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First pages

Chapter 1

One of the interesting things about being a 36-year-old divorced man who’s decided that he’s had enough of the casual sex phase, and is now looking for a capital-R relationship, is that your female friends quickly reveal an extensive supply of cute, single, 30-something women friends whose existence had hitherto been kept a closely-guarded secret.

The ease with which said friends are able to recite concise yet comprehensive reviews of vital statistics, career highlights, favorite films and a surprisingly lengthy list of all the things each apparently has in common with me would put a recruitment consultant to shame.

Helen was my closest friend. Thirty-three, 5’6”, short black hair, piercing grey eyes and if you asked a random sample of people who know her to describe her, a good 95% of them would begin with the same word: ballsy.

She runs her own PR agency. It’s not a profession for wallflowers, and I took an instant liking to her because she is the only person I’ve ever met who is more opinionated than me, and on a wider range of topics. It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me that such a thing was possible.

We met on a marketing training course, and it wasn’t a good one. It was led by an academic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Academics have the freedom to pursue things that are interesting without having to worry about whether they will generate a commercial return (for which I envy them greatly), and that can often lead them to discover things that are both interesting and useful. But not in this case. The course presenter simply didn’t understand the nature of the business situations he was attempting to address.

The delegates from the corporates settled for either rolling their eyes at each other discreetly and waiting for it to end, or regressing to their schooldays and huddling in small groups making semi-audible commentaries on the value of the advice being dispensed.

But when it’s your own business, and your own money you’re spending, you want to see real value from it. So I stood up and, calmly and politely, expressed the view that the situation he was describing didn’t generally tend to work the way he thought it worked. He replied that every situation was different, and perhaps my experience wasn’t typical.

Which was when Helen stood up and, equally calmly and politely, pointed out that her experience was identical to mine.

At which point he tried to bullshit his way through. This would not have been a good idea with me, and was even less of a good idea with Helen. It wasn’t pretty.

So the course ended a little earlier than scheduled, and Helen & I went for a drink afterwards. Drinks led to a dinner, and thus began a close friendship.

I was happily married at the time. While there was admittedly a certain sexual energy between us, it never went any further than a bit of mutually enjoyable recreational flirting.

Now herself happily married, and enjoying her new role of matchmaker, Helen’s list of candidates was impressive.

“Why didn’t you mention all these friends before?” I asked. “Is it a summer special, or something?”

“Because you’d have fucked them and then fucked off.”

“Fair point.”

The first candidate was Alli, an expat American now living in London. Helen began reeling off the curriculum vitae …

“31.”

“Ok.”

“Accountant.”

“Hates her job, though, right? All the accountants worth knowing hate their jobs.”

“Has a 10-year-old son.”

“Hold it righ-“

“… who lives in America with his father.”

“Hmmm.”

I am not what one might consider natural parent material. I like my life. I like my home. Specifically, I like the fact that neither contains green poo nor is subjected to random episodes of projectile vomiting. If I really have to be woken at 3am, I want it to be by a cute woman who is feeling horny, not by a screaming pink blob who is feeling hungry.

“Do you have a photo of her?”

“Do you carry round photos of your friends?”

Helen can be annoyingly rational at times.

Facebook. Everyone has a Facebook account, right? That would have photos of her, and Helen would have access to her wall.

I hesitated. I didn’t want Helen to think me shallow. We have, after all, had many Deeply Meaningful Discussions on a great many subjects. We have discussed politics, philosophy, religion, relationships, literature, art, theatre, Haagen-Daz flavours … Well, ok, perhaps the ice-cream debates are not strictly relevant here (though anyone who seriously considers black raspberry chip superior to the understated purity of caramel cone must, in my view, be considered a deeply troubled person).

At the same time, men kind of are shallow. We're not like women, who seem blessed with the ability to become attracted to someone over time; it tends to be the case that we either fancy someone or we don't.

