short story

Bad Date Diaries #2: Norwegian Wood

I meet him at improv class, which at twenty-three I think is exceptionally cool. I’m impressed by the fact I can tell my friends back home that his dad used to be on the television, or at least gets a writing credit at the end of my favourite eighties sitcom.

He takes me to a pub at the top of a hill in Bristol, one with a fashionable wood-burning pizza oven in the middle of the room that makes the air thick with acrid smoke.

We don’t eat, I’m too nervous. It’s a bad habit I’ve developed on dates that I don’t realise is a problem yet. With nothing to line my stomach, I get too drunk. But not tonight, because I’m driving home.

He doesn’t ask me much about myself, but tells me in great detail about his degree – History and English Literature, joint honours – and lists all of the poets he enjoys. He even quotes me some verse from an old notebook he keeps in the interior pocket of his waxed jacket. I’m flattered by this, and it all feels very romantic and strange. He says he doesn’t often share his own work with other people. I choose to imagine that’s true.

He asks me what music I like; I say, old. He says, so do you like the Beatles? Ha, I say, who doesn’t, I’d hate to hang out with that person. What’s your favourite song, he asks.

I sit back on my chair and say, hmm, that’s a tough one. I like the ones nobody else likes, the ones about broken relationships and madness. You’d expect girls to say ‘Blackbird’ or ‘Eleanor Rigby’, but my favourite is ‘Norwegian Wood’.

You’re right, that’s a bit niche, he says. I like that about you, you’re surprising.

We finish our drinks and he asks me if I’d like to go back to his place for a bit, in the grand, old part of the city which houses most of the university. It’s a crisp autumn night and I’m enjoying his company, so I say yes. Plus, my car is outside the Student’s Union.

We walk along the row of shops towards the village and he stops dead. Hey, you hear that? He looks at me, wide-eyed, disbelieving.

I stop by tripping over a loose flagstone, and listen. No, I say, that’s ridiculous.

All that pizza oven smoke must be making us hallucinate, he says. There’s no way that’s what I think it is.

We press our ears against the glass door of the wine bar. A guitarist plays a slowed-down version of ‘Norwegian Wood’ to an audience of five or so, plus the two of us standing outside.

I can’t believe it, he says. What a coincidence. We look at each other, then, and I wonder if he’ll kiss me. He laughs and shakes his head. We keep walking.

Ivy-covered houses bear down on us, pale relics of colonialism curving around crescents and circuses. This one’s mine, he says, stopping outside a dark mansion with at least four floors. The woman who lives on the ground floor is such an old bitch, she’s always complaining about the noise.

He leads me up a huge flight of stairs onto the landing and I follow him into a small kitchen. Did you hear about that fresher girl who got raped? Walked home drunk and some local guys attacked her, dragged her down an alley or something.

The word has a sharpness and makes me flinch.

Yes, I saw it on Facebook. The SU put out an alert. The advice was stupid, they said the female students should avoid walking by themselves at night. That’s just victim blaming, if you ask me.

Ah, he says. It’s sensible advice, no?

What do you mean? I take the glass of tap water he offers me, wiping the soap scum off the rim with my sleeve which I hope he doesn’t notice.

Like, they said she was so drunk she could barely stand. She was stupid to wander off at night by herself in that state. He’s frowning now.

Surely the only thing causing sexual assault is the men who carry it out? I say, hoping I’m not coming across like too much of a feminist. I’m not sure if I’m one of those, yet.

I guess, he says. He sounds grumpy. I want him to be smiling again, I’ve made him uncomfortable. You sure you don’t want a glass of wine? He reaches into a high cupboard and I hear the clink of glass against glass.

I’m driving home, remember. Or would you rather I walk all the way back to Redland and risk being attacked?

He seems to think I’m making a joke, because he laughs. I badly want to change the subject. He pours himself a large drink.

We go into his room and his mood changes again. Hey, can you play guitar, he asks, or says.

I can, a bit. He hands me an expensive, vintage Stratocaster and plugs the lead into a large amp in the corner of his bedroom, turning up the main volume dial.

Won’t your neighbour get annoyed? It’s pretty late. We could just sit and listen to music instead, I say, eyeing a record player on the floor.

If you won’t play, I’ll show you something, if you like? He takes the guitar out of my hands before I can reply and plays a fairly easy riff, the sort of thing teenage boys play at house parties. It’s an anticlimax, but at least it isn’t Wonderwall, I think.

