Sunday Londoners Who Taste of Italy

Dating is a high price to pay for not dying alone. One may say to themselves—‘I am in a good place right now, a good time to try and meet someone.’ Where is the good place? It is in the car at night when you first get into it, and the seats are cold, the windows steamed, the steering wheel licks the inside of your hand. The good place is series of activities carried out in the living room, the surfaces dusted, the cupboards organised, out-of-date thrown away, the hoover run over. And ‘meet someone’ is bigger than its parts. Two words, three syllables that hang along the length of one’s biography like clothes upon a washing line.
    Maybe you say it with your chest—‘I am in a good place right now, a good time to try and meet someone.’ Of course, good places are hard to come by, and yet every moment is perfect for meeting someone.
    Before I go on a date, I prefer to ensure we have messaged for at least a week, that the conversation was engaging, amusing, that it flowed. I am not in the habit of meeting complete strangers; the very idea turns my stomach. If the signs are positive but the conversation trails off, I am in no mood to entertain things further and will let them know in no uncertain terms. Good luck with your dates, I tell them. They do not respond.
    Last Sunday I went to the Barbican during another weekend of train – and tube – strikes. I arrived early, hiding myself two roads away from the tube station, but with an excellent view of the exit so that when she emerged I could spot her at a distance. I lingered there, feeling somewhat like a maniac, but prepared. No surprises. It is hard to be surprised when you arrive half an hour early. There she was, but I did not move. She pulled out her phone and mine buzzed—‘I’m here.’ Removed my headphones, placed them in my backpack, put a hand through my hair, and started to make my way toward her. I said hello but kept myself back so that we could not hug. We walked along beneath the underpass of weathered concrete and she told me about the hassle she had experienced on her journey with all the mild annoyance of someone who supports the unions.
    She looked like her photographs as we sat there drinking coffee. There were pigeons pestering the many who sat around us, uncollected trays, stained cups. An hour-old pizza crust scraped along the floor behind me, as long as the bird that pushed it. Lush sunshine belied the predicted downpours – much to the delight of everyone – and technicoloured the planted balconies. In early October, the green was still radiant, the overhanging leaves like applause. It was a peaceful place for Londoners to be on a Sunday.
    We walked around for a time, aimlessly, still talking. She had booked us into the Conservatory at 17:45. For breakfast, I had beer and a walnut brownie; her lemon drizzle cake was cut with the side of a fork. At our allotted time we went to Conservatory and explored, before sitting down underneath some reeds and talking some more. There was an impressive urge for me to reach out and stroke the white ankle that her jeans had pulled up to reveal, for no reason other than it being a date; but I withheld. We spoke until it was dark and said we would go for dinner the next weekend, during another round of RMT strikes. Next weekend never came, and neither did the trains.
    The more astute will notice relationships on social media. Follow a stranger and learn the life around them, voyeurs every one of us, believing curated projections and getting pulled along for the ride. There is one girl who I see on there, an interest I am only slightly ashamed to admit is founded on her beauty. She is Baltimorean and moved to Seattle with her droopy-eyed St Bernard. When she met someone, a man with shoulder length hair, there were many photographs of them together. They were a very handsome couple and people told them so. He became rarer, then disappeared. What happened to him, I wondered. Was he okay? How did he deal with the breakup? I hoped he was in a good place and ready to meet someone new.
    Dating is too much effort to avoid dying alone. I sat on the train home and felt neither happy nor deflated. The only thing I felt was a comedown from some performance of life. The next day, if someone asked me what I got up to at the weekend, then I could inform them, dispassionately, that I had been on a date; or elongate the interaction and declare that I had spent a sunny Sunday at the Barbican. They need not know my company or the hells of dating, and I could make out I was the kind of metropolitan man who took to brutalist landmarks on bright autumn days. They would be glad for me and suppose that I was never satisfied staying Sunday indoors on my own with a coffee machine and chessboard. No one asked how my weekend was.
    The difference is I knew R— in real life, or I had met her once years ago. She scolded me when I did not put the books back on her coffee table exactly the way she had placed them. She was up in the suburbs of north London and her boyfriend was at work. She offered me a ménage à trois. She was brunette back then. Her boyfriend took the breakup hard. Her skin and cheekbones could make any grown man weep. Her new partner was not like her ex, and she became blonde. Someone somewhere wrote that they have more fun, and I never knew what that meant. Only on social media did I recently see that she got married in southern Italy. I am perhaps too British to recognise anywhere so picturesque, as though I am always waiting to get knifed outside the supermarket or catch tuberculosis off a badger. Places like that in southern Italy may as well be another world, accessible only to those rich enough for a space shuttle ticket. Her wedding dress was very nice, I suppose, but struggle to have an opinion on such matters other than my mother’s criterion—‘O no, not anotherwillpower dress!’ Their wedding photographer got a really good angle of the newly-married couple as the fireworks went off. My criterion for fireworks is—‘They must go up and explode.’ They were nice fireworks, I suppose. R— is lucky she does not have to date anymore.
    After my date, I enjoyed sitting on the train home. The events of the day did little to ruffle my underwhelmed disposition, but I enjoyed sitting on the train home. There had been an American football game at a nearby stadium and it was kicking-out time, so they flooded the carriage; scores of Englishmen in jerseys of various teams, who managed IT departments and asked their wives to put on an American accent in bed. Ack, I was bitter! although I stared out at a long stretch of night and only streetlights flashing past for stars!
    Stepping in my front door, I sighed while undoing my laces. A lamp glowed like buttercups. I sat in the darkness smoking for a while before ordering pizza. All day I had fancied pizza. I smelled oregano in my dreams. The deliveryman wished me a good-night. I ate at my kitchen table with a beer and an empty chair next to me. At last, I felt good.