It's also not that I have movie-star looks myself. I'm sort of averagely handsome. Not a 10, not a 1, somewhere in the middle. I do seem to have the happy knack of batting above my average when it comes to women, but it's not that looks are the most important thing to me or anything, it's simply that sex is part of a relationship, and fancying someone is kind of a prerequisite for the sex part.

“Sports?” I asked, innocently.

“If you mean is she fat, no.” Helen always could see straight through me.

I decided to turn to logistics. “Where does she work?”

“Woking. She also lives there, and before you do the whole ‘outside the M25’ number, she does hate her job and is looking for one in London.”

“Ok.”

“Ok?”

“Ok.”

“Good.”

“So, um, how does this work? I haven’t been on a blind date since I was about 13.”

“I give you her phone number, you call her, you start ‘Hello, this is Stephen’.”

I really have no idea why I’m friends with this woman.

 

“Hello, this is Stephen.”

“Oh, hi. Uh … Helen’s friend, right.”

“Right.”

“Thought I’d check. Could have been an embarrassing conversation otherwise.”

“True. So, you’re in Woking?”

I was really showing off my scintillating conversational skills there.

“Yes.”

So was she. This would be easier in person. Please god.

“How are you fixed for dinner next Thursday?” she asked.

Alli was clearly not one to hang around. Or, perhaps, like me, she simply had no idea how these calls with total strangers worked, and wanted to get back onto the rather more familiar territory of a conventional date. Anyway, she was friends with Helen, so that had to make her an interesting person. Worst-case we’d have a pleasant dinner with good conversation.

“Sounds good to me,” I answered. “You know the town, so you book somewhere and let me know where, ok?”

“I’ll meet you at the station. 7pm?”

“7pm it is. Wear a red carnation and meet me under the station clock.”

“I think it has several station clocks.”

“I’ll be wearing a black suit, black shirt.”

“How do you know what you’ll be wearing in 10 days’ time?”

I explained. There are people who can tell exactly what colours go well together, and who can buy a shirt knowing exactly which trousers it will go with. I am not one of those people. I thus have a very simple strategy for matching colours: my entire wardrobe is black.

Additionally, I hate shopping, clothes shopping especially. I have no patience for it. So when I find something I like, I buy at least three of them – including suits. So I had a fairly good idea of what I would be wearing in 10 days’ time.

 

Blind dates carry unexpected complications. You know those times you’re trying to find a slot to see a friend and you go through your diaries in that ‘Wednesday? Beer with the climbing club guys .. Thursday? Paula’s leaving do .. Friday? Got a date’ fashion? The date bit, of course, leads to the inevitable questions. The first of which is always ‘Who is she?’ and the second is always ‘How did you meet?’.

Which is when you look shifty and mumble ‘Er, we haven’t yet, exactly’. I would, to be frank, be glad when it was all over.

 

At Waterloo, I had time to buy a cup of Earl Grey. I also, it turned out, had time to manage to spill a good 25% down the front of my shirt while attempting to retrieve my ticket from my jacket pocket to show the platform attendant. Just to add insult to injury, after spilling the tea and before managing to extract the ticket, he just waved me past in a bored fashion.

Great, I thought: the only thing worse than heading to a blind date at all is heading to a blind date with tea stains on your shirt. On board the train, I headed straight to the loo to see whether water would remove the evidence, assuming my shirt dried in time. I turned on the tap. A huge jet of water burst forth, splashed up from the sink and managed to spray my jacket, shirt and – oh God, yes – a decidedly strategic area of my trousers.

Thirty seconds previously, I just looked like a bit of a clumsy oaf. Now I looked like a rather unsuccessful Care in the Community case.

I had managed the water-spray disaster once before, but on that occasion was at least in a bathroom with a hot-air hand-dryer. Standing under that for about ten minutes had solved the problem. This time the only thing the loo had to offer was a copious supply of paper towels.

