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The chef that grated

There's a pub I like, just on the edge of Primrose Hill park.  And on a sunny Bank Holiday weekend like this one, I'm not the only one that likes it.  Now, given the adjacent park; I can't guarantee that every woman in the queue for the Ladies is a bona fide customer. Presumably nor can the landlord, hence his reluctance to provide anything other than the smallest of toilet facilities; which leads to insanely long queues of increasingly desperate females every time there's a hint of warmth in the air.

It's impossible to linger at a table in the same corner of the pub as the entrance to the bogs for too long, though.  As the line of uncomfortable looking women snakes ever longer around the customers and the curved corner of the bar, the build up of uric crystallisation becomes almost solid in its pungency, to the point that the wise have to make tracks in search of fresher air before ingress to the lungs is completely prevented by the formation of that scourge of Thames Water, the crusty but invisible facial pissberg.

And so it is with remaining safely single.  One can stay in, avoiding South American housebreakers, the crushing disappointment of reality versus profile pictures, and endless bills for ludicrous cocktails, but sooner or later the build up of restless invisible yellow ennui becomes such that it's time, once again, to venture out into Dating LaLa Land.

I'd followed the advice of my lovely personal trainer, who set me up on a date with another gym customer.  We had lunch, which was perfectly pleasant, but she turned out to own half of London, whereas I own barely half a satsuma.  She also, he explained later, prefers muscle guys who've gone slightly to seed.  I've never achieved the muscle guy status, skipping straight to the "gone to seed" bit, so this wasn't good enough for her, and the date wasn't followed up.

I matched with an Albanian hairdresser, and ventured to deepest south London to meet her.  Turned out she'd arrived 15 years ago as an illegal immigrant.  Despite this, she was a fervent Brexit supporter; because "there are too many lazy foreigners in the country, innit?"

I invoked my own personal Article 50, and withdrew.

I went out in Soho with a pretty, bob-haired blonde from Hendon.  It all appeared to be going quite well when, apropos of nothing at all, she leaned conspiratorially towards me somewhere between drink one and drink two, looked me in the eyes, and said, "I don't think much of the Jews".

"I beg your pardon?" I was sure I must have misheard.

"The Jews,  I don't think much of them."

There was only one possible answer.  "Well, I don't think much of bigots," I said, while making the swiftest of exits.  I only wish I could have left her with the bill rather than just my unfinished gin, the nasty little anti-Semite.  I don't even think she was a Corbyn supporter, or perhaps she was just ahead of the trend.

And now I found myself back on a Greek island.  One of my freelance clients was based out there, so I took every opportunity available that spring and summer to do meetings face to face, and then bolt on a cheeky few extra days.  And there, sipping a cool beer overlooking the twinkling blue Adriatic, I had a sudden Tinder reply from someone I'd matched with and messaged a week or so previously.

Elfie.  A handful of years younger than me, but still firmly inside the "half your age plus seven" principle.   Even sneaking inside the "would we have been at secondary school at the same time?" rule.  Well, if I'd been held back a couple of years for bad behaviour or rank stupidity, anyway, and she'd been an accelerated genius child.  I do think there's room for age flexibility in relationships, provided there's clarity on all sides.  I can see the attraction of dating and mating with someone half my age, but I've done my breeding now, thank you very much, and don't want to mislead somebody younger who might be keen to start a family.  Or find myself accidentally starting a new one.

Elfie had one of her own, and a step-family from her previous relationship, so there were enough existing children around to preclude desire for any additional ones.   And while I was currently 1500 miles away, back in London she was only a couple of miles north of me. These were all good signs.

And she gave good text. Looking back at our WhatsApp conversation, I can see that we jabbered non-stop, first while I was away, then when she went on holiday just as I returned.  Not only that, but the thread provides incontrovertible evidence that it was me that instigated the first phone call between us.  Something I've never done before or since.  I don't know what I was thinking.  I must have been pissed.

Now here's the thing.  Alcohol has often played a part in my dating life.  Not in a terrible way, but as a social lubricant and an excuse for meeting in the first place.  And I've had some wondrous times with ladies whose capacity for booze is way greater than mine, because I'm a bit of a lightweight in that respect.   These days I've reduced the frequency and volume of my drinking dramatically, not least because The One, back when we were together, kindly but way-off-beamly, sent me a link implying I might be a high-functioning alcoholic.  I'm still smarting about that.  Which is, of course, denial.  I can't win.  But I do wonder, nearly three years after this all happened with Elfie, whether things would have been different if we hadn't drunk quite so much.

So it was a few weeks after we'd first spoken that we met for our first date, or "simple sociopath check", as I have now learned to think of it.  Although to be fair, we'd clearly minimised risk via hours on the phone.  And I'm a sucker for anybody who sends me a picture of their saucepans before date one.  No that isn't a euphemism.  But I didn't expect her to be so stunning.  A voluptuous strawberry blonde; Elfie remains the only known example of somebody on Tinder looking better than their profile pictures.  It was like expecting Amanda Holden but actually getting Holly Willoughby.  Except better, because Amanda Holden scares me.

