Apparently, the date began quite well.
He was tall- always a bonus- dark haired and well built, with the kind of muscles that came not from endless workouts at the gym, but from honest day-to-day labour. His smile was genuine, and there was a pleasing glint in his brown eyes as he shook my friend’s hand.
‘It’s so nice to meet you,’ he said. ‘Shall we go and get a table?’
‘Of course,’ my friend replies, trying- in vain- not to mentally undress him. How many months has it been since her last boyfriend? Clearly too many. ‘Let me just have a quick cigarette, and we can go in.’
The smile fades from his face. ‘You smoke?’
‘Since I was fifteen.’
I should state that this is not my friend’s first internet date; she knows there little to be gained in concealing or sugar-coating the truth. ‘You don’t?’
‘Can’t stand them.’
Silence descends. My friend knows that this is the moment when she should sigh and call the whole thing off. But she is in her mid-thirties, single, and this is the era of internet dating, where the promise of love is only a tap or click away. So instead she remains silent, until her date gives a ‘why not?’ kind of shrug.
‘Oh… okay. Well, I’ll just leave you to smoke then. How about I go and get us a table and a bottle of wine?’
She rewards his compromise with a smile. She’s always had a beautiful smile, a smile I’ve been jealous of since I was old enough to understand envy. As hoped, her date seems appeased, disappearing into the restaurant just as she shoves a smoke between her still grinning lips; swallowing her smile like a chimney of happiness.
The restaurant is lovely, an ultra-safe modern eatery, but also entirely characterless. But that is what the London dating scene is all about. Too much character on a first date gives too much away. The little details- like preferring Chinese to Indian, or monochrome to Art Deco- need to be drawn out. Details, after all, are the formative bonds of a relationship, the top of the slide into familiarity.
Wine is poured, menus given.
‘This looks lovely,’ he says. My friend nods.
‘It does. I wonder if they can make the pasta vegetarian though.’
A horrified look crosses his face. ‘You don’t eat meat?’
‘No. I believe meat is murder.’
Again, silence descends. My friend glances at him. ‘I take it you do eat meat?’
‘Yes. Well, I’m a pig farmer, you see.’
They haven’t yet ordered. They could pay for their wine and go. Still, hope wins through.
‘Well, that must be a very… rewarding career.’
‘Yes. It’s a family business, we have a farm down in Kent,’ he sits taller. ‘Pig… what was the word you used? Murder? I do find it rewarding. I like animals you see.’
My friend is aghast; suddenly itching for another cigarette. She suddenly recalls our days back at school in an isolated rural community, one step away from the Australian wilderness. The smell of our school farm strikes her anew, warm manure festering in the heat. She’s spent years trying to forget the hours of farming lessons enforced upon us, but suddenly, in this man’s presence, how to keep bees, milk cows, and shear sheep comes back to her with terrible clarity. We both moved twelve thousand miles to get away from this sort of life. And yet here, in a description-less London restaurant, it has found her.
‘You like them?’ She asks. ‘You mean, before you kill them? Or after when you’re… eating them?’
‘Well both,’ he sees her look, and frantically adds. ‘Of course, I like other animals than pigs too. You know, the ones people don’t eat. We have a farm dog. And I’ve just bought the most beautiful cat. A purebred Siamese. Do you like cats?’
Of course, he’s placing his bets on the fact that as a vegetarian, she probably does like cats.
‘No. I’m deathly allergic to them.’
More silence, that is only broken by the arrival of a waiter. Optimistically they both order, secretly praying that they soon find some common ground, some small, shared interest to make this date not a total waste of time.
‘So… tinder is fun, isn’t it?’ My friend begins, only to be met by a resounding sigh.
‘In a way. But I really was hoping to be married by now. It’s just that it’s hard to meet girls, what with my work and all- you know, the pig farming- and I tried all the traditional sites and none worked for me. All want is a wife and some kids. I’m hoping to meet a city girl looking for a more rustic lifestyle. You know, a woman who is ready to settle.’
My friend notes that he does not finish that sentence with the word ‘down’.
He sighs again. ‘You must know that feeling, though of course it’s harder for you, being a woman and all.’
‘What do you mean?’ She takes a long- but entirely necessary- sip of wine.
‘Well, women have a shorter shelf-span than men, reproductively speaking. Why else would you be on tinder at… what are you? Thirty-seven? Thirty-eight?’
