What we aim for is, invariably, not what we get. By we I mean all of us. Or some of us. Or maybe just people like me.
Chris Mann Shaw
Overweight, balding, mid-life misfit seeks gangly, argumentative shop assistant for, frankly, not very much fun once or twice a month.My name is Dave Barton and I am forty-seven years old.
• • •
As a writer of radio ads for the improbably named Mid-Air FM — ‘bringing music of the heart to the heart of the country’ — I lie reasonably well for a reasonable living. In my spare time I craft largely fictional personal ads, in a vain attempt to find somebody who likes me.
Through the medium of print, I can make myself tall, handsome, interesting even; these, after all, are just relative terms. On a good day I can be sensitive and generous. On one occasion I dived deep into the waters of fantasy and described myself as ‘active’. The one phrase I shy away from is ‘good sense of humour’. People who tell you they have a good sense of humour are unlikely to make you smile.
The honest approach, telling the truth, I have employed only once. In a blind panic I described myself as ‘fat and rude with poor emotional literacy’. This followed an explosive encounter at a Brewers’ Fayre where my date suggested I re-enrol at primary school for Emotional Literacy Hour.
The honest approach, unsurprisingly, had no takers. At least by lying I get to meet people. Briefly.
Tonight, in a pub near the hospital, I am meeting Denise.
The location is ideal as a) it’s on my bus route and b) my sister lives nearby so I can drop my washing round on the way.
Preparation, as we know, is everything. This time I am leaving nothing to chance.
The first three shteps to
make her mine.
I am unfashionably early at the bus stop, seconds before a slightly mildewed couple in matching hats, and whole minutes before the good-looking people, gliding in front of me as the bus arrives, exercising their apparent right to be first at everything. Still: last on, first off.
I stand with my bin-liner of laundry on the red bit of floor where no one is meant to stand. I try to redeem myself by pointedly not speaking to the driver while the bus is in motion. Or, indeed, when it’s stopped. The driver is unmoved, and my ‘Cheers, mate’ when we reach my stop is met with a barely vocalised ‘Tit’.
I don’t feel the need to defend the fact that my sister does my laundry. And my ironing. Let’s just say that she offered, I accepted, and no one really gets hurt.
I love my sister. She’s kind, thoughtful, beautiful, witty. And a nurse to boot. She’s also not in.
I sit for a while on her front step contemplating my options, convinced she is dropping the girls off at football and will be back in a minute. I look around. She has a two-bed terrace, opening straight onto the street. No wall, no garden. The windows are closed and the cellar opening padlocked. There’s nowhere even to hide a spare key.
I toy with the idea of posting the offending articles one by one through her letterbox, but the street is busy and I just haven’t got time.
Okay. There’s no alternative. I’m going to have to take it with me.
• • •
I walk the two hundred yards to the Vulcan trying to compress my burden until it resembles something vacuum packed, but even with all the air squeezed out it’s far too bulky to hide on my person. None of my years of advertising experience have given me the words needed to shine a good light on this. No amount of spin is going to make this one look great. What the hell else could it be? Certainly not a present. No, whichever way you look at it I am turning up to a date carrying a bag of socks.
The bar of the Vulcan has been incongruously fitted out with golfing prints and artefacts alongside the more traditional horseshoes. I order a pint of Stella and park myself, facing the door, under a smiling watercolour of Nick Faldo.
Although I have no idea what she looks like, it is clear that Denise is not here yet; the only people in evidence are four damp-looking children, lined up on stools near the dartboard, eating crisps. I am already regretting suggesting the Vulcan as a meeting place. It displays neither character nor charm and was the scene, three years ago, of easily the most distressing date I have ever been on. Or heard of. The way the children are looking at me now reminds me of the way I was looked at then, with a mixture of mild horror and expectation.
My date, Linda, had arrived right on the money at eight o’clock, kitted out in a tight red mini-dress, black boots, gold hooped earrings, a black wig and full black make-up. Not since the BBC banned the minstrel show, had the British public had to put up with this sort of thing on a Saturday night. Linda had taken the communication device out of her ear and declared proudly to the whole pub, ‘Lieutenant Uhura reporting to the bridge, Captain.’ Knowing, with terrifying certainty, that this had to be my date, I steered Linda through the ranks of drop-jawed revellers to the darkest corner of the pub where I sat staring at her, aghast, for probably two or three minutes.
