A blind date – the stuff of nightmares or an exciting way to spend your time? Gail is about to find out if Jon is a nightmare or not.
I’m sitting in the Royal Oak and it lives up to its traditional name. Old bullion windows, dark, smoky beams, a crackling fire and worn flagstone floors. The polished wooden bar looks as if thousands have leant on it in the last 300 years. It’s in a market town ten miles from home and where my first live blind date is about to happen.
I’m early. I’m always early because I have to plan my way, even with Sat Nav. Getting lost time is built into any journey.
It was the same when I got married. Whoever heard of the bride being at church first but I was and had to walk around the graveyard on a windy September day holding my dress out of puddles until the groom arrived. I was already having second thoughts but I was all of 22 and thought I knew exactly what I was doing. Ah well, you live and often don’t learn. Consequently, here I am in a pub, nervously waiting for my blind date.
Hope springs eternal or, as Meg is fond of observing, is often a constant surprising triumph over reality.
I wonder whether I should go back out, sit in the car and enter again. But I’ve already bought myself a drink. Only one, mind, as I’m driving. I’m too nervous to eat although I’m not expecting to fall in lust when cycling-mad Jon swings open the door.
No wonder Meg took me with her to meet Tinder Trevor. She doesn’t know about this. Only the dog does. I flick through a newspaper as the pub fills up with a lunchtime trade of pensioners who tuck into their buy one dinner and get one free. It’s a sea of flossy white hair and beige tops and trousers. I read about Brexit, Brexit, Brexit until I’m exasperated. The celebrity gossip, crime and health pages are dispatched with speed. I can’t deal with dire warnings on just about everything but breathing. And probably even that is bad for you in front of a real fire. I breathe in its woody loveliness.
‘Gail?’ Are you Gail?’
‘Yes,’ I say in almost a whisper, and look up although it feels like minutes before I do.
‘I’m Jon,’ pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘Would you like another drink, or crisps?’
‘No, no I’m fine thank you,’ and know in that instant he is not the man for me, probably any more than I am the woman for him.
He is older than his photograph, heavier around the jowls, with less hair on his head than around his chin and sprouting out of the top of his shirt, the ends of his shirt cuffs and back of his hands. I tell myself off thinking I’m no bloody oil painting and while I feel 30 in the inside that is most definitely not reflected in a mirror no matter how dim the lighting here.
I feel as though everyone is looking but nobody has lifted their eyes from their plates. He asks the barman for a drink, puts a hand in his pocket and the loose change jangles amid the pensioners silently eating. I like men who don’t have wallets, there’s something a bit carefree about it. ‘Make an effort Gail’ I tell myself and smile warmly as he comes to the table with a frothy pint of dark beer.
‘I haven’t done this before,’ he says, and smiles. It’s an eager smile. The poor man could do with a visit to the dentist. His teeth are all brown. Heavy smoker’s teeth but he doesn’t smell of nicotine, just a faint air of Lifebuoy soap and washing powder. I can’t believe I’m making all these judgments. Maybe he is doing the same of me in my denim dress with the red tartan tights and brogues, and hair that could do with a dye.
‘Neither have I and it is very odd isn’t?’ I say. I can’t think of anything funny to say at all. So I do what all women do in these situations and ask the man about himself. He takes a deep breath and tells me about his cycling – 200 miles-a-week sometimes, his love of Manchester United, his mum who is disabled and needs a lot of him, his son who is grown up and far away, and his love of opera and classical music.
As he talks I feel empathy, no something worse, pity. His loneliness is palpable. Perhaps mine is too. He pulls the lobe of his left ear until it reddens, rubs his chin with the back of his hand, itches his head, and waggles his foot. He cannot sit still. We don’t order food and there is an unspoken agreement that this blind date is going nowhere. We finish our drinks and say our polite goodbyes.
I am so utterly relieved to go home alone that I delete Desperate Dating and get on with what makes me really happy. I take off my dress put on an old pair of jeans, my long, splattered apron and lock myself in my little garden studio.
The first step is to centre the clay on the wheel. I touch the pedal to turn the wheel and it revolves slowly. There is an art to throwing the clay. When I first started my clay balls were like projectiles flying across the classroom and ended in a heap of wet waste.
I press the clay beneath my palms, squeezing and coaxing it with my fingers. I love the wet, earthy smell of clay. The way it coats my hands and gets under my bitten nails. Now is a moment of pure stillness and concentration. The world outside recedes. There is no sound, but for crows tap dancing on the roof.
This is what I love about pottery it removes all madness from my mind and my body calms. My breathing slows and shoulders move down from my ears as the bowl grows between my palms. It’s a pleasing shape with a sturdy base and a rim that is ridged and dimpled. Not exactly Grayson Perry but I’m happy with it. I put it into the hot kiln and when it’s ready will spend hours painting and glazing.
I make a cup of coffee and think about Jon and hope he finds someone to ride a bike hundreds of miles with.
‘Come on Fudge, it’s walkies time,’ and she is by my side wagging her tail into a blur. I open the door and in the porch is a bunch of white lilies and beside them, a toilet roll with a red bow around it. I open the envelope attached to the flowers and decipher the curling handwriting.
‘Thank you for the use of your loo on Halloween. My granddaughter thought your cobweb hair very fetching. She used rather a lot of loo roll so this is a replacement and I wonder if you’d like to go out for a dog walk sometime. I have a very friendly whippet who likes to run like the wind and I don’t.’
I smell the waxy flowers, my favourite perfume and smile at the loo roll. Then remember I told him I worked in insurance. What the hell was I thinking? Still, apparently, it hadn’t put him off.
‘Well Meg, maybe hope does spring eternal’