First Date by Sue Watson

 

Chapter One

‘I’ve always wanted a yellow Labrador,’ I say, trying to bite into a piece of garlic bread without butter running down my chin.

‘No?’ He smiles. ‘That’s crazy!’

‘Why?’ I’m struggling with the pasta and splashing arrabbiata sauce everywhere. Not a good look.

‘You know how people talk about white picket fences, and 2.4 kids?’ he says.

My heart sinks, this was going so well, but here it comes, the usual commitment-phobe comment. ‘Mmm…?’

‘Well, I don’t care about the white picket fence. I just want the Labrador and three kids.’

‘Three? No way. Me too!’ Warmth floods my veins. I’ve had a good feeling about this guy ever since we started talking, and did he just mention kids? On a first date? I’m blown away.

I’m trying to eat with dignity and not sound over keen, I don’t want to mess this up. It isn’t every day you meet someone who wants everything you do, whose hopes and dreams match yours – even down to the breed of dog you want. But I mustn’t get carried away. Not yet.

‘So… music. Who do you like?’

‘Mmm I love the nineties, reminds me of being young. I’m a big fan of Oasis.’

‘No? I LOVE Oasis,’ I say.

‘Favourite album?’ he asks.

What’s the Story, Morning Glory?!’ we both say in unison, and laugh.

‘Has to be – “Wonderwall” is on it,’ he says.

‘Yeah, I love that too,’ I say, amazed. ‘So – let’s test this further – where’s your favourite place to go on holiday?’ I ask eagerly.

He thinks for a moment. ‘I guess the guys you usually go out with go to cool places like Hawaii, or, I don’t know, Iceland?’

I shake my head.

‘I’m going to be very boring, I’m afraid.’ He sighs. ‘But my favourite holiday destination is probably Devon…’ He considers this for a moment. ‘Yes, Devon, we had some great holidays there when I was a kid. I keep thinking I’d love to go back.’

‘Really? Me too.’

‘This is getting weird now.’

‘Yeah! I love Devon. Haven’t been for ages, but only recently I was saying to my friend Jasmine that I’d love to go back for the weekend, rent a little fisherman’s cottage by the sea, then eat Devon cream teas until I’m so full I can’t move.’ We both giggle at the prospect. What I don’t mention is the fact that I’d told Jasmine I wanted it to be a romantic weekend, and I’d wished I had a gorgeous man to go with. And now, as we gaze across candlelight, I’m marvelling at how life sometimes gives you exactly what you wish for.

‘Okay, so we both want dogs, three kids and Devon?’ He smiles. ‘What’s your favourite kind of food? I love French food.’

‘Ahh that’s a shame, my favourite is Italian, perhaps we’re not soulmates after all,’ I tease.

‘Well, there’s still a chance. I love Italian too.’ He finishes the pasta primavera on his plate as if to prove this, and takes a sip of Merlot.

‘Yeah, I love pasta,’ I say, pointlessly, my voice fading and insides melting as he directs his gaze into my eyes.

‘Okay, perhaps we could still be soulmates then.’ His eyes smile independently of his mouth, as if he has this amusing secret he wants to share but daren’t. I want to know all his secrets.

I imagine us walking along a beach together next summer, we’re holding hands, walking into an orange sunset, later returning to that romantic little cottage with roses around the door. I feel a shimmer of excitement at the thought.

He’s sitting back now, observing me, that secret still laughing in his eyes. ‘So, Hannah Weston, are we meant for each other?’ He leans forward, and his hand brushes mine on the table, causing electricity to shoot up my arm.

‘Do we really want the same things in life, or have you been lurking on my Facebook page and that’s how you know my favourite breed of dog, and my passion for the south-west coast of England?’ He screws up his eyes in mock suspicion, and resting his chin on his hands, makes like he’s scrutinising me.

He smiles and takes another sip of wine, he’d ordered the bottle before we arrived – apparently his favourite, and it happens to be mine too. How many signs do we need to tell us this is fate? Why doesn’t he just ask me to marry him now and be done with the small talk? I want to laugh at my madness. I’ll admit I did look him up on social media, but there was nothing about Labradors or Devon on his Instagram, just anonymous, moody landscapes and the odd selfie. Alex pours more wine for both of us while telling me about his work as a solicitor at Boyd and Walker, a big legal firm here in the Midlands.

‘It must be very interesting,’ I say, rather lamely. I’m not good under pressure. I have this tendency to make meaningless small talk. I don’t want to say something stupid and send the evening on a downward spiral after such a brilliant start – I need to stay calm and get to the end without knocking over a wine glass or oversharing my life story. I need to keep a little back and not throw myself at him until I know exactly who he is. Given some of the awful men I’ve met, I’m looking for the flaws, but so far, so good.

