In which our writer, long since retired from the fleshpots of the capital, recalls three particular dates, each of a peculiar memory, and each taking place at an extant London restaurant.
I used to hold fast to the line that a bad date was at least a good opportunity to meet someone else. Why let a good outfit go to waste? In retrospect this was a rather chilling conceit; but at the time, yet another heroic example of my waste-not-want-not take on life.
I’d met Jonathan during a forgettable photography phase, when I’d asked to take his picture outside a rundown Norwich pub. We’d quickly found a mutual interest in talking about ourselves, daytime drinking, George Eliot, and taking lots and lots of cocaine.
He was fun to flirt with, and fun to get high with, but my moral compass materialised whenever things got too heavy. I genuinely did just want to be his friend, a point of view he found amusing, if perhaps inconsequential to his wider aims.
So far I’d stuck to my guns, refusing his advances with a consistency that eluded me in all other areas of my life. Being chased was so much more interesting than getting to know someone. In this regard his being married was helpful, providing a rock solid reason to say no to sex, back when I thought you needed a rock solid reason to say no to sex.
‘Sometimes,’ I told him, as I cut us both a line, ‘it’s nice to just have dinner and then go home to bed, separately. Besides, you’re married!’ Amorphous morals do appear to materialise at the most convenient moments.
We were parked outside the Saatchi gallery waiting for a friend of his to join us. Jonathan had invited this friend to act as a beard, lessening any suspicion of his being there alone with me.
‘What’s he like?’ I asked.
‘Oh, an actor, quite pleased with himself. Bit of a tosser actually.’
Once inside I spotted the dark-eyed actor immediately, and it was soon clear there would be no need for acting on either of our parts. But, committed to his craft as he was, he took his new role very seriously, and as we made our way through the exhibition, we did a very good impression of a couple besotted.
This was hard on Jonathan, who watched the budding romance with a grim acceptance… ‘Alright, I think that’s convincing enough.’ he muttered, as we reconvened by the bar. By this time, I had left earth for planet romance, and no longer cared what anyone thought. ‘Jonathan’ I said, righteous with indignation, ‘you’re the one who’s married!’ The self-skewed logic of the narcissist had me convinced of my moral high ground, and as I floated off around the forgettable sculptures, felt quite sure that I, at least, was behaving with some dignity.
After a brief stint at booze-soaked after party in Hix from which I was ejected after throwing oysters (sans shells) into the curly nest that is Anthony Gormley’s hair, I found myself at a table in Bar Italia with the actor, having our first ever dinner date. I was tired by then, a little confused as to who he was exactly, and the concept of cutlery defeated me. The actor called a cab and took me home to his bed like the easily read book that I was.
Waking the next morning, the night reasserted itself into shaky order. I had six missed calls from Jonathan, numerous oyster shells in my bag, and a stranger in bed next to me. I took in the actor’s bedsit and his unfamiliar sleeping body.
Within fifteen minutes I was dressed and out the door, another twenty and I was back in my own home, lying in the bath and re-reading Daniel Deronda.
‘What the bloody hell was that?’ thundered Jonathan, when I called him later that day. ‘Oh let’s not talk about it.’ I said, ‘Let’s talk about something else’.
On this particular night my date was an actor who liked to hog the limelight, holding forth with manic but sometimes brilliant speeches that occasionally ended in song. I’d sort of loathed him at first, but somehow the prospect of a one-on-one evening in his exuberant company seemed the perfect tonic to a cold February night.
Oh how far from that it was. Doubt set in when I received a message from him telling me to dress up ‘as if’ we were going to a speakeasy. Why ‘as if’? I wondered, as a subtle unease took hold. Could we not just go to a speakeasy?
To make matters worse there was also a secret location (in this case the fire exit of a gym), and my anxiety levels peaked when the actor emerged from a taxi wearing spats and greeted me in a loud Noo Yawk accent 'you sure like may-tay fine, my lady!'
Memories of my first and only audition at school resurfaced from a hidden corner of my mind and I felt my heart begin to jerk thumpily about. After performing a special knock, the door swung open to reveal a man dressed as one of the children from Bugsy Malone, who immediately splurged us both with a custard gun. Triggered is not the word.
Inside we found a room full of heaving people jazzing about to their heart’s content, my date high-fiving and finger-gunning as we went. I followed, as if in a bad dream, hating myself for being myself, but hating everyone else even more for being so extraordinarily annoying.
An unsuccessful attempt to escape to the safety of the bar was nixed by my date grabbing me by the hand and leading me onto the dancefloor for an awkward Charleston. My jazz hands were not effusive.