When pressed for anything resembling a motive, she outlined her assumption that with a name like The Vulcan it must have been some kind of Star Trek theme pub; she had simply dressed accordingly.
Even more upsetting, perhaps, was the fact that it took her the full eleven minutes of our date to realise that no-one else in the pub was in costume, and that I was not Bones, the medical officer.
When Denise had phoned me, I stressed that there was nothing at all unusual about the Vulcan, and that fancy dress was definitely not an option.
Now, though, I am not thinking of Denise at all. I am beyond caring what she turns up in. I half hope she doesn’t show at all. I have a much more pressing problem that a quiet evening in the launderette would solve quite nicely.
Man with dilemma WLTM open-minded washerwoman for short-term relationship. Discretion assured.
I decide that I will come clean; that there is nothing to be gained from building a relationship on a foundation of lies and subterfuge. I will just give her the facts and she will admire my honesty.
The pub is beginning to fill up and I am starting to relax, my mind delirious with the anticipation of what Denise will look like. (When we spoke on the phone to arrange a meeting place she mentioned having just come back from Tenerife. ‘I’ll be the only one with a tan,’ she’d said.)
I have had so many first dates now that I am, I think, becoming expert at spotting caring, fun-loving, romantic, single women. In fact, my real concern is that the supply might dry up; that one week there won’t be a single singleton I haven’t already dated. There won’t be one more—
‘Are you Dave? I’m Denise.’
God, she’s tall. I won’t stand up. I think this, but discover that I am already in motion, and realise if I reach my full height I will only come up to her shoulder. So I stop half way, leaving myself somewhere between a stoop and a crouch.
‘Yes, I’m Dave. Hi.’
It’s a look that very few people can carry off. And those who can probably have osteoporosis. I sit down again.
She looks confused. ‘Would you like to get me a drink?’ she says.
This probably sounds harsher than I would have liked.
‘I mean, no. I mean yes, of course. Er…but I’m OK for now, why don’t you get one?’
This is terrible. What must she be thinking? I take a sip of my drink as she walks towards the bar. She glances back, over the heads of the other customers, and I realise that she is quite unnaturally tall. And red. Bright red in fact — the time spent in Tenerife clearly wasn’t wasted — but with fantastic hair: beautiful chestnut curls with a distinct life — and possibly career — of their own.
Her dress is long and black, with a kind of spiderweb effect of criss-crossing straps at the back. It’s actually rather nice. The web moves when she does, and I have the feeling that an enormous spider is going to appear on her shoulder; or that one of the men at the bar will become entangled and have an awful lot of explaining to do.
When she gets back, complete with Malibu and coke, I find myself staring. I won’t be able to relax until I ask about her face.
‘So, what’s with the…erm…?’ I say, gesturing vaguely at my own face.
‘You know, the…er…’ I’m gesturing again.
‘Oh, the nose job! I thought for a minute you were talking about my sunburn. Is it really red?’
‘No, no, not at all. I can hardly see it. You’re actually quite pale.’
‘Really? It’s kind of embarrassing, but since the operation my nose doesn’t go as red as the rest of my face.’
‘Why does it go so — I mean what sun factor do you use?’
What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just let it lie?
‘Oh, I don’t use sun cream. If you wear sun cream you don’t tan. You need to go red before you go brown.’
Christ! What is it with this pub? First I get a date with Al Jolson; now the Minister for Skin Cancer.
‘Of course, to get a really good tan you need to be on the beach when the sun’s at its hottest — like between twelve and three.’
‘You know, Mad Dogs and English Women!’
‘Do you like Elvis?’
‘He’s OK, but he didn’t sing Mad—’
‘There was a great Elvis impersonator in Tenerife. He dressed up like one of Star Trek.’
‘Have you heard of him, then?’
‘I don’t think…’
‘He was called Jailhouse Spock. He was brilliant.’
And then it hits me. Right then and there. Right between the eyes. Like a seal being clubbed. Or any of a hundred hideous images. It isn’t anything that she’s said. Or done. Or the way she looks. I suppose it’s chemistry. It’s the sickening, thudding realisation — and this is an entirely new experience for me, a first — that I don’t find Denise in the least bit attractive.