Cheap paper towels, it would appear, as they semi-disintegrated while rubbing them on my trousers, leaving dozens of little white bobbles behind. Attempting to wipe these off with my hands smeared some of them, leaving the crotch of my trousers still visibly wet and with some white-ish stains. This was not going well.

I looked at my watch. I would be arriving in Woking, and my date, in exactly 18 minutes time.

I decided that removing my trousers might at least make it easier to see what I was doing. 17 minutes remained. Attempting to rub off the paper stains wasn’t working, so the only thing for it was more water. Carefully, very carefully, I turned on the tap. I succeeded this time in getting a gentle flow of water. I bunched up the crotch area and held it under the tap, soaking it. 16 minutes. I rubbed the fabric against itself and was relieved to see that this was succeeding in removing the paper stains. I carefully inspected my handiwork and found it mercifully free of any traces of paper. 14 minutes, and now I just had the problem of a freshly-soaked crotch.

I briefly considered trying to open the window to wave the trousers in the breeze before vivid visions of the one way in which this situation could deteriorate dissuaded me. I wrang out the water and sort of flapped the trousers around in a half-hearted fashion before putting them back on. 11 minutes. I looked at myself in the mirror. One further advantage of black clothing is that it doesn’t show stains very well, and I decided the original stains on my shirt were now faint enough to pass muster if I was careful to keep my jacket on. The water-stained crotch still looked rather obvious.

Oh well, I thought, there was still nine minutes for it to dry sufficiently to avoid me turning up at a blind date looking like I’d just peed my pants.

A loud thumping on the door accompanied by a gruff “What the hell are you doing in there?” seemed to indicate that all I could do now was hope for the best. Emerging from the loo, I opted not to offer any explanation for my extended stay.

 

Mercifully, my trousers were merely damp by the time the train pulled in, and I figured I could get away with it so long as Alli didn’t grab my crotch. And if things were going that well, I could probably tell her the story and laugh it off.

I recognised her straight away. Partly because she really was standing under the clock, but mostly because my suspicions were right.

Alli was, as advertised, 31. About 5’5”, average build, long black hair. She had the kind of face that even her mother would have been forced to describe as ‘plain’, which is one thing, but she was dressed like a woman in her fifties. A mid-calf skirt in a brown check and made of some material that would have been more suited to black-out curtains, and the sort of blouse you’d expect an elderly aunt to wear to church on Sundays. One doesn’t like to make snap judgements, but, well, sometimes one just does.

But hey, we were there now, and you can’t very well arrange dinner with someone and then change your mind for aesthetic reasons. And just because we weren’t going to end up in bed didn’t mean we couldn’t spend an enjoyable evening chatting. So I flashed her my best smile, gave her a quick peck on the cheek and offered her my arm.

I have a simple philosophy when it comes to getting to know someone: talk about all the topics traditionally banned from the dinner-table. Politics, religion, sex.

Politics was uneventful. In fact, I may have to scrub politics from the list as about 95% of the population appears to share the same view. The Labour Party is now somewhere to the right of Thatcher. The Tories can’t position themselves to the right of Labour as that slot is already taken by the BNP, so they have been forced to position themselves about where the LibDems used to be. The LibDems, having been evicted from the centre ground, have had nowhere else to go but to the left. Politicians of all hues are all equally trustworthy, which is to say not at all. We’d pretty much done with politics, in fact, by the time we reached the restaurant. She’d chosen a Bella Pasta somewhere in the middle of the identikit town centre that is Woking.

She left the choice of wine to me. I tend to the view that a first date has enough unknowns without adding wine to the list, so I played it safe with an Australian Cabernet Shiraz I knew to be drinkable in that ‘alcoholic Ribena’ way the Australians do so well.

Wine to hand and food ordered, I moved things on to topic two.

“So, having exhausted politics, where do you stand on religion?”

“I’m a Baptist.”