Are you into musicians?

I like creatives, I say. I like writers, artists. Comedians.

Comedians are often depressives. Do you know, my godfather is one of the most well-loved comics in the country, but he’s been on Prozac since the mid-seventies. Had complete mental breakdown about ten years ago but his publicist managed to keep it all out of the papers.

He continues playing the same four-bar riff over and over, raising his voice to a shout which only adds to the cacophony. I want him to turn it down, but I don’t know how to ask.

He’s pretty good-looking, I think. Quite delicate features, pale hair and high cheekbones. I wonder why he hasn’t tried anything yet, and cross one leg over the other after I sit down on the edge of the bed.

He keeps playing for a long time, and I start to wonder if I should leave. The situation is confusing, and I don’t have enough experience of this sort of thing to know what to do.

Hey, um, I might head off, I say.

What? He frowns, raising his chin.

I said, I might head off. Tonight was fun, we should hang out again soon.

Oh, sure. He puts the guitar down and the feedback vibrates in my eardrums like an itch.

He does kiss me, then. I feel myself lean into him and want to stay like this for a bit longer. He shows me to the door of the flat, and doesn’t ask for my number.

Personal, Updates

Dating, honestly

I love feedback. Feedback is useful for knowing where you are with someone, checking in with them to make sure you aren’t falsely picking up on non-verbal cues that are giving you the wrong impression about a situation. I like to have regular meetings at work to discuss how I’m doing, what I do well, how I can improve and so on. I’ll probably never be offended by anything you say, as long as it’s constructive and delivered with a veneer of positivity. Maybe it comes from my teaching years, the whole ‘two stars and wish’ rule of feedback. You’re really funny, I like your little hat; it would be great if you could talk about something other than the plight of bees… Two positives, and a wish for future progress.

It was a strange – but not entirely unbearable – experience taking part in the Guardian Blind Date column in the weekend magazine a few weeks ago. It was a quick process, myself being apparently one of very few heterosexual female applicants to the column in a long time (probably should’ve read more into that, I’ll know for next time). As a singer, I’m used to standing on a floodlit stage or platform and letting myself be taken over by another character, another person. But this – this was me, on a real-life, ‘warts and all’ (ew) dinner date with a stranger. This person didn’t know me, and was rating me based on a couple of hours of my company. I had nowhere to hide.

I’m not going to go into the details of the evening. You can read all about it here, if you are so inclined.

Dating is horrible, and I’m never going to enjoy the process. It’s expensive, it takes up a lot of your leisure time, and thus far it has been a romantic dead end. I have close friends and family members who have met their partners on dating apps, and good luck to them. It just isn’t for me. Part of the reason I don’t think apps are a good idea is that they make finding a partner so easy. You look at a catalogue of willing participants, presumably after the same thing as you (‘DTF’ or ‘no hookups’ are the two options), and you swipe right on the people you like the look of. You go on your date, you have an okay time, and maybe you keep seeing them. One day you find them sitting on the toilet with the door open in your rented bedsit in Enfield and you wonder whether you should’ve given Mark from accounts another chance. No controversy. No long-distance. No tension. No romance.

Adding to the long list of things the media blames my generation for, perhaps we are sanitising relationships to the point where marriages can be arranged through an algorithm on a phone. I wasn’t expecting to meet the love of my life on that blind date, but I did consider it a more traditional option than Tinder. I was the one who got ghosted, despite not being remotely interested in seeing the guy again. Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong, I’m too aloof. Like Chandler when he’s trying not to get back with Janice.

Problem is, I might seem nonchalant but the lack of intimacy is starting to get to me, gnawing away like woodworm. Eventually I will become hollow and my external structure will collapse, leaving behind putrid dust. I’m about to turn 27 and, other than my magazine “date”, the last time I was involved with anyone, the country was still very much in the EU. Back then, there wasn’t even the slightest suggestion of the fetid hell-scape that the last 12 months has become. When I turned 26, the future looked bright, at least for a week or two post-birthday.

I’m flying back to London in an hour or two, having spent a very pleasant three days back home on the Isle of Man. The pressure to be in a relationship here is unreal, mainly because there is nothing else to do, and being a single woman is tantamount to being one of the old-school witches they used to roll down Slieau Whallian for lols. It’s time for me to make a swift exit back to lovely, cosmopolitan London. Maybe I’ll keep Bumble on my phone just in case.