Dating in your thirties is a serious business.
I suppose it’s because we’re all on the look out for The One – that special person who represents fulfilment and bliss. It is the Quest of Quests. The search for the Grail. Drink from the right cup and you’ll have eternal youth. Pick the wrong one and you will end up an ashen heap. Yes, the stakes really are that high. To mitigate the danger, however, we have developed a tool. A scalpel-like implement designed to save time and effort; an energy saving device if you will. It is the internal checklist.
The internal checklist is nothing more than a compendium of desirable traits. A register of appealing attributes. It all sounds reasonable enough, until you realise the traits are set in a combination unlikely to be found in one person. I know full well I can never meet this standard. No one can. It is a ludicrous fiction. I know I should dismiss the list, but I cannot. And the thought of being appraised on a date is a distraction. While sitting across the table, engaged in endearing chitter-chatter, I know I have to check the boxes (or at least try). I therefore present myself in the following terms. Materially successful yet frugal – check. Generous yet sincere – check. Humorous yet sensitive – check. And (most importantly) broody yet patient – check. Kind of. The final box is something of a sticking point. A challenge. Not a challenge in the business sense (i.e. the way the unemployed of LinkedIn claim to be ‘looking for a new challenge’). No, this is a challenge in the traditional sense of the word – less like a work deadline, more like a Sunday crossword.
At this point I should say there is one box which matters above all others. We all know the one. It is that great big child-shaped box. When you’re in your thirties the matter of children is the elephant in the room on every date. Imagine a great hulking elephant with a child’s head watching as you nibble your linguini. Yes, that’s right; picture a leering elephant-child lurking in the corner of the restaurant. That is how it is.
With this in mind I take every opportunity to display my paternal nature, what little of it there is. Unfortunately (for my duped dates), this display is a veneer. A sheen of fatherly fervour pasted over my grinch-like core. The truth is I have little interest in children. In the first instance they extract the fun from your free time. In the second instance they inject pain into the (otherwise mundane) gaps they leave behind. Food shopping becomes a horror show of shelf-smashing mayhem. Going to the park becomes a tactical manoeuvre. Even sitting indoors becomes an activity – one stuffed with book-falling danger, and drawer-slamming chaos. No, kids are not for me.
“Oh, look at that baby!” Jennifer said.
We were in a crowded gastropub on a Saturday afternoon.
“Yes,” I said. “A pub full of babies, very much a modern phenomenon.”
“Oh, don’t be so miserable, look how cute he is.”
It was our second date and I’d secured a weekend meeting. Best not to blow it now, I thought.
“I’m only kidding,” I said. “He is a lovely little fella.”
The way I said ‘fella’ had an unintended cockney twang.
“Look, he’s smiling at us,” Jennifer said.
“He is indeed…”
A follow up escaped me, so I smiled instead, my gaze fixed on the small human. Mum and dad were middle-aged wine-quaffers. They were accompanied by another similarly burdened couple. This pair mirrored the first, they too were in their forties and loaded with baby paraphernalia. They all had the look of rumpled professionals.
One of the babies threw his rattle over his shoulder. No one at the table noticed. I went over and picked it up.
“There you are, little man.” I said, pushing the rattle into a chubby paw.
The nearest mum thanked me. One of the dads – a bearded, bespectacled type – nodded his appreciatIon.
When I returned to the table Jennifer said, “That’s nice of you.”
“What can I say, he’s a wonderful little thing.” I affected a sigh as we studied the babies. “I wouldn’t mind one myself…”
I checked Jennifer in my peripherals, she was absorbed in the familial harmony.
“But all in good time…” I said.
Her face was impassive. Why was she so hard to work out, I thought? She was a City lawyer, for goodness sake – didn’t she ‘want it all’? I was considering my next play when the baby threw his rattle to the floor – this time with palpable anger.
“Allow me,” I said, darting over.
The mother beat me to it this time. She held the rattle to her chest as I craned over her.
“You really don’t have to,” she said.
“Of course,” I said. The group stopped to watch me. “I suppose I can’t help it.” I glanced at Jennifer. “I just love babies.”
Alarm flashed across the mother’s face. One of the men leaned forward.
“Alright, mate,” he said. “We can manage.” His accent was surprisingly proletarian.
I turned on my heels, and stepped away from the table as if walking the plank. Baby eyes bored into my back as I retreated. The door was close. For a moment I considered heading straight for it. Jennifer took a long sip of her drink. As I pulled up my chair one thing was clear: I didn’t belong at either table.
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