“You are joking,” I said, straight-faced. “You had better be bloody joking.”
Joy and Marie exchanged looks over the smokers table, located outside next to the dumpsters.
“Why would we be joking?” Joy said, leaning back in her chair and patting the pocket of her jacket in search of her fags. She winked at Marie. “Do I look like I’m joking?”
“No!” Marie replied, even though she was laughing. “We’re not joking, Sam—we really have set you up on a blind date! In the White Horse—tonight at seven. Are you excited or what?” She sort of squealed and bounced up and down in her chair as she spoke. Marie is the kind of person who gets very excited over nothing much at all. I put it down to her not having any kids. If she had kids she’d be too knackered to get excited about anything. I was pissed off.
“You have not set me up on a blind date,” I said firmly, looking at Joy. I was trying to show her how angry I was. But in all the years I’ve known her, I’ve never seen Joy afraid, least of all of me. She tipped her chin back as far as it would go and blew smoke into the air above the table because she knew that too much smoke in the air would make me need my blue inhaler. She seemed to have forgotten that stress makes me need it too.
“It’ll be great,” she said, as she leant forward over the table and stubbed the butt of her fag out in a tinfoil ashtray. “When have I ever let you down?”
I had to admit she was right. Joy had always been there for me from the first day we’d met at school until now. She was my best friend through thick and thin. Mostly thick, as it turned out. Which is why she should know not to set me up on a blind date. She should know how much I’ll hate it.
Joy looked at her watch. “Come on, break’s nearly up and I’ve got to get back. Sulky Sandra wants me to restock feminine hygiene before dinner. Lucky me. A whole morning of stacking tampons.” She and Marie started to get up but I didn’t. I just sat there and stared at her. She sat down again.
“Look,” she said, starting to latch on to the idea that I was not very happy. “It’ll be a laugh! You turn up looking sexy. He’ll buy you all the drinks you want, and if you don’t like him you can leave. OK?”
“But it’s Friday night,” I said. “It’s our night out. Our girls’ night.” I thought of our usual routine at the end of the week. Me, Joy, and Marie down the White Horse every Friday night at seven. A few cut-price cocktails to warm us up before the disco started, and then we’d dance the rest of the night away. It was a stupid disco, really cheesy. But we always had a good laugh, just the three of us. It was a girls’ night out. Just girls. Marie didn’t bring her husband and Joy refrained from flirting. And we always, always dressed to the nines like we were going to some West End hot spot, not the local pub. Marie, tall and skinny, with her blond curls piled high on her head so she’d tower over any man that dared to chat her up. Joy, in her latest slinky dress with all the right curves in all the right places. And me with a lot of the wrong curves in a lot of the wrong places, and hair that’s just brown and eyes that are just gray, but who still—even if I say it myself—scrubs up pretty well compared to some. But now Joy had put a man right in the middle of it. It made me feel hurt, like she was trying to get rid of me. It was a stupid thought, but I get stupid thoughts like that. I have done since I was a kid. And I haven’t always been wrong.
“We’ll be there too,” Marie said. “To keep an eye on you.”
“Piss yourselves laughing at me you mean,” I said, starting to feel anxious. I put my hand in my jeans pocket to check that my inhaler was there if I needed it. I didn’t find my inhaler, just a small square of folded-up paper. I wrapped my fingers round it and held it. “Anyway, Joy, I know all the blokes you know. You wouldn’t go out with any of them—what makes you think I would?”
Joy leant over the table and put her hand on mine. They were cold. Joy always had cold hands. “Cold hands, warm heart,” she always said. And most of the time it was true.
“We’ll be there to keep an eye on you, idiot,” she said, smiling at me. “We don’t want you to get in any more trouble, do we? Think of Marie and me as your bodyguards. Hanging about in the background. You won’t know we’re there unless you need us. And then we’ll be like pow! pow!” Joy chopped her hand through the air as she spoke but I shook my head.
“No,” I said. “Look, you’ll have to phone this bloke up and tell him no. All right? I’m not going on a blind date!” I leant back in the chair and crossed my arms. “Blind dates are for sad bastards who can’t meet people in a normal way.”
Joy and Marie laughed. I knew why they were laughing and I supposed it was pretty funny. I felt the corners of my mouth twitch, but I made them stay down. I didn’t want to stop being angry until this whole thing was cleared up.
