the drinks.
"Thanks Josh, this is Bridget, Bridget this is Josh. Josh is an old friend from college and the guy who dragged me down here tonight."
"Oh it's not that bad, at least he's bought you a drink."
"Josh works in films," I add hoping some of his glamour will rub off on me, still no sign of Cath.
"Oh really what do you do?"
"Oh nothing amazing, I'm just a number cruncher. You?"
"I'm a journalist. Freelance. It's fun though you never know what they're going to want you to write about or whether you'll get paid."
"Alex is in publishing as well." I smother an impulse to wring Josh's neck.
"Not as glamorous as you I'm afraid, I just sell the ads."
"I remember doing that when I left uni. Six worst months of my life, congrats on sticking at it."
"You OK for a drink Bridg?" It's Cath, I should have guessed that they'd be together.
"I will be if you get me one."
"I wouldn't say no," pipes up Josh, whose own pint has managed a Houdini like disappearance.
"I'm Josh by the way." Josh and Cath edge away to the bar, leaving me stuck with Bridget.
The bar is surprisingly noisy considering. I take stock, despite the latest revelations our initial encounter has left me wary of Bridget. The wine is coursing through my system, the remnants of my sobriety fighting a rear-guard action against the onslaught. I look at my watch 8:40, five more minutes of the break to get through.
"So do you live round here?"
"Not too far, over in Clapham Common."
"Been there long?"
"A couple of years, I'd like to get a place of my own, but buying or even renting by myself would is really out of my league financially." This again was something that I could agree with. I had lost count of the amount of times that I had been bored rigid in a pub or at party when acquaintances egos had been as inflated as their house price.
"I know what you mean. The worst thing though is if you don't own your own place people look at you as if you were some kind of social leper."
My imagination does a double take as I picture a colony for social lepers, the chronically skint and disenfranchised. "Of course I was ready to buy, but I didn't think that it was the right time," would be the phrase on every body's lips, as they cling to whatever status symbols that remained.
"Here's to that" says Bridget, and we clink our glasses together, and it's back to reality
"Time to make your way back to the tables." It's the fun-master general giving out the orders, and time to get back into the thick of the fray. The drink I consumed at half time has had time to join forces with rest of the alcohol SAS currently residing in my stomach and I'm now sure they're about ready to launch 'Project Oblivion.' I make my way somewhat unsteadily to my next rendezvous.
The next few tables I make my way through with ease. The wine has had a lubricating effect on my tongue which now seems quite content to piffle away without any real need for conscious thought or control. I have managed to acquire more cigarettes and wine though their origins aren't exactly clear.
It's with some surprise that I find myself exchanging phone numbers, well business cards with Rebecca, an attractive girl of close to my own age. Oh well, if we ever go out on a date, I'll just have to remember to turn up drunk. That has to be the way forward. It occurs to me however, that being in an advanced state of inebriation far from being a localised condition (i.e. just me) is in fact a general trend. The amount of smokers has also increased as reserve and inhibitions have been swept away.
Another table another date, this time it's someone else about my age, a short but slender blonde, Michaela. We run through the pleasantries which we both seem to have down by rote. This reminds me of my first days at college, where you asked the same questions and gave the same answers to everyone you met.
"If tomorrow you were told you'd won a competition and could go anywhere you wanted, where would you go?" I ask Michaela.
"Anywhere?" She asks
"Money no object, all expense paid." This Bullshit question has actually got her thinking. I light ciggie number 1 zillion and 10 and wait.
"Bermuda." Now this was a response to the question I didn't anticipate. Something worthy and cultural like Venice or faraway and full of street-cred like Vietnam or India, would have been the expected London (South West division) answer. I'm intrigued and I tell her as much.
"I'm intrigued," told you "Why?"
"Oh you don't hear about it much nowadays, but when I was growing up, it seemed to be where the glamorous people went on holiday. I still see it in my mind like that, somewhere where the 70's jet set still hang out. Smoking those stupid long cigarettes and drinking those 70's drinks like Martini and Campari.
"Oh god I know what you mean. The men would all bearing wearing floral shirts, the women those strange outsize sunglasses. White flared trousers the accepted uniform for both sexes."
"And they'd all have arrived by speedboat or helicopter. And they'd be a disco on the beach with a barbeque every night."
"Of course one of them would have to be involved in some sort of secret mission, and would be overly endowed in the chest hair department."
We spend some more time reminiscing about a 70's wonderland that never was and all too soon the whistle goes again. The last couple of tables go by comparatively easily with my brain reverting to auto-pilot and I find myself once again at the bar.
"So what's the verdict?" Josh places an arm round my shoulders.
"Could have been worse" I retort
"Well one of them might've been armed"
"Come on, seriously was it that bad?"
"No, actually I've had a really good night, though tomorrow's shaping up to be fairly hard." I fumble in my pockets for the mysteriously acquired pack of fags and slip one into my mouth.
"That's something I've been meaning to ask you about."
"What have you been meaning to ask me about?"
"When did you start smoking?"
"Altogether or this particular cigarette?"
"You know what I mean."
"Sarah, Sarah got me smoking. She smoked like a chimney and I tried to see what she got out of it. Sarah went, but the cigarettes remained. Now I hear she doesn't smoke at all and I'm like the Marlboro man."
"Can I have steal one of those?" Bridget has reappeared.
"Of course." I make a big show of lighting her fag.
"Can I have one as well?" I hand a cigarette to Josh.
"So when did you start?"
"Always have, though only after a certain number of pints."
"So how was it for you?" I coyly ask Bridget.
"Fun, I guess."
"Same for me"
"Now we're still waiting for a number of forms." King Stud has resumed his place behind the microphone. Ah, the form, I seem to have neglected to fill it out. I hastily scratch a yes beside all the names except one, Margaret. I just can't see us getting along somehow.
I hand my form in and make my way back to Josh. Bridget's still there, and Cath has re-appeared.
"We were thinking of making a night of it." I wonder since it's now 10:30 how much more of a night Josh has in mind.
"Who's we?" I ask.
"Me, you, Cath and Bridget."
"Oh come on, it'll be fun, I know a bar down the road that's open late." This was Bridget. I think I know the bar she's talking about.
"You got my vote."
We have one more drink, this time Bridget's plastic flexes itself.
"So did I get a tick," I ask Bridget.
"You'll know tomorrow."
"Perhaps I can't stand the suspense"
"Suspense is good for the soul."
"Well it's just that when we were, I don't know what you'd say, in our session, I didn't think that we got on." Christ I must be drunk, being this honest.
"I think you worry about things too much." Well yes I do, it's what you'd call a defining characteristic.
"Come on matey, let's go and have some fun." Josh has his arm round my shoulder again. I wonder does Josh perhaps like me, as much as I like him. Perhaps getting what you want is as easy as just asking for it? Probably not, but sitting around like I've been, enjoying my self pity won't solve anything either and stripey shirts aren't all that expensive.
The four of us leave together bound for the bright lights of another bar. I'm drunk, and I'm happy.
"Who knows what tomorrow brings" I start singing.
"Oh cut that out, you know you have a voice like a strangulated cat." Thanks Josh.
"I promise not to sing as long as you buy the drinks."
"Well I'd been hoping you'd do requests," and Bridget slips her arm around mine. Who knows what tomorrow brings indeed. This could be the start of something, or this could be the thing all by itself. At the moment I don't care, the night is still laden with possibilities and I should leave it at that.
Kelly Roberts - All rights reserved