Welcome to the latest of The Scotsman’s regular features showcasing the talents of Scotland’s best writers. Every Saturday we carry a great piece of prose or poetry from household names to up-and-comers, all reinforcing our place as the home of Scotland’s best writing
Height, should I put 5ft 9 or 5ft 10? Somehow anything less than 5ft 9 says ‘smout’ and if I was to tell the truth and admit to being only 5ft 8 I know that, subconsciously, she’ll be expecting Jimmy Krankie to walk through the door. Sod it, 5ft 10 it is. What’s she going to do, pull out a tape measure in the middle of the bar and check me for accuracy? Besides, lying about your height’s hardly the most egregious offence and it’s one I’ve fallen victim to myself, though the less said about the malicious midget from Maryhill the better. It’s only the future that matters today.
How would you describe yourself? Now that’s a potential minefield of ambiguity if ever I saw one and another deal-breaker, from past experience. When did going on a date turn into a frigging job application? Whatever happened to asking a girl if she wanted to dance and letting her make up her own mind about whether you’re average, attractive or very attractive? No tick box for unattractive or very unattractive. Assuming no-one will opt for the least flattering category, which could be anything from genuinely average to Ann Widdecombe with a hangover, then only those with a minimum set of aesthetic credentials, like a full set of teeth and basic table manners, will describe themselves as attractive. Everyone else with a modicum of self-respect will describe themselves as very attractive so perhaps I should also, though to do so would be straining at the leash of credibility, especially in my present condition, and suggests a rather unattractive level of conceit. I can’t afford to get it wrong again however, I need to sell myself. Very attractive it is.
Good sense of humour? That’s a stick-on, everyone thinks they have a good sense of humour, though the reality is most people have the wit of a local government health and safety compliance officer. Are you caring, affectionate, patient and interested in others? Another meaningless invitation to obfuscate and misrepresent; those who tick such boxes often turn out to be the most selfish, callous, impatient and borderline sociopathic. Interests; here they supply a helpful list of prompts for those who don’t have any interests and lack the imagination to make-up convincing enough examples of their own. Travel, cooking, reading, walking – four ticks right away and all activities most people perform in the course of a normal day; hardly sets you apart as Renaissance Polymath of the Year. Cinema, tick, although from experience that can mean anything from the latest Fellini to Frat Party IV, where Chuck and Biff steal a pig and hide it in Principal Bufoon’s bed. Wine, one of the most ambiguous categories, I’ve discovered, that promises the most cultured and erudite and delivers the most inebriated and unconscious. Eating out – I want a free meal; Fun nights out – I’m loud and embarrassing; Quiet nights in – I’m needy and overweight; Pets – I have no friends; Music – I’ll bore you about obscure bands; Art – I have no discernible talent; Politics – I was bullied at school; Health and fitness – I can talk about myself for longer than you could possibly imagine.
Include a photograph of yourself. A challenging decision that could be the difference between unearthing the date of your dreams and your profile lingering, unregarded in the cloud for months, gathering cyberdust. Not to include a photograph suggests you have something to hide though few pictures are a genuine likeness of the person you end up tapping on the shoulder in the corner of what used to be called a wine bar when I was last on the dating circuit. Those photographs that are not obtained by Googling “babes in bikinis” are generally of the younger self, soft-focused, monochrome, taken from a distance or a flattering angle. Such creative falsehood on my part would do little to mask the reality that I’ve lost all of my hair. A baseball cap, I’ve discovered, makes me look like I’m trying to sell a car and the NHS-issue wig simply reinforces the look of desperation in my eyes, of time running out, of final opportunities being grabbed like fingers on a lifeboat. In the end I decide on a straightforward, passport picture – honesty feels so much less tiring these days.
My turn to choose now and I’m going on looks. I’m being unreasonably judgmental, I know, facile even but I must press on. My shortlist includes only those who have a hair colour identical to Her’s and those high cheekbones, like shining stars propping up Her smile, or some other feature, obvious or indiscernible, that might, even for a moment, bring Her back. Those who stipulate non-smokers only are to be avoided, as an aversion to tobacco is generally only the first of their prejudices and She had none, or at least none that I can recall.