Ooo-kay. This isn’t good. Not only is she a theist and a Christian, but she takes that so much as read that she doesn’t even see the need to mention the fact, she just dives straight into the brand. Why the hell didn’t Helen know about this? She would surely have warned me if she had? (She informed me afterwards that normal people talk about books and films and music on a first date, they don’t jump straight into fundamental belief systems. I asked her where the fun was in that, and she gave me The Look. She also informed me that answering with a specific brand is, in fact, perfectly normal for Americans even if they haven’t been to church in 20 years.)

I readily admit that I’m an intellectual snob, and the religion question is partly a disguised IQ test. It’s not that I’m looking for some correct answer, more that, whatever someone’s position, I need to know it’s a considered one. It’s been my experience that very few people who answer the question with a specified brand of Christianity meet that criterion.

Though Dawkins describes my position as ‘default atheist’, I always describe myself as an agnostic. Partly because it seems to me more intellectually honest simply to say that we don’t know, and partly because it is difficult to form an opinion about something which has no agreed definition. Anytime anyone asks me whether I believe in God, I begin by asking them to define the term.

“What does a Baptist believe?”

“We believe in the bible.”

“As in .. a philosophy of do unto others? .. Metaphors? .. The literal word of God?”

I deliberately left that one ‘til last in the hope that she’d laugh and call me silly. She didn’t.

“I believe that the bible describes real events, yes.”

This was not going well, and the starters hadn’t even arrived yet. I decided it was time to segue into something trivial.

“What other books do you enjoy?”

Happily, this diversionary tactic succeeded, and we discovered a mutual admiration of Kate Fox’s excellent study of Englishness (actually, mostly a study of middle-class Englishness), Watching The English. I enjoyed it because one defining characteristic of the English is our love of laughing at ourselves. Alli enjoyed it because even after living here for five years, she felt there were many aspects of English society that it’s hard for an American to grok.

A highly enjoyable conversation about our respective takes on various countries we’d visited led to discussion of food, cookery, home décor and finally relationship criteria.

Before you jump to any conclusions, I should like to point out that it was Alli and not I who introduced the subject. But by this point, we were getting on well, the wine and conversation flowing equally freely, so when she asked me about mine, I gave a relatively succinct and light-hearted list. I decided to bury physical attractiveness somewhere in the middle.

“Attitude to life is a key one. We all have our cynicisms, of course, but I look for people who have a basically positive ‘life is what you make it’ approach. Intelligence. I love to discuss and debate, so could never be in a relationship with someone who didn’t enjoy that. Physical attraction has to be there, obviously. Enough shared interests to-“

“So do you?” she asked.

“Do I?”

“Find me physically attractive.”

That one took me by surprise. It’s possible that, with a bit of notice, and perhaps availing myself of the ‘Phone a friend’ option, I might have come up with a good response. All I could think of immediately was to deflect the question.

“You didn’t quiz me about attitude or intellect.”

“No.”

It wasn’t a terribly successful deflection.

Well, it is a blunt question, and you don’t ask it that baldly or insistently unless you want an honest response, I guess.

“Um. Sorry. Afraid not. I like you, though,” I added brightly.

My cheery addition didn’t help. I realised as I answered that the only reason she’d asked the question that directly was because she thought she already knew the answer, and it wasn’t that one. Damn!

Things went very quiet. We were only about halfway through the main course and the wine.

At a moment like that, you can either continue the embarrassed silence or take the ‘Meet trouble head-on’ approach. I hate embarrassed silences.

“You were expecting a different answer.”

“Yes.”

“Damn. I should have realised that. Sorry! I can be a klutz sometimes.”

Nothing.

“It was just, with you asking the question that directly, I didn’t know what else to say. I’m a crap liar.”

“Right.”

Alli resumed eating, so I did the same: it did relieve us of the need for immediate conversation, but also removed the option of taking the easy way out and asking for the bill.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok.”

“I think you’re great.”

“It’s ok.”

