One of the nice things about getting past the initial sex and booze phase is you can begin to open up about some of the more serious things in your life. In the first few months, there can be a tendency to paint a portrait of yourself that’s rose-tinted. The stresses of work, family and finances are put discretely to one side as you jazz hands your way through the early dates. Problems get downplayed. Conversations are purged of hard subjects, like you’re talking to one another through mouthfuls of candyfloss.
One thing I love about living in London is how many brilliant options there are for dates. Forget Odeons packed full of sweaty, shrieking teenagers and flabby, flat-packed pizza chains. Forget googling ‘great date ideas Trull’ before giving up and taking your date to the same Indian you went to every Friday with your ex. Forget having to schlep out to the nearest town to be able to have a snog without half the village seeing and having a middle-class meltdown. In London, the world is your oyster and oysters are the food of love. This is the place where young lovers gorge.
Life has a funny sense of irony. After having been in London and available for dates for nigh on seven months, I of course meet the speed date just before I’m due to go on holiday for three weeks. Why is it that love never pitches up at a time convenient to you? No, it always rocks up when you’re rushing out the door or looking for your keys or having a wee. I imagine Cupid out there somewhere, giggling, loosing an arrow into the left buttock of a man newly diagnosed with genital warts. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. We arrange a date for the night before I’m due to fly. Not ideal but I’m worried if we wait we’ll lose one another in the clamour of airports and baggage and hotels. Dates are like lobsters. Once you’ve got them you need to do something with them quickly or they begin to spoil.
I have a friend who’s been seeing someone for a long time. They’re a fantastic match: epicurean, cultured and refined, but not at all pretentious. If they were a night out they’d be an evening at the opera followed by a deep fried Mars bar. They work hard, travel and enjoy a luxurious, instagrammable lifestyle. Life’s a beach – or, in their case, a museum, a spa or a secluded treehouse in the heart of the Lake District. And yet, a couple of months ago he told her he loved her and she didn’t reciprocate. “I just don’t know,” she said, “sometimes I’m so happy but then…I have doubts. How do you know?” When I asked her about it recently she replied, “we don’t talk about it,” which I took as my cue to stick a Mars bar in it. Our conversation made me reflect on how you know you really love someone. How do you sort the wheat from the chaff, the yays from the nays, the ‘One’ from the still wondering? The Oxford …
The Thai and I are seeing each other again. I first bumped into her at a fancy dress party looking cute in a unicorn horn. Three weeks later I bumped into her in my bed looking cute in nothing at all. I had assumed she’d want nothing to do with me after the whole fiasco with the Friend, but when she drunk texts me at 5am I know she’s still a tiny bit interested. Still, it’s not easy. Gradually it becomes clear there’s a wall between us, but no matter how much I scrabble and claw at it, the only place I can get a leg over is in the bedroom. I peel off her clothes trying to get closer but she’s miles away. “Do you trust me?” I ask her. “No,” she replies simply.
I’ve come to the coast: to sea air and fish suppers and my third date with the older woman. She’s invited me to her holiday home, a flat with very high ceilings and a sliver of sea view. “It’s not quite finished,” she says self-consciously on arrival, “the bathrooms aren’t quite to my taste.” “It’s beautiful,” I reply. We have a quick drink before we head out, softening the evening in white wine. She’s wearing a low cut top and her cleavage winks at me from across the living room. “Come sit next to me,” she says, patting the sofa and I duly pad across the floor. Drinks finished, we head out for the evening. She’s made plans for us to watch a bonfire show: a mad, visceral thing where pissed villagers in frilly headdresses wave lit torches around and set off fireworks worryingly close to one another’s beards. The whole thing is hot and loud as hell and I get a brilliant flash of schadenfreude as, one by one, crying children have to be …
It’s funny how much scarier it feels to like someone when you’re older. When you’re young, liking someone is so easy. It’s a walk in the park or a sigh through the cherry blossoms. It’s not just keeping your heart open, ready and willing but actively thrusting it at people with glee – shoving it through letterboxes or chucking it at heads across a classroom. It’s scribbling someone’s name all over your textbook and dreams, not caring if you’ve accidentally grabbed the permanent marker. You’ve never been hurt, after all – what’s to say this isn’t permanent?