‘Thirty-five,’ My friend corrects, her face like thunder. He sees the storm and quickly back-pedals.
‘Christ, I’m sorry. It’s the lines around your eyes- probably from all the smoking- anyway, I’m not saying this to be unkind. It’s just a fact that women have a reproductive use-by date. We see it in pigs too.’
‘And what do you do, when a pig reaches her reproductive use-by date?’ Her voice is icy.
He shifts in his seat. ‘We slaughter it.’
The food arrives. They eat in silence. His steak is rare, leaving a red, unappealing fluid on his plate. She pushes the vegetable pasta around her plate, waiting for the cheese to congeal. There is, she knows, a certain irony to their situation. He, the farmer who loves animals eating meat, while she, the vegetarian who actively dislikes pets, eating a plain but inoffensive tomato.
At the end of the evening, they shake hands. ‘Well,’ he begins awkwardly. My friend watches and waits, pitying him. He’s very green; desperate not to offend. He doesn’t know how to end this date. ‘Shall we pencil another evening in?’
‘You’re kidding, right? Have you even been on this date?!’ She replies.
I don’t muffle my laughter when she tells me about this date later. We’ve been friends for thirty years, and she knows me too well. I can’t hide my amusement in front of her.
Growing up together in Australia, we both had dreams of how our future might pan out, our expectations, our desires. Both of our dreams involved travel, both involved living away from the small community in which we were raised. But after this our dreams somewhat diverged. I always wanted to get married and have children. She didn’t. Her dislike of pets also transferred to a dislike of small children, and while she tolerates my children for my sake, she also openly admits to not wanting to be too close to them. She looks at my children the way I look at her cigarettes; neither of us can quite understand what the other sees in them.
Her desire not to have children has left her in a dating black hole though. At thirty-five, the men she meets either actively want children, or don’t want to rule out having them one day. When men meet my friend, independent, financially secure, intelligent and well-travelled, she presents to them a kind of puzzle. She is beautiful, she has a smile that melts butter, she is the life and soul of any room she happens to grace. But to them, she is also the end of any dreams they might have of marriage and parenthood. When they realise she is in earnest in her desire not to have children (for some reason, they don’t seem to believe her until months into a relationship) they tend to break things off, unwilling to commit.
And so she drifts from man to man, from date to date, while I am on the other end of a phone-line, hearing first-hand her tales of the merely unpleasant to the downright disastrous. There is the man who on the first date wanted her to dress as a Catholic schoolgirl. The man who, knowing she is vegetarian, insisted on taking her to a BBQ rib night. The man who promised to take her to a film festival, which- in reality- turned out to be a porn flick at an erotica event.
What she would really like is a widowed or -even better- divorced man who already has children. Children who are past the difficult baby days and unlikely to trouble her.
‘You must know somebody?’ She asked me once, hoping that my social circle of friends gained through parenting would unearth some hidden gem of a widower or divorcee.
But I don’t. The men I know are all happily married, and my relationship with them is so impersonal that I refer to them not by their first names but as ‘So and so’s Dad’.
I can’t support my friend through matchmaking. I support her by simply listening to her, by occasionally turning off the ‘mum’ side of me and being Sharon, the same Sharon who giggled over SVH with her in ‘94, the same Sharon who held her hand through the pregnancy scare of ‘99, the same Sharon who cried on her shoulder in utter heartbreak in ‘01, and the same Sharon who got drunk with her in a bad Nottingham pub in 14’. I support her by looking with interest at her travel photos, while she looks with interest at those of my children. I support her by sending her anti-smoking pamphlets with her birthday cards. I support her by being a friend, even when I’ve had a sleepless month with a teething baby. I support her by listening to her troubles, the phone pressed between my ear and shoulder while holding an infant in one hand and a vomit-covered garment in the other.
One day I have faith she will meet someone. One day she will have that mad Vegas commitment ceremony she used to dream of. One day my mother will believe me when I tell her that my friend is not a lesbian (because as a single thirty-five-year old, she must be a lesbian).
Until then, I am all ears to hear about her dating woes. Just as she is all ears to my parenting ones. And you know, that support network is what will get us through bad dates and sleepless babies. Just being there for each other, wherever life takes us.
Edit- If anyone knows of an available widower or divorcee, preferably tall and with children, can you send me details? TIA.