About a week went by before she put down her knife and fork. I did the same and signalled to the waiter for the bill. It took about a fortnight to arrive. I paid it without looking at it.

“Well, it was good to meet you, anyway.”

Oh god, was that really the best I could do? I considered the matter for a moment. For several moments. Yes. Yes, it was. It really was.

Fortunately there was a taxi-rank about two minutes’ walk away. What was the etiquette for such a parting? I decided one didn’t do the kiss on the cheek thing. And yes, I admit it, I really did repeat the “Nice to meet you” line. Well, it had been, prior to That Question.

A firm resolve was reached that evening. I would never, ever again arrange to meet a blind date for a meal. It would always be for a drink, then any repetition would be mercifully brief.

 

Helen didn’t speak to me for about four days.

Tom, in contrast, found the whole thing hilarious.

"How old are you, Adams? A blind date? You can't be that desperate, mate."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," I said, weakly.

"It was a bloody stupid idea," he countered. It was hard to argue with that one.

We'd met at Crisis at Christmas ten years ago. We'd each volunteered there on Christmas Day for years. We liked to pretend it was for altruistic reasons, but actually we both had divorced parents, and it avoided the lose-lose question of where you went for the festivities.

Despite being one, I felt I'd never quite got the hang of bloke friendships. The basic deal seemed to be that most of the conversation had to be about trivia, and if you did stray off into areas like relationships, the only acceptable format for this was taking the piss out of each other. The lingua franca of male conversation appeared to be banter.

It wasn't that I minded this, I just quickly bored of it.

Tom was slightly different in that you could, if you persisted, have something approaching a real conversation with him. You just had to get through the ritual banter phase first. Perhaps, I thought, having conceded the stupidity of the blind date, I could cut to the chase.

"So, how does it work, then, this dating stuff. At our age, I mean. I feel a bit old for bar hopping."

I'm not sure why I felt he had any answers. He hadn't had a lasting relationship in all the time I'd known him. I think his record was a little over a year. He mostly seemed happy with the single life. I had been too, for a time.

It had started as a strange sensation, being single again. For 12 years, so many decisions had been joint ones. When even which brand of coffee to buy had been a committee decision, the idea of choosing a house, then decorating and furnishing it, without anyone else to consult felt alien in those first few weeks.

I’d see a particular paint colour and instinctively turn to the empty space next to me to seek agreement.

But within a surprisingly short time, it felt liberating. I could, for the first time in a long while, be utterly selfish. There were only my preferences to consider. Only my tastes to reflect. Only my needs to meet. It was quite thrilling.

I mourned the marriage much less than I’d expected to. I think most of my mourning had already taken place. Helen had given me possibly the single best piece of advice I’d ever received: that I shouldn’t end my marriage without first going all-out to save it. Doing that, and failing, meant I really could be sure that ending it was the right thing for both of us.

I’d never been unfaithful, not once. Not that I'd never been tempted, but I did seem to possess the ability to think beyond the immediate moment. I knew how I'd feel in the morning, and I knew how I'd feel the next time I saw Isabel; the temptations were never more than fleeting.

So being single was liberating sexually too. It was like being a teenager again, only without the angst.

The first time with another woman had still felt strange. Not entirely devoid of latent guilt. But that feeling didn’t last long, and there followed a phase of hedonistic indulgence I’d expected to last maybe six months before I’d once again feel ready for another relationship.

Six months stretched into two years. But ultimately, it wasn't me. Meaningless sex is fun for a while, but only for a while. Two years in, I didn’t want to chase another night of adventure: I wanted to wake up next to someone I loved. I was now officially Dating With Intent.

Tom brought me back to the present with his reply.

"It's easy these days," he said. "Pick an interest, Google it, find some events, wander along, voila, lots of women and you're guaranteed at least one interest in common. Or there's online dating. Even easier: answer a bunch of questions, get presented with a list of women you know are looking. Like shooting fish. Or go perving all your mates' Facebook friends looking for cute single women, and ask for an introduction."

