5 June 2003
It was a bit of an awkward start; he stood at the door and peered, she made the tiniest motions to suggest that she was his date for the evening, without actually declaring to the entire restaurant that she had reached that pit of desperation only found among flagellants in plague-struck countries and those who place personal ads in Loot.
I mean, really. Loot. If you want to sell a cupboard all well and good, but if you want to get your bits sweaty I refuse point blank to believe that there is no better way to do it than in London's free-ads daily. Still, ours not to reason why.
Eventually, once she had cleared her throat just loudly enough to tell him and the table next door that she had been living alone for at least five months, he took his seat and they ordered.
This is always a difficult moment; after all, once you actually order the food, it means you are locked in there for at the very least the length of the Nasi Goreng. Which shouldn't be a problem in and of itself, but unfortunately is.
Problem one - serving staff. Famously inefficient. So, even if they get the order right first time, which is an "if" of some dimension, one can still expect a decent interlude before they manage to produce anything resembling food. During which time, of course, there isn't even any meal to discuss, only absence of meal over which to find some sort of common ground of irritation, which isn't exactly the stuff great romances are made of. And what about when the food does arrive?
From my vantage point, on a table just to the left and a little closer to the kitchen, I've got a plum view of the waiters bustling past the table, as if they can smell the stench of defeat already starting to radiate off the couple. He's clearly way out of his league - she may have the look of a forgotten book, but he is mildew in tweed, the kind of person who back in the days before the Internet would have been deprived of the torment of hope. It's the thought that there might be somebody out there for them that really does for these sorry fellows. If they could only accept, as they did in the good old days, that if it hasn't happened now it's never going to happen, they could focus on Neighbourhood watch schemes and unselfconscious masturbation over Robot Wars. They would be happier without the burden of hope, and we would be happier without the burden of them.
I can imagine the conversation. He a little overexcited, nervous and overeager to impress, talking about the vintage Austin 1100 he has been restoring in the shed, his work in local government, a very funny story involving his next door neighbour's cat. She far too polite, nodding and smiling and realising that he couldn't listen to her even if he wanted to; his life has ossified far too long ago. So what the bloody hell was he doing looking for a woman in the first place? Maybe his last pair of pants was giving up the ghost.
When the food (problem two) does arrive, the race begins. He wants to get dinner out of the way in the hope of getting his end away. She wants to finish up in order to salvage what's left of the evening without appearing rude. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, they start to match each other's pace, then creep into the lead, moving the food faster and faster down their gullets, like starving animals, like snakes. Does he think she's as eager to get back to his semi-detached as he? Is he already pondering whether to broach the subject of certain equipment he finds conducive to the act of love?
It's a non-starter, as dessert and coffee are skipped, and the bill ordered for. He must know, his every cell must sing with the knowledge that he is not going to get his leg over a) with this woman and b) ever. Inductive reasoning, although not 100% reliable, suggests that a man who at the age of 43 is answering personal ads in the magazine he bought looking for spare parts for an Austin frigging 1100 should on average expect not to get lucky on any given night. In any given lifetime.
And I'm afraid that this night is indeed going to be no different. She's too shy, too polite, too afraid of a fuss to tell him straight. It took her five years to tell me that it wasn't working out. Still, she's getting better at giving off some signals, at least. The duck of the head and the frantic winking get the message across loud and clear: get me out of him.
You would have thought that I would have given up on this crusader business. Makes you wonder who's worse at getting themselves out of tricky situations, really. But right now she's going to need my help.
I realise that I've been playing with the old wedding band in my jacket pocket. I give them fifteen seconds, then slip them on - jacket and ring - and head out after them. Time to make a scene. She'll owe me for this one.