It’s well documented that the online dating world is fraught with danger, from dinner with potential serial killers to outings with bad boys and mummy’s boys. I’d been put off this kind of matchmaking, having spent my twenties going on dates with strangers off the internet. The first date often started well – let’s face it, no one is going to reveal their weird habit, real age or secret wife on a first date. But things would soon start to slide, like the gorgeous guy who on our first and only date seemed funny, intelligent and charming and, after a wonderful dinner, invited me back to his for coffee. I jumped at the chance, but arriving at his mausoleum-like home, he took me upstairs and asked if he could brush my hair with his mother’s hairbrush. She’d been dead ten years. I shudder now at the potential psychodrama I may have opened up, or if I’d even be here today, if I hadn’t made my excuses and left.

So far, Alex is intelligent, good-looking, and hasn’t mentioned his mother once. Nor has he referred to his ‘beautiful’ ex or introduced me to his ‘love truncheon’ under the table, as a previous potential mate did on a first date. It seems that Meet your Match, an app that states reassuringly that ‘your soulmate is only ten minutes away’, might just have the magic formula I’ve been seeking all these years. Hard to believe this Adonis before me was almost binned for an Indian takeaway and a night with Jasmine in our pjs watching Netflix. And it’s Jas I have to thank for this, really. I wouldn’t have even started online dating again without her encouragement. At thirty-six, I felt it was too late. But the way Alex is looking at me over his glass of wine, I’m beginning to think there might be someone for me after all.

‘Have you been on many online dates?’ he asks now.

‘I was in a relationship for a while, so I’m new to Meet Your Match, but I went on quite a few dates in the past.’ I roll my eyes. ‘And, trust me, they weren’t my soulmates. I haven’t done this for years,’ I add, gesturing from him to me. ‘The last guy – who shall remain nameless – seemed nice enough. On our first date he told me he shaved his legs every day because he was a keen cyclist. Turned out the real reason he liked his legs smooth was because he liked wearing women’s clothes. Now I have no problem with—’

‘Men in tight dresses?’

‘Honestly, I have no problem with that, you do you. But if something’s such a big part of your life it is worth a mention before you invite anyone back for coffee.’

Alex laughs, so I plough on with the story, hoping it will amuse him and he won’t think I’m mean.

‘He took a particular liking to a leopard-print top I was wearing – he even asked if he could try it on!’

He stops drinking and looks horrified. ‘While you were on the date? In public?’

‘No, when he invited me back—’ I stop, realising that this might give him the wrong impression, and that an invitation for coffee leads to my immediate abandonment of clothes. ‘It was just coffee. That’s all,’ I add.

He smiles, and goes on to ask about my job, and I fill him in on the life and times of a social worker, how rewarding – and frustrating – it can be.

‘Some of our clients need so much support, but we can’t give it to them because of the slashed budget. I work with teenagers, and some of the shit that they’ve had in their lives is horrifying, and they’re kids… still just kids.’

He shakes his head slowly, gazing at me, fascinated. I like the way he makes me feel.

‘I was twenty-two when I got my first job and thought I could change the world.’ I sigh. God, I sound like such a bloody cliché. I think it has more to do with erasing my past than making a difference, but I don’t want to hand him my baggage at this early stage in proceedings. ‘After fourteen years of battling, I’ve had to manage my expectations.’ I take a sip of wine. To my surprise, he hasn’t nipped into the silence with a story of his own like people often do. He’s waiting to hear what I say next. ‘Anyway, I now know I was deluded to think I could change anything,’ I say, putting down my glass. ‘There’s not enough money or time to take every kid from every potentially abusive situation. And once we’ve pushed through all the red tape, sometimes it’s too late.’

He’s still listening intently. I think I’m in love.

‘And… the kids are still being abused and neglected,’ I continue, as he nods sympathetically. I feel indulged. After being ignored for such a long time in my previous relationship, I’m beginning to realise how it could be – how it should be. ‘Sometimes I go home to my flat after a day of fire-fighting, and I feel so – pointless.’ I probably should stop slurping the wine because I’m talking too much and I mustn’t mess this up. ‘Sorry,’ I say, touching the stem of my glass and moving it away slightly.

‘Don’t apologise, you’re driven – and that’s a good thing. But I’m sad that it makes you feel that way.’ He says this with such sincerity, that I know he means it. He isn’t bored by my rant, he’s moved by it.

‘Jasmine, or Jas, as we call her, is my boss – and my friend – and she’s always telling me I shouldn’t get so involved. She says it can affect decision-making. And that I’d find the work easier if I was more detached…’

‘Detached?’ He laughs. ‘Life would be so much easier if we were all more detached – but we’re human, it’s what we do. I take it your boss is a robot?’ His eyes are laughing again.