I wasn't going to be doing that one, I decided. I'd had quite enough of fix-ups for now.

I'd never really figured out Tom's attitude to women. His language and tone were quite laddish, he clearly did enjoy bed-hopping, and he really did appear to keep score. But I also knew him as someone who could be thoughtful, and I thought his more sexist comments were more for show than representative of his real attitudes – but I was never entirely sure.

"I think I'll skip the intros," I said. "The activities thing makes sense, though."

"Go for it."

Chapter 2

As it turned out, I hadn't needed to: I met Kathy at Paddington Station. It was perhaps the most clichéd meeting possible: she was struggling to lift her case on board the train, and I offered to help. Whilst I would not claim that her attractiveness passed me by, I would like to point out in my defence that I am equally quick to offer assistance to little old ladies.

I never was any good at guessing ages, but I put her around 30. Long, dark-brown hair that looked impossibly straight. Small, vaguely librarian-ish glasses that should have looked somewhat nerdy and instead somehow added to her attractiveness. A green top with a rust-coloured skirt and purple scarf adding up to a colour combination that ought not to have worked but did. Either no make-up or very subtle make-up. Small ear-rings, no other jewellery. Button nose. I like button noses.

She gave me a delightfully genuine smile of gratitude.

“Thanks.”

“A pleasure.”

“Nice to see the age of chivalry is not entirely dead.”

“One does one’s best.”

Have you ever found yourself trapped inside one of those conversations where it feels as if the entire exchange was written in advance and you can’t quite figure out how to set about departing from the script? I knew how the rest of it went. Where we were each going. Whether it was business or pleasure. Whether we knew the place well. I really didn’t want to run through the whole thing, but I wasn’t quite sure how to switch into something more meaningful within the 15-20 seconds it would take for one of us to reach our seat.

If it had been a Hollywood movie, the train would have been a glorious old steam train on a journey to some romantic city, and we’d have found that we were sitting opposite each other as the only passengers in one of those delightful compartments in days of old.

Instead, the diesel train was the 09:42 to Swansea and our reserved seats were at opposite ends of the carriage. This was distinctly lacking the Hollywood touch.

We reached her seat first, I put her bag in the space between the seat-backs, she thanked me again and I told her she was welcome, smiled and wandered down to my own seat towards the far end.

Hollywood had failed me. In a Brit film, our cases would have been identical, and there would have been a charming mixup resulting in us opening each other’s bags in our hotel rooms only to find that we are staying in the same hotel. We’d laugh about it then go to dinner.

But Brit films were failing me too: her case was an enormous green suitcase and mine was a small black rollerbag.

I’m not a shy person. Most people who know me would describe me as one of the more confident people they know. But I’ve never been one of those fortunate guys who can smoothly execute a pickup of a perfect stranger in a public place. So for the first few minutes I attempted to formulate a plan. What convincing excuse could I come up with for going to speak with her?

‘I just realised, you’ll probably need a hand off with your case at the other end – where are you going to?’ Way too lame.

‘Train journeys are very boring and since we’re both travelling alone, care to pass the time with some conversation?’ Might have been ok if I’d suggested it at the time, but a bit more desperate-looking if I have to go back five minutes later and that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.

What would a Hugh Grant character (well, the Hugh Grant character, really) do? Hmm. He’d approach her in a very bumbling fashion and stumble over his words while saying something like “I’m terribly sorry to trouble you, but I don’t suppose you’d- No, no, of course you wouldn’t. It’s just that- No, sorry, I’ll, er … sorry, sorry.’ Then he’d sort of half-turn to return to his seat, and she’d find his shyness charming and rescue him with a witty remark, inviting him to join her.

In real life, she’d think I was a bumbling fool and stare at me until I went away. Unless, perhaps, I looked like Hugh Grant. Which I don’t.

The movie industry really wasn’t proving much help.

Oh sod it. She’ll be asleep by the time I think of something. Let’s just go for it.

