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The Irishman has twinkly blue eyes and a freckly forehead. His hand shakes a little when they clink their glasses together. Conversation flows. He writes too, loves to read, is in a band. They talk about how their respective parents met, their favourite authors. She mentions an obscure artist she’s been researching, and he audibly gasps.
‘Henry Darger? No way! I’ve been fixated with him recently.’
They buy round after round. Last orders are called way before they’re ready to leave.
‘Ah man,’ he says. ‘Guess that’s our cue.’
She shrugs sadly and follows him out. Her stop is right next to the pub, and he waits with her for the 56. When it arrives, they’re still chatting a mile a minute.
‘Thanks for coming out,’ he says, as the doors slide open.
He leans down and they kiss. She touches his tongue with hers for a second. It’s a good kiss.
She finds that she’s excited to see the Irishman again when the time comes. He’s waiting for her on a pub rooftop, and looks handsome in the low evening light. With a wide smile, he excuses himself to go and buy their first beers of the night. She relaxes. She enjoys most first dates, no matter who they’re with. Having a drink with a stranger is exciting, a fun social experiment, and anyone can be on their best behaviour for two hours. Second dates show you who you’re really dealing with.
The Irishman reappears and presents her with a pint of pale ale.
‘So,’ he says. ‘I have some friends staying with me this weekend, and we were thinking of going to this jazz night later.’
She frowns. He’s already making an excuse to leave early. He has other plans.
‘And I don’t know much about your taste in music yet, but I thought you might like to come too?’
Her eye is watering and he leans across the table to wipe the tear away with his thumb, an intimate gesture that she likes.
‘Sounds good,’ she says. ‘I could do a jazz night.’
He talks non-stop, lengthy stories about his schooldays and his childhood friends and all the trouble he got into as a teenager. He makes her belly-laugh. It’s mostly his accent that does it. The things he’s saying leave less of an impression than the way in which he says them.
She tells him about the week a couple of years ago when she thought she was going blind.
‘I was sitting on the bus, on my way home from work, reading, and the words on the page started to swim, and I felt super dizzy and faint. So when I got home, I put bags of camomile on my eyelids and lay still all afternoon, but I still felt shit, so my housemate told me I should probably go to the GP. The doctor did a million tests on me, and sent me to the optician and to get an ECG and stuff, but in the end he had to tell me there was nothing wrong. Turns out I was just stressed. My body was trying to tell me to have a break.’
‘That reminds me of when I thought I was going blind.’
It seems quite an unusual coincidence that they’d both had a period of worrying they were going blind.
‘What happened?’ she says.
‘Well, I kept getting these floaters in my vision. I tried not to panic, but I was scared shitless.’
‘Was yours stress too?’
‘Not exactly.’ He pauses to snake a hand around her waist. ‘I had quite a lot of facial hair at the time. In the end, I worked out I could just see bits of my beard from the corner of my eye.’
She chokes out a laugh.
‘Serious business. I had no idea what was happening to me.’
He makes an excuse for them to go back to his place before the jazz, something about his phone charger.
At his house in Dalston, they run into one of his housemates on the stairs.
‘Oh, hey,’ the Irishman says, cheerily.
The housemate grunts something in return.
‘Would you like some wine?’ the Irishman asks her, once they’re in his bedroom.
‘I think I’m set,’ she says, but he mishears her and comes back a few minutes later holding two tumblers of red wine and a half-empty bottle of Echo Falls.
He pushes his bedroom door closed with his foot, and she thinks, Oh-oh. Walking around the room, she feigns interest in a few of his possessions, until she sees one that truly does interest her.
‘Tom Petty?’ she says, holding up a DVD. ‘He was my dad’s favourite.’
‘Ah no way. I was in a Tom Petty tribute band for years.’ He peers at the cover. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever watched that.’
He flops onto the bed, and she follows suit. They kiss gently, their free hands tracing shapes on one another’s arms, pausing only to put down their wine. He pushes her shoulder softly so that she falls flat, head on the pillow. From her new angle, she notices a shiny brown hair pin on his bedspread.
Feeling her tense, he lifts himself off her and asks, ‘Shall we take it easy?’
She nods. ‘I’m pretty slow.’
His phone rings and she listens to him make plans with a very tipsy-voiced girl to meet in the pub around the corner.
‘Okay, we’ll be there in ten.’
His friends are Irish too, two girls with huge grins and easy laughs, who have clearly been drinking all afternoon. She takes to them immediately, enjoys their company so much that she almost forgets she’s on a date with the Irishman and not them.
‘We’re bladdered,’ one of the girls declares after half an hour. ‘Walk us home?’
The Irishman looks at her for approval and she nods.
‘We’ll come back out and get food afterwards,’ he promises.
Once they’ve dropped the girls off, they go to a cashpoint and then a kebab shop, which he claims does the best shawarma in Haggerston. They eat hungrily at an outdoor pub table, facing each other.
‘There are so many pretentious readers out there,’ he says, ‘that will struggle through these huge modernist tomes, just so they can tell their friends that they’ve read them.’