‘No.’ I smile. ‘She’s one of the good ones.’

‘But saying you need to be more detached seems a little harsh. I mean, it’s your kindness, your caring that shines. If you stepped away, cared less – well, it wouldn’t be Hannah – it wouldn’t be who you are,’ he says, as if he’s known me forever. I feel like he has.

‘I just need to be more professional. I react to situations with my heart, not my head,’ I admit.

‘I can relate to that.’ He sighs. ‘As a lawyer it’s the same in my work, when I lose a case it really slays me, especially if I know someone’s innocent. I feel I’ve let them down. I’m afraid I don’t understand people who say “think with your head”. That’s for bankers and city types… and your boss.’ He sighs again. ‘Not me.’

I agree – it seems there’s nothing we don’t agree on. It’s a strange but not unpleasant experience to finally meet someone who seems so in tune with me. I don’t want this date to end and I’m more than happy to order dessert and make the evening last longer. He asks if I’d like to share one and I say no, because I love dessert and I want it all to myself, which makes him laugh.

When our desserts arrive, I give Alex strict instructions not to come anywhere near. He eats his portion of sticky toffee pudding, giving me a running commentary. ‘It’s sticky and sweet and warm… Oh the depth of that toffee, the reverberant echoes of earthy chocolate,’ he gushes, closing his eyes in mock ecstasy.

I laugh, not only is he gorgeous, he’s funny.

‘What a shame you decided not to share your chocolate mousse with me. I might have shared this with you,’ he teases.

I play along. ‘Can I just try a teeny-tiny bit?’ I say, making out that I want some, which actually I don’t because my heart is sitting somewhere between my chest and stomach.

He shakes his head. ‘Nuh-uh.’

‘I don’t want your pudding, anyway, I’m loving my mousse,’ I tease, pretending to sulk.

‘What’s your very favourite dessert,’ he asks, ‘if you could have anything at all?’

‘Mmm, probably pistachio ice cream.’

‘Oh, nice,’ he says, ‘but this is better.’ He tenderly lifts his spoon towards me.

Our eyes meet, and I take the sickly sweet treacly sponge from his spoon into my mouth. It feels intimate, sensual, and I welcome in the lush sweetness as it melts on my tongue. It’s delicious, but I don’t want any more, yet Alex is insisting and gently pushes another loaded spoonful of stickiness into my closed mouth. I have no choice, I either take it or end up with toffee goo all over my lips, so I open up and in it goes.

We both linger over coffee, and I get the feeling he wants to make things last longer too. But when we finally look around, we’re suddenly aware there’s only us left in the restaurant and the staff look like they want to go home. We get up to leave. I go on ahead, and turn to see him discreetly pick up my used coffee spoon and napkin, and push them into his trouser pocket.

I look at him, smiling quizzically as a bored waiter stands holding the door open for us. ‘Did I just see you steal cutlery?’ I murmur, under my breath.

For the first time all evening he loses his composure slightly and seems a little flustered. For a moment I wonder if I’ve spoiled everything by even mentioning it, he obviously hadn’t realised I’d seen him, but as we step out into the cold night air, he seems to find his smile again.

‘I’m short of teaspoons,’ he says.

‘Isn’t everyone?’ I giggle and don’t mention my used napkin. I don’t want to embarrass him, nor do I want this perfect evening to be tainted by anything weird. So I leave it. For now.

An hour later, as we stand in the inner doorway of my block of flats, Alex says I still have some toffee on my cheek. He touches my face, and with his other hand pulls me towards him gently, but firmly. I melt into him, he smells of pine forests and leather – and a subtle undercurrent of something else, smoky, and dark. I breathe him in as he kisses me deeply, taking me somewhere else, filling my head with wonderful nonsense, and I close my eyes, drifting off into the night. And then, to my absolute surprise, in the middle of all this, he pulls away. I open my eyes, and he’s just looking down at me. It’s dark, and as hard as I try I can’t see his face properly to work out what’s happening. I feel confused, abandoned, he’s now holding me away, his hands on my shoulders.

Then he suddenly kisses me on the top of my head and says, ‘Goodnight, Hannah, it’s been lovely.’

I long for him to say more, to pull me in again, to tease me with more kisses, to take things further, but he doesn’t, he just turns and walks away.

I think I might cry with disappointment and confusion as I watch him go, the street lamps providing a grainy light over the road and houses and a dark figure walking away. It reminds me of his photos on Instagram, bleak, unreadable, rain reflected in pavements. I stand in the cold for a long time after he’s gone. Tonight, I’ve been adored and rejected within a matter of hours, and now my chest is wide open, and my heart exposed – visible for anyone who might be passing to see.