When I see a bracketed number one in my Inbox I feel my stomach flutter like I’m 17 again. My hand moves toward the mouse but it’s trembling and sluggish and it fails to keep pace with my giddy sense of anticipation. I click on the link and it takes an age for the text to appear. My neck tenses. She likes the sound of me and wants to meet. I feel a rush of euphoria and catch the reflection of my idiotic grin on the screen. I can’t remember the last time I saw myself smile. She isn’t my first choice but neither is she my last. She has the right watery blue eyes and the shape of her mouth is closer to Her’s than any of the others.
My mind races through the arrangements. The 25th, that’s in two days’ time; do I know the place she suggested? I’m sure I’ve seen it from the car, I might have been there before, years ago, when it was something else. How will I get there? I could drive but that would mean I couldn’t drink and a couple of glasses might relax me although no more than that, I don’t want to lose control. What should I wear? Do I have something in my wardrobe or should I buy a new shirt?
I wish there was someone I could tell but no-one seems close enough to understand. I thought I had friends but they all turned out to be husbands and partners of Her’s. Should I call the children? Lizzy’s always been supportive of me seeing other people and I know she’d be delighted but Joe was more circumspect; he insisted he wasn’t against it, just not now, he wanted more time to grieve and, when it didn’t happen, I could tell he was pleased. I decide against phoning them, they have their own lives and besides they’ll have questions about other things I’d rather not have to think about.
I arrive at the bar early to avoid unnecessary stress. I’ve opted for comfort with a casual shirt and a lamb’s wool pullover. It’s a quiet Tuesday and the place is empty but for a young couple talking quietly at the bar. The décor is traditional and inviting, warm woods and leather furniture. I spent the morning at the hospital for another session, my fifth of a scheduled six, and my body feels chilled and vulnerable. I know I’m going through the motions, I can feel the treatment’s not working but the only other option is to give up. I’m relieved to see there’s a cheering, real fire and I commandeer it. A waiter brings me a glass of good wine and the first taste makes it feel that life is worthwhile.
When she arrives she introduces herself and orders the same as me. She’s dressed as though she’s out to meet friends, in a flatteringly simple, knee-length dress and flat shoes. She sits opposite me and smiles warmly and I catch the flickering flames reflected in her eyes and I know I’ve made the right choice.
I sink back into the chair and breathe effortlessly it seems for the first time in months. We talk easily and familiarly about this and that. We laugh and occasionally there’s silence but it doesn’t feel awkward. While she’s talking I watch the tones of her hair alternate in the changing light of the fire. She’s divorced, her children are grown-up and living away, a daughter in London and a son in South Africa where he’s something in money. She works at the University where she doesn’t enjoy her job as much as she used to and she’s looking forward to retirement. She likes some of the things I do and others that I don’t. We order another glass and she asks about me, what I do, where I come from, what I think. She doesn’t mention my baldness.
It’s approaching closing time but neither of us makes a move. I’m warm and more relaxed than I can remember. We’re two people, at ease in each other’s company, spending a pleasant evening together. The waiter takes away our glasses and it’s clear we must leave. For the first time there’s an element of awkwardness. I help her on with her coat and we fill the momentary silence with mutual smiles.
“I’ve really enjoyed myself. I hope we can see more of each other,” she says.
“I do too,” I reply although I know we won’t.
About the author
Carlos Alba is a Glasgow-based author and journalist whose debut novel Kane’s Ladder was published by Polygon in 2008 followed, in 2011, by The Songs of Manolo Escobar, described by The Scotsman as “a very good novel, intelligent and moving, rich in significant detail, sometimes funny…sad and compassionate in its treatment of failure and inadequacy, yet life-affirming too”. He is currently working on his third novel. Following a 20-year career in newspaper journalism, spending four years as Scotland Editor of the Sunday Times and winning five national journalism awards, Alba now runs a public relations consultancy, Carlos Alba Media.