Cauliflower Rice

She did not like the Leonard Cohen song with her name in; she liked the Ray Charles song with her name in. Fifteen minutes after meeting me, on the first floor of a velvet and varnished pub, south of the Thames, she laughed—‘You’re such a little shit.’

It was my first date in two years – or, more precisely, two years and one day – although I did not think as much at the time, but stared at my counterpart intensely as our conversation flowed rapidly from one subject to the next. At the opposite end of our long table sat a family of tourists, postured carefully, talking in their native tongue. We were in the far corner, and a short while later she asked—‘Shall we go outside for a smoke?’ It was cold out there, colder still off the river. The sky was the colour of rust, tall blocks in the city erect with lights like cheese graters, the Thames flowing east and a thin layer of rain on everything. There were two rows of tables, mostly vacant, with parasols overhead and patio heaters reddening cheeks, where one had to stand every ten minutes to reflick the switch, to reignite the fading orange bars.

After the cigarette—‘Shall we stay out here?’ she asked. When she went to the toilet, I sat down in a wet chair, arose sharply and searched for a dry chair for her. I positioned it next to me. After she returned, I pointed out the chair to her, explained that my buttocks were now cold and wet. She sat down facing away from me; I noted this and determined in my mind that, by the time the evening was through, she would finally turn towards me.  

M— was easy to talk to, and she was easy to listen to. She asked questions with keen interest, spoke at length and honestly, put her pale blue eyes back at mine. She laughed freely! The subjects meandered between the dark and morbid, to the jovial and amusing. It was wonderful to make her laugh. The nerves that had soaked my sleeves earlier had vanished entirely and I was quite calm. I hunched my shoulders up to heave my collar against my throat, as my trembling hands rolled rollie after rollie, mostly as I sought to keep up with the rate through which she lit her tailoreds.

It so happened that, over the space of a few tables, all of the young ladies went to the bathroom or the bar at once, and the young men on the other tables began to converse with one another. Their exchange was most repellant, and I feared that I may get caught up in it, if a suggestion or question was put towards me. What if one were to ask my opinion! Fortunately it was not long before M— returned and I could quietly relay their awkward banter.
At nine o’clock we were ushered inside. I acknowledged to myself that, by that point, she had been facing me and was close enough that our legs were interlocked but for an inch separating them. We took a small table and were then closer still. That last drink for the road.

‘I’m not very good at dates,’ says I. ‘Never know if someone likes me and I dunno how to flirt, not really.’

‘Me neither.’

We were not going about it well. Between the two of us, the night was in danger of becoming a missed opportunity. I could not define what she thought of me in the slightest. What was only clear was that we were good company, just us two. If it was not to be, then we had both learned a considerable amount about the other and had laughed merrily.

We walked between the bricks and over the cobbles back to London Bridge station and came to pause beneath some arches where we enjoyed one last cigarette together. I told her I did not know how to say good-bye, and held out my hand. She embraced me, and it was awkward until we separated and then came together in an awaited kiss; the first soft and timid, tempting, the second full and rich with the flavour of her mouth. The measure she had held herself to for the past three-and-a-half hours betrayed the way she kissed. Her hands went around my throat and into my hair, she pulled mine to her thighs and bum; I pushed them up her back and into the hot hair on the nape of her neck. When I could breathe—‘Fucking hell.’ ‘You’re such a strange man,’ she smiled back. We walked hand-in-hand to platform fifteen, and said good-bye.

A week later, we met again.

Much had happened between. We found out more about each other, confessions, honesties, terrific exposés of character and kindness, compliments on the other’s kissing, anticipation for her next day off.

She was sat at the back of a dark bar on her own in a small booth with a gin & tonic, and a beer collecting condensation for me. We picked up where we left off, sans kissing. Perhaps I knew her from before, long before, from another time and place. I could not fathom how quickly and completely she came to me, or how I could be so at ease with this recent stranger.

It was not until the second venue, a two-storey pub un-Tuesday busy, that we sat next to each other and talked about the most personal things. She revealed so much of her past and then she asked me about mine, and I felt nude, yet she undressed me more and more. I thought she might flinch or withdraw, but she did not; further still she pried. At one moment, we would be on the very borders of emotion, and the next we would leap into laughter! I had not known anything like it.

We held hands below the steelwork of Borough market. There was a rustle of activity in the margins, lamps that swam in the milky air of rain that had fallen during the day.

I studied the menu of a Japanese restaurant, the contents I found more curious than appealing. ‘No,’ says she. I spied a pizza restaurant. ‘No,’ says she, too—‘What about here?’ I spun her and kissed. It was just like the first one. She did so like she had been waiting as long as I had. ‘Excuse me, are you queueing?’ a family interrupted as I sheepishly said that we were not.

We took our seats, ordered a bottle of mineral water for the table, a glass of rioja and a pint of Estrella, before deciding on several tapas. ‘This is so fuckin civil,’ I said. Her nails were painted red and the way they scooped up the bowl for such delicate sips…! I knew that her lips were not always so gracious!

I walked her to the train platform once more, a different length, not fifteenth. We stood there the way young people do, gazing up at the board, waiting, not paying attention, hands stroking and kissing with the restricted passion of two fools who prefer to kiss in private but sometimes cannot help themselves. The way she tasted was still delicious but different from a week ago, as though she were Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper. As she went to kiss me again, I pulled away from her pucker and chuckled at her face. ‘Oi!’

Full of impatience – ‘O, I may as well get the tube!’– we meandered through the seemingly catacombic tunnels of the station and said good-bye somewhere different.

On my walk back across London Bridge, I sucked her out the hairs of my beard. There was a spring in my step, and in the air a perfume of bright blue & yellow hinting of what was to come. Those were streets slowly getting back into themselves after twenty-four months soft. I went swiftly.