 After we'd put away our first bottle of wine, Elfie took charge.  She worked as a consultant chef across a variety of very high-end and secret clients, and while I thought I had a pretty good handle on places to go in central London, Elfie knew every restaurant and bar proprietor, chef and maître d' in all the coolest parts of the city.  And we may well have visited most of them.  Sometimes to say hello in passing, sometimes for a glass of something with the chef.  I remember that we ended up in a "secret" underground Soho drinking den late into the morning, pressed up tight against each other in the throng, drinking gin and smoking Marlboros as though our lives depended on it*.

*Hers depended on not doing this, as she was asthmatic.  And I hadn't yet quit smoking at this point.  We were a bad combination.

The messages from the days following suggest that we were both hungover, that her lungs weren't behaving, and that we should do it all again, but more abstemiously.  Our inner demons disagreed with the adverb.  Of the next couple of dates, spread out over a few weeks, I can't exactly recall which one was which:

  • I remember another evening of Soho drinking dives
  • I remember her stumbling and hurting her knee, necessitating comforting in the back of a bistro run by the campest and loveliest man you could meet.  She knew him, obvs
  • I remember taking her home, but leaving, because we were both hammered and anything further seemed unwise
  • I remember falling over her cat
  • I remember taking her to a comedy show, during which she talked, ever more loudly, culminating in a teary crescendo of "Why do people keep coming over and telling me to shut the fuck up?"
Actually, all these things could have happened on the same night.  They probably didn't, but it's all a bit of a blur, other than the lingering feeling of cringe at being complicit in disrupting a comedy gig through association with a gorgeous but out of control companion.  I was determined to change things up for the next date.  Because I liked Elfie.  A lot.  But there was clearly a glitch in the sobriety matrix.

Elfie had offered to cook me dinner.  Now, I like to cook, and I'm reasonably adept, provided you don't mind eating what inevitably looks like dog sick on a plate, but tastes marginally better.  Albeit I've never tried dog sick, as far as I'm aware.  But she'd offered to cook for me, and it was what she did for a living.  This was a woman who could spot the difference between a chanterelle and a Satan's Bolete* from 100 yards, and who'd already sent me a picture of her naked pans.  All I had to do was not encourage either of us to overindulge in the grape.  Or grain.

*Look it up if you ever pick mushrooms.  It may assist your longevity.

So I ventured far from the ghetto to the sourdough-laden environs of chattering North London. Clutching a bottle of Sake, to complement the Japanese meal she was cooking, but determined not to suggest finishing, or perhaps even opening, it.

What followed constituted the greatest Japanese meal of my life, and quite possibly the greatest meal of any description.  I'm a huge fan of Jay Rayner, who would have written about the delicate balance of umami and miso in far better prose than I could attempt. But he's never eaten here. Dish after exquisite dish hit the table, fumbled by my inexpert chopsticks and accompanied only by water and a small glass of warm sake.  Sobriety and decorum were finally in the ascendance, and the excellence of the meal was in stark contrast to the stilted and diffident nature of the conversation.  There was clearly attraction in the mix, but the altered seasoning seemed to have taken an edge off the proceedings. We were sober. It was almost as though we'd never met.

And so, replete with delicacies but feeling strangely misaligned in the balance of dating ingredients, I eventually started to take my leave.  And as I shrugged on my jacket and reached to kiss Elfie farewell and thank you, a degree of boldness and unexpected Alpha-style tendencies led me to more passion than the evening had suggested.  Some reciprocally fumbling minutes later, still in the hall, we were unbuttoned and increasingly naked as we climbed the stairs quietly to her eyrie, conscious of not disturbing the sleeping child, having already disturbed the sleeping beast within us.

And it's this that's so difficult to write, let alone recall.  Consent wasn't an issue.  I'm always keen to check that the horn is ongoing, particularly if it's not blatantly obvious, because mutuality is the whole point of getting naked and slippery, isn't it?  But while Elfie was as physically exquisite as her menu, and affirmative in her desire to explore the flavours of the ghetto, perhaps only Jay Rayner could have coaxed a smorgasbord spread from her.  Beautifully laid out Starfish was à la carte, and as a lover of a wriggling oyster or a prawn that turns out to be a tiger, I was horribly reminded of my junior lifesaving classes and the "Rescusci-Annie" mannequin that bore our inevitably doomed attempts to CPR her into existence.  The tasting menu was available but all the constituent dishes appeared to have given up; to be beyond end-of-life.

Nevertheless, I don't believe events that evening were entirely unsatisfactory for either of us, but whatever secret ingredient completes the formula for that Coca-Cola recipe that lasts through generations, it wasn't revealed. Somehow that wild abandon that accompanies drunken freedom had been conspicuous by its absence, replaced by joyless participation.  Which meant that the final message, after a few days follow-up chat, that Elfie was probably mad "to be missing out on a catch like me," but was too busy "with life and parenting to give appropriate attention to dating", didn't come as a complete shock, unwelcome as it was.

Perhaps I hadn't been assertive enough.  She'd said she liked a bad boy.  Perhaps I should have spreadeagled her over the table, heedless of place settings and finger bowls.  Perhaps, most of all, we just hadn't drunk enough?  I'll never know.

And that's the biggest facial pissberg of all.


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