At some point we found ourselves downstairs in a dingy room full of boxing rings. ‘Show me what ya gat’ he said, putting on some gloves. Mildly intrigued by this turn of the events, and feeling quite open to violence in the face of all the manic cheer upstairs, I took my place in the ring.
With a quick one-two he managed to get me in an awkwardly gloved grip, but when I attempted to pull away and spar afresh found he wouldn’t let me go. Unwilling to kiss the guy, the boxing match descended into a not very enjoyable wrestling match, which ended with him biting me on the ear. Kneeing him in the groin I pulled myself free. ‘What the fuck!’ I said, holding my throbbing head.
Between cloakroom and cab he convinced me that I was overreacting, and that we should at least have dinner. A mixture of hunger and confusion resulted in us standing in line in Barrafina, enduring a wait that could only be described as tense. Dinner carried on in the same lost vein. Jokes fell flat, conversation floundered, and despite his best efforts to win me round by catching olives in his mouth and speaking Spanish in a Scottish accent, my aching ear had drained the evening of comedy and him of attraction, and I told him I wanted to call it a night.
‘And what kind of night would you call this?’
‘A long one.’
‘I can’t believe you’re so upset about a bite!’
‘You are not a dog.’
‘Sylvia Plath drew blood when she bit Ted Hughes on their first date.’
‘Yes, and look how that turned out.’
‘I thought you were going to be fun’ he said disappointedly, turning away and shaking his head. This was clearly not the final act he’d hoped for.
‘Ditto.’ I replied.
Bocca di Lupo
My date considered himself as his very own gold standard. From head boy at his infamous public school to ad man extraordinaire, he was used to looking down at people from the heights of the self-proclaimed winner’s podium. With arms toned from holding various trophies aloft, he’d made light work of the Herculean effort normally needed to win my affections.
Unsurprisingly, he was absurdly arrogant. A text informed me that he was sure I’d be ‘very pleased’ with the restaurant he’d chosen for dinner that night. Extraordinary. As I dressed for the evening, I reminded myself that I was meeting an old Etonian, and so prepared an outfit with ‘strict teacher’ overtones that I thought might remind him of his happiest days.
We’d already slept together at a house party a week before, leaving the babble behind for a mid-meal moment in a darkened bedroom. I’d thought that was that, but a follow up call had suggested an evening together in Soho to ‘get to know each other better.’
I was surprised by this, and wasn’t at all sure that us getting to know each other better was going to enhance either of our attraction, but, interested to see what our conversation would be like, I said yes.
We were to meet at The French House, and standing on the street drinking a glass of red I felt the potential of the evening rise and swell as I listened to tales of melting trainers as he ran across the Sahara, burst blisters as he waded through swamps, and innumerable finishing lines being crossed in a never ending fanfare of triumph. Listening to him map his own myth, I realised that this was a man who liked to come first, and as this was generally what I liked to do, began to wonder about our compatibility.
Nevertheless, we strolled to the restaurant on a cloud of goodwill – he had an appreciative audience; I had a golden god I could worship for the evening. We entered Bocca di Lupo to a chorus of greetings. Chefs waved knives, the maitre’d offered his hand, and we were ushered to a place at the bar where we could watch the fatted calf being prepared for this most prodigal of sons.
‘Happy?’ he asked, without any hint of a need for an answer. ‘Very,’ I smiled, deciding not to tell him that another date had brought me to the same restaurant only the week before. Why ruin his fun?
After a meal of delicious pasta and pigeon, he signaled for the check and my coat was brought forth. There was no question about where we were going next. Admiring his absolute confidence, and happy to continue staring at his profile, we got in a cab and he gave his address. ‘You’ll enjoy my place.’ He assured me.
A short drive later, he was proved right.
Entering his room I stood as if stunned. Gold cups abounded, and as I stared at the photographs of my date being decked in medals, breaking through finishing lines and scaling an array of summits, I hesitated. It seemed almost too much to let him win me too.
Well, curiosity didn’t so much as kill the cat as leave her mildly satisfied.
As I lay next to this golden, heavy breathing colossus, I thought of Dorothea Brooke. Her naivety had lead her into a loveless marriage; my naivety had lead me into this man’s bed.
I can’t say I’d have given him gold, more of a bronze, and the next morning as we were about to part ways he leant down to kiss my cheek. ‘Thank you so much for coming.’ He murmured, polite to a fault, as my taxi drew up.
‘But darling,’ I murmured in reply, ‘I didn’t come at all.’