“Hello again, I was just on my way to the buffet car for a tea, and wondered if I could get you anything?” Not exactly going to win whatever the Pulitzer Prize equivalent is for pickup lines, but it was the best I could do at short notice.

“Oh! More chivalry. I had a cup of tea at the station, but thank you anyway.”

This was going to be a very short conversation unless I took executive action.

Telling the truth with strangers can be considered either refreshingly endearing or downright weird, depending on one’s point of view. I do try to resist completely unprovoked examples; I mean, I don’t wander up to complete strangers in the street and attempt to engage them in Deep And Meaningful Conversation. But, under the circumstances …

“Well, actually, that was the best I could come up with in terms of an excuse to come and talk to you.”

“I realised.” There was a faint smile there. Amusement? Invitation?

“Did it work?” I always was an optimist.

“Maybe. Have a seat and I’ll send you away when I get bored with you.”

This girl made me look like an amateur in the candour stakes.

“I’m Stephen.”

“Kathy. Do you make a habit of hitting on girls on trains, or am I a special case?”

“Is there a convincing answer to that?”

“We’ll see.”

 

We chatted. More briefly than expected, as she was only going as far as Reading, but I wasn’t despatched back to my seat in that time, and I was sufficiently interested to ask for her phone number.

She reached into her handbag and gave me a neatly-folded piece of notepaper with her mobile number scribbled on it.

“Do you make a habit of preparing for men on trains to hit on you?”

“I wasn’t sure how brave you were going to be; if not, I was going to give it to you as I got off the train.”

 

One of the dating rules I didn’t know was how long one was supposed to wait before calling. It would presumably be seen as over-keen if I called too soon, and rude to leave it too long. But what was too soon? What was too long?

I almost called Helen to ask, but thought that seeking dating advice quite so soon after The Woking Incident might be inadvisable – and Tom would probably tell me to 'play it cool, mate.' I settled on two days.

Diary coordination is always a nightmare, and business travel definitely doesn’t help. Dinner was going to be about a month away, which seemed silly. Kathy lived in West London, and I was seeing friends in Windsor the following Sunday, so we settled for afternoon tea there.

 

Afternoon tea is a much under-rated British institution. It has to be done properly, of course. Real china. A generous-sized teapot with separate jug of hot water for replenishment. Sandwiches cut neatly into four triangles. Everything served by a white-haired old lady. If doing the whole cream tea number, the scones must be warm, the whipped cream real and the jam served in little cut-glass bowls.

There is something about the ritualistic nature of it. The clink of china. The embroidered napkins that would be hideous at home but are somehow just perfect in this context. It’s almost impossible to savour the experience without a feeling that all is right with the world.

Jacobs was such a tea-shop. My local friends had introduced me to it many years ago, and I swear that nothing had been changed since about 1970. It was a tiny place, and it was a sunny day, so I’d called in on my way to see my friends. Tea-shops do not, of course, offer table reservations, but a cheeky request accompanied by a charming smile can often work wonders, and so it had proven on this occasion. When I arrived back at a few minutes to four, Kathy was already there and sitting at a table with a hand-written Reserved sign. She was wearing a yellow blouse with knee-length red skirt. The effect was quite vivid.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Any resemblance between the hapless chap in the novel returning to the dating scene after a divorce and myself is, of course, purely coincidental. I'm a freelance writer and author with rather a short attention-span: in addition to this rom-com, I've written two technothrillers, one travel guide and am currently working on an SF series. Call me genre-agnostic. I'm based in London, England, and now very happily engaged.

Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
Chick-lit and rom-coms are my secret vice. This is just between the two of us, right?
Q. Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from this book?
A.
Hugh Grant
Q. What books are you reading now?
A.
I'm currently re-reading Harry Harrison's entire Stainless Steel Rat series, starting Kimberly Gordon's Crazy in the Heart and about halfway through Guy Deutscher's Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.

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