“So Internet dating isn’t like a blind date, then?” Marie said, her mouth curled into a smile.
“No,” I said, rolling my eyes like my daughter Beth would have. “You know a lot about the person before you meet them and they know a lot about you. And you’ve seen a photo.”
“Yeah, but whose photo!” Joy cried, slapping the palm of her hand down on the table as she spoke. She and Marie were laughing again.
“You know what?” I said, only half angry now. “Everyone thinks my love life is such a joke. And I reckon I must be the punch line because I tell you what, everyone else but me thinks it’s funny!”
“What was his name again, the one who sent someone else’s photo?” Joy asked me between laughs.
“Bill, and it wasn’t someone else’s photo—it was his photo,” I said, feeling the corners of my mouth start to twitch again. “Just one he’d had taken twenty years before, that’s all.”
And then we were all laughing.
The One Who Was All Right Really but Not for Me
I walked into the bar.
It wasn’t the usual sort of place I’d go to. It was a wine bar in the town center. Beth said I needed to wear a skirt and put my hair up, but my hair is quite fine so it had taken half a can of hairspray to get it to stay put. It felt like I had a Brillo pad on my head. It made me walk like I had a stiff neck.
I had his photo in my bag. Beth had printed it out for me. Underneath it she had written one of the jokes from The 1001 Worst Jokes Ever book my mum had given her for Christmas. She pretended she was too old to find the jokes funny anymore, but she’d read them out to me so we could laugh at how unfunny they were. She’d started writing jokes out on slips of paper and leaving them in surprise places for me to find, like in my purse or knicker drawer.
A horse walked into a bar, and the barman said, “Why the long face?”
I smiled at the joke, not because it was funny but because it made me happy to know that Beth wanted me to do this. It gave me courage.
We thought Bill’s face looked nice. The right one for my first date in nearly eight years. Twinkly eyes, friendly smile, and dark, wavy hair. But it took me a while to recognize him because most of the wavy hair had gone. And the nice eyes had gone from twinkly to wrinkly. And the friendly smile was perched on top of at least three more chins than were in his photo.
“Samantha!” he said, walking toward me, stretching out his hand. He shook it hard so that the fat on the top of my arm wobbled. “You look just like your photo. Pretty as a picture.” I smiled at him, but I didn’t know what to say. He reminded me of my dad.
I thought as I was in a wine bar I’d better have wine, but I didn’t drink much of it. It tasted sour and seemed to make my mouth feel drier with every sip. We sat on two barstools at a high, round table. He kept slipping off his.
He talked, I listened. At first I had thought he was pretty funny and sad. A funny, sad man trying to fool women into going out with him with his old photo. But then I started to listen to what he said, and I realized there was nothing really wrong with him. He was a nice man, a nice, lonely man. I liked him. I had even decided it would be too cruel to say no to a second date. That I’d agree now and then to just ring him later with a really good excuse. Like I’d died or something.
A few times he reached out and covered my hand with the hot and heavy weight of his, so that I’d be forced to pick up my wineglass and take another sip of it so I could free my fingers from his damp grasp. But it wasn’t like he was trying to touch me. He just wanted someone to hold on to. I knew how that felt.
“You’re a good listener, Samantha,” he said, suddenly getting teary. “I really like you. You’re a fine-looking woman. But I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be leading you on like this. I shouldn’t be here at all!”
“Funny,” I said lightly. “That’s just what I was thinking!”
“I can’t love you, Sam,” he said, without hearing me.
“Not to worry,” I said.
“No, no—don’t try and talk me round. It wouldn’t be love between us, you see. It would just be sex and you deserve more. Much more than just animal lust.” His chins wobbled when he got worked up.
“Thanks,” I said. I took a big gulp of the wine and didn’t care what it tasted like.
“It’s not you,” he said. “It’s me. I still love her, you see? I still love her, and I can’t get her out of my head. I’ve tried! Oh God, I’ve tried! But the first cut is the deepest, isn’t it?”
“You’re a lovely girl, Samantha,” he said. “And that’s why I must be honest. It’s not going to work out between us. I’m sorry.”
* * *
And that was how I got dumped less than one hour into my first ever Internet date by a man twice my age with practically no hair.
It might have put some people off for good. But “some people” didn’t have my daughter to contend with.