God knows I have no reason at all to be picky, but I have always managed to find some redeeming feature or quality in the gaggle of human curiosities who come my way. Some spark to keep my interest alight.
But not with Denise.
I realise I am grinning, although with no idea what she is talking about.
‘Would you like another Malibu?’ I can say this now. I don’t care if she sees how short I am. ‘And how about some nuts?’
I return from the bar and, deeply intent on making no effort whatsoever, I begin to relax, and find myself to be reasonably charming. Or, at least, not quite so awkward.
I ask pertinent questions. I stop asking questions about her appearance. I listen. I buy more drinks. I don’t recoil when she gently brushes some dandruff from my shoulder.
This is great. This must be what it’s like to have a friend; a female friend, anyway; one you can talk to without having a bedroom agenda.
‘I live on the other side of town and my flat’s freezing. Shall we go back to your place, Dave?’
I have to say I’m not expecting this; and, if truth be told, I have never got as far before as taking a woman home — even one I don’t fancy; but I am having a good time, and am not really ready for the evening to be over. A coffee would be good, too.
‘Great.’ I grab my coat and reach for the bin liner. ‘We can get a cab, I’ll just…’
‘What’s in the bag?’
‘What? This? It’s just my washing. I take it everywhere with me in case I meet a woman with a mangle.’
‘Oh Dave, you’re so funny. Come on. Whereabouts do you live?’
‘City Road, near the university.’
‘We can get a bus, then. Save money.’
• • •
My flat, predictably, is an outrage. In the normal scheme of things it’s not open to the general public and I, having no real standards, am rarely disappointed by it. The level of squalor builds to a crescendo as we move from hallway to living room to kitchen. Almost everything is in or around the sink, including a blanket, some shampoo and a lampshade.
Denise, oblivious to this, has found a pile of CDs and is humming something, swaying from side to side.
‘Have you got a CD player?’
‘Er… no. Not really.’
‘Do you mind if I take a bath, then?’
The logic here is overwhelming and I struggle for a meaningful response. The words don’t come and I finish up pointing, uncertainly, towards the bathroom.
As Denise disappears and water begins to run, I regain some of my faculties and a succession of images come to mind: my sister’s house; a box of washing powder; my bag of laundry, still on the bus, making its way to the end of the line. Thankfully, I am still incapable of speech.
I walk down the hallway, stopping outside the half-open bathroom door.
‘Bring me a towel, would you?’
This seems like a reasonable request. I go to the airing cupboard, select a bath sheet and head back to the sound of humming; all the time wondering if maybe Denise has some friends she could introduce me to.
White dwarf seeks red giant to fill huge void. No inert gases.
I knock and put the towel in first, followed by my head.
She lies back in the bath. A body of bubbles, a forearm resting along one side, and a red face framed by catalogue curls. The makeup, like the bathroom, is ripe for renovation; sun-cracked lips assaulted by derelict lipstick and a nose knocked out of line by the twin hammer blows of a mismatched pair of panda eyes. One by one the bubbles begin to burst and away go all traces of modesty.
When she stands I rush forward with the towel, holding it vertically, aiming for maximum coverage.
‘There you are,’ I say. ‘I’ll make us some coffee.’
I look at her with the bewildered expression of a dipped sheep. What could she possibly want?
‘What do you do?’ she asks.
Of course, this is the first time we’ve talked about me. I tell her what I do at Mid-Air and she says: ‘Sell me something. Right now.’
My eyes flicker round the room, taking in the bare light bulb, the globs of toothpaste and the missing tiles.
I’m supposed to be good at this. This is my job, after all.
‘Meet Dave Barton, the man with the get-out-of-bed eyes. Dave Barton, the face that only a mother could love.’
I say this with that kind of Hollywood movie trailer voice.
She laughs, puts her arms around my neck and smiles; and in that moment I am lost, completely undone. With that one gesture she has destroyed the old Dave Barton. She has created a different man. A new man. A superman. I feel that I could do anything right now. Nothing scares me. Nothing is a problem. I don’t care what other people think; whether it’s day or night; whether I ever eat or go to work again.
I don’t even care that my washing, probably at this very moment, is being destroyed in a controlled explosion.
I am happy.
I am in love.
Her name is Denise.
She works in Dixons.
© Chris Mann Shaw 2006