‘Ugh, I hate those people. Like, who genuinely enjoys Infinite Jest?’
He stops mid-bite. ‘I genuinely enjoyed Infinite Jest. It’s good, you know.’
She rolls her eyes and he laughs with gusto.
Tugging a piece of chicken from his wrap, he says, ‘I’ll lend you my copy, then we’ll talk.’
‘You’re expecting to still be talking to me in three months? Because that’s how long it’ll take me to get through it.’
‘A boy can hope.’
A sliver of red onion gets stuck to the roof of her mouth and she runs her tongue over it. She tilts her head to the side and looks at him as he continues to reel off books whose reputation precedes them.
Once the tin foil in their hands is empty, he offers to walk her home.
‘It’s a long way,’ she says.
‘I don’t mind. Let me get you halfway at least.’
As they make their way towards Hackney Downs, he reaches for her hand. She holds onto it like a child would, clutching two of his fingers with all of hers. There is a faint worry in the back of her mind that the cyclist will happen to be passing on his bike and see her holding another person’s hand. She’s not sure whether he would care, or even if he’s in London, but either way, the thought makes her squirm. Hand-holding is something of a statement for a second date. She becomes quiet, giving only one-word answers to the Irishman’s questions. He turns to her, just before her local pub, and kisses her. She really panics then, anyone could see them.
She breaks their contact and says, ‘Are you leaving me here, then?’
‘No,’ he says, confused. ‘I just wanted to kiss you.’
For their third date, they agree to go to the cinema, where they’ll sit in the dark for two hours, unable to chat, both on pins until one of them is brave enough to reach for the other’s hand.
She picks out a cropped jumper and high-waisted flares, and slicks on some coral lipstick. She ties her hair back and spritzes her neck with Tom Ford.
She sends a photo of herself to Kelly and texts, Do I look okay?
Is that hair clean…?
Doesn’t look it
Well it is
It’s mild outside, so she decides to walk to the pub they’ve arranged to meet at. She slows her breathing as she walks past Iceland. Google Maps tells her she’s a couple of streets away. She tries to picture the Irishman’s face. Last time they met, they joked about how when you don’t know someone very well you forget what they look like in between hangouts. When you think of them, you have to focus on one feature and build up the image of them from that. For him, the one feature she works from is his silver tooth. He has that freckly forehead too and a few strands of grey hair running through the black. She is thinking about his salt and pepper hair when she sees a tiny, grey French bulldog. It’s a beautiful puppy, and her gaze runs up the lead attached to its leather collar to see who the owner is. Her heart bangs against her ribcage. It’s the cyclist. He’s in shorts and his beaten-up black Vans, and hasn’t seen her. He’s waiting to cross the road. The lights change to red and she stands still as he strolls across to her side. She can’t move. He has his earphones in and is looking down at his phone. Not for the first time, she reflects that there must be some people in his life who he replies to immediately. As he approaches, she peers up at him, giving an awkward little wave.
‘Hey,’ she says. ‘Hello.’
There is no sign of recognition as he politely says hi back, and then his features fall into a smile.
‘Hello you!’ He leans down and kisses her, square on the mouth. ‘I was just texting you.’
It seems highly unlikely, but she says, ‘Well here I am.’
‘I wanted to see if you were free to hang out.’
That’s all she wants to do, all she’s wanted to do since they started talking all those weeks ago. Now he’s right in front of her, out of context, like seeing your schoolteacher in the supermarket. She peers over his shoulder. She can see the pub, and the Irishman standing outside it, waiting for her. Please don’t look over here, she thinks, furiously. Keep your head down, don’t look up. Her face is hot; she’s sure she’s blushing.
‘Erm,’ she says. She shifts from foot to foot. The dog is looking up at her, enquiringly. ‘God, he’s cute.’ She ducks down a little, goes to pet him, changes her mind.
‘Why are you being weird?’ he says. ‘Do you want this to be weird?’
She exhales. ‘No, of course not.’
‘Are we cool?’
‘Yeah, I’m just awkward.’
‘So what are you doing now?’
She’s sweating. She’s a few minutes late to meet the Irishman, and now she might have to do a lap of the block to put some time and distance between the two men.
‘I’m just meeting…’ she says, and lets the sentence trail off. She can’t lie. She wouldn’t know what to say.
He runs his eyes over her, her bare midriff, her lipstick. He raises an eyebrow and grins. ‘I see.’
‘Maybe tomorrow?’ she says.
He dips his head and kisses her twice.
‘Have fun!’ he shouts over his shoulder, as he walks away. ‘Queen Awkward!’
She’s flustered when she greets the Irishman. He leans down, aiming for her mouth, and she gives him her cheek.
For the first twenty minutes of their date, she hardly pays attention to a word the Irishman says. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom, and, once there, checks her phone.
Call me! Maybe after your date ;) She cringes, feels a shiver of unease run down her spine. She clicks on the thumbnail picture of the cyclist, enlarges it, zooms right in. She has it memorised, knows exactly what he looks like without having to focus on one particular feature.
Queen Awkward is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on.